Re: FW: [JOKE] Thoughts About Memes

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a phenomenon of older relatives sending quackery to peoples’ email. These were wide in variety, including Neiman Marcus cookie recipe spam (Snopes: 3 November 1999: “Is the Neiman Marcus Cookie Story True?”), captioned images, and jokes, and they were almost always a transcript of forwards from across the internet, lasting for years and years.

And lots of them were political, and they were corny, and why did said relative have your email address, anyway?

But history likes to trick us. It likes to take a thing and twist it around and spit it back at us. So the same dreck that clogged our inboxes was inexplicably made cool once everyone left email in favor of Facebook and other social media platforms. The meme was born.

I don’t know what it means. Surely others have noted this FWD-to-meme evolution and how the former was as uncool as could be and the latter is seen as a form of net-cred. My best guess is that the elders impersonated youngsters on various zines and boards and whatevers, disguising their forward spam as coming from fellow youths. Now we have politicians memeing it up on their Twitter accounts, and nobody is running away from the damned things as last-year or overdone.

What, just because they’re funny?! Laughing gas is funny, too, but you don’t see people sending laughing gas over the internet!


Memes have always existed. Once upon a time folks would clip memes from the funny pages or newspapers or magazines. But they were always on the kitschy end of the thing, not some everyday, always-on device that would overrun real discussions.

These days, serious posts have the replies jammed full of videos of people making reactive faces. Use your words, people! I always ask myself, are there really people who go through and watch all those videos, anyway? God knows.

Some people had Monty Python and the Holy Grail memorized. I’m sure such people still exist, with different source material. On the other hand, the Christians and Jews and Muslims have been line-and-versing their memes out for centuries.

It strikes me as odd that we have this kind of short-circuit in our brains that says if you can encapsulate some idea in this trendy way, it suddenly takes on some special character. Like an advertising jingle that gets stuck in your head.


There are various possibilities for the rise of memes. One is that it’s platform metrics that drive them. Engagement, the mere reply or acknowledgment of a piece of content, is seen as key. Memes are a cheap way to engage, and the platforms like that.

There are others that say in our hyperconnected world nobody has time to think. Busy Twitch chats are full of stamp spam because nobody could usefully converse at 1000 lines/second. On the other hand, someone’s got time to make all those fancy plates of food showing up on Instagram (or are they just output from a generative adversarial network?).

One other possibility is they are a sign of the singularity. That as culture sublimates into the digital realm, human interactions become more and more patterned upon how consciousness directly relates the world to itself, with very id-based reactions to everything, and therefore the expressivity of a networked world naturally devolves into visceral-first communications.

Who knows?

Growing the Net With or Without Neutrality

I was going to write in favor of classifying telecoms as telecoms (i.e., making them common carriers). But I think it misses the point, which is: how do we as a society best ensure the natural and unfettered growth of the Internet?

I will mention the issue of Network Neutrality briefly. It is the concept that a telecom or Internet service provider (ISP) must provide equal “best-effort delivery” of all data going across its network. That it cannot and must not give special treatment based on private contracts with the endpoints.

But it appears that the argument ought be moot. Consider the total value of commerce taking place over the Internet. We ought to leverage that massive sum: a cursory search estimated $8 trillion USD globally in 2011. I am not particularly big on taxation, but a modest tax (or fee) from that could easily fund massive development of the network.

Content delivery is probably only a minute portion of the total revenue, with online sales and advertising being larger pieces. But regardless, the Internet is making a lot of money for a lot of industries, all of which can benefit from a faster, broader Internet.

Does Network Neutrality harm or help convince that investment? Does the oligopoly of telecoms in the USA help or hinder? Consider the best analog to the Internet: roads.

We do differentiate some road traffic. We let police vehicles and emergency vehicles ignore certain signals under certain circumstances. We also have carpool lanes and lanes for energy-efficient vehicles, to promote conservation of the resource. We have weigh stations for commercial traffic on major roadways to pay for higher upkeep. We also have some toll roads.

But the average person (who belongs to the car class; obviously the current, dominant transportation system has its own glaring problems, which I am ignoring here) can still get in their vehicle and cross the country without much hassle. Certainly without their car’s manufacturer or their hotel or anyone paying for the privilege.

That core system should be sanctified through law or regulation. The core ability to engage the network is fast becoming a recognized natural right.

But what about those other caveats of roads? Do they have a place on the Internet?

I think they have a place, if and only if we do enshrine neutrality into the basic system, and if and only if they are clearly differentiated and regulated. Moreover, the speed limits of physical roads do not apply to networks.

