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A few days ago I posted for the first time on the blog of perhaps my favorite science fiction writer, L. E. Modesitt, Jr.  (It’s either him or C. J. Cherryh, I go back and forth.)  Mr. Modesitt had posted about an Economist study about the effects of the Internet on social relationships, and the thread got my Gen-Y-apologist knee jerking.

I started by pontificating, “First, not reading tripe (i.e. most newspapers) could be evidence of sanity on the part of the populace rather than the opposite. Even could I abolish sleep, I only have 168 hours a week to work with; whyever should I spend it on what passes for newspaper reporting today?”  And then went into a way-too-extended discussion of Tocqueville on American associationalism.

But it got me thinking about the reading of newspapers.  (Modesitt is a favorite author because he always makes me think!)  After all, despite my comment about “tripe”, I do subscribe to a daily newspaper.  So why do I subscribe?  What do I read?

Today’s Gazette — formerly known as the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the paper now bills itself as “An Independent Newspaper in Iowa’s Technology Corridor” — is in three sections.

Section A — state news mostly, plus editorials, weather and obits.  The section takes just seconds to scan.  I read about four paragraphs about our idiot governor’s idea to run a passenger train from Iowa City to Chicago — a train that would travel at a leisurely 79mph and take 5 hours (assuming Amtrak went against its usual practice and ran on time).  Obits — well, I’m getting old enough that i check these periodically, a tiny bit of evidence that social relationships still matter. Glance at weather — more thunderstorms.  Lovely: my neighbors and I have been helping each other out all weekend after Friday brought not one, but two, hailstorms with quarter-sized hail.  (Actually baseball-sized a few miles southeast of here.  Yech.)  The rest of the section — scanned headlines and done in under a minute.

Section B — sports, national/world news.  When younger I would have spent some time on sports pages — now, the only thing I notice is that last weekend was the British Senior Open and that I’d never heard of the golfer who won it.  The national/world news — under a minute, and that was a waste of time.

Section C:  “Accent”, comics, classifieds.  Haven’t read comics in years.  Classifieds I rarely look at, but I looked at them today — looks like a pretty healthy section, actually — lots of social interaction there.  Though I suppose it doesn’t count since its the social coordination of markets at their best.  (Craigslist, E-bay — all they do is drive us apart, say many know-everything critics.)

And “Accent”.  Well, I suppose it used to be called “human interest” or some such.   Most of the stories today are about health.  One about 72 year-old yoga practitioner.   The rest — basically articles about scientific studies, health risks, what the smarties think us dumbshits should be doing.  Funny thing, isn’t it, the section of the newspaper that one might imagine celebrating social relationships, building them, encouraging them, is doing very little.  There’s a single editorial  about a dad re-uniting with his sons after 3 decades.

Counting writing this blog, I’ve spent about an hour with today’s paper.  I expect that if I had spent an hour randomly surfing the internet I would have seen more, not less, evidence of social relationships being built/developed/strengthened.

How about you, Iterations readers?  How much time do you spend with newspapers?  And what do you spend it on?

Me, tomorrow I expect I’ll be back to “15 minutes or less”.  And to wondering why I keep the subscription.

(p.s. If you want to check out Mr. Modesitt, there’s a link to his website in the blogroll at right. In my opinion, he has a better understanding of economics than just about any science fiction writer out there, even those whom I’m more ideologically simpatico with.)

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Time for a completely unscientific survey of Iterations readers.

How often do you blog?  Daily, weekly, monthly, once in a blue moon?  How do you split your time in the blogosphere among writing on your own blog, commenting on others,

How does your practice vary from month to month, week to week, with the demands of the Asylum on your time?  (Aside: a free set of toothpick instructions to anyone who can name the minor literary character who perceptively re-named the “real world” to The Asylum.  Hint:  it’s not Arthur Dent.)  Do you religiously set aside a particular part of your schedule/time for adventures in blogging?  Or do you find yourself sometimes spending far too much time in the blogosphere and other times where you go days, weeks, perhaps even months without entering?

Is blogging something you do to relax or escape from the Asylum?  Or is it something you use as a primary information source? Something you do as part of a marketing or other business strategy?  Something else?

Yes, I know, there are dozens of studies out there.  I’ve read some of them.  Bookmarked others with plans to “read someday.”  And I’m happy to take any references you want to share.

But I’m not interested, not at the immediate moment anyway, in scientific evidence on the blogging phenomenon.  I’m merely curious, looking for some   individual stories from those whose interests at least partially overlap with mine.

