Monthly Archives: January 2005

Changing of the Guards (photo)

Changing of the Guards


Morning Arrival (photo)


Cyclist – Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Shoe Shine (photo illustration)

Shoe Shine

Media Roadkill and Blogs

Jack Shafer of Slate thumbs his nose at those predicting the death of traditional media ("Blog Overkill," 1/26/05).

The premature triumphalism of some bloggers indicates that they haven’t
paid attention to how Webified journalists have become. They also
ignore media history. New media technologies almost never replace old
media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and
find new ways to connect with their audiences. Radio killed the
"special edition," but newspapers survived. When television dethroned
radio as the hearthside infobox and cratered the Hollywood box office,
radio became a mobile medium, and Hollywood devoted itself to
spectaculars that the tiny TV set couldn’t adequately display. The
competitive spiral has continued, with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs,
satellite TV and radio broadcasters, and now Internet broadcasters
entering the fray. The only extinct mass medium that I can think of is
the movie house newsreel.

He also takes a dig at the smugness of some bloggers. I come out closer to his view (for instance, here, here, here, and here)  yet, as Woody Allen might have said,  I at least partially "resemble" the following criticism.

The bloggers certainly weren’t going to get much lip from me. I saddled up with the new media posse back in 1996, and much of what I do—write, post, link, read, communicate with readers, devote myself to an arcane subject—resembles what most bloggers do, except that I get paid for it, and I tend to write twice or three times a week at 1,000 words rather than several times daily at a paragraph or three. The biggest difference between me and conventional bloggers is that I usually pause between first thought and posting. Inspired by the slow food movement, I like to think of myself as a slow blogger. Sometimes I’m so slow—as this Wednesday dispatch from a Friday-Saturday conference proves—that I resemble a conventional journalist.

Mea culpa, yet still a well-earned chuckle from this corner.  The column seems to have been sparked by Harvard’s "Blogging, Journalism & Credibility" conference.

Search and the Need for Editors

More commentary on why we are going to continue needing human intercession in the parsing of information.  Peter Norvig, Director of Quality Seach at Google, speaks on the problem of how to ensure proper "tagging" of information.

One challenge is ensuring consistency, even in seemingly minor issues on spelling, style (for instance, how names are written and presented), "correct" transliteration from one alphabet to another and the "proper" handling of abbreviations. Any one trained at the grindstone of a newspaper know how such style, grammar and spelling rules are knocked into heads. Not everything published on the Web goes through that same vetting process.

Somebody’s got to do that kind of canonicalization. So the problem of understanding content hasn’t gone away; it’s just been forced down to smaller pieces between angle brackets. […]

Another, is battling intentional deception on the part of some people tagging the information on the Internet.

The last issue is the spam issue. When you’re in the lab and you’re defining your ontology, everything looks nice and neat. But then you unleash it on the world, and you find out how devious some people are. What this indicates is, one, we’ve got a lot of work to do to deal with
this kind of thing, but also you can’t trust the metadata. You can’t
trust what people are going to say. In general, search engines have
turned away from metadata, and they try to hone in more on what’s
exactly perceivable to the user. For the most part we throw away the
meta tags, unless there’s a good reason to believe them, because they
tend to be more deceptive than they are helpful. And the more there’s a
marketplace in which people can make money off of this deception, the
more it’s going to happen. Humans are very good at detecting this kind
of spam, and machines aren’t necessarily that good. So if more of the
information flows between machines, this is something you’re going to
have to look out for more and more.

Hong Kong Trams (photo)

Hong Kong Trams

Growing Blog Readership

Dave Pollard estimates the readership that each tier of today’s bloggers is receiving.

If you’re an average A-list blogger (those getting at least 15,000 hits
per day), your 150,000 40-second visitors in aggregate are spending
1700 hours per day reading and commenting on your blog. The average
B-list blogger (those getting at least 1,000 hits per day) is getting 62
hours per day of 90-second-per-visit aggregate reader attention, the
average C-list (150-1,000 hits-per-day) blogger 13 hours per day of
aggregate reader attention, and the average up-and-coming (50-150
hits-per-day) blogger 2.5 hours per day. These are not staggering
numbers, but certainly an encouraging return on time invested in

(Check out the charts on his blog.) He then compares those numbers against the readership of traditional newspaper columnists…

Compare this to a daily local paper. According to Encarta,
in 2000 the 1500 US dailies printed an aggregate 50 million copies per
day with an average readership of 2 people per copy. A Readership
survey suggests the
average reader spends 15 minutes per day reading the paper. Assuming
half of that is spent reading classifieds, ads, comics etc., that means
the average US daily paper gets 8300 hours per day of aggregate reader
attention. Assuming an average of 50 articles, editorials and columns
per edition, that works out to 170 hours’ reader attention per article.

…Dave then optimistically concludes…

What this means is that if blog readership continues to soar (doubling
every 18 months) and newspaper readership continues to stagnate, in
three years the average B-list blogger will be getting significantly more reader
attention than the average unsyndicated US newspaper article or column,
and the average A-list blogger will be getting almost as much reader
attention as the average US daily paper.

Hold that Grammar: Rules and Expression

Posting Philip Pullman’s recent column on the Zoetrope discussion boards seems to have stirred debate on grammar and its proper role in both creative expression and the teaching of language. Where do rules help expression, and where do they hinder it? Along these lines, I have been following Clay Shirky’s discussion on "tagging" (and other ways of classifying and ranking the reliability of text and images) with interest, especially his entries in which he debates "top-down" versus "bottom-up" hierarchies. In a recent entry, he talks about language as an emergent system. He mentions John Marks, who writes:

Human languages are spontaneous
orders which have many important similarities with science – particularly if we
accept the view of science as a redescription of the world. Natural languages
are not designed; they are the products mainly of evolutionary rather than
constructive rationalism. The artificial languages for which this is not true –
mathematical and computer languages – are special cases, which lack many of the
essential characteristics of natural languages.

