Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Delight in Disorder

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. Here we were to analyze how the structure of a poem is used.

Robert Herrick makes use of rhythm and rhyme in “The Delight in Disorder” to call attention to parts of the poem that are disorderly. In the poem he describes a woman’s garb with attention to the ways that it is imperfect. He declares this imperfection to “[d]o more to bewitch me than when art; / Is too precise in every part.” (13-14) This point is also illustrated in his poem’s structure.

The poem uses closed form, a waltzing rhythm, and imperfect rhyme. Often the rhymes are close but to make them work a word must be pronounced oddly, with syllables stressed in unusual ways. In the case where “thrown” is rhymed with “distraction” the author relies on a foreign pronunciation to make the rhyme work. The form and rhythm help to emphasize traditional beauty, but the rhyme provokes delight in the reader and accurately demonstrates the poem’s subject.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tom on the Fire Escape

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This work is in reference to the Tennessee Williams play.

In "The Glass Menagerie" I believe that the fire escape is used to reflect upon what has happened within the apartment and plan for the future. When Tom is on the fire escape I think he is introspective, regretful, and a bit sad at first. Later he shows signs of hope for change, with which he is excited, happy, and far more emotional. Being on the steps allows him to distance himself from what has transpired, and it is here where he has time to think more calmly upon the strife that occurs when he is home. It’s at this distance that he can see his future and make plans to get there.

In the opening scene Tom addresses the audience directly from the fire escape, here he sets the scene. He’s also telling the audience, in a matter-of-fact manner what they should expect from the play. The next time Tom speaks from the fire escape he is drunk and returning home, yet he speaks with mild excitement of his night in vague innuendo to the earlier fight. Later, it is only after descending the steps that he agrees to his mother’s plan to fetch a beau for Laura from his workplace, he does so with a pointed quip. When Tom and Amanda are on the fire escape together they plan for Amanda’s future, though also secretly plan their own, flashes of excitement are shown but only in regards to their secret aspirations. When Tom is waiting on the fire escape with Jim he gives details of his plans to reach the future in his dreams, which is the most emotional scene outside for Tom, as his excitement to leave has reached its peak. Finally, at the very end of the play Tom addresses the audience again, here he is his most reverent and seems satisfied with the choices he made, but he’s also calm and somewhat morose.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Necklace

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest.

In the short story “The Necklace,” I believe that the necklace represents wealth, luxury, youth, and societal stature. The necklace is all that we covet; the things that are just beyond our reach. It is also a risk and a liability. Lastly, it is a fa├žade and a lie.

When Matilda sacrifices so much to attain the necklace -- and the occasion to don it -- she risks all of the comfort and stature that she has attained. This effort is due to the envy she has of those around her that have greater stature; presumably those who were born of this stature. Her desire for this alternate lifestyle is so great that she is unable to appreciate the life she has.

After the necklace is lost the story turns from one of envy into one of strife. The character grows and is no longer concerned with the lifestyle of others. She is instead focused on finding the means to feed and clothe her family as well as pay back their numerous debts. This is the price paid for the sin of coveting. It is also the result of cost of losing her bet with fate.

When she finds that the necklace was a fake the definition changes slightly. I believe that this is to tell us that the images we perceive are not always what we believe them to be. The necklace that represented her ability to attain the lifestyle she envied was a forgery, and so too was that lifestyle. The friend she envied so greatly that she could not bear her presence wore fake jewels to appear of greater stature.

I believe the author’s intent was to demonstrate that we are usually better to live humbly than to spend all of our time and energy focused on what we have not. We do not have the necklace, and we may never have it. Even if we can obtain it, we may find that it was never real in the first place.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Cable Management

Stop right there! Don't throw away all of that useful packaging! As my gift to you, I'm going to show you how to reuse those annoying twist ties that are included in virtually every toy you buy.

I have a two year old son. He's having a great Christmas. After I took a few gifts out of the original packaging I was left with a mess of twist ties and little plastic anchors.

These ties are used to keep items securely fastened while allowing a clear view and even a trial touch of the item inside. I wasn't originally a fan of these, though they are at least less annoying than bubble packaging. Now I save them whenever I get them. Why? I figured out that they are perfect for cable management solutions.

