Reflections of a ModemJunkie

February, 2000

What a Tangled Web

by Leonard Grossman

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Lindsay Marshall wrote last month in his weblog, Bifurcated Rivets,

Is it just me or is the web really rather dull at the moment - loads of really stupid e-commerce sites and not a lot else. Maybe I am just feeling jaded and uninspired.

I often have the same feeling. For some time, nothing I come across seems to inspire awe or amazement. Then, almost out of the blue will come a reminder of just what an amazing thing this web really is. From Wall Street to Fleet Street, maybe the money and the media are entranced by the possibilities of E-commerce, but that is not why I am here.

Sir Walter Scott wrote, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive." But it is not deceit that interests me this week. It is the amazing, tangled interconnectedness of the web that inspires this months maundering.

Mysticism and Music

I, too, was in a mood like Lindsay's. Home one day last week recovering from a bug, I really didn't want to write this piece. I knew I had to follow up on last month's mire and needed a change of pace. I checked in with Dan Fitch's Apathy weblog - a refreshingly unpretentious site that frequently lifts my spirits. For several days Dan featured an evolving diagram. It looked something like this:

1 2
.' .'.'.'.
2-.' .' . '.'.'.-1
Patton |--: .:!:. :--| Grubbs
1-'. '. .'.'.'-2
'. | |'.'
2-'. .'-1
Zorn |'.'| Fahey
1--' '--2

Dan described it as a "musical diagramme." But in the serendipity that is the Web, I misread "musical" as "mystical." In that frame of mind, it reminded me of the mystical Tree of the Sefirot, an image used in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. I did a search on Google which led me to a page of illustrations from Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection. The first illustration there is from a 16th century translation of the Kabbalah. Some of the images there bore a remarkable resemblance to Dan's ASCII drawing.

The Sefirot

In my haste to find the image, I hadn't noticed that the article was not about Judaism but about the founder of Mormanism. A better source might have been Treasures from the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. The image there is larger and the text puts the woodcut in some context. But even that is a far stretch from an authentic Jewish source. What a tangled web!!

In any event, I sent Dan a note. He wrote me back, calling my attention to the reference to Zorn in his diagram and pointing me to John Zorn's Tzadik, a project dedicated to releasing avant garde and experimental music, presenting a worldwide community of contemporary musician-composers who find it difficult or impossible to release their music through more conventional channels. One of the subdivisions of that catalog is Radical Jewish Culture which includes music from more than two dozen contemporary Jewish artists.

The music was an eclectic collection. For each artist there were one or two Real Audio clips. I spent a good part of the day saying, I'll listen to just one more, what will 1 minute and twenty seconds cost me?" Some of the music is quite accessible, some challenging, some magnificent, some....indescribable. With one exception, each set introduced me to music I had never heard before. The music was in many styles. Jazz, modern Klezmer, classical... styles I couldn't begin to describe. Some even had to do with Jewish mysticism, which is where this journey started. The only thing I didn't understand was the inclusion of a large collection of Burt Bacharach songs. I am just not sure what Liberty Valance has to do with Judaism.

This was an adventure. A happenstance association led me to new discovery. This is what the Web has always been about for me. This is what led me to Weblogs in the first place. In the midst of all the e-commerce and commercialism, I needed ways to find what I wasn't looking for.

Let me repeat that. I needed ways to find what I wasn't looking for. The Web is great at finding what you ARE looking for. Once I got the idea that Dan's image reminded me of the Sefirot, it only took a few seconds to type in a few key words in the Google search engine. And Voila! I had found the images I wanted to share with him.

That is useful. And search engines have come a long way. Back when I started on the Internet, we had to use tools like, gopher, veronica and archie to search things out. A pioneering series popularizing the Internet appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1995, Finding Poetry in the Net, discussed the tools available back then in detail. We have come a long way since then.

But efficiency is not what addicted me to the Internet. As Dan wrote, in a response to a note from me: "The interconnected amazement never ceases." Interconnection and the unexpected. Those are the amazing strengths of this medium.

By the way, Lindsay's, dyspeptic remark has it's own answer. The latest edition of Bifurcated Rivets is full of new finds and amazing recommendations.

