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The Internet, the World Wide Web, and HyperText

September 4th, 2008 Richard

I just went through the National Foundation’s web site/mixed-media presentation NSF and the Birth of the Internet. The site is one of the most compelling History-of-the-Web sites I’ve seen, though (for obvious reasons) it focuses mainly on NSF’s role (which was big). I highly recommend the site.

One of the things about the development of the Internet and Web that was not addressed much on this site, was the role of hypertext in the World Wide Web. Of course, many of us have come to use the terms World Wide Web and Internet as synonymous, but, as far as the history of the internet, of course, they are not. The Internet came into being (as described very well on the NSF site) in 1969, when a four location network was set up in the southwest U.S.; while the World Wide Web, as represented by the first web page, began in 1991. Another interesting thing about the Web (as compared to the Internet) is that it was basically invented by one person, Tim Berners-Lee, at a high-energy Physics lab in Switzerland.

<Richard Flash Back>
When I was a graduate student in Experimental Psychology at Texas Christian University, in the late 1980s, I was fortunate enough to work with a faculty in the education department, Sherrie Reynolds, on a project where she was developing different ways of displaying text using software from Apple called HyperCard. This was some of the first research, using hypermedia displays in education. The basic unit in HyperCard was a single screen (like a web page). You could create a lot of different pages, of course; but, the cool, and revolutionary thing was the way that the pages could be organized. You could create a link anywhere on any page, and link it to any other page, and you could create as many links as you wanted.
</Richard Flash Back>

This organizational scheme was very interesting to me, and a lot of other people, because most models of memory assume that the brain works in this same manner, where any piece of information can be connected to any other piece of information, an organizational structure that is difficult to mimic technologically. The early research on hypertext in education was disappointing, mainly because it turns out that; just because the brain stores information one way, it doesn’t mean that the brain likes to receive it in the same way. (Sort of like, just because you chew your food to digest it, it doesn’t mean you want to eat food that’s already been chewed.) In fact, a special term was coined to describe the unfortunate situation where a student encountered a learning environment where information was connected in many complex ways with no apparent path or structure, “lost in hyperspace”.

But hypertext turned out to be magic when combined with the internet, where any page, or part of a page, can now be connected to any other page, or part of a page, on any computer, anywhere (provided it’s on the internet, of course). So, in a nutshell this was the great idea that Tim Berners-Lee had – put hypertext on top of the internet – and it changed the world.

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Oprah and Echart Tolle test the Web

March 9th, 2008 Richard

I have been a practitioner of mindfullness meditation for some years now, and, one of my favorite teachers is Echart Tolle. I have heard/seen a number of audio and video recordings of different talks he’s given. So I was intrigued when I heard about a 10 week live web class that Oprah Winfrey was doing with Echart Tolle, from my wife, who teaches meditation. The class uses his most recent book, A New Earth, as the text. This whole thing is really cool to me because: a) It is something that would not be possible without the World Wide Web; and b) The web is being used, in a big way, to promote a positive change in the world.

So we sat down to watch the first week of the class, and it seemed to go fine at first, but after a short period of time, it started slowing down and stalling and, finally, pretty much stopped all together. All of our friends who tried to watch, and apparently many people around the world, had the same experience. Of course, most people attributed this to the half a million people sucking up bandwidth interacting with the show’s servers – maybe the web just can’t handle this sort of thing.

However, “according to an executive closely tied to the project”, as told to Shelly Palmer at JackMeyers.com

… there were up to about 800,000 users when a logical error in the caching servers caused the system to crash. It is important to understand that the only way to ever find a coding error like this is to put a system truly under stress. You can’t simulate 800,000 users in the lab, you need to play with live ammo. Kudos to Oprah and her team for pushing the envelope this hard.

The crash was not caused by a lack of bandwidth, an overwhelming number of users or any infrastructure issues at all. It was a simple coding error – nothing more. The error was identified and is now fixed. It is entirely possible that next Monday’s webcast will enjoy over a million users, maybe more.

Whew, that’s a relief. Well, I’m not too sure about he accuracy of the report, but I will say, the same thing I said last week when the class stopped, which was , whatever happened, Oprah will make sure it’s fixed by the next class (tomorrow), and we’ll be tuned it to see what the web can do.

Update: I’ve learned that, according to Information Week, the initial problem was that the web servers were overwhelmed with “throughput demands of 242 GBps”.

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High Speed Internet Satellite

February 26th, 2008 Richard

So, apparently the Japanese just launched a satellite that will serve up the internet at 155M. Compare this with my DSL connection that is 3M, and I am very lucky that I have a high speed option at all, living 1 mile out of a town of 14,000 in the middle of America.

Of course, in Japan they can get 100M in most places for the equivalent of $40 a month. In fact, the US is way behind many countries like Japan. One of the main reasons is that cable and DSL companies don’t have to abide by common carriage, so don’t have any competition (as I’ve noted before).