The first use I realized was that the ties are strong enough that you can wrap them around cables to keep them together and you don't even need to tie them after. Just wrap around a few wires until you run out of tie. The wire is fairly strong and somewhat stiff, though the gauge varies with each product.

Tonight I realized how useful the plastic anchors could be. They have holes in them for the wire ties to pass through and anchor points to wrap the wire around. They come in varying sizes so you could use different ones at different points to keep your cables orderly. As you can see, I've put the wire through backwards so that the cable I'm tying down sits between the anchor points, then I run the wire tie around the back and wrap it in a figure eight to lock it down. On most of these there's even an extra set of holes on the ends, you could use this to lock down another cable or you could drive a tack or screw through it to secure the anchor to a wall or desk.

The great thing about these is that they're free and they work very well. They hold nicely but they're easy to undo. You can reuse them, too. If you're a an environmentally conscious geek father like me these are a great solution to a couple of problems.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Amazon Video On Demand Trial

I like to shop at Amazon. I'm a big fan of their reviews, and I often consult them even when I won't make the purchase from that site. Still, I've been doing most of my holiday shopping there for the last four or five years. I live in the land of malls otherwise knows as North Jersey, and I know better to go anywhere near a mall at any convenient hour in the month or two approaching Christmas. So, I sit at home or work and I review, compare, and buy my presents online. That's not what this article is about.

When I bought my last salvo of presents recently I purchased an $8 copy of Miracle On 34th Street for my aunt. With this purchase I was given a $5 credit to use on Amazon's Video On Demand service. Not bad. Since I like to review streaming video services, I figured that I am obligated to use this credit for just that.

My first impression was that there was a tiny catalog to choose from. Amazon is great at pushing traffic in profitable directions, as such the landing page after you successfully redeem your credit is a list of television series that are available to watch. There is not a clearly defined navigation off of this - not that the links aren't there, they just blend in too well with Amazon's standard navigation - so I considered this to be the choices I had. I selected Battlestar Galactica from a relatively unimpressive lot.

A quick run down of Battlestar Galactica. I'm unfamiliar with the series but I'd heard good things for quite some time. I decided to start with series, rather than the miniseries, which seems like it was a mistake. Then the two episodes I watched weren't in the proper order [my fault, see below] so I was a bit lost. The series seemed interesting and I was able to figure out the general idea. I'm not sure if I can get past the grating sound of the actors proclaiming "frack" instead of "fuck." It's a perfect example of how TV censorship is dumb. Now that I've got that out of my system, back to Amazon...

Starting the first episode was fairly easy. I clicked through, purchased the video, and it played. The video quality is pretty good. So good, in fact, that I didn't realize that I'd selected the standard definition version of the episode. No matter, this was entirely passable for a computer screen. I think if I were to watch it on my TV I'd be annoyed by the visible distortion from compression. Gradients seemed to be the worst victims of this, the result is a fairly high contrast picture. The trade off here is that the video runs very smoothly. I didn't notice any dropped frames and panning scenes seemed very smooth.

I was most impressed with the resources this required. Something tells me that Amazon's service would be great for people with slower PCs, at least comparably. Even though it uses a Flash-based player, it didn't tax my system the same way that Hulu and most other Flash video services do. Even when I watched the second video in HD the experience was better than most streaming services I've used. Netflix is the only other service the comes to mind, but they use Silverlight.

The next video I made a point to watch in HD. Their HD videos allow you to choose from 480p and 720p. To get 720p you have to use the pop out interface, but from there I couldn't find a way to make the video full screen. Why didn't the interface on the pop out have a button for full screen? Perhaps if the player detected a faster connection it would allow me to watch 720p without the pop out, but I don't see why because I didn't have any problems watching the 720p version when I did. The picture quality is, of course, even better. For my laptop's screen I didn't think it was so terribly much better that it justified the price difference. The previous problems with noticeable compression disappear. Everything is crisp and the colors are good. The picture quality of 480p is on par with DVD, and 720p lives up to the HD moniker.

