Website Content: Blog Post for Submission

Blogging Trivia

Blogging is just the most recent incarnation of several practices with a long and very respectable, non-technological tradition. Diarists, pundits, commentators, and givers of advice on all topics, among others, are the ancestors of today’s bloggers, going back to the days of the quill. Only the breathtaking advances in speed and reach make contemporary blogging fundamentally different from its predecessors.

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Although ancient examples have crumbled to dust, consider more recent pre-internet practitioners: the 17th century’s James Boswell, gossipy chronicler of the intellectual landscape, Steven Jay Gould, an evolutionary commentator in Natural History magazine, regional political observers such as Alan Chartok, hyper-local experts like Tom Ferrick, and advice columnists such as Dear Abby. They all respond to a recurrent and persistent urge of literate folk to share their ideas.

Blogging borrows from these earlier models. The word itself comes from the term ‘weblog’. While we know the web as an interconnected system of telephone and computer communication, the ‘log’ in weblog has a far more colorful history. In the era of sail, people, news, and cargo traveled without navigational satellite assistance. To estimate location, one needed to know speed from the last known location. A heavy piece of wood (the ‘log’) was thrown overboard, attached to a rope knotted at regular intervals, unwinding from a huge spool. The number of knots’ unspooling per specified time constituted speed in knots, recorded in a logbook, and signed. The logbook also recorded other phenomena, such as weather or passing ships, becoming a joint diary of the voyage.

In the 1970s, some computers (mostly at universities) communicated over those clunky modem lines where the telephone receiver fit into a special cradle. Long-distance fees constrained casual use. Through the 1980s, the Department of Defense, through its stable of high-tech consulting firms, such as Mitre Corporation, was developing ARPANET for convenient large data transfer and communication between universities and defense installations. CompuServe offered subscribers shared time on large computers. The first USENET newsgroups allowed like-minded individuals to share information and post messages of mutual interest. The record of visitors to the webserver constituted the weblog. This writer suspects that many of the same folks who were tricking the phone company to obtain free long distance access in the 1970s were also later subscribers to the Bulletin Board Services of the 1980s, and early online fantasy games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

In the 1980s, CompuServe (CIS) made individual online access much easier. Truly personal desktops brought computing into the home in 1984. Hourly access fees still constrained real-time interaction, however. There were, however, many ‘bulletin boards’ serving all sorts of email lists. Users posted messages for others to answer, asynchronously, creating a ‘thread’, and were moderated by locally powerful individuals known as ‘sys-ops’.

AOL (originally a gaming service called Quantum Computer Services) added convenience by offering monthly subscription services in 1985. The monthly sunk cost certainly motivated users to spend more time online, sharing news, and views.

In 1994, a Swarthmore undergraduate created Links.net, which permitted personal, frequent, brief postings. By 1998, The Charlotte Observer used such a weblog to report on Hurricane Bonnie.

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However, the word ‘blog’ was created in 1999, shortened from the weblog. Nineteen ninety-nine also witnessed the introduction of free blog creation services (Blogger.com). This encouraged online composition.

Blogging prompted the establishment of new companies and services, such as Boing Boing in 1999, and Gizmodo in 2002. In 2002, as well, blogs could display advertising for the first time, making them potentially self-supporting.

2002 also highlighted the potential power of blogging when US politician Trent Lott was vilified by the nascent blogging community for his apparent approval of an icon of Southern, racism; Strom Thurmond. Technorati was introduced as a blog search engine, and scholarly articles were published to analyze blogging.

Two thousand three ushered in the acquisition of AdSense by Google, expanding access to moneymaking while blogging. It was also the year of WordPress, still a force in blog creation services. MySpace was launched, attracting non-computer geeks. These innovations made blogging more than a techie hobby.

Two thousand four saw the introduction of video blogging, followed in 2005 by the launch of YouTube. Bloggers were newly being paid (e.g., Andrew Sullivan), becoming glamorous (The Huffington Post), and granted press credentials at the White House (e.g., Garrett Groff). Ads costing $100 million were sold. ‘Blog’ entered the dictionary. New mobile blogging tools enabled ‘on the fly’ observation.

