Things To Do Online

Boredom definitionAs people get used to this ‘normal’ of being home, and as they run out of things to do and are tired of all the noise related to the pandemic (as opposed to the useful information from WHO and local health authorities)… well, there are things to do. Had this happened before the Internet… well… but it has happened after the Internet, so there’s so much more to do.

It’s amazingly easy to find things to do once you take a break from the social networks. They don’t enrich you. Only you enrich you.

I’ve broken it up into exploration and education… to me these things are not mutually exclusive, but to others…

Explore (Fun)

Maybe you don’t feel like exploring space with NASA and want something more grounded.

Try 500 online museums from around the world, courtesy Google, a stunning display of our world digitized.

You can go further and use Google’s Streetview to see other distant places on the planet, captured by Google’s nosy cameras.

Reading? Try the Gutenburg Project, where you can find all sorts of books that are legally free and yes, are available in e-reader formats.

I’ve been joking about people staring into their kitchens and not knowing what to do with them – which presents the opportunity for exploring recipes. Hit a search engine and see what you can find to cook.

Being a bit of a nerd myself, I sometimes explore Wikipedia and read up on random things as well. I’m that person that uses the ‘random page’ functionality.

Online Courses

Imagine 1,500 online courses you can take at no cost. You don’t need to. OpenCulture.com lists 1,500 online courses. Some come with completion certificates.

If you want to be more direct about it, here’s online courses by a few major institutions:

Networks such as LinkedIn and others have more professional certificates available as well, but those are (of course) at a cost.

 

The Hedgehog’s Hot Summer.

hedge-hog-fight-768Many of we humans that litter the planet aren’t used to this concept of ‘social distancing’. It will be tough for many; for people like me it is amazingly easy as we have been doing it for some time, for varying individual reasons.

You know us. Barely.

At best, you know us as well as we want you to know us, at worst, you don’t know us well enough to allow us to associate with you. And now, here you are, at home, working from home… if you have others at home, the rest of this may not benefit you. Or maybe it will. I don’t know.

There’s this guy – Arthur Schopenhauer – he died in 1860, long before I could meet him. He wrote about the Hedgehog Dilemma:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another…

…By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

What has happened around the world is, because of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the quills have become longer. They have become longer much more quickly. People are scared, and when people are scared in a time when pitchforks and torches aren’t easily accessible, they apparently buy toilet paper and produce and share memes, and it’s hard to argue which of the two is more pragmatic. It’s always handy to have toilet paper, and it’s always good to laugh a bit when things aren’t as nice as we would like.

I could write something about mediation here, but this sentence should suffice for people who understand what mediation means.

That being said, as people adjust to the new normal, those who live by themselves will find themselves alone. For some, this is disconcerting.algorithmsfear

Being faced with the prospect of not having the usual suspects as distractions, new distractions will arrive. Algorithms tell social media that people want to read more and more about Covid-19, and the reality is that we do largely know what we need to know already and the constant barrage of updates will become tiresome – but the algorithms have to be taught that.

Algorithms cannot replace fear, but they most certainly enable it.

Step 1 to your new solitude is to understand that, and limit exposing yourself and the others connected to you to a bunch of stuff that will simply burn everyone out. Less social media.

But what will you do? Ahh, it is a scary world, solitude, but it is ripe for use with books, with in home projects you never quite seem to get around to – and with sleep, with music, with movies… and yourself, perhaps the scariest thing in the world for most people. No matter where you go, though, there you are, and you can do things like reflect. Exercise. Think. Perhaps write, perhaps whatever, but the void you might feel can be bearable.

We know. We not only survive, we thrive this way – but it’s alien and scary for others. Yet, over the course of the coming year, at least for some months, it will be the new norm. And it can be ok if you let it.

Simplification

Digital Abstract Oil PaintingIn the context of social networks, I have found myself feeling feeling it as repressive – thus I have left them behind other than for broadcasting, really, and even that is debatable.

I’ve always been a proponent of simply creating content and allowing people to find it; I’m not sure shouting in the bazaar is useful when you don’t actually own the bazaar. It certainly doesn’t add to the appeal of the bazaar unless you love being shouted at by random people.

