How I learned to stop worrying and love the social web

I’d like to think of myself as an early adopter of the ‘social’ web, whatever that means. If being involved in a community and having the ability to link back and forth between things created by different people meant ‘social’, then Geocities would qualify as one of the earliest community and social platform. It’s pretty much what blogs, before the term was even coined, was like in the early ages. I was a part of that. Among a few others, I fondly and proudly remembered that I had a site with Digimon cheat codes. I would browse through the directory (search wasn’t great in those days), especially the stuff on UFOs and conspiracy theories and check for updated sites (RSS didn’t exist either), and then talk about and link to them on my own. I displayed a badge with my ICQ UIN, along with my status, whether I was on or offline, publicly on my sites, and just about on every forum I visited.

A few years later, the web gained mainstream acceptance and really took off, making everything I talked about in the last paragraph look primitive. With fly-by-night companies, automated content aggregation and sharing, I was beseiged by fears of losing control and paralyzed by uncertainty.

To be sure, this is a valid concern, and even more so in these days where once’s web presence is more of a representation of one’s self than the physical entity is. Lose a Gmail account, and a part of your life gets wiped out. Sure, we still have memories, but with nothing to confirm the existence of events in said memory, how can you prove that events actually happened? I picked up a love of watching anime lately, and in ‘Serial Experiments Lain’, the concept of existentialism was explored, with the protagonist coming to a conclusion that “if you aren’t remembered, you never existed”. Much like software objects in managed programming languages, once the last reference to an object has been lost or destroyed, the object ceases to exist. But I digress.

My web self took a direction that my panicky real life self would have done. I set sailed for safe harbor and bunkered down. I rented space on a web host and ran my own blog and image gallery, shying away from the publicly available options. The state of my web presence was that of a lonely and depressed old man, left behind and slowly corroding in the wake of the new social web. What I was really doing was effectively living in a gated community where I am the only resident. I’ve all the facilities to myself, but it’s a lonely place.

As shallow as it sounds, having visitors or being referred to is a necessary to validate one’s existence. Privacy and control issues aside, using a web app grants you the power of community, and gives your content better visibility by enhancing discoverability. It is still a gated community and not the true ‘open’ web that is the wet dream of many open source evangelist, but at least it’s a gated community with other residents.

On the topic of more practical concerns, the web environment is a lot more resilient today than it was before. As much as I like to have control, the chances of me losing my own data simply due to poor management is a lot more likely than having the distributed servers of a major web app spontaneously and simultaneously going up in flames. Most major web services supports some form of data portability, decreasing the chances that when the company goes, everything goes with them.

However, there is still some responsibility to maintain local backups or achieves of content posted on the web should the improbable happen. But let me tell you, it’s a lot less work than running and maintaining a web server.

Keeping the log book up to date is an infinitely recursive process

I’m currently doing my mandatory internship period that is part of my course curriculum. During this period, I’ve to, ideally, keep a detailed account of the things I do daily in a log book. The problem is that, however, once I start writing my first entry, keeping the log book up to date turns into an infinitely recursive process that consumes the place of all other activities for every subsequent day after.

Day 1
Do something.

Day 2
Write about what I've done on day 1.

Day 3
I'm supposed to write about what I've done, but since what I did in day 2 is writing my log book entry for day 1, that's what I'll have to write if I want to be completely honest
.

Day 4
Now I've done nothing but keeping my log book up to date for two days. I suppose I could actually do some real work, but if I didn't have an entry for yesterday, it'd seem like I was slacking off. Hmm, I'll write about what I did yesterday, which was writing the log entry for the day before.

Day n
I've now written n entries, with n - 1 of them being meta-entries. I've done one real day of honest work.

See the problem?

Memorizing in the age of Google

U-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan might have been a running joke for Herman Cain,
but sometimes I think that of all the GOP running candidates, or well,
ex-candidates, Herman Cain is one of those few who are actually rooted
in reality.

On Monday’s The Daily Show, Herman Cain was asked once again, this
time by John Oliver, who the president of Ubekistan was. Herman Cain,
much to the surprise of John Oliver, professed that he still didn’t
know. He then added that it would be a waste of time for him memorize
the names of all the heads of states, and he’s got a point. Why should
he when he can just look it up?

You know how in some exams, your score basically boils down to how
much you can memorize and dump word for word on the script? I just had
one such paper today. In the midst of studying for it, Herman Cain’s
interview came to mind.

There’s no reason we should be mocking him for that. Much like
memorizing all the names of states, exams that rely on one’s ability
to memorize information are becoming irrelevant in the age of Google,
unless your goal is to win trivia games. In fact, we might just as
well laugh at someone who spends their time memorizing such
information because of their lack of ability to make use of existing
resources.

It’s no longer about what you know, but whether you know where to find
the answers to what you don’t know.