In short, friends and acquaintances, I’m nosy.

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Just realized that Iterations passed the one year mark last month.  After contemplating doing so for a couple years, on May 11, 2008 I finally launched Iterations.  So in just a few days, it’ll be 13 months old.

To my mind it’s been a success.  The first few months of 2009 were a bit disappointing as I found myself blogging, both here and on other people’s blogs, far too seldom.   And, like most beginners, I would rather have more traffic.

Overall, however, it’s been everything I hoped for and more.  A place to explore and test ideas, to pontificate and rant and think and change my mind.

What have you liked most about the blog?  What has annoyed you most?  Why?

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I received a note from someone that Iterations was displaying wrong in Firefox?  How many people have been having this problem?  And if so, anyone with suggestions as how to fix the problem?

Thanks?

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It’s been one of those week-of-Mondays weeks and I need to whine a bit.

The last several days haven’t been good for the Iterations blog.  First, I promised that my next blog entry was going to cover topic X only to find out that doing so would take me parts of several days.  First I discovered that pulling the stuff together to do what was promised involved files that I haven’t used since before I purchased my current MacBookPro two-plus years ago.  Then, worse, I discovered that one of them (the Maddison graphic) was created from a spreadsheet that is even older, from the MacBook that died and that is probably burned on a CD somewhere but I have no idea where.  Then I discovered that I don’t know where the Maddison book itself is, so I can’t even re-create the spreadsheet.

Then, this weekend, I discovered that my Google PageRank had somhow become “not available.”  Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if, notwithstanding a near-800 percent traffic increase (per Alexa) over the last three months, the Page Rank had fallen from 1 to 0.  After all, the traffic here remains very thin. (Even with that 800 percent increase, my Alexa rank is only 1,677,621.)  But my understanding of Page Rank was that “n/a” was limited to very new sites not yet indexed or to sites that Google had banned for one reason or another.

And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what I might have done to get banned.  Oh, I know some of my ideas are a bit wacko, but I doubt that is it.  And I haven’t done anything I know of to generate spam or fake links or whatever other evils lurk in the minds of men.  Frankly, while I know such stuff happens, I haven’t the foggiest clue how I would go about doing such.  I haven’t even done any SEO on the site yet.

But on the other hand, I don’t want to be on Google’s shitlist.  And so I find I now must find some time to figure out exactly what is happening or at least find out enough so I can write a semi-coherent email to someone at Google.

And of course, being the sometime moron that I am, I still went ahead and upgraded my WordPress to version 2.7.  (When logging on to compose my “why I hate business cycle talk, part two” post, my dashboard  showed a recommendation to upgrade, and having the random idea that maybe my old installation had something that was whacking out the Google-bots, I went and upgraded.

Only to discover that this upgrade was rather different than the ones to 2.6 and beyond.  Namely an entirely different looking interface.  And not only hasn’t it solved the pagerank problem (which, if truth be told, I never expected it to), it changed some options for posting.  In particular, I simply cannot figure out how to avoid the annoying wrap of text around images that appeared in my last post.

Checked the wordpress installation notes and all I found was a bit of tech gobblydegook about how to set that kind of wrapping up different ways via CSS style sheet code. (Though nothing about how to avoid it entirely.)  So I have to dig in and figure out more coding that this nontechie really wants to be bothered with.

And worse, I can’t even find my theme editor anywhere on the dashboard, so I don’t know where to find the style sheet I’m supposed to be editing.

Yeah, I know, who cares about these problems of yours, Wade.

Well, I guess because it illustrates a part of the 21st century that is rather annoying.  A part that I find myself unable to avoid.  The part where trying to deal with the rapidity of tech change means systematic distractions from the work flow.

It’s often interesting to compare the changes of the Internet with the changes wrought by other cosmically-important technologies like the automobile.  Think about the daily commute.  How many unexpected interruptions do you have to deal with during that commute?  Oh, sure, there are the occasional accidents.  And the even more occasional breakdowns of your own car.  And of course the regular problem of rush-hour traffic.  But what you don’t have is the combination of “unexpected” and “often”.

Not so with respect to the Internet.  Some souls may be fortunate enough to have a professional life without much using the Internet, but I don’t know many of them.   But the lurches and delays that life on the Internet brings come with the frequency of rush hour and the unpredictability of fan belts seizing up.  Computer crashes.   Software that demands regular upgrade of hardware that requires different media and different software.  Tech support by Ouija board…spoken in ancient Sumerian.

