Self-Made Celebrities

Technology and social media have made possible an entirely new kind of celebrity.  Along with movie stars, and sports stars, and rappers, and singers, we’ve now got people who apparently are famous, at least among a segment of the population, for their YouTube videos or some other kind of social media presence.

africa-broadband-it-internet-technologyI’ve come to realize that there is an entirely unknown field of “personalities” when I’ve seen them as the subject of articles on the msn.com website, or the news stories that now pop up when I access the Google website on my phone.  One recent example was an article about the untimely death of somebody I’d never even heard of — a woman named Emily Hartridge, who was described as a popular YouTube personality for her video posts about herself and relationships.  And given the size of the internet and the different channels for social media communication, for every Emily Hartridge there are probably hundreds or thousands of other people who have become famous to their specific cadre of followers.

It’s an example of the how modern communications technology is more democratic and a lot more diverse.  You don’t necessarily need to be found by an agent or producer or record company executive to become famous these days.  Anyone who has a cellphone and a computer and something to say or something to show can take a shot at posting self-made videos and hope to carve out a niche for themselves and find an audience.  These days, people can become self-made celebrities.

It’s a step forward in some ways, but of course there are hazards, too.  How many videos out there espouse political views that contribute to the splintering of society?  How would the Hitlers of the past have used social media to disseminate their hateful ideologies?  And how many people, in their lust for self-made celebrityhood and “likes,” are tempted to film themselves doing dangerous things in hopes of attracting more followers and becoming one of those new personalities?  Just this week, a Chinese “vlogger” died while livestreaming himself drinking and eating poisonous geckos, centipedes, and mealworms in hopes of attracting new followers.  It’s hard to believe that any rational person could be so desperate and so reckless — but a personal tool as powerful as the internet and social media is bound to bring out the crazies, too.

Emphasis Added

Anyone who does much writing will eventually confront the question of the best way to give emphasis to a particular word or phrase in what they have written.  Maybe it’s a desire to attach special significance to part of a quote, or a need to make absolutely sure that the reader doesn’t miss a central point — but the time will come where, to be on the safe side, emphasis must be added.

9154299_web1_171030-pan-m-alexander-browne-top-hat-1So, what’s the best way to emphasize the written word?  The basic options, currently, are using underlines, italics, or boldface.  Some people then use a combination of the three to give even more emphasis.  (Back when I first started working, in the days long before social media and texting, some people used all caps to provide emphasis.  Now the all-caps look is generally perceived by the reader as screaming, and there’s very little being written about that needs that much emphasis.  What you want is for the reader’s internal voice to “think” the word being emphasized just a bit louder than the rest of the text, and not have them mentally screaming like a character in a bad teen horror movie.)

My emphasis tastes vary depending on what I’m writing.  For blog entries like this one, I prefer to use italics to give a word that special nudge.  For legal briefs, however, where case names are italicized and section headings are in bold print, I tend to use simple underlining to emphasize specific text.  That way, there’s no mixing up the message.

And I don’t like using various combinations of bold, italics, and underlining to give extra-special emphasis to certain words or passages.  For one thing, I think random mixtures of “emphasis-adders” is confusing to the reader; it suggests that there is some emphasis hierarchy that the readers hasn’t been told about, which may leave them wondering about relative emphasis rather than concentrating on what is written.  (“Let’s see — is don’t supposed to get more emphasis than don’t, or is it the other way around?”)  And using multiple combinations for some words seems to devalue the words that merit only a single emphasizer.  I think emphasis-adders should be used sparingly, and if you’ve got to use combinations you’re probably overdoing emphasis to the point where the message is being lost.  You might want to think about editing your sentences to be shorter and clearer, instead.  Plus, the use of random combinations of emphasizers makes the printed page look messy, like a riotous fruit salad.

So, my rule of thumb on adding emphasis is to stick to one — and only one — technique, and to use it sparingly.  If you write clearly, you’ll be just fine with that.

10 Years Of Blogging

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Webner House blog.  The blog was a Christmas gift from Richard during the Christmas of 2008, but it took a while before I steeled myself to write something.  The first posts appeared on February 1, 2009.

A lot has happened in the intervening years, both generally and in our little corner of the world, and we’ve written about some of it — whether it involves politics, movies, musics, art, food, TV shows, or places to take a vacation.  According to the WordPress statistics, 7,948 posts have been published during those 10 years, which comes out to a bit more than an average of two a day.  The postings are definitely a mixed bag.  We’ve shared family memories, tackled some of the issues of the day, vented about air travel woes and the perils of being a pedestrian, written some bad poetry, and presented a view of the world from the perspective of our dog Penny.

