Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

Response Post #3: The Child Inside Us

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 10:00 pm

This is going to end up being a strange hybrid response-personal post, as it will likely transcend its original intended scope (trés typique, Koza).

Cathy‘s personal post spotlighting Cookie Monster’s attempt to have a viral video hit inspired a great deal of passion inside of me. I love Cookie Monster. If I had been a boy, I likely would have aspired to be Cookie Monster, professionally speaking. As it was, I aspired to be Snuffleupagus, whom I found to be maddeningly androgynous when I was five. Was Snuffy a girl or a boy? I chose to think of it as a she, as the only other overt she (Oh, the phonetic irony…) was Zoe, who was overtly lame (and looked as if she were a  bit more familiar with Percocet than a Muppet should be). I later found out (thanks to Wikipedia), that the gentle woolly mammoth is indeed a boy whose proper name is Aloysius Snuffleupagus. God knows, if any name ever screamed “Monday night football! Beer! I am man!” it is Aloysius. What a fool I was. But I digress (Told you!)…

Cookie monster is a hero of mine because of his childlike enthusiasm. I posted this YouTube video of Cookie’s appearance on Martha (Hallowed Ruler of All That Is Good Despite a Brief and Heretofore Never-to-be-Mentioned Stint in Federal Confinement) earlier in the semester, and do so again now, if only because it is indeed my most-viewed YouTube video ever and the repetition is therefore appropriate:

One of the reasons I so adore Cookie Monster, and Sesame Street in general (Except Zoe!) is that it is a welcome reminder to all of us of our childhoods. I am childhood’s Number One Fan. If Childhood had a content in which whoever kept their hand on its rear axle longest would win a lifetime supply of it, I would totally win. As it is, no such contest has yet been held, and I am forced to rely on my own recreative ingenuity in attempting to turn back the clock.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be five again. Well, that’s a lie. I do. But I am quite content acting like I’m five instead. And I don’t mean wailing in the cereal aisle when my mom refuses to buy me Lucky Charms because of the sugar content. I mean swings. My dad and I visited the swings in my parents’ Florida neighborhood just last night. Swings are awesome. So is ding-dong ditch (known in some circles as Knock, Knock, Ginger, which sounds completely ridiculous). Have you ever played? I highly recommend it. My friends and I spent a good amount of the summer of 2008 figuring out which L.A. neighborhood was most conducive to successful execution of ding-dong ditching (Pacific Palisades, if you care to replicate the results). Such behavior would have been grounds for corporal punishment during actual childhood, and at 23, it is likely an even greater offense. But the benefit of playing such a game at 23 is a heightened capacity for STRATEGY and SPEED (critical to a successful getaway sans pesky police involvement).

It makes me sad that so few adults value the brilliance of children. And I don’t mean IQs and gifted programs. I mean kids’ abilities to recognize obvious truths and derive whimsical enjoyment from life. Kids inherently understand that just living in the world is a pretty great position to be in. There are great things about being an adult (freedom being chief amongst these), but there is no reason why we shouldn’t incorporate more childlike wonder into our adult lives, lives that often teeter perilously on the bring of blandness and disenchantment.

The success of the Harry Potter books (Shout out to Tara!) were encouraging to me for this very reason — it indicates that more adults have a taste for childhood than I had previously imagined. Admittedly, I began reading these books when I was Harry’s age in the first book, but at the same time, college kids were picking them up, and my own parents were snatching them from my tiny paws the moment I hit the last page. That adults even retained the ability suspend their disbelief long enough to wander Diagon Alley is one of their greatest triumphs in the last twenty years. Yes, they may simultaneously have been embezzling, offshore accounting, sub-prime mortgaging, and a variety of other offenses that make ding-dong ditching look like child’s play (Oh wait! It is!), but as long as they can find it in themselves to love Harry Potter, I fail to believe that all hope is lost. There is still something in those adults that is good. Even if it’s Slytherin good. In a world in which it’s becoming increasingly hard to find people who will humor me with a go-round through the kids’ section of Barnes & Noble every once in a while, I’ll take what I can get.

Think of all the things we don’t have in our bedrooms any more: Lincoln Logs. Polly Pocket (when she still fit in your pocket). Legos. Talk-boys. Skip-its. Floam. American Girl Dolls. GI Joes. Lite-Brites. Operation. Marble chutes. Pogs.

Good stuff, right? I bet I made you nostalgic just thinking about it all. And I didn’t even mention the soundtrack!

Well, here’s the secret: It’s not just for kids. Modern Polly Pocket may look like a lady of the night, and you may have some trouble finding a Talk-Boy á la Kevin McCallister, but you can swing. Or play Knock, Knock, Ginger. Or read Harry Potter (…and Goosebumps if you really want to go rogue from adulthood). Or just support Cookie Monster’s attempt to go viral.

Because the bottom line is this: We all ditched childhood way too soon in favor of something that seemed more fun. And now it’s up to us to make sure that it is.

