Monday, February 20, 2006

The Ministry of Weird Stuff

In Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a character named Eberhard Föhr is dubbed the "guy who does weird stuff" in the protagonist's risky tech venture. He proceeds to engage in several instances of strange technowizardry that seem to defy conventional thinking about what is and isn't possible.

As all good folk know, those who can't do teach. And, being part of a circle of friends who are bright but by no means badasses, we tend to be divided along the lines of what we know about, not what we know ourselves. One friend (named Malgas in much the way I am named Autochon) was dubbed the "Ministry of Weird Stuff" in honor of Dr. Föhr's apparently random skillset. Malgas was always the guy who knew the latest weird news (like the successful lab testing of short range lightning guns, or the latest oddball neer-heard-before musical group, or whatever).

If he's still the minister, though, I think he's become a sort of shadow minister, operating in the shadows, while I act as the Ministry's faceman. My own scouring of the Internet for fascinating tidbits covers most of the same ground as his, though he invariably find things I manage to gloss right over. But somehow, in the last few months, I've been getting the credit for being "the guy who knows something about everything, or at least knows where to find something about anything." It's a little unfair to him, but he's never been super-outgoing. And I hardly steal his thunder - I try to make it clear when I'm relaying one of his discoveries.

Neverthless, my friends are starting to eye me ascance when I get that "Hey, did you hear about..." look in my eye, because the answer is almost inevitably an exhasperated "No." Not that they aren't amused by my discoveries. But I feel that I alone should not be deserving the credit for these things. So here's the start of a list of the sources I use, daily, to keep on top of things:

Boing Boing: A so-called "directly of wonderful things," it's actually a reverse chronological tagboard of amusing things. But who's counting?
DailyKOS: Insightful leftist screed to keep those crafty conservatives at bay. I'm not nearly as far left as some of the people who post there, but I am certainly to the left of much of the country.
Digg: A recently referenced site that tracks "tech news," and uses an interesting community editting process to boost good stories and bury bad ones.
Google News: Need I say more?
Memepool: Memepool was once what Boing Boing is now. Today, it's a pale shadow of its former self, a crotchety old man with a very few tricks left up its sleeves.
ShortNews: A community news site with a similar approach to Digg, but focusing on news stories, often strange ones.
Slashdot: The largest nerd news organization the internet has to offer, Slashdot is the place to go to find out what technologies are being used against you, what games are pushing the paradigms, what exists on the edge of the galaxy, and what some "expert" thinks of some obscure programming language. It's sweet.

There! See, not so hard. Now go read some news!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Science Confirms What We Knew All Along

According to an excellent review of new research in Wired, the average user has a not-much-better than chance likelihood of guessing at an email's tone. In other words, the way you meant to sound and the way you end up sounding, in an email, are both almost unrelated.

I've known this for a long time, mostly because my conversational style involves a fairly heavy dose of sarcasm, which (absent facial expressions and shifts in vocal tone) have often been interpreted by my readers as outright attacks. I've had friendships shaken and made enemies out of acquaintances because I worded things wrong in digital communication, and as such, I've become quite paranoid about it. It's reassuring, at some level, to see that the fault is not in myself, but in humanity in general.

My blog is much the same. I'm never sure whether my angry screed sounds sarcastic, or how much my sarcastic screed sounds angry. The problem, I suppose, has to do with lack of feedback. Many people who are old hands at this sort of thing are able to (I think) more clearly contrast their irony from their outrage, largely thanks to a painful trial-and-error process of offending people and adjusting their style accordingly.

I doubt many are "naturals" at this sort of thing, because there's something deeply unnatural about communicating solely through words. To make matters worse, the speed at which we can type has radically reduced the amount of consideration we give our words. When Neal Stephenson wrote the Baroque Cycle, he wrote the manuscript by hand because, he posited, the major shift in literary style from the 19th to the 20th century is largely a result of the sudden ubiquity of typewriters. In the old days of the postal service, everyone wrote by hand, which not only meant you had to actually scrawl the words, but also that it couldn't be sent instantly. People could stop, reflect, decide not to send the letter at all, etc. Now, emails and blog posts are often impulsive, written stream-of-consciousness as fast as the person in question can type. Emails are especially unforgiving, as once the "send" button is pressed, the message can't be aborted (short of the illegal and immoral task of sneaking into the recipient's inbox to delete it).

I'm not different, mind you. I occasionally go back and re-word things, but these posts aren't being conceived in drafts, with revisions of the core text. It's like I'm talking into a mic, with a 30-second delay for editorial control. I guess it's all part of the growing theme that the Information Age we now live in is about data, not content. There's more information, but not better understanding, so the influx largely fuels a general sort of digital chaos, which is diverted and dampened but never eliminated by a handful of control mechanisms.

In the midst of these discoveries, the revelation that one of the most powerful men in the country simply doesn't use email is also disturbing. On the plus side, it potentially reduces levels of misunderstanding at the highest echelons. But the downside, I think, is a lot more serious. It's a form of covering one's ass, a sense by the administration that transparency is bad because it opens them to attack, as if the possibility that someone might object to your course of action is the strongest reason to conceal it.

The huge irony here is that, while steadfastly refusing to employ email, Rumsfeld just made a statement about how out of date America is. Of course, in the same statement, he alluded to the distribution of the Abu Ghraib photos through the media, as if to imply that the way in which they spread was a sign of (a) the Pentagon's inability to control the media and (b) the subversive elements of society (including the "Enemy") fueling the fire. All told, it's a subtle, clever move. It fuels the "Media as Corrupted by Liberals and Extremists" myth, as well as subtly implying that while America must embrace technology, those who have already done so are more likely to be the enemy.

