Archive for December, 2008

I received an email today from Starhawk, born a Jew in the US and long-term peace activist who many times has been to Palestine to support the people there against constant Israeli state terror. In this mail she reflects not only on the homeland myth she was raised with but also on the need for Israel to atone rather then to continue to practice mass-murder, ethnic cleansing and contempt for another people. It’s a passionate piece written with honesty and compassion. (And follow one of the practical actions suggested at the end of the mail!)

[images inserted by me]


Dear friends,

All day I’ve been thinking about Gaza, listening to reports on NPR, following the news on the internet when I can spare a moment.  I’ve been thinking about the friends I made there four years ago, and wondering how they are faring, and imagining their terror as the bombs fall on that giant, open-air prison.

The Israeli ambassador speaks movingly of the terror felt by Israeli children as Hamas rockets explode in the night.  I agree with him—that no child should have her sleep menaced by rocket fire, or wake in the night fearing death.

But I can’t help but remember one night on the Rafah border, sleeping in a house close to the line, watching the children dive for cover as bullets thudded into the walls. There was a shell-hole in the back room they liked to jump through into the garden, which at that time still held fruit trees and chickens.  Their mother fed me eggs, and their grandmother stuffed oranges into my pockets with the shy pride every gardener shares.

That house is gone, now, along with all of its neighbors.  Those children wake in the night, every night of their lives, in terror.  I don’t know if they have survived the hunger, the lack of medical supplies, the bombs.  I only know that they are children, too.

I’ve ridden on busses in Israel.  I understand that gnawing fear, the squirrely feeling in the pit or your stomach, how you eye your fellow passengers wondering if any of them are too thick around the middle. Could that portly fellow be wearing a suicide belt, or just too many late night snacks of hummus?  That’s no way to live.

But I’ve also walked the pock-marked streets of Rafah, where every house bears the scars of Israeli snipers, where tanks prowled the border every night, where children played in the rubble, sometimes under fire, and this was all four years ago, when things were much, much better there.


And I just don’t get it.  I mean, I get why suicide bombs and homemade rockets that kill innocent civilians are wrong. I just don’t get why bombs from F16s that kill far more innocent civilians are right.  Why a kid from the ghetto who shoots a cop is a criminal, but a pilot who bombs a police station from the air is a hero.

Is it a distance thing?  Does the air or the altitude confer a purifying effect?  Or is it a matter of scale?  Individual murder is vile, but mass murder, carried out by a state as an aspect of national policy, that’s a fine and noble thing?

I don’t get how my own people can be doing this.  Or rather, I do get it.  I am a Jew, by birth and upbringing, born six years after the Holocaust ended, raised on the myth and hope of Israel.  The myth goes like this:

“For two thousand years we wandered in exile, homeless and persecuted, nearly destroyed utterly by the Nazis.  But out of that suffering was born one good thing—the homeland that we have come back to, our own land at last, where we can be safe, and proud, and strong.”

That’s a powerful story, a moving story.  There’s only one problem with it—it leaves the Palestinians out.  It has to leave them out, for if we were to admit that the homeland belonged to another people, well, that spoils the story.

The result is a kind of psychic blind spot where the Palestinians are concerned.  If you are truly invested in Israel as the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, then you can’t let the Palestinians be real to you.  It’s like you can’t really focus on them.  Golda Meir said, “The Palestinians, who are they?  They don’t exist.”  We hear, “There is no partner for peace,”  “There is no one to talk to.”

PALESTINIANS-ISRAEL/VIOLENCEAnd so Israel, a modern state with high standards of hygiene, a state rooted in a religion that requires washing your hands before you eat and regular, ritual baths, builds settlements that don’t bother to construct sewage treatment plants. They just dump raw sewage onto the Palestinian fields across the fence, somewhat like a spaceship ejecting its wastes into the void.  I am truly not making this up—I’ve seen it, smelled it, and it’s a known though shameful fact.  But if the Palestinians aren’t really real—who are they?  They don’t exist!—then the land they inhabit becomes a kind of void in the psyche, and it isn’t really real, either.  At times, in those border villages, walking the fencelines of settlements, you feel like you have slipped into a science fiction movie, where parallel universes exist in the same space, but in different strands of reality, that never touch.

When I was on the West Bank, during Israeli incursions the Israeli military would often take over a Palestinian house to billet their soldiers.  Many times, they would simply lock the family who owned it into one room, and keep them there, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days—parents, grandparents, kids and all.  I’ve sat with a family, singing to the children while soldiers trashed their house, and I’ve been detained by a group of soldiers playing cards in the kitchen with a family locked in the other room.  (I got out of that one—but that’s another story.)