By 2006, 50 million blogs existed, some of them in collaborations with big names such as CNN. Facebook and Twitter appeared as well, followed by Tumblr in 2007, and with these, the phenomenon of micro-blogging, and shared photos of your friend’s lunch. A bloggers’ code of conduct, drafted by Tim O’Reilly, may or may not have influenced behavior, but had wide applicability since by then, 95% of US newspapers were featuring blogs.

New tools, an expanding field of web creation services, and ever-increasing authorship/readership have furthered blogging’s growth. Celebrities and politicians have handlers tweeting microblogs while they are on the stage or platform. Even in places with governmental constraints, such as China, over half of internet users access blogs. This number alone is mind-boggling. In 2004, scholars predicted that all computer-mediated communication was becoming routine, and they were right. Blogging is everywhere, in every field, and shows no signs of contracting. A conservative estimate of the number of blogs would top 500 million.

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When we all get implantable chips, will our every thought constitute a micro-blog? Check back then!

The Only Thing You Should Learn About Blogging

No one wants to have to work hard to read your blog, or anyone else’s. If you accomplish nothing else when you write, make it easy for your readers to find you, to figure out what you are getting at, and absorb your message swiftly and effectively. If you keep this goal in mind, it will inform and shape your choices in every aspect of your blogging activities, from initial design to reader interaction. Here are some ways to make your blog the easy one.

Make yourself easy and obvious to find:

Start with name and design. Be thoughtful rather than cutesy. Generate a list of proposed names that are memorable and easy to type. Keep in mind that unusual spellings make it harder for your blog to be found. You may have to try out several with the domain name registrar to find one that is available, and you will pay more for simple, obvious ones. If you are conscious all along that this name is meant to help your readers remember and find you, you will choose more wisely.

Make your posts easy to locate:

Use titles for each post that convey useful information. If, for example, you are expressing well-expressed disgust at something, make the ‘something’ the centerpiece of the title rather than the disgust. Think about how this is going to look on a Google search.

Make your page easy to read:

Design your page for easy reading. Elaborate backgrounds, beautiful graphics, and moving images may be flashy, but they can also make loading your page difficult and slow. Identify yourself and your bona fides somewhere obvious. Do the bibliography test on your own page. Could you create a reference listing for your page in jig time? If not, then modify your layout and wording such that your name, the post title, and any organizational sponsorship can be readily located, and copy/pasted into a bibliography builder.

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Make it easy to figure out who you are:

Characterize yourself and your background as a writer and provider of information and opinion and insight. Don’t assume that your readers have been following you faithfully. This means giving a hint, upfront, of background about the blog overall and your accustomed topics so that new readers know what they have gotten themselves into by visiting your page. Especially if you are digressing from your usual subject matter or approach, you need to give some context. Remember, online searches are going to find you based on all sorts of word combinations. A reader may be coming to you with literally no idea regarding the nature of your topic. If they can figure out why they ended up in your blogging backyard promptly, they will be more likely to bookmark you and come back again.

Make it easy to read your text.

Be careful about grammar and spelling. Errors make the eye stumble and slow down reading speed. The mind must stop and ask itself what that oddity was that just flashed by. Use whatever tools are out there to cross-check your own writing. Of course, having someone literate and engaged read your text, before you post it, is ideal. Otherwise, use an online service to back up your own proofreading.

Make it easy to understand your writing.

If you are tempted to use any sort of jargon, nicknames, or in-group jokes, consider carefully whether this is really necessary. Could you not define your terms? If you fear that your highly specialized and expert readers will be impatient, include a glossary at the bottom of the article, or a link to a list of terms unique to your topic. After all, unless you are limiting readership of your blog to close friends and family, don’t you want to reach out to more readers? Using unfamiliar vocabulary or codewords is off-putting and exclusionary.

Make it easy to find individual points.

