October 22, 2007

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Pulling the Plug: A Technical Review of the Internet Shutdown in Burba (here’s the .pdf) has just been released by the Open Net Initiative, and the most important story it tells is about how the story is told. The summary:

  Burmese netizens, operating in a constrained and challenging space in a country with especially low Internet penetration rates, have demonstrated that the tools of information technology can have a strong impact on the global coverage of events as they are unfolding, and sometimes on the events themselves. The events in Burma also provide a chilling example of the limitations of the Internet, access to which was ultimately vulnerable to the unilateral choices of a repressive regime. However, even the vast majority of Burmese without access to or knowledge of the Internet may have benefited from the enduring achievement of a small band of citizen bloggers and journalists — the uploading of vital, relevant information to the Internet was broadcast back in via television and radio and spread through personal networks and communities throughout the country.

Read the whole thing.

Live.com used to have a great map search that yielded very nice 3-d images of the landscape — much better than what you’d get with Google Maps. Worked on every browser I tried.

Alas, this now appears to be a Windows-only thing. Now if I click on 3D, I get “Virtual Earth 3D is not supported for your browser. For a list of supported browsers, see Help.” Near as I can tell from Help, Virtual Earth 3D is a Windows Thing, so I’m SOL, along with the growing number of other folks who don’t use Windows.

Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about my aunt. We were at her house in Maine over the weekend. She has a Windows PC. When we tried getting a 3D map going at Live.com on her machine, we were led to a very long install process that ended with a message saying it wouldn’t work without something having to do with hardware accelleration. So we gave up.

But afterwards her PC ran slower, and now insists on trying to run Live Search, no matter what, when she runs Internet Explorer. My aunt would like help in making it go away. I’m not there, but I figure there are some Windows experts among ya’ll who can post suggestions in the comments below. Thanks.

Missing…

Thirty-four crocodiles.

Shortest wave

More than 100 times faster than WiFi? suggests that chips transmitting wirelessly in the 60GHz spectrum, where waves are milimeters long, would be a practical replacement for Wi-Fi, or other forms of wireless transmission.

I think the advantages here are high, but over very short-ranges — feet or yards — given the relatively low penetrating power of radio waves at frequencies that high. But… I dunno. My RF understanding grew up on waves ranging in lengths from towers to tonsils. Could be this new stuff has a lot more promise than I’m ready to guess.

I’ve been looking for news about the Malibu Fire. Inciweb has nothing (though it does cover the Ranch Fire in the Ventura County back country, which has grown past 29,000 acres and looks kind of ominous, though hardly as sexy as one that drives celebrities into the sea). Technorati has 408 results as of this morning (6:18am, Pacific, 9:18am Eastern), including a pretty big pile of videos. About half are more than a hundred days (or hundreds of days) old. Some of the personal videos are hysterical and/or lame beyond endurance. Why post them at all?

What I want to know right now, for example, is whether the “Malibu castle” that we heard burned down (over the radio last night) is the landmark that overlooks the Malibu town center. I see here, on a YouTube’d Fox News report, that indeed it is. Or was. This video report is helpful too, from KCBS/2. S

With its ability to toggle between date and relevance searches, Google Blogsearch gets us to this post about this post from 1pm yesterday, of a Channel 2 TV report. More recent is a Google Earth blog post that points to a CNN report from 1:45am Eastern, this morning. Most of the blog reports go to TV reports, such as this one from KNBC/4. Or this one from KCBS/2.

Technorati defaults to date search, and also lets you filter by “authority”, and that helps some, but probably filters out some good stuff too. (My old blog had high authority. This new one had none at first, but is doing a little better now. Not sure it would make the cut for that last search. We’ll see, I guess.)

If there’s any solid citizen journalism on this fire, I haven’t been able to find much of it — beyond the latest on blogging.la and in LA Observed. From what I can tell right now, your best first source is a Google News search. But I’m just one guy. Maybe one or more of the rest of ya’ll can show otherwise. Hope so.

Meanwhile, the fires will keep coming. They always do. So will the earthquakes and other disasters of our own and nature’s making. The Better Ways of gathering news, getting it out, and finding it in a hurry — you know, fast enough to save lives — have not yet been invented. The parts may be here, but the wholes are not. In fact, the holes are a helluva lot bigger.

Prediction: when the hole gets filled, a river will run through it. Many, in fact.

[Later..] Good comment here. Scott Rosenberg also runs with the river-running-through-it theme.

Driving through the Maine countryside today, I realized suddenly that it was time for Hal Crowther to weigh in on Something Important again. Hal used to do this weekly back when we were both several decades younger and living in North Carolina. I’m long gone, but Hal’s still there, putting out essays no less interesting but far less often.

Sure enough, my email tonight includes a note from a fellow ex-Carolinian, now living in Bangkok, pointing to Hal’s latest, Stop the presses: The future of the newspaper—without the paper. As usual, it’s strong coffee:

It’s hard to dispute that the newspaper is doomed in the long run, as an inefficient and wasteful medium that technology can easily improve upon. I’ve never argued that point, in spite of my personal feelings—certainly not on Sunday mornings as I peel off the two dozen junk sections crammed into my local paper, fill a garbage bag with them and wonder which shady grove of whispering pines was sacrificed to make the wretched things possible. Compared with audio-visual advertising, they’re also a primitive, low-yield way to deliver a commercial message.
But the key point of understanding is that while the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace old ones there’s no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors. In fact the handoff, such as it is, has been fumbled very badly. As newspapers are eviscerated, marginalized and abandoned, they leave a vacuum that nothing and no one is prepared to fill—a crisis on its way to becoming a tragedy. When railroads and riverboats began to go the way of the passenger pigeon, no one was harmed except the workforce and a few big investors who had failed to diversify. If professional journalism vanishes along with the newspapers, this thing we call a constitutional democracy becomes a banana republic.