It’s a kind of uneasy feeling, having something locked away in a room in your house that you can’t look at.  Ever caught a mouse in a glue trap?  And you can’t bear to watch it suffer, so you leave the room and close the door and don’t come back until it’s really, really dead.

Like a horrific fractal, the locked room repeats on different scales.  The Israelis have built a wall to lock away the West Bank.  And Gaza itself is one huge, locked room.  Close the borders, keep food and medical supplies and necessities from getting through, and perhaps they will just quietly fade out of existence and stop spoiling our story.

“All we want is a return to calm,” the Israeli ambassador says.  “All we want is peace.”

One way to get peace is to exterminate what threatens you.  In fact, that may be the prime directive of the last few thousand years.

But attempts to exterminate pests breed resistance, whether you’re dealing with insects or bacteria or people.  The more insecticides you pour on a field, the more pests you have to deal with—because insecticides are always more potent at killing the beneficial bugs than the pesky ones.

The harshness, the crackdowns, the border closings, the checkpoints, the assassinations, the incursions, the building of settlements deep into Palestinian territory, all the daily frustrations and humiliations of occupation, have been breeding the conditions for Hamas, or something like it, to thrive.  If Israel truly wants peace, there’s a more subtle, a more intelligent and more effective strategy to pursue than simply trying to kill the enemy and anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity.

It’s this—instead of killing what threatens you, feed what you want to grow.  Consider in what conditions peace can thrive, and create them, just as you would prepare the bed for the crops you want to plant. Find those among your opponents who also want peace, and support them.  Make alliances.  Offer your enemies incentives to change, and reward your friends.

Of course, to follow such a strategy, you must actually see and know your enemy.  If they are nothing to you but cartoon characters of terrorists, you will not be able to tell one from another, to discern the religious fanatic from the guy muttering under his breath, “F-ing Hammas, they closed the cinema again!”


And you must be willing to give something up.  No one gets peace if your basic bargaining position is, “I get everything I want, and you eat my shit.”  You might get a temporary victory, but it will never be a peaceful one.

To know and see the enemy, you must let them into the story.  They must become real to you, nuanced, distinctive as individuals.

But when we let the Palestinians into the story, it changes.  Oh, how painfully it changes!  For there is no way to tell a new story, one that includes both peoples of the land, without starting like this:

“In our yearning for a homeland, in our attempts as a threatened and traumatized people to find safety and power, we have done a great wrong to another people, and now we must atone.”

Just try saying it. If you, like me, were raised on that other story, just try this one out.  Say it three times.  It hurts, yes, but it might also bring a great, liberating sense of relief with it.

And if you’re not Jewish, if you’re American, if you’re white, if you’re German, if you’re a thousand other things, really, if you’re a human being, there’s probably some version of that story that is true for you.

Out of our own great need and fear and pain, we have often done great harm, and we are called to atone.  To atone is to be at one—to stop drawing a circle that includes our tribe and excludes the other, and start drawing a larger circle that takes everyone in.

How do we atone? Open your eyes.  Look into the face of the enemy, and see a human being, flawed, distinct, unique and precious.  Stop killing.  Start talking. Compost the shit and the rot and feed the olive trees.

Act.  Cross the line.  There are Israelis who do it all the time, joining with Palestinians on the West Bank to protest the wall, watching at checkpoints, refusing to serve in the occupying army, standing for peace.  Thousands have demonstrated this week in Tel Aviv.

There are Palestinians who advocate nonviolent resistance, who have organized their villages to protest the wall, who face tear gas, beatings, arrests, rubber bullets and real bullets to make their stand.

There are internationals who have put themselves on the line—like the boatload of human rights activists, journalists and doctors on board the Dignity, the ship from the Free Gaza movement that was rammed and fired on by the Israeli navy yesterday as it attempted to reach Gaza with humanitarian aid.

Maybe we can’t all do that. But we can all write a letter, make a phone call, send an email. We can make the Palestinian people visible to us, and to the world.  When we do so, we make a world that is safer for every child.

Below is a good summary of some of the actions we can take.

Please feel free to repost this. In fact, send it to someone you think will disagree with it.


Updated Action Alert on Gaza:
We Need “Sustained, Determined Political Action”
December 29, 2008

As of this writing, a third consecutive day of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip have killed an estimated 315 Palestinians and injured more than 1,400.  According to the UN, at least 51 of the victims were civilians and 8 were children.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has vowed ominously “a war to the bitter end.”

Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip are being carried out with F16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and naval gunboats all given to Israel by the United States with our tax dollars.

From 2001-2006, the United States transferred to Israel more than $200 million worth of spare parts to fly its fleet of F16’s and more than $100 million worth of helicopter spare parts for its fleet of Apaches. In July 2008, the United States gave Israel 186 million gallons of JP-8 aviation jet fuel and signed a contract to transfer an addition $1.9 billion worth of littoral combat ships to the Israeli navy. Last year, the United States signed a $1.3 billion contract with Raytheon to transfer to Israel thousands of TOW, Hellfire, and “bunker buster” missiles.

Make no mistake about it-Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip would not be possible without the jets, helicopters, ships, missiles, and fuel provided by the United States.


Ali Abunimah, of The Electronic Intifada, wrote, “Palestinians everywhere are asking for solidarity, real solidarity, in the form of sustained, determined political action.”  In light of our country’s enabling role in Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, it is the least we can do.  Here’s how:

1. Attend a protest or vigil. We’ve compiled a list of more than 60 emergency protests taking place in 25 states and the District of Columbia, many of which are taking place today or tomorrow. Find one near you and bring as many people to it as you can. If you know of a protest that isn’t listed on our website, please send us all the logistical details and contact information by clicking here. More events are being posted all the time-check back frequently for the latest updates.  

2. Contact the White House, the State Department, your Representative and Senators, and the Obama Transition Team to protest Israel’s war on Gaza and demand an immediate cease-fire.

3. Make your voice heard in the media. Contact your local media by phoning into a talk show or writing a letter to the editor. To find contact info for your local media, click here.

4. Tell President-Elect Barack Obama that ” We Need a Change in Israel/Palestine Policy. Join more than 200 organizations in 38 states plus Washington, DC and abroad and thousands of individuals by endorsing this letter which will be published as a full-page ad on Inauguration Day.  Let all your friends know by copying and pasting the graphic below into your email signature, blog, or website and by joining our Facebook group.

5. Sign up to organize people in your community to end U.S. military aid to Israel. We’ll send you an organizing packet complete with our brand new postcards featuring the icon below. If we’re going to change U.S. policy, we’ve got to go beyond agreeing among ourselves and educate and organize others as well. Sign up today and we’ll send you a package tomorrow by clicking here.

6. Join us in Washington, DC for Inauguration Day on January 20. Upwards of 4 million people are expected in Washington, DC for President-Elect Obama’s inauguration. This is a perfect time for us to reach out to and educate our fellow citizens about U.S. policy toward Palestine/Israel. If you plan to be in Washington for the inauguration and would like to help us distribute information and get signatures on postcards calling for a cut off of arms transfers to Israel, please click here.

7. Join us again in Washington, DC for a Grassroots Advocacy Training and Lobby Day on February 1-2. Interfaith Peace-Builders and the US Campaign are organizing this exciting two-day event, featuring interactive, skills-building workshops and the chance to meet with your Representative and Senators to discuss U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine. Spaces are filling up fast. For more details, and to register, please click here.

8. Forward this email to everyone you know and ask them to take action.

Thank you for doing all you can during this tragic time. US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation DONATE | SUBSCRIBE


Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Odetta Holmes, simply known as Odetta passed away at the beginning of this month. Like Mama Africa (Miriam Makeba) she was one of the great black women using music to inspire and call on people to fight for Human Rights. What Makeba did against apartheid in South Africa, Odetta did for Civil Rights in America. 

In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed her “The Queen of American folk music” and many Americans remember her performance at the 1963 civil rights movement’s march to Washington where she sang “O Freedom.” When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.” 

With a repertoire that included 19th century slave songs and spirituals as well as the topical ballads of such 20th century folk icons as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Odetta became one of the most beloved figures in folk music. She was said to have influenced the emergence of artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman [BrooklynVegan]. “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” Dylan once said. [Los Angeles Times]

There’s plenty of information on her on Wikipedia and on the net in general;  Democracy Now! made an interesting interview on Odetta with Bernice Johnson Reagon, another legendary Civil Rights activist and original member of the SNCC Freedom Singers and founder of the all-female, African American acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Here are some examples of Odetta’s sometimes chillingly moving and haunting repertoire. Teary stuff.

Malcolm Brown, Sydney Morning Herald
December 30, 2008


THEY’RE sneaky, they’re bitey, and they’re out and about. Funnel web spiders are on their mating prowl more than a month earlier than usual.

