Quarterly Report: It Came from the Deep (of the Internet)!


Hello everybody, and welcome to the latest installment of Quarterly Report, where I review the contents of the mystery boxes I receive from Quarterly.co! This time I’ll be reviewing the second installment from Laughing Squid. As some of you may remember, I was quite enamored of the first shipment they sent me, and honestly I didn’t think there was any way they could top it. Fortunately I was so very, very wrong. This shipment is all about the memes, and I couldn’t stop laughing from the moment I started digging in.

When I opened the box, I was greeted by something I simply didn’t expect: Nyan Cat! Yes, someone managed to turn this internet sensation (some might say abomination, but haters gonna hate) into a delightful plushy, and it even sings the song so you can get it stuck in your head (or even better someone else’s head) all over again!

IMG_0138

It’s like a Pop-Tart shaped cat. A Pop-Cat. Or a Cat-Tart. Whatever.

And did someone say “haters gonna hate”? (Well, okay, I did.) Show your disdain for the haterade with this sweet meme-inspired (temporary) ‘tat.

 IMG_0139

I had mine done permanently, but I’m hardcore.

I had mine done permanently, but I’m hardcore.

Not everybody is a hater, though. Some people are just grumpy, and the most beloved of the grumpy is Grumpy Cat. Nobody loves Grumpy Cat more than My Not So Humble Sister. She’s going to be sorry when she sees she missed out on this sweet copy of his book, “Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book”.

IMG_0149

IMG_0151

 

Just to keep things fresh, there’s also a Runaway Monkey Air Freshener included. It’s almost as adorable as Darwin himself.

 

It smells like lingonberry. No, I haven’t opened it. I have no idea what lingonberry smells like. I do know what monkeys smell like. That’s why I haven’t opened it.

It smells like lingonberry. No, I haven’t opened it. I have no idea what lingonberry smells like. I do know what monkeys smell like. That’s why I haven’t opened it.

Finally, what may be my favorite piece of all, the signature Laughing Squid item: the finger tentacles. Yes, you read that right.

Let the nightmares begin.

Let the nightmares begin.

I can already think of so many ways to have fun with these, including waking up my Not So Humble Mother the next time she stays over- um, that is, NOT waking up… oh, heck, she’s already read it, no point in going back on it. Well at least I can perfect my Cthulhu impression.

The best selfie I have ever taken.

The best selfie I have ever taken.

The internet is a strange place, and I’m a strange guy. And Laughing Squid keeps bringing it right to my door.

Advertisements

Face(book)ing the Past


There’s someone on Facebook, and I won’t name names so please let’s nobody else do it either, who won’t accept my friend request. I’ll admit I’m a little hurt, and slightly perplexed, because we were very close in high school and even in college. But then we drifted apart in the way that life happens, and we haven’t spoken in about 15 years. But isn’t that what Facebook is for, at least in part? Reconnecting with people you haven’t seen in years? I’d almost wish there was a “go away, they don’t want to hear from you, and here’s why” response, so that I could at least feel… I don’t know, closure? Satisfaction? Vindication? Then again, there are a few folks I wouldn’t accept friend requests from on a bet, and I have winnowed my own friends list more than once and even targeted a couple people specifically for deletion, so I guess I live in a glass house on this one.

I’ll admit I’m still ambivalent and unsure about Facebook, even though I use it practically every day and have for the better part of a decade now. I was one of the earlier adopters, although I do not say that with any sense of pride. I was on Facebook before there were games or apps, but not by much, and I was one of the people who nearly destroyed Facebook by flooding your feed with endless invitations to games you will never want to play. Yes, I was that guy, and I’m sorry, although in my defense I never played Farmville (although not for lack of invitations, thank you, Mom).

But despite all of that, having completely abandoned the games on Facebook (that’s what smartphones are for) I’ve discovered that it still has its appeal. I’ve connected or reconnected with dozens of people from my past, mostly from high school and college, and mostly people I either never had a relationship with or (perversely) had a very poor relationship with. I have since gone on to develop at least a passing acquaintance with many of them, and even warm online friendships with some of them. It has provided a sense of growth and even soothed some of the old bitterness, taken some of the sting out of the past. It’s also enriched and livened up the present, connected me to or connected me with friends and family, and given me wonderful opportunities to promote crazy ideas and wild ventures.

