In the Internet graveyard: RSS, USENET, CompuServe and GeoCities

You have to be of a certain age to remember that geeky feature known as ‘RSS” and why it was supposed to change everything.* Or to have been on a USENET group or a BBS to know that there were ‘discussion boards’ before Twitter and Discord. I still remember creating a ‘homestead’ in GeoCities, which was a precursor to, Second Life. Second what? This was a ‘massively multiplayer’ virtual hangout in which businesses spent millions of dollars creating virtual storefronts, hosting virtual conferences etc. This was all part of a frenzy to colonize cyberspace, as if real estate was about to run out. This was when we breathlessly talked about the clash between the bricks and clicks.

IBM’s meeting room in SecondLife

I have to admit I too went in for a land grab with a domain I registered called Brand Buzz. I was nearly sued by a big name ad agency that claimed I was trespassing on their ‘land’ and for awhile stood my ground. (Long story; I featured this in my book Chat Republic.) As a tech columnist for Communication World magazine I remember attending virtual conferences in Second Life, and wondering where this bizarre game-like experience was taking us. Could we be chatting with each other as (through) pixelated avatars in the future? Thankfully not.

There was also a time when we had 56K modems, and needed a CD-ROM from American Online (Who remembers ‘ROM’s and AOL?). I bring these up because we are now being submerged in new terms and new technologies claiming to be defining the future of the Internet. I occasionally broach the subject in my class to give my students some context to the tech hype they are being exposed to, as we were then. Like 5G. Here’s what the Electronic Frontier Foundation, (a thinking person’s guide to anything with or without wires and apps) had to say of 5G:

Without a comprehensive plan for fiber infrastructure, 5G will not revolutionize Internet access or speeds for rural customers. So anytime the industry is asserting that 5G will revolutionize rural broadband access, they are more than just hyping it, they are just plainly misleading people. (“Enough of the 5G Hype 2019)

We’re still drowning in hype, aren’t we?

* RSS is dead. But the protocol that it was based on to provide ‘feeds’ lives on. Second Life is still on life support.

Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.

Could we ‘Cancel’ these unfortunate words?

Weaponize? Trendjacking? Chillax? What cave did these words crawl out from? (This is an update to a post last month on Vocabularitis.)

I cringe when I hear someone say ‘weaponize,’ which once belonged to the military industry, but had been twitterized to a pulp just because it’s easy to add an ize to a word. I found this hilarious analogy at Dictionary.com. “If you start pelting your brother with grapes, he might accuse you of weaponizing your fruit salad,” it says. If we had our way, we would update Macbeth’s imagination running riot as he approaches a sleeping Duncan.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me weaponize thee.

Consider, too the sudden emergence of the word ‘Cancel.’ What’s wrong with boycott? Oppose? Ignore? Deny? Or (to dredge up a non-word) Unfollow? Speaking of which unfollow was thrust upon us about ten years ago, and has become headline worthy. As in “Billie Eilish Unfollows Everyone on Instagram.” For heaven’s sakes!

And then there’s that abomination the media repeats – mansplain. The Wikipedia entry for it says it is a pejorative term, and could be a form or ‘misandry.’ Meaning, it’s a weaponized word.

No point getting all blustered (OK, cancel that word and replace it with ‘huffed up.’) Just chillax, will you?

Exciting docking of crew with Space Station

Watching the live feed of NASA’s historic mission to the International Space Station gives us pause to consider what science is capable of. At 9:45 pm, this was the scene as the 4-person capsule, the ‘Crew Dragon’ parallel parked with the ISSS. They switched the cameras to an external view while the crew changed their gear into the space station uniforms.

The crew included Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi. Lift-off of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was on Sunday night. So in all, it took about 24 hours to get there.

The spacecraft Crew Dragon is called ‘Resilience’ -a fitting name for all that must go on in the name of science, despite the existential threat we face as a planet. Or perhaps, because of it.

Twitter makes Diplomatic doublespeak so easy to spot.

It was not too long ago (Jan 2019) that the Trump administration expressed its shock that the newly elected Juan Guaido in Venezuela was being blocked by incumbent president. In a flurry of tweets (what else?) President Trump threatened Nicolas Maduro, and telegraphed that troops, a naval blockade and embargoes were in the works. He tweeted that its citizens had suffered enough and Guaido would be recognized as the interim president of Venezuela by the US. The State Department too put out this statement. “The United States recognizes Juan Guaido as the new interim President of Venezuela, and strongly supports his courageous decision to assume that role pursuant to Article 233…”

Against such a backdrop of pro-democracy talk that the US hectors the rest the world, what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this today, sounds incongruent (the current term ‘janky‘ comes to mind.) Double standards.

The rest of the world recognizes such doublespeak.

Googler speaks to my students

Patrick Krecker, a software engineer at Google spoke to my students last week. This was the start of a series of Technology Speakers this semester at Benjamin Franklin High School.

The goal is to give students a different way of seeing the relevance of a computer class. My hope is that speaking to someone in the real world, at a company they are acutely familiar with, could put many things in context. The previous week, we discussed search engines, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s early engine, curiously called Backrub! They also took a deep dive into Google’s Moonshot projects at GoogleX.

Hearing about the Google culture, its pioneering spirit, and the way a Google engineer approaches apps was really enlightening. Even for me. I used to work with Patrick at ASU. I was so impressed to see what he’s doing at one of the most powerful, omnipresent companies today.

Thanks, Patrick! I would certainly want to have to back on Google Meet (what else?) in the future!