Mary Rayner, general manager of the Australian Reptile Park, said that in the past few weeks up to 40 funnel webs had been delivered to the park, which milks their venom for CSL Limited.

“Normally we are down to two or three funnel webs, till February, but now they have come out very early,” Ms Rayner said.

“In November, a two-year-old boy was bitten at Cooranbong [near Lake Macquarie] when a funnel web got into his gumboot. He called out to his mother that there was a stick in his gumboot, but it was a spider.”

The boy, Jack Gaffney, was bitten. His mother, Leonie, called an ambulance and soon after it arrived he began vomiting, convulsing and struggling to breathe.

“It was frightening,” his father, Luke Gaffney, said yesterday. “The ambulance treated him. They also caught the spider. They got Jack to Wyong Hospital, where he got anti-venom, then he was taken by Child Flight to Westmead Hospital, where he went into intensive care.”

Ms Rayner said experts were not sure whether the spiders have been brought out by the ground temperature or by the rain after the drought.

“The males are out looking for a mate,” she said. “They require moisture to travel. They come out at the dead of night, and once the sun comes up they have got to get to cover or they will shrivel up and die in a few minutes.”

Scuttling out of the sunlight, funnel webs go in search of dark spaces such as Jack Gaffney’s gumboot. They can climb into any shoes, dark spaces in or under the house, into the folds of towels and between backyard rockery.

The last time a funnel web killed someone was in early 1980, when a two-year-old boy was bitten. The anti-venom became available that year and there has not been a death since.

But up to 12 people have been bitten each year in Australia since then, and most of those bites could have been fatal if help had not been immediately called.

There are about 40 species of the spider in Australia, but the deadliest are on the east coast, between Toowoomba and the Victorian boarder.

Among the deadliest is the paperbark funnel web, which has a bite so toxic that 17 ampules of anti-venom were required to treat one victim.

The most anti-venom used to treat a victim of the Sydney funnel web is five or six ampules.


Through the Amy Stein | Photography | Blog I came across the Australian photographer Graham Miller, which is not surprising given that both artists seem to share a fascination for suburbia, its people and cultural accessories as well as the sense of “isolation from community, culture and the environment” (Stein) that seems to pervade much of the suburban emotional landscape here and probably in the US.


Miller’s says in an interview with Stein that his work is strongly influenced by short story writer and poet Raymond Carver. Carver’s work reflects the life of the working class, whose characters often experience isolation, marginalisation, sadness and loss as part of everyday existence. The lives of these ordinary people could be aptly described with Henry David Thoreau‘s idea of living lives of “quiet desperation.” 

This is exactly what Miller’s photos capture and express. And like Carver he does it in a way that the former once described as being “inclined toward brevity and intensity”; Stein calls it befittingly “laconic intensity”. When reflecting on Carver’s work and ultimately on his own Miller talks about “… sketching out the bare outlines of a story with telling details and simple dialogue. He lets the reader’s imagination embellish the rest. His stories are lean but powerful, taking fragments from the lives of regular people and putting a magnifying glass on them for a brief period of time. They are stories of loss, broken relationships and struggle, told in a way that pulls at your gut.” And he mentions that Carver’s stories “are often unresolved, leaving you hanging to try and make sense of what has just taken place or what was about to happen”. 


Miller quotes Carver who in turn quotes V.S. Pritchett’s description of the short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing. First the glimpse, the glimpse given life, turned into something that will illuminate the moment and just maybe lock it indelibly into the reader’s consciousness.” Carver goes on saying that he very often just catches a brief glimpse of something and a while later then begins to see this hurried image settling into a scene, a stage that he then populates with characters.


That brings me to a critique apparently levelled at both Miller and Stein: that their images are being staged. What’s wrong with that? We go to see plays or movies; in fact, documentaries are right at the almost imperceptible bottom of public taste. We also read fiction as well as non-fiction, without ever complaining about the former being less valuable than the latter because it’s fantasy. But when it comes to taking photos, we somehow have this illusion of ‘truth’ attached to the actual image. The fact is, there’s never been a single photo in the whole history of photography that stood for truth – and that includes every snap we take and every ‘documentary’ image ever shot. Apart from the artificiality of the discriminatory distinction between photographs and the rest of the world of art objects, the differentiation between photos depicting ‘reality’ and those being staged is complete nonsense – they all are a window into the unique world of the photographer, not into whatever reality might exist out there.


Back to Miller’s actual work: Amy Stein’s interview with him, by which my own thoughts about Miller’s work have been inspired, has a lot more to say about the artist. In it Miller talks his appreciation of the “theatricality and artifice” in  Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s work, makes reference to other photographic artists and filmmakers and about why he agrees with Stein that there is some ‘American’ about his own photos. The interview is well worth reading.


