I hate my blog

15 10 2010

I really hate my blog. I’ve always struggled with my online identity. Should I be funny? Should I be serious? Who knows. Guess it’s a little bit like real life.

Not that I don’t like blogging. No, on the contrary, one thing I can tell you is that blogging can really help you out.

The best advice I’ve ever heard is to try to take your feelings and put them into words. Whether you share them publicly is your choice or not, but it’s nice to struggle through a complicated thought and come out on the other side with a better sense of clarity. A blog can be your ally in doing that. Depending on your situation, it can really help you solve a difficult issue. I’m a firm believer in the format. It’s good promotion, too, assuming you are careful about what you express.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like a real bona fide thing that says, “this is who I am,” that isn’t vulnerable to some opportunistic rant that could show up in the Google cache some years later.

The age of the homepage seems to have died. It used to be you’d get an angelfire or geocities account and build some crappy circa-1994 thing and push it out there and tell people that’s your homepage. Now it’s blog, blog, blog, which is cool, but doesn’t provide that biographical feeling (and can really catch you at an awkward moment without the context of who you are).

After working 11 days in a row (mostly by my own choice), through my somewhat bleary eyes and short-tempered stupor, I feel like maybe this is a good time to give it some thought. What would my ideal online home look like? What would it have?

Would there be a text area? Video? News? Something interactive? What would I want to put there?

I almost feel like my ideal blogging situation would be a bit like Twitter or the Facebook feed … you know, there’s various kinds of activities. There’s the things you’re reading, the things you take pictures of, the things you write in 140 characters or less … oh, hey, there’s Tumblr for that. I think my big gripe with Facebook is it’s kind of ugly. It is, however, highly reliable. No fail whales there, Zuck.

So look for some updates to come as I hash out my thoughts. Chances are, I’ll be putting them into words right here.

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Virtual vacations

22 05 2010

As I type this, my cable Internet access is down for the count. Unfortunately my former backup ISP has wised up and password-protected their router, so I’m pecking my post into the notes field of a fake address book entry so I can sync it up on my iPhone.

Besides sucking, this also cuts me off from what I viewed as my last “resort,” if you will: the Virtual Vacation. Call me pathetic, call me what you will. But when I feel the need to travel and can’t, jumping on Google Maps and streetview is probably the closest I’ll get.

You might wonder why I don’t, you know, just go somewhere. Or, just learn to wallow happily in my faux-misery mudhole. The answer is, I have a vacation planned in early June and, well, life is too short to let it slide by. I also just bought a fairly expensive camera to take on future trips. I’m happy about this investment but also have to be prudent about my dollars. And, I have activities planned this weekend, and some fairly ambitious travel plans later in the year, and some anxiety about anything but the minimal amount of planning (due to the unpredictable nature of my job and lifestyle). So I’m not necessarily complaining or anything, I just want to be able to sample all that life has to offer.

When you’ve got gadget lust and wanderlust at the same time, sometimes you have to make compromises. And so, the geography major in me jumps at the opportunity to take an interdisciplinary approach to escapism. That is, using my computer and other modern technology to experience the highways and byways of my country, as well as the cultures of the world. It’s kind of exciting, and has the benefit of plenty of context and never really getting lost. You are truly free to go places you wouldn’t otherwise go and discover dream destinations you never knew you wanted to see.

It’s comforting to know that I’m actually not the only person who does this. I read a story in the New York Times detailing how two friends — caught in the throes of wanderlust — got together and pretended their mice and keyboards were the dashboard of a car. Streetview became the vehicle by which they took a road trip on their screens. They actually made a viral video bloggy-thingy about it that includes their dialogue and observations of the “roadside attractions” seen via streetview, which, the article wisely observes, aren’t that much different from what you might say on a real road trip.

My mind was a little blown in that moment, not so much in the earth-shattering way, but more in the synchronous way. I totally *get* what they are trying to accomplish, as well as the implications of it all. That and the interesting phenomenon of one-minute online sensory vacations, kind of got the wheels spinning in my brainz.

To what degree can you experience a place without actually going there? And how accurate is your research versus the reality? I’m trying not to *go there* in terms of virtual reality and holodecks and simulations, but that’s somewhere in there, too. I propose an exercise: Plan a virtual vacation in as much detail as possible before an actual visit, and then actually go there and see how it stacks up.