Kabbalah is a fascinating subject. Jewish tradition insists that before it is safe to study Kabbalah, one must be thoroughly familiar with the Torah and the Talmudand, to over simplify, all the commentaries on the commentaries. (If I remember right, one is also not to begin study of Kabbalah until one is at least 40 years old.) In addition, there are many sites on the Web which lead to a kind of new age mystical interpretation or use of Kabbalah as a shortcut to some kind of mystical union or meditative state. That is not the intended purpose of Kabbalah. So it is with some trepidation that I point you to an interesting introduction to concepts of Kabbalah: the Lone Star Kabbalah page. It is certainly a popularization and a simplification, and as such, contradicts the tradition by its very accessibility and existence. Nevertheless, it is a glimpse. Contemporary computer generated images of the Tree of the Sefirot can be found there as well. Caution: the author claims he uses them for meditation, himself.

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What's a library? updated.

In 1995, Andy Lester posted the following fantasy in a Usenet article:

Grandpa Andy, tell me about life before the Infobahn!

Well, it was pretty rough. We used to have these things called 'newspapers', and they were like newsgroups, except that they were printed on paper! And we had books. They were like big FAQs, but also on paper. And there were these library things, where they collected these books and newspapers.....

Kind of like a big FTP site?

Yes, Johnny, kind of like a big FTP site.

Quoted in Life Before the InfoBahn.

Of course, one day, FTP sites may go the way of gopher and veronica as sources of information. The Washington Post recently suggested that the Usenet itself may soon become history. But what reminded me of the Andy's hypothetical anecdote was something else.

In one of my many hats, I teach Advanced Drafting and Legal Research in Labor Law to third year students at IIT/Chicago Kent College of Law. Three years ago, I was amazed to discover that my students were quite unfamiliar with the Web. After the Westlaw and Lexis training sessions, I devoted an extra session to just learning how to browse. Today that is no longer necessary. Indeed, this year's students are aware of sources I had not discovered on my own, like And, unhampered by a decade of bad habits, they make much more efficient use of their time on the Web than I do.

But over the years, I have sensed that students, like the rest of us, are becoming too reliant on the Internet. I detected the same thing in my daughter's study habits over the years. There is the feeling that any paper can be put off until the last moment. All you have to do is sit down at 10:00 at night and type a few words into a search engine. And voila! Instant research. No need to move from your room, no need to fiddle with dusty volumes.

For law students with free access to Lexis and Westlaw, the temptation to stay glued to the computer is overwhelming. Especially for busy night students with demanding full time day jobs and families as well. I remember. I did it that way -- except there were no computers back then.

But there are things that can't be learned on line. You can't browse in the traditional sense. You can't serendipitously discover related material that isn't within your search terms. I could go on. Once the free accounts expire, the ones the commercial services kindly provide to law students to get them hooked, the cost can be prohibitive. In the private sector, the lawyer is billed by the search. An hour or two on line can cost hundreds of dollars. If the cost can't be passed on to the client . . . Need I say more?

So I began this semester with a new introduction.

I gave a little personal history. "I have been practicing law for over 20 years," I said.
"But before that, I taught Junior High for ten years." "So," I announced, "Tonight we are taking a field trip."

I looked at their amazed eyes in amusement. "Yes," I said. "We are going somewhere some of you may not have been in years. Somewhere dark and dusty. Where you can explore unseen treasures. We are going to the . . . library."

Now, the library at Kent is one of the best. Well lighted, clean, comfortable, and a major repository of legal material, it is not really dark and dusty. Still, most of the students admitted they rarely used the library, except, perhaps, for the computer labs and online materials. One student admitted he hadn't been to the library in two years. In my class, students will have to use paper materials to complete some of their assignments. So we went as a group. I pointed out the loose leaf services with their useful indices and finding lists. We actually touched the volumes of statutes, and the tissue paper thin update pamphlets and volumes. In paper, one can see the context and relationship of the parts. We visited the Federal Register section. Hundreds of pages, published every business day of the year. A searchable Federal Register is available free online. But when searching online one cannot get a hint of the vast quantities of material published every day. And then we took a peek at the legislative history, the Congressional Record and related materials. These materials are very hard to search on line. And they are essential to thorough research.

Much of this material is now on line. But there is a utility as well as a pleasure in handling the text. In reading. In actually taking notes instead of cutting and pasting. I believe there is a kinetic connection between mind and source in the writing process. (Indeed, I resent what seems to be a drastic reduction in my attention span, in my ability to read anything that does not have strong narrative pull since I have become a modemjunkie - - but that is a topic for another day.)

So we paraded like Miss Peach and her charges, sans umbrella, to and through the library. I think it was a useful exercise. If nothing else, it was a little exercise. A few moments not sitting. And that has to be healthy.

