Rants


Let me borrow for a minute my PC Magazine columnist and colleague John C. Dvorak‘s Cranky Geek hat while I go off on a rant. (Hey, as PC Magazine Philippines Editor-in-Chief I get to say that for real – he’s got a column in my mag and I’m technically his boss. Heh.)

Firstly, much thanks to everyone who’s been patient with us and reading PWiT as we go through our birth pains. I wouldn’t actually go so far as to say we’re doing great, but I could say we’re doing better than I expected, at least as far as content and fun quotient go. We don’t get even a fraction as many hits as some popular sites, (or even have a page rank yet), but for our niche, I think we’re ok.

More than actual readership, I’m glad the content is substantial, (sometimes) informative and I hope worth reading, despite the different styles and approaches of the PWiT editors. Most of all, we like what we do and are having fun doing it. It’s a function of the fact that most of us are all writers first before anything else, something we’re thankful for.

I had a conversation with a former co-worker the other week, a guy who is a professional blogger of sorts. Indirectly, the topic came up of helping PWiT get more traffic via mentions and links in other blogs and the other tricks you can do to bump up hits using the 21st century arcane art of SEO, or search engine optimization.

SEO includes stuff like using common words in your post subjects that’ll be picked up by search engines and let your stuff show up when people google, or commenting on other, similar blogs so people notice you and track back to your own site, or deliberately creating situations that increase traffic, like starting little intrigues that often get out of hand (like gossip mags like to do).

These problogging tactics are meant not just to increase traffic but to lead towards monetization possibilities – the pro in problogging is professional after all. I have no beef with that. Cool. Go ahead, make some money. My own day job as group editor for a magazine company is similar, although rooted in the traditional print medium; we print using ink on paper, not pixels on monitors.

What I do have a beef with is how some so-called probloggers vigorously and actively use SEO tactics for their blogs to get thousands of unique hits per day and drive their Google pagerank up into the stratosphere – even if their blog content is, for all intents and purposes, crap. You can smell these blogs a mile away.

Their content are just page fillers, stuff written just for the sake of having a new post, posturing, masturbatory, self-indulgent drivel, pointless babbling that parrots the online zeitgeist without contributing anything to it. Some merely regurgitate what they see on the net or, worse, pass it off as theirs. There are lots of blogs like these. And they have ads because they have high pageranks and visit stats in the thousands, despite having vapid, repetitive, redundant and useless content. And they get paid for it. Essentially, like the song goes, it’s money for nothing.

Sure, there is some value in re-mentioning things already available on the net so that more people with less time on their hands can benefit from your endless grazing on the internet. But doing it because you’re either too lazy to write actual original posts or worse yet, can’t? Man.

Do what you want on your blog, that’s what it’s for, but if you start accepting money for it, the rules change.

Instead of thinking up original stuff, going out to find new and useful content for their readers or finding new angles to current issues and discuss them, some just repeat what’s out there. They trawl the net the whole day and just parrot what they find. These blogs are just aggregators of content, no different from a typical feed. It’s just that think they’re blogs. Then again, you can argue that they’re getting advertising for being exactly what they are. Somehow the thought is depressing. But they’re there.

Despite being generally egregious, this isn’t too bad. There are worse; instead of just borrowing, some actually steal.

I am reserving a special suite in hell for the folk who actually grab someone else’s entries and repost them on their own site just to fulfill their blog network’s post quota for the week. Some don’t even have the good manners to ask permission.

This is a special peeve of mine, because it’s happened to me. It’s not quite plagiarism, but it’s close. Sure, they link you up and give you credit in the post, thank you, but that’s about all they do. So-and-so said this on his blog yesterday. It was nice. Let me reprint it here. Click on the link to read it again. Ka-ching! Score! Hey, that’s flattering dude, but you adding to it would be much more flattering. And productive. Damn parasites.

Using SEO techniques is well and good, but if your blog is just a regurgitation of other people’s work, what is the point? It’s like me making a crap mag by ripping off whole pages from other real magazines, binding them together and putting my name on it, then making sure it’s on all the newsstands and bookstores, complete with press releases in the broadsheets, standees and streamers in the malls, billboards on EDSA, and casual mention on TV and radio so people will buy it. Doesn’t change the fact that you’re making money from other people’s work, though.

