Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the forum

One thing I like to do is participate in online forums (fora?). These are the discussion groups. Back in the early days of the Internet, before the World Wide Web (there is a difference), academics would keep in touch with each other's scholarship on something called Usenet Newsgroups. These are the old soc.history.war type addresses. Sadly these venues atrophied as they were taken over by trolls and bots. Trolls are posters who purposely try to hijack and redirect a discussion away from rational and courteous behavior. Bots are automated programs that post spam onto forums clogging up the conversations. The newsgroups also were cumbersome to deal with requiring special readers to access.

With the World Wide Web and the easier to use interfaces the forums have proliferated mostly under volunteer auspices. Individual fans of the Ford Ranger or gardening or the Civil War organize a forum, purchase software, usually at their own expense, and start a discussion group. There are ways to post advertising that helps the organizers defray expenses and even monetize the process. Many groups just ask for money like  Two groups that have captured my attention are ones focused on the U.S. Army Air Forces (before the U.S. Air Force) and the American Civil War. I'm a history buff (junkie) and Dad was in "the air force" during World War II.

I visit these forums often several times a day to see what the denizens are discussing, to learn more, and to post responses. I have a couple of areas of interest such as politics and secession, my dad's experiences, the economics of slavery, and alternative history. I am less interested in reenactments, the details of particular battles, and the naval war. The moderators, made up of dedicated volunteers as well as the site owner, keep the discussions mostly civil and aren't afraid to lock a thread -- a particular discussion -- when things get out of hand. Recently a thread on gun control was locked right after I posted a really good reply.

In most of the forums when you log a certain number of posts you get promoted. In the Civil War I am a sergeant. In the Air Corps I am a Group Member. I can sit on the sofa and, as long as the TV show doesn't involve subtitles, I can surf the forums too.

What are you reading? Steve Jobs

I am reading the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson which I recommend from a number of viewpoints. First, it's well researched and well written. Isaacson talked to dozens and probably hundreds of people and had the advantage of unlimited access to the subject himself. And Jobs was, at best, a difficult subject. Jobs picked Isaacson and then took his hands off the project. His only area of influence was the cover design and he was, reportedly, his typical butthead self.

The book is also a great history of development of the high tech industry from the microprocessor through the personal computer through the growth of Apple and, to some extent, Microsoft. Then it tracks Jobs's influence on how we use technology from tablet computing to music. Jobs was a big, big music fan (his prized possessions were bootleg reel-to-reel tapes of Bob Dylan) which helped motivate him into the digital download business. I had no idea that artists like U2 and Yo Yo Ma made iPod ads for free which resulted in amazing sales figures for their work.

At the center of it is Jobs, intelligent, driven, and intensely creative. Naturally he was not the only one at Apple or Pixar creating. Isaacson points out how Jobs's "reality distortion field" did affect his recollection of certain events. But the creative types and the technology types needed someone to get them together. And Bill Gates needed someone to commend for his "taste."