But then there’s the truly dark side of Facebook: there are people out there, and again I’m not going to name names, who hold materials that were never meant to see the light of day. Old photos and even video that should have stayed buried. The human mind has the capacity for forgetfulness for a reason, and all media fades. This is the true and natural way of things, and dragging the mullet back into the light is just dirty poker. Making baby pictures and bad acting available for public consumption should be banned by the Geneva Convention. You know who you are.


The Evolution of Job Skills and Electronic Media


When I was a kid, I loved playing video games (ah, Atari 2600, I knew ye all too well). My parents were absolutely convinced this would do precisely nothing to help me land a job, and they were for the most part right. (There you go Mom, I said it. You can mark the date in your calendar. It’ll be another 30 years before it happens again.)

But (you knew there had to be a “but”) the time I spent wasn’t completely wasted. While I may not have become a professional video game player or even a game designer, I did pick up some skills that translated into the modern work environment. No, I’m not speaking of my twitch-response that more closely resembles ADD than reflexes, nor am I talking about my astounding hand-eye coordination. I am talking about my ability to interact fluidly with a GUI, as well as my ability to quickly pick up new technologies such as HTML.

So why do I bring this up so many years after the fact (other than to play a rousing game of “No really, I was right”)? As I look around at what the kids are doing these days (and I have to admit I get a small thrill out of not falling in that category anymore, since I have long equated “kid” with “dumbass”), I see a lot of hyperventilating about social media. Do a quick search on Google about “dangers of social media for college students” and you’ll see all sorts of stuff ranging from common sense advice (some of which I’ve even discussed before myself) to what can only amount to pearl-clutching inanity (like this article which discusses a woman who walked off a pier into Lake Michigan while texting, and another who walked into a fountain.) Seriously, if you’re going to blame texting for people who can’t NOT WALK OFF A PIER, you and I don’t live in the same world. (When I was a kid, Mom would tell my sister and me to take a long walk off a short pier. Even then we knew she was kidding. At least we hoped she was.)

Meanwhile, back here in reality, there are people who get paid to handle all of a company’s social media, covering Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. They tend to be very smart, very creative, and very good at their jobs. They have to be, because everybody wants to do that gig, and only the ones who are good at it survive. And the best way to be good at it is to understand it like you were born to it. That means using it every day, understanding what the trends are, where they’re going, not just what’s hot this week but what’s going to be hot next week and beyond.

The people who are going to have those jobs aren’t the ones who are being told they need to be afraid of social media (or if they are, it’s because they ignore the voices that warn them to be afraid). Cautious? Perhaps, but balanced with a greater amount of daring and willingness to take calculated risks. Holding back, or worse being held back, will damage them far more than any foolish things they may do as they explore all the possibilities inherent in these new technologies.


The Value of Anonymity


When I was younger, into my mid to late teens, I was introduced to the world of BBSes. For those of you born into the internet age, these would be something like little local versions of the internet that primarily consisted of what would amount to a few to several discussion groups (somewhat like Slashdot with less tech, or 4Chan with fewer trolls, although some boards defied even those generalities) and turn-based games, with limited email capabilities between BBS users.

One of the interesting features of the BBSes I frequented (and to the best of my knowledge all of the boards at that time) was that all the users signed up using pseudonyms. These were often silly, occasionally very personal handles that most users would carry with them from one board to the next and would keep for years. Changing one’s pseudonym was in essence to change one’s identity, for within that community you were known in many cases only by that name you had given to yourself (or in some cases a derivation thereof, if a nickname developed naturally).

It never occurred to me much at the time, but there was a particular use to those false names that seems to be lost on a generation that has grown up with social media. In the rare event that someone was stupid enough to admit to having committed a crime on one of these BBSes (usually hacking, because hey, it was that kind of crowd), there was no way to identify them to the police unless you happened to know who they actually were. Even if they had shown up to an in-person meet up (yes, even in the dark ages we did that on occasion) the chances are they went by their online handle rather than trying to explain “Hi, I go by Death Kitty online, but my real name is Billy.” Aside from the cognitive dissonance of trying to keep two separate names straight, it didn’t even matter. You knew them by their online name and personality, and that was the important thing.

