How The Internet Is Saving Society

October 15, 2010

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There are some people who would suggest that the ever-present nature of technology is tearing apart the very fabric of society.  Indeed, it can be disturbing to see teens hospitalized with texting-induced carpal tunnel syndrome.  Really, though, technology is not all bad.  In fact, the internet is contributing significantly to our daily lives – perhaps even saving society!

Keeping In Touch

As a result of an ever-increasing number of people attending college, more people find themselves moving away from their ancestral homes as they market their specialized skills.  22 year old kids end up moving hundreds, or even thousands of miles away – often without a support structure in their new town.

Without technology, it would be pretty easy to lose touch with old friends.  Today, there’s really no excuse.  You can just shoot off an email to a friend, and they’ll respond when they get a chance.  Unlike phone calls, time zones don’t matter.  Keeping in touch with a friend halfway around the world via phone can be tricky because of time zones – not to mention extremely expensive.

I use Facebook to keep in touch with a lot of friends from my younger days.  I can see pictures of their kids, news about their promotions, and more – with just the click of a mouse.  Additionally, I get a chance to see sides of people that I didn’t realize existed – particularly true regarding people that I wasn’t overly close to in high school.  Sure, there are distractions like Wordscraper (which I play) and Farmville (which I don’t), but really, it’s all about the people.

Friends With Common Interests

Now, more than ever, it’s easy to meet people with common interests.  I have a wide variety of interests that include (but are not limited to) sports, writing, and forensics.  It can often be difficult to find others who share these interests at the same levels.  This is particulalry true with baseball, which I follow with a fanatical passion.

When I find people who share these interests with the same intensity, I make an effort to stay in contact with them.  Increasingly, many of these people are friends whom I know only from the internet.  I have never met them in “real life”, nor have I talked them on the phone.  They are nothing but a string of emails to me.

Expose Yourself

I abdondoned my fiction writing for about a decade, largely because there really wasn’t a good way to get feedback.  I’d write some stories, but then what?  Show them to a handful of close friends?

With the explosion in the popularity of blogs, it’s incredibly easy to put your writing (or artwork) on display for the world to see.  With six billion people in the world, there is a decent chance that someone will enjoy your work.  It’s incredibly easy to get started.  For the quick and easy setup, go the Blogger or and you’ll have a blog within minutes – at no cost to you.

Want a bit more control over your site (with a bit more cost)?  Go to a web host like Dreamhost, register a domain, pick a hosting plan, and you’re good to go.

Never has it been easier to reach an audience.  The great thing about the internet is that readers place imortance on the message itself, with few pre-conceived notions about the author.  I could care less if you are the son of doctors or ditch-diggers – if you write an interesting anlytical piece about baseball, I’ll read it.


The Soap Boxers has 16 official writers.  One of these writers does not actually exist in real life, but is just a fig newton of my imagination.  Another of them is me.  Of the 14 others, I have met four of them in person.  I have long friendships with Crunchy and Phil – friendships that orginated in “real life”.  I knew Squeaky from work.  I became acquainted with Bob over the computer – and, although I consider him a good friend, I’ve only met him a handful of times (always at the same pizza joint in the town that houses my company’s corporate headquarters).  I’m actually meeting Martin for lunch later today (we work a few blocks from each other).

The others?  I wouldn’t know some of them if I bumped into them on the street.  I know most of them from before the days of The Soap Boxers, but that’s not true of everyone.  Zarberg writes an article every month, but I didn’t know him until last fall.  He’s a friend of another of the writers (nope, I haven’t actually met our mutual friend, either).

In the “real world” it would be unusual for such a motley group to come together in one organization.  But in today’s world, it’s realitively easy for this group of writers to come together and create a collaborative work – albeit with wildly different components.

Why I Support Net Neutrality

January 2, 2010

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One internet battle I expect to be fought in 2010 is the battle over net (network) neutrality.  This is not a new battle, and has been on the radar for a few years now.  I am hoping that 2010 is the year when the government finally draws a line in the sand.

What is net neutrality?  It is the concept that all network traffic be treated the same.  The tiny email you send to your mother has the exact same priority as your neighbor’s multi-gigabyte Youtube downloads.  Internet service providers could relieve network congestion by throttling (intentionally slowing) heavy use such as downloads – but this would violate a principle of net neutrality.

It’s easy to see why users are largely in favor of net neutrality – nobody wants their internet experience degraded.  Users would much prefer to see internet service providers (ISPs) make their networks more robust.

