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Posts Tagged ‘freesoftware’

Every few months or so, someone blogs that free software would be more popular if it had fewer applications in each category. If a distribution would only include, say, Firefox, rather than Konqueror and Epiphany as well, or only OpenOffice.org without KOffice or Abiword, then users would have less anxiety option and locate the software they need more easily. Recently, though, I was very glad to have the choice.

For the past while, Trish’s GNOME desktop has been freezing after a dozen or so windows are opened or closed. The problem is an obscure one, and elusive when I try to track it down. I know it is peculiar to her account, since I don’t suffer from it, but more concrete information is slow to come by. Changing every configuration option that might even remotely connected doesn’t help. Ditto running her key files in another account. Removing the GNOME configuration files so that new default ones are created does nothing. Nor does upgrading GNOME or any of the software I suspect of being involved with the problem. I suspect that either Firefox or Thunderbird are complicit, and my investigations continue, but, meanwhile, Trish is left with a major annoyance every time she logs into her account.

If we were running Windows or OS X, she would have no choice except to endure while I troubleshoot. However, because we’re on GNU/Linux, I switched her over to KDE instead. After about ten minutes of customization, her new desktop looks about 90% the same as her old one, so the transition was minimal, so she can carry on with reading her email and browsing the web while I track down the problem.

Had KDE not removed the problem, I could have set up Xfce. Had Xfce not solved the problem, I could turned to IceWM, Blackbox, Fluxbox, Afterstep or any of a couple of dozen other desktops or window manager..

By contrast, had we been running Windows, she would have had to endure the problem, because only one desktop would be available for her (or perhaps I would have had to re-install). But, under GNU/Linux, I had an immediate choice of workarounds – and all because free software isn’t so rigidly organized that it has only one of everything. The redundancy that people love to decry makes an emergency far less urgent, so I, for one, hope that no distribution every tries to do much tidying. 

Diversity may be messy, but, sometimes, messiness is better.

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The personal always trumps the general. So, for me, the big news this morning is not the continuing speculations about whether a Microsoft takeover of Yahoo! would be competition for Google, but that Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier has been appointed community manager at the openSUSE project.

I’ve only met Zonker face-to-face once. It was back in 2001, when I was at the New York LinuxWorld Expo on behalf of Progeny Linux Systems. Progeny was sharing a booth with Maximum Linux magazine, and Zonker came around to ask if the company had any openings for technical writers (it didn’t). But in the following years, I came to recognize him as one of the half dozen or so best professional writers in the business. Then, for large chunks of 2006 and 2007, I interacted with him daily on Linux.com’s private IRC channel, where he went under the nickname of jzb. So, as happens on the Internet, I likely have the impression that I know him better than I actually do.

I suspect that jzb may not completely appreciate what I have to say here, but I hope that openSUSE appreciates what they’re getting. They’re getting a worker so dedicated that he makes me feel like a slacker – and I might as well be chained to my computer desk. I used to joke that Linux.com would fall apart if he ever got a life, and, although that’s not true – as we learned when he left last September to become editor-in-chief at Linux Magazine – it’s true that the channel has been quieter and not as much fun since.

So what else can openSUSE expect? They can expect a sarcastic wit that is acute without being nasty, and a thorough knowledge of science fiction and alternative music. They can also expect a sympathetic ear in private. Perhaps, too, they should expect some surprises, such as Linux.com’s last year when we discovered that he had been half of a long distance, intra-office romance for months without any of us suspecting.

But, most of all, they can expect someone who lives and breathes free software, and is more current about what’s happening in the community than anyone I’ve encountered (he used to regularly claim story assignments before I could, and, while he was aided by being two hours ahead of me, that wasn’t the only reason he consistently scooped me. I swear the bastard never sleeps).

I have no ambitions to be editor-in-chief or a community manager, and I would have personal reservations about working at Novell after its pact with Microsoft, so I can say without envy that I wish him nothing except success. I know that he has definite ideas about how to do things, and I suspect that, before he finishes, openSUSE will be a more organized and better known part of the community. And, for his part, I hope that being community manager is the position he’s been looking for.