*Image: http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/beacon/spring07images/spring07images/20-mercogliano-childhood/childhood.jpg


Blog Topic 11: Kate…Kenya

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I was thrilled with this week’s prompt, mostly because it involves one of my favorite small pleasures — random selection based on equally random criterion. Choosing a nation to profile based upon the first letter of my name is an especially limiting pursuit for me, since both my first and last name begin with “K,” and I would likely be cheating and stretching the parameters of the assignment if I broadened my choices by using the “A” from my middle name. Thus, my choices were as follows: Kazakhstan (closest to resembling my actual name based on inclusion of K’s and Z’s and A’s in the correct order), Kenya (Mufasa!), Kosovo (War! Crimes against humanity!), Kuwait (War! Deserts!), Kyrgystan (Wait. What?). Given the choices…

…what a fascinating case study Kenya is! While I was expecting a good degree of internet literacy in Kenya, I was shocked to find that the nation is nearly at the forefront of computer usage on the entire African continent:

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Kenyan computer usage is the fact that it far transcends mere browsing of Google or email usage. Even gaming is extremely popular!

Perhaps most interesting to me was that Kenyans have made the usage of online tools a priority even in the face of a crippled economy and occasionally violent social environment. In 2007, Kenya experienced over a year of extreme violence following a contentious presidential election that crippled both the economy and humanitarian development. This past summer, kenya voted to approve a new constitution that created new civil liberty protections meant to ameliorate ethnic tensions so as to prevent future conflagration. Voters turned out en masse to support the measure, and their experiences were chronicled online via Twitter and an active elction blogroll. Using tags like #uchaguzi, #kenyadecides, and #referendum, Kenyans collectively provided a colorful and intriguing portrait of election day and the sentiments that followed.

When linking away from globalvoicesonline.org, I found a variety of related sitesthat reveal Kenyan ingenuity in harnessing the blogosphere and social media tools. One of the most interesting examples is Uchaguzi, a “technology platform that allows citizens and civil society to monitor and report incidences around the electoral process.” The platform encourages citizens to report electoral offenses including hate speech, vote bullying, polling bias, misinformation, etc.

As is evident on Uchaguzi’s home page, social media played a large role in both the recent vote, and citizen/crowdsourced political monitoring since. The related YouTube channel and Twitter stream include links to recent election news and the social implications thereof, discussion in both Kenyan and English, and social metric such as the percentage of women active in the Kenyan religious community. The “Uchaguzi” Flickr tag links to a dynamic collection of user-generated images that tell the complex story of the nation’s move towards a strengthened democracy.

As a standalone window into the blogging environment in Kenya, globalvoicesonline.org reveals that Kenyan bloggers have harnessed the ability to self-published to discuss everything fromt he African version of Big Brother to musings on African ethnic identity.

What becomes clear is that while Kenya’s collective blogroll may not be as frequently updated as America’s rap-fire, breakneck blogosphere, citizens’ posts boast great substance and depth that provide both residents and those of us with little working knowledge of the nation an interesting window into its evolution.

*Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kenya_Dialect_map.jpg

Response Post 2: Disenchantment, Cubed

In Uncategorized on November 27, 2010 at 11:00 pm

“People who don’t work at a 24/7 facility usual can’t get their head around how I live, but their comments, things like, ‘that sucks,’ and ‘wait, what?’ don’t bother me. I don’t like being misunderstood by the nine to fours at work, but I’ve stopped trying to explain myself. Have a nice weekend? It’s shaping up to be just as great as your Tuesday.”

– Brendan (= brilliant)

I would like to talk about something with you, undefinable internet audience, that my parents don’t particularly want to hear. But now that I know that at least Brendan will understand, I feel safe in proclaiming it not to my parents, but instead the whole world…

I don’t think I’m cut out for this cubicle business. And because cubicles are typically associated with such hours as, say, nine and five, I am gradually adopting a severe antipathy to these times that is very much related to cubicles.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not lazy (unless It’s Always Sunny in Philly is on or Liz Lemon is romancing sandwiches…Bravo on so many levels, Brendan!). I get up at 5 AM every day, though I don’t have to be at work until 9 (don’t ask me what I do with these four hours. It usually involves Hulu, Netflix, and the two previously cited television masterpieces).

I work hard at what I do. I like what I do. But before now, my jobs were very nomadic. They involved miniature road trips through Los Angeles attempting to locate obscure screening rooms. Figuring out how to get to Yonkers to spend the day talking with third graders about the Draft Riots. Talking to people. Asking them about their lives. Having a relationship with something other than a Compaq (*#@&^f!). Occasionally seeing the sky.

I don’t mind a cubicle when it is in alternating combination with trees and streets. I can handle it for four hours or so, can rally my defenses for lengthy periods and try not to let the obnoxious glare of the computer screen drill a hole through my brain. But lately, I am failing horribly. And I feel strangely guilty about it. Millions of people do it every day without complaint or concern. What’s my problem?

The first thing I ever wanted to do with my life was dig up dinosaur bones. In pre-school, I did my career day presentation on paleontology complete with a diverse collection of miniature plastic dinos and Wee Sing Dinosaurs as accompaniment. I then moved on to aspire to back-hoe-operating, a life in the theater, curating an obscure collection (e.g. ancient bottle labels), and bookstore ownership. None of which, it strikes me now, involve a cubicle.