During the past 10 years, writing a blog post about something while I drink my coffee has become a cornerstone part of my morning routine and, as any regular reader of the blog probably knows, I’m definitely a creature of habit.  Writing the morning posts helps to get my brain moving and prepares me for the day to come.  The blog clearly been one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received.  How many presents do you get to use on a daily basis over a 10-year span?

The WordPress stats also tell us that the blog has more than 4,000 followers, and during the last decade it’s had more than half a million different visitors, some of whom have left “likes” and comments.  We appreciate everybody who stops by and has a read — particularly the “regulars.”  Thank you for making the last 10 years more interesting!

 

Facebook Changes The Rules

For years, I’ve had our WebnerHouse blog set up so that when I published a post on the blog, it would automatically be posted on my Facebook page.  On August 1, however, Facebook changed the rules.  Effective on that date, third-party platforms like WordPress can no longer automatically post to Facebook pages.

Why did Facebook make that change, exactly?

b9-bWell, apparently because . . . it’s Facebook and it can do whatever the hell it wants.  One website posits that the change was made to respond to the Cambridge Analytica debacle and is part of an effort “to remove re-sharing functionality for many apps . . . in order to limit the activities of auto-posting spammers.”

So, apparently Facebook lumps the WebnerHouse blog in with other bot-driven junk that has been filling Facebook pages for years.  Hey, has Facebook actually read any of the WebnerHouse content?  If they had, they would know that no bot or artificial intelligence could possibly come up with the dreck that poor readers find on our family blog.  Really, it’s an insult to Russian bots, Chinese bots, and every other bot out there.

So now, if I want to put a post on Facebook, I’ve got to do it manually.  It’s a pain, to be sure, but I guess it’s worth it to protect those Facebook pages from the Great Bot and Spam Invasion.

Paging Professor UJ

Back when UJ used to write for this blog, he added a tag for “happiness” because he wrote a number of posts about it.  I regret to admit that, since UJ stopped his scrivening, it’s probably the least-used tag on the blog.  In fact, this post is likely the first one with a happiness tag in months, if not years.  I consider myself a happy person, but I just don’t write much it.

Apparently, Yale students also need help with happiness.  This semester Yale is offering Psych 157, a course called “Psychology and the Good Life.”  It tries to instruct students on how to be happier — and it has quickly become the most popular undergraduate course Yale has ever offered.  1,200 students, which is about 25 percent of the entire undergraduate student population, is taking the course.  The professor posits that Yale students are flocking to take the course because “they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school” and in the process adopted “harmful life habits.”  If you read the article linked above, you’ll conclude that Yalies are a pretty sad, stressed bunch.

14344198_1067434466644984_673868475086152520_n copyWhen I was going to college, lack of happiness and “deprioritizing” personal happiness and fulfillment was not a problem.  If anything, Ohio State students of the ’70s tended to overprioritize their dedicated, incessant, deep-seated, Frodo Baggins-like quest for happiness.  The notion that fresh-faced students, still possessing the bloom of youth and newly freed from the constant supervision and irksome rules of Mom and Dad, need to take a college class to learn how to be happier would have been totally alien to the undergrads of my era.  And it’s really kind of depressing to think that, in any era, college students would need to sit in a lecture hall to get tips on how to be happier.  College must have become a grim, hellish place indeed!

But this is where UJ comes in.  He’s always got a happy grin on his face, a positive outlook, and a firm belief that “life is good.”  Sure, he’s retired, but his youthful attitude should allow him to connect with the legions of sad, beleaguered, put-upon Yalies who just don’t know where to find happiness in their soulless, barren college lives.

Hey, UJ!  Time to call that Psych 157 prof and offer a few pointers!

Attempting An Eclogue

For years, Kish has gotten a “word-a-day” calendar as a Christmas stocking stuffer.  The calendar gives you a word, its definition, and its pronunciation, and then uses the word in a sentence, like you’re the contestant in the national spelling bee.  It’s an interesting, relatively painless way to learn new words and build that personal vocabulary to ever more impressive heights, and occasionally — O, happy day! — the word is one you actually knew already.

afghan_shepherd_by_ironpaw1Sometimes, though, the words aren’t exactly easy to fit into everyday conversation.  On Monday, for example, the word was “eclogue.” What’s an eclogue (pronounced ek-log), you ask?  Why, it’s a poem in which shepherds converse, of course.  The sentence the calendar offers to illustrate its meaning is:  “The poet’s new volume offers modern translations of Virgil’s eclogues.”  Even at an erudite workplace like mine, it’s hard to imagine a discussion where you could smoothly use “eclogue.”