Of course, I was again too quick to judge their navigation and I clicked on season two thinking it was episode two. This was quite annoying once I realized what I'd done. As a user, I internalize this and feel dumb. As a UI designer, I realize that this is at least as much of a failing on Amazon's part as it is mine. Their UI works great for other parts of their store, but I think they're both trying too hard to retain consistency between Video On Demand and the rest of Amazon, or they're not trying hard enough. I think a large part of my confusion came from my expectations of how Amazon navigation works, my past experiences with their navigation, and my past experiences with competitor's streaming interfaces. Overall I was very disappointed with this aspect of the service.

Once I took a few seconds to acquaint myself I was able to navigate a bit better. I checked out the rest of their selection. I'm not overly impressed by it. Since this isn't a subscription service that isn't a huge ordeal, though. When I did find something to watch, like Battlestar Galactica, I was impressed with the completeness of the offering. The worst thing about Netflix and Hulu is that they often fail to secure entire series for streaming. If I'm going to watch something via streaming I'd like to be able to finish, and if I'm forced to start with DVDs then I normally finish that way. If I wanted to it seems I could watch all of this series via Video On Demand, which is comforting and I'm sure makes it easier to part with money.

Which brings us to the last issue with Amazon's VOD: money. There's not a lot of free content on this service. Instead you're purchasing videos, either individually or in a bundled package. The SD video I watched was $1.99 and the HD one was $2.99. I could have purchased an entire season in SD for $17.99 or in HD for $44.99. That ads up very quickly. By contrast, a month of Netflix at my current service level is only $24.99. During that time I could surely watch a season of a show if I want, and I've done that a few times. Hulu is even cheaper. I just have to be willing to sit through some commercials. It seems that Amazon is trying to compete against Apple and DVDs. They may have a decent shot at Apple, but I think there's still a lot of value in DVDs that VOD isn't matching. The sense of ownership, portability, and permanence in DVDs is missing and I'm not convinced that they've done anything to top that.

Overall, I think that Amazon's Video On Demand is a competent player, but they're overpriced right now and they still have some navigation issues to deal with. I'd like to see an expanded catalog and perhaps a subscription offering or ad-supported content. Shy of that I'll probably stick with other services.

Review of Four Authors' Styles

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This assignment was for the class to read four stories and write what we thought about each author's style.

Hemmingway’s The Killers is a quick, choppy, simply written story. It’s very light on detail, leaving the reader to decide what kind of town this is set in using a few clues. At the beginning I found the abrupt style to be difficult to follow, the short volleys of wry dialogue are sometimes confusing. By the end I was accustomed to this and easily followed along, it was almost as though I were part of the conversation. The style of the work leads the reader to feel only slightly connected, but not entirely enthralled in the story, which seems to be a similar commitment level as shown by the characters Nick and George.

In a rather stark contrast to Hemmingway’s style, William Faulkner writes flowing, expressive prose in A Rose for Emily. The story is peppered with metaphor and period specific phrases, this along with lengthy descriptions paints a very complete picture. The narration indicates that it is written from the viewpoint of a busybody who feels inexhaustible amounts of pity for Miss Grierson. I believe that it is the writer’s intent for the reader to foresee the ending and perhaps pity the narrator and the townsfolk for their inability to solve the mystery sooner.

We find simpler wording, but longer, broken sentence structure in Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing. The story is told from the viewpoint of a mother who is disconnected from her oldest daughter. She belabors the failures of her first attempt at raising a child. If Faulkner attempted to claim sorrow for a character but evoked sorrow for the narrator then Olsen does the opposite, I feel that the narrator wants to be pitied while it is obvious that her daughter is more deserving. I had difficulty connecting with this piece, which may be due to my contempt for the narrator but I also found the style to be boring and arduous.

Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart is another very expressive piece. He uses longer, broken sentences with repetition and extensive punctuation to heighten the sense of madness in the story’s main character. There is a strong irony present throughout the story as the protagonist vehemently maintains his sanity while his deeds and tone betray the opposite. The style of this story was the most compelling of the four for me, told otherwise it may merely be boring police drama.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. I was trying to write about my favorite piece of writing. I succeeded and I failed. I do love Shirky's piece but I've thought since that I should have selected another work.

On April 29, 2003 Clay Shirky gave the keynote at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in Santa Clara. I wasn’t there. Fortunately, Mr. Shirky saw fit to post the text of his A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy keynote online shortly thereafter. A few years later, on the recommendation of a friend, I read this for the first time. I’ve returned to it frequently since.

