Facepalm: three Internet burps from this week

Three different times I found myself wallowing in anguish while reading an Internet news story.  Ready for the ride?

1. Klout – a Wired news story about the controversial website (via BoingBoing)

"Wade" cc-licensed by MrGiles
"Wade" cc-licensed by MrGiles

Klout is a social media metric that measures how influential you are and gives you a score between 1 and 100.  The higher your score, the more people you influence.  Apparently, there are companies and hotels and stuff that have started giving perks to people with high Klout scores.  On one hand, this is the intended benefit of the company, on the other hand it feels like anti-democratic dirty pool.  Some people get to cut to the front of the line because they’re more influential? What the fuck?

It made me think of the Chicago Tribune news stories about the recent scandal at the University of Illinois where it turned out that knowing someone important got you special treatment in the admissions process.  The overall effect of the scandal was huge, but it mostly happened because the geniuses (and I don’t mean that sarcastically at all, I love that they did this) in admissions created a special track for clout applications.  So there were literally records of people who got special treatment and why.  This is, of course, the above board way to do it — if your boss is telling you to give the congressman’s neighbor’s kid a special review, you do so, but you document the heck out of it.

I hope that companies using Klout to give perks to some customers are exposed and punished by the marketplace for doing so.

2. CISPA – Congress votes on CISPA a day early and erases the Fourth Amendment for the Internet.

Much of what I read makes me think this is a political move that stands hardly any chance of actually becoming law, but it still makes me absolutely goddamn furious.  Go read about it, and weep for our lost freedoms.  What I don’t understand is why so many Republicans would support this bill — I thought they were about less government, about Freedom, goddamn it.

It also makes me mad that it was rushed through with quick major ammendments at the last minute.  This isn’t what democracy is about.  This isn’t the public, fair debate of ideas aimed at making our country a better place.  At best, it’s a wrong-headed and dangerous political game of chicken designed to make one party (or the other) look bad.  At worst, it’s another reduction of the potential for individual liberty in the digital age taken by people who have power and don’t understands its implications.

3. Brogrammers – “Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem”

The Mother Jones story about the rising visible sexism and Frat-house culture infecting recent tech startups doesn’t really point out anything new about the kinds of places twentysomething men assemble when left to their own devices.  But it does raise a disturbing ripple effect that these sorts of myopic sexist idiots have on the wider culture of geekdom.  Fortunately, the Internet seems to be smacking back pretty hard at these Mooks (to use Douglas Rushkoff’s term from Merchants of Cool), but not hard enough for my taste.

– – –

On the upside, the Internet giveth as well as taketh away. My favorite thing about the Klout article, though, was its last paragraph, which encapsulates the hope I have for the wonderful Internet.  Seth Stevens writes:

Over time, I found my eyes drifting to tweets from folks with the lowest Klout scores. They talked about things nobody else was talking about. Sitcoms in Haiti. Quirky museum exhibits. Strange movie-theater lobby cards from the 1970s. The un-Kloutiest’s thoughts, jokes, and bubbles of honest emotion felt rawer, more authentic, and blissfully oblivious to the herd. Like unloved TV shows, these people had low Nielsen ratings—no brand would ever bother to advertise on their channels. And yet, these were the people I paid the most attention to. They were unique and genuine. That may not matter to marketers, and it may not win them much Klout. But it makes them a lot more interesting.

Marketing flameout

My Computer! by dr. regor
My Computer! by dr. regor, used under cc-license

Have you been following the Ocean Marketing thing?  Here’s the very quick re-cap:

  • Someone ordered some videogame controllers from a company in early November.  When they hadn’t arrived by Mid-December, they emailed the company asking about them.
  • The customer service rep was a total jerk.
  • The customer got irritated and brought Penny Arcade into the loop.
  • The customer service rep was a total jerk to them too. (Oops!)
  • The Internet took notice.

There’s a good pair of summaries at PopeHat about the whole imbroglio.  Ken opens his second post with this comment:

For some time, I’ve been thinking and writing about this question: is it “fair,” and “right,” that if I act like a sufficiently notable choad on the internet, I may become instantly famous for it, and the consequences of that fame may follow me and have profound social implications?