Just to get a little weirder on you: There’s a possibility that taking a virtual vacation before a real visit could have profound implications on your actual viewpoint when you go. And there’s also the possibility that taking a virtual vacation could be just as fulfilling as a real vacation, since one could argue that even “reality” as we know it is constructed from perceptions. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard explored the simulated nature of perceived reality in his diatribe, er, treatise, Simulacra and Simulation. He basically argues that reality as we know it is to some degree symbolic, and that the simulacrum (symbol) is increasingly trumping that which it symbolizes — and I know that’s oversimplifying things.

From a scientific perspective, I can’t help but think we’re just a mass of atoms and particles and whatnot, organized somehow via energy and sculpted by the hands of the deity of your choice. What purpose does travel serve then? And is going somewhere — an inherently symbolic experience — truly different than simulating it? Well *of course* you say, traveling to another place is a fulfilling experience for the sights, smells, activities and interactions with other human beings. Is it? I would tend to agree with you, but I think it’s something interesting to think about, particularly when life gets in the way.

Back to earth now. The takeaway from all this early-morning thinking I’m doing is that there is a ton of value in trying to construct an image of a place, only to tear it down by actually going there. You get more out of the whole experience than the sum of the two stages of analysis, because there is a certain synthesis that takes place during the transition. And even if you don’t ultimately end up visiting a place — perhaps the virtual vacation helped you avert disaster, or you just can’t get around to visiting this place, ever — these short escapist journeys undertaken with mouse and keyboard can be quite valuable. Regardless of their accuracy and depth, they’re their own kind of vacation in and of themselves and can let you go places that you would never get to go otherwise.

Back to earth now. The takeaway from all this early-morning thinking I’m doing is that there is a ton of value in trying to construct an image of a place, only to tear it down by actually going there. You get more out of the whole experience than the sum of the two stages of analysis, because there is a certain synthesis that takes place during the transition. And even if you don’t ultimately end up visiting a place — perhaps the virtual vacation helped you avert disaster, or you just can’t get around to visiting this place, ever — these short escapist journeys undertaken with mouse and keyboard can be quite valuable. Regardless of their accuracy and depth, they’re their own kind of vacation in and of themselves and can let you go places that you would never get to go otherwise.





Someday, the Internet will be a virtual world.

23 07 2008

It’s going to happen. At least, I kinda hope it will.

One day we’ll log onto the Internet and we’ll be able to customize our view and our environment to suit us. It will be a virtual world and we’ll operate within one tiny sphere of it.

The closest physical embodiment of the Internet is the universe, because the World Wide Web is bigger than any one of us and already may indeed be bigger than this planet. Someday we will explore beyond the earth and the confines of a single rock in space will not be big enough to hold all the information we possess.

The Internet could be represented as a field of stars, with sites occupying planets and being grouped into galaxies, solar systems and the like. In the case of an errant supernova, nearby orbitals would of course not be affected.

We’ll travel between these faraway places using what I would best describe as “spaceships” (guided by maps of course) and we’ll explore planets using transit provided on the surface and by exploring via flight or foot. Generally the “planet” idea will be mostly a representation, as only a small portion of the planets will be inhabitable, if at all. The concept of scale comes into play here, too; Second Life takes place on land because it has to be walkable, and comparable to something from the real world. In this universe, scaling is a challenge.

Some data bits from older Web sites and such will remain as searchable pods. With existing search technologies, we’ll be able to read the Metadata of planets and pods and orbitals and satellites and such and find our way around much the same was we do the current Internet.

The Web will still exist as a data-only form, but increasingly, sites will have a virtual form. Older sites will be grandfathered in and posted into pods. People will give up their cheesy “homepages” and opt for houses like you see in Second Life. Information will be presented in browsers and displays similar to what we already have, but the browsers will integrate seamlessly with the environment.

Multimedia will be an afterthought; we’ll have built-in chat, video and music capabilities that far exceed what we have today. The whole system will be upgradeable, modular and open-source; you’ll be able to view the Internet as you like and even put skins on it so it looks like what you want: the universe out in space, an aquarium with fish, a golf course.