The topic of Shirky’s piece is social networking. He commented on this shortly before the massive explosion of self-aware networking sites and just as blogging was becoming a mainstream concept. While the topic was hardly ahead of its time, many of the focal points were of the distant past. He saw fit to remind everyone that group dynamics and human interaction are nothing new. Neither, it would seem, are the troubles that social software operators encounter as those group dynamics are at work.

He begins by explaining the title and its origins. He explains the story of W. R. Bion, a Psychologist who published the results of a study in his paper Experiences in Groups in 1950 about a group of neurotics. It is Shirky’s opinion -- if not Bion’s, I have not read that paper -- that we can determine many behavioral patterns of a group from this study. He explains using parables of Internet communities that have long since passed, most notably “LambaMOO.” Then he explores the question of “why?” social networking is about to explode. While he continues in-depth on the subject he begins this analysis with the conclusion: because it’s time. In retrospect we can see how right he was. Still, it’s enlightening to see that moment captured and understand how everything started to come together.

Lastly, he offers advice on what not to do if you are running a community and what you may want to plan for at the onset. As someone who has participated in numerous online communities and created a few this is almost sacred text. Yet, I believe that most participants in communities could benefit from this thousand-foot view of how they operate.

I find myself drawn to this text so strongly because it all rings true to me and many of the topics are ideas that I have expressed at some time or another. Shirky brings everything together with great style, though. His words are straightforward and mostly simple. He balances heavy content with friendly presentation that does little to scare away the non-technical reader. I believe the true power of A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy is in the ability to make any member of a group more aware of the role they play. In some cases, they may not realize that they are part of that group at all. I think the most important audience for this, though, are those who seek to create, run, or oversee a group. For that audience I believe that this should be required reading.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Comments on My English Class Postings

If you've been following along you've noticed that I am attempting to post much of the writing I do for school online. I believe that this is something more people should practice. After all, that's how knowledge is spread. In my case, I'm paying for the classes and putting in the hours to produce this. It would be a shame for this work to forever be condensed to a letter grade and forgotten.

I want to advise caution to those who may read my English work. If you are in school and wish to use this work you do so at your own peril. I'm sure that any student who has found their way to my blog specifically for these posts was directed by a search engine. Keep in mind that your teachers likely understand how the Internet works as well.

While I did not put these works up to be plagiarized, I also am not particularly concerned with such things. If you want to use my old schoolwork for any noncommercial purpose then feel free. That's not my goal, but I am powerless to stop it. The same is not true for any professors out there who want to keep their students honest. They can and will stop plagiarist. The easier it is to find a work once the easier it will be to find it twice.

That's not to say that I want to claim ownership of my ideas. Please take my ideas and build upon them. Cite me as a source if you really want, but it is not necessary. When you take my ideas you should do the work to make them your own. I have never had a thought that was perfect. There is room for all of these ideas to grow. That is why I've posted these.

I also want to note that I have not posted any group projects. I claim ownership to all of the works that I post here unless otherwise stated. I'm unwilling to obtain consent to post entire works that I cannot claim as my own. Since I cannot claim ownership of a group effort I cannot in good conscious reproduce them here.

Lastly, I want to point out the timing of the postings. I waited until after my class and was sure to post a note on every work stating that it is a reposting from prior school work. This is important because I do not want to run the risk of a teach accusing me of plagiarism. If you decide to self-publish your schoolwork then you should do the same. Even if you can convince the professor that you've merely reproduced your original work online you'll still have to waste time in doing so.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Real Reason Behind Capitol v Vimeo

Capitol records is suing the video community site Vimeo. The complaint is over a short they created in which the employees of Vimeo lip sync the Harvey Danger song Flagpole Sitta, a late 90's alt-pop song that enjoyed a brief bit of success. It is a white kid in skinny jeans anthem and they fit that bill.

