Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pre-Google Nostalgia

This fall marks the tenth anniversary of the registering of the domain name "" It has been about five years since Google has taken over as the prominent search engine, to the point where the word has taken on the verb form.

In hindsight, it's really amazing how long it took for someone to come along with a decent search engine. Yahoo had the dominant market share thanks to their Aristotelian approach of building a massive hierarchy of categorizations, which proved to be both impressive and ineffectual at the same time. Meanwhile, pretty much every other search engine categorized results by the number of occurrences of search terms. This resulted in a large numbers of worthless hits. I remember once searching for "Tommy James" the 1960s rocker, and one of the top hits being a kid's geocities page. Then along came Dogpile and "meta" engines, which guaranteed more mediocrity per mouse click. Ah, let's not forget, which promised (falsely) to answer real queries in natural languages.

The pre-google era could be compared to trying to drive across America without a decent map. The bad news is that you never know where you are going, but the good news is that you never know where you are going. The sheer randomness made web surfing an adventure. A Webcrawler search on "chess strategies" could lead to a page about Canadian Geese habitats that never would have otherwise been uncovered. Because of the ineffectiveness of search engines, people pursued other methods of websurfing. Webrings were popular. My favorite strategy was to type random things into the URL box. Nowadays, I don't think anyone does this regularly. Particularly since cybersquatters claimed most domains, there is less chance you will land on anything of interest. (Ironic, then, that their own greediness undercut the demand for particular domain names).

Just as a throwback to old days, I decided to enter in random URLs to see what happens. I decided to start with numbers. Starting with "0" and working up, the first working site I found was, which was a squatter. However, was weird. A California company called "Trimble Mobile Solutions" which specializes in GPS technology, has the domain. You have to be a Trimble customer to use the site (unauthorized use is prohibited). Why they would use the domain is a mystery, but the kind of cool mystery that you used to run across in the old days. I think I'll e-mail them and ask about it. I'll let you know if I get a response. is enough to make you think the good old days never went away. The page links to, which links to, through which I lost five minutes of my life, and undoubtedly would have lost more had I not been on the current mission. is non-Nike tennis shoe with the number 23 on it. is a South African start-up page. is incredibly bizarre. It is the resume of a dude from Arkansas (I e-mailed him to see what is up with that). is a commercial site for muscle pain wraps.

Moving on to searching for random words, I quickly became frustrated. Most are taken by squatters or are boring commercial sites. The only thing of marginal interest I found was, which has an incredible amount of information about pigs.

After all that, I suppose I'll have to do a spyware search to de-contaminate my computer. The Internet just ain't what it used to be.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Making Sense of the Senseless

On one hand, anyone trying to diagnose the psychological mindset Seung-Hui Cho from afar could be accused of being pretentious at best and insensitive at worst. On the other hand, how can you blame someone for trying to understand the aberrant? As much as we are shocked and repulsed, we can't turn away--and I don't think we should even if we could. Western philosophy is based on the "ontological drive," the desire to seek to know that which we don't. It is not a pacifying impulse. It would be a lot easier to accept that there are things which are unknowable, just as it would be easier to suppress the writings and recordings of this individual.

To my admittedly unqualified assessment of the situation, the existence of the "manifesto" is perhaps more important to understanding Cho than anything that he actually says. In reading his background, I was most intrigued by the description of his verbal shortcomings. From Wikipedia:

In middle school and high school, Cho was teased and picked on for his shyness and unusual speech patterns. In English class at Westfield High School, he looked down and refused to speak when called upon, said Chris Davids, a high school classmate. After one teacher threatened to give him a failing grade for not participating, Cho began reading in a strange, deep voice that sounded "like he had something in his mouth," Davids said. "The whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, ‘Go back to China.’"

According to Cho's relatives, it wasn't necessarily the difficulty of assimilation that caused him to have trouble. Even as a young boy in Korea, his family feared that he was mute.

There are undoubtedly millions of people with speech impediments and verbal difficulties that don't become killers. Yet there is something chilling about the idea of an intelligent, verbal person unable to communicate with the outside world. One could conjecture that the intelligence and creativity of such an individual would turn inward, and the leap is not great to assume that a dangerous disassociation from reality could result.

One of Cho's professors described meetings with him in which she would ask him a question and he would stare at her silently for uncomfortable periods of time. This is a description from another:

"The kid couldn't speak. I did everything I knew to draw him out. I tried to joke with him. I touched his shoulder while asking him a direct question. I put myself in quiet, one-on-one space with him -- and I still could not get articulate speech out of him.

Yet, in writing he could communicate. You've seen the plays. They're not good writing. But they are at least a form of communication. And in his responses to the other students' plays, he could be quite articulate. If writing is the only way you can communicate with the wider world, then I guess being an English major makes sense."

Could that last sentence be extrapolated even further? If writing (or pre-recorded video) are the only way you can communicate, does it make sense to seek a level of notoriety that would ensure that your communication will be heard?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Adventures of Jonny Quest

This post isn't directly about the cartoon referenced in the title; rather, the cartoon title taps into what I'd like to explore. Literary critics consider the "quest" to be perhaps the most important narrative archetype, and "Jonny" is the all-American boy's name. I think the cartoon title reflects one of our great and perhaps now repressed cultural mores--the idea that young men should go on a quests.

