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Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Mainstream Media
Matt Haughey is sick of the singling out of the monolithic MSM, and he's right:
I'm usually not one to throw around ultimatums, but here's a new personal rule: If you use the term "MSM" in a unironic way to denote the "Mainstream Media" I will write you off as a quack, unsubscribe from your RSS, and stop reading your blog.

There is no "mainstream" media that is well-defined as Them, nor are webloggers suddenly Us. The term "The Media" is so nebulous that it includes us all. The line between the imagined "Us" bloggers and "Them" media outlets is so gray that it can't be drawn.
A few things to note here in relation to my last post on weblogs. I used the term "mainstream media" in that post (and have used it before as well) because it seems to be a common term that separates professional, broadcasted (i.e. mainstream) media (i.e. newspapers, television, radio) from informal, on-demand media (i.e. blogs). However, Haughey has a point: the line between is blurring by the second. Blogs are becoming mainstream, so the term is losing value.

As such, Haughey is essentially calling bullshit on me and everyone else who uses that term, which demonstrates another point I was trying to make:
It is true that some blogging proponents are preaching triumphalism, but that's part of the charm. They're allowed to be wrong and if you look closely at what happens when someone makes such a comment, you see that for every exaggerated claim, there are 10 counters in other blogs that call bullshit.
I haven't actually looked into it, but I'm positive that there are tons of other blogs out there that have expressed distaste at the use of the term "mainstream media." And they're right, to a degree. I was being lazy. It's easier to say "mainstream media" than it is to write a few extra paragraphs explaining what I mean, just as it's easier to issue arbitrary ultimatums than it is to make a comprehensive value judgement of a blog.
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2005 at 11:58 AM .: link :.

Are Libertarians Pragmatic?
Russ Nelson recently argued that there is no such thing as a "left-libertarian." In so doing, he points to a larger issue:
I think there's a larger issue here. "Liberal" used to mean the philosophy which is called in the US "libertarian", and which is still called "liberal" in some other countries. Since this philosophy generally promotes happiness and distributes power, people who seek power object to it. Since the philosophy is hard to understand and is counter-intuitive, it only takes a little bit of effort to undermine it.
[Emphasis mine] Is a philosophy that is easy to undermine and difficult to understand in the first place a realistic philosophy? Well, self-organizing systems such as this often display emergent properties that are more than the simple sum of their parts. So the people contributing to the system don't necessarily need to understand the system in order for the system to work. However, it is the "easy to undermine" part that causes the major problem...

I find libertarian ideas and concepts interesting and useful, but I can never seem to get rid of the nagging pragmatic objections to it, such as the one outlined above.
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2005 at 10:55 AM .: link :.

Friday, April 22, 2005

What is a Weblog, Part II
What is a weblog? My original thoughts leaned towards thinking of blogs as a genre within the internet. Like all genres, there is a common set of conventions that define the blogging genre, but the boundaries are soft and some sites are able to blur the lines quite thoroughly. Furthermore, each individual probably has their own definition as to what constitutes a blog (again similar to genres). The very elusiveness of a definition for blog indicates that perception becomes an important part of determining whether or not something is a blog. It has become clear that there is no one answer, but if we spread the decision out to a broad number of people, each with their own independent definition of blog, we should be able to come to the conclusion that a borderline site like Slashdot is a blog because most people call it a blog.

So now that we have a (non)definition for what a blog is, just how important are blogs? Caesar at Arstechnica writes that according to a new poll, Americans are somewhat ambivalent on blogs. In particular, they don't trust blogs.

I don't particularly mind this, however. For the most part, blogs don't make much of an effort to be impartial, and as I've written before, it is the blogger's willingness to embrace their subjectivity that is their primary strength. Making mistakes on a blog is acceptable, so long as you learn from your mistakes. Since blogs are typically more informal, it's easier for bloggers to acknowledge their mistakes.

