Desert of My Real Life

{February 21, 2016}   Prometheus or Misogyny on a Blog

I haven’t paid any attention to this blog for about a year and a half. That’s what being a department chair does to you. I was inspired yesterday to write about the Apple vs. the FBI controversy and so logged on for the first time in a long while. I have my comments set up so that I have to approve them before they get posted to the blog. I was surprised to discover that I had one comment waiting for approval. It was posted to my About the Author page on February 2, 2016, by an anonymous poster. I don’t allow anonymous comments but this person made up a name (“Mother”) and an email address that even has a made up domain name.

Here’s what “Mother” says in the comment: “Just read your Prometheus ‘review’ – Bottom line. Everything to you is Misogynistic.”

I wrote my review of the movie Prometheus in June, 2012, and titled it “Prometheus or Misogyny on a Space Ship.” I’m so curious about what brought “Mother” to a review on a fairly defunct blog more than three and a half years after the movie’s release. I have no idea what that’s about. I’m also curious about the reasons for “Mother” choosing to place his (almost surely “his”) comment on the About the Author page rather than on the movie review post itself. I would guess that “Mother” meant his comment to be directed at me as a person rather than engaging with the ideas that I presented in the actual review. Finally, I’m curious about the decision by “Mother” to post the comment anonymously with a made up email address. Clearly, “Mother” doesn’t want to engage in any real conversation about the merits of the movie.

Despite the fact that “Mother” doesn’t want to engage with me, I will respond to him by saying this: your statement is demonstrably false. Do a search for “misogyny” on my blog and you will see that this is the only post that uses the word. I discuss many movies throughout my blog and have not identified any others as misogynistic. For example, I also didn’t like the movie Disgrace but my reasons for that dislike have nothing to do with seeing the movie as misogynistic. There is a huge difference between identifying one movie as being misogynistic and identifying “everything” as misogynistic.

Do you really not see this difference? If you don’t see the difference, you aren’t very smart. If you do see the difference, I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make. Especially when you behave like a coward and don’t identify yourself.

{June 12, 2013}   A Possible Return

I have been away for an entire academic year. It was my intention this year to find time to regularly write entries about various technology and society issues. But it didn’t happen. I blame the fact that I’ve been a department chair for two years now. The increased administrative tasks that come with being chair leave me fairly mentally exhausted so that the only scholarly activities that I’ve engaged in are things that result in actual presentations or publications. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about blog topics, however.

So I’m declaring it here as a way to hold myself accountable. My goal for the upcoming academic year is to write at least one blog entry per week. It feels daunting but so worthwhile since I like thinking about technology issues way more than I like doing administrative tasks. I need to make the time for this.

{June 15, 2011}   Tumblr Review–Part 2

It has taken me more than a month and a half to write the second part of this review.  I think it’s because I said in my last post that I would write about THIS topic in my next post.  Since that promise (or threat–take your pick) seems to have stymied me for a while, you can bet that I will never do that again.

I’ve been looking for a long time for a tool that would make it easy for me to implement a web site that looks the way I want it to and organizes information in the way I want it to.  When I first came across Tumblr, I thought I had found a tool that was pretty close to what I wanted.  As I read what the site promises, I realized that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.  And then as I started to use the site, I realized that the developers of Tumblr hadn’t delivered on what they said Tumblr was going to be and so the tool is even further away from what I’m looking for than I realized.  The first part of my review of the tool focused on the things they promised but didn’t deliver.  I should point out that Tumblr no longer offers the options that I complained about in the first part of my review.  And despite my extensive contact with the technical folks at the company, no one has contacted me about how they’ve decided to resolve these issues. Perhaps it would be difficult to contact a customer (even a non-paying one) to tell them that their complaints prompted you to remove options rather than fix them. In any case, I think my dissatisfaction with Tumblr arises from my overall dissatisfaction with Web 2.0 in general and the values embraced by the people who develop tools for this environment.  So in this second part of my review, I’m going to focus on the main difficulty I have with Tumblr.  I should point out, however, that I am critiquing Tumblr for not doing something they have never promised to do.  I just wish the tool worked differently.