The first cool thing about the high speed satellite thing is that the satellite internet thing could be a real competitor for the companies that control these land lines to our houses. Unfortunately, I’ve heard negative reports back from friends who have tried U.S. Satellite internet, and the U.S. companies certainly don’t offer options at that high of speed.

The second , and really exciting thing to me here is the implications of such a thing for people in the rural US, which is a big issue in terms of the digital divide, and is a big issue to me personally, since my ideal life would be for Maureen, the hound, and me to live back deep in the Ozarks woods, miles from anyone, next to a beautiful spring fed river, where I would rock contentedly on my porch, while surfing the web at high speed on a lap top. If Japan could just send one of those satellites over here, life would be perfect.

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Micro Celebrity and Internet Pioneers

February 26th, 2008 Richard

I’d never heard the term “micro celebrity” until Andrew Baron, of Rocketboom, posted a note to the video blog list about a new video blog/podcast/whatever called pop17, hosted by Sarah Meyers. (I later found this article in Wired from November 2007 on the topic.)

Since Andrew recommended it, and I love Rocketboom, of course I watched an episode and then subscribed, and enjoyed the episode.

A big part of the first episode was Sarah interviewing people on the street regarding internet celebrities and phenomena, and, not surprisingly most people hadn’t heard of anything. (In fact, I was disappointed that I didn’t know many of the topics/people either, and I like to think I’m some sort of a connoisseur of web culture).

This relates very much to a comment one of my student’s made on another post. The interesting thing here is that we forget, or, at least I forget, that to be immersed in the web is still a brand new thing, and it’s something that relatively few of us share. I’m not talking about using the web, I’m talking about being immersed in the web. (Like someone who would actually be reading this blog post by Richard who wasn’t required to do so for class).

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Obamma and the Wild Web

February 24th, 2008 Richard

There was a great article by Jose Antonio Vargas, in yesterday’s Washington post about Obama Fever breaking on the web. Vargas contends

In recent days, sites have popped up indicating that the ongoing online Obamamania has hit a wall. What kind of wall? A snarky, ironic, this-Obama-thing-has-gotten-over-the-top wall.

He then goes on to describe sites such as SenatorObamas.com and Is Barack Obama the Messiah?, interesting and negative variations on the Obama phenomenon.

I don’t see this web development is as negative as the title implies, rather it is inevitable, and it does make the important point that Obama on the web has grown way beyond the control of Obama’s campaign organizers. The web culture has taken the Obama message and facilitated it through YouTube videos like Yes I Can, and the more recent, and more entertaining, No You Can’t. Since that time, as the article points out, things have gotten out of hand, the Obama archetype has been co-opted, remixed, exaggerated, attacked, and generally taken on a life (many lives) of its own; good, bad, and ugly.

That’s the way the web works. Something grows at exponential speeds, and then branches off into a cornucopia of interrelated entities, each containing some part of the original, and no one can control it. Not even a Barak Obama or his campaign – they can only hang on for the ride.

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Free Market, Net Neutrality, and Common Carriage

February 15th, 2008 Richard

What bugs me most about the net neutrality discussion is that some see it as an issue of the “free” market (anti-net neutrality) vs. government regulation (pro net neutrality). The market and regulation certainly play a role, but not in this simple way, and, in fact, anti-net neutrality is definitely not synonymous with pro-competition – in some ways just the opposite.

Here’s why.

In researching net neutrality, I eventually came upon a very old concept, common carriage, and came to recognize that this was at the heart of the debate but, unfortunately, it was not often discussed. The basic common carriage concept is that there are certain businesses in society that require elaborate infrastructures that are fundamental for a functioning society such as communication and transportation. Further, it doesn’t make economic or social sense to duplicate these infrastructures. The most obvious example to most of us is the phone. When phone companies build phone lines, they are allowed access to public property, and they are often given the right to be the default company when people get a phone, but they are required to allow competitors to use their lines. You may recall a few years ago when all of us used dial up and we often had a choice among a number of internet service providers. This is because the phone companies were required to obey common carriage laws. Yes, common carriage is a type of government regulation, but at least this may explain the rationale behind it, and why, to me, it makes sense, both in terms of competition (multiple providers compete) and efficiency and common sense (you don’t have to keep building the same infrastructure again and again).

This, of course, brings up a big question, that you should be asking yourself (unless you already know the answer). Why is there only one choice of ISP for my cable modem or my DSL line? Aren’t they bound by common carrier laws?

The short answer is, no, they are not bound by these laws, due to a decision that the supreme court made in June 2005, which found that “… broadband cable modem companies are exempt from mandatory common-carrier regulation”. Their conclusion had something to do with re-classification of broadband companies as “information services” rather than “telacommunications”. Why this is true and/or why this matters, I can’t figure out. Feel free to read this supreme court ruling from the Cornell Law School site on this case, and then explain it to me. The DSL companies, of course, figured this was a big jip, since broadband is broadband, so the supreme court ruling was quickly followed by the FCC’s decision that braodband via DSL was also not bound by common carriage. Their rationale was that, the cable companies needed competition, which is ironic, of course, since the elimination of common carriage for either, dramatically decreases competition.