Lexington Green from ChicagoBoyz recently wrote about blogging to a writer friend of his:
To paraphrase Truman Capote's famous jibe against Jack Kerouac, blogging is not writing, it is typing. A writer who is blogging is not writing, he is blogging. A concert pianist who is sitting down at the concert grand piano in Carnegie Hall in front of a packed house is the equivalent to an author publishing a finished book. The same person sitting down at the piano in his neighborhood bar on a Saturday night and knocking out a few old standards, doing a little improvisation, and even doing some singing -- that is blogging. Same instrument -- words, piano -- different medium. We forgive the mistakes and wrong-guesses because we value the immediacy and spontaneity. Plus, publish a book, it is fixed in stone. Write a blog post you later decide is completely wrong, it is actually good, since it gives you a good hook for a later post explaining your thoughts that led to the changed conclusion. The essence of a blog is to air things informally, to throw things out, to say "this interests me because ..." From time to time a more considered and article-like post is good. But most people read blogs by skimming. If a post is too long, in my observation, it does not get much response and may not be read at all.
Of course, his definition of what a blog is could be argued (as there are some popular and thoughtful bloggers who routinely write longer, more formal essays), but it actually struck me as being an excellent general description of blogging. Note his favorable attitude towards mistakes ("it gives you a good hook for a later post" is an excellent quote, though I think you might have to be a blogger to fully understand it). In the blogosphere, it's ok to be wrong:
Everyone makes mistakes. It's a fact of life. It isn't a cause for shame, it's just reality. Just as engineers are in the business of producing successful designs which can be fabricated out of less-than-ideal components, the engineering process is designed to produce successful designs out of a team made up of engineers every one of which screws up routinely. The point of the process is not to prevent errors (because that's impossible) but rather to try to detect them and correct them as early as possible.

There's nothing wrong with making a mistake. It's not that you want to be sloppy; everyone should try to do a good job, but we don't flog people for making mistakes.
The problem with the mainstream media is that they purport to be objective, as if they're just reporting the facts. Striving for objectivity can be a very good thing, but total objectivity is impossible, and if you deny the inherent subjectivity in journalism, then something is lost.

One thing Caesar mentions is that "the sensationalism surrounding blogs has got to go. Blogs don't solve world hunger, cure disease, save damsels in distress, or any of the other heroic things attributed to them." I agree with this too, though I do think there is something sensational about blogs, or more generally, the internet.

Steven Den Beste once wrote about what he thought were the four most important inventions of all time:
In my opinion, the four most important inventions in human history are spoken language, writing, movable type printing and digital electronic information processing (computers and networks). Each represented a massive improvement in our ability to distribute information and to preserve it for later use, and this is the foundation of all other human knowledge activities. There are many other inventions which can be cited as being important (agriculture, boats, metal, money, ceramic pottery, postmodernist literary theory) but those have less pervasive overall affects.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with the notion that these are the most important inventions, it is undeniable that the internet provides a stairstep in communication capability, which, in turn, significantly improves the process of large-scale collaboration that is so important to human existence.
When knowledge could only spread by speech, it might take a thousand years for a good idea to cross the planet and begin to make a difference. With writing it could take a couple of centuries. With printing it could happen in fifty years.

With computer networks, it can happen in a week if not less. After I've posted this article to a server in San Diego, it will be read by someone on the far side of a major ocean within minutes. That's a radical change in capability; a sufficient difference in degree to represent a difference in kind. It means that people all over the world can participate in debate about critical subjects with each other in real time.
And it appears that blogs, with their low barrier to entry and automated software processes, will play a large part in the worldwide debate. There is, of course, a ton of room for improvement, but things are progressing rapidly now and perhaps even accelerating. It is true that some blogging proponents are preaching triumphalism, but that's part of the charm. They're allowed to be wrong and if you look closely at what happens when someone makes such a comment, you see that for every exaggerated claim, there are 10 counters in other blogs that call bullshit. Those blogs might be on the long tail and probably won't garner as much attention, but that's part of the point. Blogs aren't trustworthy, which is precisely why they're so important.

