What is the Internet, Anyway?

 I've come increasingly to appreciate blogging, having my own web log that anyone can read, or not.  With a blog post, the reader can respond, if they are interested, or not, with no suggestion of their having ignored me.

With Facebook, on the other hand, my "friends" include real friends, family, and colleagues, of a great variety of persuasions, so that any statement of conviction might cause offense to one or more of them.  I've come to see Facebook as something of a minefield, and I now limit my posts there to innocuous entries.

All of which has nothing to do with my subject line, and which, having spent thirty minutes composing, I considered deleting.  But I'll leave it, because I can.

Doc Searls posts his responses to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.  What is the Internet?  We get calls at the reference desk from people wanting us to "pull up" all kinds of information from the Internet, even when the information is more easily accessible from printed sources.  The Internet is Magic.

(Edit:  a Devoted Reader says my long block quotes are boring, and anyway didn't I just quote Doc Searls a couple of days ago?  No, that was Jaron Lanier, an entirely different geek.  Anyway, block quote following shortened to the most "funny and interesting" part.)
Digital technology, and the Internet in particular, provide an interesting challenge for understanding infrastructure, because we rely on it, yet it is not solid in any physical sense. It is like physical structures, but not itself physical. We go on the Net, as if it were a road or a plane. We build on it too. Yet it is not a thing.
Inspired by Craig Burton’s description of the Net as a hollow sphere — a three-dimensional zero comprised entirely of ends
— David Weinberger and I wrote World of Ends in 2003 (http://worldofends.com). The purpose was to make the Net more understandable, especially to companies (such as phone and cable carriers) that had been misunderstanding it. Lots of people agreed with us, but none of those people ran the kinds of companies we addressed.
But, to be fair, most people still don’t understand the Net. Look up “The Internet is” on Google (with the quotes). After you get past the top entry (Wikipedia’s), here’s what they say:
  1. a Series of Tubes
  2. terrible
  3. really big
  4. for porn
  5. shit
  6. good
  7. wrong
  8. killing storytelling
  9. dead
  10. serious business
  11. for everyone
  12. underrated
  13. infected
  14. about to die
  15. broken
  16. Christmas all the time
  17. altering our brains
  18. changing health care
  19. laughing at NBC
  20. changing the way we watch TV
  21. changing the scientific method
  22. dead and boring
  23. not shit
  24. made of kittens
  25. alive and well
  26. blessed
  27. almost full
  28. distracting
  29. a brain
  30. cloudy
Do the same on Twitter, and you’ll get results just as confusing. At this moment (your search will vary; this is the Live Web here), the top results are:
  1. a weird, WEIRD place
  2. full of feel good lectures
  3. the Best Place to get best notebook computer deals
  4. Made of Cats
  5. Down
  6. For porn
  7. one of the best and worst things at the same time
  8. so small
  9. going slow
  10. not my friend at the moment
  11. blocked
  12. letting me down
  13. going off at 12
  14. not working
  15. magic
  16. still debatable
  17. like a jungle
  18. eleven years old
  19. worsening by the day
  20. extremely variable
  21. full of odd but exciting people
  22. becoming the Googlenet
  23. fixed
  24. forever
  25. a battlefield
  26. a great network for helping others around the world
  27. more than a global pornography network
  28. slow
  29. making you go nuts
  30. so much faster bc im like the only 1 on it
(I took out the duplicates. There were many involving cats and porn.)
Part of the problem is that we understand the Net in very different and conflicting ways. For example, when we say the Net consists of “sites,” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “visit,”we are saying the Internet is a place. It’s real estate. But if we say the Net is a “medium” for the “distribution” of “content” to “consumers” who “download” it, we’re saying the Net is a shipping system. These metaphors are very different. They yield different approaches to business and lawmaking, to
name just two areas of conflict.
Bob Frankston, co-inventor (with Dan Bricklin) of spreadsheet software (Visicalc) and one of the fathers of home networking, says the end-state of the Net’s current development is ambient connectivity, which “gives us access to the oceans of copper, fiber and radios that surround us.” Within those are what Frankston calls a “sea of bits” to which all of us contribute. To help clarify the anti-scarce nature of bits, he explains, “Bits aren’t really like kernels of corn. They are more like words. You may run out of red paint but you don’t run out of the color red.”


