Column: This Week's Web Picks: Life's lengths; creative sadness; the screen as teacher; the web as personal footprint
This is self-indulgence. It's my nominee for one of the greatest full-length movies ever made - primarily because during its full length of about 52 seconds, it perfectly communicates its message.
This infamous, award-winning ad for Microsoft's XBox, created 10 years ago by a British ad agency, was banned in England, and either withdrawn or simply never used in the USA. It quickly became viral, chiefly, I believe, because of its powerful, high quality, ingenious filmmaking. Some say it wasn't used because it contained a few fleeting images of that ever-embarrassing object, the human body. But the real reason has to be because its message was so devastatingly presented: life is fast, furious, one-directional and final. Life is short. That truth can be shocking when it's made to seem unavoidable. We've all heard this since we've been children, and we all try hard never to believe it. Most movies do their best to distract us from it. Few ads, movies, or images have ever rubbed it in quite this quickly and this hard. I try looking at it as a work of art. Its history makes interesting reading.
There are many days when I'm plagued by a sense of sonder. That is, when I'm not suffering from Zielschmerz. These are among the many strange words John Koenig has coined, in the understandable absence of conventional dictionary fare, to describe the wayward, complicated, personal and confusing states of mind we all experience when trying to make sense of the world, or when confronting our heartrending failures to do so. To add to the fun, the page's Facebook and Twitter presence and RSS feeds allow Koenig - and us - to track everyone who re-posts his words and to link to them, if so inclined. This opens up to us the larger world of happily verbal, emotional, creative misfits who depend on their ability to articulate the indescribable and cover it with attractively odd shapes, symbols, and phrases that look vaguely meaningful. Adomania. Nementia. Swish fulfillment! Do we really need more blather? We do, if the world isn't doomed to a state of hiybbprqag.
Forget about the debates arguing public schooling vs. private schooling vs. charter schooling vs. home schooling. There is also self-schooling - aka, learning on your own. In your own way, at your own speed, at your convenience, with no distractions, dumbing down, or needless repetition of what you already know. Do you need An Introduction to Gravity? Would you like to have Hank Paulson's Bailout explained to you (in 15 sort-of easy lessons)? Salman Kahn will show you. In fact, Salman Kahn plans to revolutionize education. Online, of course, using YouTube, no less. And don't underestimate his ambition: in less than four years Kahn has gained the support of Google and Microsoft (you can read more about him in the July 9 issue of Time.) His YouTube channel offers hundreds of short videos - usually 6 to 15 minutes long - on dozens of topics in science, history, math, economics, and even art. More disciplines are coming. The videos aren't cinematic marvels. Most are colorfully animated blackboard presentations accompanied by a friendly, male voice (often Kahn's) that explains subjects clearly, casually and logically. Most lessons are aimed at the high school level, but quite a few are pitched to more sophisticated ears. So, if you need to learn, or need a refresher in, The Law of Cosines, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, or The Periodic Table (see below), just take your tablet under the covers, after curfew, and dial up the lesson you slept through in class. Parents take notice: there are no taxes on this kind of education! Yet.
There's no reason you should know who Jennifer Boyer is. I don't. I know her only as the person who created her website, The Simian Line. I know that she's an editor and that she was born with a Simian line in her palm, as well as anosmia, and "a severe case of craniosynostosis," though you won't know it from her picture. The point of showing you her website is that it's one example - of many - of a person making an interesting website out of themselves. The tricky part for me, of course, is that you, the viewer, have to be willing to take an interest. There's no reason you should. You'd need to agree that individual lives and identities are as randomly meaningful - or as useful, important, inspiring, informative, even as dazzling - as Issues, Facts, The Arts, Celebrity, Weather, Sales, Food, Sex, Pride and Politics. A few of those matters are features on Boyer's page. But most of what's there are simply projections of her personal concerns and interests presented accessibly for anyone who manages to find her site. Her links page is like anyone's who likes to show off favorites, and contains all kinds of unlikely, quirky references. Her guestbook allows viewers to say hi and to share their reactions, thoughts and distances. There are thousands of people like Jennifer out there who simply enjoy creating a web presence out of their unique energies, just as others do so in books, movies, poems and songs. Dan Traister is another. Who's to say it's not one of the web's greatest gifts? Where are these websites? I wish there were a place that gathered them together.
Paul Wiener of Ann Arbor was a librarian for 32 years at Stony Brook University, in Long Island, N.Y., where he managed the English Literature, Art and Film Collections and taught internet research. He may be reached at email@example.com.