I f0und this Carver poem on Miller’s website, which wonderfully describes the subtleties that we can imagine underlieing Miller’s imagery, the dreams and hope in that quiet despair of life …



All these images were taken from Graham Miller’s Suburban Splendour series, and it’s more than worth it having a look at the rest of the series; after all, this is MY subjective selection out of 30 photos. He’s also got two other portfolios: The Performance of Everyday Life and Erick’s Cafe and other stories that are sometimes hilarious but always deeply reflective, meaningful depictions of his take on reality.


Torrent downloads can be kind of a crap shoot. If you’d like a little reassurance about what you’re about to download, take a look at Vertor.

The service launched recently and provides automated checking of torrents from a number of trackers, like Pirate Bay, Demonoid, and several others. To date, the service has verified more than 140,000 torrents.

20 second MP3 clips are provided to let you preview album downloads. Movies and TV shows display screencaps taken at regular intervals (usually every 10 or 15 minutes) during playback. The contents of text files (like NFOs) packed with applications and games are also posted.

All downloads are also scanned with antivirus software, though they’re currently dissatisfied with its performance. It’s slated for replacement with a more reliable engine on December 30, 2008. Even in its present state, it’s still more of a reassurance than most other torrent sites provide.

Already downloaded something from another tracker? Using Vertor’s advanced options menu you can enter the hash code and see the results of their checks, provided Vertor has grabbed the torrent.

Thanks, DownloadSquat  for this post and Harry for pointing me it out to me!


Before listening recently to the words of a hatred filled woman talking about gunning down Afro-Americans in the wake of Katrina, it hadn’t really crossed my mind to associate women with guns. Far from being sexist, I somehow had the notion of a wiser and more gentle gender, of women by their very nature being more linked to nurturing than to killing. But I obviously was naive in my generalising assumptions (certainly about American women), and I now wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still underestimating the numbers of gun toting women.

Especially after seeing  Amy Stein‘s series of “women and guns”. Stein is not only a renowned emerging American photographer, but also holds a BSc in Political Science from James Madison University and a MSc in Political Science from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland; I therefore like to assume her being part of the liberal thinking US arts elite. So even if many (or maybe all) of her image sets are staged, I would not be astounded anymore if she presents us with a facet of the empire that, while not startling, is quite disturbing.






Communist architecture wasn’t exactly known for aesthetic beauty or bold futuristic design. The only exception I’m aware of so far (and there are probably a handful of  others) was the colossal Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, which remained a shell coz the regime ran out of money. Here though is another, much more modest example (in a round-about way): the Danube Flower building in Belgrade, Serbia. 

It was built in the early seventies, sponsored by the communist government of the time and championed by the then ubiquitous dictator president J.B.Tito, who also was the first diner at its elite restaurant on November 22nd, 1973. It was a famed hangout spot first for the regime’s rich and infamous until its decay in the nineties; its final closure coincided with the start of the civil war in the country

Architecturally it’s quite interesting, as described by the mob who was charged with revitalising it: “In many ways the building is particular but above all for its synthesis between architectural and structural reasoning. The main volume of the building, triangular in plan, is elevated some fifteen meters above the river and the ground level with the pedestrian esplanade. It is supported solely by the central core which contains two elevator shafts and double spiral staircase. Cantilevers are reaching out some twelve meters giving a levitating feel to the building. In addition one more structural move is crucial for seamless interaction between exterior and interior of the building. Concrete floor-slab and ceiling shell are not connected at the perimeter of the building, allowing for the continuity of the glass façade to the full extent. Uninterrupted glass strip, with the total length of 150 meters, is wrapping around the building to give constant presence of the Danube River in the interior, with sweeping views reaching far out, both upstream and downstream.”

Now it has become an up-market gym (funny how it seems to remain a spot that’s out of reach for the plebs). Called ‘Sky Wellness’ and therefore conjuring up feelings of light and spaciousness, the idea took hold that visitors should be getting an impression of entering a cloud on arrival. In response the floating designers “opted for reflective resin floor finishes throughout and a semi translucent Barrisol stretched ceiling; both aiming to expose sleek forms of Technogym training equipment in the open plan arrangement”. To break free from the original equilateral triangular grid design and get the cloud feel, the designers replaced the ceiling with approximately 390 backlit panels that, varying in shape and size, are suspended from the triangular steel construction. 

