Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The New Mob Rule

One of the impressive things about the current age of technology we're in is how quickly information can get around.

One of the even more impressive things is how quickly misinformation can get around.

Let's look at examples of both.

First, let's take a look at an article on Digg today. For those of you who don't know, digg is an extremely popular "social bookmarking" site. People can submit stories and also vote for (or "digg") other stories that they find interesting. An algorithm on the site determines which are the most popular (I assume via some function of how quickly an article receives diggs and the number of those diggs, but I don't know the details) and puts them on the "front page". When an article makes the front page, the site in question gets absolutely hammered with visitors, because a lot of casual users like myself only browse the front page to visit interesting things.

Today featured an article about a small town Snohomish. The citizens of Snohomish love their high school football team. Even more, they love the tradition of firing off their cannon before football games and after touchdowns.

Well, unfortunately a student got badly hurt by the cannon some time ago. A member of the high school ROTC, the student was part of the team that fired off the cannon, and it exploded, almost taking off his leg. At one point it looked like they were going to have to amputate his leg entirely.

Based on the article, it looks like the kid didn't get a lot of sympathy from the town. In fact, he actually got threats.

It would appear that, afraid they might lose the tradition of firing off the cannon due to safety concerns, the town went a little nuts. Some folks threatened to "blow off his other leg", and a collection to help pay the steep medical bills (including putting a titanium rod in his injured leg) yielded a sum of $200, nearly all of that coming from other schools.

Enter digg. Once the article got on the front page, the enterprising commentors discovered the school's football website. An innocent poll there asks visitors how many games they plan to attend.

So far over 100,000 (and rising fast) have replied "none".

Will any of this do any good? Who knows. Is the article biased? Probably. I would've liked to have seen more reaction from kids in his class.

But is it funny to see that many people (along with, I'm sure, more than a couple of scripts doing the voting) visit a little homegrown school website and express their displeasure through a pointless poll? Yes.

Second, let's talk about internet hoaxes. If you have an email account (that should include one or two of you), you know that people love to circulate chain letters containing erroneous information. These may include a gent from Nigeria claiming he wants to send you money. These may include people encouraging you to buy a junk stock.

They also may include completely falsified rewritings of history for the purpose of a political agenda. An example of this would be the Oliver North "testimony" which claims that Ollie identified Osama Bin Laden as "the most evil person alive".

Osama Bin Laden is evil. I'm not disputing that. But what is easily disputable is the testimony. The blasted thing was circulated so much that the US Senate even thought to include a refutation of the entire thing on their website.

But that's the internet for you. Perhaps for better or worse, the internet allows us to see "news" now already filtered through the lenses we prefer. There are plenty of bloggers and "news" websites out there that will tailor to your political views, whatever they may be. That's nice because it is often pleasant to read things that we already agree with.

But it's a heck of a lot more challenging... and more important... to read points of view we don't agree with. And as more and more people turn to these alternative news sources (and for the love of all that is holy, chain emails should never be considered "news"), the responsibility falls on us to do our fact checking.

Frankly, that's not something at which people have proven particularly proficient.

Update: It appears the poll has been taken down. Too bad, I would've liked to see just how high the count got.

Update 2: It should be noted that was on this story first. Credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lessons Learned Losing

Back in June, I posted the story of my dodgeball team and our Cinderella run to the finals after a regular season filled with losing.

I still proudly display my medal at work.

My fiance and I decided to join dodgeball again for the Winter season (that's right, there are actually multiple seasons of this thing), but due to scheduling conflicts we had to join a different team this time around.

Our former team (Average Jay's Gym) went on to completely dominate the competition all season long.

Our new team (The Hurlers) won just one game.

I wasn't particularly concerned. After all, in the previous season with Average Jay's, we only won two games before going on our improbable streak to the finals. Every team makes the playoffs, so really the only point of the regular season is to determine seeding. The important thing was to get everybody some time on the court, and we'd get better every week. Right?

Well, not exactly. Last night our team got absolutely pounded in round one of the playoffs (by a team named "The Chins of Chuck Norris", no less). We got shut out 4 games to zilch.

As for me, my dodgeball technique actually regressed this season. I think I lasted a total of 30 seconds in the games I played last night.

What's the point of all this? Simple. Failing teaches you things. When you do something you're good at, you don't tend to learn much from the experience. It's only when you do things that fall outside your comfort zone that you really learn. In fact, you learn a lot more about a person when they lose... especially if that person is you.

In fact, I think there's something rather strange about a person who is only interested in winning. That type of person is unlikely to participate in activities where they perceive they have a weakness, and that means that they stop developing at a certain point in their lives. They put an artificial cap on themselves and their realm of experience.

I am not a talented athlete by any stretch of the imagination. I know it might be hard to believe, but writing code for a living doesn't translate well to activities that require a great deal of physicality.

But for the past few years (largely due to my fiance's influence), I've tried out things like flag football, dodgeball, and hopefully basketball in the near future. I'm actually playing racquetball tonight with a fellow from the team.

It should make for good comedy. But you can't be afraid to get a beatdown once in awhile. You can't be afraid to lose. Because once you are afraid of failing, you stop learning.

In the link above about the old dodgeball team, there is a quote:

If it wasn't for failure, we wouldn't have succeeded.
- Lucas Hellmer

I don't think that's always true. There are a lot of talented people out there that are just good at certain things. But if they don't try things they might not be good at, they'll never realize their full potential.

So I encourage you to get out there and try something you've never tried. Better yet, do something you know you're not good at. You'll learn from the experience... even if all you learn is that a dodgeball to the face doesn't leave a mark (unless you consider shame a mark), that's something.

Friday, December 01, 2006

50,000 Words Later

Although I already outlined a lot of my thoughts about this process in a previous post, I figured I'd add a couple more things now that I've reached the finish line of NaNoWriMo.

I've experienced a few distinct phases since uploading my work and receiving my winner's certificate.

Phase One was elation. I mean seriously, I have never written so much fiction in so little time at any other point in my life. That includes school. For some of the veterans of this event, 50k is nothing. They go into the hundred thousands on their word counts. But for a schlub like me, there were definitely times I didn't think I'd make it. If you look at my progress during the course of the month, you can see that I came tearing out of the gate with 10k in five days, but things really took a nosedive in the middle of the month. Initially, when I had lots of outline, I looked forward to coming home and fleshing out those ideas. But it didn't take long for the outline to run out (I'd guess around the 8th of November: note the four day gap), and that was when things really got interesting. I knew where I wanted the story to go, but without the safety net of the outline, it became harder to know just what I should write on a given day.

Phase Two was relief. Now I can finally relax, I thought to myself. Now when I come home I can sit down and fire up a game or the TV without any guilt whatsoever! And speaking of games, my moratorium on video games can finally come to an end!

Phase Three was realization. Even at 50k, my novel isn't done. In fact, realistically I'll probably need another 20-25k words to finish a full first draft of the thing. The ending isn't written yet, and damn it, I want to know what happens.

Finally, Phase Four: resolve. The moratorium must stand. December must be treated just like November. If I don't get this thing done now, I'll never get it done. I've proven to myself I can write 50,000 words in a month.

Now I need to prove to myself I can finish.

So Final Fantasy XII will have to wait.

And you know what? I'm okay with that.