I keep coming back to two answers: (1) yes, and (2) to quote Clint, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

For the last hundred years, people who care about such things have been complaining about the anonymity of modern life. People who used to live in small towns live in big cities, and people are turned towards television and globalized, homogenized culture rather than towards their neighborhood. One consequence is the ability to treat people badly — even in serial fashion — with relative impunity. It used to be that you’d get the reputation as the town drunk or the town letch, or the village idiot, and that reputation would follow you until you move on to another town. But now many people don’t even know their neighbors, let alone their whole “town.”

With respect to certain bad behavior, the internet can change that — it can transform you into the resident of an insular town of 300 million people. This week notable jackass Paul Christoforo is finding that out. Try Googling his name to see what I mean.

Some people worry that the result is unduly harsh or unfair — that anyone can become a pariah because of “one mistake.” I’m all for the concept of mercy, but I think that concern is misguided for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, the internet is manic and has a short attention span. You have to do something truly epic to go viral. One angry email won’t do it unless it is so extreme that it reflects a disturbed mind. If you “just have a bad day,” you’ll slip into obscurity quickly. It takes talent, or sustained effort, to become internet famous.

Of course, I see this whole business in the context of electracy and our previous ages of orality and literacy.  The move from rural village to urban space certainly did create a kind of anonymity that hadn’t existed before, one that resulted in all kinds of crime, but also the kind of variety and diversity that pushed the enlightenment forward.  Ken notices that the onmipresent panopticon of the Internet seems to have the same effect as the omnipresent village gossip network, sometimes tarring people with an undeserved red A, sometimes giving them a deserved one.

For netizens growing up under this omnipresent eye, perhaps the feeling or experience of surveillance is different than those of us who remember the era before the Internet.  (Indeed, I’m about as young as you can get and not have the Internet as part of your youth.)  While we value privacy and are appalled to learn how much of our personal information is available to skilled data-hackers, the young are nonchalant about it — welcome to the age of the Internet.

But for either person, being the subject of a large-scale Webstorm seems much like coming under the gaze of Sauron–something no sane person would want to experience.  Clay Shirky writes about the positive aspects of this experience in Here Comes Everybody, but we also must keep in mind the terrible effect the 4Chan crowd has, bringing the same kind of scrutiny for no reason other than cruel whim.

How a proposition in an elevator ripples across the multiverse

I love a good internet kurfuffle.  It’s even better when the issues at stake are real (such as feminism, sexual politics, ethics) as opposed to lame (such as who shot first: Han). The wide-open landscape of the Web allow for a flurry of opinions and zesty froth to emerge in a way that real world discussions do, but in documented, archivable form.   So here’s a quick rundown of the fracas I’m writing about today:

At a recent Athiest conference in Dublin, the prominent writer Rebecca Watson was propositioned at four in the morning in an elevator.  She found this creepy.  In writing about it, she learned that other people did not think she should have found it creepy.  Then other people disagreed back.  It was a whole thing.

I’d draw your attention particularly to the PZ Myers posts and to this one on Sindeloke about privilege.

Greg Laden has an excellent link farm to let you see the whole chaotic mess as it unfurled.

I’m not writing here to add to this conversation, per se.  (I agree with Myers and Sindeloke, however.  If someone says something you’re doing is creepy, you need to evaluate your own behavior, not dismiss their feelings.)

Instead, I’m interested in the rippling web of conversations this “storm in a teacup” has created.  Among the web communities I can easily see from here are: Youtube (particularly the circle who watch Rebecca Watson, AronRa, and others), Pharyngula (PZ Myers’ blog), the rest of the scienceblogs site, Skepchick (Watson’s blog), and various blogs from people who were at the event.  It also includes a number of particularly sad comments from Richard Dawkins himself, which brings to bear an even larger circle of commenters.

At play in these conversations are numerous definitions: privilege, feminism, sexism, misogyny, and “good form” that need constant defining and discussion.  I can’t help but wonder what other lurkers like myself get from the conversation.  Do they find their own views justified? Do they find themselves convinced by a particularly winning piece of rhetoric, or a great analogy? (I know the Sindeloke analogy about a lizard and a dog will be one I’ll use in future when I try to explain privilege to students.)

The multiverse has 196,833 facets
The multiverse has 196,833 places to whine

Or do the conversations ripple into their own subgroups, where the sheer number and diversity of them result in status quo maintenance of their original positions?  While I enjoy The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for their snarky commentary on the world, I don’t think regular viewers of Fox and Friends will ever watch or be convinced.  In thinking about how these conversations ripple out and then stagnate, I thought of the 196,833 dimensions of the universe envisioned by Warren Ellis in the comic Planetary.  Internet kerfuffles ripple through the blogosphere and settle into the different universes to die in different ways.  But the Internet Insularity Principle means these stories don’t bleed back.

