You Can “Like” and “+1” Now

So, I realize not everyone wants to comment on these various posts (especially mine… :-P), but looking at traffic data, I can tell that more than a few people are actually visiting this silly blog of ours.  Thus, I’ve wanted to set up some way for people to express something about a post without actually commenting on it.  This solution has been available for awhile, but I’ve been too lazy to do anything about it.

Therefore, I have set up a “+1” button (for Google+ users) and a “Like” button (for Facebook users) at the bottom of each post.  It will include the number of people that have “plussed” or “liked” each post, giving me some idea of whether people are actually reading anything when they visit the site.

Just a friendly public service announcement.  :-)

Top 5 Google+ Features

I’m not one to do “Top #” lists, but after today’s announcement that Google+ is now available to any and all, I thought it would be useful to recount a few of the features that I’ve been using on a nearly daily basis (well…some things…not everything, of course).

1). House Hunting – When we moved up here, I came up alone and brought along our Flip Video camera so Brooke could get a “feel” for the different options, at least in some virtual sense. This time around, Brooke is taking pictures with her phone, then allowing the Google+ app to automatically upload the pictures to her profile so she can share them with me. Then, I can comment on each picture and she can answer all my questions. This is done without anyone else having to see the conversation(s) or the pictures.

Here's a picture of a living room for a place we're considering

2). Gaming Communication – In the past, we have used Skype to make VOIP calls between Josh, Ryan and Mike so we can voice chat while playing whatever game we’re on at the time. Skype works well, but one person hosts the call and then has to call each person once they’re ready (much like a telephone). Now, with Google+ Hangouts, you can simply “Open A Hangout,” which is basically an open invitation with whatever group you want that can join in at any time. So, if one of us isn’t ready, they can join in whenever they want. Much more convenient, and the voice quality is nice, too.

3). Selective Sharing – I post a lot of stuff on Facebook. A lot of stuff. Google+ makes it easy with their Circles function, allowing me to share with people from Columbia, or people from Truman, or people from St. Louis, or all of them all at once. This is done really easily, both from the web interface and from within the Google+ Android app. Facebook has started adding in some of this functionality, but it’s nowhere near as helpful. It’s obvious it’s a “stop gap” measure to provide some of the same functionality, but is very much “tacked on” to their existing, convoluted infrastructure. Circles is just easier to use.

Photos taken with the camera are geo-tagged and dated. Select the ones you want, and then click the green "Share" button!

4). Full Integration with Picasa – I already use Picasa to post pictures online, partially for display on this very website.  Because of the integration between Google+ and Picasa, any pictures from my phone are automatically uploaded, and then I can share them on Google+ with whoever I want.  But also, they are made available under Picasa, so I can copy them into any albums I want, and either keep them private or share them.  In short: it’s free cloud storage and organization for any picture I take with my phone (though, you can still manually upload them from a camera if you want).

Here's what the main screen looks like.

5). Separated Streams – Right now, I have 287 people in my various circles on Google+.  A lot of those folks are Gamers With Jobs people.  There are times, however, I really just want to see the news updates from my Friends, rather than the GWJ crew.  Thus, Google+ makes it easy to choose which Circle (or “news feed”) you want to view.  Moreover, the Android App lets you set feeds so you just have to swipe from side to side on the screen to switch between feeds, making it much easier to follow the people you want without seeing updates from everyone else.  Again, Facebook implemented something similar in recent weeks, and while their web interface works alright for this, the Android app just doesn’t have the same functionality.  Believe you me, when you have over 500 people on your Facebook friends list, it’s a daunting task to scroll through everyone’s stuff every morning…

So now that Google+ is open to everyone, I hope more people check it out.  Really, anyone that has a Google account for e-mail already has a Google+ account ready and waiting.  It’ll get more integrated over the coming year, anyway, especially with Picasa (being renamed to “Google Photos”) and Reader.  You may as well get used to it now!

