What’s wrong with the Internet?

I just have a lot of feelings, from Mean Girls

BuzzFeed is not known to be a shining beacon of quality journalism. It has a reputation for link-bait headlines (“38 Crazy Things You Never Knew About Kangaroos”) leading to GIF-laden lists. It publishes quizzes (answer a bunch of seemingly random questions before a script shows you the logical conclusion of your answers) so unscientific that no one should ever take them seriously for big life decisions.

BuzzFeed thrives on the short attention span of Generation Z—children born into an age when they can expect news to be spoonfed to them in bullet points and images.

I just have a lot of feelings, from Mean Girls
… how could long walls of text about important things ever compete with simple GIFs worth a thousand words?

The people behind The Onion certainly saw right through this. They recently launched “ClickHole — Because all content deserves to go viral”, to parody both BuzzFeed and every other content-aggregating website that feeds on social media frenzies. (Worth mentioning: ClickHole parodies far more than BuzzFeed itself; it even incorporates references to Upworthy, the feel-good viral-video site with a cloying habit of telling you what to think about its clips before you’ve even watched them.”)

ClickHole, the Onion's parody of viral content
ClickHole, the Onion’s parody of viral content

But BuzzFeed has also published some high-quality longform pieces, dubbed BuzzReads. These are serious articles that cover the entire spectrum of subject matter, from politics, to technology, to rape and social justice. They’re of sufficient quality that they could easily pass for an extended newspaper exposé or magazine centrepiece. Targeting a more mature audience seeking longer reads, these feature stories often carry the same socially-liberal perspectives espoused by the rest of the site, while employing words more eloquent than their pop-culture GIFs could ever be.

I’ve had my doubts that BuzzFeed can sell itself in both markets. As great as the quality of their content may be, and as awesome as their access to reliable sources might be (the site has a DC operation with press pass access), it’s hard to “[break] down the divide between the light and the serious.” It’s a challenge the site’s editors realize:

“I think we need to show people that it’s up to us to write it in a way that has the context, has a compelling narrative to it. If you give them more of this and mix it in with fluff, and it’s treated equally by the publication, the public will start to treat it the same way too.”

Two years later, I think they’re starting to make some headway, at least among the social media users who are more publishers than consumers. People are sharing BuzzFeed’s longform essays on social media, using the site’s content to express beautifully the thoughts they could not write themselves.

What’s the reception like? I think many people on the consuming end of content are still sometimes skeptical. And I’m not sure that many people associate BuzzFeed sufficiently with quality content that they would be willing even to give reading BuzzReads a chance.

Case in point? This ignorant comment posted by a BuzzFeed reader on a post about the termination of American Apparel CEO, Dov Charney.

People don't like serious BuzzFeed
Apparently some people don’t like BuzzFeed getting serious.

That article wasn’t even a longform essay. BuzzFeed had, through an anonymous leak, obtained an exclusive copy of the CEO’s termination letter, which no other news outlet reportedly had done. It was news, and it was worldly.

Apparently too worldly for this one commenter, who seems to think that only funny, entertaining, and “pertinent” (whatever that means in this context) content deserves to be published on a site from which they expect only entertainment.

I would be a fool to equate this one person’s opinion with everyone else’s. However, this is merely one example of the derisive attitude towards long online content I’ve witnessed first-hand—scroll through my Facebook timeline, or my friends’, and you will certainly find that GIFs and short interactive quizzes get more likes and click-throughs than essays about anything.

Why is that? It’s not like everyone is working 18-hour days in finance… Why don’t we, college students and young professionals, seem to have time for intellectual engagement outside of the classroom, on the Internet?

Old lady learns about the Internet from Orange is the New Black
An old prisoner learns about the Internet. From Orange is the New Black, season 2.

This old lady learns about the Internet for the first time, in Orange is the New Black—my newest favourite show. “But people are still stupid, right?” Indeed, the very technologies that made information so much easier to access, also made it easier to seek information in the shortest tidbits possible. Why read an entire screen of text, if you can get the essentials in 10 animated images?

There’s something deeply disturbing about this trend. It’s different—markedly different—from high school classes recognizing comic books as valid literature. This is a trend that makes education and self-expression more difficult, and less valuable in the eyes of this generation.

Media in our technological age must seek not only to earn pageviews, but also spark deep, insightful conversations about important contemporary issues. Instead of stooping to the lowest common denominator, as BuzzFeed seems to have done in its early launch, they have to champion the cause of literacy and engagement.

Why are genuine discussions about ethnic conflict or self-determination (indeed, a late-night discussion I’ve had quite a few times this week with my friends) outside of the academic environment so rare? Maybe, in part, it’s because of the Internet we consume.

Installing Fedora 20 as a paravirtualized guest in XenServer with kickstart

Anaconda beginning installation of Fedora 20 in XenServer

Updated 2014-07-13 with corrected links to develop-branch version and GitHub’s new user content domain name.

Updated 2014-07-17: see this newer blog post for instructions, kickstart scripts, and prebuilt images for CentOS 7 and Ubuntu 14.04.