So what happens when Death Kitty admits to hacking the local branch of Bank of America? Do you call the cops and say, “Hey, I’ve got a tip for you, there’s this guy, I don’t know what he looks like, but his name is… um… Death… Kitty… I have to go now.” Yeah, not gonna happen.

Contrast that with the recent trend of social media crime-braggers. Seriously? I can create 10 fake, anonymous email accounts in as many minutes, and email didn’t even exist when I was born. I can follow that up with a few false social media accounts tied to those accounts, and then I can finish it off with NOT BRAGGING ABOUT CRIMES I COMMITTED. Not that I’ve committed any. That’s my story, Your Honor, and I’m sticking to it. (See how it’s done, kids?)

I understand that social media is everywhere these days. It’s as unavoidable as the nearest computer or cell phone. But this odd compulsion to share everything with the world is something I don’t get. That’s what priests and therapists are for. If you have to put it out there, do yourselves a favor: do it under an assumed name.

Signed,

The Gaunt Man


How Episodic Television Shows Are Killing Their Own Business


I watch Netflix about as much these days as I do regular TV, and here’s why: when I can actually get the service to work (thank you Verizon), I can watch entire seasons of shows at once, without having to wait a week at a time, without having to sit through reruns, without having to “choose” between two shows in the same time slot (like I really watch either of them when they come on anyway, it’s called DVR folks), but most of all because I don’t have to sit through commercials.

Unfortunately, I usually have to wait a few years for a single season of a show to hit Netflix, assuming it ever does. I assume this is because they want to make sure to get their money from the first run, the reruns, the syndication, the DVD sales, the syndicated DVD sales, the reruns of the syndicated DVD sales, and whatever all else they do. It’s not until they have a given season running on at least three basic cable channels (or they’ve been passed up by five) that they “stoop” to leasing the rights to Netflix, and even then I’ve seen some shows yank the rights back (I got about five episodes into Babylon 5 before they did this to me).

Why? What do they really think they’re getting out of this? Is there some rabid ocelot in a back room that flails around on a Twister board and they interpret these signals as decisions? Here’s a little clue for you, Oh Great And Powerful Television Executives: the people who bother to watch syndicated television are not the same people who watch Netflix or similar streaming services. Not even close. There may have been, once upon a time, a cross-over audience between those who bought entire seasons of TV shows on DVD and the streaming audience, but that’s a dying trend, too. Only the truly rabid fan base is going to care that much and they will still be there for you (probably wearing a handmade costume piece from their favorite character that you sent a cease and desist order about).

As I see it, there are three primary audiences “second run” television should be aiming for. The first is the hardcore audience, the folks who love a show enough to want everything about it. These folks will buy the entire season on DVD/Blu-Ray, especially if it comes with extras like cast interviews and commentary. The next audience would be the “catch-up” audience. This is what I envision as the folks who only heard about the show from friends well after the season (or the show itself) started and don’t want to jump in halfway through. They want to binge, catch-up to the current storyline, and watch all the first run episodes from there. These are the folks who will watch all the back episodes on a streaming service (small revenue source) and then become more eyeballs for the new episodes, you know, the ones with the most expensive commercials (big revenue source). Finally there’s the casual viewers who like the show well enough to leave it on but don’t consider it “must see” television. This is where you get your syndicated television dollars.

In an ideal world, I envision the lifecycle of a show would be this:

  • First run, including all reruns in primetime slot. Season ends.
  • As soon as season ends, entire season is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming services. DVD/Blu-Ray includes bonus features.
  • Over off-season, previous season reruns in primetime slot.
  • After new season starts, last season enters syndication immediately.

The benefit of this system for the viewers is obvious. The benefit for the studios is a little more subtle, but what it means in the long run is less pirating and more eyeballs for first-run content. When people don’t have to feel 2-5 years behind the storyline (unless they feel like coughing up a couple hundred bucks for a show they might or might not like), they’re more likely to get invested. And more invested fans means a higher percentage of rabid fans, which means more DVD sales. The syndicated episodes aren’t going to be hurt any, because the folks who weren’t willing to pay for streaming services are still going to be there, and the ones who did? You grew your audience for those episodes.

The fact that Netflix and Hulu are coming up with their own original programming is just going to hurt these guys even more. Now there are even fewer reasons to be attached to networks and their ridiculous scheduling. I understand once upon a time the system was rigged in such a way that it was winner take all and pitting the best shows against each other meant you had the best chance of crushing the other guy and getting all the money, but here’s a thought: maybe people don’t watch TV that way anymore. Maybe (and this might even date back to the advent of the VCR) people expect to be able to watch ALL the shows they like, not just one or two. Having them all in the same time slots and on the same schedule just seems… well… dumb. But if you have to continue playing that game, at least give yourselves the best chance at a second chance, and stop holding back last year’s episodes until nobody cares anymore.


Classical Liberal, New Media


Last semester I had the good fortune to take a class on Digital Rhetoric and New Media. It was a fascinating class, and it offered me the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of new concepts, particularly among them the idea of media specific analysis. To some degree most of us have had some exposure to this, as we don’t analyze movies quite the same way we do books, but we went into it in much greater depth and detail in the class, as well as trying our hands at doing digital art projects.

Coming out of that class, one of the concepts I was introduced to was the idea of “twitter novels” or “twitter stories”. The idea is somewhat flexible (as social media seems to be), but one version of it is taking an existing work and adapting it for Twitter. I was inspired by the idea and decided to try my hand at it. I selected as my source the essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read, working off the 50th anniversary edition published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

The experience was interesting, to say the least. First I went through the entire essay, trying to break it down into individual tweet-size pieces. This wasn’t as simple as just writing it out 140 characters at a time, because I wanted to accomplish several things with each tweet: I wanted them to seem “real”, I wanted them to be interesting in themselves, and I wanted them to be re-tweetable. Part of making them seem “real” was adjusting the voice of the essay, which is very formal, and making it less so. While I didn’t succeed everywhere, I do think I managed to make it more casual overall. One of the things I discovered in this process is that I am not very comfortable with Twitter; it was only just before I moved into the launch phase that I realized I hadn’t really made use of hash tags, and I had to go back through and find places they naturally fit. I did manage to incorporate bits and pieces of the web here and there, so I feel pretty good about that.

Actually scheduling the project was more of a challenge. Considering the work totaled over 100 tweets, I obviously wasn’t going to be sending them all manually. I had originally planned to send them in half-hour increments (give or take), and after talking with a coworker who is more versed in the use of social media than I am I decided to use Tweetdeck. Now, unless I am missing something, Tweetdeck could be a lot more user-friendly. My original schedule would have stretched out for at least a week (I only intend to have tweets go out between 10 am and 4 pm so I can monitor them for issues), and I had to adjust the schedule. Even being able to keep track of what I had already scheduled was a hassle, as Tweetdeck kept shuffling my pre-scheduled tweets out of chronological order, which does not fill me with confidence. When I tried to reschedule some, it looked like the program has just duplicated rather than rescheduling the tweets. Finally I tried to clear them all out, and upon refreshing things looked fine. Then I deleted that whole column, set it up again, and a whole set of tweets showed up again!

Once I finally got past those difficulties, I started over. I put all my tweets in a spreadsheet and set up a schedule there. I then copied them over and scheduled them rigorously according to the timetable I had established.  At the time of writing this they sit queued up, waiting to launch. Over the next few days I’ll see how well the process turned out.

For those who are interested in trying a project like this, here is my advice:

1. Write your tweets in advance. This will give you time to think about what you want to say, make adjustments as needed, and have a cohesive story to present. Don’t think of Twitter (or any other social media platform) as your creative medium; it is your presentation medium. George Lucas doesn’t write the script as he’s filming, neither should you.

2. Think about the medium you are using. What makes it distinctive and unique? Why are you using this medium to tell your story instead of another? In particular familiarize yourself with the conventions of the medium. That’s not to say you can’t break convention (many artists have done so quite successfully), but do it deliberately.

3. Plan, plan, plan. It’s not just the writing, it’s all the tools you will use. If I was more familiar with the ins and outs of Tweetdeck, Bit.ly, and Twitter in general, I would have had an easier time, but just knowing Word and Excel and having a good vision for the shape of the project (I spent weeks working it out in my head) saved me when I hit roadblocks.

4. Have fun with it! In the end this is still an experimental medium, which means there are few if any rules, and this is the chance to do something truly new and innovative.

If you’d like to see my experiment in Twitter writing, it runs this week starting Jan. 7, 10 AM EST at @IPencil2013. If you have your own digital works, please share them in the comments below!


How the iPod is Killing Political Discourse


I was discussing gun control with My Not So Humble Wife the other night, and something strange happened. She’s mostly libertarian like me, but unlike myself, she actually believes in putting certain limitations on gun ownership. Tanks, for example, are straight off her list for private ownership (no, I am not kidding, this was a serious part of the discussion). I personally see no problem with it for several good and sundry reasons that I won’t get into now, so she upped the ante to nuclear weapons. I couldn’t name even a theoretical reason why someone might want a nuke (self-defense? sport? cocktail party conversation starter?), and I had to concede that even my tank argument didn’t apply. Let’s face it, if you need a nuke to defend yourself against the government, the situation is already well beyond salvageable.

This is when things got weird: we talked it out and came to a reasonable solution we could both be okay with. She conceded that the government didn’t need to have gun registration laws (it’s no business of theirs who owns which guns), and I conceded that certain classes of people (namely felons) shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns, so background checks are acceptable. I couldn’t get her to budge on non-violent felons, but my big beef there is with drug laws, and that’s a different issue anyway, so I was willing to concede the point. We also both agreed that waiting periods should be abolished, because the technology exists to do immediate background checks, and those checks should be done everywhere, including gun shows.

What’s so weird about all of this? Watch fifteen minutes, or even five minutes, of political television and then ask me that question again. Granted, we came from roughly the same starting place, but we still had some strong views that we disagreed on, and we both gave a little to get to something we could agree with. It’s called “compromise”, for those of you too young to remember what it looks like. And I blame the iPod for its absence in contemporary politics.

Sounds crazy, right? Bear with me for a little while and you’ll understand. When I was a kid, we had one TV in the house (well, two, but the one in the basement was tiny, black and white, and got crap reception, so it doesn’t count). It got exactly two channels: whatever my sister and I could agree on, and whatever Dad decided to put on when he got home. Occasionally, when I was very lucky, my sister would be at a friend’s house before my folks got home and I would have a few hours of TV to myself, but that was a rare luxury and one I didn’t count on.

Growing up like that I had to learn the art of compromise. Granted it usually involved a lot of yelling, screaming, cursing, and more than a little hitting, but that’s politics for you. What I didn’t learn was an attitude of entitlement, one that said I could have whatever I want whenever I want and everyone else could go suck an egg. That all changed when the iPod came along.

Don’t get me wrong, the iPod was and remains one of the greatest inventions in human history. The chance to have your music, your way, whenever you want wherever you want is a glorious thing. But it shapes expectations; people become accustomed to having what they want, without having to negotiate with others. It’s not like the boom boxes and ghetto blasters I had as a kid, when “sharing” music was a very immediate and sometimes involuntary experience. Facebook and other social media have only exacerbated the phenomenon; people choose the stories they want to hear, and they shape the media they are exposed to before and as much as the media shapes them.

This sort of “a la carte media” has expanded into all aspects of life. If you can’t find a cable channel that caters to your specific tastes, there’s a YouTube channel that will. Streaming radio will introduce you to new music, unless you skip past a song you decide you don’t like in the first few beats. And there’s a website out there dedicated to every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that aren’t.

What is the net result on politics? The politicians we elect reflect the media of our time. It used to be that politicians were like mass media: they appealed to broad demographics, even to the point of being criticized for chasing “the lowest common denominator”. But hey, at least they were accessible to everyone. Now every politician is like a personalized playlist, narrowly targeting key demographics with a hyper-partisan message, and who can blame them? The electronic graffiti that litters the walls of our social media pages screams for it, begs for it, demands the same hyper-partisan rhetoric they are only too happy to deliver. If we aren’t getting the politicians we want it’s only because we’re getting the politicians we’ve been asking for, and maybe deserve.