The useful stormReally, it's just a matter of scale. Like their larger cousins, the brainstorms known as headaches are quite capable of wreaking havoc, and generally clouding what might otherwise be considered a perfectly nice day. Like blizzards, some headaches remove depth and perspective, leaving a two-dimensional landscape that isn't worth navigating. Others are navigable, but leave the traveler with a sense of wasted time and effort; some settings simply aren't worth the trip.

On the other hand, storms can be intriguing, and even beneficial. Sometimes the fresh perspective — especially when reconstruction is complete — is worth the chaos. To quote Craig Conley in the context of a recent post at, the "creative urge dragged down yet not knocked out by chronic pain" reminds us of the possibility of renewal in the aftermath of the storm, regardless of its relative scale.



A jagged red reminderRed has never been my favorite color. Bolts of hot pain sear the world, leaving me colorblind but for the shards that stay behind — jagged red reminders of pain past, and pain yet to come.

Through the window, beyond the mute interplay of light and shadow on a white kitchen wall, bare branches against a pale sky remind me that it's all in my head. What color are light waves, anyway?


Clusters of Joy

Repeating globs of not-joy For most people, physical pain is a transient affair. Things like joint inflammation, minor injuries and headaches are generally brought under control with over-the-counter pain relievers, and life goes on. Chronic pain is a different story altogether, and even those fortunate enough to have the means to control it — even if that's just enough to get through another day — may find themselves attempting to explain an invisible monster.

Strong pain medications, of course, bring problems of their own; the personality-altering effects of certain prescription drugs are well known, and often devastating. But even in the complete absence of medication of any kind, pain has a peculiar way of coloring the world — or removing color, maybe — that isn't necessarily obvious to those on the outside. Pain also has a way of interrupting, if not preventing sleep, and sleep deprivation . . . well, I probably don't have to explain that one.

I mention these things because they've been on my mind — quite literally — for the past six weeks or so. It seems I've found favor among the Gods of Headache, who have seen fit to bless me with a particularly ferocious example of their handiwork. I'm referring, of course, to cluster headaches, which have plagued me now for thirty years, give or take. The good news is the gradual attenuation of this unfortunate neurological condition over time; what used to be an eagerly anticipated twice-yearly event is now likely to come only once a year, if it comes at all. It missed me last year entirely, but intruded again this fall for its customary eight-week visit.

I know a number of people who suffer with migraine-class headaches (a mistreatment of the m-word, I know, but I use it here for the sake of common familiarity) and wouldn't wish that sort of thing on anyone, but there are certain fundamental distinctions between a classic migraine headache and one that properly belongs in the cluster category. I won't unnecessarily belabor the subject here — there's an abundance of literature and other material on the subject already — but one key distinction is the effectiveness of certain pain relievers for migraine-type headaches, while cluster headaches don't respond to pain medication. In fact, it's more likely they'll be worsened by it.

Another notable difference — and a source of confusion in the context of medical diagnosis — is the cyclical nature of cluster headaches. They're so named because their occurrence is typically clustered about a particular slice of time, usually during a particular time of year. Although there are variations on the theme — including the nightmare scenario in which they become 365-days-a-year chronic — it seems there's a trend in recent years toward diagnosing any unusually severe headache as a cluster headache, especially when it involves one of the eyes. Headache awareness among medical professionals has increased dramatically since my initial doctor-visits many years ago, but there's still room for improvement.

It's probably worth mentioning, too, that where the typical migraine-headache episode culminates in an extended period of sleep, the average cluster-headache victim laughs — and cries — at the idea of sleep. At any quiescent state for that matter, because even sitting too long in a chair is likely to bring that familiar sensation of a hot fireplace poker in the eye, and then it all goes downhill from there. Legend has it that cluster headaches are more painful than those in the common migraine category, and although I have no way to compare the two, it wouldn't surprise me if that were true.

Anyway, I'm on the positive side of this year's cycle, so with a bit of luck the idea of blog-writing will become more appealing in the near future. Not that I'm blaming the recent lack of words entirely on the headaches; life does go on, sort of.

In any case, that's where things stand, in a nutshell, more or less, for now. That is all.


Gonzo Parenting

A happy family

Familiarity breeds contempt, and the proof of this is nowhere more evident than in the child who has been brought up to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The Terrible Twos pale by comparison, because where the two-year-old is merely exercising his resolve, the truth-telling adolescent is capable of destroying relationships with brutal, carefully-timed revelations concerning things she has seen and heard over the years. Dad's drunken tirades, or Mom's overt flirtations with the milkman, for example.

If the revelations are delivered when no one else is around, the effects may be limited to extended periods of icy silence from the parent, and revocation of the child's eating privileges. But when the payload is dropped in the presence of friends — or worse yet, significant others — all the damage-control efforts in the world generally lead to nothing but increased suspicion. After all, were there nothing to the allegations, the parent wouldn't have become so flustered — or perhaps enraged — at the child's accusations.

This is why it's so important to lie to the child from the start. Young children are easily influenced, but infancy is the best time to begin the programming regimen. At that stage of life the slate is virtually blank, so even basic responses such as smiling and cooing can be discouraged. This makes it far easier to manipulate common truths later on, such as the difference between black and white, left and right, or up and down.

Using this simple technique, the successful parent will experience none of the irritation and adversity that so often plague the modern parent-child relationship. Regardless of what the child might see or hear, any attempt at expressing it to others will result only in quizzical looks, awkward laughter, and eventually the wholesale dismissal of the child's credibility.


The Nosebleed of Truth

Time for your medication When they go out for a walk, Truth and Honesty don't always hold hands. Sometimes Truth forgets who his friends are, and goes off by himself, and blunders into a bad neighborhood where he's beaten by thugs who take exception to his swagger and arrogant speech, and the large feather in his cap.

When Honesty visits Truth in the hospital, he always brings a mixed bouquet of half-truths for the bedside table. The subtle hues of the Sins of Omission blend nicely with the stark shades of Calculated Words, creating a sense of integrity and openness that hides the broken vase in which they're arranged. The card is always the same, too. On it is just one word: Trust.

This always makes Truth's nose clog up, which makes it run, which starts the nosebleed all over again. He knows what it all means. He knows he's no good without his friend, and that trust requires the efforts of both, working together as a team. Sometimes it just takes a nosebleed to remind him that he's better than the mere absence of lies.


Defending Enlightenment

It's what's inside that counts. I've heard it said that within the multilayered complexity sometimes referred to as enlightenment lie the memories of misspent lifetimes, squandered opportunities, and botched attempts to recover, one last time, from the devastating effects of those failures.

At the final frontier of enlightenment, some say, lies the sober acceptance of those failures, and the certain knowledge hard-earned wisdom brings.

But others say that beyond this frontier enlightenment goes by other names, and the broken people who inhabit that land simply have nothing left to defend.



I dream of strip malls. Pretend you're a normal human. You live somewhere between 67 and 124 degrees west, and 25 and 49 degrees north. You're either happily married, or wish you were. You live in an average house in an average neighborhood, or wish you did, and if you don't yet have a kid or two it's only a matter of time. Most of your waking hours are spent in pursuit of the American Dream, and the rest of the time you're asleep, wishing you were asleep, or trying not to fall asleep.

