I, Sisyphus, Blogger

Sisyphus was a Greek dude the gods condemn to roll a rock endlessly up a hill.  Albert Camus came along in the 20th century and gave The Myth of Sisyphus an existential twist.  Camus said living is like endlessly rolling a rock up a hill, but if we can find personal purpose while we’re doing something so meaningless we can overcome the meaninglessness of reality.  I think of blogging as chronicling my life of endlessly rolling  a rock up my hill.  I beat the gods by understanding the nature of reality, even if I have no higher metaphysical purpose.  Camus saw the lack of meaning in reality as a form of absurdity, but I don’t.  The randomness of reality might feel like we’re rolling a rock up the same hill over and over again, but we’re not.  Humans have always lied to themselves that we serve God’s purpose to console ourselves with imaginary meaning, but isn’t finding our own purpose in an indifferent multiverse actually more empowering?  Sisyphus was condemned to his task by the gods for having hubris.  A godless reality has condemned us to a short existence of self-awareness in an awe inspiringly huge existence.  Although we are born into the limits of our natural design, it appears we have a mind that will allow us to out think those limits.

Sisyphus-wide

Blogging is not a chore for me, but it does require I make an effort.  In fact, I want to make the best possible effort.  If I don’t, I’m just rolling a rock up a hill.

Blogging has to be more than puking words out through my keyboard.  Blogging is anti-entropic.  This universe is entropic, so overall things are coming apart, but as it does, there are swirling eddies of highly organized anti-entropic events.  Life is one of those events.  Even though I shall return to dust someday, and the atomic elements in my body will dissipate and join less organized states, I exist momentarily in a highly organized, self-aware, anti-entropic state.  I have a window on reality.

We are all windows on reality, observing existence.  I can see why pantheists like to think that everything is God—but that’s an illusion too.  Reality is unaware of itself, only we rare eddies of complexities, swirling in the dust of existence, notice that something is here.  We’re quite insignificant in the scheme of things.  We roll our rocks and then we die.  Our window on reality closes.

Blogging is my way organizing words in highly anti-entropic arrangements about what I see from my window.  We all struggle in our own way against the heat death of the universe.  We each see different views while looking through different windows, but we’re all looking on the same reality.

Each essay I write for this blog is an effort to create order against the tide to disorder.  My body has long past the point of its most organized state, but I believe even though my mind is beginning to come apart, I’m making the most organized observations of my life.  Sometimes the most complex eddies of organization come when larger organized structures are breaking apart.  Creation always comes from destruction. 

There are dynamics to blogging that I’m still learning, and will always be learning.  The medium is sometimes more complex than the messages.  My job is to write.  If I write something interesting, something that’s anti-entropic and interesting from your window of observation, you’ll enjoy what I’ve written.  The more I’m read, the more I’m challenged to write even more interestingly. 

How long can I do this?  Sometime between now and when I die, I’ll run out of mental momentum and my writing will fall apart into disorder.  But until it does, I’ll struggle to write more and more precise observations.  If dementia doesn’t overcome me, I should get better at writing, which is creating ever more ordered anti-entropic essays and observations.

Some days when I sit down to write my mind is not very orderly, and I produce crappy essays.  Other days, something comes together, and the words come out in patterns I didn’t anticipate and I catch a wave to ride, and writing feels like I’m surfing something big and moving.  I know what I do is a product of my conscious and unconscious minds in relationship with the random events of my life.  Life really is like a routine of rolling a rock up a hill over and over again.  It’s seeing the patterns and making the observations that give our meaningless existence an existential fulfillment.

JWH – 7/31/14

Why Blog?

This will be my 671st post.  I must be approaching or just passing my millionth word written, so I think it’s time to evaluate why I blog.  When I started I wrote whatever I felt like and didn’t worry if anyone read what I wrote.  Sometimes I’d ask my wife Susan or a friend to read something, but for the most part I considered my blog a diary that I left around opened.  I’m interested in a lot of things my friends aren’t, so I used blogging as an outlet for discussing various topics I had no one to talk about with.  I guess that might mean I use blogging as kind of therapy.  Blogging is also a great way to practice writing, organize thoughts, and learn to research – sort of junior journalism.  All of these various purposes are great so long as I don’t think too much about being read.

During the last year I’ve been getting more readers.  Mostly by accident.  Sometimes I write about a subject that people are researching on Google, like encrypting files for Dropbox, or science fiction books from the 1950s.  I have a few friends that actually follow what I write, but you can count them on one hand.  I do have 468 followers on WordPress, but I think that’s mostly due other bloggers wanting to attract readership themselves.  But it does make me think about what I write.  If I hit the publish button and hundreds of people get an email then what I write can be an annoyance or entertainment.  That thought has made me delete most of the posts I’ve written lately.

My friend Annie has even been critiquing my posts, with comments like, that one rambled on for far too long, or you didn’t stick to your point, or that topic was boring.  I don’t disagree with her assessments either.  If I’m going to write something people will be reading then I have a responsibility to make it worth reading.  And this presents some problems.

There are three kind of readers on the internet:  browsers, subscribers and searchers.   Some people get to my pages because writers link to me, others subscribe and get everything I write, but most people read what I’ve written because it’s something they Googled or Binged.  Just look at my stats.  (You might need to click on the image to make it large enough to read.)

stats

I get the most  hits for writing about something specific, like a Toshiba netbook or LG Blu-ray player.  But I also write about a lot of topics few people are interested in.

stats2

Most of my favorite essays I’ve written get few readers.  That’s because they are personal and personal essays don’t get hits.

If I want lots of readers then I’d need to write about something that lots of people want to read about.  Well, that doesn’t actually work either.  Writing about what everyone else is writing about gets damn few hits.  The key to getting search engine hits is to write about something few people have written about, but enough people want to read about.

The key to get subscriber hits is to always write about a specific topic and find fans for that topic.

I don’t do ether.  I write about whatever interests me at the moment.  That’s good for me but bad for regular readers, and gets few search engine hits.

What I need to do is decide what kind of writer I want to be – at least when it comes to blogging.

JWH – 6/25/13

Blogging and Novel Writing

I’ve always wanted to write a novel but never had the focus or determination to complete one.  November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWrMo.  The goal of NaNoWrMo is to get would-be novelists to complete a first draft of 50,000 words.  Now that’s about the minimal length of fiction to be called a novel, and most editors usually want twice as many words if you submit to them, but the NaNoWrMo consider 50,000 a good writing marathon for one month’s writing.  Their goal is not for people to complete a polished novel, but just go the distance.  They’ve yet to make December National Novel Rewrite Month, but many bloggers have suggested it. 

Essentially this means knocking out 1,667 words a day of fiction.  I have no trouble writing as many words on a blog post, but fiction is different.  I love blogging and don’t expect to give it up for the month of November.  Blogging is therapeutic for me.  Writing about something that requires research exercises my memory.  And I definitely need help with my memory – it’s slipping away more every day. 

But I want to write a novel.  Of course I’ve been wanting to write a novel since I was in high school over forty years ago.  Rationally I’d think if I hadn’t written one by now I never will.  Well, I’m looking at NaNoWrMo as a shit or get of the pot test.  Either I’ve got to finish a novel now or give up thinking about ever writing one.  All my blogging indicates I like writing essays, which suggests I should work harder to polish that skill.  If I fail to produce a first draft in November that’s what I will do – but for now I want to give it one more try.

What I should do is publish my daily NaNoWrMo work here but that might screw up my chances of getting the novel published in the future.  I’ve read that most authors have to write several novels before the get one good enough to publish, so maybe I’m being too protective of my first first draft.  Also, I believe, and this might be naive, that I’ve got a unique science fiction idea and and I don’t want to spoil it by letting people read a first draft.  However, I might be willing to show versions of the opening here as a marketing research to see if anyone responds.

Working on a novel will seem strange though.  My blogging is about watching the world and reacting.  It’s about looking outward.  Novel writing is about looking inward and creating everything from scratch.  That might be why I’ve never been able to write a novel.  I’ve written about 30 short stories and even 5,000-12,000 words are an agony to produce.  I recently put my best effort online and it sank like a stone.  Writing non-fiction is engaging – writing fiction is lonely.

I haven’t signed up with NaNoWrMo yet, and I still might chicken out.  The idea of coming home from work every evening and turning off the world, shunning all my favorite hobbies to focus on one activity is scary.  I love my evening routine.  Writing fiction will be like working two jobs.  So why do it?  I don’t know.  I read a lot of fiction and I’ve always wanted to create a fictional work of art.  It’s like going to a party and always listening to everyone else talk.  Writing a novel would be like having my say.

