Showing posts with label Internet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Internet. Show all posts

10 October 2013

Leading the World #nlpoli

In your otherwise dull Thursday,  take a look at an article in The Atlantic about an army of paid Internet commenters from Russia.

This paragraph leaped out:

Paid, pro-government commenters aren't a new phenomenon in Russia, and similar practices are widespread in countless countries. In their Freedom on the Net report released last week, the NGO Freedom House said the strategy has been on the rise over the past two years, and is now rampant in 22 of the 60 countries the group examined. China, Bahrain, and Russia are at the forefront of this practice, Freedom House wrote.

The links are in the original. 

Now think about this province over the past decade.  Seems we’ve been leading the world in another area of endeavour, but not one that is really all that worthwhile.




And the former Republic of Dannystan now doing business as Dunderville.


22 April 2010

A million monkeys…

There’s an old joke about putting a millions to work banging away at typewriters.  Eventually, according to the law of averages, probability or whatever these things are governed by, those monkeys might bang out the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

By accident.

That’s the first thought that crossed ye olde scribbler’s mind on reading a post over at Christopher Locket’s blog An Ontarian in Newfoundland.  “Lockett’s first law of Internet-based research” holds that:


He’s right.  An obscure topic is less likely to be given the intense scrutiny of an Internet peer and multiple edits on a site like Wikipedia.

One point Lockett touches on is the idea that much can be learned from doing research the old-fashioned way.  There is context, for example, in the books on a shelf that have been sorted according to the library’s cataloguing system. 

But that’s not the whole story.  You can stumble across stuff inadvertently but even in wandering the stacks, the poor or average researcher can miss a great deal.  To really appreciate the library and to use it to full advantage one ought to understand how the cataloguing system works.  Otherwise, you are stuck with information filtered through the logic of the cataloguing system and the librarian who decided where that book fits. Unless you take time to think of ideas, concepts and words that are related to your topic, you might miss a great deal of fascinating  - and relevant – stuff if you limit yourself to the genius of Dewey or the Library of Congress.

Lockett goes as far as to ban Internet based sources from papers in some of his undergraduate courses:  a URL in a footnote is an automatic fail. That may seem harsh to some, but at the beginning, doing stuff the old-fashioned way can be a useful method of illustrating a number of valuable lessons.

To force the logical leap in this little post, though, a wander through the stacks is a bit like using a search engine like google.  People bash in words and links pop out based on a complex calculation that remains inscrutable to most web users.  What pops out as part of any given search is often – essentially - random.  If people get useful links, let alone reliable ones, it is often as the result of happenstance.

One of the enduring sources of amusement Chez Scribbler is the check of keyword search terms that people use before ending up reading something on Bond Papers.  That’s where you get to see those sorts of things for real. 

Sure, there are the people searching for this blog by title.   There are search words that come up every week.  “Court docket” has been so popular since the day they were posted that both the Supreme Court and Provincial Court earned a spot right up at the top of a side bar.  There are the regular hunts for Janice Mackey Freyer and her alter ego ‘P.J. Jazzy Jan.”

And not to be outdone, the post containing the phrase “squirrel’s are the Devil’s oven mitts” actually scored as the most popular specific page for over 24 hours.  No fewer than 10 people from across North America and Europe searched it at the same time.

Then there are the ones you could consider to be the babes in the woods.  They are like the proverbial million monkeys typing in that they are unlikely to get much of any value in completing their term paper.  You can tell it is a term paper, incidentally, because the search words consist of entire sentences or portions of sentences that have been cut and pasted from the assignment.

This week’s winner in the crap search sweepstakes would have to go to some poor sod  - you could not make this up - who used Yahoo! to search for “how inextricably interconnected with social, economic and political that constitute communities”.

Follow that link and you will notice that Bond Papers turned up as the second item on the page.

But it’s the second link on the sixth page of returns.  If this lost soul knew anything, he’d know that anything on the sixth page of any set of search results is likely of no conceivable relevance to whatever he was trying to find in the first place. Yet, as one might suspect, this benighted soul likely clicked and read every, single one of the links from one to umpteen. 

There’s no way of knowing which of them turned up in the term paper or whatever the assignment was.  odds are, though, that it fit perfectly the outcome Lockett described in a comment following that post of his:

It is a paradox, isn't it? Nearly infinite information available at a keystroke, and so frequently it ends up rendering inane, incorrect or simply reductive research.

What you wind up getting, for the most part, is  basically what you’d get from the million monkeys before they typed out the Britannica.


Law Test Addendum:  Search for “million monkeys” and you will find a Wikipedia entry on the Infinite Monkey Theorem:

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

17 August 2008

The New Idiot Box

A few days ago, your humble e-scribbler was wandering through a second-hand book store he used to frequent in Kingston 20-odd years ago.

There used to be a half dozen new book stores and almost as many second-hand used book places along Princess Street. Today, it's down to an Indigo outlet with its trendiness, a locally-owned new-book store another used store catering to a "higher-end" clientele. Down toward the bottom of the street, between Ben and Jerry's and a health food store, there's this tee shirt, a pair of jeans and comfortable sandals kinda place.

It's getting harder every year to stay open, according to the owner, as he filled out the receipt for a purchase. That comment started a chat about the changing reading habits of Kingstonians. The town is home to Queen's and the Royal Military College, giving the town a distinctly academic flavour. The city is roughly the size of St. John's but in the 1980s, the difference between the two cities could not have been more stark at least when it came to the number of book stores.