Now pretend you're an abnormal human living somewhere within the same coordinates. You have no particular desire to get married, live in a shanty on the fringes of society, and your progeny, if any, are hiding in undisclosed locations with unlisted phone numbers. Most of your waking hours are spent pondering metaphysical questions, and you consider sleep a waste of time unless astral projection is involved.

If neither exercise required the slightest pretense on your part, you may be (1) practiced in the art of deception, (2) more inclined toward Zen than computer programming, (3) conflicted, or (4) none of the above.

If the fourth choice seems to best describe your actual circumstances, it's also possible the line between normal and abnormal is less a matter of reality than statistics, and is therefore much thinner than some would have us believe. Operating outside the traditional societal framework doesn't necessarily mean that something has gone terribly wrong.


Admin Support

Ghost in the machineOver the years, I've been forced to accept the disconcerting truth that I am not alone. I rejected the idea at first, but denial has a way of seeping through the cracks and wetting other areas of one's life. Then it takes a bilge pump to dry up the mess because the average household mop isn't up to the task. Denial is much heavier than water.

My first clue came one day as I was eating a pancake. The small puddle of maple syrup next to my plate triggered a cascade of doubting thoughts, which triggered self-flagellation, until eventually there were so many combatants reeling about my brain that I lost my appetite and keeled over sideways. Although it certainly wasn't the first time I had fallen out of my chair during breakfast, it was the first time I heard laughter when no one else was at home. Naturally, my first impulse was to run, screaming, through the house. But since I was lying on the floor, my legs only kicked as my body revolved pointlessly, like a small motorboat after the fisherman has fallen out.

Eventually, when my fear had subsided and I was able to sit up and take stock of the situation with some sobriety, I realized the laughter had been coming from deep within myself. It was as if I had acquired a roommate without advertising for one, and he had then taken it upon himself to wake me by sitting on the edge of my bed every morning, ridiculing my unkempt grogginess while repeatedly slapping my face.

It took years before I began to appreciate the valuable service provided by this uninvited guest, and many more before it dawned on me that I was the interloper, and not the other way around. The brain I had come to know and trust as the source of knowledge from which I drew conclusions—the reliable central processing unit I used to solve problems in the logical, rational domain—was, in fact, never the expert at all. Instead, the higher authority properly belonged to an entity operating outside the confines of reason and logic.

I've come to refer to this higher self—this entity that perceives me in the act of perception—as the Administrator, while the CPUish mind-brain has been given the title of Twerp. The Twerp is almost always irritating, insinuating itself into my affairs with its statistical likelihoods, logical conclusions, and rational beliefs. The CPU was never assigned administrative privileges; it commandeered them. The rightful boss had been there all along, but not being the sort to grab attention without being asked onto the stage, had been content to entertain itself with the antics of the self-important human brain with which it was forced to share space.

No more. Reason and logic have their place, so from now on the Twerp will be bound and gagged and made to sleep under the bed with the dust mites. It's my time now.


Perfect Ambition

In a perfect world, my lowest ambition might lie among the tracks beneath the city, where we disembark for another day in the shops, offices and warehouses that frame our modest lives. Twelve thousand days for work, and the balance of the time to play.

In a perfect world, my highest ambition might lie along the rusted rails south of town. That's where the freight trains gather speed for their northern journey, and it's the last chance to get on board. Two thousand miles of fields, rivers and sky turn the heart, and it races with the train.


Simple Truths

Post-nocturnal illuminationLast night I dreamed I was a partial genius. I knew everything, but could think of only one thing at a time. The elusive pattern-that-connects was nearly always obvious to me, but failed to generate the momentum required to overcome apathy. I was frequently inspired, but rarely energetic. My tastes favored the eclectic, but I hid them to avoid the appearance of eccentricity. Rational intuition guided my decisions, but self-sabotage spoiled their execution.

When I woke, I couldn't locate my right arm. Pinned under my body during the night, it was numb and unresponsive, and required assistance from the other arm in order to move at all.

Inspired by my mind's nocturnal handiwork, the metaphorical connection was immediately clear: A numb arm, like intellectual droopiness, is the result of too much sleep.


Imperfect Wisdom

A perfect messDuring my early-morning walk, I noticed an unusual insect perched on the branch of a peach tree. When I stopped to examine it, it spread its wings in a startling display of impossibly complex patterns, and iridescent hues that seemed to illuminate my surroundings. As I stood, wide-eyed, attempting to make sense of the apparition, it began to speak.

The beautiful insect imparted ancient mysteries; it told me the secrets of the universe. Every revelation shook the core of my being, and brought a new flood of tears. It was as if I were being torn to pieces, then rebuilt according to divine specifications. Time lost all meaning.

I don't know how long I sat in the orchard; it might have been hours, or days. The insect cocked its head, regarding me with an eye that seemed to hold eternities. I shivered, and rose to my feet.

As my mind began to clear, I noticed an imperfection in the beautiful insect's wings: one was slightly shorter than the other, and less colorful.

I squashed the insect with my thumb.


Bloggers Versus Journalists, Ad Nauseam

And the winner is . . .If you've found yourself wondering what citizen journalism has been up to lately, Jay Rosen's opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times contains an interesting list of examples.

If you've found yourself wondering what, if anything, citizen journalism really is, Mark Glaser's Your Guide to Citizen Journalism is still a good place to find out.

And if you're wondering why there's still controversy over this subject at all, one answer can be found at the Newspaper Death Watch, a self-described "blog about the sad decline of an American institution: the major metropolitan daily newspaper."

This is a debate over terminology that is increasingly meaningless in a new world in which everyone is a publisher.

Whether or not you happen to agree with the logic—self-publishing equals journalism—or even the idea that the debate is a matter of terminology at all, it does seem fairly certain that the fighting isn't going to end anytime soon.


Can't Feel My Brain

I feel so strange . . .
This is bad. This is really, really bad. Curiosity got the better of me, and now I can't feel my brain. Who are
these people, and why are they writing things like this . . .

Even though he's in possession of skin so leathery that he could have made a highly profitable second career upholstering office chairs with peelings from his scrotum, Don Imus decided to sue CBS for $40 million on the basis that he was only hired to spout off a procession of wilfully offensive insults to anyone he could think of.

. . . or this . . .

You know who's an effing big country? Russia. You know who wants to become exactly one North Pole bigger? Russia.

They likely want the entire North Pole because it's said to house over 300 generations of their royal bloodline. That's right - from King Vladamir who founded communism in the year of our Lord 11 BC, to King Slobodan who made Russia's largest Ukrainian baby-skull bong in the 1960s, they're all buried in a wondrous hall beneath the North Pole's frozen crust.

Somebody help me.

Waiting for Irony

Watching for irony, and dark chocolate.Chewing my food at the local café, I saw a young lady I'd met some time ago sitting alone, so I decided to insinuate myself—and my half-eaten sandwich—into her lunch break. By the time she noticed my trajectory it was too late, and I was able to slide into the booth before she had the chance to plan an escape.