But few people are going to place Rumsfeld's statements in the context of a person who, while lamenting the "five-and-dime" nature of the Department of Defense, still abstains from email. The truth is that Rumsfeld probably doesn't want to adapt at a personal level - he sees such adaptation as a strategic move, not a change in the way people communicate at a lifestyle level. The contrast between Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara (America's last Secretary-Of-Defense-During-Entrenched-Occupation) is marked, given McNamara's genuine reforms in the DoD. Rumsfeld is happy to tell the press that we're living in the world of perpetual threat "24" depicts, but he may as well still be in the administration of Gerald Ford, given his technological intransigence.

I mean, seriously: if Rumsfeld is going to believe whatever faulty intel he gets handed (as long as it fits his worldview), does it really matter if he's managing to avoid getting into flame wars?

According to another article in Wired, instantaneous communication may also be helping Americ'as youth get really bad at spelling and grammar. Because, you know, typos are 1337. Frankly I'm inclined to agree. After all, without bad spelling, would anyone have ever been "pwned?"

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

"Please Praise Us"

“PBwiki makes creating a wiki as easy as making a peanut butter sandwich”

Or so I'm told. In truth, I have some elderly relatives who might disagree. But at the same time, I find making a wiki using PBWiki easier than making a sandwich. Goes to show what I know.

The existence of this post is a result of one of the strangest "free lunch" deals I've ever been offered. The basic gist is this: if you have a basic wiki created with PBWiki, they will double your storage space if you blog about them, providing constructive feedback of some sort (including criticism). There isn't any indication (at leas thusfar) that they actually want to provide the links of people who *have* done it, so I have a theory: they are trying to bribe people into Googlebombing their service.

The premise is simple. Let's say I provide a link, like this one: "PBWiki". Google's algorithmic minions will presumably crawl across that link sooner or later and log it. Since Google's pageranking system is based on number of sites that link to a particular page, weighted by "seniority" (older domains get a bias because they're less likely to be spammish), PBWiki is going to get lots and lots of links to their page, which should substantially increase their visibility in Google and similar search engines.

Of course, this might be an overly complex idea - the immediate effect is that the one reader for every fifty blogs in existence will stumble upon one (perhaps even two!) references to PBWiki that indicate that it is effortless to set up and free (things that go a long way on the Internet *cough*gmail*cough*). This brings us to the question of the cost: if they have capacity to spare and are seeking an audience, this is a winning formula. If, however, they have some nefarious "for King Dollar" angle on this, it might end up being bad for end-users. So far, PBWiki doesn't show any signs of being evil, but one can never be sure.

This is, I think, the latest manifestation of the Internet's increasingly defuse, decentralized nature. The mammoths that defined the web in it's early days (AOL, Yahoo, Prodigy, and other services I can't even recall) are increasingly being replaced by mercurial (Google), scrappy (Firefox), and "Free Like Beer" (Wikipedia) endeavors. With the Wikexplosion well underway, we're now seeing acts of "collective satire" like the Uncyclopedia and The Elemenstor Saga, a process by which comedy is being built collectively, by consensus.

Linus Torvalds famously said, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." This philosophy has broken into the net's mainstream, with a growing trend towards "a tool for every job" rather than "a single swiss army knife for everyone," as I imagine Microsoft would like things. Frankly, it's rather refreshing.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

You Die By What You Live By

A few of my fresher friendships have been with people who, by my standards, are extraordinarily picky eaters. In the language of the real world, this means that are, by their natures, nutritionists (as opposed to myself, a path-of-least-resistance furnace). People who advocate "slow food," who balance their diets, who buy fresh vegetables. These people are convinced, quietly but firmly, that I am committing a slow suicide with my diet, which mixes laziness and opportunism in equal doses.

To be clear, my last "real meal" (with multiple components, the semblance of courses, and what not) was Friday. So it's not as though I'm ignorant of the consequences. I keep telling myself, "When my metabolism slows down, I'll pay closer attention to my diet." But many tell me it will be "too late" then, that I'll be doomed to crappy stamina and frail lankiness by too many years of subsistence eating.

But the flipside is the hobbies these people have. Hiking. Climbing. Dance. Exposure to the elements aside, they seem to incur regular injury of one form or another. Surprisingly, weekly visits to a bouldering gym seem like the worst of the lot, leading to hyperextention, cramping, abrasions, and nasty degrees of muscular imbalance. Others constantly complain of back and neck pain as a result of their degree of physicality. So while I'm apparently killing myself with crap food, these people seem to be whittling away at their long-term health with a constant stream of minor injuries that seem to beg for arthritis and other joint problems in their old age. So my instinct is that it is they who run the risk of an unhappy old age with their lifestyles.

Really, I'm struck by the contrast between the "natural" and the "urban" in people. I'm such an urban creature, it hurts. I drive places within a few blocks by reflex. I make the compromise of "Fast Food Place X is close enough to Real Food." My chances of wilderness survival are virtually nil. I eat like crap, but am protected by a sort of technological womb, grown from decades of liability litigation, that wildly reduces the hazards of day-to-day life. My "natural" friends don't buy into that headspace at all. They play out a delicate balance for their nurtritional lives, but then adventure outside the womb (i.e. into the realm of "you have no one to blame but yourself"), placing themselves at risk.

Who is going to "win" the health race, I wonder? My money is on myself becoming frail and sickly while they become knotted and creaky. Got to say, can't wait for my cyborg body...