A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet

The title “A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet” is going to make some readers move on because they figure “I know all about the Internet. I’m no beginner.” Of course you are.

This is 1999. To a viewer who is under 20 years old, this may seem like a film from the 1950s. This is the World Wide Web. You know, the www is a web address. No social media, no streaming video, no blogs. Your web browser was Netscape Navigator or Opera or Mozilla or maybe the Internet Explorer that was pre-installed on your Windows computer.

Google was launched the year before, but no Chrome browsers, just a search page. And a competitor to guiding you along the information superhighway was the Internet portal company Lycos who made this film with John Turturro.

John Turturro was no unknown. The year before we saw in the cultish film The Big Lebowski. In this short film (38 minutes), he plays a history teacher (aspiring comedian) whose car breaks down in Tick Neck, Pennsylvania on his way cross-country to Las Vegas.

While he is stuck there, he stops in a diner, connects his laptop modem to the phone there and dials up his internet service provider’s number.

1999 was the end of the 20th century and just before the Internet (we used to capitalize it) exploded.

Where did you see this film? Definitely not online. A film of that length would have eaten up all my data for a month, and probably wouldn’t have loaded anyway on my dial-up connection. But you get a free rental VHS videotape copy of it at your friendly Blockbuster, West Coast Video stores, or a public school library. It was probably shown in some classrooms.

The film, funded by Lycos, was a good promotional tool and it might have help educate the public about the World Wide Web. Lycos was in 1999 the most visited online destination in the world. In 2000, Telefónica acquired it for $12.5 billion.

There are some now-funny lines in the film. A kid tells Turturro “My family doesn’t own a computer, and my dad doesn’t like ’em. He says facts are facts.” His dad was probably quite happy with the 2016 election result.

Browsing Blockbuster

We use the term “blockbuster” to describe a movie, book, or other product that has commercial success. Back in the 1940s, it described a big bomb dropped from a plane that was capable of destroying a whole block of streets. Somewhere in between the big commercial success and a bomb is the company known as Blockbuster Video.

Blockbuster was an American provider of home movie and video game rental services through video rental shops. They eventually moved, less successfully, to DVD-by-mail, streaming, video on demand, and cinema theater. Does that remind you of another company? Netflix?

Blockbuster was internationally known throughout the 1990s and at its 2004 peak, the company employed 84,300 people worldwide and had 9,094 stores (4500 in the US).

The last three American stores were in Bend, Oregon and two in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. The Alaska stores closed earlier this year, so the Oregon store got a lot of media attention as the “end of an era.”

The store still looks much like the ones from 20 years ago – all yellow inside, employees in blue shirts and an old computer system. But it still stocks old and new titles. The store still has licensing agreements and leases, and as of now has no plans on closing.

The Alaskan stores kind of made sense. I imagine folks watching movies during those long winter nights and not having cheap Internet. In 2013, there were 13 stores in Alaska.

My own local Blockbuster was in a strip mall. We had two other mom-and-pop video stores locally but they fell to Blockbuster. I have semi-fond memories of walking the aisles with my sons looking for a film that was appropriate and discouraging them from renting film again. “Let’s get something new. Or classic.”

Redbox and other video-on-demand services arrived and I guess people decided they didn’t want to leave their couch to get a movie. In the way that Amazon got people buying books from their couch and killed off many bookstores, Netflix did the same for movies.

I like browsing in person. I find books walking the aisles of a bookstore or library that I would never think to click or search for online. And even with AI, Amazon doesn’t usually find things I am interested in or great accidental discoveries.

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010. I didn’t know that the remaining 1,700 stores were bought by Dish Network in 2011.

I hope browsing in stores remains. I accept that the movie store is gone, but I encourage people to walk around their bookstore, hardware store and all small, local stores. Make discoveries.

The Transfer of Force (or magic)

This video was made at Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan a few years ago and resurfaces online every once and awhile.

It shows 32 metronomes that are started, all out of sync. As the video progresses (it’s only 4 minutes, but you can jump a bit if you get anxious),  they shift and then synchronize themselves.

Magic trick? Nope.

It’s that science that is magic – physics. The video shows that transfer of force can align the metronomes over time.

