A couple weeks ago, I wrote here about free education on the Internet. I blathered on about services like Adobe TV, ESRI Video and particularly iTunes University, where you can find thousands of lectures and class resources from some of the best schools on earth. For free. But there’s so much of this stuff online that I could only scratch the surface in a single blog. One of my readers (OK, my wife) suggested I blog about another educational resource on iTunes: podcasts. While most of these aren’t, strictly speaking, classes – you’re not going to learn MySQL, for example, in a podcast – many are full of fascinating information. Maybe the best feature of iTunes podcast section is a curated collection called iTunes Essentials, which can be found under Quicklinks in the right-hand navigation column of iTunes. I made the mistake of going there this morning to prime myself with details for this blog.
As a result, this blog isn’t really about iTunes or podcasts or free educational services on the Web. It’s about the distinctive mental illness of modern times: the Internet Hole. You know how it works. You go online looking for some specific fact, or at least for more detailed information on a particular subject, but in the end you find you’ve fallen down the well of “everything there is to know about everything in the world.” And, let’s face it, that’s a hell of a lot more interesting than whatever was on your to-do list for the day. Good thing, too. Because there’s no escape.
This morning, I went browsing on iTunes Essentials Podcasts for a few more examples of how easy it is to learn on the Web. I immediately fell down the Internet Hole: I found a button labeled “Music Lessons,” and even though I know nothing about music, I clicked it and fell under the gravitational influence of Peter Martin. His podcast series called “2-Minute Jazz Piano” seemed simple enough. But after listening to “Bass Line Independence,” his hypnotic demonstration on how left-hand rhythms integrate with right-hand melodies, I knew my day was shot. I quickly fell prey to “Broken 3rd Scale Practice,” “Diminished/Pentatonic Practice Pattern” and, especially, “Velocity.” None of these were really meant for a musical rube like me; they were really intended to serve as practice coaching for young jazz virtuosos (virtuosi?). But the sheer technical bravado of Mr. Martin reminded me how part of what we love about great musicians is the fact that they make something that’s very hard look easy. But, even though his podcasts are only two minutes apiece, it’s still 30 minutes to get through all 15 of them.
And that’s just a single selection under the “Music Lessons” button. For dilettantes like myself, heaven help you if you click the “How-To” or “Crafters” buttons, which lead to the wormholes of Lifehacker and Etsy podcasts. You’ll never stop until you know how to do or make everything.
Of course, “iTunes Essentials Podcasts” is just a narrow symptom; the disease is metastatic. Yesterday, I was poking around on EDGAR, the SEC’s online repository of the financial filings for public companies, when I came across a new (to me) software language: XBRL. Of course, that took me to Wikipedia, the deepest hole of all. There, I learned that XBRL and its relatives are what allow services like EDGAR to quickly collate, organize and distribute huge amounts of data. (EDGAR, after all, is short for “electronic data gathering, analysis and retreival.) I was also reminded of the affinity between high math and program development. Granted, I know even less about math and software languages than I do about music, but the trip from EDGAR to OLAP turned out to be an irresistable trove of trivia. Partly, it’s the lexicon. Like many writers, I’m drawn to jargon – words with precise meanings, but used only by a small group of aficionados. EDGAR led me to gems like “tuple,” “arity” and “variadic.” I doubt I’ll ever use any of them in a sentence, but just reading them on the screen makes me feel like I belong to a snooty club.
And yet, it’s really just a waste of time. Despite a day trolling Wikipedia for whatever passes for knowledge there, I don’t really know anymore about XBRL or MultiDimensional eXpressions than I did the day before. (Although I do admire the innovative use of capitalization – take that iTunes.) Similarly, although Peter Martin can clearly play his scales really fast, I’m still tune deaf and completely without rhythm. All I really gained from two days in the Internet Hole was a few esoteric words and sense of the interconnectedness of things. On the other hand, that’s all a dilettante really needs.