Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reinventing yourself, every day

A little over six months ago I lost my job, as did a more than a few of my co-workers. This was right before Christmas, so naturally getting things initialized with the state took a little bit of time. I was prepared for this.

Things got off to a slow start, but I've been through this once before, so I tried to hit the ground running. Knew which sites to delve into, which local government offices to get involved with. Heck, I even volunteered to run a blogsite based on the work that was being done by our transition team, made up of recently displaced workers acting in conjunction with the Pennsylvania CareerLink.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The World of Wonders Sideshow at the Northeast Fair

Six years ago I nearly got a chance to see a sideshow at the Bloomsburg Fair. It was the World of Wonders Sideshow, which I would later learn was the last of the great traveling carnival sideshows. I didn't get to see it - the outside talker, the legendary Ward Hall, went on and on, gathering an enormous crowd of onlookers, but it seemed like the show itself might never start, and my friends grew restless and decided to move on.

Last week I heard about the Northeast Fair coming to the area, setting up shop in an industrial park on the outskirts of Pittston, Pennsylvania. (Not far from one of the runways at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport at Avoca - that must have been something to see on final approach!) I scoured the papers for any hint of a sideshow, but found nothing. Finally I checked out The World of Wonders Facebook page - and found that they had just set up shop in Pittston, less than twenty miles from my house!

That was, I think, last Wednesday, and I spent a good deal of time since then trying to find someone to go with me to the Northeast Fair. I was ultimately unsuccessful in my quest, but decided to head out there by myself on Sunday, the last day of the fair. Unencumbered by anyone else, I was able to move according to my own whims and stay as long as I wanted. Naturally I made a beeline for the sideshow - wherever it might be.

Almost as soon as I paid my money walked through the main gate I spotted swordswallower-turned-photographer Lady Diane and her husband. I could have stopped her and asked her for directions, but I decided to follow my nose and wander around the grounds a bit. I walked past the Bar-B-Q stand and the stage for Boffo, the World's Strongest Clown, past the Ferris Wheel and the Green Monster, an enormous slide. I picked my way along a side route and there, across from the petting zoo, next to the camel rides, was the World of Wonders banner line.

Tommy Breen is the Outside Talker (known to rubes by the Hollywood term "Barker") - but right now he's just talking to Scott Saturn and swordswallower-turned-photographer Lady Diane  

I didn't know who was who or what was what at that point. I had expected my friend and fellow sideshow fan (and an actual scholar of the sideshow) Cris to be taking the tickets, but instead saw someone I didn't know (I would learn from living legend Harley Newman that this was Tommy Breen) in that spot. He wasn't doing any "Talking" at that moment - the pitch to the potential customers (affectionately referred to as "marks") trying to draw them into the sideshow tent is done by the "Outside Talker," known to those of us whose only familiarity with carnivals and sideshows came from TV and movies by the non-carnival term "barker" - but was instead talking to a person I would later learn was performer Scott Saturn and Lady Diane, a former swordswallower turned photographer who I had seen several times at the Sideshow Gathering. I took the opportunity to snap a few shots of the banner line.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Notes for an interview

Michelle D. and I were interviewed on ComputerWise TV last night. It's a local hour-long show about computers shown exclusively on Blue Ridge Communications TV and Service Electric Cable, and we were there to talk bout NEPA Blogs. Aside from nearly dying before we even got on the highway, everything went very smoothly. Michelle's GPS guided us to the secret hidden lair of Blue Ridge TV. Host George Roberts made us feel very much at ease, and I managed to not do anything devastatingly stupid, like tripping over a raised platform in a studio and nearly falling headfirst into the control board, until after we were off the air.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What is a blog?

In just a few days I'll be on a local TV show called ComputerWise TV with Michelle Hryvnak Davies. Together, we'll be discussing NEPA Blogs.

My strategy for this interview is simple: I plan on keeping my mouth shut unless absolutely necessary. In part this is because this is Michelle's show - it's through her efforts that we're going to be there at all, and I don't want to take anything away from her. I will respond to questions asked of me; otherwise I will let Michelle take the lead and allow her to throw to me whenever she feels the need. But in part it's also because I could probably respond to any question with a thirty-minute soliloquy, with footnotes and references and historical information stretching back to the journal-writers of the eighteenth century - and the show is only twenty-five minutes long. So I think it's in everyone's best interests if I keep my babble to a minimum.