"Sitgoin?" I said, my mouth packed with tuna and rye.

She managed a smile. "Good. I'm good. You know, I was just . . . "

I cut her off with a spasm of coughing and choking. The sandwich was trying to enter my lung, and my lung had launched a counterattack. Valerie's mouth was open, her expression an even mix of loathing and disbelief. Suddenly the lung gained an advantage, propelling its enemy toward the open mouth on the other side of the table.

On a different day, the story might have come to a vulgar and predictable end then and there. On this particular day, however, a strange combination of luck, superhuman reflexes, and dark humor turned disaster to serendipity. Valerie's right hand was a blur as it intercepted the fishy missile; her left hand raised a welt on the side of my face.

"Now," said Valerie as she leaned across the table to wipe the tear from my eye, "I think you're ready for a little irony."

I nodded. The last thing anyone needs after nearly choking to death on a tuna sandwich is irony, but I was still within range of her hands. Valerie smiled, and asked if I'd heard about the recent drowning. I shook my head.

"It was an old guy," she said. "He drowned in the creek trying to carry a mattress to the other side. It was ironic."

If there's one thing I've come to expect from people who use the word ironic, it's a complete lack of irony in whatever it is they're using to illustrate the concept. I nodded, and tried not to think about her hands.

"He was always getting after everyone about trashing up the creek," Valerie continued. She was studying my face, looking for something to indicate that I had grasped the irony. I hadn't.

Valerie sighed, and put both hands on the table. My lower lip began to tremble.

"He was always getting after everyone about trashing up the creek," she said again, "but he wound up polluting it himself!"

I laughed. I could see the dark irony in it—my favorite kind.

Valerie winked as she slipped from the booth. "Dark chocolate isn't sweet," she whispered, "but it satisfies."

I laughed again. I love dark chocolate.


Full Circle

The final frontierImagine my disappointment. There I was, enjoying a caffeinated beverage with the usual flock of hippies when someone brought up the end of time as we know it. Not in any some day in the distant future way, either; he meant five short years from now. I felt a chill wind on the back of my neck. Why wasn't I informed of this?

The problem, it seems, has to do with the Mayan calendar, which comes to a rather abrupt end in 2012. Normally, my first impulse would be to laugh at whoever designed a calendar that just quits halfway through, but some say this is no ordinary calendar. Some say this calendar—even though it was in use some 2300 years ago—accurately predicts the exact date of the winter solstice in 2012, among other things. This is no mean feat when you consider problems like precession, which is caused by the lethargic wobble of our planet's polar axis. Astronomically speaking, the relative positions of celestial objects change over time, to the tune of about one degree every 72 years. The result is an accumulating error over time, making the long-term prediction of future equinox dates a bit of a hassle, especially when the date in question lies 2300 years away. According to The How and Why of the Mayan End Date in 2012 A. D., the level of accuracy, in that ancient culture, is extraordinary.

It should be noted that because precession is a very slow process, similar astronomical alignments will be evident on the winter solstice dates within perhaps 5 years on either side of 2012. However, the accuracy of the conjunction of 2012 is quite astounding, beyond anything deemed calculable by the ancient Maya, and serves well to represent the perfect mid-point of the process.

It's unusual for another reason, too. In Mayan culture, the concept of the Sacred Tree lay at the heart of human creation, and the dark band of interstellar dust we see in our own Milky Way—the galactic equator—is closely related. To the Maya, that dark band represented a road, but more in the sense of a cosmic portal than an earthly path.

December 21st, 2012 ( in the Long Count) therefore represents an extremely close conjunction of the winter solstice sun with the crossing point of Galactic Equator and the ecliptic, what the ancient Maya recognized as the Sacred Tree. It is critical to understand that the winter solstice sun rarely conjuncts the Sacred Tree.

But to call this event a rarity, and leave it at that, is to ignore the point of that mysterious final entry in the human calendar. The point, I think, isn't so much about endings as it is about rebirth, and at a very familiar location, too.

Above all, what is becoming apparent from the corpus of Mayan Creation Myths is that creation seems to have taken place at a celestial crossroads - the crossing point of ecliptic and Milky Way.

What a relief. We're not standing at the threshold of extinction; we're only approaching the crossroads of our birth.


Just-in-time Media

Old-school media in a digital worldA recent conversation about Amazon's print-on-demand model triggered a few thoughts about the old just-in-time (JIT) philosophy as it was originally applied to manufacturing—first in the automotive industry, from which it spread to all manner of production systems—and more recently its promise as a solution to the distribution problems facing the print-media industry. If it's possible to order a book online, which is then printed—and possibly even customized in certain ways—on an as-needed basis, a similar process might be applied to virtually any printed product. Whether it's used for making cars and electronics or printing books, magazines, or newspapers, the idea is to avoid producing something that may never be sold, thereby eliminating excess inventory and all the warehousing and support costs that go with it. It's a sensible way of doing things, so why hasn't it caught on in a big way? Where are the print-on-demand newspapers, or magazines? Where, for that matter, are all the JIT-enabled books?

Maybe the answer has to do with applying a sensible idea to a medium that probably shouldn't even exist anymore. Obviously, paper has been around for a very long time, and it has served us well. But is it necessary, really? Nearly everything is available online—in an instant or two—so paper seems more tradition than necessity now. Sure, it's convenient to grab a newspaper or magazine on the way to work, and a paperback doesn't ask much of its reader; all are cheap, easy, and disposable. On the other hand, none of those paper products offer much in the way of flexibility; they're hardwired, single-purpose, one-way communications with a lifespan similar to that of many common insects. But a computer—whether it's a phone or a slightly larger, more dedicated incarnation—is limited only by the requirements and desires of its owner. It's everything, in one place, all the time.

While it's certainly possible to circumvent the promise of a paperless world by—to use the classic workplace example—insisting on a hardcopy version of anything and everything that passes across the computer's display, I'm encouraged by the trend toward ultraportable, wireless computers that make paper increasingly unnecessary, if not undesirable. At one time, paper enabled the portability of information, but that was only because computers weren't portable in any practical sense of the word. But times have changed, and if you factor things like pocketable e-book readers into the near-future equation—and trees, of course—the whole idea of paper becomes increasingly absurd. Printing is better done on a computer display anyway.

Not that the print-on-demand concept is absurd; it's the stubborn refusal to abandon a primitive medium that seems so misguided. When it comes to fiscal—not to mention environmental—responsibility, I wouldn't want to be remembered as the guy who continued to throw money at an outdated medium in spite of every indication to the contrary. Paper isn't dead just yet, but I wouldn't invest my future in it.


The Devil Is In the Deltas

Those dastardly deltasThey say change is the only constant, and they may be right—whoever they are, but that's another matter. Sometimes the hard part is measuring that change, especially where there's disagreement over the methods used to quantify it. Although the mathematical procedures used for this purpose are well established, not everyone is familiar with them, and this is where the trouble begins.