And, worst of all, in my opinion, is the reality that a lot of these interruptions are of the “I don’t even know who to ask or what to ask them” variety.  When my car breaks down, I know who to call. I even have a helpful manual in my glove compartment.

But when something goes wacko on my computer…more often than not, the “help” is online.  And just how helpful is “online documentation” if I can’t get to the Internet?   And if I can get to it, I find I the “KnowledgeBase” requires a Berlitz phrasebook for translation…(i.e., a “Dummies” or “Idiots” guide)…and that’s two days away even by Amazon Prime.  And of course, once I get the dummies guide, I realize that I still don’t know what question to ask and so read fifty pages of the dummies guide that turn out to be beside the point.

Now, being at least a semi-geek who likes to solve puzzles, I don’t mind some of this.  But, again, it’s the combination of “unexpected” and “often” that gets to me.

If it were just frequency, I could just put it on the “seven daily habits” list, right there with walking the dog and flossing.   And if  it were just the occasional negative surprise, I could just do the cuss-and-move-on bit, maybe working an extra hour or two on a bad day.

But it isn’t. “Unexpected plus often” means you somehow have to plan for and deal with the “week of Mondays” effect on a repeated basis.

And I don’t know any “daily habits” guru who offers a way to do that.

I love living in a world with 21st century tech.  But sometimes, well, sometimes it just sucks.

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I haven’t been blogging much the last several weeks.

Part of it’s been the distractions of the usual suspects: dealing with the needs of my 87-year-old parent; my lifelong penchant for avoiding work whenever possible; my propensity for getting distracted by dog and household tasks.

And part of it has been the need to put some extended work in on three major projects: (i) following through on a long-standing promise to help a novelist friend and client put together his website; (ii) doing my job as “Vice President of Marketing” of the Economic and Business Society and help it get ready for conferences this April in Grand Rapids and in May 2010 in Braga, Portugal; and (iii) readying several additions, too often postponed, to the Iterative Listening website, additions that I want to have up absolutely no later than Christmas.

Even more, though, I’ve been grappling with the “Technology and Education in the 21st Century” project. That project, initially started with the aim of publishing a book on the needs of economic higher education in today’s world, has morphed in a major way.

Oh, the book part is still on the table (Click here for a reasonably current picture.) I feel more every day that I’m on to something, and that the book needs to be done. And while there is a part of me that worries about getting as much of it done as I promised in my college sabbatical application, another part of me is yelling that I need to get more of it, maybe even all of it, done before returning to the classroom full-time.

But it isn’t just the book anymore. It’s about how I redo every one of my classes from the bottom up. It’s about how I’m retraining myself as a teacher, cleaning the garage out and trashing all the accumulated clutter from twenty-plus years of teaching. It’s about how one synthesizes “in school” higher education needs with “out of school” needs for business and professional education. It’s … well, it’s a whole lot of stuff that has to be put together and kept from exploding like an overinflated balloon.

But the biggest reason is that I’ve been contemplating a major addition to the topics of conversation. My last post, Nov 21 on judgment, was an example of what is going to be coming. And coming, I expect — no, I hope — with a good deal of regularity.

In one sentence: I am going to be much more transparent and vocal about my Christian believing.

For all its importance, religious belief is something that a lot of us prefer to compartmentalize and separate from the rest of our lives. Every Christian churchgoer past the age of, say, 15, has heard dozens of sermons complaining of “only on Sunday” worship, yet virtually all of us think “business” and “religion” should be kept separate.

I would venture a guess that, did I poll 1000 experts on “starting a new business” or “how to succeed in business,” 990 of them would tell me to keep God completely off the blog and the rest of the company web site. (The other 10 might allow me a vague bit of “Christian commitment to service” or some such wherever it is that I post the company’s mission, places like here and here.)

So, it isn’t a step I’m taking lightly or without a great deal of contemplation on the costs and benefits. And, yes, prayer, too.

But I am taking it, and I have no intention of taking it tentatively. Because if I believe, as I do believe, in the utter essentiality of the Great Commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” [Mark: 12:30-31]), I have no business trying to separate things.

For some reason, I don’t think He who said to a disciple, after the disciple had asked to be excused to bury his father, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” [Matthew 8:21-22], is going to be particularly impressed by my relegating my own following to non-business hours. Being a Christian is more than just admitting that I am one or saying that “my prayers are with you” when an occasion for sympathy presents itself. More than saying “Happy Thanksgiving” on the last Thursday of November or “Merry Christmas” at the office Christmas party.