Case in point: One of the questions we're sure to be asked is "What is a blog?"

Now, in the context of this program, one might be inclined to say "What the hell kinda question is that? Isn't this a show about computers an' stuff for people who know computers? Geez, don't all y'all already KNOW what a blog is?" But that would probably be the wrong approach to take.

The proper sort of TV answer would probably be something like:
"Well, that's a very good question. Originally the term was a contraction of 'web log' and referred to personal journals kept and shared online. But over the years the term has come to include online journals kept by companies and businesses, some of which are indistinguishable from what would otherwise be called 'websites.' For the most part, when we talk about blogs, we're talking about the personal journals, things maintained by individuals, or, in some cases, small groups of people. They don't have to be 'personal' in nature, though - some of the most popular blogs out there are about politics, sports, or other topics that interest the bloggers and their readers."
OK, you see what I did there? Already I've gone off the rails. And I could easily keep going. It's a simple question without a simple answer.

Blogs started...well, I don't know exactly. I suppose I could look up what Wikipedia has to say, and assume that that information is accurate. Let's say they started a long time ago, back in the mid-1990's, when the Internet was a wild and primitive place. Blogging was not for the faint of heart back then; most of the blogging platforms we take for granted these days had not been conceived of yet, and if you were a blogger you were probably also doing more than a little coding to make your blog function. Some of those first bloggers are still blogging; others have quit blogging entirely, and have renounced their blogging past.

Way back around the turn of the century - 2003, to be exact - Jill Walker wrote up a definition of the term "blog" for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory.  The full, final definition, as well as a previous definition which was proposed and then revised, appears here. It begins like this:
A weblog, or *blog, is a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first (see temporal ordering). Typically, weblogs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal. Weblogs first appeared in the mid-1990s, becoming popular as simple and free publishing tools became available towards the turn of the century. Since anybody with a net connection can publish their own weblog, there is great variety in the quality, content, and ambition of weblogs, and a weblog may have anywhere from a handful to tens of thousands of daily readers.

At the beginning of this year The Regator Blog ("A blog about blogs and other stuff") published a list of their choices for the Top 50 Blogs of 2010. I was somewhat surprised that I had only heard of a handful of them, but I was more surprised when I started to look into the sites that they listed. This led me to post this comment:

Maybe I'm a little old-fashioned, having been reading blogs since 2001 or so and blogging myself since 2004, but it seems like many of these are more like corporate websites than anything I would think of as a "blog." It may be a bit snobbish to look upon a blog as an individual, personal edeavor (sic), but to me, as a rule, if it has a staff it really isn't a blog. Still, it will be good to go through the 47 sites on this list that aren't regular reads for me and see what I'm missing!

To which I received this thoughtful reply from the blogger - or, at least, one of the Regator bloggers:

Hi D.B., Thanks for your comments. I hope you find some good reading on this list. The definition of a blog is a nebulous thing these days, and though we see blogs differently (I definitely don't think having a staff disqualifies a site from being a blog), your comment did make me think that perhaps a list of the top single-author blogs might be interesting for many. I may work on that down the line. Thanks for reading.

(In fact, Regator had just published a post about the evolving state of weblogs two weeks earlier:

I remember when Anderson Cooper started a blog. This was so cool, and technically the first "celebrity" blog I had ever read. (I can't recall if he was still with ABC then, or if he had already made the move to CNN.) His first post was a metapost of sorts, talking about what it felt like to just be getting into blogging and setting the scene for where he was blogging from - I think he was actually on the set of his news show at the time, writing between segments. But it quickly became obvious that his "blog" was for the most part an extension of and advertisement for his current news program.

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist. He is a professor at Princeton (or, more specifically, professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University) and a columnist for the New York Times. He maintains a blog called The Conscience of a Liberal where he sometimes expands on ideas he has brought up in his New York Times column, or responds to responses to his statements made by other economists or pundits, or even occasionally posts class notes for his students; but he is just as likely to throw up political commentary salted with Monty Python or South Park references, or pictures of the meal he's eating while traveling abroad,  or even just his favorite videos by The Arcade Fire, because, dammit, it's his blog, and he can do whatever he damned well pleases with it.