Although I can’t see ever using the word in actual conversation, and therefore am likely to promptly forget it, I thought it might be fun to try to write an eclogue, just to give ol’ Virgil a little competition.

A Brief Eclogue

Far out yonder, on grassy plain

Where sheep did graze, were shepherds twain

As they silently did walk

One shepherd felt the need to talk.

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“It’s time for dinner.  I brought stew.

The sheep all graze o’er by the lake.

No wolf in sight.  Let’s take a break!”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“I’m sad to say that I’ve brought none.

I’ve got no food, but none the worse.

Let’s use our break, then, to converse.”

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“I’d start, but I don’t have a clue

What we’d discuss, or what I’d say.

I’ve been out tending sheep all day.”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“There’s nothing new under the sun.

And what is new I won’t discuss.

Clinton and Trump just make me cuss!”

So shepherds two sat ‘neath a tree

And watched as sheep grazed peacefully

It wasn’t much of an eclogue

But ’twas enough to fill this blog.

400,000+

Sometime in the last day or so the WordPress stats page advised us that the Webner House blog hit one of those even-number milestones that human beings tend to find worthy of note.  We’ve now passed more than 400,000 individual views of this humble little blog in our remote corner of the internet.

That’s not a big number when you consider Webner House has been chugging along on a pretty much daily basis for more than 7 years, with precisely 6,442 rants, screeds, sad announcements, photos, Penny Chronicles, bad poems, clumsy attempts at humor, and other posts during that time period — 6,443, as soon as I hit “publish” on this self-congratulatory bit of tripe.

400,000 views over a period spanning almost the entire Obama presidency is a paltry number by internet standards.  The Drudge Report and MSN, for example, get 1 billion hits in a single month.  At our current pace, we would reach one billion hits in a little over 18,125 years.  It’s a worthy goal.

400000-miles-1When I saw we hit 400,000 views, I searched Google for photos representing 400,000.  There are a lot of pictures of odometers hitting 400,000, and when I thought about it I realized that our family blog is a lot like an old, dependable car.  Vehicles that make it to 400,000 miles aren’t the flashy, expensive cars that men buy when they’re experiencing mid-life crises.  No, vehicles that make it to 400,000 miles are the basic, everyday sources of family or work transportation that have suffered some battle scars during their years of service.  They are the battered pick-up truck, or the dented station wagon with the scratch on the side, or the Honda Accord that still has a faint but familiar sour smell after one of your kids spilled milk in the back seat years ago on a hot summer day and didn’t tell you until you got back into the car and the spoiled smell made you want to gag, but you really liked the reliability of the car so much that you scrubbed the back seat and aired it out and used air freshener and took it to the car wash for a shampoo and couldn’t quite completely eliminate the smell, but decided you were willing to live with it.

This blog is kind of like that car for me.

Clickbait

It’s obvious that ad revenue on some free websites is tied to “clicks” — how many times people tap their mouse to access a story.  It’s one way for the website to account for its traffic and provide data to advertisers who want to know how many people are seeing their banners and pop-up ads.  Not surprisingly, many websites are set up to maximize clicks.  That’s why you often need to click “next page” to read an entire article, for example.

The most irritating aspect of the click-counting emphasis, however, are the articles that clearly are “clickbait.”  You’ve seen them featured on the websites you visit, cluttering things up like unsightly litter on the side of a highway:  where are members of the cast of an old TV show now, what “jaw-dropping” dresses got worn to a recent awards show, which celebrities have killed a person (number 8 will shock you!), what “weird trick” will allow you to immediately lose 20 pounds or secure your retirement, and on and on.  You’ve probably gotten to the point that you don’t even notice them anymore on the websites you visit.

What’s discouraging about the “clickbait” phenomenon, however, is that even more high-end internet content providers seem to be unable to resist publishing their own form of clickbait.  Those are articles that clearly are designed to stoke controversy and provoke criticism, in hopes that the articles will be linked and discussed on other websites.  They’ll gladly accept harsh bashings if a few more clicks come their way.