JWH – 10/18/11

Blogging by Candlelight and Paper

I started this blog last night while the power was out, writing with pen on paper by candlelight.  My power was out just 45 hours, but some people on my block still don’t have power.  I think after the storm Monday as many as 60,000 homes were affected.  We’ve had our power out as long as 13 days here in Memphis.  Memphis is a sea of trees if seen from the air, and when we get high speed windstorms lots of them blow over.  Down the street I saw where one tree fell and knocked another over.  My power was out because on the next block over a tree fell on the power line and pulled the pole over and the wires down.  Two houses over they had their power line pulled off their house.

The first night without power my nephew was visiting and we sat up playing rummy by candlelight, but he left first thing in the morning, to continue on his trip from Portland, Oregon to Lake Worth, Florida.  I thought my power was going to be out until Friday, so I was bucking up for two more nights of darkness and cold but MLGW fixed me.  Having these incidents are very educationally, and even though I hate when things like this happens I try to make the best of them.

I spent a lot of time last night thinking about being addicted to the grid.  I found plenty to do in the dark.  I have an iPod touch with 22 unabridged audio books on it.  I also found an old Walkman and a box of old time radio shows on cassette, so I listened to a 1950 episode of Philip Marlowe Detective.  But I spent most of the evening thinking about how we live on the power-water-gas-information grid and how ill-prepared we are for when things go wrong.

When I came home yesterday I had plan to take my frozen food to my friends house, but by then it had gone mushy.  I had to toss out most of what was in the refrigerator and all the stuff from the freezer compartment.  So I started thinking about how I would eat for three days.  I figured I could eat out, or buy food that doesn’t require refrigeration.  I didn’t want to mess with an ice chest because we had just thrown away two that had gone mildewy.   A neighbor a few doors down was running a very loud gas powered generator, and I thought about buying one of those for the future but I decided against it too.  I hate the noise.  It does protect the food but they take a lot of gas, so I figure it would be a breakeven deal.

What I wanted was more light.  I had three flashlights, two candles in glass lanterns and a giant block candle with seven wicks, but even with nine flames I didn’t have enough light to read comfortably.  I once read a wonderful book about America in the 1800s and it chronicled how people’s lives were changed by the technology evolving past candle light.  Whale oil made a huge difference.  I did some research on Amazon and found there are LED lanterns now, so I’m going to order one of them to be prepared for future blackouts.

I also wanted a radio or TV to listen to the news.  I have two Walkman cassette players with AM/FM/TV tuners, but the TV part doesn’t work anymore since they phased out analog signals.  And I couldn’t find any news on the AM/FM bands.  I didn’t have much patience though.  I plan to buy one of those emergency radios that have a crank to recharge the batteries and l want learn which radio stations are worth tuning before the next power outage.

Some of these emergency radios have hand cranks that will charge a phone or USB gadgets.  My cell phone ran out of power just after the storm.  This event taught me to keep my phone and gadgets well charged, keep the dishes washed up, and don’t let the dirty clothes pile up either. 

Luckily the house only got down to 60 degrees – just a touch cold.  I put on a hoody jacket and slept in my clothes under one patchwork quilt and was fine.  I have been in the house without power in the dead of winter and in August, so it could have been much worse.  But being addicted to a favorite temperature is a bad habit to have.

Most of all I was annoyed by having my routine disrupted.  That’s really being a pussy I know, but I’m a man who loves his rut.  If I owned an iPhone 4 instead of an iPod touch I think I would have felt connected to the net and felt less of a sense of net withdrawal.  The funny thing is I saw this PBS show last Friday about a family in England being forced to live with 1970s technology.  I never would have thought the 70s as the old days, but when I saw how different they had to live I realized how much life has changed just in my lifetime.

I tried to imagine what life was like for Jane Austen at the beginning of the 19th century, two hundred years ago.  No toilets, electricity, running water, central heat and air, safe foods, etc.  Dark was dark back then.  If I only had candles last night and none of my gadgets I would have been closer to Jane Austen times.  What the hell did they do in the evenings?

Just listening to the old time radio tapes reminded me of stories my mother and father told me about how they grew up.  Radio shows aren’t very sophisticated entertainment – and neither is television once you get used to the internet.  I think our modern minds have become addicted to complex stimulation.  Listening to the Philip Marlowe mystery was quaint but I’d hate to return to those simple story days.

Since I gave up cable last year my wife constantly searches the local channels for something to watch when she’s in town.  She likes to watch Antenna TV, a channel with old TV shows from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  I loved The Monkees as a kid, but seeing it now makes me wonder if I was mentally handicapped as a teen.  I grew up back then but I wouldn’t want to return to such primitive entertainment.  I can’t imagine what young people today think of us when they see such shows.  But then I was talking to a young woman (in her thirties) and she told me how much she loved The Adams Family because it was something fun to watch with her 4 year old daughter.

Of course I did a lot of thinking about the poor people in Japan who are having their routine lives diverted for probably months if not years.  I was having no trouble adapting to life without power – it’s not life threatening, but I wouldn’t want to go all Thoreau and choose such a lifestyle.  I’m reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and he makes living out in nature sound exciting and romantic, but reading between the lines I don’t think the desert heat comes through well in just words.

I also thought about what it would take to live with less, and wondered how much less is acceptable.  Could I live without the Internet?  Sure, but I really wouldn’t like it, but that’s weird to think about.  Why is the Internet so important?  I spend  Sunday afternoon to Friday evening living alone, so I use the Internet to socialize at night.  The computer, phone and TV make me feel in touch with the world and people.  If we fell back to Jane Austen times, work would be my only social contact and I’d probably read in the evenings.  I’m too tired after work to be socially active.  But if we didn’t have this modern world I don’t suppose my wife would be working out of town.

I wonder what our married lives should be like without our electronic addictions?  And yes, my wife has her addictions too, like Farmville and Angry Birds.  When Nicky was visiting we talked, and then we played cards.  I can see how simple games like chess, checkers and cards could be so valuable to people in the old days.

My first night back with electricity I’m typing my blog, listening to Miles Davis’ “So What” from Kind of Blue and enjoying unnatural light and heating.  I just got in the 5th season of Friday Night Lights, one of my all time favorite TV shows to watch later, and I’m back in my routine.  However, I’m not as inspired to write like I was last night.  See, being forced to do something different has it’s educational value.  Thinking about being out of my rut was stimulating in itself.  I should try to do it more often.  Yeah, right.

JWH – 4/6/11

Lessons from Blogging

Exercise for my flabby memory is the top reason why I put so much time writing on these blogs.  If I go too long without writing, I’ll notice that I’m forgetting more words in day to day conversations – I have to keep writing to fight the decline of my mind.  But am I writing anything worthy of reading?  I have no trouble thinking up zillions of things to write about, but are my random inspirations really interesting to anyone but me?

I wished I had the discipline to knock out one 1,000 word essay each night, and only in an hour.  What a fantastic workout in my word gym!  I’m lucky to finish two essays a week, each taking 4-8 hours.  And that doesn’t count the two to three abortive pieces each week I don’t finish.

Every evening when I sit down to write, I hope to have an idea that I’ve been contemplating all the day to polish.  It helps if I’m thinking clearly and not tired, which means I need to keep my body in shape.  Sometimes when I’m tired, focusing on an idea will generate energy, so it helps to try to write.  I wish I could say that I’m always inspired by my topic, and it allows me to chisel out one clear expression of a carefully considered thought. 

What really happens is I start with one vague concept that causes me to vomit out a torrent of words as fast as I can, which I shape by rewriting several drafts.  As I write, I research with Google, hoping to find concrete pieces of information to support my ideas.  Between struggling to retrieve lost words, phrases and memories out of my own noggin, I trawl the net looking for new words and verifications of poorly remembered details.  Often I use Google to find the words I can’t recall by searching on related ideas.

I’m sure if I didn’t write these essays, my mind would turn to mush.  Rereading my essays I realize I have a long ways to go towards developing coherent structured writing.  So a new theory has occurred to me about blogging.  What if writing is more beneficial than just strengthening my ability to recall words.  What other lessons am I learning from my WordPress exercising?

It’s quite easy to blather away about anything, but that’s not good neural exercise.  And, quite often I might mention, I’ll tackle a subject that’s either too big for a blog post, or beyond my ability to define clearly, and I’ll have to abandon the project.  Finishing a piece is part of the healthy process, and giving up on an idea leaves me feeling the same way as when I’m having a conversation and I can’t find that damn word I want. 

Up to now, I’ve mostly been working to express an idea that quickly flashed by in my brain.  Sometimes, if I write about a specific topic I’ll do a lot of research to gather facts, like when I write about subscription music services.  This gives me a taste for journalism.  Just a small taste, but enough to realize the work required to write non-fiction.  Opinion essays can be as creative as writing fiction, but both are way to easy to do badly.

The next question is:  Do I write anything useful for other people to read?  If all I’m doing is exercising my wimpy brain, why would a reader care?  My life is no more interesting than anyone else’s, so why would anyone want to read my thoughts?  I think the next stage in the evolution of my writing, I should think about each essay as a product that is useful in some way.  Since my product is free, I don’t actually have to worry about it’s monetary cost to readers, but I personally consider time, extremely valuable, so I don’t want to waste your time.