Transfer of force?  You give a toy car a push. It rolls across the floor on its own. It hits another toy car halfway across the room with some force.  Wait. How could it exert a force? The only reason it moved was because you pushed it.

After you pushed that first car, a force was transferred to the car. When it had that collision, it exerted a force on the second car. That force came from the hand that pushed it. Forces are transferred.

And yet, the metronomes syncing is still kind of magical. Most of the science I like best has some magic to it.

What Can You Do to Get Through a Crap Week?

More simple advice on getting through the week. Less than 2 minutes to watch. Pick one thing to try.

Take a deep breath. Click play. Give yourself a 2-minute break.

This is Doctor Mike Evans with one of his white board “lectures.”


Conspiracy Theories

From ancient aliens…
to the Federal Reserve

Sometimes I like to write here about little oddities like the fabled Jersey Devil, but I haven’t really gotten into conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory is sometimes a way to explain an event, such as the JFK assassination or the attacks on 9/11/01, as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization. More broadly, it is the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.

I don’t consider myself a conspiracy believer – but there is a video podcast that I have been watching called Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know that hits on a lot of those conspiracy theories.

It’s not all conspiracy. They do cover some of of the just-plain-odd topics and fringe science like the Jersey Devil and those ancient aliens that have been popular for many years. But the show also covers conspiracies that you have heard of and ones I am sure you have not heard before.

You start watching these shows and you wonder if Trapwire is watching you. You might have heard about the surveillance system known as TrapWire when Wikileaks was big in the news. Of course, is there any validity to the additional claims that we are all being spied upon or is this just a legitimate system exaggerated by conjecture?

You know about the Federal Reserve, right? It attempts to keep banks secure through the management of currency and interest, but if you watch the video, you might believe it has another and much more frightening purpose.

I remember hearing conspiracy theories years ago about the effects of fluoride in our drinking water and those theories are still alive and well, especially online.

These are not topics that are hidden so deeply that no one is aware of them. In fact, the most “believable” theories are about very real but somewhat mysterious groups, organizations or events.

You can find some information about Operation Garden Plot on Wikipedia but you won’t read there about any conspiracies. (Wikipedia is a lot more fact-based than most people give it credit.) Operation Garden Plot was a very real US Army and National Guard plan to respond to major domestic civil disturbances (like the 1960s Watts, Newark, and Detroit riots) that occur within the United States. It is now under the control of the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM). The original plan outlines the Army’s perception of a potential revolution against the establishment and warned about racial unrest the anti-draft and anti-Vietnam movements. The plot came back into action (as “Noble Eagle”) to provide military assistance to civil authorities following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. All that is real. But when you start to explore what other purposes the ploy may have that are not known to the public, you enter the conspiracy zone.

I think you will enjoy some of these stories. But be careful – they can be seductive.

The links in this post are to the YouTube versions of the videos.
You can also subscribe to them on iTunes or from their website.

Free Will? Hah!

One of our greatest mysteries: How do we know who we are?

Thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience. They are also difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain.

Professor du Sautoy goes in search of answers and subjects himself to a series of probing experiments. I found him via this video clip

in which  Marcus Du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford) participates in brain imaging experiments that attempt to find the neurological basis for decision making.

It’s from a BBC Horizon special, “The Secret You.”

What does he learn?  He learns about the age when our self-awareness emerges and whether other species share this trait. He is given an “out-of-body” experience to try to locate his true self. He does a mind-reading experiment that alters his understanding of who he is.

But the question of free will…  That’s a big one too.

We have free will. We make our own decisions. Right?

Chapter 8 of the series uses neuroscience experimentation and seems to indicate that it could be that a part of the brain (that we are not conscious of) is responsible for decision making.  Then, who is in charge of your decisions  –  you or your brain?  The scan they do of him seems to indicate that the scientists know what he is deciding 6 seconds before he knows his decision.

Well, so much for Descartes.

No more mind over matter or concerns about consciousness and free will – at least in the way that we usually think about those things. It’s all neurons and brain activity.

Want more science?  Here’s a much longer lecture on the “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.”