The Greek uppercase letter, delta, is often used to denote change. In fact, it isn't uncommon to hear people involved in certain disciplines refer to changes simply as "deltas," or use the written equivalent in a similar way. To some, that little triangle is as familiar as the percent symbol, which brings us to the heart of the matter, namely, the combination of those two symbols. Together they signify a calculation that results in percent change—or Δ% if your browser is set up to display the character I have in mind—which often yields numbers that seem impossibly large, as percentages go.

For example, my Calculated Madness monologue repeatedly referred to a 6% rate of price-inflation for certain products over the years, but that isn't the same as percent change. The circa-1970, 35-cent gallon of gas I compared to the more recent $3.02 per gallon represents a 763% increase. That happens to be almost exactly the same delta as the 1970 median household income of $8,734 bounced against today's calculated equivalent of $75,428, which isn't completely surprising considering the 37-year interval in both cases.

Not to cause undue pain and anxiety, but you'll recall that the price of a gallon of gas was around $2.00 just after 2007 got under way, but shot up to over $3.00 only a few months later. Sure, it's come down a bit lately, but you're probably still paying somewhere around $2.80, give or take. Anyway, if we use $2.00 and $3.00 as our reference points—just to (1) keep things simple, and (2) blow your mind—we discover that this represents a 50% increase.

The question of how many gallons of gas were sold during that interval I'll leave to you to ponder, as well as the related questions concerning 50% profit increases and what they might represent in actual dollars, even over a period of months.


Empathy and Risk


The existence of that Seth speaks link down there on the right side of this page has been questioned more than once during the past year. Usually, the puzzlement is framed in terms of Mr. Godin's focus on Marketing, and why that might be particularly interesting—or pertinent—in the context of my decidedly non-commercial blog. One answer, I suppose, is that I simply like his ideas and the way they're presented. Another is that they're so often applicable in my world. As it happens, the proof of that lies within the last ten days or so of his blog entries.

For example, the July 23 post is very much about writing, and more specifically, about commonly held beliefs concerning who wants to read what. As the title suggests, empathy can't be overlooked.

The things that fascinate you about your life are almost always banal to strangers. Strangers want to read about their lives, not yours.

To me, the point isn't that people are literally interested in reading some sort of regurgitated version of their own daily realities. The point I take is that the reader has to be able to put himself in the story, but has to first want to put himself there. This is true even if it's pure science fiction. Who wants to go on a deep-space mission that consists of induced hibernation for all humans aboard the ship, while the narrator is a navigation/life-support computer with nothing much to say? It's tough to empathize with that.

At first glance, the July 21 post is about CDs at a garage sale, but that isn't where it winds up. Again, there's an applicable component; there's food for thought in the context of writing, among other things.

Musicians, bloggers, writers--if you're toiling in the long tail, getting stuck at zero is now a real possibility. Being just like the other guys but trying harder is less of an effective strategy than ever before.

It's tempting, sometimes, to be just like everyone else. It seems safer somehow—the outcome is easier to predict—to use proven methods and simply try harder than the other guy. But although it's been known to work out for a lot of folks, it can't work out forever. Someone has to be willing to put the new ideas into practice, and that involves risk.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and all that. But really, the proven methods of today were once on that bleeding edge, too.


Ghost Stories

Friendly ghosts are bestDimmed bloglights or not, I thought this one was too good to pass up.

A couple years ago, I had just finished moving into my current place and decided to take a break in my favorite rocking recliner. I closed my eyes, and just before drifting off had the odd sensation that the chair was rocking gently, almost imperceptibly, as though by an unseen hand. This happened a few more times during the following weeks, and only occasionally after that. It's a rare occurrence now.

At the time, I decided I had a ghost. An old lady, I thought, who had taken it upon herself to rock me to sleep, like a baby. I never actually saw or heard anything; this was just what my mind put together for reasons of its own. But it's a very old house in a neighborhood that's been around for well over 100 years, so ghosts certainly aren't out of the question.

Last Saturday, I happened to meet a woman who lived here years ago, and we spent some time comparing notes on the many idiosyncrasies of this old house. Then, suddenly, she asked the question that answered the question I hadn't even thought to ask.

"So, have you met the lady yet?"

Yes, actually. I believe I have.


Dimming the Bloglights

The not-darkness of a moonlit nightAs I'm sure you've noticed, the old blog just hasn't been itself lately. In fact, a lot of things changed on May 13, which was Mother's Day, and also the day my grandmother passed away. By itself, such an event is understandably difficult for all involved, but sometimes there are other effects—residual effects—that linger long after the sadness and sense of loss have faded into the background of daily life. In this case, her passing created a vacuum for at least one of the family members she left behind, and not everything that subsequently rushed in to fill that vacuum has been positive. It's no secret that senior citizens represent a particularly vulnerable segment of our society, but the sudden void that so often results from the death of a lifelong partner can be devastating in unexpected ways. Impossible ways, even, or at least they seem so until they become reality.

Unfortunately, this can of worms—or more accurately, this rat's nest—has affected me, too. I've pretty much lost my sense of humor over it, and although I've done a lot of writing lately, it's been for reasons that have nothing to do with the Web space you're currently visiting. It hasn't exactly been humorous material. My hope is this situation will be resolved as quickly and painlessly as possible, but in the meantime, I'm not sure how much time and energy—not to mention humor—will be left over for this blog, or related endeavors.

In other words, the blog isn't going dark, but it's likely to be a bit dim in here for a while. Sorry about that.


Freedom's Silent Ring

A phone for LudditesNot everyone is dancing following Tuesday's announcement of the latest BlackBerry smartphone. Sure, the new Wi-Fi capability spells greater opportunity for staying in touch with the collective, but it's also one more way to bring the workplace along. Some see this as a good thing, while others feel their blood pressure rising at the idea of more work in an already overworked day.

But there's also a third category, which is made up of people who couldn't care less. Some dismiss them as modern-day Luddites who just don't seem to grasp the importance of technology, but I happen to know a few folks who fit into that group, and their reasons for avoiding conveniences of this sort have nothing to do with tech-ignorance. In fact, some have spent considerable portions of their lives immersed in technology; they've been scientists and engineers, or perhaps used technology to its full extent in the pursuit of business interests. They understand it, they see the value in it, and they don't want anything to do with it.

Are they insane? Possibly, but I can see where they're coming from. In the early days of computing, technology held the promise of increased productivity, among other things. Some of us thought the new computer-driven technologies would allow us to work better, faster, and smarter, and for some of us at least, it worked out exactly that way. But there were other results, too. One of those computer-driven technologies would eventually become the now-ubiquitous device known as the cell phone, and leaving aside the increasing level of convergence between phones and wireless data terminals, it's nearly impossible to get away from the infernal gadgets now. It's one thing to tell your boss—or your clients—you'll be unavailable this evening, this weekend, or next week while you're on vacation, but quite another to actually go through with it.

Besides, who's going to believe you? Everyone knows how long it takes to start shaking and crying after you power down your wireless device(s), and it isn't very long. That's called addiction, and when addiction is used against us by those who sign our paychecks, it's known as slavery.