I think the antipathy I reserve for cubicles involves my recently decided-upon aversion to squares. Please don’t read too much into this. I am talking about shapes, after all, other connotations aside. I don’t like squares because they make me think of atoms or particles of light bouncing, endlessly, off of quadrilateral walls. Which is kind of how I feel sitting in my cubicle. Like I’m about to bounce off the walls.

Squares also bring to mind interrogation and confinement. There is a reason you don’t see murderous psychopaths being interrogated in circular rooms on Law & Order. That would be much too nice. Far too pleasant. Very Buddhist. Not at all conducive to extracting admissions of homicidal tendencies. Also, have you ever seen someone held hostage in a dynamic octagonal room or spacious rotunda? I think not. I do, however, propose that instead of two-way mirrored interrogation rooms, American police departments find a nice boxy cubicle in which to conduct interrogations. I bet admission, and therefore conviction, rates would skyrocket. In fact, I would be willing to wager that it was probably a cubicle that drove said guilty party to the open arms of crime to begin with. I’ll speak for myself: the reality I see for myself when the clock above my cubicle hits 4:30 is maniacal indeed.

Who came up with the brilliant idea of squeezing people into a maze of flimsy above-ground trenches, anyway? According to Wikipedia…

Damn you, John Shiflett. I hate you. If it weren’t for your little brilliant rodent-inspired invention, I would have five times the job possibilities upon graduating than I will end up having because of my new anti-cubicle criterion.

Having worked in museums for a year and a half now, I have had (un)privileged access to numerous dioramas of varying quality and accuracy depicting lifestyles of early man, global man, Cro-Magnon, pseudo-man, et cetera. And may I point out that at no stage of hominid development did any of the hunchbacked, transformative ape-men appear in anything that remotely resembled a cubicle. Nor do traditional global peoples seem to have environments comparable to the modern cubicle. Consider Mongolian urts. Apache wickiups.Sioux tipis. Cro-Magnon dwellings (aka “caves“). Admittedly, none of these spaces included, say, company stationery. Or electric staplers. Or fluorescent lighting. Or business cards (…next to cubicles, my next least-favorite thing). But I think I could go without such modern luxuries (Where’s my sarcasm font when I need it?) for the sake of my the preservation of my sanity.

If that cave in Lascaux, France had been a cubicle, I can guarantee we would not have been left the priceless anthropological gift of Upper Paleolithic art. The most we could have hoped for would have been miraculously preserved claw-marks on the decomposing cubicle walls.

Here’s what I propose: Tipis for the workplace. Yurts. Longhouses. Round Tables. Hovercraft. Ford’s assembly lines would even be preferable (Kidding. Kind of.) Anything, really, that does not remotely resemble Shiflett’s Plague. The bonus bi-product of such a workplace design is that it would remind Corporate America of the diverse realities of the outside world, present and past. Imagine how different typing a spreadsheet would be in a traditional Mayan palapa. Not only would you be more responsible about regularly contemplating the impending apocalypse (very conducive to the counting of blessings), but you’d also require much longer bathroom breaks, as such dwellings lacked necessary facilities! It’s even organic! What a win-win.

Basic familiarity with Norman Bates used to be my litmus test for friendship. Now my litmus test for employment is lack of cubicles. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect some plush corner office. Or an office at all. Just don’t lead me to a cubicle and nod your head and point enthusiastically; I’ll have vanished before you can say “rheostat.” Give me an 8-to-4, 2-to-11 shift dressed as a hot dog holding a sandwich board any day.

Because my penchant for “tunneling” is about to transcend riding a Megabus through the Lincoln Tunnel and translate into an Alcatraz-esque escape strategy. From my cubicle.

*Image: http://www.coolscifi.com/gallery/files/1/cubicle.jpg

Blog Topic 10: Givethanksing

In Uncategorized on November 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm

This is the first blog prompt that was a no-brainer for me. It would be all to easy to mentally scroll through the litany of sites I hit on a weekly (ahem, daily) basis and ponder deeply on which provides the greatest utility to my typically quirk-laden and oft-inane life. But it would all be for naught. Because the only site that would debilitate my sense of self by suddenly vanishing into thin air is the one that graces my screen the moment I log on — http://www.nytimes.com, my hallowed Page of Home.

I know, pathetic. A news site. And not even on that lies off the beaten path! I would feel ashamed if it weren’t for the fact that the NYT is so…awesome. Even my adjectives are clichéd. But I don’t care. I just don’t CARE! You could abscond with my black-and-white cookies, snatch my Ingrid Michaelson anthology, set ablaze my Bette Davis DVDs, trash the fallen branch I picked up on Broome Street when I was four that looks like Perry Como, take Bones off the air (…please God don’t!), erase from the planet such cinematic gems as Boeing Boeing and The Right Stuff, shut down Cost Plus World Market, and retroactively convince J.D. Salinger to open a bodega instead of write novels and IT WOULD ALL BE OKAY…just let me keep http://www.nytimes.com! And for the love of all that is holy, please don’t make me pay (or else I will be forced to peddle aforementioned tangibles at below-market-value prices on eBay).