Oh, I’m not planning on a lot of hellfire and damnation sermons. That to my mind leads too easily to violation of the “Judge not” teaching. With my legal and professorial background, it’s already hard enough to resist my natural propensity for scribe and Pharisee mode. Though I believe in the inevitability of God’s judging, I find grossly offensive and hubristic the rantings of all who would profess to know others’ fate when that day comes. It is, to my mind, one of the greatest shortcomings of “organized” Christianity.

Nor do I intend this to be a place where I’m actively seeking to persuade my non-Christian readers to convert to the true faith. I consider myself an evangelical, as someone who wants all to believe in Him; but I can’t do the TV preacher hard sell. I just look ridiculous thumping the Bible that way.

No, my witness is my own life. How I go about striving to follow His teaching, and shape my life as I think he wants me to shape it. How my actions and beliefs change as I listen to His teachings. The example I set, or fail to set, with my own belief.

And how I credit God for that life and that belief. How and when I bring Him up in conversation, online and off. How I admit His presence in and into my life. How, if I have any good ideas they come through Him; and how, if I have bad ideas, they come despite Him.

Because even though God won’t be mentioned in every post — far from that — He, capitalization and all, is in all of them.

He always has been. And it’s time I admitted it.

Long past time.

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Why, Wade, if listening is so important, do you spend so much time writing such long blog entries?

Why, Wade, if listening is so important, and adopting the pose of Herr Doktor Professor Expert as dangerous as you say it is, do you find it so easy to embark upon a lecture at the drop of the hat?

First, because lecturing need not be done in the mode and persona of Herr Doktor Professor Expert.  I cannot imagine adding my voice to the choir singing that the “lecture is outdated and obsolete and anti-learning” or any of that.  I don’t believe that.  Just because a thing is done badly by so many, and in fact so badly so often by myself, does not mean it lacks value when done well.

It seems to me that a lecture can serve one or both of two purposes.

First, it can serve as a transmitter of information from the lecturer to the audience.  Frankly, I’m not particularly good at this kind of lecture, and I try to avoid taking that approach as often as possible.

Second, and this is why I continue to lecture (or, in my preferred jargon, “pontificate”). I see the good lecture as an invitation to converse.   Look at David’s or Ina’s comments in this blog, and you don’t just see me lecturing to passive readers.  You see conversations where all concerned are thinking deeply and pushing others to do the same.

Thinkers as different as Genrikh Altshuller and Edward de Bono have demonstrated, to my mind beyond doubt, that creativity, innovation, and lots of other good things result much more often when the thinker is constrained.  Simple brainstorming, apart from its “breaking the ice” and other socialization functions, generally is counterproductive.  Trying to think outside the box just gets one lost.  People just go down the same thought paths they always do:  democrats think of democrat-type solutions, republicans like republicans, anarchists like anarchists, engineers like engineers, copywriters like copywriters, English professors like English professors, affluent 18-year-olds like affluent 18-year-olds.

No, routes to better thinking are constrained in some way.   And a good lecture does just that.

It constrains the lecturer.   He or she can’t just go off and rant.  He must think of what his audience might care about, be bored by, take offense at, and so on.  While he can go on for a very long time if he wants (and, admittedly, that’s an envelope I’m always pushing), he’s got to keep attention.  Most of us aren’t John Wesley, able to keep an audience spellbound for hours at a crack.

And he’s constrained by the form.  Whether it’s the “no more than 3 points” rule of thumb, “don’t introduce too many big words,” etc, etc., there are rules.

Even more importantly, the lecture constrains the audience’s thinking paths.   It doesn’t allow them to just immediately horn in with their favorite pet peeves and prejudgings.  They can turn the lecturer off if they wish, but if they’re going to use the information he’s transmitting, they’re going to use it in a focused way.   And so any conversations that ensure, being more focused, are likely to go deeper.

Back when I was deep in my dissertation research I read a lot of 19th-century Parliamentary debate from the pages of Hansard.  I also read a lot of Parliamentary speeches that would be repeated, more or less verbatim, in the pages of newspapers and political pamphlets, and read by a very big proportion of the British population.

Don’t get me wrong — there was no shortage of “tabloid journalism” back then, and it was great fun reading it, too, as part of my research.  But one thing that seems to have been lost between then and now is that kind of deep engagement with ideas across not just the highly educated elites (which, compared to today’s America, were an extremely small fraction of the total population), but across most of the population.