A long block paragraph, as tempting as it is to create, is harder to read online. A screen is NOT like a book, magazine, or newspaper, no matter how expensive the reading device. Help your reader navigate to the parts of your blog post that are most important to them. Whether by making shorter paragraphs, or using subtitles, or even having a brief index at the top for long posts, help visitors find what they need without exhausting their time, or their eyes.

Make it easy to find past posts.

If you refer back to earlier pieces, make sure that it is simple and straightforward for your readers to find them. This may require you to examine closely how your web-hosting alternative is going to manage archiving and retrieval. Just be sure to ask tough questions about this issue when making your choice. Check for yourself on other people’s webpages to see how easy it is to get to older articles, and find out how their page is being hosted.

As a blogger, you have to depend on readers to find you and stick with you long enough to decide you are worth reading and revisiting. If you make it easy for them, you are likelier to succeed in the long run.

It’s Not Always About the Traffic

Blogging can be fun as a hobby, or it can become a true job. If you have blogged for some time, whether for enjoyment, to motivate positive change, or to make money, you may want to assess your progress. The obvious measure of success for most bloggers is traffic volume. However, other data can help you determine whether you are being maximally effective with your time, effort, and talents.

Before examining any of this, consider your goals for your blog: Each goal could require a different measure of effectiveness. Here are some examples:

  • Do you simply want to share the joys of fishing, exchange recipes, or encourage heirloom seed preservation? If so, you may want to create a community of folks, via your blog, who interact around your topic.
  • Do you want to get someone elected, affect public policy, or change people’s minds about health care or parenting practices? You may want to generate a critical mass of motivated visitors, to get something done.
  • Are you showcasing your skills to prompt readers to hire you, for example as an academic tutor, or coach in finding their ideal careers? You may want primarily qualified visitors, not just browsers or freeloaders for information and advice.
  • Are you advertising someone else’s product via embedded buried links? Again, you may want folks who are prospective buyers and not just ‘tire kickers’.

As you examine the statistics and other data on your blog consider the following:

Are you preaching to the choir?

The gold standard for distinguishing an expanding readership from a recurrent group of the faithful would be a visitor count. However, unless your blog site insists that visitors register first, this is very difficult. Visitors can baffle stat trackers, which often use cookies to capture data, by the simple measure of clearing their computer’s cache of these small packages of software. Many users undertake this routinely for many good reasons besides messing up your blog self-assessment (security, privacy, or memory usage, for example). To work around this, consider sitting your blog such that it requires registration, in order to track return versus new visits. Less traffic but more granular data will result!

Another source of data is your comments section. Look for patterns. If a few people always comment (other than your mom), you have at least a kernel of loyal adherents. Ideally, you want additional screen names showing up regularly. Be sure to encourage comments and explain why. For example, write, “Thank you especially for taking the time to comment. I always read them and use them to tailor my future posts to your interests”.

Are you hitting the right locations and time zones?

Check your stat tracker for additional information. Consider the continent, country, language, and time zone data. You can use this in several ways. If you were trying to change voting behavior, you would ideally try to reach those in your voting jurisdiction, as finely defined as you can manage. If you are attempting to change public opinion on an issue of humanity-wide interest (the importance of breast-feeding, or recycling, for example), then the broader your spread is, the better.

If you notice other languages represented, then consider running your draft post through Google Translate, to see whether makes sense. Too many idioms or quirky constructions in your text can result in you saying the opposite of what you mean! This is crucial in promotional blogs.

If you see a preponderance of one-time zone over another, consider timing your new posts to right before the highest usage time,

Who is referring to you?

With some stat trackers, you can track the sources of your visitors by organization and domain. This gives you some important clues as to who has identified your blog as useful (or worthy of heckling, unfortunately). If you find that you are getting a referral from an unlikely organization, consider contacting them to make sure that they understand your goals. If alternatively, you find that a website you admire is linking their readers to your blog, you could customize some of your content to them, or link back to them as a courtesy.

The number of pages viewed is worth watching but make sure that you are not counting your own visits. Avoid being confused by hits, which may represent every piece of data sent to a viewer’s computer, including logo, advertisement, and, oh yes, your blog. More useful (if you have it) is the first page onto which visitors landed. Make sure that wherever they start, they can navigate easily. If many visitors are leaving immediately, you are losing their attention, and should adjust accordingly!