Plus, you may find that you like it.  :-)

Lonely In The Middle

The last few weeks have presented a variety of issues within the American national discourse that warrant commentary, but I’ll let that aside right now and focus on something a bit more “meta” to the situation: how, exactly, we as members of society communicate with each other.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook on two unrelated subjects.  On the first, I stated the following:

Andy Linsenbardt wants help with a list of bands or groups worse than Coldplay. The only one I can come up with so far is LFO.

That status update started a discussion spanning 96 comments across 10 or so people.  I followed it up with this:

For those that don’t want to read through the 89 comments in my previous status posting, the following was decided, after much deliberation: ICP < Nickelback < Creed < Coldplay.

On the other side of the coin, for a completely separate issue, I posted a story published by the Des Moines Register regarding abortion laws in Nebraska and how a particular couple were forced to do something they didn’t want to.  The feed this post spawned went for 51 comments across 7 or 8 people.

In both of these unrelated discussions, involving many individuals of completely different ideologies, we were able to “hold it together” and not get (too) personal.  We were completely capable of providing opinions without the need to tell each other that we were bad people or completely wrong (well, aside from the occasional sarcastic comment in that first thread…).  For the most part, it was a respectful discussion from ranging viewpoints.  On the latter discussion, I don’t think we came to anything close to a consensus, yet I feel we left more informed on the opposing viewpoints.

While the first status update was largely a “dig” at Coldplay (much-deserved…), I wasn’t thinking that I’d get nearly that many comments.

On the latter one, I kinda did, which brings me to the following point:

I think the thing missing most from the national discourse today is honesty and openness, especially from those positioned in The Middle.  There are quite a few folks out there on the political ultra-right or ultra-left that have their signs waving on the picket line, the so-called “activists” you could say.  These people are being very successful in pulling their ranks further and further from each other, making it appear that there is only a very distant “middle-ground” left between them.

It’s just sad when Facebook is the last bastion of reasonable discourse.

I won’t get into the abortion debate here or anything, but it’s safe to say that, aside from the folks out there with “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life” signs going on marches, the issue is frequently ignored in the middle.  I think it’s mostly out of fear, as those in the middle are afraid of being labeled one or the other, and what that may mean.  It’s the kind of issue we frequently ignore in schools.  Going to Lutheran and Methodist churches all my life, it’s an issue that’s frequently ignored there, as well.  It just seems as if there isn’t really a middle ground in that particular debate, let alone a variety of others.  People are afraid of the subject.  They keep it locked away.

In a related fashion, all too often, I hear of people not wanting to say anything about politics, or about religion, or about culture, because they are afraid of offending friends of theirs, or of “getting into it” to the point where they may not end up speaking with someone for a few days (or weeks…or ever again…).  These are people that don’t want to bring it up around the dinner table with their spouse, or with other family members.  Those that don’t want to bring it up at work so they don’t end up getting into some kind of long argument with their co-workers.  And most relevant to this particular post, those that don’t want to post anything on Facebook or other social networking sites so their friends (or future employers…) can’t see what they think about various issues.

And therein lies the problem.  If people aren’t willing to defend their positions, with intelligence and respect, then those on the ultra-left and those on the ultra-right with their signs will have effectively won.  They will have won by scaring those in the middle away from getting into the debate in the first place.  By causing them to hide from the discussion, keeping the issue from ever reaching any kind of moderate consensus.  Without a voice firmly planted in The Middle, then the opposing sides continue to pull apart with little to hold them together.

The problem is nothing new, and it exists in other instances.  Case in point: Years ago, at a Wesley House float trip, I had a great conversation with a Methodist pastor I greatly respect.  We were lamenting the decreasing population of Methodist campus ministries, while others were increasing in number.  In his view, the other ministries were offering a more “black and white” interpretation of the world, and the Bible, while Methodists (and ELCA, and others…) were allowing for the fact that there are “greys:” that black and white weren’t the only options.  The people we were trying to provide a service for weren’t interested in The Middle: they chose their extremes, likely because they wanted to be told what to think  The Middle, to them, was a scary place to be, a place where you may have to question things, have to think about the world, and have to make decisions.  Picking an extreme, there’s a clear-cut answer: you accept it and move on.