Patrons come in at least two varieties, the owner explained; there are the year-rounders and the university student types who tend to come in the fall and head off again in the spring. By getting harder to stay open, the Wayfarer owner was referring to his sales. The boomers who once jostled on the upper levels for space to rummage through the stacks for new purchases are now the source of his inventory. That's all fine and as it used to be, he noted.

The difference is that the young people aren't coming through the doors in anything near the same numbers they once did and that's the problem. They aren't migrating to other shops; there aren't any. It seems that books do not figure as prominently in their lives, it seems. Your humble e-scribbler offered a few observations of his own and we both settled on the Internet as a possible cause.

There's not a week goes by, he said, rolling his eyes a bit, that I don't have this same conversation with teachers and other book lovers. One of the definitions of post-modernism, he ventured, was knowing very little about a lot. [Consider the last time an Indigo clerk tossed out that phrase to you]

That's a paraphrase, to be sure, but it captured the idea of skimming over the surface of things. Internet searches for specific information seems to have affected how people look at issues and how they think about them.

Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
That's writer Nicholas Carr describing the phenomenon in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly. His article, "Is google making us stupid?", makes many of the common assertions. The Internet enables writers and others to condense hours of research into a few moments. The Internet, with its dependence on text, means people are reading more than they may have read before.

The change is in how we are reading.

There may also be a change in how we are thinking. All those years ago, as a graduate student, your humble e-scribbler came across the same sort of discussion but in another context. Some schools liked lists - the five causes of the Great Depression, for argument sake and only five causes - and they tended to teach things the same way. As a result, their students tended to view the world, events and the people involved in both as as something discrete, quantifiable.

Others approached things differently, allowing for nuance and subtlety and the possibility there can be equally valid interpretations of the same events. The analogy then was the difference between a digital watch - time is reduced to individual, possibly unrelated segments - and the old analog job with its sweeping second hand. Time, is a continuum.

These are not new ideas, to be sure. Carr makes it plain. But there is something nonetheless profound about the idea that a shift in how people view events is taking place and the shift is either driven by or facilitated by the Internet and other newer means of communication.

In themselves, new means of communication or ways of expressing an idea are not a problem. In a famous episode of Star Trek: Next Generation, the crew encountered a species that spoke only in metaphor: "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra." Within the community, these metaphors were understood and the words carried additional meanings not readily apparent. For those outside the community, comprehension - that is actually understanding what is being said - was hampered by the initial lack of knowledge about the stories behind the metaphor.

It's like what your language teacher used to call idiomatic expressions. Things like boiling the kettle or barring the door. To someone learning English these phrases taken literally are meaningless or funny. The kettle does not boil; the water inside it does.

Local politics here is often communicated in metaphor, in idiomatic expressions. Churchill Falls is the clearest example.

The problem comes though, when the story behind the metaphor is not well understood, not only by those outside the community but by those inside it as well. Worse, a very serious problem arises when new notions take hold and become accepted as fact, ideas and metaphorical expressions simply because they are not questioned.

The Harper "broken promise" is another example. Not a single news media outlet in the province, not a single politician and not a single conventional media commentator has burst the pustule surrounding the ABC campaign. You'll find plenty of substantiated argument here about the shifting provincial government position, but try and find it anywhere else.

Instead, the new simile for betrayal by someone outside the community is accepted whole. On the most superficial level, a comment by the Premier about the Prime Minister is seen as newsworthy simply because it hints of the Anybody But Conservative threat.

The tendency to jet ski through issues is much more widespread than on these larger issues. The stories offered up on Tom Rideout's resignation contained so many evident contradictions that they pointed to another story - the truth - beneath. Yet jet skiers flashed past it - on the way to nothing more important - giving up the chance not for a scuba dive but for merely a wade out to the knees.

The usual explanation offered for the lack of depth in conventional media coverage or for the absence of contrary editorializing is lack of time and resources. There is some truth in that. And to be fair, there has been an increasingly critical tone in some quarters. Take the Sunday Telegram editorial and the paper's position on the Memorial University crisis as an example of a slight shift in the local environment.

But in a larger sense, the media coverage (actually not just locally but across the country) and the political metaphors they sustain come from something closer to the changed attitude to knowledge and information contained in Carr's article. The jet skier's aren't interested in the Rideout issue beyond what is simple and convenient. Everything else is a conspiracy theory.

The Premier's use of the word "race" in a political campaign policy announcement garners not a shred of attention anywhere, except of course for at least two reporters who went out of their way to rationalise the issue into nothingness. We all know what he meant.

The point in this latter one was not - as one radio host suggested entirely disingenuously - that some people were accusing the Premier of being racist. Rather, the "race" card stands out not only for the fact it was played at all in any context during an election on a pro-natalist policy, but rather that we - the people of the province - did not then and do not now have a shared understanding of what he meant.

On another level, though, what the Premier meant in that case is actually irrelevant. What it is simply worth noting that not a single reporter thought it worth asking a simple question. Not one thought to ask what he meant, just to be clear. Inquisitiveness - supposedly at the core of the journalistic profession, let alone the source of our species' progress - was absent.

Not one wanted to know.

Reporters reflect the society in which they work. There's no way of knowing if the Internet has changed the way people are thinking or if it merely facilitated a trend already present. Television was decried as an idiot box and in some respects, Carr and others are simply transferring the epithet to the box sitting on or under many of our desks.

The source of the change is not as important as the consequences of the shift, the lessening desire to know things.

Chenza at court, the court of silence, as the Tamarians would say.