Lanier to LJ: Don't Stop Shushing.

I read an interview by Jessamyn West of Jaron Lanier, (whose book, You Are Not A Gadget, I mentioned a couple of months ago), in the Feb. 1, 2010 issue of Library Journal.

True to his nature, Lanier answers questions across the grain:

What do you think is coming for publishing generally speaking and the idea of words on a page? How can information managers in a library environment either help influence public opinion or help content creators?
If I were a librarian now, I would attempt to conceive of the library from an experiential point of view. I would say, “What is the experience that is missing from the agora, from the world out there, from the private home? What is the experience that's missing that we need in order to be human, in order to think, in order to consider?”
My own take on it would be that information availability in some sort of raw form is not a problem anymore, because of the Internet. It is for some people, as you well know; not everyone has Internet access or equal Internet access. Acknowledging all of that and just speaking in a very crude way that ignores [the digital divide] for a moment...if somebody has broadband at home, if they're affluent, it doesn't mean they have all they need. They still, in many cases, lack the time and space really to think in their lives. And, gradually, libraries will take on the role in civilization of providing that space. I don't think the home will provide it anymore. 
The thinking space where people can get to know themselves and get their ideas cogently arranged or what have you 
So the cliché of the librarian going, “Shhhhhhhhh....” 
Oh, are we tired of that! 
I'm sure you are, but, in a way, that is going to become something that is so desperately desired that I have a feeling there will be a new life for the library in which it provides the thinking space for civilization.
For instance, my book.... At one point I had the most overdue book contract in New York publishing. It's over 20 years or something. And the reason is I have such a crazy, busy life, and I have so many things going on. I was in London some years…ago and a friend of mine, who's a writer, said, “The only way you're going to write a book is in a library” and sat me down in this wonderful, big library [the British Library].
It has amazing incunabula suspended in this glass cube inside the foyer, and you can see scholars wandering around inside the stacks. I sat down in that place and actually had the quietude to...write a book. So this book wouldn't exist without a library.
We must have 10,000 or 15,000 books in our house. We have one room that's…basically a mountain of books. It's become impassable. So we have no lack of access to material, and yet I didn't have access to my own head until I went to the library. So to me there's clearly something missing in the formula that we're developing for civilization.... I think the library will naturally come to fill that gap. Making the library into some sort of alternate Facebook access point is exactly the wrong way to achieve that.



Lost Weekend

The electronic chimes of the First Baptist Church sound in the distance, tolling midnight in emulation of London's Big Ben.  My wife sleeps, beyond the reach of the Florida House of Representatives, which owns her every waking hour while it is in session.

We elected to attend the 7 o'clock Mass, which allowed us to sleep late and read the NYT.  She worked from home on a bill, while I laundered dirty clothes.

We had thought to go to the Jewish Food Festival at Temple Israel and view the Tiffany Angels windows at FSU, but it was a  cold, wet day, and we stayed home.  I hung socks and underwear on drying racks that I had brought inside, and was grateful that the rain had washed the pollen from the air, where it crusted yellow around the storm drain at the end of the drive.


In This Great Future, The Poor Are Still With Us

 SafeLink Saga
Over the last year or so, SafeLink Wireless has brought a new group of people to the library, perhaps the most poor and illiterate that I have seen since my rural bookmobile days.  SafeLink is a government-supported program offered by TracFone Wireless that provides a measure of telephone service to low-income heads-of-household.  A free cell phone is mailed to qualified applicants, and they receive a limited number of free minutes per month.  If they want more minutes, they can purchase additional time at a discounted rate from TracFone.

As people began to trickle in last year to apply for these SafeLink  phones, it became quickly apparent that it would be less trouble to fill out the simple online application for them than to give them a PC and try to coach them through it.  They couldn't read.  If someone can't read at all, you can't even begin to give them pointers on using a PC.  And to get the phone and basic, free service, they do not need an e-mail address, just a mailing address

Last week an older black woman came in with a friend, wanting to sign up for the TracFone plan offering additional minutes for a small monthly payment.  As we negotiated the registration to sign up for for the plan, I had to ask her for an e-mail address.  She bridled at this.  She had counted on being billed by mail, and paying with a printed check.  TracFone wanted an e-mail address and a credit card or bank account number.