On a political spectrum, I technically fall center-left.  I’m a Moderate, by most interpretations.  But my thoughts on a variety of subjects, to some, would paint me as an ultra-leftist (because “The Middle” has been pulled more and more toward the Conservative side of the spectrum, but that’s another issue altogether…).

You can position yourself in the middle of an argument and still have strong feelings about it.  It’s possible.  And I try to do it all the time.

The Digital Generation

I was listening to NPR’s OnPoint podcast from November 2nd, where Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Douglass Rushkoff on his “Rules for the Digital Age,” discussing Rushkoff’s new book “Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” The discussion bounced around quite a few topics, but largely focused on the thought that people today take their digital presence for granted and that people interact with digital media in such a way that they don’t control the outcome, but instead they are controlled by their digital media.

For example, Rushkoff recounts a story from their PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Digital Nation,” where the producers ask a child: “What is Facebook for?”  The kid’s answer was “for making friends.”  It’s a relatively simple answer, and one that many adults would also provide, yet the true answer is “to make money off of the relationships, likes and dislikes of its users.”

As another example, Rushkoff says that students when we were growing up decades ago would go to the World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica in order to get a “primary source” for our book reports.  Now, for many people, simply using Google is “good enough” to find the information you want.  If you use Google’s Instant Search option, introduced a few months ago, your search results change by the second and are largely influenced by traffic on those sites, yet Google is perfectly capable of adjusting the results so that some pages show up first and others don’t.  For many users, they’re just “The Results” that they get, however the user typically doesn’t think about the vested interest that Google has, as a company, in making money off of their Search ventures.

Rushkoff’s solution, outlined in his “10 Rules,” is generally that people should be more computer literate.  He says that kids today that take a computer class in junior high or high school learn Microsoft Office.  To him, that’s not “computers,” but instead it’s “software.”  You aren’t learning how a computer works.  You aren’t learning about what programming had to go into those programs.  You aren’t learning about the types of programs available (i.e. closed-source vs open-source).  You simply accept what you are given as Gospel without critically thinking.

As I listened to the discussion, especially with regards to Google, I had to think about this past election which saw the rise of the Tea Party.  While many of them would have you believe that they were all educated, intelligent, active people, so many of them were taken advantage of by other third-party groups, primarily corporations.  These are individuals that believed what they found in Google searches without thinking critically about what they were discussing.  Rachel Maddow did an interview in Alaska discussing the Senate race of Tea Party favorite Joe Miller (who lost…), and the supporters outside were angry about all the policies that Attorney General Eric Holder had supported, and his voting record prior to becoming A.G.  Of course, Maddow points out that Holder never held public office, and thus had no voting record.  But these people believed it because that’s what they were told.  It’s what they read on the internet.  As if “The Internet” is to be equated with the Encyclopedia Britannica of old.

Rushkoff’s larger point, in my view, is that people today simply don’t have the critical thinking skills to handle what digital media has provided.  So much information is now provided with so many more sources that individuals can’t effectively wade through it and discern whether what they are reading is fact or fiction.

I’m not sure that a better understanding of computers alone would be enough to combat the problem, honestly.  Rushkoff suggests that some basic programming skills would be helpful for people to know as well, much as people thousands of years ago had to learn to write when “text” was invented.  He believes that the invention of text empowered people to write laws, to hold each other accountable, and to be more than they were.  He believes that giving everyone basic programming skills would do something similar, where they would be more likely to know and understand why a computer does what it does, and how the programs on your system interact with programs on the internet as a whole.  I barely have any programming training and I think I’ve got a relatively decent handle on how the internet works, but most of that was self-taught over nearly two decades.  I certainly don’t think it would hurt to have kids learn some basic programming, but they’re already missing the boat in various other subjects that programming is surely on the bottom of the list.

To me, it’s the critical thinking part that needs to be improved.  With some basic critical thinking skills, hopefully, people would be more informed about everything they do in their daily lives: in raising their children, in voting for elected offices, in thinking about where their food comes from, in choosing which car to drive, in where they get their information, and so on.

