Friday, July 31, 2009

Internet Ephemera, the Extended Mind, and the Death of the RSS Feed?

I am a Google Reader fiend.
I am subscribed to over 100 active feeds.
Every day when I wake up, I check my e-mail and then I check Google Reader. It usually takes me about half an hour to wade through everything.

Mostly I'm subscribed to blogs. I read blogs on topics like movies, feminism, Boston-interest, PR, cupcakes, sports, music, and technology. A handful of my friends have personal blogs which I read. I'm also subscribed to about a dozen webcomics. It's convenient to have them all show up in one place so I don't have to visit each website separately. The other major category of feeds that I'm subscribed to are updates - when the latest chapter of a manga or video series is released. Whenever possible, I like to direct all my daily or regular web content into Google Reader.

My weakness is what I call internet ephemera - blogs such as Photoshop Disasters, Ugly Overload, Sorry I Missed Your Party, Cake Wrecks, Overheard in New York, and Contrariwise - blogs that collect things. These are usually the first to be marked as read if I fall behind. I myself am a collector of things, a pack-rat. I don't throw out fortunes from fortune cookies - I keep them in a jar. (Maybe someday I'll do something with them, right?) I save ticket stubs from movies, concerts, and sports games. I have a box of programs from theater shows. I save all my graded papers. I am loath to throw anything away. It makes it very difficult to clean my room, I must add. But it's easy to see why I'm attracted to blogs like these. They don't add much to my day. I don't gain any information from them. At most, I get a chuckle out of them and move on. But I can't bring myself to unsubscribe!

It's the same sort of compulsion that drives me to bookmark sites on delicious. It's my collection of references and information. I don't have to remember the recipe for Andrew W.K.'s party pan-friers as long as I remember that it exists and that I have it bookmarked. (Tags: andrewwk snacks recipes) In the alt-text of an xkcd comic, Randall Munroe refers to "Wikipedia's role as brain-extension." That's how I feel about the entire internet sometimes - it's a repository of information. I don't have to store certain information in my memory because it's at the tip of my fingers. Carl Zimmer recognizes this in his article "How Google is Making Us Smarter." He writes:
The Internet and iPhones seem to be crashing the gate of the mind, taking over its natural work and leaving it to wither away to a mental stump. As plausible as this picture may seem, it does a bad job of explaining a lot of recent scientific research. In fact, the mind appears to be adapted for reaching out from our heads and making the world, including our machines, an extension of itself.

This concept of the extended mind was first raised in 1998, right around the time Google was born, by two philosophers, Andy Clark, now at the University of Edinburgh, and David Chalmers, now at the Australian National University. In the journal Analysis, they published a short essay called “The Extended Mind” in which they asked a simple question: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” Most people might answer, “At the skull.” But Clark and Chalmers set out to convince their readers that the mind is not simply the product of the neurons in our brains, locked away behind a wall of bone. Rather, they argued that the mind is something more: a system made up of the brain plus parts of its environment.
Inside our heads, instead of making a perfect replica of the world, we focus our attention on tiny snippets, darting our eyes from point to point. We extract only the information we need for whatever task is at hand, whether we’re sorting the laundry or climbing a mountain.

The extended mind theory doesn’t just change the way we think about the mind. It also changes how we judge what’s good and bad about today’s mind-altering technologies. There’s nothing unnatural about relying on the Internet—Google and all—for information. After all, we are constantly consulting the world around us like a kind of visual Wikipedia. Nor is there anything bad about our brains’ being altered by these new technologies, any more than there is something bad about a monkey’s brain changing as it learns how to play with a rake.

Neuroscientists will soon be able to offer fresh ways to enhance our brains, whether with drugs or with implants. To say that these are immoral because they defile our true selves—our isolated, distinct minds—is to ignore biology. Our minds already extend out into the environment, and the changes we make to the environment already alter our minds.

Pretty cool stuff.

But back to Google Reader. Lately, there has been a change taking place. The instrument of that change is Twitter. Now when I come across a new blog I want to follow (such as Insanewiches), I have a choice: I can subscribe to their RSS feed or I can follow them on Twitter. If I pick the former, I can view new posts in Google Reader as I do with all those other blogs I read. I can scroll through without reading if it doesn't interest me. If I pick the latter, their tweets will show up on my Twitter homepage announcing when they have a new post. I can choose whether to click the link or not.

The difference is in where I go for my information: Google Reader or Twitter. Of course, I could subscribe to the RSS feed of tweets - I did say that I like having all my web content in one place. But I'm curious as to the greater implications of such a choice. If Twitter truly is The Next Big Thing, and if it's here to stay - at least for a little while - then perhaps we'll see a move away from syndicated feeds in favor of the Twitter platform. But maybe this is not a case of VHS vs. Betamax: maybe they can coexist. RSS will stay strong among those who already use it and Twitter will offer an alternative for those who prefer to be updated in bite-sized chunks. Time will tell, I suppose.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


I really meant to post more entries about my various cupcake escapades. Yesterday for a friend's birthday I made my favorite batch yet: peanut butter & jelly cupcakes with a peanut butter butter-cream frosting. I used this recipe for the cake (using margarine instead of butter), and this recipe for the frosting. It was my first time making my own butter-cream frosting and I'm super pleased with how it turned out! Rather than injecting the cupcakes with jelly, though, I baked the jelly in, as this recipe does. The wells for the jelly were a little too close to the bottom, though.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Insurance, Adultification, Transportation

"And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!
- Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook which says that "1 in 3 twentysomethings is without health insurance." Blame it on: The Recession. It's kind of scary. I'm still covered by my mom's health insurance plan, but I don't know for how long. (Note to self: Remember to ask Mom how long her insurance plan will cover me.) Pretty soon, I'll have to fend for myself. I haven't been concerning myself with benefits packages in my current job search. They're just that: benefits. To hell with health insurance packages if I find something I really want to do.