It was a deal-breaker for her.  They hadn't said anything to her about e-mail and credit cards.  She seemed indignant at having to communicate with the company online, and she didn't want to give anyone her bank account number.  She didn't have a computer, she said, and she wasn't interested in coming to the library to use our public-access computers.  I gave her the toll-free SafeLink support number, and she left.

Facebook Refusenik
On Tuesday a white country woman asked me for help viewing her son's photo galleries online.  He had shown them to her when she visited him in North Carolina, where he is stationed at Fort Bragg.  They were on Facebook.  Did she have a Facebook account?  No.  She would need a Facebook account to see them.  To get one, she would need an e-mail address.  She didn't want to jump though that hoop, and that was the end of that.

E-mail is still the supreme app of them all, the sine qua non of digital life.  If you are a senior, perhaps retired, at any rate with a settled situation, I guess you still have the option of saying "No, thank you."  It is not that simple for those who need jobs as manual laborers, but who are simply unable to make the leap.

I can't forget the woman who, several years ago, wanted to get a job at Tallahassee Memorial as a cleaning lady.  It was easy to see that she had been a cleaning lady all her life, with her cotton dress, her support hose, and her sensible shoes.  They'd told her to apply online, and it was just wrong.  They might as well have told her to get a college degree.  She couldn't do it, and she was probably an excellent cleaning lady.

In a just society, employers with positions not requiring computer-literacy would have to allow people to apply for those jobs in person.


The Ethicist on Library Late Fines

New York Times columnist Randy Cohen addresses whether it is ethical to keep an unrenewable book and pay the overdue fine when others are waiting to read it in his reply to the second of two questions in Sunday's The Ethicist column.

That the fee is inadequate to provide a proper incentive, that the library does not instead charge $25 a day or $250 a day or impose a vigorous flogging (as described in the no-doubt-renewable “Mutiny on the Bounty”), bespeaks ineffectual enforcement tactics, not the freedom to keep a popular book past its due date...
The injunction “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” is specious. It should be “Don’t do the crime.”


Blogging Reference...Sort Of.

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head.  My Saturday to work.  I've got my voice back, but I'm in a thick-headed stupor that a shower and cups of coffee do little to dispel.  My lungs ache and tingle.  Riding to the library on my Vespa, I see trees that have put out tassels.  Are they sycamores, sweetgums?  Not pecans, yet.  Is there a Patron Saint of pollen-sufferers?

It was an extraordinarily windy day.  In the northeast, rain and wind caused power outages for hundreds of thousands.  A blustery March day, too hot in the sun, too cold in the shade, as I tried to read and smoke outside at lunch, with my Pepsi and tuna sandwich.

I wasn't up to doing a live reference blog post.  Our new librarian, who was with me today, is still in training, so that took priority.  So many things can't really be taught until they come up in real time:  interlibrary loan renewals, what the cut-off time is to spend with a patron when the desk is busy with no back-up, the enduring importance of print sources for ready reference.

We had several inquiries about Ancestry, a genealogy db that the library has had to drop, due to budget considerations.  It is still available at the State Library, down the street, but one patron complained that printing there costs 25¢ a page.  We are using the LDS site Family Search instead for Social Security Death Index look-ups.

A man wondered where our Map Center had gone.  We dismantled it long ago, as use of it declined to  zero and gps maps went online.  He wanted to see railroad lines east from Tallahassee.  The Atlas of Florida had a plate illustrating rail lines in Florida c. 1995.

We had reheated chicken jambalaya for supper, settling into our comfy chairs afterward to zone out and listen to Prairie Home Companion, followed by the conclusion to the very moving film, Pope John Paul II, starring Jon Voight as Karol Wojtyla, on EWTN Cinema.


"My World" News Roundup

Health Update 
Back to the Land of the Living.  My chest still hurts, and I have a residual cough, but my croak is approaching a normal speaking voice.  The temperature rose today into the low '70's, and I felt good, finally, after three weeks.  Approaching rain will help clear the air of pollen.