But hey: if people want to learn more about computers, I’m all for it.

P.S. Happy birthday, Mom.  :-)

One Decade Down

This coming weekend marks my 10 year Hickman High School reunion – The Class of 2000.  It took me awhile to find the Columbia Daily Tribune’s article about it (way back in their “archives”…that aren’t what I’d call “searchable”), mostly so I could remind myself of the statistics these kinds of things tend to include: 619 graduates, 73% of which were going on to four-year colleges, 13% to jobs, and the remainder to two-year schools or the military.

We’ll be heading down to Columbia this Friday to attend this year’s Hickman Homecoming Game, and hopefully we’ll get to see my old marching band play some of this year’s show while we’re at it.  Otherwise, the general “plan” is for people to get together for some Mizzou tailgating (which I won’t do, in favor of frolfing with Stu…) followed by a group dinner at Boone Tavern on Saturday night.  RSVPs for all of this were done over Facebook, so while I have some idea who is attending, I don’t know exactly because the invites were only sent to “fans” of “Hickman High School Class of 2000.”  If you weren’t a “fan” of that particular Facebook Group, you probably didn’t get the invite.  So yeah, to an extent, I have no idea who’s going to even be at this event, besides a few specific people I’ve chit-chatted with in the past few months.

That all aside, we’re due for a visit to Columbia.  We haven’t been down there for a few months now and Mom is itching to take Meg shopping for some winter clothes (which is good, ’cause Iowa is COLD).

But back to the Reunion.  This will be the first time most of my “Group of Friends” from high school meet Meg.  In a few cases, this will be the first time they meet Brooke!  I guess part of the fun of going to a 10 year High School Reunion is “reconnecting” with friends you haven’t seen in years (or a decade), but it’s going to be fascinating to see what trajectories we all ended up on.  I was friends with a wide variety of folks in high school, ranging from valedictorians to band geeks to space station simulators.  To date, I’m the only one I can think of from high school that was part of that group and also has a child.  I’m also one of the few that is married (although most have “significant others,” to some degree).  Considering 10 years has passed, I find those particular milestones to be rather interesting, as I’d argue that the preceding generations had a higher percentage of individuals that were married and had at least one kid 10 years after graduating high school (my Mom had 2 kids within 10 years of graduation).

I guess  I’m just reflecting on how I ended up here, as compared with others from my graduating class.  Whether it was always subconsciously in the plan to be married, have kids, and have a Ph.D. in time for my 10 year reunion.  Whether that notion was part of other people’s plans, or whether their lives took them in completely different directions than they’d otherwise intended.  Whether I will be considered the odd-man-out, or whether someone else’s shocking revelation will trounce anything I could come up with in this post.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not worried about going to the reunion.  On TV, you see people fretting about going back to their high school reunions, usually that they’ll seem somehow “less successful” than their brethren, or that they have memories of the “high school experience” that no one else remembers like you do (think of the season three 30 Rock episode, “Reunion“).  Despite my questions above, I’m just genuinely intrigued by the idea of how my experience differs from the experiences of the other people I hung out with in high school.  Personally, I think if we were to rate attendees based on their “successes” post-graduation, I’d rate fairly highly.  I guess I’m just wondering if I meet the expectations that my friends had 10 years ago, and if they will all meet mine.

I guess I just find it all to be “curious.”

Of Facebook and Privacy


Toward the end of May, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that the company was revamping their privacy controls yet again. It has become something of a yearly (or more) change at Facebook, as they’re constantly changing things “behind the scenes” that affect the end user’s applications, posts, photos, etc. Part of the problem that Facebook has had, overall, is that they tend to make changes that affect users globally, in the sense that no matter what their privacy settings were, they are then changed without informing them as to what is going on.