The idea as I see it is to take current information and make it viewable in the virtual world, while at the same time creating virtual-specific environments. Information will be classified as nuggets in a hierarchy that is standardized and compatible with backwards standards. Programs will emerge that will either define or work within the confines of these standards. Many different services will do battle, and only a few will emerge as victors.

In order for a plan like this to work, the Internet from circa 1993 should work seamlessly alongside the Internet from Now.

The current vision of the virtual world, as a sort of fantasy life that is separate from the real world (and at the same time very similar) will continue to be valid, but will operate as its own society within the greater virtual society. Specialization will grow in the fantasy worlds and they will cater to certain kinds of clientele. The greater virtual world will serve as a pathway to steer people to where they want to go, and a platform upon which sites will create their own environments. Second Life, for example, would seamlessly integrate with the greater virtual world while remaining separate from it. Sites like Facebook and such would be emulated in a virtual form and people’s personal sites would be a matter of choice.

Where to start? The first obstacle is technology, and then comes old habits. Perhaps a virtual world like Second Life is the future, or perhaps something else is. It’s hard to tell what will happen, but something will happen to visualize the Internet.

The first step, I think, is coming up with a way to quantify the current Web. Perhaps sites could be viewed as fish in an aquarium. The trick is to have a virtual world that operates within these parameters and is searchable — enough to make the head spin — and is compatible. This world cannot be owned by one company to survive. It must be open-source and malleable according to different developers’ involvement. Innovation, while occasionally painful, will be required.

Why do I think about these things? I should go to bed now; a long day awaits.





Entertainment musings…

18 07 2008

DISCLAIMER — I don’t normally write so much about work, but in this case, it’s all over the Webernets and thus I don’t care.

I guess it’s THE Rocker (August 20 release) and THE Dark Knight (Releasing NOW) up for my entertainment attencion right now. Today, Dwight K. Schrute, or rather the actor who plays him of course, stopped by the dotcom newsroom for a chat. We took iReport questions for him and got a decent response, including an image of a Bobblehead from an … old friend. We witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of love that arguably surpassed that given to any other person who has come in. People love the Schrute. Rainn Wilson is pretty cool, too. What can I say? He was hilarious in his weatherman sketch and even signed T-Bone’s exercise ball and took time to take a group picture with us. I’ve never watched The Office but I’ve seen clips of it.

If you are my Flickr “friend” at least in name only, you will be able to see the photos of this momentous event that I have taken (minus a group picture, which I plan to steal from someone).

Now, another thing going on this weekend is the release of “THE Dark Knight” as you know and which I already mentioned, which features Heath Ledger. One of my favorite films of all time is “Brokeback Mountain” and Ledger was simply fantastic in that. He was also great in “Lords of Dogtown” and “10 Things I Hate About You” and really anything he touched, so I’m looking forward to seeing his final film. If he got a posthumous Oscar it wouldn’t surprise me. And, you know, I love Batman. It is the ultimate comic-book film franchise. It’s just… a classic film series and I can’t wait to see this one. They never seem to disappoint.

So I’m slobbering all over this film but don’t have tickets to the IMAX, and I didn’t get the free tickets being given out, and I don’t really care to stay up past midnight or wait in long lines, hence my avoidance of the iPhone 3G (and my lack of desire to pay for it), and thus I will be a wuss and wait to see this film. Maybe a couple days. I might see it Sunday night or something. Time will tell.

As an aside, what the freak is the deal-io with the iPhone not doing video? Does Apple have a film reel stuck up its arse? Seriously, let’s have some iPhone video. If I hear one person say they were going to shoot video but the iPhone doesn’t let them, I am going to … buy a Zune. I dunno. Not good, people, not good.





Building Facebook apps? Good luck…

18 05 2008

They’re annoying, they’re mystical, and they inspire a false sense of self-confidence like no other. They’re Facebook apps. You look at them and go, yeah, I could do that. Or, you get so overwhelmed you don’t even want to try. I decided to keep my expectations low (a smart strategy I’m finding) and see if I can do sappshotomething very basic and no-frills. The happy medium between changing the world and doing nothing.

I got a self-hosted Facebook app working, shown at left, and it is totally functional even though I am/was using PHP4 on my server space and Facebook generally requires PHP5. It’s a sample app that Facebook provides, but it was a big step for me. Here, I’m going to outline the process that I went through to get started building Facebook apps.