The only thing I worry about is whether this is another setup by jzb, like those I’ve been the butt of in the past. You see, my comments about conspiracy theories have already caused some of the foaming mouth brigade to denounce me as secretly pro-Microsoft. By joining Novell, is Zonker arranging things so that Linux.com and Linux Magazine will be added to the Axis of Evil? After all, between the two of us, we must constitute a positive trend according what passes for logic in those circles. And is jzb sitting down in Florida, laughing about it?

You know, I wouldn’t put it past him – even if NOAFD (Not on a First Date), to use an acronym that he helped to coin and made into a punchline on IRC.

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The fallout from my blog entry, “Conspiracy theorists and free software” continues. With all the people baying for my blood – some of whom, frankly, sound disingenuous in their demands for proof – the entry could easily take over my life, so in the last couple of days, I’ve withdrawn from active discussion of it. Frankly, the discussion is not that interesting to me, and (mercenary soul that I am), if I’m going to participate in more than my courtesy two email exchange with people, I’m going to get paid for doing so. And probably I will in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, since I have an unexpected free half hour as I wait for a call to be returned, I’ve been reflecting on the various reactions the piece received.

To start with, I notice that Brian Profitt’s suggestion that I was lashing out at some negative criticism I received has been seized on by some commenters as a reason to dismiss what I said. However, although that was a shrewd suggestion on Brian’s part, it’s only true to the extent that the entry was inspired by someone asking me what I meant by conspiracy theory. Going into my fourth year as an online journalist, I long ago became immune to the insults and accusations of bias from both sides that often threaten to overwhelm thoughtful responses and legitimate corrections of mistakes. In fact, I maintain a page on my web site where I list choice bits of abuse for visitors’ amusement. I may sometimes respond, but I’m not much interested in flame wars. I have an anarchistic temperament, and, so long as I have my say, I’m perfectly willing to let others have theirs, even if theirs don’t have a lot of love for me.

That’s not to say that I don’t find people’s reactions fascinating – and more than a little intellectually distressing, since I’m an ex-university instructor who once spend his days trying to help people develop their abilities to argue coherently. A surprising number of people leaped to the conclusion that, despite a clear statement to the contrary, I was only talking about attitudes towards Microsoft (perhaps because I recently wrote an equally misread article that suggested that, since the free software was strong enough to defend itself, we could be wary of Microsoft without being paranoid). Even more seem to think that proving that there were reasons to distrust Microsoft in some way validated the attitudes and styles of arguments that I was condemning. Many, too, do not seem to believe that it is possible to mistrust corporation or organization without expressing unrelenting hate for it.

Clearly, what people brought to their reading was as important – and, in some cases, more important – than what I wrote. That’s their right, but, as I’ve often lamented in the past, if someone wants to disagree with me, I wish they would at least disagree with what I actually said, rather than what they imagine I said. At times, people seem to be arguing with their own reflections to such an extent that I feel extraneous to the process.

But I think my favorite response was from a commenter who assumed the responsibility of giving me elementary advice about how to write. I’m always willing to learn, but, considering that last year I sold roughly a quarter million words about free software, now I know the spirit in which Lauren Bacall responded a few years ago on hearing that she had been voted one of the sexiest elderly women in film. “That will certainly pep up my career,” she said (or something to that effect). “I can’t wait to tell my agent.” While not at the top of my profession, I’m not at the bottom, either, so I can’t help but be bemused by unasked advice from an unknown and relatively unproven writer — especially when I personally wouldn’t give writing advice unless specifically asked.

However, the most troubling thought to me in all the reactions is that I’ve apparently lost my anonymity online. This blog is modestly successful, but its readership is generally many times below what an article on Linux.com or Datamation receive. I thought it useful as a sandbox, a place to express my thoughts-in-progress without any fuss. If anything, I expected to get a few responses from friends and acquaintances.

But, as readers of the entry rise into the thousands, I realize that I was naive. Regardless of what merits I do or don’t have as a writer (and nobody could be more critical of my work than me, believe me), apparently some people do notice what I have to say about free software. Some of them may hate it, but they notice. That’s a humbling and frightening thought (and leads me to mutter repeatedly about the blind leaning the blind).