What kind of quest? When most people think of a specific literary quest, they think of King Arthur's Knights' quest for the Holy Grail. As far back as Malory's Arthurian stories, though, the type of quest was secondary to the idea of simply seeking adventure. In many of Malory's stories, Lancelot and other knights set out not for any specific purpose, but simply to have adventures. The American analogue to this concept is Tom Sawyer, whose existence at times becomes Quixotian, but who can't shake the inner drive to experience adventure for its own sake.

Lest anyone think this idea is a purely fictional abstraction, I came across this story about one of the last surviving World War I veterans. Now 106 years old, he tried at the age of 16 to enlist in the Marines and the Navy, before his dogged determination paid off and he was able to enlist in the Army (by lying about his age). Once in the Army, he desperately wanted to get to the front. What was the reason for his enthusiasm? According to the article:

When America got into the war in 1917, the 16-year-old went looking for adventure. "I was a snappy soldier," he says now, holding a sepia-toned photo of himself as a doughboy. "All gung-ho."
This story echoes many that come out of the American Civil War era of underage enlistees seeking adventure. It also brings to mind Ernest Hemingway. While not underage, a still very young Hemingway had such an urgency to seek adventure that he settled for a job as ambulance driver just to get close to the action. The Romanticism with which many young men approached World War I is well documented, as is the way that trench warfare and chemical weapons forever altered the Romanticism of military engagement. By the time World War II came around, The Greatest Generation was certainly willing to fight, though we equate this willingness as a reluctant but heroic recognition of necessity, not enthusiastic adventure seeking.

The horrors of World War I are often credited with killing off the Romantic movement. Can we also say that they destroyed the desire of young men to have adventure for the sake of adventure? Perhaps, but there may be another contributing factor. The post World War I era also coincided with the rise of mass media: film, radio, and eventual TV. Prior to this, of course, people could live vicariously through books or the stage, and in fact Aristotle theorized that vicarious emotion was the reason for the popularity of live drama. Yet mass media allowed a new generation of people to grow up more or less saturated with vicarious thrills. Could such an experience contribute to a general deadening of desire to actually experience adventure first hand? If King Arthur had a DVD player, would the Knights of the Round Table ever gone out to search for adventure? If Tom Sawyer had a Playstation, would he ever have found treasure? Does the existence of a cartoon called "The Adventures of Jonny Quest" prevent real life Jonnys from having adventures and going on quests?

And if the above can be answered in the affirmative, it leads to a conclusion that turns upside down one of the assumptions about mass media. Watchdog groups often complain that the entertainment media forces kids to grow up too fast. But when compared with generations which saw teen-agers willingly go off to fight wars, could it be said that media forces kids to grow up too slow?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Secret to Shooting Free Throws

In Week 1 of the 2006 NFL season, the Chicago Bears beat the Green Bay Packers by a score of 26-0. The Bears committed one turnover and completely dominated the contest. In Week 17, the final week of the season, the Packers stomped the Bears by a score of 26-7. The Bears committed seven turnovers in the loss.

The above scenario is hardly unique in sports, so sports fans aren't apt to think of it as anything spectacular. The pat explanation for the reversal is that the Bears had nothing tangible to play for in the last week of the season. This may be true, but by itself, it fails to account for what seems to be a highly improbable statistical variation. It is precisely the number of variables in any given game that leads to widespread variation. There are 22 players on a football field, and every play calls on them to make numerous decisions. Even subtracting all physical variables, there are hundreds of scenarios possible on any one play. Given that there are dozens of plays in a game, the number of variables becomes so mind numbing that most observers prefer to oversimplify the outcomes of games on the basis of a limited number of variables; in this case, the fact that the Bears had nothing to play for becomes the overriding explanation. A truly honest evaluation of the two games would result in hundreds of reasons for the results. (Here's a link to a sample of what I'm talking about, though even this abounds in simplifications.)

In a final analysis, the large number of variables is what makes our games interesting. If it wasn't for the almost absurd level of unpredictability, sports wouldn't have equal footing with news and weather in our culture. I've learned to relish the room for variation. But along with that, I've looked for areas of sport where there should be little variation. I believe I've found one: the basketball free throw. There are a few variables: player fatigue is certainly one, and perhaps shooting background is another. The actual mechanics of the shot are prone to variation, but the mechanics are certainly much less complex than a golf shot or a baseball pitch. My question is: why can't players who have mastered the art of shooting free throws make them with at least 99% accuracy?

In seeking an answer to this question, I ran across, the official site of Dr. Tom Amberry, who at age 71 ten years ago made 2,750 consecutive free throws before they closed the gym on him. He now serves as an advisor to several players and teams. The following two paragraphs are from his site:

So, what’s his secret? "Focus and concentration," says Dr. Tom. "When I’m shooting a free throw, I don’t think of anything else. I am 100% positive I will make the basket. Never have a negative thought on the free throw line."

Are there other important aspects to free throw shooting? "It’s important to have the right mechanics. Once you learn to put your body in the proper position and shoot correctly, then the rest is mental."

Yogi Berra once said that baseball was 90% mental, and the other half was physical. I'd be inclined to say that free throw shooting is 100% mental, and the rest is physical.