DRM Dance
MC sends this link to Why DRM Doesn't Work or How to Download a Book From the Cleveland Public Library, which was picked up by boingboing.  I don't care for audio books, but I have to understand how downloads through our web site work to help our patrons.  This "webcomic" is about NetLibrary, and assumes that the reader encounters all the problems that can arise downloading an audio book from NetLibrary.  The truth is that the majority of readers use NetLibrary without problems that they are unable to resolve on their own.  It's just that the small percentage who do hit roadblocks seem like a lot to us, who receive their calls and e-mails.

Personal Book Orders Received
I enjoyed A. N. Wilson's Lampitt Chronicles, which I borrowed through interlibrary loan, so much that I ordered all five volumes from AbeBooks, most of them for a mere dollar apiece plus shipping.  I have shelved them next to their literary parent, Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.

Also, Gracie's Alabama Volunteers:  The History of the Fifty-Ninth Alabama Volunteer Regiment, by John Michael Burton, from which I have learned that my my great-great-grandfather Enoch's brother, Private Jeremiah Castleberry, "deserted and then rejoined during a prisoner-of-war exchange in 1865".  He very likely deserted during the siege of Petersburg in late 1864, a brutal battle of trench warfare that foreshadowed World War I.  Most deserters were captured by Union troops.

I don't blame him one bit..  Two of his children had died while he was at war.  He was probably trying to get home to his wife, while the Confederacy was clearly on its last legs.  I would have done the same.  (Edit, 3/11:  I should say, I might well have done the same.  How can you know what you are capable of enduring?  It's telling that they let him "rejoin" after the prisoner exchange.)

Comcast Antivirus Switcheroo
Comcast wants its subscribers to migrate from McAfee to Norton Security Suite.  The consensus on tech forums  is that users would be better off with the new Microsoft Security Essentials or Avast, although Norton has its defenders, who point out that Norton has worked hard recently to overcome its reputation as bloatware.  The deal-breaker for me with Norton was when I read that it would install a "toolbar" in my browser.  I avoid extra toolbars, if I can, from Norton, Google or anyone else.  No, thank you.

I've decided to go with Microsoft Security Essentials, rather than a third-party application.  My Internet habits are pretty sedate, (no porn, LimeWire or BitTorrent downloads, no multiplayer gaming), so I don't need much in the way of anti-virus protection.  And I don't need frills like parental controls.  (Edit 3/11:  McAfee uninstalled cleanly, and MSE stepped right in pretty unobtrusively.  I've had a couple of prompts for giving programs permission to run.  A painless migration.)


Dave Eggers Interview.

Interesting interview of Dave Eggers in The Observer, Dave Eggers: From 'staggering genius' to America's conscience, by Rachel Cooke.  Eggers is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and more recently of Zeitoun, a true story of an Arab-American who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, runs afoul of The Department of Homeland Security.

Eggers belongs to a cohort of writers young enough to be my children, and about whom, like a bad parent, I feel guilty for largely neglecting.  But that's just me.  Great interview, and I was glad to know more about him.

A quote that warms the heart of this librarian:

 At home, where he writes, he no longer has internet access. A four-month stint with wi-fi proved "deadly" for his productivity and having no access at all ensures that he is not tempted to "look at Kajagoogoo videos and old ads for Wrigley's Spearmint Gum" on YouTube. "Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you're called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can't ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn't written anything for a year."

But, in any case, he is a paper man, not a screen man. "I only read on paper. I don't have an e-reader or an iPhone. I have the best time reading newspapers. I don't believe books are dead. I've seen the figures. Sales of adult fiction are up in the worst economy since the Depression."

...He believes passionately in the power of reading and of writing; one evening a week, he and a group high-school students get together to talk about American journalism, though tonight they will be interviewing me, a "real-life British person" (given that their last special guest was Spike Jonze, the film director with whom Eggers wrote the script for Where the Wild Things Are, I fear I could be something of a disappointment). At the end of the year, these students help Eggers compile a volume called The Best American Nonrequired Reading, a showcase for journalism and short fiction.