Traffic is more than one number. If you apply insight and imagination to the immensely refined usage data that is available these days, you can measure your blogging success exceedingly accurately.

What Movies Taught Us About Education

Education is one of the most hotly and venomously debated issues in many jurisdictions. It is costly in terms of community resources and often acts as a prism to focus on current problems and conflicts over the way we raise our kids. After all, the process of educating a young person can consume well over 20 years of a student’s life, and cost thousands of dollars, both public and private. Although we seldom think of movies as an educational resource, they cannot help reflecting our attitudes and worries about this topic just as they mirror our societal conversations over other hot-button issues such as marriage and war. The best movies, whether explicitly or implicitly addressing education, force us to reconsider what we think, along with entertaining us. Here are some picks from the many movies that touch on the subject.

There is a persistent tendency to label kids who are ‘at risk’ negatively and to expect much less of them. A repeated message of the best among the movies about education is that with caring attention, most kids – no matter their disadvantages or obstacles – can be better students. One of the earlier movies to treat this theme is To Sir with Love. This film has great points to make. It demonstrates the capacity of tough London kids to succeed beyond what their circumstances would suggest and boldly broke down the color barrier. Several newer films, which deal with similar stories, are based on real life. Consider the Jaime Escalante story of kids from a crummy neighborhood being taught to excel in math, in Stand and Deliver. Consider, as well, The Debaters, the achievement by an African-American teacher in the 1960s in preparing a group of unlikely students to compete at the highest levels of informal debate. The Ron Clarke Story addressed both the issue of kids who are unlikely to succeed and the rigid bureaucracies that, sometimes unwittingly, abet their failure. This story follows a teacher who successfully takes on the school administration and turns around a class of unruly troublemakers. A French contribution to this same genre is The Class, demonstrating that education faces much the same challenges and potential across cultures and languages.

Although Good Will Hunting does not explicitly mention the Asperger’s/Autism spectrum, most viewers with experience with individuals with these diagnoses will recognize many familiar signs in the film’s protagonist. The film addresses the difficulties of young people who have developmental or learning differences with remarkable sensitivity, for Hollywood. It also touches on their potential for success, given the proper support and insightful help from concerned families, insightful teachers, and caring professionals. A Beautiful Mind deals with another challenge; the burden of mental illness in bright young people. Issues such as the schizophrenia that plagued the hero of this film, depression, and bipolar disorder, wreak a disproportionate impact by striking in the potentially most productive years of an individual’s intellectual life. Public policy, especially with regard to mental health services, has often been less than constructive. Movies that creatively highlight the challenges that students with mental illness face, and their potential for achievement if provided with appropriate supports and treatment, can help to spur more constructive responses.

Part of the problem that most non-educators face is that they don’t really know what goes on inside the classroom. Tony Danza, a TV star, spent a year as a teacher in Philadelphia, at Northeast High School. This is a decidedly urban institution with a reputation for inflicting many injuries during football games –some of them to the players. The filmed episodes resulting from his year provide an instructive glimpse of real-life teaching in action (or the attempt at it).

Fantasy classrooms and methods of instruction can help us visualize alternatives to the current system. In the Star Wars universe, viewers see a way of teaching youngling Jedi that includes a great deal of experiential instruction – or learning by doing. This is echoed in gorgeous color by the way the Na’ vi aliens teach survival skills in Avatar. The Karate Kid also suggests an experiential mode of teaching; so different from the dry and abstract instructional techniques that too many schools employ.

Consider also, the recently famous Hogwarts School for wizardry made famous by the Harry Potter series. While viewers see very little classroom instruction, we nevertheless gather that students are immersed daily in acquiring skills directly applicable to their lives as adults. The movies demonstrate this connection repeatedly, for example, when Harry saves Ron Weasley from poisoning by remembering to use a Bezoar, the magical universal antidote. This link between the classroom and real-life stands in stark, and appealing, contrast to the irrelevancy that most real-life students feel regarding their studies.