Even if you don’t agree, read on. It’s killer writing. They don’t get any better. Dig:

The Tribune Company, the grasping conglomerate owner that strangled the Los Angeles Times, has been entertaining a buyout offer from an “angel,” Chicago real estate megabillionaire Sam Zell, who’s on record saying “there is no difference” between running a newspaper and managing any other for-profit business. If that isn’t irony enough, Zell’s nickname is “The Grave Dancer,” for his ability to spot moribund properties and exploit them profitably. How I’d relish the opportunity to lecture him on the difference between owning a newspaper and owning a mall. Carroll argues that these corporate leviathans are “genuinely perplexed” by journalists–”people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder. What makes these people tick, they wonder. The job of any employee, as they see it, is to produce a good financial result, not to indulge in some dreamy form of do-gooding at company expense. … Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome.” If we believe Carroll, who ought to know, nothing we ever held sacred is safe from jungle capitalism and its harsh ideology, as we might have guessed from the awful mess the free market has made of American health care. Citing Carroll and Washington Post owner Donald Graham as his star witnesses, Baker comes to the radical conclusion that “free-market capitalism doesn’t really work very well in the newspaper business, and if rigorously applied, tends to destroy it.”
“Angels” who come to the rescue of shareholders smell a whole lot like vultures to me. And the vultures are circling. They may not grasp much of what it took to put this country together, but they have keen noses for carrion. If Zell is the Grave Dancer, “The Grave Digger” is a fitting nickname for Murdoch, that successful devourer of sick newspapers whose purchase of the Journal feels like one of the last big nails in our collective coffin. I picture Murdoch with dirt on his shovel and the WSJ lying there next to the hole he’s digging, not quite dead but very pale and breathing irregularly. Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to news in America was when Murdoch put the word “Fox” next to it. His gross pollution of the media mainstream in Australia, Great Britain and now the USA secures his place in history as an archenemy of the English language itself.
But the Dancer and the Digger are merely broad-shouldered, beady-eyed wealth magnets, crude engines designed by nature for the mindless multiplication of property. A world gone desperately awry gives them far more credit and attention than they deserve. If newspapers achieve extinction, along perhaps with “the news” as we knew it, only the liberals will blame Rupert Murdoch. He’s an end-game player. The newspaper industry stood with a foot in its grave long before Murdoch became an American citizen (for the sole purpose of circumventing the law that only an American citizen can own a television network).

Then he turns around and hits blogs too:

Let me put it this way: At any moment there are 40,000 stories out there claiming to be the gospel truth. Many of them are good as gold, presented by people with the best intentions; many are lies and distortions sponsored by people with the worst. Most are muddle and nonsense. It takes years of experience or constant immersion in the news cycles, or both, just to begin to sort them out. The most plausible, professional sources are often the most ruthless liars, and usually the most generously funded. Never in history has so much sinister talent, or so much money, been committed to creating, shaping, manipulating, dominating or suppressing the stories we hear or don’t hear. A blogging orthodontist with a genius IQ is no match at all for Karl Rove, Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch—believe me. It’s not even David vs. Goliath, it’s Goliath vs. Tinkerbell.

Worse, he quotes Andrew Keen. But I’m willing to let that go, because Crowther does the job Keen botched. That job was to challenge, and not merely to deride. Sez Hal,

In this time of public apathy, the Internet’s spirit impresses me more than its performance. When you show me how Web sites and blogs will generate enough revenue to feed, house and clothe the next generation of full-time truth hunters unashamed to call themselves journalists, I’ll shelve my skepticism and join the parade. Either way they’ll replace us, at least in the sense that they’ll be here when we are gone. And The End may be much nearer than clueless luddites like me can calculate. According to Joel Auchenbach of the Washington Post, a committed blogger, cyber-marketing technique—tracking page views or “eyeballs” minute-to-minute—is already corrupting editors hungry for readers. In the wired, market-driven newsroom, O.J. Simpson trumps global warming every time.

Well, crap was king in most newsrooms long before Don Henley wrote and sang Dirty Laundry. Really, is Rupert Murdoch any better or worse than William Randolph Hearst? But Hal’s right about every business model he trashes here. Including the one thanks to which countless bloggers have become no less obsessed with eyeballs than any other “journal” — traditional or otherwise — that lives mostly to serve ego and advertising. More importantly, he’s right that we haven’t found the business model that makes a living, and not just a cause, for full-time truth-hunters.

Difference is, I’m an optimist. One thing I want out of is jobs for journalists, all working directly for the readers who comprise the market for truth — and not just for the advertising money that always threatened to currupt journalism, whether or not it succeeded.

In fact, it was for this very purpose that I applied for a Knight News Challenge grant, just a few hours under the wire last week. We’ll see how that goes (I’ve heard nothing, and can’t tell if the online application even went through), but I do want to get us there.