So, at this point, the DSL and cable companies have this monopoly/duopoly, which puts them into a position where they alone can control the flow of information accross “their” networks. At my home, a mile outside Rolla, Missouri, I have one choice for broadband, DSL, and one choice for ISP (Sprint). Inside the city limits of Rolla, like most communities, there is a duopoly, where they have two choices, DSL/Sprint, or Cable/Fidelity.

So, as you can see, the net neutrality thing is very much about competition and regulation, but not in the way you may have been lead to believe.

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Net Neutrality Resurfaces

February 15th, 2008 Richard

I’m not sure where I first heard about the net neutrality concept (as described by Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web), but I really became drawn into the issue emotionally, since the violation of net neutrality seemed like it could have a huge negative impact on video blogging; which, of course, I’m passionate about. Being a professor and all, I was forced to have to study the subject in a lot more detail, and, of course, at one point I made a video about it, which was a response to a letter from Jo Ann Emerson, our U.S. representative , which was her response to my email urging her to support the Markey Ammendment, which supported network neutrality. Eventually, the St. Louis dispatch even included me in a story they did on network neutrality, which was cool.

The topic came up in the news again recently, when it was discovered that the second largest U.S. cable provider, Comcast, was blocking access to peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent. As a consequence of this and similar reports, U.S. Representative Ed Markey introduced a new bill that would add a new “Broadband” section to the 1934 Communications Act bill. The new section includes stuff like …

It is the policy of the United States to safeguard the open marketplace of ideas on the Internet by adopting and enforcing baseline protections to guard against unreasonable discriminatory favoritism for, or degradation of, content by network operators based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet.

The bill would also require the FCC to actively assess “broadband services and consumer rights” through stuff like public hearings.

This all seems good to me, by the way, and is strongly supported by the Save the Internet Coalition, but there are some net neutrality advocate tech types, who think that the bill does not go far enough, since there are no specifications on details, like consequences of violating net neutrality.

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More on Video Blogging

February 15th, 2008 Richard

A few more things on video blogging:

  • Here’s a brief combined bio of Jay Dedman and Ryanne Hodson, for one of their current projects, Ryan is Hungry. These two have had a huge influence on me with respect to personal media, and I suspect this is true for many others as well.
  • This clip from NPR’s weekend edition from August 2005; which includes interviews with Jay, Ryanne, and my friend Schlmo Rabinowitz, captures a lot of what video blogging felt like and the time.

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History of Video Blogging

February 14th, 2008 Richard

In May of 2005 I was searching for shows/movies/videos made by independent producers on the web. I figured there had to be something interesting out there, and it took a surprisingly long time to find anything. (This was long before youtube – 9 months – 100 web years ). Finally, I stumbled upon a community that called themselves video bloggers. They had even hosted a conference called Vloggercon near the beginning of 2005. Videos of every talk were on line and I watched them all. Although my goal was just to find something interesting to watch, I quickly got drawn into the interactive nature of the community, which was at it’s core. I used a wonderful site, created by Ryanne Hodson and Michael Verdi, called freevlog, and I was strangely compelled to create silly videos of my own. I found out quickly that this community was different from anything I had experienced before. I sent an email to a freevlog help address and ended up exchanging a number of emails with Ryanne’s partner (and sort of the father of video blogging to me) Jay Dedman, who seemed very motivated to help me video blog. Although Jay was a “big wig” in the vlog community to me, this was clearly different than what I was used to. “Stars” smile and sign autographs and say nice stuff, but the idea of all the existing video bloggers at the time was to help everyone to be a “star”, which is why the word “star” is in quotes, because, of course, there were no stars here, but people communicating in new and interesting ways. When you’re a “star” you need an audience to watch you. When you’re a member of a community, you want other members like yourself to participate. This is the best of the web experience to me – community, support, and rich media distributed widely.

So I made a video blog, called it the Richard Show, posted a short video of a racoon eating from a birdfeeder, called it “ozarks birdfeeder“, and posted it. Within a day, several people, including Steve Garfield, who was – in many way – the first video blogger, commented on the video. On my second video, Amanda Congdon, the original host of Rocketboom – clearly an internet celebrity – commented, and, eventually became good friends with my wife and me. For my part, I was following many of the vloggers who were following me, commenting, and participating actively in the vlog group list. I haven’t slowed down too much since.

I presented a “creative research presentation” at the Association for Internet Researchers meeting this October in the form of a 15 minute video on the (my) history of video blogging, that sort of sums up my experience, and my take on this phenomenon so far.

Posted in personal media, vlog, web and new media | No Comments »

More on Scientology and Anonymous

February 12th, 2008 Richard

First of all, the most recent Rocketboom episode, focused on video of the Scientology protests from around the world.

Andrew Baron of Rocketboom, also made a very interesting blog post, commenting on the lack of coverage from main stream media (MSM)

Posted in religion, scientology, web and new media | No Comments »