I could think of softer cloud material but: it doesn’t look bad. I bet though these guys never had any sleepless nights over the state of the environment: I doubt for example that the ceiling is backlit by skylights or, certainly at night, illuminated by LED bulbs. I also wonder about all the chemicals used in the production of the ceiling panels and the floor resin, leave alone the embodied energy factor or the health-conscious breathing in mega volumes of solvents and other nasties. I guess the old communist adages of carelessness and grandeur morphed seamlessly into the capitalist combo notion of design and material misuse, and therefore won’t make this building shortlisted any time soon for the next sustainable architecture/interior design award.




The biofuel madness continues unabated. It’s been obvious for years now that the concept has mainly disadvantages from both an ecological as well as a global justice perspective: more forests are chopped down to make room for fuel crops, biofuel production uses more energy than you get from using the end product, less area is devoted to growing food, higher food prices causing more starvation and increasing world poverty, our dependency on cars remains and because they are growing in numbers, biofuels actually contributes indirectly to more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and so on; it’s a long list.

Now some coffee drinking researchers shot themselves in the foot by discovering oil in coffee. The NY Times reported a few days ago that scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, have made diesel fuel from used coffee grounds. Analysis showed that even the grounds contained about 10 to 15 percent oil by weight. It is commendable of course that these guys are thinking about recycling waste, but even if all the coffee grounds in the world were used to make fuel, the amount produced would be less than 1 percent of the diesel used in the United States annually.

You would think that makes the whole idea not viable, but as with other food crops, the agri-business of course might in future see a very different commercial opportunity. Why stick with coffee grounds? Using real coffee will render even higher levels of oil, plus there is cheap and awfully tasting coffee around, like those beans of the robusta variety. These two factors alone might make it viable to grow coffee as a fuel crop – with all the disadvantages mentioned above to the planet including us. And they certainly won’t be outweighed by exhaust fumes spreading coffee aroma.

It’s the usual thing: we have an idea that on the surface looks good, but we don’t think through possible consequences. And science in particular has a long and bad track record in thinking holistically.




CoolPreviews, also created by the Cooliris team, lets you preview links without clicking, giving you the power to browse the Web faster. Just mouse over any link, and the preview window immediately appears to show you the content. In other words, you can preview web links, images, and videos without even clicking. In addition you can

  • View Google & Yahoo Image Search in ultra slideshow mode
  • Instantly send links to friends and family with just a click.
  • Automatically sub-search Google, Wikipedia, and many others by right-clicking on any phrase
  • Customize preferences to control preview window activation, time delay, size & position, etc.

I’ve been using it for years and love it coz it saves me opening & closing tabs when all I wanna do is to briefly check the content behind a link. And CoolPreview works with almost all websites; I think the few exceptions might be those designed with Flash.

CoolPreviews is a popular Firefox extension, currently with over 5 million downloads.

Snap Shots


While CoolPreviews literally focuses on a preview of a page, SnapShots (like Apture below) is a preview technology that delivers a compact summary of the information behind the link.

Snap Shots comes in three flavours – for:

  • Bloggers
  • Advertisers
  • End users

Bloggers installing the Snap Shots javascripts enable their readers to mouse-over links to get the most appropriate ‘shot’ of content for that link. In practice that means:

  • Linking to an online video makes Snap Shots creating an inline player for it.
  • For photostreams links they provide an inline photo album.
  • Investment sites can get online stock charts.
  • They also put Google maps in shots.

Another feature is ‘Snap Shots Engage’, a cutting edge technology that automatically adds hyperlinks to unambiguous phrases; for example no hyperlink will be added to the ambiguous word ‘apple’, but the unambiguous ‘ipod’ will get one.

Snap also offers Snap Shares to bloggers, sharing part of the advertising that they’re placing in their shots. To be considered for Snap Shares, a website must have an active Snap Shot account with a valid email address. But you don’t get cash; you can either use your advertising inventory share by marketing your own site (using text or graphics) or donate the ad inventory to a charity such as Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, etc..

For advertisers (which is where Snap’s money largely comes from, I guess), the company offers technology to push advertising at end-users when they either come across links to that business or by linking the business to context it is operating in.

… which of course links to the third group Snap is targeting: end-users. It offers browser plugins for Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari that not only let you look at some linked content or add preview shots to popular sites such as Google, Yahoo! or Wikipedia, but also push ads at you. I actually uninstalled it because I found that I got more ad related previews than other useful ones.