The picture above shows the simplified Privacy Controls. Bear in mind that all these controls have existed in Facebook forever, but as Zuckerberg describes it, they became so “granular” that it became confusing for the end user. It used to be that you could set all of these things with a series of “check boxes,” but now all you have to do is select that only “Friends” can view your information, or “Friends of Friends” (allowing a little less restriction, in case a “Friend” refers to something you posted and then a “Friend” of theirs comments on it), or you can make your information available to Facebook at large. All this can be done with a single click. Or, you can pick a Custom profile that allows for the granular control you’ve always had.

I listen to podcasts practically all the time, and this particular story has been covered over the last few weeks on NPR’s Science Friday, as well as NPR’s On Point. The Science Friday piece is shorter than the On Point one, if you care to listen, but the discussions and the callers all provide very interesting debate on the subject. The discussion ranges widely, with mostly adults that didn’t grow up with the internet worrying about young people that are using the service without regard to their future. They point out that the business model Facebook uses to get money in the first place (i.e. advertisements) relies on freely distributed information from each person, as essentially, your information (e.g. likes/dislikes) is what is being sold to advertisers, thereby funding your use of Facebook.

In having conversations on this matter with Brooke and Kristen, they rightly point out that things being posted on Facebook aren’t entirely under our control. Hypothetically, a person could be out at a bar and have a picture taken of them, and then have that picture posted on Facebook and “tagged” with their name on it. Of course, as they both pointed out, if the individual wasn’t participating in anything they would be ashamed of, they’d have nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that, if anyone posts a picture and “tags” you with it, and you remove that “tag” yourself, it can never be re-added, thereby limiting the ability for anyone to search for that incriminating picture with your identification attached to it.

In my case, I’ve used Facebook for years, but I have always kept some amount of control on what I post on it. I do my best to keep my Facebook profile as uninteresting as possible, yet still keep other people abreast of what I’m up to. The service, for me, is helpful in keeping me in touch with other people that I may have otherwise lost touch with over the past decade. For that, I am very grateful in having Facebook available. At the same time, my generation grew up with the advent of the internet, where it took minutes to download a single photo. Generations now are entering a different world where social networking is almost considered a requirement before you even enter middle school (Facebook’s Terms of Use suggest that you be 13 before using the service. Obviously, it’s up to parents to police that). Kids now are taking cell phones to elementary school, which was unheard of back in the 90s. The newer generations are dealing with privacy in ways that my generation never had to.

Ultimately, I come down on the subject in the following ways. Facebook is a service that is free to use, yet certainly isn’t required. No one is forced to use the service. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, no one is forced to post things onto the service for all to see. It is up to the individual to decide whether a). they want to be a member of Facebook in the first place, and b). whether they want to post anything or not.

So, with all this under consideration, I come to a related (but thus far unaddressed) question: Is it possible that Facebook, and the internet in general, acts as a distributed “Big Brother” such that everyone (that cares…) ends up acting better than they otherwise would in public situations for fear that anything they do could be recorded and posted somewhere?

I guess we’ll find out in the next few years. Somehow, I kinda doubt it.

What to do, what to do…..

We’ve been trying to see and do the things we haven’t seen and done yet in the St. Louis area in the next couple of months, as you can see from some of the pictures on the sidebar, since we’ll hopefully be leaving next spring. We’ve been to the Botanical Gardens, revisited the zoo, eaten at Broadway Oyster Bar, and plan to go to Cahokia Mounds and a Blues game. What else should we make sure to do, for all you St. Louisans (or those of you who have been here and been touristy!)???

Rockin’ Robin

So, I’m toying with Twitter to a very small extent. Generally, using one social networking site is plenty for my taste, but there are many folks that to use the Twitter service instead and, due to the wonders of RSS, it’s arguably easier to keep track of.

I only mention this because I’ve added a few feeds to the right-hand column of this page, kinda on a trial basis. Right now, I’ve added Stephen Colbert,, Joystiq, GWJ and Giant Bomb (the latter three are gaming-related) to see if it works alright. I’ve only got the top two posts from each feed, but I think I can track up to 20 posts with this particular WordPress plugin.