Backstory

Earlier this year, I installed Xen Cloud Platform (XCP) 1.6 on an off-lease Dell CS24-TY with two quad-core Intel Xeon CPUs and 72 GB of RAM. (Those machines are sold by Dell Financial Services and on eBay for unbelievably low prices, for previous generation servers of such capability.) When Citrix open-sourced XenServer, I decided to upgrade XCP 1.6 to the full-featured XenServer 6.2.0 SP1, which added a few formerly-proprietary features for larger pools (which I do not have) and improved guest support for various OSes including Windows 8/Server 2012 among other changes.

At the same time, I started looking at switching domUs from Ubuntu—which worked great, by the way—to Fedora. This was purely due to personal preference, given my penchant for keeping software up-to-date even at the risk of instability, not any failings of Ubuntu.

The issue, of course, is that Fedora isn’t supported out of the box by XenServer or its management console XenCenter, and the wealth of knowledge out there typically pertains to older versions of Fedora and XenServer. Some IT firm even posted a tip to use the “Other install media” option for installing Fedora 20, which practically defeats the point of using Xen virtualization, since that creates a fully-virtualized guest (HVM) rather than a paravirtualized domU.

So I set out to update the existing methods of installing older versions of Fedora as a paravirtualized guest to the new release, Fedora 20 “Heisenbug”.

Credit where credit is due

I’m a sucker for giving credit to everyone and anyone, but in this case a few sources really formed the basis for what I’ve done:

Needless to say, both of these sources are super helpful, although none of them really work out of the box for what I’m doing.

The modified kickstart file

If you’re already experienced and you’re just looking for the kickstart, here it is. For installation instructions, see below.

I’ve created a GitHub repository for these, and I might add files for RHEL/CentOS 6.5 in the future, too.

Here’s the master-branch version: (if you’re adventurous, try the develop-branch version)

The master-branch files are typically tested, while the develop-branch files may introduce new features that are not yet fully vetted. (As the MIT License describes, everything is provided with no guarantees.)

The basic idea behind the post-installation script here is to create a legacy GRUB menu.lst file, which pygrub on XenServer can interpret to boot into a paravirtualized guest.

Update: now, the post-installation script doesn’t bother with a fake menu.lst at all, and instead makes GRUB2 configuration files. Based on reports that making slight alterations to the autogenerated GRUB2 grub.cfg file to make it compatible works, and based on the changes made to pygrub in upstream Xen (which have not yet been integrated into XenServer 6.2.0 SP1), I made the script tweak GRUB2 files and regenerate a grub.cfg with grub2-mkconfig. This should be robust enough to support future kernel updates!

How to use this kickstart (with screenshots!)

This procedure assumes that you’re familiar with XenCenter and have it running already. Continue reading “Installing Fedora 20 as a paravirtualized guest in XenServer with kickstart”

Spambots gone wild

On one of my sites running WordPress, Akismet (and other antispam plugins) is not installed. In some ways, it has served as a honeypot, revealing interesting tidbits about how spambots work.

Fascinatingly, there were several hundred of these comments, all identical to each other. They look like templates for comments to be generated by spam-producing software, except that the software never processed the templates and posted them verbatim instead:

Incoming college freshmen: Campus Backup Service is a ripoff

Campus Backup Service marketing letter

If you’re a freshman at Penn or many of the other universities that are raking in revenue from freshmen beyond tuition and fees, you may have received e-mails and letters offering all sorts of wonderful things. The one that caught my attention was something called “Campus Backup Service”.

It’s a cleverly marketed service that tries to leverage the anxiety of freshmen and parents to sell you something you don’t need — or rather, something you need, but not from this company.

Campus Backup Service marketing letter
They use the same scare tactics to market the service that are used by scammers. Don’t fall for it. Scan courtesy of Hannah C.

There’s a disaster scenario — a student without backup suffers a virus infection on her laptop and… “her sleep, her composure, and her GPA all suffered… it was horrible”. There’s an alternate scenario — someone uses this company’s service, and avoids the disaster.

Yes, college students need a convenient and viable form of backup, just as all computer users do, but not from this company. This is almost a scam (but not quite). (Notice how they target “parents of incoming students”, who might be less tech-savvy than college students?)

Vinay Dinesh and I are both Information Technology Advisor Managers (ITA Managers, for short) at the University of Pennsylvania, and we are writing, as individuals, to help you find the right backup solution, whether it’s as simple as copying files to an external hard drive, or syncing files to the cloud. But Campus Backup Service isn’t right. (See our upcoming collaborative post to see how you can back up your files the right way.)

Continue reading “Incoming college freshmen: Campus Backup Service is a ripoff”

How I organize my books

Barcode stickers as book tags

I keep all of my books organized in Librarian Pro by Koingo Software. Admittedly, the Windows port is a sort-of-slow version of the Mac software, but it’s usable and rather pretty.

Librarian Pro interface
The Librarian Pro software I use to catalogue books

Along with this, I use a USB barcode scanner to import items by their EAN/UPC barcodes. Librarian Pro connects to Amazon’s APIs and loads book metadata based on that barcode.

Laser barcode scanner
The operative end of a laser barcode scanner

After importing a book, I make sure to tag it with a code of my own, specific to my collection. For that, I have these stickers:

Barcode stickers as book tags
Barcode stickers as book tags

And voila, an electronically-catalogued library of books awaits. It’s pretty easy to add location information to the metadata to help look for books, as well as generate HTML pages to show off or sell used books.