How is it that someone (for the purposes of this particular post, me) so averse to news of almost all kinds holds a news website in such high esteem? Because, dear reader (…dear void?), http://www.nytimes.com is so much more than news. It is a zeitgeist. A lifestyle. A guide to living. A tsk-tsk, finger-wagging pseudo-mama reminding you to eat your cabbage not only because people are starving in Xanadu, but also because it’s one of the 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating. A safe haven for sardonic thoughts to find good company and assuage the bi-product of said sardonicism: guilt at being so sardonic.

Take, for instance, the comforting column that greeted me on Thanksgiving Day. I had woken up to the sound of ( jolly?) bickering over the theme of this year’s Christmas tree — my mother, typically, wanting nothing to do with anything colorful, arguing on behalf of a palette that could at best be called, “classic creams and golds,” at worst “I stole Christmas not by jacking Cindy Lou, but rather by eradicating all semblance of ROY G. BIV from the face of the living room.” My father, meanwhile, was arguing not for the opposing team, but rather advocating for the devil, proclaiming the need for a flamboyant model train beneath the tree and colorful classic transportation-themed ornaments (of which we have a total of none, thus posing the additional problem of climbing a summit of financial output before reaching the peak of not-s0-angelic tree-topping). He might as well have informed my mother than he had won a Major Prize and installed it prominently in the front window. The tree, I noticed, looked apathetic about the whole thing, and bent at a slight angle that said, “No amount of water will revive my original zest for my once-promising life of potential longevity.”

In other words, I was feeling somewhat short of gratuitous, and wasn’t even in the zip code of thankful. So it was like a pat of solidarity to read the following:

Oh, nytimes.com. How you bolster me. I could give thanks for disfunction! For cynicism! For quiet internal dialogue! For the ability to spin locks of mundaneness into something less bland just by finding humor! And what’s more, you offer me this as a bonus prize! Ode to Joy! Hark, the Herald Times Angels Sing!

Even on days that do not require holiday anxiety relief, nytimes.com offers me a plethora of regularly scheduled treats. Dowd-isms. Bittman bites. Crosley comforts. Practicality. Semi-practicality. Comedy. now if only the NYT would somehow link to McSweeney’s, my online life would be streamlined and nearly unassailable.

So, http://www.nytimes.com, come December 16, I may return home to a Christmas tree drowning in its own mauve-tastic boredom. I may find a seasonal homage to Amtrak. But hey, kid, I’ll always have you.

Blog Topic 9: The Game of Life

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Up until this week, my gaming experience had looked a lot like this:

A yellowing “lucky” pack of pseudo-Roman cards my grandmother picked up in Vegas at Caesars Palace in 1957. Parlez vous gin rummy?

My dad’s faded Monopoly board, whose top hat has been conspicuously absent since a college camping trip and is now purportedly nestled somewhere in the Vermont wilderness, and whose railroads I strive to monopolize with violent zealousness.

Clue, the coolest thing to be printed on cardboard since, well, ever. Everyone thinks Miss Scarlett is so incapable. If they only knew. That candlestick is so misleadingly dainty-looking.

In situations in which six or more people are present, Cranium rules the roost. Unless you happen to be gaming with members of the elderly set (as I frequently do) – then it’s all about the Trivial Pursuit (…circa 1965 version, read: I always lose).

You get the picture. To me, gaming involves dealing, shuffling, cardboard, pawns, and, if I’m feeling especially adventurous, a rope with handles or a giant hoop meant to be kept airborne via ungraceful posterior orbiting.

This lack of familiarity with electronic amusement is due to a combination of factors: disinterest on my part, unwillingness on my parents’ parts, and an overt lack of manual dexterity. Growing up, I also didn’t have many friends who gamed. One had a Super Nintendo and we did enjoy the occasional Mario (or in my case Yoshi) battle, but beyond that I was clueless. The pizza place down the street had a Pacman machine, which I was fond of when the air hockey table had again experienced a mysterious puck disappearance.

And who doesn’t love the SIMS? Though, I guess, my interest is far more Liz Lemon-esque, who so famously said,“If I have learned anything from my SIMS family — when a child doesn’t see his father enough he starts to jump up and down, then his mood level with drop until he pees himself.” Let’s face it: the SIMS is convenient for three things: bankrupting yourself on the highest-priced wide-plank wood flooring without repercussion, buying things with names like “global aquatic fishery and biodome,” and creating families with similar faces and the exact names of the people who occasionally make our lives hell and watching as they self-destruct via starvation, bathroom deprivation, and/or verbal abuse. Not that I’ve ever done that.

Beyond this, I am clueless. So much so that my discomfort with online gaming comes close to precipitating a kind of mild fear at learning that the U.S. military is using games (and graphic novels, apparently) for training and recruiting. I’m not even going to bother apologizing for the fact that I have a problem with this. I’m sure there is some tactical value to it, and it of course beats forcing recruits into real-life situations of danger just to impart basic maneuvers and tactics. But it evokes the same kind of visceral anger in me that military advertisements that run at the movie theater do. As I sit there in my seat at the cinema in that environment of pure entertainment, I could spit nails when a U.S. Army National Guard ad showing GI Joe-like troops surge their exotic environs as Kid Rock blares a hard-rock, bad-@$$ ballad in the background. I think it sends a totally inappropriate message that joining the military is equivalent to participating in a music video that will resemble the set of Transformers rather than the more realistic sandstorm embedded with IEDs.