In my opinion creating good content should be the main tactic in getting better page ranking and increased traffic. A good product will usually get noticed, and if it doesn’t, then that’s the time you turn on the SEO machine and set it to high. It’s easy to buy a domain and some cheap hosting space, get WordPress, load it up, make a blog, then fire up the SEO shtick so you can artificially get ranking and secure some ads. But in the end what do you have, really?

Make a great blog first (or at least something worth reading) – which takes actual work – then use SEO and all the other tricks available today to get more exposure for it. Even if blogs don’t charge for readership, or have regulating bodies or even editors to check the darned grammar, they still have a fundamental responsibility to their readers, to at least justify the revenue they generate from it.

It’s just that the advertisers themselves only look at stats, which in the end are all that really matter for them before they load up the blogger’s paypal accounts every month. And for some of these bloggers getting that pagerank and upping the hit count is the all that’s important.

For our part, PWiT has gotten several offers of advertising already, some from international groups, but we’re hesitant to go on that tangent and compromise our content. We made this blog so we’d be free from commercial responsibilities, and be able to say what we want, but on the other side of the coin there are still expenses to keep up, like buying a domain and paying for hosting and extra bandwidth, and the occasional round of free coffee when we get together. We may be PWiTs, but we’re practical ones. We’re looking into it.

It just gets my goat seeing how this whole problogging thing can be, and is, being abused. Eventually the bottom’ll fall out (or to use the web analogy, the bubble’ll burst), the malcontents, feeders and no-talents will drop out, and revenue will level off. Net Darwinism will prevail. Sigh. Sorry. Been in a foul mood all weekend.

Ok John, you can have your Cranky Geek hat back now.

Well, it looks like the midterm election campaign this year will also be fought in cyberspace. A lot of senatorial candidates already have websites that showcase their grandstanding achievements. Some even have entries in Wikipedia, the leading “contributor-generated” encyclopedia that gets millions of hits daily.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

In the past few weeks, my Gmail account has been receiving emails from certain “Kawal ng Mamamayang Pilipino” that contains propaganda information about the alleged corruption in the AFP. Those emails could be coming from one of the Oakwood mutineers who is also running for the Senate. Will this mean that my mailbox will suffer more SPAM from the others that have started to brush up their campaigns on the ‘net?

What’s next? Senatoriables as TXTMates?

This post was inspired by a news item in today’s INQUIRER.Net

WrenchesExcerpts from a recent exchange of e-mails with a co-worker:

Him: How do I transfer the file to my Treo? Thanks.
Me: Just double click the files after unzipping them.
Him: Hi again. How do I unzip the file?

I had to walk over to his office to do it for him. Sigh.

There are upsides to being a geek, like the ability to get around MIS’s network restrictions and the capacity to troubleshoot a malfunctioning computer or printer without having to wait a couple of days for MIS’s tech support guy to visit your office. And, of course, there are downsides. The worst of which is that way too many people feel entitled to run to you for tech support.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been called to an aunt’s house in New Manila to troubleshoot a misbehaving program on her iMac G4. To another uncle’s house in Alabang to set up his Linksys WiFi router. And I have a pending trip to Sta. Rosa, Laguna to do the same thing for another uncle. I’m tempted to just forward Bernie’s number to that particular uncle.

It’s not that I mind sharing what I know or helping people. Most of the time I feel good when I’m able to teach someone how to do something more with his computer, but I get really ticked when (1) they call before they RTFM, and (2) they don’t first ask if I’m busy.

But such is a geek’s life, I guess.

Original photo by annpatt

I don’t know what your habits are, but I can’t stand a dirty laptop. I’m not even someone you could call pathologically neat—some days, my working desk looks like a pigsty in a war zone—but something about unkempt laptops gets my goat.