Another review technology focused on business (publishers, advertisers) and bloggers. And again, it’s javascript based. The nice thing about Apture for bloggers is that it allows them to easily add rich multimedia context to their sites. After having installed Apture, all you have to do is to highlight a word or phrase (or click where you want to insert your content), search a range of related media from the Apture Media Hub, preview the media you want to link, and add it to your page with one click. No more embedding by copying and pasting codes.

These are some of the current content sources from around the web that Apture makes available:


Add depth to your blog posts by linking to relevant reference articles, product listings or movie information (Wikipedia, IMDB, Amazon).


Add video to your webpages (YouTube, Google, hulu, Metacafe, Comedy Central, and any more).


Find freely licensed imagery from around the world – Apture will do its best to provide you with the appropriate licensing information (Flickr, Wikimedia Commons). Or, upload your own images directly to Apture!


Search current and archived news stories (right now they seem to offer access only to the Washington Post).


Thanks to the power of Scribd, you can link to documents, spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations and PDFs.

Plus Maps, Music, Widgets…

Embed maps, widgets, music, podcasts (Google Maps, imeem, various podcast providers).

What’s more pleasant for end-user is that, compared to Snap Shots for example, they don’t get bombarded with unwanted links and annoying pop-ups; the end-user also doesn’t need a browser plugin to see your multimedia fireworks. It’s the kind of application that makes me seriously think about moving my blog yet again – this time from to

Closely related to previews are widgets that offer contextual shortcuts. Like previews, these widgets work by being anchored to links. Instead of providing a preview of the underlying content, these technologies offer links to related content around the web:



SmartLinks, like AB Meta again from AdaptiveBlue, is javascript based. After installing the SmartLinks script, all your current links will become smart links; they still link to the content they’re supposed to, but in addition they can also open a SmartLink pop-up window that contains a range of contextual content related links. For example, if your link points to a music album, SmartLinks might offer your readers links to where they can buy the album from (of course 😉 ), where they might be able to listen to it (eg Rhapsody or, or get lyrics, reviews or images from. It’s a neat concept.

Sites SmartLinks currently links to are Amazon, IMDB, Netflix, Blockbuster, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Barnes & Noble, Flixter,, LinkedIn, Twitter, All Recepies, Food Network, Epicurious, Yahoo! Music, CitySearch, Zagat, Yahoo! Finance, Google Finace, Reuters, Stockpickr,, Corkd and Snooth.

Yahoo! Shortcuts


Javascript based Yahoo! Shortcuts work similar to SmartLinks. As you write your blog post, Shortcuts look for Flickr photos, places, companies, products, people and much more. If Shortcuts finds relevant content, it will let you know. You just click the ‘Review this post button’ to see what they’ve found. Each of the terms for which Shortcuts found content will be underlined. You now have the choice to determine what you want to keep and how you want the Shortcut to be displayed. Easy. Shortcuts also searches the top terms in your post and provides a quick and easy way to add images from Flickr. You can resize and position the images anywhere on your post, and photos are automatically attributed to their respective authors per the Creative Commons license.

Shortcuts currently provides the following link categories: Flickr for images, Yahoo Maps, financial information, cars, products, new, and web search.



Another example of contextual widget technology comes from Colorado-based Lijit. Lijit has developed a (javascript-based) search technology that focuses on the individual. If you have a multi-presence around the web, on blogs, Twitter, Flickr, etc., others can search that collective presence on specific topics by using a small search bar on your blog’s sidebar (javascript needed).


Remarkably, Lijit offers another contextual nugget, called Re-search. It is simple, but a great example of the power of context. If you search for a term on Google and end up on a blog that has a Lijit widget, a header appears with additional results and a prompt to search for more. Lijit automatically infers your context, does a search, and offers additional helpful shortcuts.


Juice is an extension-based intelligent discovery engine that integrates seamlessly with Firefox, and it’s easy to use (check out the video above).

Drag & Drop

Grab a chunk of text, image or video, move it slightly towards your sidebar, and Juice will start performing its tricks. When dropping text into Juice, it’ll try to understand its meaning and serve you with context-relevant information. In the case of images or videos, it’ll let you store them for later viewing, while you keep browsing.

Intelligent Discovery Engine

Juice’s discovery mechanism is grounded on Linkool Labs’ proprietary intelligent discovery engine. This engine, comprised of a natural language processing system and a dictionary management system, helps to evolve the semantic web by connecting keywords with the most relevant, rich content from third-party web services.

Discover & Organize

You can bookmark and organise rich content discovered for you. For example, when Juice delivers a video to you, you can simply add the video into your personal video playlist – for current or future viewing. You can also do this with the videos and images you discover yourself while browsing the web, by dragging the image or tab attached to the videos. Juice also will automatically search and present content when you do a search using you browser’s search engine.

