Fight the Time Sink

[Ed. note: author must OK any changes, call AlterNet for more information: 415-284-1425.]Early on in my relationship with the Internet, when I had a 2400-baud shell account and spent hours downloading recipes for Greek egg-and-lemon soup from, I became acquainted with this phrase: time sink. It describes - pretty accurately, I think -- the kind of activity you can spend a long time doing without getting bored, even though, in the end, you get almost nothing out of it. Poking around in FTP directories back then was a time sink; telnetting into various role-playing games, MUDs and MOOs and the like, was the ultimate time sink. Then there was that #jeopardy Internet Relay Chat channel, where I'd compete with procrastinating college students and overpaid programmers, formulating questions for the alexbot.Not every time sink is so utterly without merit: setting up the first beta version of Mosaic in the winter of 1993 sunk the good part of a week, but at least I learned some new words from the experience. You'd think that as things got easier, time sinks would be fewer, but as several philosophers have pointed out, the opposite is true: time sinks become ever more prevalent and insidious as machines get more user-friendly. The entire World Wide Web, in fact, is an enormous waste of time, if only because the medium deceives you into believing that it's an efficient route to information. (It isn't.)All of this brings me to the theme behind my 1997 New Year's resolutions: fight the time sink. That doesn't mean that I'll spend less time with the machine, only that I'll make that time more productive. Toward that end, I've devised several goals and strategies to streamline my interaction with technology, and to make sure that I still have time to read a physical book, do my real-world laundry and get beneath the surface culture of the Internet in pursuit of true understanding.Resolution No. 1: Surf less, hack more.Surfing I interpret to be passive and not always instructive, and while it's not necessarily a wasteful activity -- some of the most valuable information I've gleaned from the Web I've stumbled upon by accident -- I'm of the opinion that we 12 million U.S. Internet users spend far too much time surfing ourselves into mind-numbing, time-sinking oblivion. The next time I see an alluring blue line on a Web page, I promise to ask before I click: Will I learn something? Do I need this information? Do I really need to go there?Hacking, on the other hand, means tracking with relentless persistence those sources of information that will refine your thinking and enhance your sense of control over technology. With that in mind, I submit:Resolution No. 2: Learn Java.An object-oriented programming language, Java isn't so difficult that you have to be a mathematician to understand it, but the process of learning how to manipulate it, or any programming language, is a lesson in the logic of software. And since Java-based applets can turn a bland Web page into a virtual treasure trove, this triumph leads directly to:Resolution No. 3: Build a better home page.I'd have to call the time I spent on my last one a time sink. I hadn't yet learned how to make a transparent GIF, much less an animated one, and Netscape, the browser of the moment, couldn't yet handle JPEG images without help from an external application. All those pictures of my dogs and links to my favorite sites, not to mention the entire HTML-based design, became so quickly outdated that I took my page down in shame. In those lazy months following the holidays, I'll start from scratch. And while I can't jettison the photo of that stray pit bull that followed me home last year, I'll at least teach him how to blink.Resolution No. 4: Never spend more than $1,000 on another computer.I don't have much trouble with this one, but I offer it anyway as a resolution renewal to myself (lately I've been feeling the pull of temptation) and advice to others. It does take a little persistence. It means resisting the urge to visit the Good Guys in the middle of the night with the intent of charging a new laptop; it means finding the courage and patience to install some components -- more memory, a bigger hard drive -- at home. Few people I know need anything better than a 486DX with 16 megs of memory, and if you can't find one cheap at your local independently owned computer store, you can certainly score something at the Ham Radio Swapmeet, the last Saturday of each month on Aviation Boulevard in El Segundo.Resolution No. 5: Install a better operating system.I'm writing this particular column on a 486 running Windows 95, and considering all the nasty digs I make at Microsoft in this space, I oughta be making a better effort to live by my principles. My alternative of choice is Linux, a true 32-bit, multitasking system, free for the downloading from, complete with documentation. Before I can reconfigure this computer as a Linux box, however, there's a "how-to" on networking I need to study, and TCP/IP applications to install, and a new word processing app I'd like to try. Another time sink? Only if I can't make it work.

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