..yes. It absolutely seems as if the wee lad took away the intended message (this is the time in which an officially designated sarcasm font would come in handy).

To know that the army has been touring the country with this Virtual Army Experience, stopping at amusement parks and county fairs…um, no. I’m sorry. Just…no. I don’t see how this, in any way, can be construed as okay. It has nothing to do with anyone’s respective opinions about the military. It has everything to do with presenting something (to children!) as a game that in reality is by no means entertaining.

Cue scene: An army recruiting office. An 18-year-old is trying to convince a recruiter that he’d be the perfect candidate for service. Recruiter: “How would you know, son? Have you ever been to war?” Reply: “No, but I dominated the game at the county fair when I was 12! I was so good that I won a giant pink elephant and a lifetime supply of funnel cakes!”.

I really need to move on to another topic, because this one is rapidly approaching rant territory.

For our upcoming class, I chose to test out Second Life (World of Warcraft just sounded overwhelming. I’m sure I’d be gunned down in five seconds flat). Admittedly, the amount of time I devoted to immersing myself in the SL culture was necessarily limited by the time I had available to do so. However, I left the brief Second Life I lived (and, in effect, died  — an entire lifespan in only an hour!) with two somewhat conflicting feelings – those of fascination and incomprehension.

From an anthropological perspective (I can’t help it! Like Jersey Shore and the early era of Survivor, it’s RIVETING!), it’s a fascinating study in how people will act and what they will choose to value once the physical realities and barriers that govern their 3D lives are largely removed. But from a personal perspective, I just don’t get it. The SIMS provided the occasional thrill of allowing me to design a house to a scale that I will likely never be able (or desire) to actualize in real life. But Second Life? I just couldn’t get into it. Partially because if I’m going to take the time to interact in a fake world, I want the people I’m interacting with to be fake, too, and of my own construction (the remnant of those passive aggressively-motivated SIMS characters, perhaps?). Partially because as I was playing, I was thinking of all the things I would rather be doing in my First Life (e.g. watching Grizzly Man. Or eating Hint of Lime Tostitos. Or counting the number of people on M Street who walk by wearing the same outfit over the course of an hour.).

A random selection of things that boggle my mind:

  • That people will pay real money to receive a weekly stipend of fake money.
  • The fact that Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, deals with protests from parents players that they cannot cohabitate/integrate with their teenage children who have recently be transferred from the teen grid to the adult grid upon turning 18 says it all. You can’t coexist with the fake version of your own kid in your fake world when you’ve spent the last 18 real years of you real life really living in the same real house with the real them? Interesting.

This indicates to me that many players, perhaps especially adults, are approaching Second Life – as Second Chance. Entertainment not just as escapism, but an opportunity to make different choices or be someone else — Self 2.0. Like the movies once provided a welcome escape from the national environment of war, social upheaval, etc., perhaps online gaming is providing an escape from the often unimaginative real world – a world in which unemployment is the word of the day, and employment often connotes a situation not all that much more desirable.

All this to say: It’s so typical that my first response to any techno-phenomenon be ¿cuál es éste, y porqué? Though proficient at using the internet, I struggle with understanding and valuing many of the things that make the experience so rich for others. Which is why I am so excited for our class tomorrow night. I am eager to learn more about the whole phenomenon of online gaming from someone who understands its facets better than I do. And maybe, just maybe, prompt me to give Second Life a second chance, if only to more effectively seek out the avatars of my real-life nemeses and cause some social upheaval… Kidding. Kind of.

Blog Topic 8: Newsiness

In Uncategorized on November 10, 2010 at 2:10 am

Last week you were tasked with comparing the credibility of Wikipedia with a traditional published encyclopedia. Your blog topic for this week is an extension of that same theme, with a slight difference: did anything we showed you or discussed in class change your mind from your initial position? What about traditional news outlets—how would you compare the credibility of Wikipedia, particularly around breaking news?

Not to say that I wasn’t fascinated by some of the phenomena occurring in Wiki-universe that were pointed out, but I was personally much more shocked and appalled by the revelations of the Google class than last’s week’s exploration of the online encyclopedia. Nothing offensive or troublesome enough to alter my answer to last week’s blog post arose during discussion.

In fact, if anything, our discussion of the upcoming Wikipedia project actually reinforced my opinion last week – knowing how difficult it is to edit or create a Wikipedia page makes me more apt to stick with my preference for it over a traditional encyclopedia for day-to-day usage. There are many, many alternatives to traditional encyclopedias, many places where you can cull the same information found in their beautifully bound pages. But there is really nothing comparable to Wikipedia in either depth or breadth.  And that makes it a very valuable tool for a variety of tasks, be they for personal edification or clarification of modern parlance and pop culture.

The second portion of this week’s query – a comparison of Wikipedia to traditional news outlets – is thought-inducing. It seems like a simple question at face value: Who in the world would say that Wikipedia is a better source of news than NBC? But then you start thinking, really thinking. Thinking about things like NBC’s announcement of Gore as president on a November night in 2000. And then the annulment of that announcement – Gore is president. No, wait, Bush. Actually, let me walk over here and point my laser at this blue-and-red map and say the word “Florida” fifty times before telling you that I’m actually not sure who is president.