Even more importantly, it means that, unless I start writing under another name, I have to assume a greater responsibility for what I write publicly. No more working out of ideas publicly for me – from now on, I need to make sure that I state my assumptions clearly, and address opposing views in more detail, and not publish on certain subjects until my ideas are fully developed. People are still going to make invalid inferences, no matter what I do, but I feel the responsibility all the same, even while I tell myself that I’m being arrogant in feeling the obligation.

In a week or so, perhaps I’ll revisit the topic. Meanwhile, thanks for everyone who has commented or blogged in response. It’s interesting, and I’ve learned, even though I don’t have the time to respond in detail to everyone.

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No one can be involved in the free software community to any extent without stumbling across conspiracy theorists. Like the mad wife in the attic, they’re an embarrassment to the community, clinging to attitudes appropriate to the days when free software was new and vulnerable, and providing an easy means for outsiders to discredit the rest of the community. They can also waste a lot of your time if you let them, so you should learn how to identify them for your own sake.

You remember the scene in Apocalypse Now when Colonel Kurtz mumbles his story? You may remember leaning forward, straining to hear him – only to realize with a cold thrill that what he is saying is insane. Conspiracy theorists are like that. If you’re not careful, you find yourself being slowly drawn into their world, either accepting their ideas or arguing with them. The result is the same, regardless of whether you’re face to face or on IRC or email — either way, you lose.

Recently, I forgot that simple axiom, until I brought myself up with a start. I won’t mention the people in question, because I don’t want to dignify their antics with more attention. But, while the experience is still fresh in my mind, here are some of the signs that should put you on your guard:

  • An obsession about a single person, corporation, or issue to the exclusion of everything else: Conspiracy theorists will spend an inordinate amount of time researching and blogging about the object of their obsession. Although Microsoft is a favorite object of free software conspiracy theorists, I’ve also come across people with an obsession against Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, or even a particular project, such as KDE or GNOME. But, no matter what topics a discussion with them begins with, they will always find a way to bring up their obsession, often straining to do so. At the first hint of news, they will rush to blog about it, filling in gaps with speculation.
  • Extreme paranoia directed at the object of the obsession: The object of the obsession is viewed as vastly more powerful than the free software community. It is conceived as moving constantly in the shadows, recruiting dupes, spreading money when it has some and laying long range plans to subvert some or all of the community. Sometimes, these plans may make direct business sense, but, just as often, they are for dubious benefits. Should the object of the obsession deny an accusation, the conspiracy theorists simply regard the denial as a sign of how clever the enemy is.
  • An either / or mindset: For conspiracy theorists, no middle ground exists. Unless you are in complete agreement with them, you are in the enemy camp – and probably in the enemy pay. Even an attempt to qualify their argument will mark you as part of the problem. So will suggesting that they work to change or influence the object of the obsession where that is possible. The conspiracy theorist’s identity is bound up with being in opposition to the object of their obsession that anything except whole-hearted hatred is unacceptable to them. Key phrases: “There can be no truce with [insert object of obsession here]” and “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
  • An inability to summarize other viewpoints with any accuracy: Convinced that they are on the right side, the average conspiracy theorist is either unable or unwilling to report other people’s ideas with any accuracy. Instead, they seem to report what they imagine others are saying, or is convenient to believe that others are saying.
  • A refusal to modify opinions, even in light of new evidence: Conspiracy theorists’ beliefs are so important to them that to change them would risk losing identity. So they don’t, ever. When offered new information that might challenge their basic position, they will either try to discredit it or change the subject immediately, perhaps raising a peripherally related point but not addressing the new information.
  • The use of decontextualized evidence: Conspiracy theorists see information that supports their central belief, and are prone to miss information that challenges or contradicts it. They will take a phrase out of context – for instance, take a comment on a technical issue to be about a political one — or even ignore basic grammar such as the serial comma in order to find support for their beliefs.
  • A refusal to consider alternate explanations: Coincidence, circumstance, and human stupidity do not exist for the conspiracy theorist. For this reason, they make no effort to discount them, not even to strengthen their own arguments. The one explanation that conspiracy theorists accept is malevolence.
  • A lack of civility and a quickness to give and take offense: The free software community is not the politest place in the world. However, even by its standard, conspiracy theorists are abusive. They’re quick to hurl insults, or to take insults personally. Their writing leaves an impression of emotion held barely in check, the words rushing out of them as fast as they can manage in their anger.
  • A disregard for the rules of evidence: The wise pundit looks for evidence that would hold up in a court of law – that is, establish a point beyond a reasonable doubt. By contrast, conspiracy theorists have no such restraint. For instance, if a company has hired a former Microsoft executive, that is proof that the company is controlled by Microsoft. Never mind that Microsoft is so large that any North American company has a good chance of hiring a former Microsoft executive – the one tenuous connection is enough to establish proof for a conspiracy theorist. Key phrase: “Can it be coincidence that . . . ?” (Sometimes, yes)
  • A scattergun approach to evidence: Instead of building up an argument point by point, conspiracy theorists tend to bury you in a random collection of related facts. They can take this approach, because their obsession causes them to have hundred of points ready at any given point. But instead of the rational building of an argument, the result is not logical persuasion, but an impressionistic, often highly emotional view of the situation.
  • A lack of self-reflection: Many of the sort of people I’m talking about know that “conspiracy theory” can be negative term, and are insulted if you apply it to them. However they don’t have the least idea of why it is appropriately applied to them. Accuse them of paranoia, and they will explain that they are only be sensible, and everyone else is living in a fool’s paradise. Suggest they have a cavalier attitude to evidence, and they’ll say much the same same. Don’t expect a sense of humor, either – that’s usually lost with the self-reflection. If they call you a “Microsoft shill” and you ask, “Where can I send an invoice?” they’ll assume you’ve just revealed your true allegiance, not that you’re making a joke.