That means the next challenge I work on learning from blogging is to write 5-10 minute essays that are well worth their cost in time.  That’s quite a challenge, one I’m not sure I can achieve.

Looking at my statistics tell me which essays have been more successful than others.  I know from the WordPress stats that I have around 20-25 people subscribing to my blog as a RSS feed, and 200-300 people finding their way to my pages accidently, through Google and other search engines, or by links put up on various blogs that are kind enough to list Auxiliary Memory.  It is flattering that people actually read my blog at all, so I feel a responsibility to write something time-worthy.

When I think of all the great books and magazine articles I read, I can’t believe people would waste their time on any blog, much less mine.  And there are thousands of blogs better than mine.  I have to assume that there is a quality to blogs that people like that they don’t find in regular magazines.  Or I have to wonder if people only read blogs because they are like kudzu growing over the net, choking up search engine returns, just too visible to ignore.

Learning about what people want to read will be my second lesson from blogging.  My most popular essay is, “The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century,” with over 10,000 hits total, and getting 30-60 more each day.  In other words, I’ve accidently picked a topic that a small number of people want to know about daily.  If you search on that title in Google, I’m 3rd in the returns at the moment, after two links to books at Amazon.com.

This doesn’t say anything about the quality of my essay.  I’ve just hit the right combination of words and ideas to be rated high with Google, and the topic has a steady interest.  I call that “topic background radiation.”  Occasionally I’ll write about something that people have a time related interested in, like the Toshiba NB205 netbook, which just came out and I immediately reviewed.  I’ve gotten 74 hits on that one so far today.  When the Toshiba NB205 gets outdated, those numbers will drop off.  But until then, was my review useful?  I know I solved one lady’s problem, with her new netbook.

Generally, I talk about my reading.  For instance, I wrote a weird take on “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.  I’ve gotten almost a 1,000 hits on that one, trickling in at 3-4 a day, which is a revealing topic background radiation.  I’m guessing it is a story used in schools for discussion, because I’ve written on far more famous SF novels, and their topic background radiation is very low, like 1-2 a week. 

Of course, this all depends on how Google ranks my page.  For some reason, I’m in the first page of returns for “The Veldt,” but on the second page for Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, two books I think are very worthy of reading but seldom get hits at all.  Or is that because people seldom go past the first page of Google returns when searching for a review?  And if someone is thinking about reading one of those books, did I say anything to help them make their decision?

Once in a blue moon I’ll accidentally mention something that’s in the news, like the Kindle Reader for the iPhone.  That post got scads of hits for a day or two, and hardly ever got called into reading action since.

If I wanted to just get hits, I would go to Google Zeitgeist everyday and pick a topic.  Why are “basking sharks” and “raging elephants” so interesting on July 14th, 2009?  And who the hell are Shane Carwin and Lisa Loring?  Shows my lack of pop culture knowledge.  It is quite doubtful that Google will rank my page within its first 100 returned just because I mention those hot search names and phrases.  It’s not that easy to get noticed.  And God knows, many people try.  For what value are hits, really?  There’s no guarantee that people read what they hit on.

Take this essay, for example.  What value is it?  Because I’m not reviewing a book, movie or computer product, I’m pretty sure it won’t get many hits at all.  Hopefully, I haven’t bored my handful of regular readers, but have I given them anything worth their time?  If anything, I’ve taught them not to read blogs but write them, it’s good memory exercise.  If I had some quantitative way of proving writing blogs helps with memory, I might have a good article.  Readers love self-help topics.

Here’s something to consider that might be worth your minutes spent here reading.  If everyone read a little each evening, but only read the absolute best essays and articles, the English speaking world would only need ten monthly magazines, but let’s stretch that to one hundred for reading variety and the coverage of the diversity of sub-cultures.  All writers would compete to write the very best essays and articles each month to sell to those one hundred editors.  Everything else could be considered crap and thus time unworthy.

So why read off the web?  Because it allows you to read exactly what you want to read, at the moment you choose.  It’s pitiful to think that any of my essays come up on the first page of Google returns.  If you search on the phrase “The Time Machine by H. G. Wells” my essay comes up 5th.  It really shouldn’t.  The real lesson from tonight, is why the very best essays ever written on any topic, aren’t the ones that Google links to in your search.

JWH – 7/14/9

My Life on a Hard Drive

I wanted to call this essay, “My Life on a Terabyte Drive” because it sounded cooler and more specific, but then I’m thinking about buying a netbook and they only come with 160 gigabytes of hard drive space, something less glamorous to say in a title.  I can’t even fit my music collection on that, so it wouldn’t be true either.  If you read to the end of this essay, you’ll see I could have called it, “My Memory Book,” but that title wouldn’t mean anything to you until I explained it all. 

Either at work, or with friends, I’ve had to help many people move their personal data from one computer to another.  When I started this kind of support years ago, all I needed was one floppy.  The last time I moved my stuff to a new machine, I bought a 750gb USB drive.  No, I didn’t need to fill it up, at least not then.  My Mozy.com account says I have 193.3gb backed up with them, but that’s only my life from one of three home computers, and I’ve yet to complete the epic task of scanning all my family photos.

When I contemplate putting my life on a hard disk many fanciful ideas come to mind.  I like to compare this goal to mind uploading, a science fictional concept that deals with transferring a person’s personality to a computer.  I first wrote about this idea in “My Life in 75 Megabytes,” which lets you know how long I’ve been thinking about this concept.  Back then my own expanding universe was much smaller, and could fit on a zip disk.

I find I have seven discrete concepts I’d like to explore in this essay:

  1. What goes into a digitized life?
  2. How is a digital life organized?
  3. How do we synced ourselves across many machines?
  4. What role does the media player play?
  5. How to we span living across local and network drives?
  6. What do we need to protect our digital memory?
  7. And do our files define our personality?

Thinking about buying a netbook that will be my carry-around auxiliary mind, a Mini-Me, so to say, I’d like to think about it’s full theoretical potential.  Let’s just play with the idea of what we’d like to have on a computer if one day we found ourselves orphaned from home with only the clothes on our back and a computer in our hand.

What Goes Into a Digitized Life?

Photographs have been the primary artifact that people want to protect and preserve.  Photographs are what people cry over the most when their CPU bytes the big one.  Next up is music files, either ripped, stolen or DRMed.  Few people stuff their machines with essays and fiction like me, but many folks like to maintain a wordy autobiography in the form of an email archive.  A few $-minded souls, horde tax records like misers.  And I’m starting to see hard drives become the new shoebox for home videos.  I myself, have hundreds of audio books that I’ve tediously ripped from cassette tapes and CDs that I’d hate to lose.  My wife wants to preserve video games, and their activation codes.  I’ve met a few people who maintain databases of things they love to collect.  When it comes down to it, there’s an almost endless variety of things people junk up their hard drives with and want to save forever.

All this digital junk can be broken down into two extremely distinct types:  Unique, owner created data, that can’t be found anywhere else, and copies of stuff other people created, either received free, stolen or bought.  It’s far more painful to have a laptop stolen with five years of digital snapshots than one with hundreds of dollars worth of songs bought from iTunes.

For the purpose of this essay, let’s not worry about the actual size of the hard drive on your buddy computer, but instead imagine this device will contain everything you want to save that can be digitized and if found in 30 years by your grandchildren, or 300 years by a scholar of the 21st century history, would make a statement about who you are.  Think about this super-netbook as your library of personally created data, plus copies of your favorite songs, books, audiobooks, movies, TV shows, paintings, poems, short stories, novels, etc.  Just think of it as the memory you wished your neurons could records.

The File Structure of Our Lives

I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into someone else’s computer and tried to extract what they desperately want to save, but it’s a fascinating task.  Microsoft, Apple and Linus all make provisions for storing user documents in a specified place, but users do their damnedest to squirrel important files all over their drives.  And even when they stick to the Home directory concept, everyone creates their own folder structure and naming system.  In recent years the idea of standard music and photo folders have emerged, which is great, but I think we need to convene a panel of Nobel prize winning eggheads to develop a worldwide standard, to be used across all OS systems, so future archeologists poking through our private digital junkyards can easily find our treasured entombed memories, and make sense of them.

We need to organize our auxiliary brains and keep them tidy for ourselves too, because as we toss more stuff into our net noggins, finding what we want becomes harder and annoying.  I love the fact that most applications in Windows now open My Documents as default when you mouse click Open File.  It drives me nuts that people want to override this and put their crap all over the desktop or in folders they created off of the root drive. 