The next post (part III) will look at the second major contextual technology mentioned: browser add-ons.

[note: the above mentioned javascript based widgets cannot not be used on blogs whose hosts prevent javascript being added to your blog; Typepad, Blogger and are the only big ones I know of that allow javascript]

Alex Iskold published on ReadWriteWeb a couple of days ago an interesting and well summarised “Guide to The Contextual Web” (btw: I can’t see much difference between the meaning of his term and that of ‘semantic web‘). He talks about the limitations of today’s browsers, which simply store data (information) but don’t allow computers to do anything with it apart from simply presenting it to the user. The contextual web on the other hand understands the context in which the user is accessing  data and therefore can offer him/her many more options beyond the simple html coded content of a particular webpage.

The contextual or semantic web happens when browsers and websites can recognise what the user wants to do. Web search as we know it for example will disappear more and more because the browser will become increasingly enabled to anticipate the user’s desire to search for something and therefore provide answers already before the user even wanted to start the search (which will have a tremendous impact on Google’s business model).

Iskold names four key properties of the contextual web experience:

  • Relevancy: understanding the user’s context better drives content relevancy.
  • Shortcuts: contextual shortcuts reduce the need for raw search.
  • Personalisation: context is based on user intentions and history.
  • Remixing: relevant information from around the web is instantly available.

Following on he discusses three major contextual technologies that are improving our web experience already right now: markup technologies (encoded annotations), widgets (browser plugins) and browser add-ons (like Firefox extensions). In his discussion he mentions a number of applications that fall under each of these categories (and left out some) without going into a more detailed description – which is what I want to do here in three part.


Markup Technologies

Under this category we have simple page annotations that for example might allow browsers to detect whether the page you are looking at contains an RSS feed; there are also microformats, which offer an XHTML-compliant way of embedding metadata about people, places, events, and reviews in existing web pages (see for example Micro$oft’s Web Slices, which enable publishers to notify users when the information in their web pages changes).

Some smaller development companies have this technology further by providing context-relevant markup formats for specific purposes. Here are two of them:



I mentioned Cooliris already in my post on 2008s Top Ten Search Engines. Cooliris actually is an extension but it offers a markup format for signaling that a site contains images. By placing a bit of XML code in their home directory, site owners enable users to experience their images using the stunning 3D visualisation developed by Cooliris.

Apart from looking at images on a 3D wall on Cooliris enabled webpages (and unfortunately there aren’t enough of them), the plugin also provides an excellent image search engine that uses Google Image Search, YouTube, Flickr, Hulu, online retailers, and other sites. You can zip through search results on the 3D wall and switch engines effortlessly without having to re-enter the search term. You can also channel surf the latest news, sports, entertainment, and technology news or watch your favorite movies, TV Shows, and music videos – all within Cooliris Discover. Other features include sharing stuff with friends by dragging and dropping content from the 3D Wall, toggling between Cooliris and the corresponding web page behind any image, viewing the images in a slide show, and doing a bit of 3D-window shopping at some of the world’s largest retailer sites by comparing products visually on the Cooliris wall. Highlight an item to learn the price or click the shopping cart icon to jump to the corresponding product page of the retailer.

And another nice feature: there’s a Cooliris version for the iPhone. Cooliris has come along way since its PicLens days.

AB Meta


AB Meta is part of the bigger effort to annotate web content to be machine readable. It is a simple and open format for annotating pages that are about things. A book publisher can use AB Meta to provide information about a book such as the author and ISBN, a restaurant owner can provide information such as the cuisine, phone number and address, and a movie reviewer can annotate reviews with movie titles and director names. The AB Meta format allows site owners to describe the main thing on the HTML page in a very simple way – using standard META headers.

The benefit of AB Meta is that it makes it easy for software to identify things – books, music, movies, recipes, restaurants, wine and more–inside regular HTML pages. With AB Meta, search engines can find and classify pages to help users interact with real things instead of flat HTML pages. Here are more benefits:

  • Object-centric: Focuses on everyday things that we encounter around the web
  • Semantic: Upgrades pages to be part of growing Semantic Web
  • Lightweight: No complex markup, no changes to the body of the document
  • Intuitive: The names of things and attributes are easy to understand for anyone
  • Efficient: The meta headers are easy to get to without parsing entire HTML page
  • Extensible: Additional attributes and concepts are easy to add
  • Compatible: Alternative markup based on existing standards is supported

The next post (part II) will look at the second major contextual technology mentioned: widgets.