It would be absurd to fix the common path at some speed, or even to build it into law or regulation that could be neglected. The common speed should be growing as long as technology allows. At some point we will undoubtedly have no more need for the analog’s extras. That in 100 years time, could we still possibly need toll roads for network traffic? Doubtful.

No, the question we face is one of growth and economics, not of legacy. I believe if a Netflix or a Valve wants to pay to send their data to someone in excess of that person’s natural connection speed (the natural speed ought be regulated/protected from economically artificial tampering by ISPs), that’s perfectly reasonable so long as they have every right not to make that deal and still receive best-effort delivery.

In other words, if we can have enhancement-only partiality, strictly regulated, and possibly taxed, it may be acceptable.

The main caveat is the lack of regulatory agencies that have the chutzpah to actually prosecute malfeasance. Without that, the whole thing is a wash.

A Day in 2020

What will the world look like in the year 2020? Will we have flying car? Rolling planes? Swimming buses?

Are we optimistic or pessimistic? Realistic?

Let’s go back to 2005. The dark ages, before the iPhone and iPad and Android. Before GNOME 3. Gmail was a year old. Facebook still largely unknown (they dropped ‘the’ from their domain, and opened to high school students that year). Myspace was kicking it old school. Not a peep from Twitter yet. Bing not found. Sun Microsystems still existed. The cloud was only starting to gather.

Now today. With Android riding large, Google still strong, Microsoft still Microsoft, Apple still Apple (but with the iPhone and iPad now), what’s changed? Facebook is seen already to be weakening. The question on the whiskeyed lips of the investment community this New Years is whether they were lucky or smart. Will they survive? The same goes for just about everyone but Google at this point.

Microsoft is in a slow, long decline. Will they recover, reinvent? Become another IBM (still there, still strong, but not flashy, not consumer-oriented)? Will everyone be using Windows Phones in 2020? Will we still call them phones, smartphones?

Apple has maybe-maybe-not lost its mojo in the form of one Jobs-comma-Steve. What new market will they invent next? Will they replace the diamonds on the fingers with smart rings?

Google has thus-far shown a propensity for prediction. They’ve understood the mobile market and gotten Android out there in a way that Apple never would or could. They’ve blundered on social networks, but mainly because of the fickleness of that audience; if they were smart they would back a federated alternative, which preserves their fundamental business model, yet they’ve shown their hubris and tried to foist Google Plus upon the world.

Facebook, for its part, is still a strong platform. But they have yet to show anything to prevent them from becoming another Myspace. Going public doesn’t prevent that, but it may be enough to postpone it.

Twitter just keeps on going, but with no apparent direction. Will they become another Yahoo!? A strong company, but with no deep current, they are relegated to float atop the tides of change, with not even their leadership knowing where they will go next.

Now 2020. You wake up to birdsong, greeted by a friendly botservant to fix you breakfast. It has a death star, or a small letter G or lowercase f, or a tilted symbol looking a lot like a Nordic flag, or a purple Y!, shining on its forehead and breast. It has a spiral of crayon running up its ankle to its knee, your daughter is going to be an artist, it will tell you later that night when you get around to washing it off.

Now 2020. You wake up to an annoying electronic beep, greeted by a plastic block with blinkenlights saying you have 15 new mails, five missed calls/voice messages. You walk down the stairs (your daughter’s crayon art spirals the handrail this time) to make breakfast. You drop your phone into a cradle, and it reads out your mail while your coffee percolates.

Now 2020. Now 2020…

I don’t know. The fact is that the future is a complex equation. Market forces, human ignorance and biases, politicians that won’t serve the people. Lawyers. Managers and niche markets. Lofty ambitions, fortunes to be made.

It seems likely that we will not have botservants. It seems likely that phones will have become pure mobile devices, meant to be used not merely as glorified mobile phones, but as computing devices in their own right.

Will television become Internet vision? Likely. Will you read eBooks? Likely.

The pace of progress is being slowed, but there will come a time that it bursts through like water overpowering a dam. That may not be by 2020. But there is too much data, too much computing power, for it to be held forever.

Getting the Most Out of Your New Internet

I can remember back when CD players first began appearing in new motor vehicles, they carried over a tradition that they had started with tape decks. They would include audio media with the vehicle, supposedly explaining the capability and the indomitability of the beast you have saddled. They would also throw in a disc of elevator music to demonstrate the sound system, if the salesman lacked the dexterity to elicit a liked genre so as to engage the customer more directly from a personal library.