I am one of the few people my age who actually grew up with computer technology.  I started to develop computer software in 1978 when I was a sophomore in high school.  Although the Internet existed then, the World Wide Web did not (trivia: the birth year of the World Wide Web is debated depending on which event you use to mark its birth but it was sometime between 1990 and 1992).  Developing new tools and content for the World Wide Web was somewhat challenging and required a deep knowledge of how it all worked as well as significant programming skills. In other words, I have been producing content since the days of fairly difficult content production.  In those days, the line between content production and content consumption (viewing of that content) was pretty clear.

Gradually, however, tools were developed to allow the creation of content by more and more people. Together, these tools (things like blogging software, photo sharing sites, wikis and so on) make up Web 2.0.  I personally believe that the addition of these new, less technical content producers is a positive thing, leading to more diversity of content on the Web.  But when all of these new, easier-to-use tools entered the marketplace, I recognized that the underlying values of the tools were changing.  I’m only now beginning to fully understand the implications of these changing values.

One of the new underlying values involves a changing understanding of the word production.  I have always thought of production as the creation of new content.  Increasingly, I have come to understand that in Web 2.0 content consumption is in itself a kind of production.  In fact, this is the primary underlying value of Tumblr.  As a user browses the Web, she will inevitably find content that she finds interesting and wants to share with her online friends.  Tumblr makes sharing incredibly easy.  In fact, my unscientific review of Tumblr sites suggests that the vast majority of them are sites where the owner reposts content that she has found elsewhere on the Web.  In other words, the Tumblr owner is producing a new site that is idiosyncratically hers.  Her unique Web content consumption results in the production of a mashup, a site made of pieces of other sites.  For example, this Tumblr reposts items from around the Web that the owner finds “the most entertaining.”  None of the individual items is created by the owner of the Tumblr.  Instead, the owner produces the unique combination of these individual items.  This understanding of production by combining sites is very different than what I had been looking for when I found Tumblr.  Because I wanted to combine my various sites of production (on which I produce the individual items) into a single site, I was looking for something that would automatically grab content from those various sites of production.  Because Tumblr is designed for a human to make qualitative decisions about which content to include (from sites owned by a variety of people), the automatic grabbing of content is not as critical to Tumblr’s designers as it is to me.  As an aside, I am really interested in how this idea of consumption as production is affecting my students and their understanding of things like research and citations and intellectual property and originality.  It’s difficult to know if changing attitudes about these issues is driving changes in technology or vice versa.  In any case, this difference in understanding of the word production is the main reason I am dissatisfied with Tumblr.  What would I be satisfied with?

I would like a tool that automatically consolidates all of my other production sites while also allowing me to easily share Web content produced by others that I find interesting.  And I would like to be able to fully customize the layout of the site into what I will call “channels.”  That is, I’d like a “channel” that shows the content from this blog, another “channel” that shows my Flickr feed and so on, and I’d like to be able to arrange the “channels” on the page in a variety of ways.  And finally, I’d like the tool to allow me to customize how items appear in the various channels.  Another of Web 2.0’s underlying values is the privileging of recency.  That is, the most recent items on a site are the most important and, therefore, appear first.  I’ve written about my concerns about this value before.  Some sites, such as Twitter, take this focus on recency to extremes by deleting any tweets that are more than a few weeks old, which, of course, makes it really difficult to go back at a later time to find tweets that you found interesting in the past.  Therefore, I would like a site that allows me to override the default order of items and to provide my characterization of what is most important.  This last requirement leads me into an entirely new discussion about information organization that I think is an unsolved research problem for the technical world to tackle.  But I want my next blog entry to take me less than a month and a half to write so I won’t promise that that discussion will appear in my next entry.