Even as august a publication as the New York Times isn’t immune from the lure of clickbait.  Recently the Times published an article called “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man” that can only be viewed as high-end clickbait.  It’s a silly piece that lists grossly implausible attributes of “modern men” — such as that they not only buy shoes for their wives, but will know their wife’s shoe size and which women’s shoe brands run large or small — and it’s gotten creamed all over the internet.  But I’m guessing that it’s been one of the biggest click-producers that the Times has published recently, and that will make the Times, and its advertisers, happy.  (I’m not going to link to it because the last thing I want to do is reward the publication of any more clickbait.)

It’s sad, really, to see publications like the Times stoop to the level of clickbait.  It makes me wonder what kind of long-term impact the internet is going to have on the quality of journalism in America.

New Blog On The Block

John Sullivan is a friend of mine who also is an attorney here in central Ohio.  We served together briefly on the Ohioana Library Association Board of Trustees, and it was an enjoyable experience.

John is an avid reader and he’s always got something interesting to say — so naturally he’s starting up a blog.  It’s called The Sullivan Enigma, and God knows we could all use more enigmas in our lives.

If John’s first post, called This Is The Absolute Nadir, is any indication, his blog will be full of his customary ironic wit, wry observations, and good writing, too. Plus, he obviously hates the butt-end of winter in Ohio as much as I do, so his judgment is sound.  I’m hoping he’ll use the blog to offer us all some book recommendations, too.

Check it out!

Flogging For Blogging

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in America and other countries where personal freedoms to speak, think, and worship as we choose are recognized and protected rights are just that — lucky.  Not everyone in the world is so fortunate.

Consider the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger.  He started an on-line forum called Liberal Saudi Network that sought to encourage discussion of religious and political issues in the kingdom.  Badawi wrote about the importance of moving to a more secular state and published his views on issues like the continued existence of Israel — the Guardian has a story about some of his writings — and it was too much for the Saudi government.  Badawi was arrested, narrowly avoided the death penalty for apostasy, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes — as well as a huge fine — for criticizing leading Muslim clerics and disobedience.  His wife and their three children fled the country.

The lashes are to be administered publicly at a rate of 50 each Friday until the sentence is completed.  After the first 50 lashes were struck outside a mosque in Jeddah, Badawi was so badly injured that a doctor concluded that he could not sustain another 50 lashes the following week, and the next round of lashes were postponed.

The treatment of Badawi has caused an international backlash, and now the Saudi King has referred Badawi’s sentence to the Saudi Supreme Court.  Badawi’s supporters are hopeful that his sentence will be reduced, but there are no guarantees.  Saudi Arabia has a long and brutal record of public beheadings, lashings, and other medieval forms of punishment, as well as repressive treatment of women, and its wealth and oil reserves have largely immunized it from the consequences of its conduct.

Those of us who live in free countries often take our liberties for granted.  We shouldn’t.

The 2014 Blog Report

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.  It’s another reason why WordPress is such a great platform for a humble family blog, and reminded me of how much enjoyment I’ve had writing posts.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 59,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 22 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Terror Of Typos

Wired recently published an interesting article about the bane of any writer’s existence:  typos.  Why do we make them in the first place, and once we do, why it is so darned difficult to see them so we can fix them?

The article contends that typos occur because the brain is occupied with the complex task of communicating concepts via the written word and operates on autopilot in performing the lower-level tasks of creating words and sentences.  And then, during the proofreading run after you’ve made the little mistake, your brain knows what you intended to convey and just assumes that it is there in all its glory.  That makes it hard to see the extra s or the extraneous word that you failed to delete.  Technology, too, plays a role.  When you are creating a document on a computer you are keyboarding, editing, cutting and pasting, and moving blocks of text here and there, and inevitably errors will occur.

And, just as people develop “chicken fatigue” after eating too much poultry, so the brain can develop “writing fatigue.”  Often you’ve read and re-read your piece so many times that your bored brain just skims the surface of the words, leaving you defenseless against the little, irritating errors.  That’s the way my brain works, so my typo-termination technique is to try to let time pass (overnight if possible) before making my proofreading run.  I want to see the work with fresher eyes and, I hope, catch things I didn’t catch before.

Given the prevalence of typos, and the human elements that inevitably produce them, you’d think that people would be more forgiving when they see them.  But we aren’t, of course.  Instead, we equate typos with carelessness and lack of attention to detail and allow their presence to undercut the high-level concepts that, according to the Wired piece, caused the writer’s brain to make the mistakes in the first place.  Perverse, isn’t it?  It’s why writers hate typos so much — and why anyone applying for a job would do well to enlist the services of a careful resume proofreader.