And when we look closer at that deep engagement, it’s pretty clear.  It often took place via the exchange of lectures (long Parliamentary speeches, long pamphets).  Long lectures during which lecturers and audiences regularly listened to each other.

It has become de rigueur for “education experts,” both inside and outside the academy, to speak of the formal lecture as passé, outdated, or pedagogically unsound.

Wrong again.

The problem is not the lecture form, it is the quality of the lectures made.  To be blunt, most of us are pretty poor lecturers.  Because, we’re not really all that interested in listening.  If we’re speaking politically, we’re not seeking consensus (even when we say we are), we’re seeking to win.  If we’re speaking pedagogically, we’re not seeking to learn together (even when we say we are), we’re trying to justify our status as Expert and/or get our students to think like us.  Even if we talk about what we are doing, as political speakers or as teachers, as part of an ongoing conversation, we aren’t anywhere near as serious about engendering conversation as we are about having ourselves heard.

Now that the conventions are done, we’ll soon be treated to a round of presidential and vice-presidential “debates”.  Sorry, but I’ll have to give them a miss as I have done for several leap years running now.  As tabloid journalism goes, I have no doubt they’ll be excellent theater, that the good side will say things worth cheering about and the bad side will say things worthy of scorn.   And if tabloid politics is what you enjoy, that’s fine.

But for me, tabloid  politics has very little value save as an psychological escape from the grimmer annoyances of my daily life.  And I find that Steven Seagal movies or space opera science fiction or Green Bay Packer football games are all much better routes for that kind of escape.  So,  John and Sarah and Barack and Joe, feel free to do what you are going to do.  But I’m going to take a pass.

I don’t see myself deciding who to vote for based on what any of you are going to be saying in any of those debates any more than I’m going to pay any serious attention to your junk mail or your 30-second spots in prime time.

Contrary to the received view tabloids like CNN, Fox, or PBS, really good speakers today aren’t to be found in prime time giving convention speeches in football stadiums, or tossing bon mots on debating stages, or ensuring their “speeches” get included in the pages of the Congressional record.   The really good speakers, the ones who are truly part of an ongoing conversation, the ones worth listening to, are to be found elsewhere.

Barack, Joe, John, Sarah, I find this sad, but the truth is, my vote in November is probably going to be based only infinitesimally upon what you might say between now and then.  Because I suspect not much of what you are going to say is going to be inspiring of either thought or conversation, merely to appeal to my existing prejudices.

And, thank you very much, I’m well aware of what my prejudices are.  I’ve got better things to be doing between now and then than waste time with your speechifying between now and then, with the political spin that so concern your handlers, with the pontificating that the mainstream media is going to be doing.

If something is going to change my mind, if something is going to make me confront those prejudices of mine, it isn’t going to be speechifying and spin and pontification that’ll do it.  It’s going to be good lectures.  The kind that gets me involved in deep conversation and deep thinking.

The kind that happens, if it happens at all today, away from the network cameras, mostly on blogs and some YouTube videos.  The good ones, that is; not the ones that your political and PR hacks came up with for you as part of your respective strategies to make-sure-we-keep-up-with-the-Internet-generation.

I’m no more going to make my decision based on Internet tabloid journalism of the CNN.com variety than I am going to make it based on the broadcast tabloid journalism of CNN.  I have no doubt that CNN and the others in the tabloids are going to help me see who is a good speaker and who is not, but frankly, I’m more interested in which of you has it in you to be a good lecturer.  Because that, not your ability to orate and inspire, tells me a lot more about your ability to listen and converse.

No, I’m unlikely to be joining you on www.barackobama.com or www.johnmccain.com very often either.  Because I don’t expect much good lecturing in the posts and comments of your blogs.

No, I’m going to be spending my “politics” time between now and then with the real conversations of the blogosphere.  The ones with a PageRank between 0 and 2 rather than a PageRank of 7.   I’m going to reading a lot of lectures and trying to make one or two good ones of my own.

Even though I’m certain you aren’t going to be bothered to contribute much to those conversation yourselves.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but I think it’s come to this:  if you’re deciding whether to vote for someone for President or not, one of the poorest sources of information about their fitness to lead is the words they utter during the campaign.

So, Barack … John … I guess you’re safe to delete me from your intended audience until the speech you make sometime late on the evening of November November.

I doubt I’ll be tuned in to what you are saying.

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All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts