Archive forMay, 2010

Blog Post 7: Second Life

How did I get here? Why is there a manta ray?

If I told you I didn’t know anything about virtual worlds I’d be lying. I’ve taken enough classes in the English department to have studied them, and I had a nerdy enough childhood that I played my share of MOOs and MUDs as a kid. I even played a little WoW. Don’t judge me. It doesn’t count if you get bored before level 40.

But even the WoW experience is only helping me so much here. My virtual arm keeps virtually reaching for… something… making it look like I’m either trying to shield my face from an attack or, alternately, like I’m trying to bend my elbow around the nape of my neck. What do I keep clicking? How do I unclick? Why do I have to do this on a campus computer, where the load times make it look as if Second Life isn’t already there so much as being built up around me as I stand there and wait for ‘W’ to move me forward?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all bad. Any game where you don’t have to level up and pay huge piles of gold and a mount to start flying is a game I probably approve of. Page up, Page down, ‘Stop flying’. Simple enough. For all the possible useful uses of this technology, all I really want to do is float around and maybe cross a few oceans. For all the possible interactions I could have with other internerds, I think I’ve already found my favorite spot in the whole place:

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Blog Post 6: Internet Source Reliability

For every reliable Routers source on the internet, there are ten Rainbow Conspiracy Ladies. People who have dial-up, but maybe not a high school degree – people who just plain don’t know what they’re talking about.

What’s nice about Rainbow Conspiracy Lady is that she’s laughable. She’s one clueless woman with a camera, a backyard and a sprinkler who accidentally exposed her ignorance to the world – and we get to sit back and giggle, knowing that only people as hopeless as she is will actually get concerned about ‘whatever’s in our water’.

If you like that sort of thing, also try out the Dihydrogen Monoxide awareness website, which almost looks credible if you squint – again, this site is pretty funny because it’s not actually out to get anyone. It’s kind of Stephen Colbert-styled in its use of verbal irony:
“Unfortunately, some have seen fit to fill many thousands of web pages with purposely slanted propaganda meant more to titillate and sensationalize than to inform. The following “information” about Dihydrogen Monoxide is what you’ll commonly find on the Internet. The Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division does not endorse the use of such scare tactics, particularly when telling people about the invisible killer, Dihydrogen Monoxide.”

Unfortunately for us, not all incorrect information is clueless or meant as a joke. There is a huge profit to be had from misinformation, and there are enough niches in the science world that the average person doesn’t understand that the right person with the right credentials can make a mint off of lying.

The first thing that pops up in google for Andrew Wakefield is "andrew wakefield fraud". Check it out.

Enter Andrew Wakefield, one of the most infamous names in the medical community. Wakefield is a UK doctor – that is, he was a doctor, until very recently – who made a living off of scaring mothers and expecting mothers about infant vaccines. While he got book deal profits and benefited from law suits against hospitals and governments, Great Britain suffered the consequences of families that were wrongly informed and not properly treating their newborns. Wakefield had claimed that the MMR vaccine (among others) could cause autism and other serious health risks in otherwise healthy children. Despite countries all over the world stating that the evidence for this was flawed at best, people love a conspiracy. Wakefield continued claiming that more papers would be published soon with more solid links between the thimerosal in vaccines and autism. The internet was swarmed with misinformation and online communities for expecting moms began supporting each other in talking to their doctors about skipping early-childhood vaccinations that would have saved their children from measles and worse. The above link to the Irish measles epidemic is from 2001, but that doesn’t mean this is old news. There are still plenty of families that plan on having children and not getting them their shots for this exact reason.

And why would Wakefield do this? For the money. Wakefield got over £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. And if you’re hoping that maybe those lawyers were also doctors, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

This year CNN reported on even further evidence disproving the autism/vaccination connection, but sadly the damage has already been done. By definition a conspiracy must be denied by those in charge. The misinformation is still being perpetuated by the under-informed, the wrongly-informed, and the just plain scared. And the worst part is that it’s the newborns that suffer the consequences. I hope Wakefield spent all that money on something really great.

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Blog Post 5: Research Tools

I want to post about WebMD. Because I am obsessed with it.

I’m going to start by telling you what a hypochondriac is, however, because it’s relevant to WebMD and other resources like it. Hypochondriasis is ‘an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness’. Everyone knows somebody that has at least some of these traits – that person that gets a bad cough during flu week and is obsessed with the idea that they might have cholera. Do they have a headache? It must be a migraine. Every time.

Lots of people, even mentally healthy people, can worry too much about their health. It’s pretty natural – we’re worried about what we don’t understand, and the majority of us know very little about how it is we keep waking up in the morning alive. We’re pretty sure it has to do with eating every day, and oxygen, and maybe blood levels, but shows like House MD get us concerned that maybe that leg jiggling that happens in our sleep is actually a clogged artery. That will kill us. To death.