This isn’t a pop quiz of the “Should you quit your job?” or “Which Tolkien character are you like?” variety, and still less a guideline to psychiatric assessment, so I can’t tell you exactly how many of these behaviors are needed to diagnosis someone as a conspiracy theorist. In fact, I’m tempted simply to say that, when you meet one, you’ll know. Still, the more of these traits you see, the greater the likelihood that you’re dealing with a conspiracy theorist. If you see more than half, then the likelihood becomes a near-certainty.

And then what should you do? The problem is nicely summarized by two verses of Proverbs 26. The first is: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.” The second is: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit”. In other words, you don’t want to be dragged down to a conspiracy theorist’s own level, but you don’t want them to continue unchallenged and perhaps convince others who aren’t paying enough attention to realize the kind of person they are facing.

Answering is always tempting, but you have to put a limit on your answers. Whenever I receive comments on an article I’ve published, with few exceptions I restrict myself to two exchanges, regardless of whether I’m dealing with a conspiracy theorist or not. That way, I show politeness and respect to someone who has taken the trouble to contact me, but I don’t use up all my spare time in answering people. If your time is valuable, you might want to do the same.

However, you should also bear in mind that you can’t win. Try to refute a conspiracy theorist, and you simply prove to them that you’re the enemy. In the end, the best thing you can do for yourself – to say nothing of free software – is to stop responding to the conspiracy theorist as soon as you realize the type of person you’re dealing with. The time you spend dealing with a conspiracy theorist will be put to much better use writing code, persuading a friend to try free software or dealing with the real threats to the community instead of the imaginary ones.

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Today, I had the new experience of helping out with a podcast. Like most people, I hate hearing my voice (it always sounds clumsy and over-precise), and any wishful belief in my own eloquence wilts when I hear all the “ums” with which I punctuate my speech, but I hope I have the chance to take part in another one.

I could hardly be excluded from this one. After all, it was an article I published a few weeks ago, “GNOME Foundation defends OOXML involvement,” that sparked the podcast. Moreover, when Jeff Waugh of the GNOME Foundation first floated the idea, he had me in mind as a neutral third party, and I was the one who pitched the idea to Linux.com, the main buyer of my articles. Admittedly, it was an easy sell, since Robin Miller, the senior editor at Linux.com, is a part time video producer and always looking for ways to extend the print coverage on the site, but I was still the one who got things moving.

After stumbling into the center ring while technical problems occupied Robin and Rod Amis, the producer, and stuttering into the silence, I soon found my tongue. The experience was not much different, I found, from doing an ordinary interview or teaching a university seminar. In all three cases, your purpose is not to express your own opinions, but to encourage others to speak, and to clarify their vague references for the sake of listeners. The fact that there was an audience of about 650 – good numbers, Rod tells me, for a daytime podcast – didn’t really affect me, because I had no direct contact with them.