GoDaddy server space is a little unique in the way it’s set up and the way that Facebook apps interact with it. I’m still in the process of reconfiguring my space, and I’m also encountering a technical problem accessing phpMyAdmin (WYSIWYG MySQL database manager, as opposed to command-line) so development is limited to non-database projects at this point. The techie ticket is out and hopefully they’ll fix it soon…

developer pageBefore you do anything, join Facebook and get the Developer app on your profile. Make a new application and fill out the minimum of forms. This will get you an application key and a secret, which you’ll need to do anything. This is also where you can get sample code and link your external program to Facebook once you’ve got something to test. The apps usually won’t work outside Facebook. You can also set up a test profile (follow the guidelines) and find information on the Developers Wiki. Here’s a page that goes into more detail.

So if you want to get started doing the bare minimum things that I am doing, here is an outline of what I did:

  • Make sure you have a Web host set up. GoDaddy is the most ubiquitous. The server should be PHP-compatible. On GoDaddy, make sure you have a Linux server and NOT a Windows server.
  • Make sure you have MySQL database capability on your Web host (or on your computer if you’re developing on your own space) although this is not necessarily needed for all programs, such as the first example that I ran. You will need it to do more advanced things, however, that require file I/O.
  • Find out what version of PHP you are running and upgrade if necessary. PHP5 is preferable. PHP4 can be worked with, but requires an extension. I built my first app in PHP4 but am upgrading to PHP5 now for simplicity’s sake.
  • If you have GoDaddy, make sure you’re aware of what upgrade level you’re on. I just switched from v. 1.0 to 2.0. In the latter case, I plan to run some tests and then edit my .htaccess file to ensure that PHP5 is the default, rather than PHP4. GoDaddy can run both versions concurrently, and this has caused problems for some Facebook developers.
  • Obtain good FTP software, which is a fairly obvious point. I’m using Classic FTP on Mac OSX Leopard. It’s quirky and doesn’t always preserve tree structures when I try to move directories, so I often have to move files over one at a time. This is a messy process and produced errors for me when I installed the PHP4 extension, which has complex directory structure. Yet another reason to upgrade to PHP5…
  • Create a directory on your server that is devoted to Facebook projects.
  • Download the client library and footprints [test app, requires database] example. You should have three folders: client, footprints, php4client
  • If you’re using PHP4, download the PHP4 simplexml extension
  • Copy the PHP4 extension folder you’ve downloaded (titled simplexml44-0_4_4) and paste it so it is nested INSIDE the folder-directory called “php4client.” Do not change the name of the extension folder.ftp shot
  • Use FTP to transfer the client, footprints and php4client folders to your facebook folder on your server and verify that the folder trees are accurately copied. I encountered weird situations where folders that were supposed to be on the same level ended up nested within one another.
  • Create a new folder for the test app at the same level as client, footprints, php4client
  • Generate a file called “index.php” from the sample code on this page. You’ll have to click the link at the bottom. Add your API key and secret into the code.

  • On the line that says to require once facebook.php, check the path for accuracy. In the case of how I did it, I had to set it to say require_once ‘../php4client/facebook.php’; so the system would know which facebook.php to look for (the old-school version) and also to know how to navigate the directory tree structure. If I’d had PHP5, the “php4client” would have been “client” instead in the path.
  • Save the index.php file you’ve been working on and use FTP to upload into the test app directory that you have created.
  • Go the the FB developers page and EDIT SETTINGS for the app.
  • Set the “callback URL” to the directory where index.php is located. (The system will automatically look for index.php) — use the whole URL, including your domain.
  • Set the canvas URL to the URL of your app. This is the directory name, be it “scrabulous” or whatever. Just type one word in the space, it’s pretty obvious what you’ll need to do. Your app URL will then become http://apps.facebook.com/%5Byourcanvasurlhere%5D
  • Visit the URL that you’ve created and see if it works. It should. If not, check your files, tree structure, code, PHP version, file names and server settings. It took me a long time to get this working.

Hopefully that helps demystify the process a little, or adds more questions than answers. But this worked for me and hopefully it will work for you.

The next lesson, once I get things figured out, will detail how to create databases and build a simple database-based app. Or else I’ll go over basic coding techniques and modifications to the above app. We’ll see how the tech works out.