I don't find the lawsuit itself particularly interesting. From the sound of it, I believe Capitol will win on at least one count of copyright infringement. The video itself obviously infringes, though I don't see how it does any damage to Capitol's property. Still, their hook is compelling from a legal point of view. Check out this excerpt from NewTeeVee:

The difference, according to Capitol, is that not only has Vimeo not tried very hard to protect copyright owners, but it actively encourages infringement. Capitol alleges that Vimeo’s use of copyrighted material is “not an accident,” claiming that the web site contains “a massive amount of content that features, and draws most (if not all) of its appeal from, the use of copyrighted works.” As a result, according to the complaint, Vimeo is not only aware of copyright infringement happening on its system, but “actively promotes and induces that infringement.”

What's interesting about this is that Vimeo's appeal is the high quality of its unique, user generated content. Just like in the video, the compelling element is not the song but they way in which their employees are lip syncing. I would go so far as to say that it's more interesting than the original video, though I haven't seen that in a decade. Vimeo is one of the user generated content sites that is relatively free from blatant copying. Perhaps copyrighted works are used as background music for these videos, but they are rarely, if ever, the central focus.

That's why Vimeo is being sued. Not because their site is rife with copyright infringement. Not because their site encourages infringement over unique content. Specifically because the community at their site has flourished into one that consistently puts out unique user generated content of high quality. Vimeo is like YouTube with the noise turned down. This scares the pants off the content industry.

As the trend towards Internet Television strengthens the monopolies of the content industry weaken. Quality user generated content is a direct competitor to professionally generated content. The content industry has a long history of using the legal system to ensure that they squash the competition. That's what they're doing here.

I feel bad for Vimeo. They made an innocent video to show what a fun-loving bunch of wacky kids they are at their little Web 2.0 start up. They probably thought that like other various mashups and non-malicious infringements that their video would either fly under the radar or become a success such that the content owner would appreciate the attention drawn to their work and see the positive aspects of it. What they didn't realize is that they've become the nemesis of big business. Big business does not treat its adversaries well.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Algorithmic Authority and Me

I'm a big fan of Clay Shirky. His assessment of sociology in online communities always seems spot on. When he recently wrote about the idea of algorithmic authority he continued the trend.

What is algorithmic authority? Here's Shirky's definition:

Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying “Trust this because you trust me.”

There is a lot more to it than that, and I invite you to read the full piece on his blog. If you want, go do it now. I'll still be here when you're done.

Anyway, I'm sure you're wondering why the heck I'm writing about it? Well, for one I think it's just an interesting idea. I think we all recognize it to some extent, but to codify it in definition and to think about how it affects us is a little different. Of course, I don't usually like to write about things on here without adding at least something of my own. The real reason I'm writing this is betrayed in the title of the post: algorithmic authority affects me greatly, specifically in reference to this blog.

When I started writing The Design of Ignorance I likened it to yelling in a paper bag. I was far more interested in blowing off stress in a productive manner, and documenting my random thoughts and ideas, than I ever was in things like readership. I certainly never plan to monetize my blog, for instance. What I did not consider was the effect that my choice of the Blogger platform would have on the potential for an audience.

That's where Google Analytics comes into the equation. Since I put Google Analytics tracking on my blog I've been able to see who hits the website, from where, how long they stayed, and how they were referred. It doesn't track RSS subscribers [Hi Justin!] but that's on purpose, if I'm ever curious about that I'll switch to Feedburner. It does show me what keywords caused someone to land on my blog, and to what page they were directed. Without question, the two biggest sources of traffic are searches for "best streaming site" and "hd stretch." As of this writing, my blog is one of the top results for either of those searches.

In short, Google PageRank has declared, using its authority, that I am one of the best places to get information on these topics. I cannot tell you how guilty and pressured that makes me feel. I don't like the idea of being an authority by fiat on topics in which I profess little authority, yet I have a strong opinion. I also hate the thought that people out there are searching for information and, upon finding my blog, are potentially disappointed.

I tried using the social searching features to promote other sites. It doesn't seem to do anything. I've modified the original post about hd stretch to send searchers in the right direction. At least I can take that approach.

This pushes me to write more on the subjects. I'm not convinced that I want to do that, even if they interest me. Yet, here I am playing amateur pundit and frighteningly I have an audience. I cringe to think of myself in league with other amateur pundits.

So, I try my best not to let this influence me too greatly. I'll continue my streaming reviews at my own glacial pace. I'm less bothered by the stretch issue, so I doubt I'll write much about that in the future.

It nags me, though. Perhaps that's for the best.