Certainty in a sea of uncertainty

When I awoke this morning, I was stricken with uncertainty. I wasn’t certain how my day was going to turn out. I had a medical appointment in the morning, and I wasn’t certain what the doctor and I were going to be talking about. I had class after that, and since the second half of the semester is upon us, we had new lecturers. I wasn’t certain that the new lecturers were going to be good. I wasn’t uncertain if I was going to be able to understand them. Then, it turns out that I needed to amend one of my lab assignments, and I wasn’t certain if I could make the changes on time. You see, I have a quiz on my accountancy module later, and I wasn’t certain I was going to make it there on time. Neither was I certain about how I was going to fare. In fact, I couldn’t, with certitude, say or know anything at all.

I was a bundle of nerves, but I held on calmly. In this sea of uncertainty, there is only one thing I know with unwavering certainty, and it shall be my anchor. I don’t know how it’s going to end today, but tomorrow will come with this certain fact. Putin is going to win the 2012 elections, and win he did.

Seriously though, was there any doubt?

Stuff like this keep me up at night

 

When I have trouble sleeping at night, I often put on an old show, preferably one that’s dialog heavy, and leave it running in the background. I find that it helps me sleep, and more importantly, it satisfies my OCD need to know exactly how long it took me to fall asleep. I’d usually wake up the next day and roughly remember what were the last few lines I heard, and that’d give me a good estimate.

In S01E10 of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon retrieves his lunch back from the trash after Leonard binned it in an attempt to make his deception to Penny more believable. When I first watched it years ago, no red flags were raised.

However, after watching five seasons of the show and getting to know Sheldon’s character intimately well, Sheldon’s obsession with cleanliness, especially when it comes to food, the scene seems wrong. The Sheldon we know wouldn’t have even reached into the bin without screaming for disinfectants, much less retrieve his lunch from it. Sheldon freaked out in S02E07, when Penny touched one of his onion rings, and threw away the rest as a result.

In S03E04, Sheldon came into contact a little ink from a whiteboard marker and ran for the nearest baby wipes. Then, in S05E02, Sheldon reacted strongly on hygiene grounds when he discovered Penny had retrieved a chair that was originally discarded. This all reinforces that point that Sheldon’s actions in S01E10 seems completely contrary to his character.

Of course, none of this any fault of the authors. In any long running series, be it a book, game, or television, there are bound to inconsistencies that only arise when you look at the whole thing in retrospect. The authors, while writing for season 1, probably didn’t have all the episodes for season 5 planned out, and it would be silly to considering how TV shows might get axed any time.

Much like history, we often look back and blame individuals or groups of people for failing to see what to us now, in retrospect, feels incredibly obvious. The truth is, in prospect, none of them could have possibly have conceived the every possible chain of results from their action, or inaction.

I don’t want to sell you death sticks

I want to go home and rethink my life.

I didn’t do as well in 2011 as I had hoped to. My performance in school was, to be put it bluntly, rather abysmal. General Patton once wrote after failing his first year at West Point, “You must do your damnedest and win. By perseverance and eternal desire any man can be great.”. That shall be my mantra for 2012.

I hope so for my own sake.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to declare “no games for 2012″, because I know I’ll still be raiding in Rift, still be playing SWTOR, and will definitely play Mass Effect 3 when it gets released. As for a certain game involving Deckard Cain, that I don’t know. I was never a huge fan of the previous two games in the series., and neither do I like the auction house idea.

Time to get serious.

Trialing a dragon for war crimes

Despite digesting a hearty amount of Skyrim news daily, I’ve still somehow managed to not know all the spoilers, and this particular discovery surprised me.

Paarthurnax is a war criminal.

Paarthurnax was apparently Alduin right hand man during Alduin’s last hunger episode where he ate up a whole bunch of Nords.

I did know beforehand that I’d eventually have to kill Paarthurnax, but I wasn’t aware of the circumstances that revolved around it. I had supposed there’d be some complexity involved, but its revelation felt sudden and rushed. The scenario almost seemed too casual and a little comical.

Me: I need help in luring a dragon and trapping it.

Esbern: Okay, let me check our archives. Ah! Here's the shout you need.

Me: Thanks, I'll catch you later.

Esbern: No problem, don't forget to close the door on your way out. Oh! And by the way, your buddy, the one you've spent lots of time with lately, the one who is trying to help you save the world, Paarthurnax was his name yeah? He has not been too honest with you. He really is a big bad guy that used to do lots of bad things. Don't mind killing him, yeah? Cheers!

Me: Uhm...

Okay, I’ll admit I paraphrased a little there, but that’s about the essence of what happened. The information is just handed over in one conversation axiomatically, and that’s it. It’s not very good storytelling.

That’s not all there is to take away from the event though. There’s still something else, a question that some of us think little about because there’s no easy answer to it.

What is statute of limitation on war crimes?

While I don’t know precisely when Alduin’s previous coming was, it can safe to assume from conversations with Paarthurnax that at least a couple of hundreds of years has passed since. Furthermore, since dragons have not been sighted since Alduin’s disappearance, Paarthurnax was not involved in acts of terrorism during that period. Simply, what Paarthurnax did, it happened a long time ago, and judging from the player’s encounters with him, he’s probably reformed.