Eminent Domain

Today we received a notice that we needed to update our blog domain name.  Following the handy instructions from WordPress, I switched our domain name from webnerhouse.com to webnerhouse.wordpress.com.

The reason for the change is that our old domain name, webnerhouse.com, is “set to expire” and “will stop functioning” on November 25, 2014.  That sounds final and irreversible, so I made the change to a new domain.  Why is this happening, after more than five years of blogging?  I have no earthly idea.

Of course, I have only the dimmest understanding of what a “domain” is, anyway.  In fact, when I hear the word “domain,” I inevitably think of the Seinfeld episode “The Contest” — which of course involves an entirely different domain as well as one of Cosmo Kramer’s greatest moments, shown above.  The domain I’ve changed is a lot less interesting, and involves names assigned by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.  Who cares, really?  As long as loyal readers can find our humble blog — and the redirection of visitors to our new domain is supposed to be automatic — that’s good enough for me.

Only The Lonely Old Guys

Yesterday UJ and I decided — unwisely, it turned out — to go to a sports bar to watch the Browns.  The place was crowded with hopeful fans, so we had to share a long table with a couple.  As the game started, an old guy asked if he could sit at the table, too.

We said sure . . . and then I was surprised to see that, rather than sitting in an open chair farther down, the guy sat right at UJ’s elbow.  During the game he kept chattering away and interrupting, clearly hoping to engage us in conversation.  At first it was weird and annoying, but eventually it got to be so absurd it was funny.  As the Browns’ horror show mounted, it became one source of humor in another otherwise grim Browns debacle.

It reminded me of an experience Kish and I had on a trip.  When we passed through a common room in a hotel, an older man was sitting there with a few bottles of wine and invited us to come back for a “wine tasting.”  Kish felt sorry for him and said we should join him, so later we did.  The guy turned out to be a colossal know-it-all who chattered away non-stop, overriding the comments of others and one-upping every observations and anecdote.  No matter the topic, he knew more about it than you did.  Name a place, even a remote spot in a foreign land, and he had had an extraordinary experience there.  It was an amazing performance — so extraordinary that when Kish and I finally escaped the onslaught, we also got a few laughs out of it.

Although they produced a few chuckles, the incidents with the Wine Guy and the Random Browns Fan were kind of sad, too.  I can see going to a bar to watch a game on satellite dish that’s not on regular TV; I’ve done it before.  But I’ve never tried to intrude on the conversations of others, and I’ve certainly never bought a few bottles of wine in hopes of enticing random people to sit and listen to my boring tales.  (That’s what a blog is for!)

There must be a lot of lonely old guys out there, searching for positive human contact.

How Common Is Plagiarism?

On Friday the U.S. Army War College formally revoked the master’s degree it had conferred upon Senator John Walsh, a Democrat from Montana.  The college found that Walsh had plagiarized significant portions of the research paper that he was required to complete as a prerequisite to graduation.

A review board at the college found that Walsh’s plagiarism was “egregious,” that the paper was “primarily composed of verbatim liftings from other sources,” and that the plagiarism was “intentional.”  According to news reports, Walsh’s office said he disagreed with the report’s findings but accepted the review board’s decision; he also apologized to the people of Montana.  Walsh, who was appointed to the Senate seat, dropped out of the race for election to a full term after the New York Times reported the plagiarism charges.

How common is plagiarism — the act of borrowing someone else’s work or ideas without attribution?  No one really knows.  Some years ago the Los Angeles Times reported that 30 percent of college term papers were plagiarized.  Another piece says that many college students engage in a practice called “patchwriting,” where they don’t simply engage in verbatim copying of prior work but instead try to paraphrase and rearrange.  In either case, of course, the writer isn’t doing their own original thinking.

The internet has made plagiarism both easier and more difficult.  Easier, because there is so much content that can be borrowed with a few clicks of a mouse; harder, because there are now software programs and services that can scan phrases and compare them to see whether matches are found in the mass of words floating somewhere in the cloud.  It’s hard work, but if teachers care enough, they can ferret out plagiarized work.

Of course, the means of accomplishing plagiarism doesn’t explain why people are motivated to plagiarize in the first place.  Perhaps the best indication of the commonness of plagiarism is the fact that you can find multiple articles addressing the most common excuses students offer for their plagiarism.  Sad, isn’t it?