Not in Chicago anymore

Mundane life from rural Minnesota.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

More pining for "the good 'ole days"

Since there’s plenty of information available on the National Traffic System, I won't describe it in detail. Basically it’s a part of amateur radio, a structured facility intended for relaying messages, put in place in 1949 to provide a pool of well-trained operators and the organization to provide communications in disasters. For details, the Wikipedia article is good.

The ham radio hobby is many different hobbies rolled into one. Some hams enjoy building their own equipment; some like contests where you try to contact as many other hams as possible during a specific time; some are into contacting hams in faraway or exotic places; and some just enjoy chatting. The sub-hobby of relaying messages was my ham radio “thing”. It’s a challenge – there’s nothing quite like straining to pick out that weak signal between the Summer lightning crashes to completely take your mind off of anything else. The operators who invest their time in honing the specific skill of accurate message handling are really good at what they do and a joy to work with.

Hurricane Katrina taught me that things have changed just a bit since 1949 . . . while there still is a place for ham radio in disasters when the infrastructure is damaged, the goal is different. Historically NTS was a long-haul system that insured that the message got all the way from the originator to the recipient. Now the goal is to get the message just far enough out of the affected area that the operator can pick up the telephone and deliver it. With today’s unlimited long-distance service, it doesn’t matter if that operator is in Mississippi delivering a message to New York. When I returned to Minnesota from my time working along the Gulf, I learned that there had been no NTS-relayed messages into Minnesota from Katrina. That’s good; that means that they were delivered using more timely and efficient methods. But what it told me was that the basic concept of NTS as a long-haul message delivery method was no longer required.

Keeping a system like NTS healthy is a massive undertaking, and it was already starting to unravel before Katrina. The sources of the routine messages that kept people interested day-to-day were drying up; the allure of sending a radiogram was gone, and the ability to send hundreds of free “Arrived safely Naval Training Center” messages was no longer needed now that the recruit could pick up a phone and call home at no incremental cost. As much as I enjoyed the challenge of accurately relaying messages, and the satisfaction of working with other proficient operators, the basic rationale of maintaining a system that would be used for emergency events no longer existed. I found another use for the several hours a week that I was devoting to NTS.


So we take one more step towards being dependent on ever-more-sophisticated technology. I thank the FCC for forcing me to learn Morse code; it’s a skill that gave me vast amounts of pleasure over several decades, but not one I would willingly have mastered. Now no one is mastering it because there’s insufficient motivation to do so.  One wonders how many similar skills we’re losing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Original content

I have mentioned how much of the content I see on the web is repetitious, with and without attribution. I ran into this example today when Facebook suggested three related articles after I clicked on a link that a friend had posted.

ProPublica published an article on the Red Cross on December 15.  It's here.

The three articles recommended were exactly the same text:

I just find it kind of humorous that Facebook recommended three articles from three different sources, and they're all exactly the same.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Yes, I use an ad blocker

Here is another reason to use ad blockers.

Ad blockers, for those who might not know, are browser extension that block online advertisements. You will generally see blank space on the page where the ad would have been.

I have wrestled with the decision on using an ad blocker. After all, the pages that I am seeing are there because of the revenue generated by the ads. Skipping them is a lot like using TIVO to skip ads on commercial TV. According to the ad agencies, the world will end if we do this. I think it's more likely that the world will change if we do this. But I am confident that since the vast majority of web users and TV viewers will not invest the effort to install ad blockers or use TIVO that it's a moot point.

A few weeks ago I had a conscience attack and turned off my ad blocker. I lasted about two minutes before turning it back on. I do a pretty good job of mentally filtering out ads, but today's web pages are pits of ads with a little content thrown in to string you along.

The article referenced above seals the deal for me. I had visited the site mentioned and encountered the "Turn off your ad blocker or go away" mandate . . . so I turned it off and was appalled at the number of ads and the low quality of the actual information on the site. I wonder if I was infected by something during the brief time I was there. It's bad enough that our eyes are assaulted; I don't need to fret about catching a virus.

I would be perfectly willing to pay for useful content that I access on the web. I doubt that the current ad-based structure will change because it's working so well and so few people can even conceive of an alternative.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Public opinion and the Internet

This is an interesting article. It's by an Iranian blogger who was in jail from 2008 to 2014, during which time the popularity and influence of blogs changed a lot.

Technology changes. Much of this article is bemoaning the fact that things change. I sometimes long for the days of Fidonet and Usenet, but they’re gone and they won’t be back. We can miss their unique features, but we need to learn to use what is current.

My previous article here discussed the Facebook news feed. This is one of many changes in the way we’re getting information from the Internet. It’s human nature to use the most efficient way to extract information from outside sources. Over the years we’ve moved from hard-to-read newspapers, through listening to radio and watching TV, to having to dig for information online, to the point where things are curated for us and we only see what an algorithm decides is important to us.


How is this affecting each of us, and society as a whole? The aspect that bothers me the most is the power that a very few people have to influence what we see. Consider how much your opinions are shaped by the folks who decide what you read in the media, what you see on TV, and what you see online. Then think about who it is that’s making those decisions – a handful of big media outlets and the folks at online sites like Facebook.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Is Facebook affecting your life in subtle ways?

I will never understand Facebook. Not the deeper questions of why people go there, what they post, how it impacts their lives . . . those questions are either unanswerable or have so many answers as to be meaningless.

It’s the programming algorithm that defeats me.  How does Facebook decide what to show you on your news feed?

For example, this morning I went to Facebook and there at the top of my news feed was an article I wanted to explore, but being low on the coffee curve, I mis-moused and clicked in the wrong place.  No problem; just restore the news feed. Nope. The article I was just looking at was nowhere to be found.  Instead it had been replaced by a bunch of stuff posted twelve hours ago.

I know that the news-feed algorithm is far from simple. Facebook has even given us some input into what we want to see, by setting certain friends as ones we prefer.  The article that it buried this morning was from one of those selected friends.


This inability to even begin to understand how Facebook feeds me is bothersome, but it’s more significant than just a personal irritation. The unseen puppeteers are affecting millions of people by showing them a particular subset of the thousands of potential items that could appear on their news feeds. This may sound trivial, but it’s not. And then there’s the whole aspect of “suggested post” – Facebook’s circumvention of ad blockers – and the collection of material presented on the right side of the screen. Every Facebook user is being manipulated by this algorithm.  

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