On the flip side of the debate are the ISPs, who would like to be allowed to throttle or force big internet companies to pay them for the privilege of allowing access to their site.  The ISPs claim that certain companies are getting a free ride.  Specifically former SBC CEO (and current GM CEO) Ed Whitacre claimed that Google was getting a free ride.  The idea has become a key point for the ISPs.

Is there any merit to this?  No.  Google pays enormous costs for its infrastructure, as well as paying for the bandwidth that allows people to access and download data from them.  Do they pay for the bandwidth required for my ISP to send the data along to me?  Of course not.  That’s what I’m paying for when I pay my ISP bill.  If the ISPs want Google and other web companies to pay for their costs, when why should I have to pay anything?  This is a blatant attempt to double dip.  Further, it’s blatantly dishonest; an obvious attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of some people who might not fully understand the workings of the internet.

My general rule of thumb is that if you have to lie to make your point, your point probably isn’t valid.

So, then, if I’m not in favor of putting the ISPs on GoogleFare (like welfare, but taking money from Google instead) am I am least amenable to throttling?  No.  My data, regardless of size, is no more of less important than anyone else’s data.  No data should be subject to any artificial constraint, other than the published bandwidth limit.  (Interestingly, I’m not actually a very heavy user – but that doesn’t prevent me from feeling the pain of those who are).

If you want to place limits on usage, go ahead – but I believe you should be forced to disclose these limitations in a very obvious way in advertising and on contracts.  Will this make it appear as if you are providing service that is inferior to that of your competitors, allowing them to eat your lunch?  Yes … but it’s only fair, since you actually ARE providing inferior service.

Tales from ancient internet history

March 24, 2009

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I began college in 1993. Holy cow, that’s more than 15 years ago … how time flies.

Anyway, back in 1993, the world wide web was in its very infancy. The number of web sites were a tiny fraction of what is available today. The sites that did exist were mostly text based, with occasional pictures.

During this time, I became familiar with Mosaic (the precursor to Netscape, which was in turn the precursor to Mozilla and Firefox). However. Most of the time, however, the actual computers on campus were occupied. I would often hang out in little rooms that had some dumb terminals that would allow me to connect to the university’s UNIX network. However, the functionality of these terminals was purely text-based activities. I could check email, chat online on IRC (on a channel with the friendly name of “love2chat”), and even surf the web. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional.

In the fall of 1994, I became disappointed with the lack of information about the country music group Alabama on the web. I took it upon myself to launch a website. In 1994, this was a lot more work than it is today. After entering some cryptic UNIX commands, I eventually had a web site. I went to work. The first thing I did was to create a discography that listed every Alabama album. I gave a short review of the album and rated each song on a star scale (5 being the highest, I believe).

Over the next couple of years, this became a labor of love. With the assistance from Sly in the computing center, the site grew and attracted thousands of visitors per month. Eventually, the web site was migrated to its own domain ( and Sly and I became full partners on the site. We had a email list of people who shared memories and opinions of the group. We even had some song snippets in a new format called “MPEG-1 audio layer 3”. The format was not universally known at that time, so we had links to sites where people could download software to play these files. MP3, as it is now known, has become a bit more popular over the years.

From a financial perspective, the timing was horrible. Hosting fees were much higher than they are now, and we weren’t able to get donations through Paypal – because Paypal did not exist. We poured hundreds of dollars a year into what was essentially free advertising for a very successful band. Was it worth it? Certainly. The interaction with other fans over the years was a great reward. My memorabilia collection grew, as a few folks sold things to “the guy who runs the site.”

The crowning moment, though, was the Illinois State fair in 1997. I had just moved to Illinois after graduating from college (and have since moved back to Iowa). I learned that Alabama would be at the fair. A couple years earlier, a guy who worked with Alabama saw the site, liked it, and told me to come backstage if I was ever at a concert. I gave a note to a security guard (and crossed my fingers) and he relayed it to the guy. Within minutes, I was back stage.

Although I didn’t get to formally meet Randy, Teddy, Jeff, and Mark, I did get to meet several of the musicians who played with them. I was in the middle of the stage chatting with people shortly before the concert was scheduled to begin.

As the time of the concert became imminent, my friend said something to the effect of “hey, I bet your seat is in the nosebleeds. I can find you something better.” He pulled up a stool on the side of the stage and I sat there – mere feet from the stage – during the entire show. Kenny Chesney was the opener and Alabama had a great show.  Jeff Cook changes instruments a LOT, by the way – he passed by me every time he needed a different one.  Afterward, my friend gave me the drumsticks that were used during the show.

What ever happened to the website? It no longer exists. Eventually, Alabama, like every other organization, had its own official site, and my site was redundant – but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.