Yes, Grandpa Andy. Its five years later. And there still are libraries. And at least some of today's students have seen them. I guaaaarooonteeee!

By the way, tonight my students completed a hands on paper assignment in the library. It took them more than an hour. One of them then reported he tried the same project online. It only took him eight minutes. As things online get faster and better, the traditional tools will be even harder to sell.

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Trust or Consequences -- The Aftermath

"Webloggers gamble their reputation with every link they offer."
-- Jorn Barger January 13, 2000.

Last month's article, Trust or Consequences, was a drag. Literally. It dragged me down. It is clear I was angry before I began to write. Sometimes writing is a way of purging tension. This time it merely served to increase the upset. I like the persona who usually appears on these pages. A bit of Everyman battling hype and ballyhoo. Celebrating computers and the Internet, but trying to put it all some kind of perspective. But last month's article needed to be written. Not to expurgate my demons but to air necessary and continuing issues.

The response was interesting. A number of well known Weblog authors linked to my essay. Many offered their comments. While my essay was triggered by an antisemitic article written by Israel Shahak and posted by a recognized neo-Nazi, very few responses dealt with the actual content of that article. Instead, most focused on the responsibility of the Weblog author and the nature of the Weblog.

Dan Bricklin, cocreator of VisiCalc linked to the article in his weblog. He found that my essay raised another issue:

When writing for the web there are many levels of research you can do. Doing the research takes time -- often lots of time. If it takes too much time, you can't keep up the pace of posting. Understanding this cost is important. This isn't much different than with normal journalism, but still needs to be said for this more "private" type of communication.

Bricklin gave examples and invited comments. He later collected some of the comments at and made them available in a special archive.

Lynn Millett, who writes the Medley Weblog picked up on the subject in her January 12 blog and linked to my piece, saying.

Dan Bricklin points to this thought-provoking reflection on weblogging [My essay. LAG] and what the journalistic responsibility of weblog writers is. Seems that the author of the piece was disturbed by some inflammatory (and to his mind at least somewhat inaccurate) information he read in Robot Wisdom. It's a question that's been asked before. How much of a responsibility do webpage editors (whether it be weblogs, journals, rants, opinion pieces, whatever) have to be accurate and fair? How much work should they (we) put in to do so? This is a highly loaded question with lots of issues associated with it. I don't have any good answers, but will jot down what I try to do.

Her detailed and thoughtful discussion is archived and is still available online.

Lynn went one step further, however. She created an online discussion forum for the subject. This discussion led to some interesting issues.

The discussion revealed a certain sense of self importance among some webloggers. Dan Lyke, who edits the Flutterby Weblog, wrote that he believed that Webloggers had a much higher standard of ethics than the mainstream media. On the other hand, in a later note he wrote, "Isn't "journalistic ethics" an oxymoron anyway? I mean, why would anyone apply a higher standard of truth to Jorn than, say, the New York Times?" I doubt that I have suggested any such thing.

He also declined to comment substantively on my article, since I have already had my "15 minutes." How kind of him. Since I have been writing and posting commentary on line in one form or another since 1990, I guess I had better pack it up.

Another writer suggested the heart of what weblogs are really all about is subversion of the fourth estate. David Chess had a less lofty view:

I don't expect or require that bloggers giving links also give suggestions as to how seriously the material at the other end should be taken; I can judge that for myself, and I don't consider or expect the bloggers to be expert judges to whom I should defer. We're all just trading "here's something that might be worth a look" pointers. That's what we do....

David Chess has his own Weblog but reserved his comments for Medley's discussion group.

Amanda Holland-Minkley picked up on the same perspective in her article for January 17 in her Screenshot Weblog.

I don't agree at all that I have a responsibility to verify the accuracy of the things that I point to. I think that it's very clear that the things I write are just my reactions to what I read. I'm not claiming to have found the Truth.

I really see weblogging as more like journaling than journalism; the "reading in public" quote is quite applicable here. I assume that all a link in a weblog means is that the writer found something in the linked-to article/site that interested them on some level, or made them think even a bit. They are sharing that with me, and perhaps some commentary on what it was about the link that grabbed them.

I believe that approach can lead to an abandonment of responsibility and loss of respect. While it may be accurate with regard to some links and on some blogs, it ignores the context of the original link which, appeared to me to assume the accuracy of the linked material and pullquoted the most lurid language, ignoring the clearly tainted source of the article and the incendiary nature of the material, as well. Why does that remind me that we no longer give unwrapped candy or fresh fruit to trick or treaters?