I’m also glad Microsoft simplified “My Documents,” “My Music,” and “My Pictures” into Documents, Music and Pictures.  But now we need to expand on that to include Videos, Movies, Books and other categories.  This is where things get tricky, where arguments start, and OS turf wars begin.  Under “Jim” on my Vista machine I have:

  • Desktop
  • Downloads
  • Links
  • Pictures
  • Searches
  • Documents – Shortcut
  • Contacts
  • Documents
  • Favorites
  • Music
  • Saved Games
  • Videos

This is how Microsoft divides my life, and they’ve made some mysterious choices to me.  I wish I had a Mac so I could see how Steve Jobs wants the same job accomplished.  Ubuntu just gives me a home folder, leaving me free to make my own decisions from there   Since our computer will define our personality and I said we could save anything digital document that defines us, this means the home folder will become a library of digital files.  I’m not sure if the structure set out by Microsoft is a workable Dewey Decimal system for this task though.

What folder do I file my digital audio books?  Where do I put my ebooks or .pdf files for magazines and articles?  And should I save Gattaca, my favorite science fiction movie under Videos, the same place where I would store my home made clips?  And if I collected favorite YouTube videos, should they also be filed with my personal videos?

I think we need to rethink the \Home\ folder concept.  \Jim\ should be just for documents I created, and another folder called \Library\ should be used for all files I collect that were created by other people.  And the two might even have sub-folders with the same titles, like \Videos\,  \Photos\ and \Music\.  (That’s assuming I become more creative than I am now.)  Thus the new \Jim\ might contain these sub-folders:

  • Audioclips
  • Banking
  • Blogs
  • Bookmarks
  • Data
  • Diary
  • Emails
  • Essays
  • Fiction
  • HTML
  • Lists
  • Medical
  • Numbers
  • Photos
  • Timeline
  • Video

This isn’t perfect yet, but I hope you see where I’m going.  Under \Library\ I might have these sub-folders:

  • Art
  • Audiobooks
  • Books
  • Lectures
  • Magazines
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Photographs
  • Podcasts
  • Television
  • Video

In my personal folder, I have Photos, for those I take, but Photographs under Library, for pictures I buy.  Art would be for digitized artwork I like.  My desktop gallery program could be set to pull from Art, Photos and Photographs.

How to Keep our Digital Life Synced?

I have two desktop machines and laptop at home, and various iPod and MP3 players, including a iPod touch, and I’m planning to buy a netbook.  Plus I have several computers at work with years of programming code I created that I never want to loose.  At work I have USB drive I brought from home that has a backup of all my home files, but in particularly, my music library so I can play songs at work.  At times I also bring USB drives home, so my work is backed up.

The absolute ideal file storage solution would a 100% reliable gigabit network to a federally protected online databank with all my computers accessing one file system library that was perfectly safe until the Sun goes nova.  Plus, my data would be preserved for ever and ever, even after I died, for historical researchers.  I’m watching The Tudors – don’t you wish the producers of the show had access to Henry’s and Anne’s home directories?

Unfortunately, we don’t have such an ideal solution.  The trend is toward owning multiple computers, and by computer I also mean cell phone, iPod, and even video game units, anything that processes and stores digital data you create.   And we’re already seeing syncing solutions.  You can backup cell phone directories to your home computer, or if you have an iPhone, you can get your email, contacts and calendar from an Exchange server at work, thus syncing your phone numbers in one database.

In fact, the iPhone is a marvelous device, in that it can sync songs, photos, audiobooks, television shows, movies and other files from your mothership desktop to your lifeboat phone.  Apple doesn’t seem to like the concepts of netbooks, hoping you will use an iPhone/touch instead.  However, I find their amazing little screen too small to be my carry-around computer companion.

The Role of the Media Player

iTunes is also a fascinating program and concept.  It’s a program that attempts to manage the \Library\ portion of your file system, and a media player for playing songs, television shows, movies and audiobooks from your library.  With a bit of tweaking from Apple, it theoretically could handle my Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher and PDF documents too, if we wanted one file librarian to manage all my computer files, including the personally created \Jim\ files too.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Right now we generally have one program that creates each kind of content, such as a word processer for writing, a spreadsheet for playing with numbers, a database for handling data in tables, a publishing program for making magazine content, web editors for creating web pages, audio programs for recording voice, and so on.  But on the other hand, there are two classes of programs emerging that show us the results of what these other programs produce.  The first general class of file viewers is the web browser for looking at data files on the net, and the second program is the media librarian for looking at files on your computer.

I’m not sure if media librarians are a good idea or not.  They are designed to make life easier for the user and isolate the user from knowing about the file system.  The entire Macintosh philosophy seems to follow this belief too, that things are easier if you keep the user from needing to know too much about the file system.  I’m not sure that’s a good educational goal.  Both the web browser and media librarian work to replace the operating system.  An emerging class of Linux netbooks work to create an easy-to-use visual menu that sits on top of the OS and hides things from the user too.

The trouble is, if users work directly with the file system and double clicks on one, whether word processor document, or mp3 music file, those files will be launched into an editor program, rather than a player program, assuming the user created the files.  Media librarians like iTunes, Windows Media Player, Rhapsody, Audible Manager are great for organizing and playing certain kinds of files, producing playlists, sharing media with other users, etc.  The trouble is to select one universal media library program that does everything perfectly.

When I download an audiobook from Audible.com, it goes into my iTunes and Audible Manager, and I can have it also go into my Windows Media Player.  Sometimes the download gets messed up and the audiobook doesn’t get filed in one of the players.  So I have to find the file and manually add it to the library.  iTunes files all MP3 files under Music, so songs and ripped audio books get mixed together.  That annoys me.

Plus iTunes only wants to work with iPods, so it doesn’t help me when I use my Zune.  But then my Zune Media player won’t have anything to do with my iPods.  And all my media librarians fight to own my MP3 collection of 18,000+ songs.  It’s a huge pain.  I also have multiple programs willing to play my videos too, but none are universal, thus I have to have specialty programs like Amazon Unbox to view videos bought from Amazon.

Right now you can set Windows to launch any program you choose for a particular file extension.  Thus if I have Rhapsody set for .mp3, it will launch when I click on a song or an audiobook or a podcast, all of which share the .mp3 extension.  I wish Windows would allow a folder override to this system, so for \Audiobooks\ I could set Audible Manager as a my player, and for \Music\ I could set Windows Media Player, and for \Podcasts\ I could set iTunes.

Now that we’re slowly moving away from DRM enslaved files, we will be less reliant on media librarian programs like iTunes.  Also, why does your favorite program to play songs also have to be your program to load songs onto a MP3 player?  And why can’t I have one librarian for all my devices, including iPods, Creative MP3 players, Zune, phone and netbooks?  Every portable device has a limited amount of storage space, so wouldn’t it be great to have a librarian on my largest computer that could talk to all my lesser computers and help me manage a subset of files I want to maintain on each?

I would love a librarian where I could rate my content 1-10, whether songs, movies or word documents, and then when I plug in a portable device, the librarian would show me how much that device can handle by telling me, “This device can hold all content rated 8 and above, would you like me to load it?”  Or I could set it to always load personally created data first, then songs as a second priority, and only sync television marked unseen, and to manually sync movies.

Even still, I’m not sure I like one program to do everything for me.  I like choice.  I like the Unix philosophy of having a tool for each job.  I think I’d prefer to pick each app that played each kind of file.  That way I could have the perfect ebook reader for me that might be different from my perfect music player.   Hell, I might like one kind of MP3 player for playing albums, another for playing playlists, another for random playing of songs, and even another program where I play and manage my all-time favorite 1,001 tunes.  And all of these would work from the same \Music\ folder structure.  I’d also like a program that would generate reports on the \Music\ folder by listing all albums, artists and tracks, and keep statistics on each.  I have no idea how many albums I own, even though they are all on a computer.

Hard Disk Driving versus Network Driving

As the Internet get better, meaning faster and with more features, space on our local hard drives will be needed less, until we only need to store personally created data.  If Rhapsody’s library had every song my personal music library did, I’d never mess with a \Music\ folder again.  If the network was fast and always dependable, I wouldn’t even worry about putting songs, television and movies on my devices because I’d just stream them from Lala, Rhapsody, Pandora, Zune, Netflix and Amazon.  A netbook with a 160gb hard drive would be fine and dandy as my auxiliary brain until I took too many photos or videos.  And if I could store unlimited photos and videos reliably online, I’d again be free of hard drive space limitations.

If the the broadband and the network were that great I wouldn’t even need a \Library\ file system at all.  However, any experience with flaky network connections will make you horde your favorite content locally.

There’s a reason why they call these cute little computers netbooks.  They are gadgets designed to depend on the Internet for their content.  I’ve never wanted a smartphone because I’ve never wanted to pay a broadband cell phone bill, but I’d be much more likely to want broadband service with a netbook.  And all the cell phone providers are quickly ramping up to sell netbooks with two-year broadband contracts. 

Laptops were supposed to be on-the-go computing, but they have been too big, too expensive and don’t last long enough on a charge, to be the always on-the-go computers.  I just don’t want to carry an expensive laptop everywhere, afraid I might break it, lose it, or have it stolen, but I might carry a $350 machine everywhere I went, especially if it’s charge would last all day like a cell phone, and I could get access to the net.

I’ve set up a half-dozen netbooks so far, all for women who want these purse size computers.  I’ve had several grown women in my office all squealing like girls over purple and pinkness.  They don’t even understand the potential of netbooks, all they see is pretty and purse-able.  They even buy netbooks with their own money for work use.  I’ve talked to other women that bought them for home use at Walmart or from the Home Shopping Channel, and they tell me their kids are buying them too.  Netbooks are hot.  $250-$400 seems to be the right price for portable computing.

I’m waiting for 8 hours of battery life, which many models have now, and better video processing, which is coming this fall.  I’d also like faster processing and I’m torn on deciding between a 10” or 12” screen, and what resolution it should have.  I’ve set up a Dell Mini 10 with 1366×768 resolution that’s super sharp but teeny tiny  But the Dell’s was properly proportioned at the resolution, something not true of all netbook screens I’ve seen.  I hate squashed or stretched fonts!  

Netbooks are getting very close to showing 1080p video, so they will make great on-the-road theaters that can replace portable DVD players and iPods, plus they make great Skype video phones.  Combined with broadband and Bluetooth headsets, they can be cell phones too.  The implications for this auxiliary brain as a communications tool is immense.

Backing Up is Hard To Do

As we put more of our life on our netbooks, or should we steal a trademark, our Lifebooks, it will be vital to back them up.  If netbooks are synced with desktop computers, that’s one level of backup.  Asus even sells their netbooks with 10gb of online storage.  And there is always services like Mozy.com that backup files to Internet servers.  But the main thing to remember, these devices will become our heads we can lose, and we’ll hate the day we experience a digital lobotomy.  I’ve always said the Internet is our real sixth sense, and netbooks will only reinforce this belief.  Once we all got addicted to electrical devices like computers and televisions, we’d get pissed when electricity went off.  After I became dependent on the net, I actually get jumpy and depressed when the net goes down.  If we become addicted to our little buddy computers we carry everywhere, losing one will be painful indeed.  Like losing part of ourselves.  Being able to quickly replicate our digital life onto a replacement netbook will be extremely important.

Do Our Files Reflect Our Personality?

If a team of psychologists with AI tools, found my future netbook with all my writing and all my favorite photos, art, books, movies, television shows, songs, on it, could they analyze the content and produce a description of my personality?  If netbooks had been around for hundreds of years, and we could study the content of our ancestors, how much would we know about them?  My father died when I was 19, and there has always been so much I’ve wondered about him.  I would love to have a copy of his auxiliary brain.

Also, imagine kids starting school with netbooks and keeping all their schoolwork, photos and videos they make throughout their K-12 careers.  Boy, I wished I had such a childhood treasure.  I wished I had taken photos of all my classmates, all my classrooms, hallways, schools and teachers.  I wish I had taken photos of all the homes I lived in, with photos of all the rooms, furniture and the streets I walked.  We always focused our cameras on families and friends, but I wished I had also taken photos of objects, like houses, rooms, streets, cars of my life, to aid my memory.  I’ve forgotten so much that I’d love to recall.  Maybe it has little true value, because I did forget all that stuff, but now I wish I had more evidence of my earlier life.  I wish I had photos of every dog and cat I owned.  I can barely picture my furry friends now, mostly just recall their names, like Blacky, Chief or Mike, and some I can’t even remember, which is sad.

I seriously doubt there is much real detail to download from our brains, if such a science fictional reality is ever possible.  I don’t know if personality profiles can be resurrected from netbooks, but I think my sense of personal history would be much stronger, and my self awareness, far more vivid, if my poor old brain had more solid evidence.

The Future of Netbooks

Thinking about these seven concepts of how we could store our life digitally and have it readily at hand, to help us with day-to-day activities, makes me picture all kinds of possibilities for netbooks.  I doubt our futures will include jacks in the back of our skulls like the people in the movie, The Matrix, but the netbook could become the mind-computer interface between ourselves and the net. 

With Bluetooth, we could have cell phone like headsets, so we could make calls, but also use our netbooks for dictating voice recordings, to aid our memory with verbal annotations.  Photo and video cameras could be combined with Bluetooth so anything we snap or video is immediately recorded to our external brains.  Medical monitoring devices could be combined with Bluetooth, netbooks and broadband for new kinds of health tracking and assessment.  Netbooks will only expand social networking, and if our youthful population is so close now because of cell phones, think what constant video phoning will do to their generation.

Netbooks might finally bring us into the age of videophone that’s been predicted by science fiction since Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon entertained tykes in the 1930s in the Sunday funnies.  Computer pundits thought we’d all be wearing computers by now, but maybe a good device that’s easy to carry will do instead.  This makes me predict purses will become common for men, at least leather over-the-shoulder pouches, or we’ll see more men with messenger bags.  But netbooks are so easy to carry, they may never get to far from our hands.

If netbooks had reversible LCD touch screens as a standard feature, so they could function like Tablet PCs, netbooks could replace the emerging ebooks devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader.  Right now I find it easiest to carry a cell phone in my pants pocket and a Zune in my shirt pocket, one for phone service the other for audiobooks.  But if I have a netbook with me wherever I go, or nearby, then all I would need to carry on my person is a Bluetooth headset.  Should I predict the demise of the iPhone and iPod?

The deciding factors on buying a netbook is how big the screen and keyboard, and whether or not they are useable for long periods of typing and reading.  I bought an iPod touch to be my carry around computer, but I didn’t like typing with a single finger, and the screen was too small for browsing the web.  It’s pretty nice for reading text email, terrible for HTML email, very nice for checking movie times and looking at previews, pleasant for reading ebooks, although I might like a slightly larger screen, and very nice for Pandora and Wolfgang’s Vault. 

When netbooks first burst on the scene in 2007, their appeal included solid state storage over spinning hard drives, so, “My Life on a Hard Drive” might be a poor title soon, but if spinning drives disappear, I predict we’ll still call solid state devices hard drives too.  Technology is evolving away from moving parts, so we might eventually call netbooks, memory books, the name I want to use for them.  If the right technology pans out, and the right pricing for broadband emerges, memory books might be very common indeed. 

What will you put on your memory book?  How will you organize it.  How can a memory book improve your life?  A good portion of our population has been able to avoid the computer revolution, but if a memory book becomes so personally useful, will anyone choose to be a Luddite in this revolution?  As I age, and my memory falters and skips, being able to query a memory book becomes a very useful mental crutch.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  Will it make me weaker or stronger?

I do know organizing my thoughts for this blog helps me retain words, and even learn to use new words.  Writing these blogs help me refine and distinguish discrete ideas and concepts.  In the past year I’ve met a number of people, usually young, who have asked me what my favorite movies, books and songs are, and I had a hard time making a quick list.  That disturbs me.  Maybe if I constantly worked to maintain a library of favorites on my memory book, or even just keep my memory book handy and constantly annotated a list of favorites, I would feel better.  Who knows, I might not even need to open my memory book, but my real memory of such lists would be fresh enough to have something to say in casual conversations.

I don’t know if my memory weakness is normal for someone my age, or if it portends Alzheimer’s in future years.  My wife already gets impatient with my slowness to respond, and hates when I tell her she better start acquiring more patience in case I get worse.  “You better not,” she warns me.  Having a memory book might become the glasses of my memories someday.  Or my memory book might become a very large hand to write notes on.  Or it my memory book might become a gym to exercise my neurons.   This is all fascinating to consider, and I can’t wait to test out these ideas.  I’m just not ready to buy a netbook yet.

JWH – 6/28/9

Fuel For Writing

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on Auxiliary Memory.  I’ve started several essays but never finished any.  I also started a diet. I’ve notice over the years that there’s a relationship between calories and the number of words I produce.  Cookies, cokes, cakes and candy fuel my mind for writing.  Dieting leaves my brain lethargic, suitable only for watching TV.  And man have I been watching TV this past two weeks!  I’ve seen 33 episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  I had to boost my Netflix from 1 disc at a time to 3 to keep up with my hunger for more shows, watching up to 4 episodes a night.

The difference between being active and passive is junk food.  But since I’ve ballooned to 237 pounds I can’t keep feeding my creative drive.  And those healthy fruits and vegetables just don’t stoke the fire to crank out words.  I’ve got to find some kind of discipline to get back into writing.  Without sweet calories, I guess I need to learn how to push myself by will-power alone.

Of course, I’ve got to ask myself why write at all?  Not to mention the fact that I’ve been mentally beating myself up for the last couple years for writing on the blog instead of working on fiction.  Blog writing is like practicing the piano.  It’s very good for mental health.  For the last decade I’ve been forgetting more and more words, and even how to pronounce them.  When I started blog writing that boosted my ability to remember.