Don't get me wrong. As I've mentioned before, I love anything that enables and furthers communication, which devices like the BlackBerry do very handily. They represent freedom, but they have a dark side. Maybe that third category of people—those who don't seem to care about tech stuff one way or another—have been to the other side, and lived to tell about it. They might be Luddites, but then again, they might not.



Souls passing in the labyrinthStopped at a traffic light at dusk, I glanced at the vehicle next to me. The passenger was a young boy, maybe nine or ten, who seemed to be studying his surroundings with a thoughtfulness and intensity usually reserved for persons considerably older. He reminded me of one of those kids who spend a great deal of time indoors, immersed in books—wiser than his years, but pale from the lack of sunlight. His expression was one of concerned interest; he wasn't entirely pleased with his observations.

As the light turned green I glanced over again, but this time his focus was on me. I hoped he wasn't peering into my soul, because his face still reflected a troubled curiosity. But then he smiled, and I smiled too, and I knew everything was going to be alright.



LinksThings I've noticed during the past week:

1) Wishful thinking and memory loss often produce similar results.

2) Dead brain cells aren't particularly useful for storing history lessons.

3) Past events may illuminate the means to escape current quandaries.

4) Learning from the mistakes of others generally requires that you don't repeat theirs.

5) If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it might be disguised as a duck.

6) Those who live in glass houses sometimes forget where they are.

7) Salvation often comes at zero hour, which may be too late.

8) Desperate people sometimes see heroes where there are none.

9) If you're drunk, don't play with the phone.

10) Bravado is just that.

11) Sometimes fixing one thing breaks another.

12) The agony of irreversibility outlives the circumstances that created it.

13) When it comes to the truth, there is no statute of limitations.

14) Sometimes bad situations get a lot worse.

15) Blood isn't always thicker than water.

16) Gullibility isn't a sin, but sometimes its effects are.

17) Things don't always turn out alright in the end.

18) Sometimes people become addicted to odd circumstances.

19) There are far worse things than being alone.

20) Ignore gut feelings at your peril.

21) When the foundation contains subterfuge, there's no use examining the rest of the house for termites.

22) The truth doesn't always set you free.


Decoding Omega

More mystery than it deserves.The question has come up from time to time: Why Omegaword? It came up again this week, so this is probably as good a time as any to throw out a few examples.

Most people are familiar with the finality aspect of the last letter of the Greek alphabet, most notably in connection with the biblical book of Revelation. More recently, the subject of Omega-3 fatty acids in the context of human health has elevated the omega term in the popular consciousness, but I had neither of those connections in mind when Omegaword was incubated.

For me, both the upper and lowercase version of the letter have special significance, because both are used in electrical theory, which is one of my favorite subjects. The more familiar uppercase form is used as the symbol for resistance to electrical current, while the lowercase represents angular velocity, which, in turn, is used for calculating things like reactance, which is the imaginary part of impedance, which is a complex quantity, which is where things become irrational, which is why I'm fond of it. Like the square root of a negative number, it speaks to my inner geek, but in a nonlinear way that also gets the attention of my inner philosopher. Everyone is happy.

So there's the electrical/mathematical angle. Of course, the letter is used as a symbol in a variety of disciplines—not just electrical theory—but I happen to be most familiar with its use in that realm.

One of my favorite applications of the Omega Word concept comes via Steve Whealton, who, it seems, is very interested in patterns.

Something that my musical and my visual work have in common is maintaining a proper balance between sameness and randomness. I am forever looking for new, interesting, and different ways to create patterns, to alter patterns, to merge patterns, and to render and manifest patterns in ways audible and visible.

Although his use of the term has nothing to do with writing—blogs or otherwise—I've always been more than a little intrigued by patterns, too.

A given set of rules are applied over and over so as to produce, in theory at least, a string that can go on forever! This "infinite" string goes by the provocative name, the "Omega Word."

Provocative it is. And also very cool, as only infinity can be.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. Although it's certainly possible to assign all manner of meaning to it, I like omega for its own sake. I suppose I could go out on a limb and suggest that any words I've left on the Omegaword blog are likely to outlive me, barring some catastrophic, Web-destroying event, that is. Web servers are generally robust, but all bets are off if, say, our sun decides to go supernova in the near future. In that case, the concept of last words—final words—may indeed require a very literal interpretation.


The Rockets' Red Glare

A barrage of formidible projectiles.I know some things seem better in hindsight than they really were at the time. Still, I wish I could just go down to the local fireworks stand and buy a gross of pop-bottle rockets, the way we used to do when the world was young. I haven't seen a bottle rocket in many years, but of all the fireworks we used to play with on the fourth, those were my favorites.

I guess we did put a few in bottles, at first, but that was before we realized their true value as weapons of war. It's a waste of a perfectly good bottle rocket when it just goes up in the air and explodes, because your enemy doesn't care about stuff like that. What your enemy cares about is a carefully aimed barrage of rockets, especially when that barrage prevents him from firing his rockets at his own enemy, which in this case would be you.

Although there are many ways to launch a bottle rocket, my favorite was a section of pipe with a hole drilled approximately two thirds of the way from the end. The hole, of course, allowed the fuse to protrude from the bottom of the pipe so it could be lit by the Loader-Igniter Dude, while the Targeting Dude held the pipe on his shoulder like a bazooka. With the right LID, a competent TD could keep the enemy from becoming too comfortable in any one position on the battlefield.

Another strategy employed the same pipe-with-a-hole scheme, but expanded on the idea by using many pipes at once. How many depended on the war budget, but as I recall, one particularly good year resulted in the procurement of several bottle-rocket batteries consisting of a dozen pipes each. Needless to say, the enemy was completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of rockets launched that night.

Sadly, those days are gone. On the other hand, I don't miss scrambling up cactus-infested slopes in the dark because one or more stray rockets have started grass fires. I don't miss sacrificing my prized jean jacket to the flames, either, attempting to extinguish those flames to avoid intervention by the local fire department. Come to think of it, maybe bottle-rocket warfare is one of those things that seems, in hindsight, better than it really was at the time.


Tears in the Cryosphere

If you're melting and you know it clap your hands. Then slap yourself.I probably love ice and snow as much as the next guy, which is to say, not that much. There's something to be said for a warm, sunny day, which normally excludes things that are cold. Ice and snow, for example. So when I read that glaciers, ice sheets, and sea and river ice have been disappearing at the rate of 1.3% every ten years—and that rate is only expected to increase—my response was, "what's your point?" I mean, who needs all that cold, white stuff anyway?

About three weeks ago, the U.N. Environment Programme released their Global Outlook for Ice and Snow report, which is summarized in an Inter Press Service article that basically tells me planet Earth is going dark.

The white -- snow and ice -- reflect sunlight while the dark -- bare ground and open water -- absorb the heat from sunlight, increasing the pace of global warming.

Oh. Well, I guess I wasn't thinking about the reflectivity thing. I was just thinking about how ice is cold, and how I don't like cold stuff.