On the other hand, there are personal blogs out there which contain zero personal content. Tumblr is a great platform for this. While some blogs using the Tumblr platform are indistinguishable from any of the blogs I've already mentioned, others are unique outgrowths of Tumblr's "microblogging" structure: they are frenetic agglomerations of pictures, quotes, and videoclips, all reposted from someone or somewhere else. Items are posted and quickly forgotten, to be buried under the crushing weight of new posts like (but completely unlike) Twitter status updates getting buried by new tweets. If a Tumblr blogger posts dozens of pictures each day of anime characters engaged sexually with each other - well, I guess, in a sense, that does tell you something about the blogger.

Some things just seem to not fit any reasonable definition of a blog. Is The Big Picture a blog? It's certainly an interesting and worthwhile site maintained by the Boston Globe, featuring amazing photographs. But is it really eligible to be counted among TIME magazine's "Best Blogs of 2011"? Somehow that feels like having an Apache helicopter declared the winner of the Boston Marathon. (It does, however, define itself as "a photo blog created by a select group of picture editors of The Boston Globe," so I guess that's good enough for me.) And, as with the Regator list, I had not actually heard of most of the other blogs on TIME's list, causing me to wonder which among them are actually blogs and which are, well, websites run by powerful corporations or media groups.

So. What is a blog? "Well, that's a very good question. I'll try to be brief with my answer..."

Other answers to this question:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What I've learned so far: Advice for beginning bloggers

I've been blogging for more than seven years now. My blog isn't exactly wildly popular, as far as blogs go. In fact, much of my traffic comes from Google searches by people looking for an explanation for the headless rabbit they just found in their yard, or wondering what ever became of the "That's All!" girl from Hee Haw. But over the years I have made some observations about blogging: what works, what doesn't work, what blogs are popular and why, and things like that. Yesterday I presumed to write these out in an email to someone who is just starting out as a blogger. As the list grew, I realized I was writing something that could serve as a post on my own blog.  So, with a little editing and reformatting and a few added bits, here it is.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Scraper's Thesaurus

I just got a link to an article about Governor Christie's plans for rolling back renewable energy targets in New Jersey.  Sort of.  Here's the actual text from the first few paragraphs of the linked article.

Christie rolls out appetite plan, rolls behind renewable appetite goals

TRENTON – Gov. Christie οn Tuesday summarized a thουght fοr Nеw Sweater’s appetite probability wіth thе goal οf focuses οn nuclear, healthy gas, аnԁ blurb solar power, аnԁ retreats frοm desirous renewable appetite goals.

Thе director introduced a lingering-awaited appetite master credentials аt a scuttle-butt discussion some-more thаn a time аftеr hіѕ administration accepted іt wουƖԁ correct thе request civic next thе before administration tο simulate thе mercantile downturn.

Thе recover follows thе administrator’s argumentative proclamation final week tο change Nеw Sweater out οf a multistate cap-аnԁ-trade agreement fοr conservatory gas emissions, a pivotal раrt οf Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s appetite preparation.

Sοmе environmental advocates accepted thе preparation, entrance ѕο shortly аftеr thе withdrawal frοm thе Regional Conservatory Gas Initiative (RGGI), wουƖԁ drop thе disorder’s care οn immature energy, bυt a cover οf commerce asker called іt business-friendly.

Thе Board οf Public Utilities wіƖƖ reason hearings over thе summer οn thе preparation

The "New Sweater" thing threw me for a loop.  What the hell was this about? Was that a nickname for something? Then I realized: that had to be a mangling of "New Jersey," if you accept that "sweater" = "jersey."

Scrapers are plagiarists; they exist by copying content from others. Sometimes they try to cover their tracks by altering the language of the copied text slightly. How? My guess is that they run it through a translator into another language, and then translate it back into English, and let the translation hijinks cover their tracks for them.