You know what I mean (don’t tell me: you probably have one): it’s the laptop you never wiped since three days after you bought it, so that the wristrest has begun to darken where the wrists never rest; beneath the keys on the keyboard is a chipmunk’s winter trove of peanuts, Chippy, kornik, and Chocnut, aside from enough hairballs to upholster a small sofa. The E, S, T, and M keys are shiny—touching the rest could give you some viral infection. The screen’s buried behind a coat of infernal grime.

OK, OK, so some days my own PowerBook might look like that, too. That’s when I take a break and assemble my clean-up gear: an old sando (or that ratty T-shirt from college you couldn’t bear to part with until your sister used it to wipe dog poo from the floor); a little water (plain tap water, nothing ammoniac); some masking tape; and a Q-Tip or two.

The sando and water (very slightly damp) are for the screen and the exterior (a regular, circular wiping motion does it); the masking tape is for that granary under and between the keys; and the Q-Tips are for the keys, the corners of the trackpad, and other hard-to-get-at places that could use a little scrubbing.

By the way, I don’t use silicone skins or screen protectors or any such prophylactics. I like the sensual feel of the bare keys at my fingertips (and you arguably can’t find a better one than the aluminum PowerBook’s keyboard—one more reason I haven’t “upgraded” to a MacBook).

When I’m done detailing my G4, it’s almost like I’m looking at a new Mac altogether; it’s almost like I just bought a new machine—for the price of a Q-Tip. So if you ever get that urge to buy something smart and shiny, try cleaning up your old gear, and save the money for a new sando and a sack of peanuts.

It sucks to live in a country where the cost of gadgets relative to purchasing power is very high, and it sucks even more that the cost of gadgets is simply high — higher even than prices of the same gadgets in richer, neighboring countries.

Treo 680 prices in the Philippines and in the US

Take the recently launched Palm Treo 680. The unlocked version sells for $399 in the US, and for P29,800 in Manila. That’s a whopping 54% difference. Moving a little closer to home, an entry-level Apple MacBook Pro sells for S$3,488 in Singapore and for HK$15,400 in Hong Kong, or roughly between P96,000 and P110,000 based on today’s exchange rate. The SRP here in Manila? A whopping P123,190. The price difference is so ridiculous that a person who’s in urgent need of one can hop onto a P999 Cebu Pacific morning flight to Singapore, purchase one at full price in Funan IT Mall or Sim Lim Square, and then be back by the evening of the same day with a few thousand pesos still left in his pocket compared to buying the same laptop here.

What accounts for the price difference? I asked a retailer friend that question, and he rattled off the following additional costs: VAT (currently at 12%), import and freight duties, and a few other taxes that usually jack up the price by as much as 20% to 30%. And he lamented that even when importers have their papers all in order and have paid all above-board fees, they often have to shell out still more money just to get their shipments released on time.

This situation is so anti-consumer in the sense that buyers are required to shoulder additional costs without getting any additional benefits — local after sales service isn’t exactly reliable and convenient for many kinds of products. Which leads to the question: Is there any merit to buying locally instead of having a relative buy it for you abroad? After all, even for a small ticket item like the iPod shuffle, the discounted price offered by a friend who owns a gadget store was still about 20% more expensive than the full retail price of the iPod shuffle in Singapore.

Sure, there’s the patriotic argument: support local dealers, keep the money flowing in the local economy, etc., but you have to be a bit of a masochist to keep paying higher prices without really getting anything in return. I have friends who are into this kind of business but, sad to say, I can’t find a really convincing argument, from the consumer’s point of view, to keep buying gadgets from them instead of just asking HK or Singapore-bound friends to pick up those same items for me. Is there one?

You’ve heard of that 28-year old South Korean gamer in Taegu in 2005 who died after playing Starcraft online for 50 hours non-stop, right? Or this other 24-year-old South Korean three years before in a cybercafe in Kwangju after playing for 86 hours? Or his 27-year old countryman (what is it with South Koreans and games, anyway?) who died ten days previously, 32 hours until his final Game Over, foaming at the mouth in a cybercafe toilet? Or the Russian teenager two years ago from a stroke after playing for 12 hours straight? Or the young man from Milwaukee who committed suicide in 2002 because of an addition to Everquest? Or a couple of girls in Beijing who died two years ago from playing excessive World of Warcraft during an extended government holiday?

