Saturday, March 25, 2006

FEC, Meet the WWW

In an interesting article on C|Net, we're told that the Federal Election Commission is approaching its relationship with the Internet using kid gloves. Good. In my last post, and God knows how many others, I've talked about Internet regulation as a fact of life. What I've never spelled out explicitly is that the regulations, as with our Constitution, can promote absolute regimentation or a mostly free environment (trampling our Constitution is antithetical to its stated purpose, but that's another story. Anywhoo, the FEC ruled that "paid Web advertising, including banner ads and sponsored links on search engines, will be regulated like political advertising in other types of media." As it should be: paid ads are paid ads.

The kicker, which I'm most pleased about, is its ruling that "bloggers can enjoy the freedoms of traditional news organizations when endorsing a candidate or engaging in political speech." The rules, available in PDF format through the C|Net story above, should be approved at the FEC meeting next week. At long last, someone is going to take people who don't understand the Internet in hand and explain that, just as with traditional media outlets, some blogs may be nothing more than paid pundit placement (PPP - a webgeek pun); however, because we can never be sure except on a case-by-case basis, we can't shut them up.

Of course, this will benefit yours truly more than anyone else: the visual rhetoric of Internet political sites happens to be one of my strongest scholarly interests, and the next big election will be kicking in just around the time I start to work on my dissertation. I'm particularly interested in iconography and background visual interplay - a relatively understudied area of digital rhetoric - so I'll watch with great fascination as the political webspinners go to work on the opposition. One thing I've noted in papers thus far about this subject is that although the overt, print-based material (photographs, text, etc.) is focused heavily upon attacking the opposition, the background visuals provide subtly positive messages that concern themselves with providing a strong image to the primary party concerns of the site's owners.

We'll see what happens.
currently playing on miPod - Dvorak's Symphony no. 9, first movement.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Network Neutrality

Recently, the AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre remarked that companies such as Google were "nuts" to think that they could use AT&T network "pipelines" for free, a serious challenge to what some feel is the neutral essence of the Internet. FCC Chair Kevin Martin said that his agency could police and enforce any such attacks on the neutrality of the Internet; however, he added, he supports a "tiered Internet," in which broadband companies can offer different levels of bandwidth and speed. A blogger on the Networking Pipeline offered his two cents, stating that the FCC Chair's concept of "net neutrality" is far too narrow, that such a policy would help kill off smaller, innovative companies who can't afford high prices.

Anyone who still feels that the Internet is a neutral space is an idealistic, foolish holdover from the cyberlibertarian era of the early 1990s. Google is not neutral. Google's best services are paid services. Why do you think that the top links are "sponsored?" I agree that in its original embodiment, the Internet was built for research, not commerce - until 1991, in fact, the National Science Foundation forbade using the 'net for commerce. Once commerce entered the arena, things rapidly changed. An "open information" ethic is antithetical to commerce: credit-card companies pushed for the changes in network architecture that made the Net more safe for commerce, the same changes that ended the "open" nature of the net.

I've noted before that the Internet has no "Nature," that any structure or space that is defined by human-machine code has no nature other than that which is chosen to be encoded. That coded nature can be revised at any time, by legislation, by regulation, by corporation. The latter example surprises some people, but think of Microsoft: in the late 1990's, Internet Exploder was the dominant browser of the Web. Microsoft did not (and still does not) conform to the W3C standards for HTML coding. Microsoft is singlehandedly responsible for the deprecation of the (b) tag in favor of the (strong) tag (carats are not allowed in blogger). It is also because of MSIE that we still use the (id) tag instead of the (class) tag recommended by the w3c (World Wide Web Consortium), so when designing for cross-browser compatibility, we have to use: (div class="division" id="division") instead of just (div class="division").
currently playing on miPod - "Stardust" by Louis Armstrong.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Television Sucks

Television, as an institution in American society, is rapidly losing appeal to me. Aside from the fact that much of what we watch celebrates the worst in each of us; it is also one of the most repetitive forms of entertainment available. I am not saying that all television is bad. There have been many fine hours of entertainment and a good deal of information that has been disseminated through this medium. There have been memorable characters on occasional shows for as long as I can remember. I will confess: I have been a habitual watcher of many sitcoms (Friends, MASH, and The Simpsons); news programs such as 20/20; and once upon a time, MTV (when it played music videos for more than the insipid hour of TRL).

I am never one to complain about how great things were in the way-back-when as compared to the present day. Times change. People change. It is a facet of human existence that modes of popular entertainment will change as well. I do, however, feel inclined to express my great disgust at the fact that Americans spend more time in front of the television than they do living their lives. On the cover of the “Life, etc.” section of my local newspaper, there was an article that discussed the fact that Americans now spend more time alone at home than ever before, eschewing socialization with others to sit around the house. Beneath this article, which I read with great interest, I saw something that made me believe once more in irony: just below a brilliant article on the decreased social habits of Americans there was a column devoted to what was new on this season’s television shows, entitled “What to Watch.” I think it was at this point that I had to bury my face in my hands and shriek with uncontrolled laughter. Either the layout editor didn’t see the irony in what he was doing, or someone was trying to make a point: I wish I could believe the former, but the latter is probably the more true.

Not only do we spend our lives in front of a television set, slowly losing days of our existence on this planet; but we also plan our lives around the various forms of garbage emanating from it. How often does one hear people mention that they must be home by a certain time, in order not to miss “their” shows? People pay a good deal of money for the privilege of saving these shows so that they can spend the weekend watching drivel. Radio morning show hosts discuss television non-stop; rather than current events or the foibles of local and national leaders, they’ll babble on incessantly about what will happen in the next episode of whatever they watched the previous night.

So what is it, then, that drives us to sit at home, night after night? What is it that is so imperative that we place our own lives on hold to sit in front of a glowing box? Take a look at the most popular shows, and something might just pop out at you. We sit, we munch, and we watch “reality” on television. Are our lives so pathetic that we feel the need to stop them for the night to watch other people live? We are denying ourselves actual experience for the purpose of viewing the actual experiences of other people; and, by doing so, we create a trend of more “reality” television – more life wasted by watching others live.

None of the “reality” shows truly represent reality, however. This is why the networks who produce these shows will put out an “uncensored” version of the reality show; which is a good marketing scheme so far as I can tell: if people are stupid enough to waste their lives in watching trash, perhaps they’re stupid enough to shell out fifty dollars so they can see some real “reality” – some girl’s breasts, some guy acting drunk, people making out in a hot tub, some other guy getting punched in the face, and on, and on, and on. We are lining the pockets of the very people who are robbing us of our lives; all so we can see other people doing what we really want to pretend we could do – what we actually could do, if we were so inclined.

I am tired of hearing about children doing poorly in school. I’m tired of hearing teachers blamed for students’ failure to succeed. Rather than accepting responsibility for our inaction and failure to lead by example, we must pass blame and place failure squarely on the shoulders of those who least deserve it. People ask themselves why their children have trouble reading, why they can’t focus for more than a short time span on any task; and then proceed to blame the educational system.

If blame must be given, then blame the actual source of the trouble. Rather than place a child in front of a television set so they’ll shut up and leave you alone; rather than sitting together in front of mind-numbing trash; lead by example. If your child spends five hours a week in school reading and is told by a teacher of the importance of literacy, and then goes home to watch sixteen hours a week of television either with the blessing or presence of his parents; what opinion will he have on the matter? Who is he more likely to observe and emulate, a teacher or his parents? Try once more to blame the teacher for the inability of a college freshman to write a simple, effective paragraph.

See? You can’t do it, can you?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Software Soapbox - Part II - Web Page Development

Part II of my Open Source vs. Shrinkwrapped Boxes review focuses on web page development software. For the same price as Micro$oft Office, web developers can purchase high-end graphical user interface web content development software (roughly $400), in the form of Dreamweaver. For about $100, they can purchase a textually-based content developer - not just a tag insertor, but a whole-site developer that tracks stylesheets, images, links, etc. Is it worth it? First, let's look at websites on the cheap, or text-based editors.

There are two freeware programs that I've used on my Mac to develop HTML and XHTML websites, both of which have great strengths. SEEdit and Taco HTML Editor are freeware (although SEEdit offers a $40 tech-supported edition with a vast number of very nice templates) programs that check your code against W3C standards. Of the two, I prefer SEEdit for large projects, because it keeps track of your entire site - even provides basic CSS templates that you may edit to customize your output. It automatically develops your site to XHTML 1.0 transitional standards (the new industry standard); although it allows you to develop HTML 4.01 as well.

SEEdit tracks your stylesheet tags, so if you create subclasses, say "p.nav," for a navigation area, it will include your subclasses within its toolbars, which are very extensive. It reads your images, and also allows you to preview pages within several different browsers, all of which you can select yourself. To take a look at SEEdit software and downloads, click here to go to the developer's website. He has screenshots and links to the downloads of both paid and freeware versions.

Taco HTML Edit is more useful for on-the-fly editing, for a simple reason: SEEdit will not open non-SEEdit pages, unless you go through a very tedious process. Taco will open any page, of any code type, and allow you to edit the specifications to update quickly, say, if you forget a form field, or make a simple textual booboo: it uses very little memory and has a wide range of tag selection. It also has a color wheel to allow you to be exact when choosing colors to include on your site. To visit and download the Taco program, click here for the developer site. You can see screenshots and more to help make your decision, although with the program weighing in at 3 MB or so, what do you have to lose?

To help you learn to write your own code, check out Sunrise Browser, the Developer's web browser. This one's lightweight (684kB), and FAST! It allows you to view the source and perform sample edits in a transparent screen, and displays the changes you make in the browser window: it won't change the real code, but it will allow you to experiment and see your own changes as you type. This is a really nifty piece of software, and considering the price (free) and size (less than 1MB), it's truly worth a look.

On the GUI side, there have been few offerings in the open source world until now, with the advent of N|vu (New View), a GUI web developer similar in interface to Dreamweaver and Front Page. As the developer states, "it's not the same as Front Page or Dreamweaver, but if you're familiar with these programs, N|vu will pose few problems." It is an extremely powerful program, but, since it's fairly new, I would save my work FREQUENTLY, because newer open source programs have the tendency to crash occasionally. To take a look at the developer website, where you can download Mac OS X native, Windows native, and Linux package versions, as well as look at screenshots, click here. This is a pretty exciting development - nobody has had time to develop such a program until now - and it may well improve web standards.
currently on miPod - "It'll Never be the Same," Gene Krupa

Monday, March 20, 2006

The (Mis)Communication Age

For a society that lauds itself as being one of instant and mass communication, Americans have poor communication skills. We are surrounded by previously unimagined modes of communication: cellular telephones, fax machines, e-mail, express mail, and the Internet are prevalent and each day becoming more dominant. We are seconds away from communicating with other human beings, but for some reason the more accessible communication becomes, the less able we are to communicate meaningfully with one another.

I’ll begin with the mobile phone. Privacy seems to be a thing of the past. When people are walking down the street, arguing with their phones (or worse, crying into it), they don’t seem to realize that other people will stare. They’ll shoot a dirty look in the direction of an onlooker, as though that individual has no respect for the privacy of folks who decide to air their personal affairs at top volume in the middle of the street. Pardon me, but when I hear someone shouting, “I can’t believe you fucked her!” it is inevitable that I will stop and stare, usually with great amusement.

Another facet of the mobile phone is the absolute mundanity of what people choose to say to one another. In days past, nobody ever needed to know that I was entering Blockbuster, taking a shit, or reading the paper (sometimes the latter two are combined). We seem to have a constant need, nonexistent ten years ago, to know the location of every known individual in our lives, as well as his current activity. We don’t make plans; we just feel the need to occupy someone’s valuable time.

For some, this desire to be in constant touch with everyone else means that they must keep their phones with them and on in settings where quiet or privacy were once expected. It seems that I cannot go to a movie, show, or library without someone’s phone ringing. It becomes truly annoying when the ring is some piece of shit from popular music, as though everyone in the world has a great need to know your taste (or lack thereof) in music. Another irritating asshole is the person who must have his telephone in a restaurant. When I decide to pay for the privilege of having someone else bring the dinner and the wine in order that my wife and I can sit and talk for a few uninterrupted hours, the last thing I need is to hear a phone ring at the next table followed by some loud asshole yelling into his phone that the party on the other line must speak up because he is in a restaurant and is getting poor reception. These people never talk about anything important, anything that couldn’t wait until after dinner, they just babble incessantly about some relatively minor incident. Be forewarned: I do not pay seventy dollars for the privilege of hearing about your pathetic life; and if I hear your phone ring in my proximity, you will soon find out how well that cheap glass of Merlot you ordered compliments the flavor of your Nokia.

I am a big fan of e-mail, however, I believe that it is slowly ruining the ability of individuals to communicate meaning in concise written speech. Corporations have actually had to issue memorandums regarding professionalism in official communication because some of their employees have sunk so far into e-speech that it reflects poorly on the corporate image. Abbreviated words look adolescent. In fact, when u write like this, it makes me :,(. BTW: 8 -> stupid bastard who doesn’t kno ENGL. Briefly translated for those of us who are familiar with and love the English language, that last passage read, “In fact, when you write like this, it makes me cry. By the way: look at the stupid bastard who doesn’t know English.”