Anil Dash: The Web We Lost, an essay mentioned in numerous blogs and aggregators of late, attempts to paint a picture of the web with various insidious facts of nature undoing the best of man’s works. Facts like turf battles between the Facebook/Instagram alliance and the Twitter syndicate. Facts like the monetization of hyperlinks via reputational dependency.

The problem with that analysis: it conflates the hope of the web at the time with the web we had then. We didn’t lose that web. We never had it. The real need for a better web defends perfectly against any retrospective fondness for the early Twenty-Aughts (or where we hoped it would be today).

Yes, Microsoft Corporation wanted to be the digital passport. Google desires being pulled from your pocket and used to buy everything from Abba-Zabbas to Zoot suits. But neither wants to pay any taxes. In the latter case, we should feel small if we replace the credit card oligopoly/trust with a handful of providers from the likes of Google and other giants. But that possibility arises out of the ineptitude of our current governments, too senile to draft and ratify a digital supplement to the Uniform Commercial Code.

In the case of sign-on, that story fell flat then as it does today. A system like Mozilla Persona must supplant the idea of site sign-up, much less walled single sign-on. That system allows multiple identities, including pseudonymity. It did not exist in the web of yesteryear.

Maybe people uploaded to Flickr five years ago, but it never allowed decentralized sharing as suggested by Media Goblin. Increasingly we feel the need for federated and decentralized systems, as we continue to recognize the pain of being subject to a single provider’s whim. That’s as true for one-off game servers as for the monoliths: Google Corporation, Facebook Corporation, et alia.

The Internet we make versus the Internet today versus yesterday. We will never be given the Internet. Not by corporations, and not by governments. We must defend her. We must build the services and mores that serve us best. The governments grew from an age where monarchical decrees came from gods. The corporations arrived as successful market manipulators.

Corporations brought you those promotional discs trying to instill a post-purchase, post-hypnotic suggestion of your potency and fairness if you continue to buy their products.

The Compact Disc Digital Audio System offers the best possible sound reproduction – on a small convenient sound-carrier unit. The Compact Disc’s remarkable performance is a result of a unique combination of digital playback with laser optics. For the best results you should apply the same care in storing and handling the Compact Disc as with conventional records. No further cleaning will be necessary if the Compact Disc is always held by the edges and is replaced in its case directly after playing. Should the compact Disc become soiled by fingerprints, dust or dirt, it can be wiped always in a straight line, from center to edge) with a clean and lint free soft, dry cloth, No solvent or abrasive cleaner should ever be used on the disc. If you follow these suggestions, the Compact Disc will provide a life time of pure listening enjoyment.

— Text from early Audio CDs

Idea being that an early adopter shelled out a dear price, give them a pat on the back. Fluff their mane a bit. King of the audiophiles.

Encouragement comes from Dash’s admission that the problems will erode over time. But the interim holds a lot of discouragement. Even great projects like Wikipedia do not offer data feeds of pertinent information. Hail to the Data.gov initiative, but when you look for a specific bit of data you may be stuck with an Excel spreadsheet or worse a PDF document.

How will augmented reality become if we fail to have an augmented web first? Services like Google Search and Wolfram Alpha possess their own data banks, but, again, reliance on a single service provider regularly proves fraught with pain and subject to lawyers’ whimsy.

No, we did not picnic the Internet of yesterday. The Internet of tomorrow, we shall paint red.

Near-future-diving the Internet

We all know what the browser and web and Internet experience is like today.  There are some great things already happening.  But there are also some lousy things we have to deal with that we hopefully won’t forever.

One example of the bad comes in the form of passwords/the current sign-up user experience (UX).  Along a similar vein of grief ore is the various CAPTCHA systems employed to ask commentators why they aren’t helping the tortoise on its back, baking in the hot sun, in order to evoke an emotional response.

There are three areas I’ll examine today:

  1. Data extraction and manipulation
  2. Resource management
  3. Discussion defragmentation

Data extraction and manipulation

Let’s say you come across a series of dates, like the list of earthquakes at Wikipedia: List of major earthquakes: Largest earthquakes by magnitude. You ponder quietly to yourself, “I wonder what a really napkinny mean of the time between those is?”

I happened to have that very experience, so I:

  1. Opened the python REPL (Read Eval Print Loop, an interactive session for a dynamic language)
  2. imported the datetime module
  3. Hand-created an array of those dates
  4. Sorted the array
  5. Mapped them to an array (size n-1) containing the deltas
  6. Summed that array and divided by n-1
  7. Asked the result what that was in days (a_timedelta.days)

But that was a lot of work, and only for a very simple property of the data. It could have been made easier if I hadn’t hand-created the array of dates. That would’ve been a matter of either copy-pasting the dates into python or into a file and reading them, converting them into dates.