Getting old has other side affects besides the slowing of brain access speeds.  There is a tendency to solidify thoughts in old age, so if you’re not careful you’ll parrot your frozen opinions whenever a response is needed.  Exploring concepts in a blog helps break down comfortable old opinions into their basic parts so you can start over and remodel the rooms in your brain.

All this new thinking requires energy and time.  My best time to write is mornings, but Monday through Friday I have work, and often on the weekends I have personal obligations.  Writing at night requires lots of extra calories.  The obvious solution is to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and write before work, but right now I don’t have that kind of discipline.  My body naturally wants to sleep until 6:30 am when the cats start meowing for their breakfast.

There are alternative fuels for writing.  Sometimes playing loud music can stimulate my brain cells.  Other times reading an inspiring article and taking a short nap to digest the thoughts will get me to jump up and start writing.  I’ve never had the mental energy to write like a professional writer, that is to stick to writing like working a 9 to 5.  Real writers can write when they’re not in the mood, or when they lack the energy.  Real writers can’t not write, but I don’t have that demon.

One way or another I’ve got to find the energy to write.  I would be tempted by artificial stimulants, but my old body can’t even handle caffeine anymore.  I know I can’t stop writing because my mind would quickly start sliding downhill again.

JWH – 3/29/9

Random Blog Reading

A couple weeks ago I noticed that Auxiliary Memory was getting a bump in hits and discovered the reason:  AlphaInventions.com.  This site, the invention of Cheru Jackson was designed to randomly show blogs from around the world, and promote blog reading.  If you visit AlphaInventions you can sit and watch a new blog pop up about every 10 seconds, like a blog slide-show.  There’s a pause button in case you want to stop and read, and a input box and button to submit your own blog.

I’ve manually done this in the past with blog hosting sites like LiveJournal that used to have a random button, and Blogger which currently has a “Next Blog” button that takes you to a random site.  I wish all blog hosting sites offered this feature.  It’s a fun way to see the world.  Hitting the random button is like teleporting into an unknown home and asking the people, “What’s happening?”  At Blogger, over half the sites are in language that’s not English, but the pictures still tell a thousand words each.

I’ve looked at hundreds, if not thousands of sites in this random fashion and I’ve never found a person like me.  There are a few bloggers that have similar interests to mine, but we have discovered each other in non-random ways.  Most people discover other blogs through googling a topic, from social bookmarking sites, or from the links presented at a blog site they like.  This tends to hide the diversity of the blogosphere because people tend pursue more of what they already like.

Patterns do emerge, but it’s surprising how different people are around the world, or even just nearby.  All over the web people have tried to estimate how many blogs there are, with some estimates running as high as 200,000,000, which I can’t believe.  Here are some numbers from different blogging sites:

  • WordPress.com – 5,056,620
  • Blogger.com – unknown
  • LiveJournal.com – 17,600.000
  • OpenDiary.com – 566,956
  • TypePad.com – unknown
  • Vox.com – unknown
  • Windows Live Spaces – unknown
  • Famous blog hosting sites in other countries – unknown

Still, even if there are only 20,000,000 bloggers, that’s quite a cultural expression of diversity.  Evidently millions people on this planet have an inner-journalist in them.  Those sites with unknown numbers are really big ones, so we could be talking about a major cultural phenomenon.

It only took a couple of weeks to realize that AlphaInventions was failing.  The first time I looked at it a high percentage of pages caught my eye as being readable and interesting.  Now it’s overwhelmed with crap.  There are a couple kinds of blogs that turn me off, but they tend to dominate.  The first are people trying to make money in some lame-ass way.  The second, and more common, are bloggers who like to jot down a few vague lines each day.  Don’t put up a public website unless you’re going to make a serious effort to provide content.  I hate hitting the “Next Blog” button and finding a site that says, “We went to the movies and then went out to dinner.”   Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to write about going to the movies and out to dinner, but you’ve got to make it into a story, or at least a movie review.

There could be tens of millions of bloggers, but there might only be a few hundred thousand serious ones, and if we distilled those down to just the ones you would love to read if you had the time, there could be hundreds.  Finding them is a problem, but as fascinating problem.  Think about it, there’s almost 7,000,000,000 people in the world, and blogging has the potential to connect you with the most perfect friends.

I think Cheru Jackson will need to rethink his concept.  The blog slide-show idea is great.  Letting anyone submit is bad.  I’d like to see the blog slide-show feature combined with RSS feeds and StumbleUpon like technology so the random blogs were all high quality sites with a reader rating button.  In other words, I want random great, rather than random everything.  StumbleUpon is excellent for finding great reading from all types of web sites, but Jackson’s intention was to help the little-guy bloggers, and that’s a good intention.

I think Blogger.com’s “Next Blog” button is the step in the right direction.  If they would add a rating button to their top navigation bar, allowing visitors to rate blogs on the Blogger site, then that could be used to show random sites with positive ratings.  The social bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon and Technorati allows pros to compete against amateurs, and that’s good for that they do, but I’d also like to see an all amateur competition too.

For some reason I mainly read sites from WordPress and Blogger users, with a sprinkling of LiveJournal users.  There are many more blog hosting sites around the world that need to get in on the competition.  Many advanced bloggers hide their community blog hosting services with personalized domain names.  This makes their sites look more professional, but tends to hide their affiliation with their blogging community.  I love being part of the WordPress world, and wished WordPress.com had a random button like the Blogger “Next Blog” button.

Of course, for Blogger.com to offer that button requires their users to show an ugly navigation bar at the top their site.  I don’t know if WordPress users would like that or not.  I see an admin bar whenever I visit my site for administrative purposes, which by-the-way allows me to see a random post of my own.  Maybe blog hosting services could make a custom visitor bar at the top of sites an option.

Blog hosting sites do collaborate with standards like OpenID, so it might be possible they could create a random referral standard.  I like that people at Blogger or LiveJournal have a certain look and feel, because it makes me feel like I’m visiting a country of bloggers with their own shared characteristics and flavor.  I’d like to randomly visit other blogging countries.  What’s needed is a central guide like Fodor’s, or a United Nations of blog countries to start a visa process.

Of course, these suggestions would put poor Cheru Jackson out of business.  He had a good idea, but each blogging host site could easily recreate it, and in the future, with standards, the cross-border random visits could be set up too.

JWH 12/22/8

Blogging, WordPress and the Future

I’ve been blogging for awhile.  I started with LiveJournal, and then moved to WordPress on my hosted site, and finally to WordPress.com.  I like the convenience of WordPress.com maintaining everything, and I’m developing a wish-list of desired features I hope they will roll out in the near future.

First, let’s think about blogging in general.  The basic idea is to write a post and get comments.  Older posts are pushed down and stored away, and the general method used to find these older stories is either by categories, search box or calendar grouping.  It’s pretty effective for what it does, but I wonder if other methods might be developed to organize the overall site and expand the theoretically limits of what it means to blog.  WordPress is constantly adding new widgets, so their structure is built around adding features, so this post is going to suggest some features I want and imagine where I’d like blogging to evolve in the future.

Paid For Feature Modules

I don’t know if I can expect all my desired features for free, but what if each module was a paid add-on or part of a plus service?  I have no idea how WordPress makes its money.  It’s a great free service that doesn’t appear to use ads and what few add-on features they do sell don’t look like big revenue generators.

Some of the features I’m wishing for could be part of a $49.95/year plus package.  I’ve invested a lot of time in WordPress, so I don’t mind paying.  I don’t want them to go bust – I want WordPress to be around for generations to come.  I assume WordPress wants to maintain their current marketing plan of offering a free service, but I can picture my blogging needs expanding, and I imagine so do others.

Right now there are too many Web 2.0 services.  I can share my thoughts on WordPress, my photos on Picasa, computer work on Zoho.com, friendships on Facebook.com, genealogy on Ancestry.com, my book lists on LibraryThing.com, and so on. 

What I’d like is one place to present the digital me.  MySpace and Facebook want that place to be their services, but I’m not happy with those sites.  They are too restricting.  What I want is one place to combine all the features, and for now I’m thinking my blogging home at WordPress.com is the place to start.  I have no idea if the people who produce WordPress want to be such an enterprise, but I’m guessing my desires are just part of an evolutionary process on the web and somebody will offer them.

The Digital Me 

Let’s think of a blog as an analog for a person’s life.  Right now blogs model people with the diary format.  Before computers, memoirs and autobiographies were two ways to convey a person’s life.  However, those formats depend on linear progress and some random discovery.  When you meet someone at a party you don’t get to know them in a start at the beginning, end at the end, fashion.  Generally you start talking about a subject, and this is covered by blogging with categories.  But if you’ve ever been to a blog site of someone you like to read and they have a long list of categories it’s not very inviting.  And if their current three posts are all boring then you’ll get the wrong idea, even if they wrote a brilliant post just before that.