Two things in the report leap out. One is that there is an enormous amount of ice and snow on the planet. At the peak of the northern hemisphere winter, 15 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by snow and ice. Permanently frozen ground, or permafrost, is found in both polar and alpine areas and covers about 20 percent of Earth's land areas.

This cold region is so big and important scientists call it the cryosphere, and it is crucial to keeping the planet from overheating.

Right. The cryosphere. I knew that. I just wasn't thinking about it. I was thinking more about how ice is cold, and how I don't like cold stuff, except maybe when it's, like, 100° outside and my brain is melting.

Scientists have also learned that melting begets further melting because the melt water gets under the glaciers and lubricates and thus accelerates its ride into the sea.

Right. The cascade effect. Like dominos, sort of. I knew that. I just wasn't thinking about it.

Temperatures in the Arctic have risen faster than anywhere else, producing a clearly visible decline in sea ice of 8.9 percent per decade. Predictions for the first summer when the Arctic Ocean is ice-free have fallen from 2100 to 2050 in recent years, then 2040 and the latest as soon as 2027 . . .

Um . . . that probably isn't a good thing, right? I mean, that's a lot of water, and it has to go somewhere. Twenty years was already kind of creepy, and now you're telling me that's probably optimistic?

On second thought, maybe ice isn't such a bad thing after all, especially since I don't happen to live on a houseboat.


Fun with DNA

Why suffer with boring DNA?If you're bored with life and ready for a change, help may be closer than you think. It seems a team of scientists have performed the world's first genome transplant, which means that one of these days you, too, will be able to shapeshift in the privacy of your own home. One minute you're some guy named Bob, and the next, you're a quasihuman creature terrorizing the neighborhood, because that's just what synthetic lifeforms do.

Scientists have converted an organism into an entirely different species by performing the world's first genome transplant, a breakthrough that paves the way for the creation of synthetic forms of life.

Of course, the means to accomplish this sort of magical transformation isn't yet available in stores, but you can still mess around with your DNA while you're waiting. A professor of molecular biology and biotechnology at Sheffield University recently discovered that sodium benzoate—a chemical used in an astonishing variety of edible products—is capable of deactivating one's DNA.

He told The Independent on Sunday: "These chemicals have the ability to cause severe damage to DNA in the mitochondria to the point that they totally inactivate it: they knock it out altogether.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to jumpstart my weekend right now, and have some fun with my own DNA. All I really have to do is eat and drink, and the chemicals do the rest. What could be easier?


How Do We Learn to Plagiarize?

Don't quote me, but I think everything might be plagiarized.How do we learn to plagiarize? I don't mean the deliberate, word-for-word theft of others' writing so much; I'm thinking about the involuntary regurgitation of catchy words and phrases harvested during the course of everyday life. Yeah, I know. That isn't really plagiarism; it's just the unavoidable result of absorption. It's normal. Get over it.

Sooner or later you slam into the unavoidable conclusion: there are only so many useful words to work with, and only so many ways to hook them up. Some of those ways seem more creative, more original than others. But are they, really? I mean, hasn't it all been done before?

I think so, and it eats at me as much as ever. Originality is important; creativity is the thing. About three weeks ago, the idea of dancing in the shadow of the wind seemed to have come from a brief phrase uttered by someone—on the phone, as I recall—who was in the process of moving her plants out of harm's way due to an approaching storm. She was, as she half-jokingly put it, moving her plants into the shadow of the wind.

As it turns out, there was a reason she used that particular phrase on that particular day, and it had everything to do with the title of a book that had imbedded itself in her mind the night before, probably during the course of a PBS program she saw on TV. That's all it took, really. From there, the catchy phrase jumped into my brain, and thence to my fingers, where—with the addition of the dancing word—it morphed into the title of a blog post. Scary.

Not that the idea was completely original in the first place, of course. There are gobs of references to the concept of wind shadows, and it isn't like you can copyright an idea anyway. That's what patents are for. But still, it bothers me that the phrase should have come on the heels of a book title, and perhaps more to the point, that I was so unaware of the connection. Ignorance, they say, is bliss, and it ain't bad for swiping catchy phrases, either.


Online, Offline, and Out of Line

Like the Net? You may be out of line.

A graph related to very brief article on the BusinessWeek site illuminates the sorts of things American people are doing online these days, and more to the point, the relative age groups of those people. These online users are divided into six categories: Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators, and Inactives. For example, Creators are defined as those who "publish Web pages, write blogs, or upload videos to sites like YouTube," while at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Inactives "are online but don't yet participate in any form of social media."

In terms of age, the bulk of the activity comes from the younger people—notably the 18 to 21 group—while increasing age also seems to result in a decrease in activity, or at least the sorts of activities represented in this particular set of data. The exception is in the Collectors category—those engaged in gathering information—where age seems to make little difference.

Meanwhile, a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll of 1,010 American adults found—in addition to record levels of anger at the federal government, of course—a significant disparity in perception between those who prefer the Net, and those who like mainstream media for their news and information needs.

The survey also found that people who regularly use the Internet but who do not regularly use so-called "mainstream" media are significantly more likely to believe in 9/11 conspiracies. People who regularly read daily newspapers or listen to radio newscasts were especially unlikely to believe in the conspiracies.

Interesting, no? Discuss.



Hungry?Just under a month ago I bumped into the news of our plastic-infested oceans, and the Los Angeles Times article I quoted from had already been around a while. A more recent article—June 14, to be specific—from the Monterey County Weekly is even more troubling, because it not only expands on some of the material contained in the Times article, but adds current information that indicates a far worse situation than might have been imagined before.

According to the article, recent research finds that a whopping 90% of all floating marine debris is made of plastic. News from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation—and from other quarters as well—is disturbing, to say the least.

Algalita researchers have found that the amount of micro plastics in the Central North Pacific has tripled in the last decade. Their colleagues on the other side of the Pacific concluded that off the coast of Japan it has shot up by a factor of 10 every two to three years.

Near the beginning of the article is a reminder that you don't have to live near an ocean to be affected by this disaster. One effect in particular has nothing to do with geography, and everything to do with diet, especially if you happen to enjoy seafood.

Shrimp, jellyfish and small fish eat the particle-sized plastic debris that look a lot like plankton, and which, in some places, are three times more abundant than the real thing.

Let them eat plastic, indeed. It would be nice to think that, at some point in the future, this problem will be resolved. Unfortunately, this, too, may be nothing but wishful thinking. As the article points out, "most of it is so small and so abundant that it would be nearly impossible to filter out."

And now scientists are discovering the implications of one troubling attribute of petroleum-based plastic, known since its invention, but ignored under the assumption that technology would eventually resolve it: Every plastic product that has ever been manufactured still exists.

Mmmmmm . . . plastic. Let's eat!