How far back do we look when judging a person? Do people change, or are they permanently banded criminals? To this day, ex-prison guards who were unfortunate enough to serve under the Nazi regime 60 years ago are still being hunted down for their actions in the past. Are they the same person as they were 60 years ago? Or have they changed since?

I don’t have answers for these questions, but it’s certainly something to think about.

The Story of an individual in Guantanamo – This caught my heart

Detainee, the word itself, it must be noted, is one of the great Orwellian inventions of the past decade. A word that would have had great meaning to Solzhenitsyn, meant to describe a prisoner for whom, for a variety of good and terrible reasons, a suitable judicial system cannot be found. A “prisoner” knows his fate. A “detainee” just lingers.

Source: http://www.esquire.com/features/guantanamo-prisoner-0911

I encourage you to read the article about the life a particular individual before, from his humble birth, and through the inhumane system at Guantanamo. You’d think something like this happened only in the Soviet labour camps in the 60s, but it’s still a harsh reality today.

The author really captivated me with his style of writing – cold, detached, concise and absolutely minimalist. It brings out the sense of isolation and hopelessness the individual went through. It’s a touching read.

tl;dr – In support of Herman Cain

When I first saw this clip on The Colbert Report, I had a good laugh.It speaks volumes about our declining attention span and our increasing failure to comprehend anything longer than 140 characters, or even, two questions within 140 characters. Try texting someone the following:

“When are you leaving town? Want to catch a movie?”

Chances are good that you receive only one answer to the two questions, probably a “yeah” or “nope” response.

Laugh all you want, I did, at least until yesterday when the healthcare reform was brought up in a conversion between me and a friend. We tried to compare it a against the healthcare system here in Singapore to understand why government insurance works here, but might not in the USA. This is when we ran into a wall. Despite heavy media coverage on the topic, we both knew very little about the specifics, about how much money each person would be covered up to, the kind of cases covered, how the payout would be done and so on. We decided we had to get our facts right, and like most people would do today, we turned to Google. Herman Cain’s speech ceased to be a laughing subject.

There was no way either one of us could pour through over 2000 pages of text, and then have a discussion on it. Hell, when I read Gone With the Wind over a span of days, I had forgotten portions which happened early into the story when I was halfway through.

How many of us have actually read through a software EULA, wading through pages of heavily padded legalese before reaching a sentence that is useful information? A new version of the software, with a modified EULA, would have been released by the time we get through it.

To promote informed discussion, which is essential to any functioning democracy, information has to be readily available and easy to understand. It has to be concise. The old lady pushing her cart to the market should be able to understand it just as the well-manicured businessman in his lavish office does. Transparency is only as useful as the information that comes out during the process. Having a wall of text isn’t transparency. It’s simply a wall.

Quoting Einstein, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” We’ve been successful at advancing the human race as a whole because we’ve made basic scientific principles easy to understand. This is what drives the search for unification between the various fields of physics in search of a “theory for everything”.

In A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking, he closed the book with the following paragraph.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the quest of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.

This is what we should strive for in the field of politics and legislature, so that we, as ordinary people, can partake in the process of democracy.

The mess that is Google

I was one of the early adopters of Gmail back when beta invites started going out in 2004. That account eventually succumbed to spam over the years, and I was forced to abandon it. A few years later, Google Apps for Domain launched, allowing for the use of custom domain names with Gmail, and I eagerly jumped on to that.

In the midst of Google’s company acquiring spree, which saw YouTube and many other startups being added to its portfolio, Gmail accounts morphed into something of a more generic Google Account, giving access to other services such as Docs, Spreadsheet and so on. Initially, Google Apps for Domain had the same feature set as one would get with a regular Google account. During this time, a plethora of features were rolled out to native Gmail offering, but not the Google Apps version of Gmail. This was when Google App users, many of who were paying customers, started to feel as if they were second class citizens within the Google ecosystem. Google Apps continue to lapse behind in features when the now defunct Google Wave was rolled out and no support for Apps was included.

Then came the Google Apps transition in 2010/11 that was supposed to bring more features and timely updates to Google App users, matching up to the regular offerings from Google. This came with a huge caveat. Google Apps was now on an entirely different infrastructure and it forced users to create ‘personal’ accounts for services such as YouTube. I now have two accounts to juggle, and despite the multiple sign on feature, going back and forth between accounts is less than seamless.

Yesterday, Google+ was unveiled with Google Apps support purportedly coming somewhere in the hazy future. Over the years, Google Apps has gradually shifted from being the cream of the crop to being a walled garden within Google itself, frustrating those who wants both end user and enterprise offerings of Google. The online service has become just as fragmented as the Android platform itself.

Unlike Microsoft and Apple, both of who have a clear direction of where they want to be headed, with Office 365 targeting the enterprise sector and iCloud for individuals respectively, Google seems to be mired inbetween.