Science fiction has for years imagined artificial beings or speculated on machines recording people’s minds and converting them into computer beings in artificial worlds.  I’m thinking a blog could be something like that – a download of your personality.  But you need a face to represent the whole of your being.

Table of Contents

Magazines use their covers and table of contents to promote their top stories, hoping an eye catching headline will get you to buy a whole magazine and read the rest of the issue.  However, magazines are not good structures to model a person’s complete life, but the TOC could be a good format to use for an introduction, or your face.  Home pages on blogs take you to the latest post.  I’m wondering if WordPress could create a Table of Contents page to use as the default home page, something that would combine the features of the About page and table of contents, to welcome blog visitors and help bloggers introduce themselves, giving guests a bigger picture of what you are like.  Also, let this page have more layout options, use a 2-3 column HTML table to organize the structure, and allow the maximum customization. 

Since the word categories is already used, have an organizing unit called “Projects” to be a super-group above categories.  I like the word “projects” because I like to think of organizing my life into projects.  Marketing people might come up with a better word.  Maybe tie it in with major personality traits.   Here’s an example of what I mean.  For the Table of Contents page have several user-created Topics or Projects called Family, Friends, Work, Hobbies, Travel, and Reviews.  Under Reviews I might have category listings for Audio Books, Books, Movies, Television Shows, Music, etc.  Under Family I might have categories for Parents, Wife, Kids, Genealogy, etc.  Then allow each Topic/Project to have an icon or small photo in the layout, so visitors at a glance can see how the blog writer organizes his or her life.

TimeLine

Another fun format to add would be the TimeLine – something to help people remember when and were things happened.  Since people have imprecise memories, you’d have to have a Date field that could handle  years, months, seasons, and days.  I don’t think hours and seconds would be needed.  (Fall 1949, 12/7/82, January 1971, 1963.)  Users could enter birthdays for family, and then school years and schools.  That way people could quickly know how old they were in a during a particular school year, or what years they worked as a bag boy.  Bloggers could enter dates for when they met people, got jobs, saw concerts, had children, went on vacations, etc.  Additional fun features would be hyperlinks to web sites that show the TV schedules, top news, best selling books, big movies, etc. for each year to help prompt memories.

Lists

I like keeping a list of the books I’ve read, my favorites, the ones I own, favorite songs, my CD library, favorite movies, DVDs, movies seen, etc.  Lots of people are list makers, and so having a list making module would be awful cool.  Like the TimeLine module above, this would force WordPress to get into the database business, which moves them more into the Zoho.com type service.  WordPress could offer both custom database applications and do-it-yourself kits.

Genealogy

Blogs are about people.  I use my blog to help remember things.  One of the things I’ve always meant to get into is genealogy – but not in a big way.  What would be amusing for blogging is to enter enough information so it links to other genealogy sites and to other bloggers, so when you meet people you can glance at their ancestry and maybe check if you’re related.  If this linkage grew eventually we’d be able to say to our blogs, “show a family blogging tree.”

Who Is Your Blog For?

When you’re typing away at your blog posts do you do it for friends, strangers, or yourself?  I call my blog Auxiliary Memory because I’m getting more forgetful all the time.  I really would like to use my blog as a supplemental brain.  If WordPress had the security, I’d even like to save private information on my blog.  Not bank account numbers, but just data only I would want to see when I’m trying to remember something, maybe something personal like address books, Christmas card lists, work and home To-Do lists, etc.  I’d also like to keep my last will and testament and parting thoughts, so when I die, especially unexpected, I can leave some last messages.

Now do you see what I mean when I think of a blog as a digital analog of myself?  Right now blogs are a collection basket for thoughts, but it could collect other personal items, like photographs.

Photos and Time and Place

There are plenty of online photo galleries for people to share their pictures, but I’d like one integrated into WordPress.  Why separate thoughts from images.  I’d like to tie photographs to the TimeLine and to the Genealogy.  Currently we enter posts by today’s date and time, but I’d like to be offered a field that would let me enter posts for past dates and time, that way I could organize my photographs chronologically, and work to remember the past.

It’s quite obvious what would happen if you could link photos to genealogies.  I’d also like to link photos to streets and cities, and I would like to connect to other people to share photos linked by time and place.  I moved around a lot when I was a kid.  Imagine putting all my photos from Maine Avenue when I lived at Homestead Air Force Base from 1962-63 into the system and someday getting a message from long lost friends who went to Air Base Elementary with me?

Photo Rotation and Linking

Right now we get one photo for our header to represent our personality.  It would be great to draw from a pool, so on some pages visitors would see images from a random rotation from the pool of personal or stock photos and for other pages, specific photos to go with the content of the post.

This would be a nightmare to roll out for WordPress.  It’s much easier to manage the system when there’s a limited number of templates for users to build their sites.  For this to be practical, WordPress needs to designate certain sized photographs – so all header photos would be the same size for a particular template, as they do now, but offer you the system to switch photos on the fly.  When you create a new post you’d have the opportunity to link to a photo pool folder or link to an individual photo.  This wouldn’t require a major programming change, and WordPress would sell a lot more space.  Of course, it would be nice to link to Flash videos and animations too.

I’m Sure You Get My Point By Now

By now you should see the trend.  I supposed with XML and web services many of these features could originate on companies outside of WordPress, or allow these features to work across all blogging sites.  I love the idea of OpenID and that needs to be expanded.  Selecting a blogging service like WordPress, Blogger, LiveJournal is like selecting a nationality, but we shouldn’t have language barriers to keep us from communicating across borders.

It may even be possible that various blogging services could work together so you’d have memberships on more than one service and combine the results.  I see people trying to do this now but the results are disjointed, like they have multiple personalities, or they want to have separate public identities.  I hate when I leave a reply on a Blogger site and it wants to send people to my Google identity rather than my WordPress identity.  My FaceBook page should just have a widget that displays my WordPress blog instead of trying to duplicate a blogging feature.

Has anyone thought about the ramifications for blogging for decades?  Or generations?  Permanent storage needs to be addressed for historical purposes.  I always like to ask people, “What would the world be like if Jesus had a blog and we could read it today.”  Whose blog would you want to read from history?  File and data formats are going to have to become standard if they are going to be readable in a thousand years.  And if you spend a lifetime crafting your blog so it represents who you are, do you want it to die just because your body can’t go on?

These are just some idle thoughts on my part.  Start thinking about what blogs could really become.  Just wait a few years for when WordPress rolls out its AI widget that allows you to program a talking personality to go with your blog.  All it’s personality will be based on your past blog entries.  Eventually, we’ll be able to talk to our AI and it will automatically create our posts just from interviewing us.

Jim

Roping A Wayward Mind

In the excellent essay, “The Myth of Multitasking,” Christine Rosen opens up with this 1740s quote from a Lord Chesterfield to his son that I can’t stop thinking about:

There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.

I wished my kindergarten teacher had started every day of class with that lesson because it’s obvious that I have never accomplished anything significant in my fifty-six years because I’ve always been trying to do two things at once.  I’m a jack of all trades, master of none kind of guy, and it annoys the hell out of me.

This morning’s activities will well illustrate my need for focus and the pitfalls of multitasking.  After my shower I started ripping CDs with my second computer, rolled out my exercise mat and started doing my yoga-like back exercises while daydreaming the opening scene of a novel I’d like to write, while another part of my mind kept reminding me to work on the short story I had been fleshing out in my imagination yesterday while exercising, and thoughts of three or four blog ideas buzzed like bees around these main ideas hoping to get more bio-CPU cycles themselves, while I was also trying to remember who I wanted to see today, where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do with my Saturday.

If I followed Lord Chesterfield’s advice I would have had a single-minded Zen-like focus on my exercises and my back would be much better for it. (I just jumped over to put a new CD into the burner and ran to the kitchen to feed our cats.)

After my exercises I got up and checked my email and stats on this blog page and followed a link to a web site that mentions John Scalzi’s comments on fame, followed the link to Scalzi’s site and then found a link to Wil Weaton’s site where he discusses fame and then I found a link to Stephen Fry’s site, also about fame, but a very long well thought out essay.  This gave me an idea to write a blog post about how it’s more rewarding to read a famous person’s blog than to actual meet them for a few minutes.

(Next CD to rip, which requires getting up and using the computer on the opposite side of the room.)  Before I could start writing that blog, while doing a previous CD change, I got the idea I wanted to reinstall my Roku SoundBridge, so I could play MP3s on my computer through my stereo in living room, and got up and went looking for it.  While tearing through two closets trying to remember where I put the Roku, I got ideas for several projects dealing with organization.  I have boxes and boxes of wires for stereos, computers, televisions, DVD players, etc. that I really must organize one day.  I was slightly distracted by the tight squeeze of clothes hanging in the closet, making it hard to get to all the boxes and remembering my promise to my wife to throw some worn clothes out, when I finally found the Roku.