Thinking about health insurance gets me to thinking about how I'm entering the adult world, where I have to support myself. I had a job throughout college, so I'm used to supporting myself in terms of spending money. I know how to schedule my own dentist appointments. But there there are things I haven't had to deal with by myself: Paying rent, paying taxes. I'll have to pay my own bills for utilities, cable, internet, and phone service. (Cue "Bills, Bills, Bills" by Destiny's Child.) It's kind of scary, but kind of exciting.

And then there's the whole driving thing. I went on a road trip to Washington DC with some friends for the Fourth of July. On the way back, not 15 minutes away from our destination, the car started making weird noises. We pulled over. It seemed that there was a leak in the oil tank. My friend had bought his car used only nine days prior. His car insurance didn't cover roadside assistance. Long story short, he needs a new engine. His dealership, warranty company, and insurance company have been duking it out for three weeks about who should pay for the work the car needs done. It's a nightmare, and one that I am sooo glad I don't have to deal with.

I don't have a car. In fact, I don't know how to drive. I never even got my learner's permit. (I was supposed to go to the DMV on my sixteenth birthday, but my friends took me to the Museum of Science instead.) In Boston, I don't really need a car because I live within walking distance of a T stop on the Green Line. It is convenient, although somewhat limiting. I'm not looking at any jobs not accessible by public transportation, for instance.

I really should learn to drive, even if I wouldn't get a car. It would be a good thing to know how to do if I'm ever really in a bind. I feel bad that I can't help out on long distance road trips and that I'm out of the running for designated driver. And getting a license would mean that I wouldn't have to use my passport as ID at bars and clubs.

Or maybe I'll just wait for a consumer line of fuel-efficient flying cars.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

OK Computer

Alas, it seems that soon I will have to put my 4-5 year old Dell Latitude D610 out to pasture, which is a euphemism for taking it out back and shooting it. The old girl's in pain. Watching her try to load a program is agonizing for the both of us. I must ease her suffering.

So I need a new laptop. Here's what I'm looking for:

- A PC
I'm sure Macs are wonderful, but I've grown accustomed to PCs.

- Speedy multitasking abilities
I need a computer that can run Photoshop, Dreamweaver, iTunes, and 3 instances of Firefox with 12 tabs each all at once without throwing a hissy fit.

- Multimedia expertise
I will primarily be using the computer for accessing the interwebs, digital imaging, playing music, and watching and editing movies. I won't be using it much for gaming, but it should be able to run World of Warcraft smoothly in case I ever decide to make more friends online than I have in real life.

- Willing to travel
It doesn't have to be thin, but it should be lightweight. If I wanted it to stay on my desk, I'd get a desktop.

- >30GB hard drive
Size matters here.

- New computer smell
I'm not looking for used goods. I want longevity.

- <$2000
Preferably <$1500, but I'm willing to compromise for the right candidate.

- Benevolence
In case this new laptop becomes smarter than me (see end of previous post), I would like my ruler to be a benevolent machine. I'm no John Connor.

Any takers?

Image taken from

Monday, July 13, 2009

Planning ahead

One of the things I do when I'm in a new place is to assess the strengths and vulnerabilities of that place in the event of the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

The first task is to establish a sealed perimeter. The fewer doors and windows, the better. Block the doors with heavy furniture and seal up the windows. Are there any entrances that are not immediately obvious, such as a cellar door? Be sure to check.

Next, arm yourself. If you have guns, great. I don't usually frequent places with a stash of arms, but if they're there you should use them, by all means. Just remember that guns run out of ammo. And aim for the head, natch. In most cases, however, you won't have proper weapons. Find various improptu blunt objects around your safe zone: a baseball bat, an umbrella, a croquet mallet, a shower curtain pole, etc. Knives are no good; if you're close enough to use a knife, it's probably already too late for you.

Now that you're able to rest for the time being, get whatever information you can. If the internet still works, try to find out whether the outbreak is localized or global? If "zombies" is a trending topic on Twitter, see if there is help available. If "braaaaains" is a trending topic, then the zombies have learned to use Twitter and we're all doomed.

It's probably about time to start thinking about food. What supplies do you have? How long can you make them last? Can you grow an herb garden on the roof? If you're able to send a scout to the grocery store, don't leave the reusable shopping bag in the car.

The one thing that many people forget to do, and which is sure to get you killed if you don't, is to lose the ever-man-for-himself attitude. "Survival of the fittest" is void if the dead are moving. You absolutely MUST help out other survivors that you come across. But if someone is bitten, kill without prejudice.

So that's the general outline I follow. But today it occurred to me: What if it's not zombies? I am totally unprepared for, say, a robot uprising or an alien invasion. What's the game-plan then?

Well I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.

ge swiped from Google image search