{May 1, 2011}   Tumblr Review-Part 1

As I wrote in a previous post, I have been testing Tumblr as a way of consolidating my web contributions in one place.  After using the site for a couple of weeks, I’m ready to write a review of it.  My review will come in two parts.  In this, the first part, I will review the site regarding the intentions of the designers of the site and how well (or not) those intentions have been implemented.  In the second (future) part of my review, I will explain what I wish the designers would change regarding how the site is supposed to work.

Tumblr bills itself as a micro-blogging site, which would make it a direct competitor of Twitter. Unlike Twitter, Tumblr provides two interfaces for each user.  The first is the page on which the user can post short statements.  This page is called a tumblog.  This interface can be customized with a variety of themes that determine how the page is to be organized.  Twitter has no interface that is equivalent to this so this portion of Tumblr is really more of a direct competitor to WordPress or Blogspot, a more traditional blogging platform.  The second interface is a dashboard, similar to Twitter’s interface, providing a mechanism for the user to post items that will then appear in the newsfeed portion of the dashboard as well as on the user’s tumblog.  The user also has the option of following other Tumblr users so their posted content will also appear in the user’s newsfeed, again in a manner very similar to Twitter.

One of the most obvious ways that Tumblr differs from Twitter (besides the use of a tumblog) is that in Tumblr, it is very easy to post content of all different types.  In Twitter, for example, there is no easy way to post a photo while in Tumblr, it is quite easy to post a photo.  This is a welcome development and the tumblog themes integrate the variety of content types quite nicely to create a nice-looking blog site.  This means that people can follow you either through Tumblr, in which case your posts will show up in their newsfeeds on their dashboards, or by checking your tumblog, which is given a unique URL so it can be easily viewed outside of Tumblr.  My tumblog, for example, has the address of

The thing that excited me most about Tumblr when I first began my investigation is that a user can easily import RSS feeds into her tumblog.  I immediately saw the potential for this feature for integrating my web contributions into one location.  For example, I have a Flickr page for my photos and every Flickr page has an RSS feed.  So I figured I could easily set up my Tumblr account to post any new photos from my Flickr RSS feed on my tumblog.  In addition, Tumblr has built-in support for Twitter so that any tweets a user posts can automatically be also posted on her tumblog.  I immediately set my Tumblr account up to post from this blog, from my Flickr account, and from my Twitter account.  I then posted a blog entry here, posted some pictures on Flickr and wrote some tweets. And then I waited for those posts to appear on my tumblog so I could how everything looked.  And I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

This is where my issues with Tumblr arise.  It doesn’t work as advertised.  I read the (pretty pathetic) help files on the site to discover that Tumblr tries to check the feeds from which it is supposed to update every hour or so.  But, they go on to say, they recognize each feed’s “need to live.”  And by the way, now that I go back to their help files to get an exact quote, I see that they’ve removed all references to their RSS feeds and how they are updated.  I engaged in an extended email conversation with the tech support folks at Tumblr and found them to be pleasant but pretty useless in terms of giving me help.  They had a lot of (illogical) suggestions for things for me to try to get the updating to happen in a timely manner.  Eventually, when I pointed out that they were being very illogical, they admitted that there is a problem with the automatic updating of RSS feeds.  In other words, it doesn’t work.

A second problem with Tumblr is that they say you can set things up so that your posts automatically appear on Twitter and Facebook.  This also doesn’t work.  So right now, Tumblr is having significant communication problems both coming into and going out of the application.  As I did more research into this, it appears to have been a problem for at least a year.  And still no resolution.

In my email conversation with tech support, I found out that Tumblr is designed so that if a user does not update within the application at least once a week, the automatic updating of RSS feeds will stop (if they ever get that working).  In answer to my question about the rationale for that design decision, Danii (from tech support) told me that they want to make sure that people don’t just use Tumblr to recycle material that has been posted elsewhere.  The problem with this answer is that their solution doesn’t ensure that original material will be posted on Tumblr.  As long as I don’t use the RSS feeds to post the material to Tumblr, it will be seen as original material even if it is really a reposting of material from elsewhere.  My guess is that the Tumblr folks want to make sure people sign into the application for some other reason, likely related to whatever plan they have for eventually making money.

My experience with Tumblr so far has been less than satisfactory but it has helped me to articulate for myself what my ideal application would look like.  I’ll write about that in part 2 of my review of Tumblr.

{April 25, 2011}   New Tumblr Site

Because I spend my time thinking and writing about today’s online media, I have a fairly significant web presence.  I write this blog.  I have a web site and a PSU web page.  I use Twitter and Flickr.  I’m on Facebook, Linked In, and My Space.  I use a variety of Web 2.0 tools, some of them often, some not so often.  I have been experimenting with a variety of tools, looking for something that will consolidate the content I create in one place.  Ideally, this tool will allow me to easily customize the look of the page that my followers will see.  I’ve tried a number of tools and have not found any that I really like (for reasons that I will explain in a future post) but, based on a tip from Ann, I recently came across Tumblr, which has some of the features that I want but contains some annoyances and is based on a mental model that means it really won’t do exactly what I want it to do.

What is Tumblr?  It is a micro-blogging platform, similar to Twitter, Plurk and so on.  These sites allow users to create short content and share it with their followers.  Since I’m already a Twitter user, the micro-blogging aspect of the platform was not what I was excited about.  Instead, I was excited about the fact that Tumblr makes it really easy to share content of all types, not just text.  In addition, Tumblr has a feature which allows the sharing of RSS feeds, that is, content from other sites.  So I thought that perhaps Tumblr might be the simple solution to the problem that I’ve been trying to solve for a while now–how to aggregate all of the web content that I create into one site.  Here‘s my tumblelog (yes, that’s what Tumblr sites are called and yes, it’s dorky).

There are a couple of annoyances that come with using Tumblr.  It is indeed easy to set your site up so that it reposts feeds from other sites.  So, for starters, I set mine up to automatically repost anything I put on this blog, my Twitter feed or my Flickr photostream.  The first annoyance is that there is no way to force Tumblr to go out to your feeds to determine whether there is anything on them that should be posted to your tumblelog.  The documentation says that when Tumblr searches your feeds, it will automatically repost anything that is less than two days old.  So I have a fair amount of content on these sites that should be showing up already on my tumblelog.  But only the content from this blog is currently showing there (I hope that changes by the time you’re reading this post).  When I first set up the feeds, Tumblr told me they would be updated in an hour.  But that hour counted down on the site and no update occurred.  Further research suggests that perhaps these feeds will be updated soon–one source said it sometimes takes 12 hours–but I’ll just have to wait and see.  That leads me to the second annoyance of using Tumblr: there is no way to test how your feeds will look on your tumblelog.  I can test out how each media type will look but I can’t test an actual feed because there is no way to force an update from that feed.  This seems as though it would be a simple coding change from the folks at Tumblr so I’m putting in my request right now.

Beyond these annoyances, Tumblr still doesn’t solve the problem that I want solved because there is a fundamental mental model behind the way Tumblr works that is an obstacle to solving my problem.  I’ve encountered this mental model and its limitations in the past–actually, I encounter it just about every time I try out a new Web 2.0 tool.  I’ll write more about that in my next post.

In the meantime, enjoy my new tumblelog.

{December 10, 2010}   Zero Views

Recently, my favorite NPR show, On the Media, had a story about an interesting blog called Zero Views.  The blog celebrates “the best of the bottom of the barrel” by posting the funniest YouTube videos that no one (NO ONE–hence the name “Zero Views”) has watched.  I found several things about this story that are worth commenting on. 