At the very least, Amanda's approach is honest. She does not hold forth the lofty view that some bloggers have that they are a needed alternative to the mainstream media.

Pith and Vinegar echoed the same viewpoint, stating, on January 12, "I think many weblogs don't claim to be authoritative sources on subjects (just one person's point of view), but as with all things on the 'Net, they should be taken with a grain of salt."

A number of other Weblogs linked to my article, including some without substantive comment, such as Apathy and Camworld. I believe the discussion which has been generated has been worth while.

Although the article focused on a link and related pullquotes posted by Jorn Barger on his weblog and I invited his response, he did not choose to respond to me. Instead he responded on the message board created by Medley. Indeed, his was the first response. He did not answer the question posed by Medley. Instead, he wrote:

Webloggers gamble their reputation with every link they offer. If they link to a page that consists entirely of character-assassination, they lose my respect. (Grossman's page is entirely character assassination.)

Certainly, I agree with the first sentence. Indeed it is the sad subtext of my essay itself. Webloggers do gamble their reputation with every link they offer. I have tremendous respect for Mr. Barger's work. But he gambled his reputation with that link and his failure to acknowledge questions about it. I think -- I hope -- that is what comes through in the article.

The second sentence of Mr. Barger's response, and the parenthetical which follows are troubling. It is sad that Mr. Barger saw my piece as a personal attack -- as character assassination -- although, I can understand why. Still, I did not ascribe to him the qualities I ascribe to the original poster of the Shahak piece. Indeed, I deleted over 12 single spaced pages from the first draft of my essay. I tried, apparently unsuccessfully, from his point of view, to eliminate any unfair inferences I may have raised in my original outraged response to his comments and the link he posted.

Oddly, Mr. Barger's post is in its own way character assassination itself. The implication is that he lost respect for those who linked to my article. About half a dozen webloggers linked to my article. Many among the most respected in the Weblog community. They may not have agreed with my premise. But at least some of them saw an issue for consideration. (I also note that Mr. Barger linked again to a number of their pages in the days that followed, although he still does not respond to mail from me).

Maybe I have had too lofty a view of the weblogging community. However, there was one other comment worth noting. Dan Hartung in his Lake Effect Weblog for January 12, wrote:

ModemJunkie writes brilliantly of Trust or Consequences. In this era of Big-Deal media convergence, it's tempting to assume that webloggers can provide an independent voice. Leonard argues convincingly that we still need to question carefully what we read. The weblogging community is a quiet, conversational inglenook of the net. Other corners of the net contain extremely questionable journalism, and their members implicitly trust each other. One year ago, as these corners argued about why "the truth" was not being presented on traditional media, the worry I had was of media fragmentation, where no one outlet had the authority and goodwill that American journalism once seemed to automatically accrue. We've still got work to do.

Perhaps Dan has it right. Clearly, many of the Bloggers refuse to accept responsibility, whether as a matter of principle or simply by habit. Or perhaps, as Dan Bricklin suggests, careful checking may be beyond the nature of the beast. So my essay becomes a cautionary tale. The reader must always be on guard. If not careful, perhaps the Weblog community will lose the goodwill that it had been building.

Don't accept candy from strangers.

By the way, none of the commentators answered a question I thought I had posed, or at least implied, in my essay: What should an author who publishes on the web do when a reader points out a problem with content on page or with a link to which it points? Assuming the author has the ability to do so, does the author have any obligation to respond in any way - publicly or privately?

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Copyright 2000 Leonard Grossman

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My essays regularly appear in slightly different form in WindoWatch Magazine which contains a wealth of fascinating information.

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Revised 02/13/2000

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Notes and additional sources:

Bifurcated Rivets
Rivets Archive

Dan Bricklin's Log
Bricklin's Discussion of ModemJunkie Article .
Bricklin's Collected Reactions to his Discussion of ModemJunkie Article.

Medley Weblog (Discussion of ModemJunkie Article)
Medley Discussion Board


David Chess

Screenshot (Discussion of ModemJunkie Article)

Pith and Vinegar (Discussion of ModemJunkie Article)


Lake Effect Weblog (Discussion of ModemJunkie Article)

Search engine:


Kabbalah and related materials:

Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection.
Treasures from the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica .
Lone Star Kabbalah
Talmud Sources

John Zorn's Tzadik
Radical Jewish Culture

Finding Poetry in the Net

Life Before the InfoBahn
Trust or Consequences

Washington Post essay on the Usenet


Federal Register

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