For reference, here are the corresponding paragraphs as they appeared in the original article in the Philadelphia Enquirer:
Christie rolls out energy plan, rolls back renewable energy goals

June 08, 2011
By Maya Rao, Inquirer Trenton Bureau

Gov. Christie on Tuesday outlined a vision for New Jersey's energy future that focuses on nuclear, natural gas, and commercial solar power, and retreats from ambitious renewable energy goals.

The governor introduced a long-awaited energy master plan at a news conference more than a year after his administration said it would revise the document developed under the previous administration to reflect the economic downturn.

The release follows the governor's controversial announcement last week to pull New Jersey out of a multistate cap-and-trade agreement for greenhouse gas emissions, a key part of Gov. Jon S. Corzine's energy plan.

Some environmental advocates said the plan, coming so soon after the withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), would damage the state's leadership on green energy, but a chamber of commerce lobbyist called it business-friendly.

The Board of Public Utilities will hold hearings over the summer on the plan.

TITLE REFERENCE: The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

Friday, June 10, 2011

Is it safe to upload your information to job sites?

I'm tyring to remember the exact sequence of events by which I got a Gmail account. I received an invitation from a friend back in the early days when you needed such a thing, but I never took advantage of it. About five or six years ago I decided I wanted to track the Google rank of my site, so that required me to get a Google password. Sometime later Blogger underwent a revision that required users to get a Google login. I think by that point I had already established my Gmail account, but if I had not, that was when I did it.

I took the advice of someone I had once worked with. She was somewhat aghast when I told her my personal email address, and said I really needed to change it to something more professional - preferably my name. I didn't want to part with my established address, but when I set up a Gmail account I decided to use the closest variation of my name that I could. I also decided that this email address would be used strictly for professional contacts with people who knew or should know my name.

In 2007 I found myself looking for a job, and I set up accounts on CareerBuilder and Both seemed pretty straightforward: upload some information, input a little more information, skip over the screen that's asking me to re-upload my personal information so they could sell me something, press the button, and let the job offers roll in.

Job offers started to roll in. But not the ones I wanted.

The jobs were weird. Represent some foreign company reselling their product in the U.S.; oh, you were a "DVD Asset Manager"? How would you like to be a property manager at an apartment complex? Clear blocked toilets, change locks, fix holes in walls... I started to get the feeling that these job offers were scams, and maybe the sites I had signed up with were part of the scam.

Later I received a call from another group that claimed they had gotten my résumé online. It's a group that you've heard of, one that sells financial planning services, and is a division of a large multinational bank. I attended their meeting, which was part tent revival, part Nuremberg rally, and part cult gathering. The group turned out to be a multi-level marketing deal in which your income would be based on financial services you sell, plus a cut of the sales made by people you recruit, plus a cut of the sales of the people they recruit...but that's another story.

Eventually I went back to work for the company for which I had been working, in a non-salary production line job with a 1/3 pay cut. I jumped at it.

Now I find myself looking again. I'm still signed up with CareerBuilder and, plus the Pennsylvania CareerLink. I've also signed up with LinkedIn, and a local job services company, and a company specializing in science-related jobs. (Because, you know, technically I do have a degree in Physics.) In each case I've uploaded my résumé and a buttload of other personal information.

The other day, out of the blue, I received this at my personal email address: Career Opportunities Update

Published Weekly, Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New Job Seekers Are Signing Up Each Day. Got A Job? Post It!

Employers: Post A Free Profile & Post Your Job. Only $50/month.This Newsletter is received over 15,000 people. Jobs are posted on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as well.

Jobseekers: Upload Your Resume, It's Free
And, like Arsenio Hall used to say, this was one of those things that make you go "Hmm..." Who are these people? How did they get my e-mail address? How did they know I was looking for work? Did I really want to send my name, address, phone number, and detailed work and school history to a company about which I knew nothing?

For that matter, what did I know about any of the other companies to whom I have given my information? Other than the fact that I have had to set up special folders for all the spam coming from my CareerBuilder and accounts, so my Gmail inbox wouldn't be continuously overflowing? I mean, identity theft used to be a difficult proposition: used to be thieves would actually have to steal this information, rather than just have people hand it to them.

How safe are these companies? Maybe companies like CareerBuilder and Monster and LinkedIn can be trusted with your information - but what what if the companies are sold? Personal data is a valuable resource, and someone might be willing to pay large amounts of money for the stockpiles of data these companies have. And if the companies are sold, would any restrictions exist on how the accumulated personal data might be used?