Ain't Fergittin', But Don't Remind Me, or Here We Go Again.

The Lost Cause by Henry Mosler. 1869

Black History Month is over, but an article by Gerald Ensley in the Tallahassee Democrat on February 16th caught my attention, "Black-white partnership hopes to improve Natural Bridge re-enactment":

Blacks made up the majority of Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War Battle of Natural Bridge in southern Leon County. Yet blacks have never participated in the annual re-enactment of that battle. That may change one day, thanks to a partnership announced Tuesday between the Natural Bridge Historic Society and the Riley House Museum of black history. The two groups plan to recruit black re-enactors as well as promote more black spectators at the event...
The Battle of Natural Bridge occurred March 6, 1865. The Confederate troops scored a victory that allowed Tallahassee to be the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi to not fall to the Union... Of the 148 soldiers killed or wounded at Natural Bridge, 100 of them were black.
In March, the Natural Bridge Historic Society will stage the 33rd re-enactment of the battle. All previous re-enactments attracted only white re-enactors and mostly white spectators.
For several years, the historic society has tried without success to recruit black re-enactors.
I am so grateful for the valuable contributions the Riley House has made to black history in Tallahassee, but I can understand why black Tallahasseans might be reluctant to afford the not inconsiderable outlay to kit themselves up as Federal troops, (uniforms, rifles), for the privilege of receiving an annual, ritual ass-kicking from white, piney-woods CW re-enactors.

CW re-enacting is a world unto itself.  Tony Horwitz has written a fine account of the phenomenon in his book, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.  The appeal of CW re-enacting is such that many more men who are drawn to it want to be Confederates than Federals.  Often, some "Rebels" at these events are asked to act as "Yankees" just to even up the sides and make the re-enactment possible.

When my parents visited us here some years ago, I thought they might enjoy a tour of the restored buildings and grounds of Goodwood Plantation.  But as we walked through them, my father, an "unreconstructed" Alabama man, surprised me saying, more to himself than to my mother and me, "They should bring in bulldozers, and knock all this down".

It opened my eyes about him.  He was dead set against "race-mixing", but he had no nostalgia for the old, "Gone With The Wind", manorial South.  I was reminded of the foot soldier's gripe that the Civil War, for Southerners, was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight".

My great-great-grandfather Enoch Castleberry and his brothers were yeoman farmers in the hills of Coosa County when the war broke out.

Lacey, (above), served at Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Dalton.

Joseph was killed at Chickamauga.

Jeremiah, ("Jerry"), fought on through the siege of Petersburg to the surrender at Appomattox, and left for Texas after the war, as many Southerners did.

Enoch, a blacksmith and a trooper in Wheeler's cavalry division, survived and, generations later, begot me.  Here is Enoch and his wife, Martha:

I picture Great-Great-Granddaddy Enoch scratching his head at these CW re-enactments.  "What do ye want to re-enact that dern war fer?", I hear him asking sternly, and expecting a serious answer.

Horwitz gives a clue as to why.  He is Jewish, and his family did not emigrate to the United States until long after the war.  His interest was sparked when his grandfather gave him a well-thumbed history of the war.  His grandfather had felt a need, in his effort to assimilate and become a true American, to understand the national childhood trauma that is the Civil War, to make the collective memory of it his own.

For my part, by the time Ken Burns's wonderful documentary about the war came along in 1990, "the most watched program ever to air on PBS", I had mixed feelings about revisiting the subject again, as much as I enjoyed seeing Shelby Foote.  Would we ever be able to just give it a rest?

Clearly, the answer is no.  It's not my own private memory, of course, nor even the legacy only of those, North and South, white and black, whose families paid the terrible price.  Generation after generation of Americans will continue to discover the Civil War, imagine it for themselves, and make their own sense out of it.

When I was a boy, I used sometimes to see front vanity plates on cars featuring a hard-bitten, gnomish  Confederate trooper holding a flag and a saber, with the words, "Hell No, I Ain't Fergittin!".  I also recall the saying, "Save your Confederate money boys, the South will rise again."  Looking back, it is plain to see that the South did rise again, both culturally and politically, in sometimes contradictory ways.