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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Only Yesterday...

 I thought I'd share with you the reason for my writing this blog......

Way back in High School, I took an elective in Sociology. In it, we were to read  passages from Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday: an Informal History of the 1920s.  What struck me most was the opening passage, where we read a description of daily life from 1919.. The details of how people dressed, fed themselves, how their homes were furnished... And how all these details would transform in the following 11years.

A few years later, I read Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave, which described how our culture would be altered by technology. Since then, I've read Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat  , which basically affirmed that Toffler's predictions came true.

I've been reading a great deal about the history behind today's technology, but there is something I feel is lacking.. That sense of the human connection, what it all means to us everyday. I'm hoping to partially redress that omission with this chronicle...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

How I got sucked into learning website design...

 ..I recently received an e-mail from an old friend I hadn't been in contact with for years. Actually, it wasn't from her. It was from a spambot using her old e-mail address. When I tell you that she used the pseudonym "Capt. Janeway", & you're a fan of Star Trek: Voyager, perhaps you appreciate the irony of it.

I should tell you how we "met" online... And how I was put in a position where I had to learn about building websites. In future posts, I'll discuss what I learned, and how I learned it..

Okay, it all started with my first modern computer. I bought a Compaq presario set, including CRT monitor and printer, back in 2000. For a long time, I didn't even set it up. Finally, I did. But, I didn't have broadband, or cable yet. So, I first took a few courses on how to use the computer for word processing (we used to call it typing, once upon a time..) and using spread sheets. You have to know that, before this, the last computer I used I programmed in Fortran (a computer language from the 1980's, just before programs were being sold by everyone..). I hadn't even touched a computer in between...

So, back in 2000, the next investment was for a cable connection and modem from AT&T ... Which ended up selling it's cable division to Comcast, meaning my e-mail address changed, screwing up Outlook Express settings.... But enough about that!

Once connected to the internet, where to go to? I could go to the various AOL sites (AOL was still big back then) or Earthlink (remember them? The Church of Scientology competing with AOL/Time Warner? Ah, the good old days!). I did go to Netscape and downloaded a version of Navigator, so I'd have a back up browser. But, since most of my browsing was with Internet Explorer, I decided to see what I could find through Microsoft's MSN..

When people talk about social networking these days, they often forget that period when Yahoo! and Microsoft offered "groups".. Which were websites you could build yourself using their programs. Problem was, data storage was at a premium, and only so much was available for free...I'll get to this dilemma later...

Well, you went to the MSN groups menu, picked out a subject you were interested in, and there was a site. Complete w/ message board. Message boards were then, what walls are to facebook. Only, you could have "threads", where you discussed a particular topic, or start a new thread. And the message boards were unlimited in how long you could make a thread, though they were often deleted if not posted in (which is where we developed the habit of *bump*ing a thread, to keep it open).

Noob that I was, I found a group that was not currently being used. So, I "lurked", hoping for someone to talk with. And I posted an "anybody home?" Eventually, some other folks turned up, new to the group site... And one was actually experienced w/ MSN groups! We talked, got to know one another... And grew bored with a group that wasn't active... So, it was proposed that the four of us should form our own group... Except that we had a grander vision. What if each of us had our own group sites, and we called the combination "The Federation"?

Well, yeah. It would possibly put some other groups' noses out of joint, but... That could lead to alliances with more fan groups. We weren't going to dispute rights, just do our thing, and also participate with theirs. We wanted to eventually branch out of MSN, and using links to sites we favored would also mean reciprocal traffic...

All this was still just being spitballed and talked about, when...*BOOM* !
Our senior member just announced that he started groups for each of us! To me, it was like being given the keys to a ferrari, by a stranger...

So, I went to "my" group site, and looked around. I could see that a lot of content needed to be generated. And I'd have to catch up on a few things.
One thing I could do was start a few thread games, like trivia or word games.... And, in the section for photos, I could start adding stuff. Stuff I pirated, I unabashedly admit, from other sites... I also could add photos from my computer. So, I bought a scanner, and started buying fan magazines. I also dug through some of the old fan magazines I had collected from the seventies and early eighties. This is where the storage problems came in...

Each member had to have an email address. Each membership entitled you to only so much free storage, then you had to pay for more. But, there was no rule that you only had to have one email address... or membership! I had already learned about "sock puppetry" from another message board I frequented, so knew about the practice of alternate identities and what kind of benefits they could have. Here, I could take advantage of multiple alts to generate storage space for content! It would make things confusing, if my alts weren't readily apparent to my cohorts, and I chatted with them.

Still, there was more I had to learn. Because the group barebones platform wasn't pretty..

So, I started going to the library, to the bookstores. Bought and read everything I could about website design. Some of the magazines I bought had inserted cds, containing trial versions of Dreamweaver, which was then a popular wysiwyg program at the time. Never mind that MSN groups already used a wysiwyg format for setting up the group sites, I could create pages and drop them in. I also bought an earlier website design tutorial that included a simplistic wysiwyg program at a discount store.