Update 4.24.05: I forgot to link the four most important inventions article (and I changed some minor wording: I had originally referred to the four "greatest" inventions, which was not the wording Den Beste had used).
Posted by Mark on April 22, 2005 at 06:49 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

What is a Weblog?
Caesar at ArsTechnica has written a few entries recently concerning blogs which interested me. The first simply asks: What, exactly, is a blog? Once you get past the overly-general definitions ("a blog is a frequently updated webpage"), it becomes a surprisingly difficult question.

Caesar quotes Wikipedia:
A weblog, web log or simply a blog, is a web application which contains periodic time-stamped posts on a common webpage. These posts are often but not necessarily in reverse chronological order. Such a website would typically be accessible to any Internet user. "Weblog" is a portmanteau of "web" and "log". The term "blog" came into common use as a way of avoiding confusion with the term server log.
Of course, as Caesar notes, the majority of internet sites could probably be described in such a way. What differentiates blogs from discussion boards, news organizations, and the like?

Reading through the resulting discussion provides some insight, but practically every definition is either too general or too specific.

Many people like to refer to Weblogs as a medium in itself. I can see the point, but I think it's more general than that. The internet is the medium, whereas a weblog is basically a set of commonly used conventions used to communicate through that medium. Among the conventions are things like a main page with chronological posts, permalinks, archives, comments, calendars, syndication (RSS), blogging software (CMS), trackbacks, &c. One problem is that no single convention is, in itself, definitive of a weblog. It is possible to publish a weblog without syndication, comments, or a calendar. Depending on the conventions being eschewed, such blogs may be unusual, but may still be just as much a blog as any other site.

For lack of a better term, I tend to think of weblogs as a genre. This is, of course, not totally appropriate but I think it does communicate what I'm getting at. A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces "cross-genre," though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates "Drama"). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.

On the medium of the internet, there are many genres, one of which is a weblog. Other genres include commercial sites (i.e. sites that try to sell you things, Amazon.com, Ebay, &c.), reference sites (i.e. dictionaries & encyclopedias), Bulletin Board Systems and Forums, news sites, personal sites, weblogs, wikis, and probably many, many others.

Any given site is probably made up of a combination of genres and it is often difficult to pinpoint any one genre as being representative. Take, for example, Kaedrin.com. It is a personal site with some random features, a bunch of book & movie reviews, a forum, and, of course, a weblog (which is what you're reading now). Everything is clearly delineated here at Kaedrin, but other sites blur the lines between genres on every page. Take ArsTechnica itself: Is it a news site or a blog or something else entirely? I would say that the front page is really a combination of many different things, one of which is a blog. It's a "cross-genre" webpage, but that doesn't necessarily make it any less effective (though there is something to be said for simplicity and it is quite possible to load a page up with too much stuff, just as it's possible for a book or movie to be too ambitious and take on too much at once) just as Alien isn't necessarily a less effective Science Fiction film because it incorporates elements of Horror and Drama (or vice-versa).

Interestingly, much of what a weblog is can be defined as an already existing literary genre: the journal. People have kept journals and diaries all throughout history. The major difference between a weblog and a journal is that a weblog is published for all to see on the public internet (and also that weblogs can be linked together through the use of the hyperlink and the infrastructure of the internet). Historically, diaries were usually private, but there are notable exceptions which have been published in book form. Theoretically, one could take such diaries and publish them online - would they be blogs? Take, for instance, The Diary of Samuel Pepys which is currently being published daily as if it's a weblog circa 1662 (i.e. Today's entry is dated "Thursday 17 April 1662"). The only difference is that the author of that diary is dead and thus doesn't interact or respond to the rest of the weblog community (though there is still interaction allowed in the form of annotations).