With apologies to A. A. Milne For every positive trait embodied by Winnie, his brother exhibited exactly the opposite characteristic. Where Winnie was humble, Vinnie was swollen with a boundless arrogance. Where Winnie went out of his way to help his neighbor, Vinnie sowed mischief, and missed no opportunity to torment anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. Winnie loved honey, but his brother ate ants. And while Winnie was in bed by 9:00, even on weekends, Vinnie slept all day and spent his nights carousing with a gang of feral baboons. By any reasonable estimation, Winnie was a fairly decent guy, but Vinnie was a fiasco.

So it was a surprise to no one when Vinnie disappeared from the face of the earth. Some said he had come out on the short end of an argument with a baboon, although one of the old-timers swore he'd seen Vinnie climbing the railway bridge the night before he went missing. The donkey thought Vinnie had been abducted by aliens, but no one ever listened to the donkey. The only one who really seemed to miss Vinnie was his brother, because despite their glaring differences, they were still family. And so it was Winnie who went out in search of the village misfit, because stuffing is almost always thicker than water.

Winnie hadn't been gone a week when his brother reappeared. Vinnie didn't seem to understand the questions he was asked when the sheriff picked him up on the outskirts of town, nor the stares of the villagers as he sat in the back seat of the patrol car. The sheriff, in turn, couldn't make sense of the gibberish issuing from Vinnie's mouth, and the odor emanating from the bear was familiar, yet oddly out of place. The inside of the patrol car smelled a lot like Thanksgiving dinner—stuffing in particular—but the sheriff chalked it up to wishful thinking, and the fact he had missed lunch that day.

The donkey became even more convinced that Vinnie had been abducted, and said so. The aliens, he insisted, had removed the bear's insides and substituted stuffing of a different sort, which was their idea of a joke. He opined, too, that the fluff between Vinnie's ears had been replaced with cranberries, which accounted for his odd speech. But no one listened to him, because he was just a donkey.

As for Winnie, he was never seen again, at least not in the little town he left shortly after his brother's disappearance. There were rumors, of course. One was that Winnie promptly forgot about his brother and found his way to Broadway instead, where he became a famous stage actor amid an equally notable cast of personified animals. It was also rumored that he had become the author of many books about similarly humanlike animals, but no one took it seriously. As everyone knows, bears aren't very good at writing.


Digital Disbelief

Skepticism is good, to a point.Digitally manipulated photos are everywhere, and the type of software used to do the manipulating is now in the hands of so many that a certain level of skepticism regarding the authenticity of some photos is to be expected. But after browsing a collection of shadows-created-from-junk photos, then reading the comments left by others, I can't shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, it's all gone a bit too far.

In this case, the cynicism that springs from constant exposure to ultra-realistic—but fake—images results in immediate disbelief on the part of quite a few visitors to the site. Others insist the images are authentic, based on their own experiences with this type of art. It doesn't seem to matter, either, that the first sculpture in the series, Lunch With A Helmet On, was created in 1987, well before software like Photoshop was routinely used to fool the eye. In 1987, it took 848 welded forks, knives and spoons to do it.


Rolling Thunder

Fun with stormsAround here, the sound of thunder has been stored away in short-term memory. We've phased into one of those extended periods of hot, dry weather that always seems to come on the heels of our springtime rainy season, so the sky is silent. A different kind of sound is stored in long-term memory. It's the sound of thunder, too, but not the echoing kettledrum we get at the lower elevations. This one sounds like a rifle in a tool shed, which can be frightening, especially to a four-year-old.

We weren't living at timberline, exactly, but even a few thousand feet below that level, thunder is jarringly sudden, and acute. It probably doesn't help that there's virtually no delay between lightning and the explosion that follows, but that comes with the territory when you're living with your head in the clouds. At the time, this was little consolation to my young daughter, who had suddenly and inexplicably become fearful of thunder, even though it was a familiar sound after four years of life. But as is so often the case during those formative years, what's tolerable one day isn't necessarily so the next, and all the explanations—or sympathy, or hot chocolate—in the world don't amount to a hill of beans. Sometimes the fear remains anyway.

As it happened, this particular problem had an easy solution. Really, it was an accidental solution, but that doesn't matter so much. What matters is that the thunder lost its teeth, and became funny; after all, it's much harder to be frightened when you're laughing. In this case, the solution amounted to nothing more than sitting on the floor with my young daughter in my lap, and with every crack of thunder we rolled backward while I made the "aaaaaiiiiiiiii!!!" sound.

The first time we rolled back up into our starting position, my four-year-old seemed a bit shaken, and not entirely unafraid. The second time, there was a little smile on her face. By the third, she was laughing. After that, we didn't have to do it anymore because the fear was gone, but we did it anyway. When the next thunderstorm came, we did it again.


Chess and Tiddlywinks

Real winks don't wear crownsWatching two people duke it out on a chessboard can be instructive, and thought-provoking. The sidewalk match I was observing last night wasn't generating much in the way of dialogue, which I suppose is one of the hallmarks of the game. But that changed when a passerby stopped to watch, and mentioned an overlooked opportunity on the part of one of the players. An en passant capture, he suggested, would have improved the player's situation. The player responded that life is a lot like Chess, then retracted the remark in favor of the stronger, more direct statement that life is, in fact, a game of Chess.

I have a different idea. I think life has more in common with Tiddlywinks, because those little blue, green, red and yellow winks have to fly through the air, and so may be affected by unanticipated events—sneezes, for example—that can dramatically alter the outcome of the game. Another aspect of the game that mirrors real life is the act of squopping, or covering the opponent's wink so as to make it unusable. This has many analogues in the everyday world; clothing and dark sunglasses are two examples.

The language of Tiddlywinks more closely resembles actual, real-life language as well. An example from the Lexicon of Tiddlywinks proves the point.

I can't pot my nurdled wink, so I'll piddle you free and you can boondock a red. But if Sunshine gromps the double, I'll lunch a blue next time.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Tiddlywinks is the strategic equivalent of Chess. But strategy can only take you so far, because sooner or later, someone is going to sneeze.


Hastening the Second Coming

What time is it, really?One of the more interesting discussions I had over the weekend was with a guy—I'll call him Robert—who happens to believe that global warming is a good thingThis is because the eventual result is the end of life as we know it. While that may sound flippant, be advised that Robert is utterly serious about his point of view, and in fact doesn't consider it a viewpoint at all. To him, it's simply the truth.

Robert believes in overpopulation; it's just that he doesn't see it as a negative. To him, it's the tangible result of God's biblical edict to be fruitful and multiply, which didn't specify a duration or otherwise put a time limit on that multiplication. As Robert pointed out, the eventual and obvious result is Earth's inability to sustain life, but that isn't a problem so much as a blessing. A self-described evangelical Christian, Robert believes the end of life as we know it is simply that: it's the end of the known but the beginning of the unknown, and the latter is infinitely preferable.

According to Robert, he's but one among millions who share this belief, and look forward to the end of physical human life on this planet. Other things must happen first, he says, but in the meantime every human body hastens the process, particularly when they're occupying large SUVs. He was smiling when he added the part about the SUVs, but I don't think he was kidding.