Even when they are based on true events, movies are still fiction, so they have both the limitations and the power of storytelling to offer viewers. Movies can remind us that no child is irretrievable, or suggest alternative modes of instruction. Thereby, movies can force us to consider education in unfamiliar, and often constructive, ways.

5 Things Your Kid Has to Do Before Graduation

The families of college-bound students have a daunting task ahead of them. Most families have only the period between the start of elementary school and the end of high school to have any impact. In that time, they must equip their kids with all the attitudes and skills they will need to make it into and through college, technical school, or apprenticeship, or into one of the rare remunerative careers that do not require further training.

The challenges for which a student’s family must be prepared are numerous and varied. Secondary schools vary wildly in quality of preparation. Kids start out with vastly disparate aptitudes for academics, and motivation to maintain the effort through high school and beyond. Colleges have sometimes-baffling admissions policies and goals. Families face financial hardships as tuitions rise each year. Once the student gets in, assuming that they get in, each young person must navigate their way through often-massive bureaucracies. They must also forego the temptations of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and, these days, online distractions, in order to complete their degree in good style.

Get the best secondary school possible:

College admissions officers know which schools are preparing graduates well. If you have any discretion, get your kids into the best one to which you have access. Colleges like it when a student has accepted the challenge of a more rigorous academic environment.

Get good grades:

This should be self-evident. If it takes a certified educational psychologist or neurological tests to help identify your child’s learning style and any diagnosable learning differences, get that assistance early. A good professional can help you come up with strategies to work around the student’s limitations and leverage their strengths. Be a powerful advocate for your child with their school

Get good scores:

Help is widely available to prep for high-stakes assessments. Some are free, some cheap, and some are quite expensive. Use whatever you can afford.

Learn to read well and insightfully:

Books should be a part of daily life, even if you as a parent don’t enjoy reading yourself. Discuss what your student is reading with them regularly. Use every opportunity to draw connections between reading and other parts of life, whether through news stories, or linking books and their movie adaptations.

Learn to do calculations easily and swiftly, and understand numeric relationships:

Even if calculators are allowed, your student will need to be numerate in order to compete. If you can quiz them on the basics, do so. Online flashcards and explanations can help as well. Assign them financial responsibilities for practice – a bank account, a clothing budget, a role in calculating taxes, for example.

Learn to write well:

Encourage your student to keep a journal and write letters to you, your family, and friends. This means complete sentences and paragraphs, and fully articulated thoughts. Push them gently to write letters to the editor, start a blog, write for the school newspaper/literary magazine, and enter all available writing contests. Regular practice can do much to offset any deficiencies in your child’s writing instruction.

Learn to think critically:

Include your student in adult discussions of current issues. Pose, and consider tough questions, carefully, from all sides, in-depth, and with self-awareness, even if you need a textbook to help.

Learn to live independently:

The ablest student will fail if they cannot organize their life on their own. Unless your student lives at home, and even if they do, they must be able to create and keep to a schedule and accomplish tasks with varying priorities. Otherwise, the press of multiple assignments over the course of a semester will overwhelm them.

Teaching your kid to shop for food, and cook will allow them to save money and sometimes save time. A student who knows how to do laundry, tidy their belongings, and make their own bed, will be a more attractive roommate. Reading a map and using any public transportation system near college gives a student flexibility and expands their world. Helping them to become comfortable with meeting new people and making friends will help them make the most out of their college experience and establish contacts for a lifetime.

Helping your student to start thinking of their experience and accomplishments in terms of a resume will stand them in good stead. A summer job search can take months, a fact which many students don’t realize. Any advance preparation in resume writing, calling prospective employers, and interviewing, is going to help your kid to get substantive employment – something more than flipping burgers.

Learn to make good choices:

Drugs, sex, alcohol, and online distractions such as gaming, can completely destroy an academic career. The role model you present is important, as are the values you articulate to your child. Always affirm their good decisions and explain your disapproval of their less constructive ones.

Once they are away, you can only hope, send positive thoughts, and keep the phone lines open. Start preparing your kids now for success at college.

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