The Internet is my bazaar, not their social network. Their social networks are algorithmically cathedrals disguised as bazaars.

So, to simplify that part of my life, I am withdrawing. Even email has a new layer of obfuscation to protect me from the constant drivel of marketers and their marketing, of conversations with those who don’t want to have conversations but to shout at you as if your ear is their bazaar.

There is a poetic symmetry in randomly popping up in someone else’s bazaar and whispering, “Hey. I wrote something new.”

I have retreated to the Internet, the bizarre bazaar, the foundation upon which cathedrals disguised as bazaars are built. 

The Lost B Sides Of Our Lives

VINYLVinyl. Some audiophiles still say that it’s the best way to listen to music as they don their rubber gloves, pull their records out of the cardboard holders (plastic removed to avoid warping of the vinyl), carefully placing the record on the turntable, adjusting the speed for a 45 (single) or a 78 (album) post WW II, and 33 RPM later on for albums.

Today, the MP3 reigns supreme – a compressed version of the music where the frequencies are kept only to that which the average human ear hears. Yet there was a time before this, a time before the 8-track tapes and later cassettes and the then ubiquitous Walkman cassette players, before compact discs (CDs) (Hat tip to Valdis Krebs on his correction through LinkedIn).

In the house I grew up in, a Sansui amplifier and tuner was the core of the sound system – 2 Technics turntables, a reel-to-reel system, and a dual Technics cassette deck with Dolby recording and playback ability. When alone, the wooden floors vibrated as only speakers made in the 1970s would make them. Every Friday, Patrick and I would look over the Billboard Top 100 to watch the trends, and I would go off and buy some 45s at the local record store.

I learned early on that what I liked wasn’t always popular. With music slower to come by than it is today, I’d end up flipping the record over to hear the other single that came with the record. A great example of this was the B side of ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears: The Big Chair. A mixing dream, really.

I’d end up exploring the work of artists other than what was popular. Sometimes it was crap, something that the recording company chose out of their discography that didn’t even make it onto an album, and sometimes not.

We don’t do that anymore. I’m not even sure that many people did it in the first place, daring to spend the time to see if they liked the song, but I do know that at least some hit songs came from B-sides. You can read about some here, and some others here where you can listen to themThink songs like, “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) and “Revolution” (The Beatles).

In an odd sort of way, we were allowed to explore the music of artists through their detritus on the B-sides of albums – the stuff that publishers ‘threw away’, not wanting to give a free hit single away with another. And yet, some of their greatest mistakes are treasures – some popular, some not, the listener deciding what was good or not simply by flipping a record over and checking.

Fast forward to today.

The Internet brought us the ability to get music like never before. I’d like to think most of us legally buy music, I’m certain at least some of us download without paying some service or publishing company. Artists in some cases have bypassed the middlemen in this, allowing us to purchase directly from them through websites. Some even make their music available for free here and there.

But the services, just like yesteryear, are about maximizing profit. There are no more B-sides; we are bombarded with things that are algorithmically decided for us as we stream music. Just as on social networks our digital shadow – what we do online – is used to decide what we see, so it is with our music. Alternative – how can something be alternative when it becomes mainstream? – is even decided for us. We are less consumers now, maybe, than we were before the Internet in that there is no conversation (hat tip to the Cluetrain Manifesto), decisions about what we get are decided not even by other human beings but by statistical and heuristic analysis of our data. We are, in the eyes of algorithms, what we were, and not what we can be – never-mind what we should be.

Generations have passed having never flipped over a vinyl record, having never read something not decided for them…. we are become the algorithms of our algorithms, the ‘tools of our tools’ as Thoreau might write today.

Unless we find the B-sides of our lives.

Forest and Trees

why hello thereShifting focus is a necessary part of being human – to be able to see the forest and the tree in the forest as needed. Deciding when to do that is a sign of education, discipline and experience. It’s also something that truly creative people can do easily.