And so, with our natural concerns being amplified by medical shows that are often both scary and completely inaccurate, we head to the internet. Because you don’t need to buy Grey’s Anatomy anymore, or the specialized enormous tomes that focused specifically on small, innocuous symptoms that really mean you have a deathly illness. (And, yes, they do exist.) Now you just need to log on and self-diagnose.

And there is the problem. The ‘Symptom Checker’ on WebMD has been especially panned for oversimplifying issues and leading would-be patients to false conclusions. The Symptom Checker, which I encourage you to try out for yourself, asks for your age, sex, zip code, and email – I assume it only uses the first 2 things for diagnostic purposes – and from there you literally just start clicking on what hurts.

As an example, I entered in that I had nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. Pretty generic. While most of the suggestions are benign (indoor allergens, common cold and hay fever come up first), it also suggests that I might have ‘nasal polyps’ or ‘whooping cough’. Or… West Nile virus. (Maybe I should get to the Health Center.)

And the thing is, all of these are technically possible. What we as a Didn’t-Attend-Med-School community need to keep in mind, however, is that even having a reputable medical textbook isn’t the same as going to a doctor. The internet doesn’t know your medical history – and if it ever asks you for it, please, for the love of all that is good and secure, don’t give it what it wants. Trained doctors will always outrank click-through questionnaires, no matter how good the Flash is, and while resources like WebMD can be invaluable for sudden medical situations or the occasional question, remember that you pay that insurance premium for a reason. Get those yearly checkups on time and leave the wildly uneducated guesses to Dr. Nick.

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Blog Post 4: Wikis

I’m not here to tell you what Wikipedia is. I’m here to tell you about something that you don’t already extensively know – like, for instance, things about Muppets.

Did you know that in 1998, Miss Piggy had her own perfume released titled “Moi”? Neither did I, but there’s a whole page dedicated to it on the Muppet Wiki. It’s such a specialized website that anyone who wants really detailed information about this one topic – Muppets – can find exactly what they’re looking for. Do you want to know about Fraggle Rock? They’ve got that. Sesame Street? Done.

But why do these specialized wikis exist? Because what makes Wikipedia strong is its scope – the original Wiki has over 1 million pages in English alone. And while they range in topics from Tuktoyaktuk to Hindu deities, there isn’t a lot of room for, or interest in, topics that are right at home in UMW’s own Wiki.

And as you can imagine, there are a lot more specialized Wikis than just for Muppets and universities. Supernatural has its own wikispace to cover the canon content of the television show, and there’s also one for World of Warcraft (or WoW) so you can figure out just how much those Blues and Purples are worth. And, if that isn’t nerdy enough for you…

… there’s one for the entire Marvel comicverse.

So go on. Geek out. Wikipedia is a great starting point for any quest for knowledge and tidbits, and their thoughtfulness in leaving their code out for anyone to borrow or copy has led to a whole new world of available information. Just, you know. Be ready to lose a few hours in it.

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Blog Post 3: Social Networking

(XKCD‘s most recent comic is relevant to our interests)

As of today, if you do a Google search for ‘facebook scandal’, you will get 14,000,000 results. While I’m sure that some of those stories refer to individual instances (which we’ll talk more about later), a great number of those have to do with huge TOS changes and infringements that have been going on as far back as early 2008. The biggest scandals aren’t between individual parties on Facebook so much as between Facebook and its users as a whole. People are upset about everything, but perhaps most reasonably about assumed privacy. The idea that manually opting out of having our information sold to private parties — and that taking care to make certain information, posts, pictures, and other media private or restricted only to a select few is actually meaningless if the interested party is willing to pay cash up front — seems dishonest if not actually illegal. It doesn’t help that Zuckerman has been quoted saying some less than advisable things about the intelligence of people willing to trust him with their personal info. This is driving several users to make statements by removing their content completely.

Quit Facebook Day is happening on May 31, 2010. The specially dedicated website offers reasons why people are quitting, options for interested party, and a counter in the right column that (as of this post) numbers at 12526. That’s almost 13,000 people.

Therein lies the problem with this whole debacle. To Facebook, its advertisers, and its investors? 13k users is a drop in the bucket. Hell, if that number reaches 30k by the end of the month it still wouldn’t have anybody changing policies that are clearly so profitable. According to OpenScandal (linked above), here’s their financial breakdown of 2009:

# $125 million from brand ads
# $150 million from Facebook’s ad deal with Microsoft
# $75 million from virtual goods
# $200 million from self-service ads

Facebook is rolling in money. Rolling. In it. The online journaling site Livejournal was recently outed for allowing pop-up ads with embedded adware that they almost definitely knew about, and did not remove once they were explicitly informed. And why would they? As a business model, most members of the site, whether they pay for extra features or simply ‘pay’ by seeing the ads at the tops of their screens, don’t understand what they’re giving up… or don’t care enough to switch to a less popular service that has more honest policies. Until or unless the customers unite more effectively and use their buying/ad-looking power to strong-arm these companies to look at something other than profit, we’re going to see these headlines over and over again.