Could Wikipedia users have told me who the 43rd President of the United States would be on that November night? No. Not even if they were all Florida voters. So maybe Wikipedia can’t trump mainstream reportage (in this case, that of the television news media) on every occurrence of public importance. But it certainly doesn’t come off as all that inferior to the mainstream news, either. Especially in a world increasingly flooded by news of rapidly-occurring unforeseen events – tsunamis, terror attacks, and, yes, celebrity incarcerations.

I mean to compare Wikipedia with the television news only, as I think a comparison with the online print media would be unfair. I will always place higher value and credibility in the New York Times and Guardian websites than Wikipedia. Because just as Wikipedia has real-time contributors pouring their real-time observations into it’s matrix from all over the world, so now do mainstream news websites. Tips, photos, and commentary from readers and users is now an integral part of the New York Times site. And like WIkipedia, users of these sites can contact the paper and contribute immediately and with hardly any more editorial barriers than those presented by Wikipedia’s many informal gatekeepers.

However, the television news is a different story altogether. My disgust with TV news (Yes, nearly all of it. With the possible exception of the Brits and Jim Lehrer (whose biggest challenge in culling my favor is his insomnia-curing delivery and not wholly unrelated obsession with bus memorabilia), I think hardly any of it is worth an infinitesimal fraction of the amount of advertising dollars contributed to keep it afloat. In fact, I hate it so much that listening to even 10 minutes of something as innocuous as Good Morning America that doesn’t even go so far as to claim it’s hard news makes me want to pull my hair out.

When something of import happens, be it a terror incident or a Lohan DUI, the TV news media practically begs their audiences to send in their PDA snapshots and eyewitness commentary. They seek people out who will say things like, “Oh my God, it was like so awful. I mean, like, I’ve never seen someone that drunk! She was like practically sliding into the floorboard; I could tell even through her opaque windows! If she had run the stoplight five seconds later she would have like massacred an entire family, or at least those drug lords from Silver Lake who stand on that corner! I’m pretty sure she had heroin in her system, too! At least, that’s what it looked like from where I was standing – practically RIGHT. IN. HER. PATH. – twelve-hundred feet away!” Cue sobbing. Unfair or not, that’s my perception of TV news. And in lieu, I’ll take Wikipedia any day.

Furthermore, I’m not sure I’m always so convinced that the flood of graphic, shaky, and shocking images that loop on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News alike do us any good from an actual hard news perspective. Increasingly, as the quality of accompanying commentary diminishes, these images are allowed to speak entirely for themselves. I am usually a proponent of this: View it, contemplate it, and think what you will. But the problem is that when only the most shocking images makes the cut, letting them speak for themselves will lead to perceptions of disproportionate hysteria and paranoia. Which in turn leads to things like Birthers. And 911truth.org. And this one. And, say what you will, I find this mildly troubling.

Compare to Wikipedia. Yes, the page may eventually have some images. And in the situation of rapidly-occurring events, there may be some early dramatic in-text editorializing. But nearly as soon as it appears, if it’s irrelevant or biased, it’s gone and replaced by more accurate and balanced information as it becomes available. And instead of sitting through the daft babble of speculating talking heads and the rote exclamatory dramatics that provide the soundtrack to the equally dire imagery, I can just refresh a Wikipedia page and literally watch the world as it occurs. This from the un-made-up eyes of people whose brains aren’t addled by harsh lighting and probably contractual deals with PTSD treatment centers. It may be words and not pictures. And it may be cooldude22 instead of Chris Matthews. But it, at the very least, gives me a window to the world from the unembellished, ground-floor level from which I live my life.

Blog Topic 7: The Benevolent Wiki (?)

In Uncategorized on November 3, 2010 at 1:54 am

I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica (1998) lined up on my hall bookshelf — along with my equally infrequently used Remington 5 (1935), they are my best antique finds yet ($30 for the set!). While I love having the knowledge that thousands of years of amassed human wisdom are balanced precipitously on one of my shelves, I have probably cracked the things open five times since I bought them two years ago. Are they impeccably composed? Yes. Is the writing stellar? Yes. Do they offer answers and insight into the things I need/want to know on a daily basis? Not so much. I will I could claim the type of intellectualism that would be required to have all of my musings fleshed out by Britannica. But, alas…Wes Anderson and Zooey Glass will always be trumped by protozoa and phalanges in the glossy pages of those leather-bound books.

For the first time this semester, I didn’t have to spend a great deal of time ruminating to solidify my response to a blog prompt — when faced with the choice between Wikipedia (circa today) and Encyclopedia Britannica (circa I-have-to-pay-to-view-it-online-and-figure-out-what-the-circa-is?!), I choose Wikipedia. And surprisingly, I don’t feel like I am being a traitor to the traditional books that I so love by espousing this opinion.

At 3.4 million articles, it’s not hard to justify the choice based on quantity of information. But quality is, admittedly, another thing entirely. So in order to justify my choice, I feel than I need not focus on reinforcing the utility and usefulness of Wikipedia, but rather refuting its naysayers.