All that is secondary, though.  Right now my primary concern is with getting a job - a job that pays more than I'm currently making in unemployment. Maybe that's worth taking a risk that my entire work history, along with personal information, will fall into the wrong hands.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

All according to plan

Back during the 2008 Democratic primaries, when the race had come down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a bit of right-wing common wisdom started wafting around the Internet that went something like: "I feel sorry for whoever wins the Democratic primary. If it's Obama, and he wins the election, we'll never have another black President; if it's Hillary, and she wins, we'll never have another female President." The thinking was that the state of the U.S. economy, and the collapse of economies around the globe, and the burden of fighting multiple wars, and the general contempt in which the U.S. was held worldwide, would all prove to be too much for any President to resolve in a single term, and whoever got the job would be doomed to failure and would be, at best, a one-term President, with the Presidency passing back into Republican hands in 2012 as the Democratic leadership took the fall for failing to unmake the mess that they were bequeathed in 2008.*

I countered that, if this line of reasoning were to be followed through to its logical conclusion, then we would never again see a white male Protestant in the White House, either, considering their cumulative track record that had brought us to this point. At best we could hope that some sort of pantheistic multiracial hermaphrodite might come along to take the reins of power.

We knew - everyone knew - back then that unscrewing this pooch was going to be an immensely difficult task. It was going to take lots of hard work, lots of skillful guidance, lots of butt-clenchingly terrifying decisions, and lots of cooperation between everyone involved - a willingness to set aside politics and partisanship so that everyone could work together for the common good and set the ship of state aright.

That didn't happen.

In the earliest days of the Obama administration, the leadership of the Republican party set out a strategy that was verbalized by Rush Limbaugh when he was asked what his hopes were for the new President. His reply was simply, "I hope he fails." And from that point on, it was clear that Republicans in Congress were less interested in setting the ship of state aright or achieving the common good and more interested in thwarting Barack Obama's plans at every turn.

But why would any Republican want to see the economy recover as long as Barack Obama is in the White House? Such a thing would be seen as a policy victory for the Obama administration, and would serve to benefit Democrats politically. Such a thing could not be allowed.

The Republicans couldn't accomplish their goals alone, of course. They were in the minority in both houses of Congress, and only held sway in a Supreme Court packed with right-wing activist ideologues appointed by George W. Bush and his Republican predecessors. But many Democrats in Congress held their seats by only the slimmest of margins in districts that leaned far more to the right than to the center, and their support for Barack Obama's plans was tepid and timid at best; in the worst cases they took an antagonistic attitude toward the goals of the President, and joined forces with Republicans in tyring to bring about his failure. Thus we saw a stimulus package that was, in the assessment of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, far too small to be effective, but as large as could be achieved through concessions and compromise. (Ironically, many of these Republicanish Democrats were rewarded for their efforts with election defeats in 2010, and they were replaced by the Republicans they had strived to emulate.)

Now we find ourselves two and a half years into Barack Obama's term as President, and we see that in those two and a half years he has not yet managed to undo all the damage done by the Bush/Cheney administration in its eight years in office.  He saved the auto industry and received enormous scorn in return; he prevented Wall Street from self-destruction and has had hatred heaped upon him by the very Wall Street figures he rescued. He has been blocked and thwarted at every turn by corporate-owned Republicans, who have constantly tried to lay the blame for the economic downturn at his feet. And now that the race for the Republican primaries has begun, candidates are counting on Republican voters to have simply forgotten how we got here in the first place and accept the alternative history that this is all the fault of Obama and the Democrats.

The failure of the economy to recover is not the result of a failure on President Obama's part. It is not a failure of the Democrats who are fighting hard for economic recovery. The failure is the responsibility of those who have placed politics and partisanship over the well-being of the people of the United States of America. The people whose only hope for President Obama is "I hope he fails."

All according to plan.

*Of course, if by some preposterous chance the McCain/Palin ticket had won the race, the only hope they might have of escaping the same fate would be to immediately launch more discretionary wars to distract the nation from its domestic concerns.  Can you sing "Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran..."?