A few other random observations about blogs:
  • Software: Many people brought up the fact that most blogs are produced with the assistance of Weblogging Software, such as Blogger or Movable Type. From my perspective, such tools are necessary for the spread of weblogs, but shouldn't be a part of the definition. They assist in the spread of weblogs because they automate the overly-technical details of publishing a website and make it easy for normal folks to participate. They're also useful for automatically propagating weblog conventions like permalinks, comments, trackbacks, and archives. However, it's possible to do all of this without the use of blogging specific software and it's also possible to use blogging software for other purposes (for instance, Kaedrin's very own Tandem Stories are powered by Movable Type). It's interesting that other genres have their own software as well, particularly bulletin boards and forums. Ironically, one could use such BBS software to publish a blog (or power tandem stories), if they were so inclined. The Pepys blog mentioned above actually makes use of wiki software (though that software powers the entries, it's mostly used to allow annotations). To me content management systems are important, but they don't define so much as propagate the genre.
  • Personality: One mostly common theme in definitions is that weblogs are personal - they're maintained by a person (or small group of people), not an official organization. A personality gets through. There is also the perception that a blog is less filtered than official communications. Part of the charm of weblogs is that you can be wrong (more on this later, possibly in another post). I'm actually not sure how important this is to the definition of a blog. Someone who posts nothing but links doesn't display much of a personality, except through more subtle means (the choice of links can tell you a lot about an individual, albeit in an indirect way that could lead to much confusion).
  • Communities: Any given public weblog is part of a community, whether it wants to be or not. The boundaries of any specific weblog are usually well delineated, but since weblogs are part of the internet, which is an on-demand medium (as opposed to television or radio, which are broadcast), blogs are often seen as relative to one another. Entries and links from different blogs are aggregated, compared, correlated and published in other weblogs. Any blog which builds enough of a readership provides a way connect people who share various interests through the infrastructure of the internet.
Some time ago, Derek Powazek asked What the Hell is a Weblog? You tell me. and published all the answers. It turns out that I answered this myself (last one on that page), many years ago:
I don't care what the hell a weblog is. It is what I say it is. Its something I update whenever I find an interesting tidbit on the web. And its fun. So there.
Heh. Interesting to note that my secondary definition there ("something I update whenever I find an interesting tidbit on the web") has changed significantly since I contributed that definition. This is why, I suppose, I had originally supplied the primary definition ("I don't care what the hell a weblog is. It is what I say it is.") and to be honest, I don't think that's changed (though I guess you could call that definition "too general"). Blogging is whatever I want it to be. Of course, I could up and call anything a blog, but I suppose it is also required that others perceive your blog as a blog. That way, the genre still retains some shape, but is still permeable enough to allow some flexibility.

I had originally intended to make several other points in this post, but since it has grown to a rather large size, I'll save them for other posts. Hopefully, I'll gather the motivation to do so before next week's scheduled entry, but there's no guarantee...
Posted by Mark on April 17, 2005 at 08:27 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Cell Phone Update
Because I know everyone is on the edge of their seat after last week's entry, I ended up going with the Nokia 3120. It's compact, light and has a reasonably long talk time. As far as talk time goes, the Sony Ericsson T237 seems to be king (at least, going by the statistics), but I didn't like the keypad (nor did I particularly love the screen or the controls). The Nokia was better in this respect, and I've always been happy with Nokia phones.

It's a bit of a low end phone, but the high end phones don't seem to have gotten to a point where it's really worth it just yet. The Sony Ericsson W800i seems really interesting. I'm in the market for an MP3 player as well, so it would be really nice to get that functionality with the phone. The cameras in phones are getting better and better as well (to the point where they're better than my digital camera, which is getting pretty old). Hitting three birds with one stone would be really nice, but unfortunately, the W800i isn't out yet (and some are reporting that it won't be released in the States at all), would probably cost a fortune even if it was available, and I'm sure that better models will eventually become available anyway, which is why I don't mind getting the low end model now...