Then , I decided it was time to take a class... And buy my own copy of Dreamweaver (which also included the Fireworks graphic design program). 

About this time, I also discovered a MSN group that would review websites, and offer commentary. This was also when I began generating website banners for my group. We'ed create them to trade with other sites on the "Links" page. Turned out that the girl running the review group also specialized in making banners, and was a Star trek fan! So, I joined her group, and did a couple of critiques of web sites. And I joined in discussions there, learned about other groups...

Another thing I did was start going to Star Trek conventions again... I needed content, and thought getting pictures of the stars would be great, as well as reporting on the different events.  And I started reviewing new shows that might be of interest, or movies I've seen..

This pretty much summed up my internet activities, and kept me busy, until... MSN decided to get out of the Groups business. Just then, these new upstarts, MySpace & facebook, had appeared. It was a new form of socializing. I, myself had just joined Myspace and Stumbleupon, and had been asked to join facebook (which I didn't think much of at first. Compared to MySpace's "Pimp my profile" features, it was just plain! Little did I know then the genius behind that plainness...).

MSN offered us the chance to transfer our sites to a new Groups site, Multiply. Which I did. But it became more difficult to log into the site. And I was bored with it... So it may still be languishing out there, or gone....

So, yeah that sums up how I learned about things like HTML, XTML, BBC code and wysiwygs....

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Changing our sense of time....

 A recent TV show had a comment that we are now living in a generation that will have no nostalgia, because our collective memory is available on the web, for everyone to share....

Well, first of all... Nostalgia isn't based on whether memories are unavailable, because actually memory is required to feel nostalgic for how things used to be. But, I get the point that there's a drastic difference because the entertainment we used to enjoy is now available for younger generations to experience for their first time. We shouldn't kid ourselves that this is the first time it happened, tho...

Remember Back to the Future ? When Marty McFly watches The Honeymooners with his future grandfather? He comments on the show, making the others wonder how he knew what was going to happen.. Marty then drops a remark about catching it in reruns... which no one had ever heard of. Imagine a time when TV shows hadn't rerun episodes!

Hell, I remember a time when the most popular TVs were only 19 in. Black & White portables. Color TVs were available, but were too expensive, and most shows weren't filmed in color. What's more, you had a knob to set the stations, there were 13 VHF channels you could set to, but only three networks. Only NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates. My family was lucky. We lived where the broadcast stations from Massachusetts and Rhode Island overlapped.

Then, everything changed. A second knob was added, allowing UHF to be available. In my area, this added three more stations, all independent of the networks. And, of course, this was also when PBS started broadcasting, adding a fourth network... So, now we had more choices. But what were we to choose from?

As with most public mediums, the problem was content. If you were to attract the viewers, you had to have a product that drew attention... Syndication had been created earlier, so that independently produced shows could be sold to networks for other than prime time viewing. Some game shows were syndicated, as were talk shows like Merv Griffin, Lawrence Welk or Mike Douglas. With the advent of UHF, syndication expanded the use of reruns. Some VHF stations already had been showing reruns of prime time shows between 3pm and 6pm. Now, UHF stations were using old favorites like Andy Griffith, Leave It to Beaver, or The Dick Van Dyke Show to fill their schedules. Especially popular shows were Star Trek (whose rerun career was more popular than it's initial NBC run), Batman, Get Smart, The Addams Family, and of course I Love Lucy. 

The other counter programming move that UHF stations used was to rerun old movies during prime time. Sick of Dragnet, Mannix, Ironsides, Gunsmoke or Adam 12 (all soon to be reruns)? Then you could watch Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Or John Wayne in The Searchers.

Now, here's the funny thing about the generation growing up in front of the TV at that time. While some shows were definitely period-set costume dramas, all the fashions you saw on the 'modern shows' weren't that dissimilar to those of the earlier shows. Rotary phones still looked pretty much the same (more on that in later blogs), stoves the same. You still saw women wearing sun dresses that Lucy, Donna Reed, or Barbara Billingsly might wear. As a kid, you weren't that sensitive to changes in style. You just thought Ricky Ricardo dressed funny. Our sense of what was the 'now' elongated....

Now, one of the independent UHF TV stations in my viewing area was WSBK TV 38. This station had the rights to show the Boston Bruins & the Red Sox. Of course, the vagaries of sports programming back then (before ESPN) often meant unscheduled delays, postponements, or other wise, time to fill quickly.. They'd often have tapes of shows ready to push in at a moment's notice. Or, they'd show an episode of Ask The Manager , which was the only attempt, locally to actually answer viewer's questions about TV in general, and their programming specifically.