Some people see forests, some people see trees, few people see both. Few people can understand a singular tree, how it works even in the most basic of principles – photosynthesis is a rote answer, misunderstood, osmosis is a concept that only can be learned through a permeable membrane. Nutrients, soil types, root types… all are lost if they are not found, and so a person can be limited only to the patently obvious, the growth above the ground.

And then people will look at a forest, not understanding the complex interactions with the pollination vectors, the mycorrhizal networks,  the air flow and the concentrations of different gases during parts of the day when photosynthesis takes place – and when it doesn’t. How the shape of leaves can affect not just how much photosynthesis happens but how water flows through the forest before it even hits the ground. How just as cattle have the cattle egret to keep them clean, there are creatures that keep the plants safe – and then there are creatures that do not, little microcosms of life and death happening at any given moment, an awkward balance shifting in real time. A cycle. Alive in it’s own right, a body of systems, perhaps even a consciousness of sorts that we cannot understand. Religion and fiction have played with this subject.

So, when we look at a problem, we have to understand the tree – each tree. And we also have to understand the forest, the complex interactions between trees and the other flora and fauna around them.

To often we have specialists that do only one or the other; we need people who can do both.

Unfettered

the weakest linkAs reality sets in about my mother’s passing, I sit considering over my morning coffee how much I felt I could not write about – the unspokens – because I knew that my mother would read some things and think that they were about her, or that they would make her feel sad or even angry.

We censor ourselves – some of us, anyway – and with the understanding that anything on the Internet must exist in it’s own context, it’s difficult to predict how something will be read, if it is read at all.

There’s some humor there; the majority of my family do not read things much longer than a headline, status update or text message. My mother, on the other hand, would read everything and stew. She could be eerily good at reading intent, or reading underlying meaning – and denying things she was right about would be not only dishonest, but an insult. I come by it naturally.

Sitting here, I realize she was the last reason I censored anything. I did so for my father as well. Despite the grief and sorrow, I am unfettered. Free. A final gift from her, of sorts, an accidental good in a bad situation.

Suffering Tortured Networks

connectors twistedThe world twists us, with all the cultural inertia we inherit, with all the cultural inertia those within our spheres inherit, torturing our realities into what is sometimes hard to recognize. Social networks magnify this beyond our geographical familiarity, connecting us with those we would not otherwise interact with – an improbable thought for those who have grown up with this interconnected world, a sometimes nostalgic thought for those who existed before the Internet came into being. Algorithms control what we see, shoving us into the echo chambers of our choosing, dooming us to a perception of agreement.

This was all lauded at one time as a great democratization of information, of how it would change the world in ways that would be popular – and in this, it ended up being true where consensus will make fake news possible if only because people lack critical thinking skills that somehow escaped insertion in the indoctrination of formal education systems. Pieces of paper abound by people who followed a straight path and who did no more, who know nothing but what got them past batteries of multiple choice questions and glorified essays on topics graded sometimes with critical thought, sometimes not.

Processed like cheese, graduates come out homogenized and appropriately boring – perhaps, through good fortune, they become insightful in the areas they have studied in, but this does not translate to being insightful in the useful things in life because nobody seems to think life is important enough to talk about outside of the speakeasys of what social contact happens outside of formal systems.

We watch feeds of people arguing, jumping to conclusions, sharing things with catchy headlines that they did not deign to read the substance of. Reading to argue, emotion begets emotion and rationality is left behind. This scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately comes to mind:

Given a new tool for communication, we seem pretty intent with beating each other to death over differences of opinion, the meek becoming exactly what they hated in others and unable to see it in themselves. Good intentions abound, right actions are lost in reactions to reactions to reactions to reactions… so much so that no one actually remembers the actions that started it.

Our tortured social networks have a guided evolution this way, marketing wanting to sell people things that they want on pages that people are more likely to visit because they agree with. Fights are good business on the Internet; more advertising impressions.

And now we see that the democratization that the Internet brought us magnified our social faults more than our ability to affect positive change. Or is it not too late? Can we untwist these networks?

Perhaps we’re just not ready for our own technology.