This might be a zombie.Ever have one of those days where people you never expected to see again begin popping up one after another? I've read enough stories with that sort of plot to know it isn't necessarily a good thing. Some of those people may actually be zombies; they might only resemble someone from the past. This is a particular problem with people you haven't seen since childhood, because even non-zombies aren't always recognizable. People change, and sometimes they change a lot.

To illustrate, a guy I saw last night seemed awfully familiar, but I knew the sense of déjà vu I was experiencing might not be the real thing. So I approached the situation with caution, remembering those stories and all the bad things that can happen when carelessness is allowed to take over. Initially, I feigned indifference. I commented on the weather, wondering if it might rain. I put my fingers in my mouth, and generally pretended to have no particular interest one way or the other. All the while, I watched for the telltale signs of zombiness.

Then, at exactly the right moment, I launched my attack. I asked him for the time, because if there's one thing zombies don't know, it's the correct time. He pretended not to understand the question, so I repeated it. Same result. Removing my fingers from my mouth, I began naming the inner planets, because zombies can never remember if Venus is next to Mercury, or if it's Mars. This also didn't trigger the desired response, so I was pretty sure I had a zombie on my hands. But when he began backing slowly toward the door all remaining doubt evaporated, because walking backward is how zombies recharge their batteries.

Earlier that evening, I had been standing in line at the local coffee shop when a woman I hadn't seen in years approached from the side, which is a known zombie tactic. Zombies never approach from the front, because that would give you time to think. She said "hay," which is a Zombish codeword that means "I need more straw." Zombies and scarecrows have a lot in common, because both rely on straw to pad out their clothing so you won't notice their shrunken limbs. I decided to draw her out, so I began humming an old Pink Floyd tune, which is an excellent way to determine zombiness. Zombies will never join you in a chorus of The Wall, because they can't relate to Pink Floyd's angst. She raised her eyebrows in a mock expression of puzzlement but didn't seem to know the words to the song, so I paid for my coffee and began to walk away. I could hear her repeating the codeword as I left the coffee shop, but it's best to ignore zombies when they're doing that because sometimes they want more straw than you can give them, and then they become hostile when you say you're all out.

I'm not 100% sure if the guy dressed as a policeman was a zombie, but I didn't want to spend yet another morning sitting in the back of his car, so I just played along. Some of the questions he asked were suspicious, because he was already looking at my driver's license, which clearly indicates my preferences when the time comes to donate various parts of my body. If my feet were really made of lead it would say so on my license, and that way the recipient wouldn't be surprised if his new feet didn't operate as expected. A zombie wouldn't make that connection. But sometimes it's best to avoid overantagonizing a zombie, because you never know when you might meet again, or under what circumstances. When it comes to zombies, sometimes silence is the better part of valor.


The Conduit Alters Its Contents

CDA section 230 againI finally got the chance to look at the recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, which of course involves my little buddy, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Instead of the usual applause, it seems this time there's some concern over the lack of CDA protection granted the defendant,, LLC, which operates a roommate-finder Web site.

As you've already noticed from commentary elsewhere, this case—at least in the context of section 230—turns on the extent of involvement by the operators of the site. To quote Judge Kozinski, "a provider of an interactive computer service does not lose its CDA immunity if it merely exercises some control over the posting of information provided by others, such as enforcement of rules as to appropriate content or minor editing." "Nor," he adds, "does it generally lose its immunity if it simply facilitates expression of information by individuals." Therefore, "Roommate is immune so long as it merely publishes information provided by its members."

As you can see from the following quotes taken from the court's opinion, the site's involvement—or that of its human operators—wasn't really the problem. Changing the wording doesn't necessarily change its meaning.

When users select the option "I will not live with children," Roommate publishes this response as "no children please." The Councils argue that this alteration makes Roommate a content provider and therefore not immune under the CDA for publishing this statement. However, minor editing that does not affect meaning is protected under the CDA as the "usual prerogative of publishers."

Because "no children please" is materially the same as "I will not live with children," Roommate does not lose its CDA immunity because of the change in wording.

On the other hand, the Councils allege that Roommate takes members' blank selection in the children field and publishes it as "no children please." We could not find support for this proposition in the record, but if Councils' allegation is true, then Roommate significantly alters the meaning of the information provided by its members and is not entitled to CDA immunity for posting the resulting content.

Apparently, the problems began when input from the site's members was manipulated by questionnaires, and the output channeled to other users. Those categorizing, channeling and limiting actions created an additional layer of information.

Roommate is "responsible" for these questionnaires because it "creat[ed] or develop[ed]" the forms and answer choices. As a result, Roommate is a content provider of these questionnaires and does not qualify for CDA immunity for their publication.

. . . Roommate does more than merely publish information it solicits from its members. Roommate also channels the information based on members' answers to various questions, as well as the answers of other members.

While Roommate provides a useful service, its search mechanism and email notifications mean that it is neither a passive pass-through of information provided by others nor merely a facilitator of expression by individuals. By categorizing, channeling and limiting the distribution of users' profiles, Roommate provides an additional layer of information that it is "responsible" at least "in part" for creating or developing.

On the other hand, the additional comments section of the site was considered separately, and found to meet the requirements for CDA immunity . . .

We conclude that Roommate's involvement is insufficient to make it a content provider of these comments. Roommate's open-ended question suggests no particular information that is to be provided by members; Roommate certainly does not prompt, encourage or solicit any of the inflammatory information provided by some of its members. Nor does Roommate use the information in the "Additional Comments" section to limit or channel access to listings. Roommate is therefore not "responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of" its users' answers to the open-ended "Additional Comments" form, and is immune from liability for publishing these responses.

. . . although Judge Reinhardt disagreed:

Roommate cannot receive § 230(c) immunity for publishing information in the Additional Comments," if it is "responsible . . . in part, for the . . . creation or development of information."

In any event, it's yet another interesting test case for section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. I'm sure there will be more.


Will I Dream?

In a daze for nightsIf your car's gas tank had a hole halfway up the side, and every time you filled the tank 50% of its contents were lost on the road somewhere, would you mind? Or say you walk into your favorite coffee joint and discover they've put holes in all their cups that allow only half the usual amount of coffee, although the price remains the same. I'm not sure which would be worse, but personally, I'd be less than thrilled with either prospect.

According to the Techworld article I just read, that's pretty much the situation when it comes to computers. The average desktop PC, it seems, wastes nearly half the power coming from the wall outlet. In an effort to deal with this amazing state of affairs, Google and Intel have set up the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by millions of tons per year, saving in excess of $5.5 billion in energy costs in the process.

With your help, we can reduce global CO2 emissions from the operation of computers by 54 million tons a year by 2010. That's like taking 11 million cars off the road each year.

In the meantime, an interesting sidenote—from the General FAQ at the CSCI site—points to a simple measure that's within everyone's reach, starting now.

In addition, there is a significant opportunity to reduce overall energy consumption by putting systems into a lower power-consuming state when they are inactive for long periods of time. Even though most of today's desktop PCs are capable of automatically transitioning to a sleep or hibernate state when inactive, about 90% of systems have this functionality disabled.

Sweet dreams, little computer.