Jeff Waugh and Roy Schestowitz, the two guests on the podcast, have been having bare-knuckle arguments on various forums, so I was expecting to have to referee the discussion. In fact, the image kept occurring to me of those soccer referees who are sometimes chased off the field by irrate crowds. However, the slugfest I expected never materialized. It’s harder, I suppose, to insult someone verbally, even over the phone, that to fan a flame war on the Internet, and both were more polite live than they had ever been at the keyboard.

Besides, Robin has the voice of someone calmly taking charge without any expectation of contradiction. Perhaps, too, an echo of my old university instructor voice ghosted through my own words.
But, whatever the case, everyone survived. I even think that the increased politeness influenced both Jeff and Roy to make concessions to each others’ viewpoints than they never would have considered online. As a result, I think that the point that the dispute is one of tactics rather than of different goals came through for the first time in the month or more that this dispute has been unfolding. However, I’m not sure that either of the principals has made the same observation.

The show had glitches that better planning might avoid next time. However, I like to think that both sides had a reasonable chance to express themselves, so it could have been worse. The Linux.com regulars are already discussing the possibility of another podcast, and I, for one, can’t wait.

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One of the hardest things about writing on free software is the expectations placed on me. Because the cause is good, many people expect me to write as a loyal partisan. And in one sense, I am: If I didn’t feel the topic was important, I wouldn’t write about it. However, I am not so partisan as to praise where I see problems in either software or people. Nor do I always feel an obligation to take sides when I explain a multi-side issue, or when the general reaction from typical readers is so obvious that to do would be to belabor the obvious. To me, these practices are part of my efforts to approach journalism with professionalism. However, judging from the comments I sometimes receive, they often enrage readers, especially those expecting a confirmation of their views.

Understand, I’m not naive. I know that complete objectivity is as impossible as a centaur. But I’m idealistic enough to think that, except when I’m writing an obvious commentary, the articles I write as a journalist are more useful to people when I’m not writing as an advocate. Rather, I try to write in an effort to express the truth as I see it. I’m sure that I fail many times, either because I don’t have all the facts or because I feel too strongly on a subject.

However, as George Orwell said about himself, I believe that, unlike the vast majority of people, I have the ability to face unpleasant truths – facts that I might dislike personally, but have to acknowledge simply because they are there (I lie very poorly to myself). And, since my first or second year at university, I’ve been aware that I have the unusual knack of empathizing with a viewpoint even while I disagree with it. With these tendencies, I believe that, if I make the effort, I can provide a broader perspective than most people – and that a broader perspective, if not the truth, is generally more truthful than a limited one.

Moreover, I believe that these are precisely the tendencies that a journalist needs to be useful to readers. Nobody can write uncritically about any cause without, sooner or later, lying for the sake of the cause and losing their integrity. For all I admire the ethics and hard work of many people in the free software community, even those I admire most sometimes express an ill-considered or an ignorant opinion. Some act short-sightedly. Very occasionally, a few act immorally, or at least for personal gain rather than the good of the community. And, whenever someone does any of these things, it’s my job to report the fact. To do otherwise would be against my principles, and a mediocre carrying out of my job.

This honesty is especially important in the computer industry. Many mainstream computer publications are notorious for avoiding criticism of the companies who buy advertising from them. Such publications are worthless to their readers, and a betrayal of the trust placed in them. I’m lucky enough to work for publications that don’t work that way, so I can report the bad along with the good.

However, to some of the audience, that’s not enough, especially on a controversial subject. They read to have their views enforced, and, if I don’t happen to serve their need, they accuse me of bias. Often, they need to cherry-pick their evidence to build the case against me, and usually they seize on the fact that I reported a viewpoint contrary to theirs without denouncing it. Often anonymous, they attack me in the strongest worded terms, sometimes explaining in exhaustive detail the error of my way in what usually amounts to a clumsy belaboring of the obvious.

Occasionally, one will demand the right to a rebuttal from the editors.
So far, I have yet to see any of them actually write the rebuttal, but I suspect that, if they did, it would probably be unpublishable without considerable revision. Polemic is a difficult art, and has a tendency to descend into trite comments and over-used expressions in the hands of novices.