Anyway, I’ll be messing with it. We’ll see. I don’t plan on actually posting with Twitter often (or ever), but I have tasted the Kool-Aid and may give it a go…

By the way, I don’t know why it sometimes says “no public messages” and sometimes doesn’t. I’m still working out some kinks, obviously… 😛

A tele-what?

So, I was listening to an interesting “On Point With Tom Ashbrook” from NPR during my various runnings around tonight whilst they discussed young people in the digital age. They were largely talking about how youth today, whether in middle school or college are constantly “connected” via text messaging, e-mail, Facebook and IM. The discussion was sparked by a recent study saying that having your kids on the internet all the time may not be a bad thing, necessarily (a link to the study is on the On Point website).

It didn’t really get me thinking about anything specific, but a little about my history with similar forms of “connectedness.” My oldest IM name is alinsenb17…which means I started it when I was 17…which means that I will have been using AIM for a decade next year (eeesh!). Before that, I was already e-mailing “pen pals” of sorts and using another chat program, ICQ, that I don’t really use anymore (if I remember right, I was using ICQ for a good amount of time before AIM, meaning that I’ve actually been IMming for longer than 10 years already).

It’s also rather crazy just how many people are online at a given time, and generally available to “chat.” At the time of this writing (9:00 PM CST), there are 14 people on my Facebook Chat, 12 on Google Chat, 2 on MSN Messenger, and 7 on AIM. Nice way to stay connected, and still kinda crazy that all these people still use IM services when text messaging has largely taken over for instant messaging via computer. There was a time, back in my first year at Truman, where I’d have 9 AIM windows open at one time, with 9 separate conversations going at once…which was (obviously) difficult to manage.

I guess the part that really intrigues me about this is that I’ve been doing IM for 10 years, and e-mail for a little longer, and there are still people that don’t have computers, let alone an e-mail account, let alone an IM account of some form. I realize it’s a “different generation,” but I wonder how it’ll all, eventually, equal out. We’re already starting to see some integration of all these protocols, where one can couple their Facebook status with text messaging, or both of those with their Twitter account (which is a separate beast entirely).

Will it come to a point where all of these separate forms of communication (social networking, text messaging, e-mail, IM, voice/video chat) are all integrated into a single protocol? Where someone can communicate with someone else with the touch of a button?

Oh wait…that’s called a “telephone“…

Internet Culture War

So, there’s a blurb on Slashdot mentioning this article that talks about class divisions between users of MySpace and Facebook. It kinda talks about the history of each, especially how Facebook used to be exclusively for college students and, because of this, seems to be almost more “elitist” in its constituents. For example, Facebook users hated the idea of high school students joining their ranks late last year, and even with the infusion of “younger blood,” the site still seems to contain more educated users, while MySpace users tend to be even younger and less-educated.

One of the more interesting points in the article (about mid-way down) discusses the U.S. military, and more specifically how they banned the use of MySpace, but allow the use of Facebook. This is particularly interesting because officers tend to have Facebook accounts, while lower ranked soldiers have MySpace accounts upon military entry.

So yeah, the article talks about methodology and data recovery to a minor extent, and personally I think some of the “data” may be suspect, but it still brings up an interesting point or two… On a related note, I loathe MySpace… I hate going to MySpace pages and seeing terrible web design, horrible pictures in the background that make a given page nearly impossible for me to read, and I think it’s too easy for people to be able to access someone’s page. Now, on the other hand, I think it’s quite useful for getting your music “out there,” but a better-designed web page would be more useful…

Are different socio-economic classes using each site? Perhaps… I’m not sure this site represents anything definitive, but it does bring up a few interesting points and things to think about. I really don’t use MySpace, so I can’t attest to it… Facebook, however, is very clean and easy to use. I’d almost go so far as to say “elegant.” So, my bias toward Facebook is moreso about useability and access restrictions, rather than “the people that use it” (I’d like to think). Then again, as I scanned through some user groups around the time of the last election (Fall 2006), there were a lot of poorly educated high school students making up all kinds of “science” about stem cells…let alone frequently misspelling things…