We can say with some certainty that looking at the average gap between a series of dates is a common operation. Can we say that in the near-future of the Internet we would like that kind of operation to become trivial for anyone to execute?

Resource management

Here the resource stands for the R in URI. You are probably dealing with resources all the time. Depending on your use patterns, you may have a hundred tabs open in your browser right now. You may have tons of bookmarks. But even if not, you still have to manage resources.

You also manage them in the more traditional sense, of how many tabs you can have, and how long you’re willing to look for one. How many bookmarks, versus how many of them you’ll ever actually use.

The question for the near-future is how much smarter we can make the tools we use to manage the resources. Tab groups (formerly called tab candy and panorama) in Firefox lets you create groups of tabs. The search feature of Tab groups undoubtedly does more, especially coupled with the Switch to tab feature of the awesomebar.

Part of the difficulty in the explosion of resources is that of finding things. You might take ten tabs to find the one you want, but the other nine may sit idle, requiring attention to be removed.

This difficulty even infects the otherwise superb awesomebar: when you start typing in order to find a resource, it’s often the case that the search items remain higher in the awesomebar results than the resource(s) they led to. That’s plausibly fixable, but does require some kind of recognition of the content of the pages in the history.

That points to a potentially important distinction for the future of the web: a separation between the activity of searching and using resources. Often pages that aren’t directly searches are still part of the search activity rather than the use activity.

Discussion defragmentation

This was prompted by recent discussion on the Mozilla discussion lists regarding how accessible said lists are. Their lists are currently available in three forms: newsgroups, via the Google Groups web interface, and as mailing lists. The lists serve as one of the main discussion formats used for the Mozilla community.

But other discussions of that community (which is much alike the rest of the free software and open source communities in this regard) occur scattered among many blogs across the web. Still others occur on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which may or may not be logged and made available on the web. And then even more occurs on bugs in a bug tracker.

So we see fragmentation of discussion. But the other half of the story is where discussions will migrate away from their original topic, spawning new discussion. In the case of bug trackers, the commentary may consist of a single thread, but most other forums allow for threaded discussions.

Each of these forms is a tree, so some sort of tree unification would be required to defragment these discussions, and to allow proper splitting off of newly developed topics. It’s harder to envision for subtrees that occur off of the web, but it’s conceivable those parts could be imported to various web-based servings in order to include them.

The challenge to building the full trees are knowing where the upstream discussion is (if any) and where the downstream discussion(s) are (if any). But this is standard tree stuff. The downstream discussions can quite easily point to upstream, and they can also send something like a trackback to upstream so it can collect the downstream locations.

What that might look like (using a pseudodocument for ease of example):

[On foo.example.com]
< !DOCTYPE htmlm>
<htmlm>
  <messages parent="http://bar.example.com/6878c1e8-866f-11e1-a574-001fbc092072">
    <message id="290a4ec0-8672-11e1-a4e2-001fbc092072" time="[TIMESTAMP]">
      Hello, world!
    </message>
    <message id="ca0bfdc8-8672-11e1-b2d3-001fbc092072" time="[TIMESTAMP]">
      !dlrow ,olleH
    </message>
  </messages>
</htmlm>


[On bar.example.com]
< !DOCTYPE htmlm>
<htmlm>
  <messages> <!-- no parent, this is a new root -->
    <message id="6878c1e8-866f-11e1-a574-001fbc092072" time="[TIMESTAMP]">
      Uryyb, jbeyq!
    </message>
  </messages>
</htmlm>

[On baz.example.com]
< !DOCTYPE htmlm>
<htmlm>
  <!-- Treat the parent as a root, even if it has parents -->
  <messages parent="http://foo.example.com/ca0bfdc8-8672-11e1-b2d3-001fbc092072" root="true">
    <message id="fdf0eec2-8673-11e1-b336-001fbc092072" time="[TIMESTAMP]">
      ¡pꞁɹoʍ 'oꞁꞁǝɥ
    </message>
  </messages>
</htmlm>

One thing this example doesn’t explain is how to make a leaf a root of several new discussions. I’m sure there are other cases like that where things get complicated, like wanting to merge discussions (ie, make it into a graph rather than a tree). One case where that could occur is if someone wants to reply to two messages with a single reply that ties everything up with a nice bow.

But it’s worth thinking about, as the current situation is definitely substandard and improving it can result in a better outcome.