I can’t decide if my delight in the diversity of the conversation outweighs my lament over their isolation from one another.  I can say that I have personally learned a bit more about how other people experience the world, and will be especially attentive to my elevator persona in future.  Not that I was acting creepy before or anything.



New Facebook Terms by hubspot
New Facebook Terms by hubspot

Two interesting developments in privacy this week:

  1. We’ve all heard about the egregious new Facebook terms that not only say they get to keep all your information in perpetuity, but that such information is now private automagically.  The ever-awesome Al Franken has provided easy-to-follow instructions for “opting out” of this program. But it’s now being reported that an open-source Facebook alternative has been started through a quick fundraising campaign on the interwebs.  Diaspora plans to offer open-source software to allow Facebook without the glass walls.
  2. Amazon has added a new “popular highlights” and aggregated notes feature to its Kindle.  Apparently, it works by uploading and aggregating all the highlights and notes Kindle users make on their machines.  While there are some neat benefits to this (automatic annotated volumes, for instance, or a kind of Kindle Book Club), there are some serious drawbacks as well.  Aside from the general fact that people aren’t told up front about this “feature,” there’s the specific fact that some people may not want to make their notes and highlights public.  As a working academic, I can think of plenty of times when I’m not sure I’d want my notes for a project made public — and if I were using Kindle to make those notes, I wouldn’t have a choice.

Of course, the issue here has to do with terms of service and the still new wilds of technological sharing.  As long as we all assume we have some privacy, each invasion of privacy feels unpleasant.  We regret or dislike the Googlexposure of youthful indiscretions or lies posted by people who don’t like us.  So what’s the solution here?  More careful reading of TOS?  Laws designed to prevent such egregious abuses of consumers?  Consumer boycotts (that’s the one I’m probably going to shift toward)?

A big part of me just gets angry at this kind of thing.  Not the practice of collecting and sharing information, but the sneaky practice of changing the terms without saying anything.  In no other realm of consumer practice would this be even remotely acceptable: your restaurant can’t change the terms of your transaction without your consent:

“Waitress, why is my bill so high?”
“Oh, those jalapeno poppers went up $5 since you ordered them.”

Regardless, it’s important to keep these companies and ideas in mind as we move forward.  I know that I’m not going to buy a Kindle — I’ve been considering the Sony reader, but frankly I already have too much to read: I don’t know when I’d read it.  But perhaps on the train…

All ‘atwitter

I used the phrase “all atwitter” in class today and my students thought it was a reference to the micro-blogging site.  I explained that, no, “all atwitter” was a phrase before the website.

Then we all pondered for a moment whether twitter is named for this phenomenon.  They don’t say so, and their birdy birdy logo suggests something else, but it seems like there must be a connection, no?

In which I am quoted as a Facebook expert

Patrick T. Reardon writes in today’s Chicago Tribune:

Nowadays, though, anyone with a Facebook profile can publish a mini-autobiography by posting a “25 Random Things About Me” note.

This is a good thing. Although some have mocked them, these 25-things notes are the latest evidence of the democratization of literature. It used to be that the only people who got to write autobiographies were those who were famous, infamous or otherwise had a life story that publishers thought would sell. With this Facebook thing, though, such calculations of profit and loss disappear.

“There’s no downside to it if only 10 people read it,” says Brendan Riley, who teaches courses in writing, new media and popular culture at Columbia College Chicago.

A 25-things note is similar to but more focused than a blog—even though the list is supposed to be “random.” Nothing on Facebook, of course, is random. Members use the service to craft an image of themselves as they’d like to be seen. One of these notes is simply a more distilled version.

“Even if you’re putting in things that are bad, you’re making them amusing rather than horrifying,” Riley says.