People do die from playing games. Ironic that our countrymen get killed fighting rebels down south, or hapless American GIs in Iraq get blown up to smithereens by suicide bombers while some folk deign to expire for much less.

We’re actually getting better at it. Now people can die even before they actually get to play the video game. They can die trying to get something to play with in the first place.

Take the strange case of 28-year-old Jennifer Strange from Sacramento, California. A mother of three kids, she wanted her children to have a Nintendo Wii, so she joined a different sort of game – an FM radio contest on KDND 107.9 to win one by drinking gallons of water but not peeing. The promo was called Hold Your Wee for a Wii.

Jennifer drank two gallons of water, but eventually gave up and went home. Later in the day she had a massive headache and was later found dead in her home. She died from water intoxication, wherein the sodium in her body was diluted by the held water to the point of being fatal. If she had peed, the chemical balance would have been corrected, but she had gone too long suffused with water, and died from swelling of the brain.

I used to be an FM radio station DJ and broadcasting executive, and in my day I thought of, and carried out, lots of silly and ridiculous radio contests that people joined, but thankfully never killed anyone. I’m reminded of WKRP’s free turkey Thanksgiving promo where they threw turkeys out of a helicopter over a mall parking lot, thinking they could fly down and people would catch them.

Jennifer’s kids, still Wii-less, are now also motherless. Ten radio station employees were fired and are now jobless. Who would’ve been able to predict that in the 21st century, people can end their lives over video games, or that, like the knights of the Crusades after the Holy Grail, game consoles like the Wii are worth dying for?

Another sign that these are the end times.

When I was in kiddy hell elementary school, we had prissy writing penmanship classes. I don’t know if you whippersnappers kids these days still have it, given how everyone got lazy uses computers and handwriting is now something only old fogeys cared for an atrophying art. But the guys with the cleanest handwritten works were considered wusses got the best grades.

Hard to imagine being messy when you’re using a computer. And yet here it is. More and more online blogs are using the annoying slash thing strikethrough, and it’s becoming a norm now, even for the bigtime writers.

First, the Open Source Development Lab lays off a third of its staff in December. Now it’s merging with the Free Software Standards Foundation Group in a deal that may have been brokered by IBM, HP and Intel. – Larry Dignan, “Linux Matures,” Between the Lines, ZDNet

So just when did being sloppy the strikethrough become legit for public consumption?

Tech writer Jason de Villa used the strikethrough at least once in a print column, a couple of years ago at MPH Magazine (now Mobile Magazine). I thought it was cute, although I assumed it was more a novelty than anything else. I’ve seen it a couple of other times as well, in print, and it was rare enough to be amusing rather than annoying. It was a fun way to subvert the politeness of the printed page and get the occasional uncharacteristically-sarcastic point across.

The dosage was fine back then. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before bloggers too began discovering the html strikethrough command, <strike>. Suddenly, the strikethough became a cool way to say what you really thought… without subjecting you to lawsuits. It become an institutionalization of the subtext as a means of expression. You no longer have to read what’s between the lines; you simply read what’s underneath that infernal line.

Now I probably wouldn’t mind if the strikethrough was an aesthetically pleasing format in the first place, like bold or italic. Unfortunately, it’s a STRIKEthrough. It was originally INTENDED to be ugly, to stand out from the page, like a sore thumb, so that editors can wipe the text out of existence. And yet we’re now actually institutionalizing it for mass consumption.

Case in point: in WordPress, the strikethrough button now occupies prime real estate, right next to –horror of horrors– the more socially acceptable bold and italic buttons! So it looks like I’ll have to get used to it.

Thus far the visual blight is confined to opinion pieces, thank goodness. But imagine how the world would be if your friendly neighborhood newspapers began using the strikethrough even on their headlines as a way of getting away with potentially libelous thoughts… sheesh. My old penmanship teacher would be having fits.

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