First, this is the kind of meta-site on the Web that I love.  It’s a site that highlights content from another site.  But here’s the thing.  As soon as this site focuses on a video that has zero views, it is HIGHLY likely that the video will no long have zero views.  And in fact, if the Zero Views blog is at all popular (and my sense is that it is fairly popular), any site that it talks about is likely to go viral and become incredibly popular with thousands of views.  That, to me, is a really interesting phenomenon.

The second thing that I find interesting about this story is an underlying issue about popularity.  This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.  What makes a blog, a site, a video “popular?”  The easy answer has to do with numbers of views.  But that somehow feels unsatisfying to me.  I’ve watched many videos and traveled to many links that were recommended to me, only to feel…dissatisfied with what I’ve seen.  This makes me think that popularity must have something to do with “likeability” or some other related concept.  How would we measure “likeability” and surely, the fact that someone “recommended” a particular site, blog, video to me must have some relationship to “likeability,” right?

There are sites such as Technorati that try to measure “popularity” by measuring the number of links that each site has to it.  That is, the more other sites link to your site, the higher you rank in Technorati’s popularity rankings.  There are many problems with this idea of “popularity,” the most obvious of which is that more tech-literate folks are more likely to link to other sites.  So if you are “popular” among less tech-literate folks, you are less likely to be linked to so you will be ranked as less “popular.”

I don’t actually know how to measure “popularity” of websites, blogs, videos and so on.  The proliferation of “top 100” or “top 10” shows on TV makes me think that “popularity” is a cultural phenomenon, something we are interested in as a culture.  But I’m curious about what various groups of people mean when they use the word “popular” when it comes to online content.  What do you think?  I’m also really interested in the kinds of activities and behaviors that can affect the “popularity” of online content.  What do you think about that?

{February 15, 2010}   Conspicuous Consumption

I’ve commented on this blog before about my love of the status update, both on FaceBook and Twitter.  I love reading about what my friends are currently doing and regularly use Twitter myself to update my FaceBook status.  A new website takes the status update to a whole new level. allows the user to link his or her credit card to a status updater.  So every time a credit card purchase is made, the purchaser’s followers are notified of the amount and the place of the purchase.  In addition, the purchase is itemized.  You can also link your Blippy account with your FaceBook account (so your purchases become your FaceBook status) and your Twitter account (ditto your Twitter status).  Then, when you make  a purchase, your status will be changed to something like: “Cathie spent $9.99 at” and the itemization would show you that I purchased the Kindle version of The Given Day by Dennis Lehane.  The site bills itself as: “Blippy is a fun and easy way to see and discuss the things people are buying.”

Ann brought this website to my attention after she read an article about it in Time Magazine.  It was an interesting article by Barbara Kiviat.  The interesting thing about that article is that Kiviat theorized that if people could see what she was spending, she would be shamed into spending less.  But her own behavior, and that of others, showed the opposite.  Instead, people wanted to spend more money to show their followers the cool places they were visiting and the cool things they were buying.  Conspicuous consumption, indeed.

{May 28, 2008}   Blogging for Health

The June 2008 issue of Scientific American has an article called “The Healthy Type”, which is about the therapeutic value of blogging. Research reported in the February issue of The Oncologist has apparently shown that cancer patients who engage in something called expressive writing just before undergoing treatment feel much better, both physically and psychologically compared to patients who did not engage in such writing. Blogging apparently works the same way that expressive writing does, with the added benefit that the blogger gains a community via the activity. Other researchers have shown that there is a link between expressive writing and biological changes, such as improved sleep.

Now researchers are trying to figure out why writing has such beneficial effects. Is it a placebo effect, in which the act of complaining and communicating via the writing acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied”? Or does the act of writing release dopamine in the brain, in the same way that running and looking at art do? It’s difficult to know how blogging works to make people feel better because, according to researchers, the active regions involved are located so deep inside the brain. Images of the brain show that some differences occur in brain activity before, during and after writing but so far, attempts to pinpoint those differences and how they work have failed. But there are a lot of researchers interested in various aspects of the issue so soon we might understand why I always sleep better after writing one of these entries.

et cetera