Little Tidbits for the weekend

We’re traveling this weekend, so the hubub that is Digital Sextant will probably be quiet until Sunday night or Monday morning. Here are some random bits to tide you over until then:

  • Re: annoying quirks of Netflixery: I added a suggestion to the Netflix blog that when you finish a show using the Watch Instantly feature, an automatic dialog should pop up asking if you want to remove the movie from your DVD queue. Or better yet, you should be able to turn that automation on in some sort of profile settings page.I had an incident a couple weeks ago in which I received a DVD in the mail that I had already seen via Watch Instantly. I didn’t even think about the idea that I should remove it from my queue–I assumed it would be marked as “watched.” In further checking, I found three other movies that I’d Watched Instantly and were still hanging around my queue, waiting to disappoint me when I open that red envelope.

    Of course, I could just pay more attention to my queue, but who has time for that?

  • Sometimes in the evening, I add a few dashes of cinnamon to my coffee grounds, so I have a flavored cup of coffee for the evening. I know that Bradley considers this heresy, but too bad for him.
  • Writing of Netflix, I’m nearing the end of my “normal” viewing cycle and entering the “preparing for my zombie class” phase, in which I move all the zombie movies to the top of the queue and start churning through them. As a bit of a head start, Finn and I are all set to watch Redneck Zombies tonight.
  • I’m currently using Gallery2 and Drupal as my family blog hosting software. Do others have better advice regarding a good way to have password protected photo galleries? I find Gallery2’s upload interface is a bit clunky.I’ve thought about using Flickr for this, but the need for everyone to log in to see the photos is problematic for me. I don’t want to make the Grandmas manage another account.

My podcasts.  In between audio books, I usually listen to a few hours’ worth of podcasts.  Here’s my current lineup:

  • This American Life.  If I’m listening to a long audio book, I’ll actually take a break to get my TAL fix.  I love it.  The story from “A Bigger Mousetrap” about a boy with Mosaic Downs Syndrome moved me nearly to tears.
  • The Moth.  True stories told on stage without notes.  Entertaining and quick.  I discovered this through TAL.
  • Escape Pod – audio recordings of science-fiction stories.
  • Craphound – the Cory Doctorow podcast.  Sometimes involves readings of books.
  • and finally, this defunct podcast is hilarious: Stop! Police – The Chicago Police Blotter podcast.  I got obsessed with this one and burned my way through all of them in about a week.

And here are some things you should try if you haven’t yet:

  • Portal – an amazing game for PC and XBox. You can buy The Orange Box, which gives you Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 and Portal. Portal itself is worth the $40.
  • BookMooch. My favorite book swapping website.
  • They rule. Everyone’s favorite conspiracy mapper — a flash engine that maps the boards of directors of hundreds of big companies. The interconnections are fascinating. Like my diagram of British TV actors, but closer to your 401K than your TV.
  • Librivox. My favorite public-domain free audiobook site.

Autism’s False Prophets

by Paul A. Offit, M.D.

I decided to read this book in response to two things:

  1. Clancy posted a comment on my blog asking about Finn’s vaccination schedule. I had done enough research to know that we were going to give Finn the full set of recommended vaccines, but I hadn’t done much research into the continuing fracas around vaccines.
  2. The ScienceBlogs Book Club decided to read it this month. Alas, I found out about the choice too late to read the book in time to participate in the discussion.


This book is amazing, and well worth reading. For those who want the quick and dirty, here’s the last paragraph:

The science is largely complete. Ten epidemiological studies have shown MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism; six have shown thimerosal doesn’t cause autism; three have shown thimerosal doesn’t cause subtle neurological problems; a growing body of evidence now points to the genes that are linked to autism; and despite removal of thimerosal from vaccines in 2001, the number of children with autism continues to rise. [emphasis mine] (247)

This last bit reveals the craven motives of some and the blind conviction that someone must be to blame in others as anti-vaccination groups (and clueless celebrities like Jenny McCarthy) continue to espouse this nonsense while children around the country face growing outbreaks of measles and other diseases that we had firmly in control.

I can’t imagine the difficult place a parent of a child with the more severe forms of autism must be in, and I can conceive of wanting to grab onto the hopes offered by the alternative medicine folks, but the science is in–vaccines have nothing to do with autism. And the continued arguments about it do a disservice to us in four ways. First, it distracts autism researchers from working toward real treatments and real understanding of the disease. Second, it endangers autistic children whose parents are tricked by these dubious studies and anecdotes of success into using alternative, expensive, and often dangerous treatments to “cure” the disease (a girl died of chelaton therapy, a dubious practice designed to pull the mercury out of the body). Third, it endangers children whose parents buy into the vaccine-autism link, leaving their children unprotected (many children have been hospitalized and a few have died of measles since this controversy started). Fourth, it endangers our public health as these un-vaccinated children circulate and risk spreading measles and other diseases easily conquered.