(Next CD)  I was surprised by how easy it was to put the Roku back into service but I discovered something interesting.  The Roku was listing the music from both my computers, iTunes on the main machine, Windows Media on two machines, and FireFly media server on the second machine.  This revelation inspired me to write a blog about the most efficient way to serve up MP3 files in a home network.  (Next CD)  I wondered if I booted up the laptop if it would see that machine too.  (A pause to go pet a sick cat and think about a blog about the pet healthcare crisis.)

As you can see my mind is very far from Kwai Chang Caine’s focused mind in the old Kung Fu TV series.  (I’ll stop the annoying interruptions about the CD changes and other diversions while writing, but you get the idea about how I’m constantly trying to multitask.)  If I was a Kung Fu master, I wouldn’t own a wall of CDs and be trying to convert them to my computer library because I wouldn’t be into owning things.

If I was a real writer, with a focused mind, I would get up each morning, work on my novel and not think about about a dozen blog ideas, or another dozen short story ideas, or even worry about organizing a CD collection, or care about my clothes closet or boxes of wires.  I never finished a novel because, like Lord Chesterfield says, I’m trying to do more than one thing and there’s not enough time in a lifetime to do all that.

On the other paw, I am pretty good at multitasking if I’m willing to accept that I do so many things in a half-ass way.  I have four clunky websites (not counting several I manage at work).  I read about fifty books a year, and see a hundred movies on DVD and at the theater, and watch several hundred TV shows and documentaries.  I have a big collection of computers, books, magazines, CDs, gadgets, and other crap that I maintain and help do my part to keep the economy going.  I read a zillion web pages every year, and my Karma level is excellent on Slashdot.

Task Switching

Now over at 43 Folders, Merlin Mann offers his opinion in a podcast also called The Myth of Multitasking.  Mann’s take is multitasking is impossible for humans, that people aren’t parallel processing machines like supercomputers, and the best we can do is be very good at task switching.  Furthermore, it’s his belief that some people are good at task switching and others are not.  The implication being that some people can easily bookmark their place when they switch tasks.  Mann also believes once you discover you can’t multitask, you will lose the anxiety over getting so much done and focus on getting the job at hand accomplished.

My theory is the human brain is a fantastic bio-computer that parallel processes on vast scales, but the conscious mind is just one thread that runs on top of everything else that can’t really multitask, but like Mann suggests, can task switch.  Whether this is a good feature of Human 4.0 is yet to be proved.  Maybe multitasking will be a prominent feature of Homo Superior 1.0, but for now we have to decide what’s the optimal operating expectations for who we are now.

Attention Span

Should I trade all that fun chaotic juggling to be just a guy focused on writing a novel?  Is it even possible for me to be Mr. Zen Lit Man?  This brings up the second lighthouse beacon of an article I read this week,  “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic Monthly, that only fuels the fire of my desire to seek a simpler focused life.  Mr. Carr confesses that Google and the Internet living has reduced his ability to read long works.

If we could multitask, the length of any working process could be infinite, but if we can only task switch, then the critical factor is the time segment devoted to each task.  What Mr. Carr is suggesting is the Internet is making us used to living with short task segments and we’re losing our ability to process longer tasks.  This is an interesting idea, but I have to ask:  Did people have the knack for focusing on longer tasks before the Internet?

Long before Google, magazines and newspapers were featuring shorter articles with lots of side-bars, and short attention getting blips of information.  Television, with sitcoms and more and more commercials started dividing up our attentions starting back in the 1950s.  The car radio has long had buttons to quickly switch between shows for those weak of attention.  Imagine what the television clicker has done to our minds?

I too have found that I can no longer read hours at a time on a single book or long essay.  I had a different theory as to the cause of this, and assumed I had been corrupted by audio books which allows me to listen to other people read long books.  I justified my laziness by pointing out that those people are much better readers than I am, and that I learn so much more when I can concentrate on their readings.

So now I have two theories to test.  There might be many reasons why I can no longer read books hours at a stretch.  One that comes to mind is comfort.  I get back and neck strains, and my eyes weary quickly.  Large print helps, but to be honest, I genuinely prefer audio books.  After reading Carr’s article I will strongly consider my continual effort to multitask or task switch as a cause of attention deficit.  I will admit that when I read too long on anything I get antsy for new input.  The Internet might support my addiction for keeping multiple threads of thought going.

Conversely, if I’m going to be a real writer, as opposed to a blogger, I’d need to focus on one piece of writing at a time, and keep focused on that piece, draft after draft until it’s perfect and I could sell it.  In other words, I’d be forced to do ONE thing for weeks at a time.  I don’t know if I could handle that.  Task switching might be natural, and the ability to focus on a single task may be a special talent.  My friend Mike who is also a programmer says when he programs he feels like he’s in a deep well and all distractions are far away.  I truly envy him for that gift.

I can’t take a crap without reading a magazine while thinking through a handful of ideas about what I’ll do when I pull up my pants.  What if I got up this morning and just worked on writing that short story I’ve been meaning to finish for years.  The one I come back to the most often?  And what if when I needed to consume or evacuate I’d continue to think on that one story.  It certainly would help if I lived in a studio apartment with little beyond a bed, desk, writing equipment and four white walls.  No wonder Pride and Prejudice was so great, there just wasn’t that many distractions back in Jane Austen’s time.

I guess the real question is whether or not I could do the focused thing just one hour a day?  It’s an obvious compromise of where to start.  However, I think real writers probably sacrifice a giant pile of fun diversions to get a quality book finished.  Maybe I just don’t have that kind of mental makeup.  If I found a magic lantern and the Genie granted my wish to concentrate, would I be happy trading in a year’s worth of active diversions to produce one science fiction novel?  That scares me.  It sounds boring and lonely.

Dedication to Details

Last night I saw an episode of Nova about making Japanese samurai swords, and Friday night I saw a documentary that included a piece about a Chinese guy making traditional bows and arrows.  In each case, these were complicated skills handed down from the past and required the artisan to devote his life to his work.  Both documentaries pointed out that these acts of devotion to extreme details were being destroyed by modern culture.  Few people in our society dedicate as much of their time to a single-minded objective, but there are some.  Olympic athletes, classical musicians, and other successful people in any discipline.

There is always the chance that multitasking and Googling is common in society because that’s how the brains of most people work.  If I had a brain for single minded focusing I would be a person pursuing something very focused.  We see all those enchanting martial arts fables, like Kung Fu Panda where a slob of a mind can be polished into a diamond-point jewel of focused attention.  Is that really possible?  Maybe such training is possible if we start as children, but I doubt it for middle-aged adults.  Can I and others improve our minds with incremental improvements, especially late in life, well I think there’s plenty of evidence for that.

We know that doing the crossword puzzle or the sudoku will exercise our brain, so I would imagine reading long articles from The New Yorker and The Atlantic will condition our mental focus towards longer attention spans.  I would also assume we could follow Lord Chesterfields’ advice by starting the day by making a short list of things we want to do, and then work on them one at a time.  My closet is still a mess, but if I stuck with it, focused my mind, and only worked on my closet, it would be finished with an hour’s effort.

A New Theory of Multitasking

I think some kinds of multitasking are possible and aren’t bad.  I wouldn’t want to sit and burn CDs until I had finished all 1500 of them.  I think I could safely work on cleaning out my closet, listen to an audio book and burn CDs and be a success if I finished the closet in a reasonable amount of time and did a perfect job.  Actually, this may be a form of true multitasking, because my mind would be focused on the audio book story, and my body would be working to organize the closet and rip CDs.

People can do two things at once physically, but it’s uncommon – like rubbing your abdomen in a circle with your right hand and patting your head with your left.  I can’t sort speaker wire and switch out CDs, so that would be task switching.  But is it task switching or multitasking to listen to a book and do something physical that doesn’t require much mental processing like walking, doing the dishes, sorting wire or swapping out CDs?

The Good Old Days

I think many people would like to return to the good old days of a less hectic life.  They feel that life would be better if they didn’t have so many programming events demanding time slices.  Makes me wonder what my Main() loop looks like.  The belief is we’d be happier with fewer function calls and more time where our CPU usage falls to 0%.  Personally, I’d be philosophically happier if my log files showed more completed jobs, and fulfilled if I routinely shipped some fine 1.0 products.  I have learned that achieving a zero email inbox is very satisfying.  I don’t think we need to become Amish or Tibetan to find happiness.  I do think that learning to tame the mind is a worthy goal and all these mental lessons that are a byproduct of computer usage and Jetsons-fast living is helping us evolve.

I am reminded of some odd advice.  A modern day guru, or maybe it was a comedian, suggested getting up every morning and pistol whipping yourself if you had crippling fears of being mugged.  I wonder if I got up every morning and focused my mind intently on any kind of mental exercise, if I wouldn’t build up some focusing muscles?  If my flitting attention ever settles down to allow me to pursue such an experiment, I’ll let you know the results.

Jim

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