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Blog Post 2: Microblogging

So, this Twitter thing.

I’m coming up on 1k tweets on my personal Twitter account – something I made back in the beginning of college, used for a few weeks, and recently returned to (first for one of Professor Whalen‘s classes, then for personal use. And you can tell that it’s an important daily tool because in one of my recent tweets I wondered aloud why I was drinking so much orange juice lately.

I’ll give you a moment to allow that philosophical depth to sink in.)

Mind you, there are people that are employing Twitter much more impressively than I am. What is important to remember about the site is that it’s a medium – no more, no less. You can have incredibly banal people reporting what traffic is like, or you can have stuff that’s really funny, or really important, or maybe both.

For funny, we turn to Drunk Hulk.

Drunk Hulk is an example of a fictional (and in this case inebriated) character who has a regularly-updated blog. Drunk Hulk reacts to the news of the day and often comments on pop culture and fashion…
…and sometimes on more pressing matters:

That’s not to say that all of Twitter is just for fun. The social networking capabilities of this site are huge, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by major interest groups. Quick searches of hashtags and commonly used words reveals lots of useful Twitter groups as well. GLBTadvocates is exactly what it says on the tin – they update regularly with news about discrimination in legislation, Focus on the Family, and reliable charities to donate to promote marriage equality. OnTopMag is another good example. It focuses not just on US issues but also links to international articles as well including linking to stories taking place Portugal, Argentina and Brazil.

Twitter is everything. It’s social networking, it’s keeping in touch with family, it’s common interests, it’s advocacy… but perhaps most importantly, it is drunken superheroes.

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Blog Post 1/Presentation Topic: Fan-Generated Content on the Net

Fan-generated content had its big break with one very big show that started very small: Star Trek.

Upon airing in 1966, the show gained lots of fans who became interested in creating and sharing their own content that was related to the show. The biggest two types were fanfiction (stories involving the characters and plot of the show) and fanart.

(By DennisBudd on DeviantArt)

The most efficient way at the time to share the work with other interested fans was by submitting them to fanzines – amateur publications usually dedicated to one popular interest. People would submit their stories and artwork, or simply submit to see what others had made.

The internet was an enormous gift to the fan communities. There was suddenly a much more instant and direct way to share their work with each other. The X-Files ‘fandom’ was especially grateful, for personal computers and dial-up internet access were becoming more and more commonplace just as people were getting into this latest sci-fi show; it was incredibly easy to search out websites dedicated to ‘X-Files Fiction’ or ‘X-Files Art’ and either read or submit whatever you wanted.

While it was ongoing shows or new movies that had the strongest and most immediate following, older media gained internet presence as well. Doctor Who, which had been canceled in 1989 and wasn’t picked up again until 2005, still had ardent fans online who were generating their own fan content as soon as it became an option.

(By Lithrael on DeviantArt)

What changed everything again was video editing software. Until the past few years, such software was incredibly expensive and was only really owned by professional editors – now of course every laptop comes with at least a barebones program like Windows Movie Maker, which allows users to isolate clips, rearrange them, and even set them to music. They became very popular in the anime community (where they’re called AMVs, for Anime Music Videos), but everywhere else they’re just called fanvids. As the available software became more and more advanced and readily available, so did the content.

Fanvids were originally very basic due to convention and ability – they were brief, successive clips from the movie or show set to music. As fanvids became more commonplace, however, the medium was explored further: narratives were explored, and even character sketches. (“Zebra“, a due South vid by Shalott, is a good example of a character getting fleshed out by the editorial choices and by the music.) Other variations involved combining two fandoms in one video or integrating stock footage to help tell the narrative where the footage from the show or movie couldn’t provide.

As the technology progressed, however, it was suddenly possible to do even more with just a personal computer and a budget. Pirating software, for better or worse, also meant that people who previously had no access to good video editing software or any editing software could get it for free. Experimentation continued, and the medium began to see changes in the form of user-generated content within the videos. One of the more abstract ones is Lim’s “People are People” fanvid, which is more computer-generated than from the show (Stargate: Atlantis). I can’t tell you exactly what her video means, but I can tell you that it’s impressive and that the lyrics and tone definitely tie in with many of the themes of the show.

It’s not just the tools that wouldn’t be here without the internet, however – the video editing software, Photoshop software, tutorials, and help sites would all be nothing without the fan communities that bring fans together, encourage them to create, and keep egging each other on to get better all the time. The interactive quality to these groups means that as long as there is still media to be sought out and enjoyed, there will always be something new to make and shape in response to it. And thanks to the web, there will always be someone out there to stumble upon it… and hopefully think it’s really cool.

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It’s not like a truck

This stands as a placeholder – this will soon be the home to many blog entries for the UMW computer science class titled ‘The Internet’. Stay tuned.

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