A more detailed discussion of the book follows.

Continue reading Autism’s False Prophets


Tim Berners-Lee\'s original WWW server

  • Giving up on my Utopian dream that I would care enough to check my “lists” folder everyday instead of select-all-and-delete-ing it every couple days, I have just unsubscribed from techrhet and WPA-L.  I stay subscribed to INVENT-L, clinging to the hope that I might read it now.
  • Having learned this weekend that a good friend reads my blog every day, I feel pressure now to be awesome.  I’m sure that will fade.
  • A Netflix blunder: I woke up at 3:30am to feed Finn and discovered, to my horror, that the disc of Black Books was series 2, which I’d already seen, instead of series 3, which I wanted.  Horror amplified when I discover that it was my mistake, not Netflix’s, that led to this problem.  BAH!
  • Now that I’m using simpleGTD.com, I’ve jettisoned the stack of inbox/nextaction/home/someday folders that I carried around in my bag.  I’m trying to use project-specific folders to carry necessary documents, instead of these inboxes.

What will they think of next?

So I’m working on a website created by someone else and I’m trying to figure out what font they used for the graphic headers at the top of the page (because, of course, they didn’t put the layered photoshop/fireworks files on the website, so I only have the .gifs). I can’t figure it out from the relatively small assortment of fonts I have available to me.

So I Google “identify a font” and I find this website:

Welcome to Identifont

Welcome to Identifont, the largest independent directory of typefaces on the Internet, with information about fonts from 534 publishers and 144 vendors.

Identify a font

Identify a typeface by answering a series of questions:

And sure enough, eight questions about heights, slants, widths, and textures later, I’ve identified my mystery font as Futura BT.

How cool is that?

Poll mobbing

The amusing note above the poll makes me laugh here. I’m really excited to pick up my copy of Autism’s False Prophets at the library tomorrow–it’s the story of the rise of the bad science and bad reporting that created a false link in the popular consciousness between vaccines and autism.  This poll is about that:

Impressive poll mobbing

Google kicks me in the Ego.

First, with their daily Google updates, which I have set to watch for occurrances of Brendan Riley on the web. I do this because I learned that it can be a handy way to spot when people mention your stuff. Alas, this means that every day I get an update on the writings of Navada Associated Press writer, Brendan Riley. And little else. Occasionally some High School student will win a baseball game and Google will let me know. No one ever mentions ME.

Second, I occasionally check out the server statistics for my website (I’m using 4.5 GB out of 6800 GB/mo bandwidth), and I’m always depressed about what brings people to my site.

Search results for my website

Why isn’t the world all about ME? 8 people searched for me. The rest were looking for all sorts of weird stuff. I get SO many hits because of a student project about the Unabomber. That’s always in the top one or two. Martians is an image.

UPDATE (26 June):

Google Alert

I guess one way to make it more satisfying would be to include my name in my blog posts every day.

Spam that disappoints me

I wish all my emails with amusing subject lines weren’t spam.  Wouldn’t you like to get an email titled “Television Fungus” and find something worthwhile inside?

Irony in email form

An email I received today had both these passages in it.  I’ve added boldface.

Life is short, Break the rules, Forgive quickly, Kiss slowly, Love truly, Laugh uncontrollably, And never regret anything that made you smile.

Send to all the people you love and don’t want to lose in 2007, even me….
If you get 3 back, you are a great friend

Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we’re here we should dance….

And at the bottom of the email was this:

The information in this electronic mail message is the sender’s confidential business and may be legally privileged. It is intended solely for the addressee(s). Access to this internet electronic mail message by anyone else is unauthorized. If you are not the intended recipient, any disclosure, copying, distribution or any action taken or omitted to be taken in reliance on it is prohibited and may be unlawful. The sender believes that this E-mail and any attachments were free of any virus, worm, Trojan horse, and/or malicious code when sent. This message and its attachments could have been infected during transmission. By reading the message and opening any attachments, the recipient accepts full responsibility for taking protective and remedial action about viruses and other defects. The sender’s employer is not liable for any loss or damage arising in any way from this message or its attachments.

My guess is the employer who wants this boilerplate at the bottom of their email also disallows chain emails. heh.