What did I learn watching Ask The Manager ? That TV shows Had Legs. Having "legs" meant that a show was very popular and could be counted on for good ratings for some time. They were timeless, because their subjects weren't time period specific. A show like Murphy Brown, with it's humor based on politics of the time, had short legs. M.A.S.H., on the other hand, though actually running longer than the war it was set in, had long legs because it was a period piece with eternal themes. Thus, some shows, in order to be successful in syndication actually had to be syndicated while the original show was still in production. This started sometime in the late seventies, after cable had appeared.

And what a game changer cable was! Even more channels, all hungry for content. And all vying for the same programming that UHF had used. But, with bigger purses to buy shows with. It should also be noted that the infamous 'infomercials' began to appear at this time. They offered the independent stations a way to subsidize buying the shows they needed, by selling some of their overnight programming time.

As cable TV grew in popularity, things changed again. Paramount studios had considered starting a new Broadcast network, but couldn't fund it. Still, they wanted to test the waters. So, they created Star Trek: the Next Generation specifically for syndication. Meanwhile, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell created the 700 Club and the Christian Broadcasting Network. Then came Fox Broadcasting as the fourth network (fifth, actually, counting PBS). Soon, Warner Bro.s & Paramount would join the fray, only to later combine as the CW... Independent stations began to be bought up, or added as second stations to the traditional affiliates. Some stations tried (and failed) to copy TBS, the 'superstation' that straddled broadcast and cable networks.

I should note here that a lot of this had to do with deregulation by the FCC as to just what corporations could own stations & how many stations a single owner could have available in an area at a single time. 

Let's also look at what recording technology did. The VHS and Beta video recorders were marketed in the 80s, becoming an almost essential appliance. Soon, not only could you record and collect your favorite shows, but they'd also become marketable properties sold as tape collections. And so were the movies. Both new releases and old favorites from a studio's vaults could be sold as new products. As the formats changed (laser disc, DvD, Blu Ray) this process was repeated again and again, refueling the market for properties and content.

Next: You Tube and video streaming... Now, because you could format snippets of favorite programming to a file that could be shared by computers, you could also alter them, mash images, make them personalized, use them in a new context. The age of the prosumer caught up with it. (more on prosumerism, in the future).

Btw- I'm sorry I haven't included imagery. I promise I'll try to include images in the future.

So, where was I? Refuting the lack of nostalgia? Let's compare shows with long legs... The longest running police procedural is NBC's Law & Order. Reruns are shown on TNT, constantly. You can often tell the year each show was by the 'ripped from the headlines' plots, the changing casts and.... the use of cell phones in the plot. While this show has 'long legs', it also often has very specific product references, especially as to what those products can and cannot do. Which changed constantly as the products grew more sophisticated.

CBS's Gunsmoke was the only other show that ran for 10 years. As it was a western, set before 1900, it had no specific references to any changes in style. Watching week to week, you'd have no other reference to the passing of time besides the aging of the cast. The same could be said about M.A.S.H.

About the only comparable show to Law & Order would be Fox's The Simpsons. Since it's an animated show, it's topical references are sort've tangential to the show's setting. You don't sense the passing of time in the same way,,

Now, we get to the sense of nostalgia. Remember how I said the use of reruns on TV elongated our sense of the 'now'? (yes, way back seven paragraphs into this essay) Well, the current generation is constantly bombarded with it's immediate sense of 'now', because technology is constantly being updated. And because of that technology, this generation has a recall of 'how things were' that is incomparable to what was available in the past. We're able to store more information, and put it into context more easily. We're better at navigating the cultural touchstones that defined an era than ever before. And so much of our conversation is about the significance of those touchstones, even for those who didn't experience them first hand.

I think I'll return to this subject on July 21st.....

Friday, June 24, 2011

F.A.Q.- or a Manifesto

 Seeing as this is my first blog. I'd thought I'd let you know what to expect. 
  • This blog is not about me. I am a secondary character in my own story. I'm reminiscing about my own experiences w/ technology, and describing how that technology shaped my life. 
  • Much of what I have to say will be about the particular technology, where it came from, and what implications it creates for civilization.
  • I will discuss technology in it's broadest sense. You may question what I consider 'technology'. But semantically, it will usually mean 'way of doing things'
  • Discussions will include topics such as sociology, economics, history, psychology, any myriad way that technology has made a personal impact on me.
  • There will be a bit of : "Back in MY day .." kind of statements. But, this is not about whining how the world has changed or is changing. It is observation, critical and objective, that changes have taken place, are taking place, and will continue to occur.
  • Why the title? I'm summing up 50 years of personal history. That should take about a year...
  • Can not promise not to use "I" a lot. Will promise to try to avoid it. Still, better than talking about myself in the third person, right?
  • Why is this an adults only blog? Because I intend to discuss controversial subjects like birth control, pornography, assisted suicide, sex change procedures, "sexting", et. al. that relate to what new technologies have introduced into our world... I don't want children to see it without parental guidance (though considering some parents, maybe THEY need the help more than their kids..).