(Which is another reason that I don’t write opinion pieces too often. They’re difficult to write well, and I don’t think I’m particularly skilled at them. And, anyway, a successful polemic is more about rhetorical tricks and memorable turns of phrases than about facts and explanation. It’s a play more on emotion than logic, and for that reason always seems a bit of a cheap trick. I’m not nearly as interested in manipulating readers as informing them.)

But what always tickles me about such accusations is that they frequently come in pairs. Many times, after writing on a controversial subject, I’ve been denounced as biased from both sides – sometimes on the basis of the same paragraph or sentence.

I suppose these twinned accusations could be a sign of sloppy writing on my part. However, I prefer to view them as a sign that the problem lies more in the readers than in me. If both sides find something to disparage in one of my articles, then I can’t help thinking that I’ve had some success with covering the topic comprehensively.

Of course, all these thoughts could be nothing more than an explication of my personal myths – the stories I tell myself to keep me going. The image of the investigative reporter who risks everything to get the truth out is still a very powerful myth, and one that I not only buy but apparently have a lifelong subscription to.

But, contrary to popular usage, a myth is not the same as a lie. And, in this case, I like to think that, even if I am partly deceiving myself, my work is still better for my acceptance of the myth.

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I’m almost getting afraid to look at a newspaper or any other traditional print media. Every time I do, some writer or other seems to be belittling an Internet phenomena such as blogging, Facebook, or Second Life. These days, such complaints seems a requirement of being a middle-aged writer, especially if you have literary aspirations. But, if so, this is one middle-aged, literary-minded writer who is sitting out the trend.

The Globe and Mail seems especially prone to this belittling. Recently, its columnists have given us the shocking revelations that most bloggers are amateurs, that Facebook friendships are shallow, and that, when people are interacting through their avatars on Second Life, they’re really at their keyboards pressing keys. Where a decade ago, traditional media seemed to have a tireless fascination with computer viruses, now they can’t stop criticizing the social aspects of the Internet.

I suppose that these writers are only playing to their audiences. After all, newspaper readers tend to be over forty, and Internet trends are generally picked up those under thirty-five. I guess that, when you’re not supposed to understand things, putting them down makes you feel better if you’re a certain kind of person.

Also, of course, many columnists, especially those who aspire to be among the literati, see the rise of the Internet as eroding both their audiences and their chances of making a living. So, very likely, there’s not only incomprehension but a primal dose of fear behind the criticism that deserves sympathy.

At first glance, I should sympathize with them. I’m in their age group, share something of their aspirations, and I’m cool to much of the social networking that has sprung up in recent years. Yet somehow, I don’t.

For one thing, having been on the Internet several years longer than anybody else, I learned long ago that communities exist for almost everyone. If you don’t care for Facebook, you can find another site where you’re comfortable. If you dislike IRC, you can find a mail forum. If you can’t find a blog that is insightful and meaningful, you probably haven’t been looking around enough, but surely the Pepys’ Diary page will satisfy the most intellectual and literary-minded person out there. So I suspect that many of those complaining are still unfamiliar enough with the technology that they don’t really know all that’s via the Internet.

Moreover, although I ignore large chunks of the Internet, my only regret is that it hadn’t developed ten or fifteen years earlier so that I could have been a young adult when it became popular.

Despite, my age, the Internet has been the making of me. It’s helped to make the fantasy and science fiction milieu that I discovered as a boy become mainstream– and if that means people are watching pseudo-profundities like Battlestar Galactica, it also means that a few are watching movies Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Beowulf and moving on to discover the stories and novels that really fuel the fields. It’s given me a cause worth focusing on in free software, and a job as an online journalist that already has been one of the longest lasting of my life, and that still doesn’t bore me. Without the Internet, I just wouldn’t be the person I am today.

Nor, I suspect, would I like that alternate-universe me very much.

Having absorbed the toleration that underlies much of the Internet, I can’t help feeling that criticizing other people’s browsing habits shows a lack of manners and graciousness that is grounds for shame rather self-righteousness. But, in my case, it would show a lack of gratitude as well.

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