After watching Jimmy Wales’ video from the TED Conference and exploring competing products and services, I still find good old Wikipedia most useful in aiding in fleshing out my opinions for the purpose of this post. Which is kind of the point. I needed a quick, logically organized conduit for jump-starting my thoughts on the subject of Wikipedia. Taking the knowledge gleaned for the disparate links and articles I read and mashing them together to form something coherent would be like doing the same thing with Play-doh — the colors are not going to meld to create something new and beautiful; instead I’d be left with a grotesque-looking blob of warm crap in a thousand colored sections. And such a blob is something that is no more attractive in the linguistic form of a blog post than it is in a toddler’s sticky hand.

One of the claims cited in the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia revolved around criticisms of writing being Wikipedia’s “achilles’ heel,” as “committees rarely write well.” While I feel that some Wikipedia entries are surprisingly eloquent, I agree that the majority lack stylistic cohesion and flow, particularly the longer articles. But the more I think about this, the more I think it could actually be a good thing. First let me lay down a basic premise of this entire diatribe: I believe the function of Wikipedia and the function of a publication like Britannica are as inherently different as night and day. They both end in -pedia and the similarity ends there. And that’s not a bad thing! While I would discourage the use of Wikipedia as a citable source for serious hard research, it is the single most wonderful way to obtain a general understanding or relatively nuanced overview of a topic that in other publications might be unapproachable from a novice’s perspective.

This being said, the benefit of Wikipedia being poorly written in comparison to more traditional encyclopedias is that this weakness serves as a natural discouragement to those attempting to misuse Wikipedia and turn it into a serious hard research source or, even worse, those who are lazy and want to plagiarize (But how can you steal what is public domain? This is an interesting question that brings up a new issue — will students try to claim fair-use of Wikipedia in projects and papers due to the fact that in theory, they share ownership and authorship? Hmm…). If it’s poorly written, it doesn’t lend itself as well to being the conduit for laziness that some people would have you believe. Just as perfect papers turned in by C students set off alarms in teachers’ heads, poorly composed or unsubstantiated research turned in by serious academics or students of higher education should set off alarms in the heads of their reviewers and peers.

People who proclaim vitriolic derision for Wikipedia’s “unreliability” and “lack of sources” need to get over themselves a wee bit for one reason, and one reason alone: If they don’t like it, they can find another, more appropriate source. While I agree that the infrastructure is prone to certain kinds of flaws, it serves its purpose well overall, and those who expect perfection should look elsewhere. No one is forcing or even encouraging them to view Wikipedia as the Ultimate Deity of Publications Ending in -Pedia. Is this a somewhat simplistic, black-and-white viewpoint? Yes. Are there legitimate argument for Wikipedia’s lack of legitimacy? Sure. But if you want stalwart sources, get on JStor or consult the New York Times. But keep in mind what Tyler Cowen said: novel results are over-reported in journal articles, and relevant information is omitted from news reports.

There are innumerable other negative comments on Wikipedia I could spend my time trying to refute with my own opinions (Dartmouth’s repudiation of the claim that anonymous users submit sub-par contributions, the considerations left out by the Wall Street Journal when they published a doomsday article illustrating the striking decline in contributors, etc.). And there are a million things I love about Wikipedia that I could spend hours on. Today alone, I used Wikipedia to query Farm Sanctuary, Kazuo Isiguro, the Cort Theatre,  the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, UGG Australia, and sloth bears, none of which can be found in the pages of my Britannicas. Were they perfect assemblages of flawless informational brilliance? Perhaps not. But they told me what I needed to know, and I left feeling more informed than I was when I arrived.

As for my biggest gripe — at the end of the day, all things considered, I agree with Frank Ahrens: Wikipedia’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It is being written from a very specific and biased standpoint. Not so much the standpoint of its top contributors and editors or of Jimmy Wales (criticisms aside), but from the standpoint of the times — the zeitgeist of the early 21st century. But the beauty of it is this: In fifty years, the zeitgeist will have changed, and if the trends of the past decade hold true, Wikipedia will have changed with it. Wikipedia may be a mirror reflecting us back at ourselves. But it’s a mirror that’s won’t end up abandoned in someone’s attic, reflecting remnants of what we were as opposed to who we’ve become.

Personal Post #2: Tunneling

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2010 at 10:34 pm

This weekend, I forewent the Jon Stewart extravaganza that I had originally planned on attending in favor of being boring and going home for the weekend. But my boringness was not without just cause.

I have been yearning for what feels like forever to see my favorite actress – Laura Linney – perform on Broadway. It’s where she got her start, and though she used to make an appearance on New York’s stages with regularity, she hasn’t returned to theater in many years due to her heightened “mainstream” successes (The Savages, John Adams, Love Actually, Kinsey, etc.). This past spring, she debuted in a play called Time Stands Still, portraying a gutsy war photographer who has recently returned home to New York after almost being killed in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Getting tickets was of primo importance on my “to do before I move” list, but it never happened, largely because a Tony nomination followed the debut rapidly, and available, affordable tickets became nearly extinct. So I had to deal with the fact that I probably missed my opportunity to see her on stage before I hit 40.

Cut to last weekend, when I found out that Linney was taking a temporary hiatus from filming her new Showtime drama The Big C in order to return for a limited engagement to Time Stands Still. I sprang to action, and had tickets within the hour.