Languages deal with and describe the natural world, a world which is so complex that any individual
attempt to describe it, and make sense of it, can only capture part of it. In
order to survive, each individual must make some sense of his environment, most
fundamentally by acquiring a language. But the language of each individual (his
idiolect) only functions effectively if it forms part of a wider structure such
as the language of a group, a region or a nation. So our languages are complex
decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. And we use them
confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how
they develop. A framework of rules governs the forms which natural languages
take. But these rules are concerned with the structure rather than the content
of what we say.

To John’s point about structure versus content: I recently read McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, which argues that grammar and spelling did not become "important" until the advent of movable type, largely because they helped replicability. Prior to that–in the "manuscript" age, writers were a lot more "flexible" in their writing so that they could explore different meanings. It’s no surprise that McLuhan was a huge fan of James Joyce, who exploded some of these conventional notions about how the writer and reader interacted. (Reading McLuhan has given me newfound appreciation for Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake).

I agree with Philip Pullman. I think too many teachers over-emphasize doctrinaire writing over creative expression. It’s important to teach grammar and spelling, too, of course, since for better or worse, they are the mark of an "educated" person, but too much grinding of the rules also results in stilted expression.

Fellow Zoer Kirsten Snipp gives her perspective as an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher.

I don’t think that most people would argue with the general idea that
the basics are necessary for survival in society. The perfect example
of this comes from McLuhan as you pointed out. The more systematized a
system becomes, the more necessary it is to follow the system in order
to be generally understood by others using that same system. In other
words, it isn’t that creativity isn’t important, but before quantum
physics, there’s balancing a checkbook. Still, as Pullman points out, a teacher’s slavish adherence to
(grammatical) structures can be destructive. I pointed to studies which
show (red pen marks crossing out bad grammar) don’t even do anything to
improve bad grammar in the first place. (Though to be fair, I’m talking
from my experience about second language writing.)


BUT it seems a little bell-the-cat-ish. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in
this thread, the biggest question for me as a teacher is HOW to do
that, given the constraints inherent in most classroom situations. AND
– even if you can achieve that goal (which I think I manage to do
sometimes in a few wonderful transcendent moments every now and
then;-)) how do you further protect that budding creative voice from
the RULES, e.g. ‘don’t use passive voice,’ ‘first person narratives are
amateurish,’ even when these structures are used grammatically?

I asked Kirsten whether she thought Asian students tended to be more rules-based (given how the education system has evolved). She said it rankles her when people complain about how the grammar of the ESL students is "atrocious."

The students DO know the grammar. They do, do, do, DO KNOW
the grammar. The problem is, they aren’t taught how to apply it to
their own writing, nor are they taught a systematic approach for
analyzing their own written productions. They simply spew and the
teacher is meant to pick through the gunk for undigested grains […]. There simply
isn’t any level of evaluation on content, because the reining idea
seems to me to be – don’t bother to even THINK about content until the
form is perfect. If that isn’t a life-sapping method for approaching
anything, let alone writing, I don’t know what is.

When I taught classes in Beijing, I found that my students really craved grammatical rules, as if that were the secret to communicating in English. Thinking too much about grammar (and spelling) too early can get in the way of communicating, however. My father’s grammar is probably much better than my Mom’s (certainly his written English is better), but my Mother is the extrovert of the two and fearless about speaking to people. It’s interesting to me that many people thus consider my Mom’s English "better." Additionally, a lot of Taiwanese I know have decent written English skills, but have trouble communicating via spoken English (even though as I talk to them more, I realize their vocabulary is reasonably extensive. English teaching in Taiwan has traditionally focused on written and rules-based English, though, and very little on the colloquial). Another thing I noted is how some people change personalities as they shift from language to language. I used to have students who were confident and talkative in their native language, who would become shy and quiet as they shifted into English or another foreign language. Again, another real-life example of how people change given the context. How then does language affect place within the network hierarchies that Clay and others have been analyzing?

Google to Offer VOIP?

Rumors circulating about Google showing interest in offering VOIP (voice over Internet protocol). Tom Keating has reported that Google has been looking to hire people with "dark fiber" experience, and he muses on the possibilities.

Google already has tons of bandwidth at its disposal. Imagine if they
decide to get into the VoIP biz? Google has a loyal, almost fanatical
following that dwarf’s even (dare I say?) Apple’s fandom. If Google
plays its cards right it could get into the VoIP business and offer
some really creative applications.

James Seng points to Google’s denials, and mentions Newsweek’s new article on VoIP and Vonage: "Hi! The Net Is Calling." Personally, I can say that I am a fan of Skype, which I use to keep in touch with relatives across the Pacific. (I remember once seeing a graphic that showed Taiwan second only to the United States in number of users.) Sometimes, the voice quality is unreliable (Skype relies on peer to peer–P2P–technology, and I occasionally get dropped calls), but you cannot beat the price, and I also like the way that I can IM (instant message) specific (lengthier) URLs to people so that I can surf web sites together with them.

Smartest Guys in the Room

BloggingSundance reviews a new documentary about the Enron debacle that is showing at the Sundance Film Festival. "

When documentary film, blogs, and journalism are done well, they assist the audience in the search for truth."