Anyway, thanks for everyone's help. It was very... helpful. Um, yeah. Thanks.
Posted by Mark on April 10, 2005 at 07:22 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Cell Phone
So I'm in the market for a new cell phone. I'm no expert, but I've been reading up on the subject this weekend. I actually use my cell phone as my primary phone (I don't have a land line), so I might consider going for something other than a base model... but it seems that more advanced phones are loaded with features that I don't really need. What I really want out of the new phone is:
  • Strong Battery Life - This seems important since I'm going to be using it as my primary phone.
  • Call Quality - Again, this is important because I'm using it as my primary phone.
  • Size and Weight - I carry my phone with me wherever I go, and I usually keep it in my pocket. This seems ideally suited to a flip-phone, as they are small and the shape prevents accidental dialing. But I've never much cared for flip-phones (see next bullet), so what I'd really like is a small, light, candy bar style phone.
  • Usability - Stuff like navigation through the menus, button controls (including size, shape, placement, etc...), and how the phone feels in my hand and against my face are important. This is where flip-phones normally fail for me, but I'm trying to keep an open mind... If I do end up seriously considering a flip-phone, it will need to have an external screen with caller ID, so I can see who's calling without having to answer.
Most other features are nice-to-haves, but not by any means necessary for me. A quick rundown of features and my thoughts:
  • Text messaging, instant messaging, and email - I'd definitely like Text Messaging, but IM and email aren't a necessity.
  • Camera - Would be nice to have, but not that important to me.
  • Speakerphone - Again, nice to have, but not very important to me.
  • Wireless/Bluetooth/Infrared/Connectivity - It would be nice to backup all my data on my computer, but I don't absolutely need wireless and I wouldn't be upset without any sort of connectivity at all. Internet access would be nice, but isn't really necessary.
  • Sound - I could really care less about ring-tones, and though it would be nice to knock out two birds with one stone by getting an MP3 player in the phone, I don't think the technology is there (nor am I really willing to pay for it - still, this Sony Ericsson W800i sounds pretty darn cool).
  • Games/Downloads - Don't really care at all. It's nice to have a game or two on the phone, but I really don't care much.
  • Style - Looks aren't that important to me. I'm not a big fan of glitzy designs or anything, so simple and to-the-point is what I'm looking for. It would be nice to have a good looking phone, but it's not essential.
  • Smart-Phones - Don't really need this either. I suppose, in the future, this will be the way to go, but I don't want to be that connected just yet (though if I ever do end up getting a blackberry type device, I would want it to also be a cell phone and probably an MP3 player as well).
I'm really just looking for something basic that I can carry around easily and reliably make calls with for a long period of time without needing to recharge the phone. I'll probably want ext messaging and email as well. Most everything else is desirable, but not really needed either. I'm on a budget here, so I don't want to pay extra for a whole buch of features I'm not going to use...

I'm not sure which provider I'm going to go with either, but I'll have to see what my options are. My employer had a deal with AT&T Wireless, so that is what I have now, but AT&T is now Cingular, so I'm not sure if that relationship still exists (or if we switched to something else). I would prefer a CDMA based phone, but several friends have had bad experiences with Sprint and Verizon is a little too expensive for me, especially if I can get a good deal with Cingular (which uses GSM).

In looking at the phones available for Cingular, I'm not especially fond of any available options. The closest thing to what I want is the Sony Ericsson T237 or the Nokia 3120. Both are pretty low end models, but it seems like the big differences in the next steps up are the extraneous features I don't really need (like the camera, Bluetooth, etc...) As of right now, I'm leaning towards the Sony Ericsson T237 (or the Sony Ericsson T637, which is nicer, but is also more expensive and has lots of features I don't especially need). It's nice and small, it apparently has a fantastic battery life, and decent call quality. Most reviews I've seen give it reasonable marks and recommend it as a good no-frills phone. Some user reviews give it pretty bad marks though, which is why I'm considering the T637 (despite it's extra features).

Of course, I'll need to look at these things in the store before I really make my decision, but any advice on cell-phone buying would be much appreciated. I haven't really looked into Verizon phones yet, but I'm going to give it consideration...

Update: In researching and thinking about this a little more, I think some of the more feature-rich phones might be worth considering, despite my initial distaste. So for now, the front-runner is the T637. We shall see. Suggestions or advice still welcome...
Posted by Mark on April 03, 2005 at 04:35 PM .: link :.

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