But this post has little to do with the play (which was too good to be subverted to the tag-along topic it has become in the context of this post). No, this post is about something that I got to do because of the play, something I get to do every time I go home, and something that is in my Top 5 Favorite Things of Life. No, it’s not that I got to visit the secret Phantom of the Opera-esque downstairs bathroom at the Cort Theater (though this is probably in my top ten favorite things – it looks like no one has been in the room since 1925), and it’s not that I got to climb the rickety wooden ladder at The Pink Pony to stow my coat in the hole that’s carved crudely into the top of the wall above the cash register (also ranking in my Top 10 — the restaurant I mean, not the hole…though the hole could probably land a Top 50 spot as a standalone submission). Nor is it any of the other things that populate my Tops – pumpkin soup, crows lined up on wires, feeling your nose de-thaw after being outside for four hours, charcoal pencil sketches, newsprint, abandoned childhood bedrooms with Transatlanticism posters lining the inside of the closet door, the framed certificates and diplomas of strangers (A brain on a wall? Or a bank account on a wall?), people who knit on public transportation, deformed umbrellas shoved unceremoniously in trashcans, cluttered attics where you can find things that confuse you like brass birdcages when you never had a bird, an on and on and on. I like these things. A lot. But not like I love riding through the Lincoln Tunnel on the top of a Megabus.

Yes, I am easily amused. But this isn’t just about amusement. Have you ever ridden through the Lincoln Tunnel in the top-level front seat of a double-decker bus at speeds that are entirely inappropriate? No? Don’t knock it ’til you try it, friend.

Some people feel God or Life or Faith or Biggerness or Moreness or whatever you want to call that feeling of blissful inconsequentiality in cathedrals. Some people feel it in airplanes. Some feel it standing at high altitudes on mountains or observation decks of skyscrapers. I feel it sitting on the top front seat of Megabus while hurdling like Evil Knievel through the Lincoln Tunnel.

I used to ride Amtrak between New York and DC. I can’t imagine a time in which I didn’t know the glory of Seeing God from the Megabus, but it is so. A mere six years ago, I didn’t know any better. Amtrak, which in theory I love (The romance of the rails!, The Boxcar Children!, Water for Elephants!), but in reality I hate (Not getting to choose your seat and getting stuck on the aisle under an air vent blowing 20-degree tundra wind onto you while you rest uncomfortably next to a heavy breather who wants you to scratch his back!) simply cannot compare. And I will never take Amtrak again.

In this new Megabus Era, I show up an hour prior to my departure time at H and 11th Streets in order to ensure I get the good seat on the top – the one in the very front with the footrest and panoramic view of my impending death on the other side of the window. Don’t tell me I’m a nerd. I already know. Arriving at the Megabus stop an hour before departure is the chronological equivalent of wearing knee socks with sneakers.

The unfortunate thing about the choice seat is that it also happens to be the seat of most-likely death. Did you know that Megabus has been at the center of multiple safety controversies recently, controversies that have to do with the drivers taking unsanctioned alternative routes and driving at top speeds into overpasses that are too low for double-decker clearance? Most people view this as a reason to switch to the single-level security of Bolt (or at the very least sit on the bottom level), but for me it only increases the excitement. Every looming overpass is like a coin toss! Will we clear it or won’t we? Ooh, the anticipation! It’s hard to pinpoint the origin or my masochistic fear-induced thrill seeking, as I hate roller coasters and it’s like pulling teeth to get me on something as dinky as Space Mountain.

But all of this pales in comparison to the feeling of excitement I get when the city looms into view and we pass Weehawken Stadium, the signpost that indicates the Orwellian entrails of the Lincoln Tunnel are a mere minute away.

For the optimal experience, the driver needs to be breaking the inner-tunnel speed limit (35 mph), which is highly dependent on traffic. Scheduling the tunnel portion of the trip to occur during non-peak hours is crucial. Because the moment you’re inside, you need to be going 50 to experience maximum Twilight Zone/drugless LSD-type conditions. On the top deck of the bus, your head is placed at the exact same height as the fluorescent lightbulbs placed every five feet along the tunnel wall. And if the speed is right, the alternating blink of the lights blurs to a tube of epileptic-inducing glare and SHABAM! — you are officially experiencing something completely unearth-like that just made your exorbitant last-minute fare of $15 worth the while.

My favorite movie of all time is an overlooked gem called Winter Passing with Zooey Deschanel, Will Ferrel, and Ed Harris. And all it took to bump my previous favorite from the top spot was a scene in which Zooey’s character climbs on a bus and flies through the darkened Lincoln Tunnel, all the while listening to “Rise” by Azure Ray, which officially became the soundtrack to this whole experience. Adam Rapp is probably the only one in the world besides me who appreciates the power of combining the Lincoln Tunnel with a bus enough to feature it in a film.

And thus I begin the week on a high note. I got to see Laura Linney perform live. I got to climb that rickety ladder and dump my coat on top of a bunch of strangers’ coats in a hole in an East Village wall. And I broke the barriers of the time-space continuum for $15 on the Megabus.

If more people only knew how inexpensive wonder really is…