Top 5 podcasts teachers should listen to

Why limit yourself to education podcasters? By all means start with one. We teachers can learn a lot about how to present content from journalists, poets, historians and entrepreneurs. Otherwise we risk living in the bubble!

  1. Google Teacher Podcast – Hosted by Matt Miller and Kasey Bell, this seasonal podcast is a huge asset for educators who like to stay aboard the high-speed Google express.

2. Grammar Girl – A fantastic podcast about language hosted by Mignon Fogarty, a former journalism instructor. Even if you’re not an English teacher, her take on how we communicate applies to any field. It was one of the earliest podcasts I listened to about eight years ago.

3. This American Life – One of the most listened to podcasts, hosted by Ira Glass, a radio guy. He chronicles the gritty, real life of average people who just might happen to be our students. Ira won a Pulitzer this year for his show – a first for podcasters! If there is only one podcast you should listen to its’s this one!

4. Invisibilia – A relative new podcast begun in 2015. Extremely well researched, it mines “the intangible forces that shape human behavior.” The true life stories probe the unspoken and unseen forces that shape much around us – a sort of professional Development class that you never signed up for but wish you had!

5. Revisionist History – Remember Malcolm Gladwell? Yes, that guy whose books gave us terms such as ‘Tipping Point’ and ‘Outliers.’ Gladwell’s take on events whether they are related to Hamlet or the FBI, to make your head spin!

Vocabularitis outbreak! Take cover

Twindemic? Janky? Doomsday scrolling? When did these words jump out of the dark shadows and infect us?

I am compiling a list of words that have emerged and are showing up in everyday language, as an experiment on how language changes with circumstance. Also, the hypothesis is that many of these words will become more or less extinct by this time next year. Some of them show up in school, violating the dress code. Others, stick to my rubber earbuds when listening to a podcast.

  • Coronahobby – Means exactly what it describes but, absent the hyphen
  • Doomsscrolling – Obsessive scrolling through bad news
  • Janky – When something is broken or a technology is not working to plan
  • Twindemic – A terrible coined word repeated by the media, ad nauseam
  • Covidiot – Someone who ignores COVID warnings, to his/her misfortune
  • Intubation – When you want to show you know a lot about ventilator use
  • Zoombombing – Uninvited guests during a Zoom call

Not so long ago we had to get used to these words. Remember these?:

  • Deepfake
  • Gig Economy
  • Influencers
  • OK Boomer
  • TextNeck

Voters aren’t that stupid

Dear Political campaign manager,

If there’s one certain way to get a voter to disbelieve your candidate, it is the inane, silly postcards like these you send out. Having dumped hundreds of these in the recycling bin without so much as glancing at them, I would like you to know that I will most certainly vote for the person you vilify because (a) Your communication skills and your morals probably line up with your candidate, and (b) If the only thing you want me to remember are the ‘dark secrets’ of others then you do not seem to have a leg to stand on.

Are you in marketing? Or did you just learn Photoshop over the weekend? You do not deserve to represent anyone but the scorpions that occasionally show up during this time of year.

That is why I wanted to shine a black light on your work so that when your candidate loses, you will at least know why.

We voters aren’t that stupid. Grow up and go back to marketing school.

My Dad , the teacher and story-teller. 15 year anniversary.

My dad passed away 15 years ago, today, October 16th, 2005.

Joe Fernando never published a book, was never featured in the media, but he had a knack of infecting everyone around him with ideas. He was my Google, Wikipedia and Amazon; the human search engine when hunting down bits of history, with a library in our ‘office room’ that introduced me to Greek history, Elizabethan poetry, Sri Lankan archeology and more.

His encyclopedic knowledge was legendary. He could quote Thomas Merton, Aristotle, Churchill, Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Senarath Paranavithana, or Shakespeare –sometimes in one sitting! He once won the grand prize in the Maliban “Take it or Leave it” radio show. It is said that the show host, Tim Horshington, leapt into the air when he answered the final history question to win the grand prize, a Philips refrigerator.

In the evenings after school my dad would tutor students, often for free, fluidly switching between English, Sinhalese, and Tamil. Occasionally I would overhear him break out into Latin! He was a teacher at heart. At the height of his career, on humid Sunday afternoons, you would see him walk down Clifford Place, suitcase in hand, along the railway tracks to get to the Wellawatte railway station. Destination: Galle. His last post was vice principal, St. Aloysius College Galle, a Jesuit boy’s school.

I always wondered what kept him going. Much later, when I would talk to him about his work, I came to realize the driving force behind this dedication was his students. Including anyone who turned up at our doorstep with an exercise book and an assignment.

In a larger sense, we all sat in his class. Neighbours, nieces and nephews, my schoolmates, priests, vendors and the odd grownup that had happened to hear of the iskola-mahathaya (that’s ‘school master’ in Sinhalese) down the road. They would breeze in without any forewarning for help with essays and proficiency exams, notes for debates, and coaching for job applications and dissertations. He just loved to have them in his office room, crowded around a Formica table with ginger beer stains. It was Aladdin’s cave, as one cousin described it, stuffed with books and papers. He always knew where to dig out and dust off that biography, anthology or newspaper cutting you were looking for. If you had time for some sidebars, he would invite you to a long walk to Galle Face, and tell you an elaborate yarn or two about British soldiers who got drunk while on duty in Bandarwela during World War II. Or about the time he fell into a river when the boat capsized on his way to a funeral in Galle.

Yes, life was a collection of colourful stories to him, as those who listened to his repertoire of ghost stories, war stories, travel tales and embellished family narratives know.

A simple man, my dad, who impacted so many of us.