Matters of Inertia

Spinning with inertia's stubborn forceThe title of a book excerpt from Mother JonesWhy Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy—might suggest a tale of modern life in America, but as it turns out, the scale is larger than that. Really, it's a story about inertia, as the final paragraph makes clear.

We've gone too far down the road we're traveling. The time has come to search the map, to strike off in new directions. Inertia is a powerful force; marriages and corporations and nations continue in motion until something big diverts them. But in our new world we have much to fear, and also much to desire, and together they can set us on a new, more promising course.

Not that it would be a good idea to simply drop to the bottom of the article, and leave it at that. There are a number of interesting points—beyond the trajectory of planetary ruin scenario—contained in this tale of economic progress at the expense of all else. Isolationism, for example, and not just from our neighbors.

As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, "Major builders and top architects are walling people off. They're touting one-person 'Internet alcoves,' locked-door 'away rooms,' and his-and-her offices on opposite ends of the house. The new floor plans offer so much seclusion, they're 'good for the dysfunctional family,' says Gopal Ahluwahlia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders."

What, one might ask, might be the ultimate goal of this isolation? To be left alone with one's toys, perhaps.

No wonder the show that changed television more than any other in the past decade was Survivor, where the goal is to end up alone on the island, to manipulate and scheme until everyone is banished and leaves you by yourself with your money.

But this apparent desire to be left alone isn't without its consequences, not the least of which may be one's health . . .

Check this out: When researchers at Carnegie Mellon (somewhat disgustingly) dropped samples of cold virus directly into subjects' nostrils, those with rich social networks were four times less likely to get sick. An economy that produces only individualism undermines us in the most basic ways.

. . . not to mention our sense of identity.

Here's another statistic worth keeping in mind: Consumers have 10 times as many conversations at farmers' markets as they do at supermarkets -- an order of magnitude difference. By itself, that's hardly life-changing, but it points at something that could be: living in an economy where you are participant as well as consumer, where you have a sense of who's in your universe and how it fits together.

How did this happen, the author asks. How did we screw up?

The answer is pretty obvious -- we kept doing something past the point that it worked. Since happiness had increased with income in the past, we assumed it would inevitably do so in the future. We make these kinds of mistakes regularly: Two beers made me feel good, so ten will make me feel five times better. But this case was particularly extreme -- in part because as a species, we've spent so much time simply trying to survive.

Inertia, as the author suggests, is indeed a powerful force. It's all too easy to coast along on it, even after it's become apparent that the course will ultimately take us onto the rocks.


Pretty Please

Like the message in a bottle that's just washed up on the e-shore, I discovered a plea for help from the other side of the big water. "Pretty please can someone comment?" it reads, followed by an admission of guilt, sort of . . .

Shhh. Don't tell anyone. But I work for the Daily Telegraph and have been wasting company time writing this blog.

. . . and ending with a thinly-veiled plea . . .

Oh no. Now I've written that it will be really embarrassing if I come in tomorrow morning and see zero comments.

. . . which ought to be more than enough reason to comment on it, I think.


Why I Fear Surgeons

Scalpels R UsAn old friend is scheduled for surgery today, so I have scalpels on my mind. This is not a good thing, because if there's one thing I hate, it's the idea of being cut open with a sharp knife. I think it goes back to childhood, when my boyish fascination with knives resulted in more than one self-inflicted injury. My first jackknife closed on my right index finger during an attempt to make a hole in my bedroom wall, and the scar remains to this day.

When I think about hospitals I think about surgeons, and surgeons have very sharp knives. About ten years ago I had a small lump removed from my chest, and although the principles of machismo and stoicism prevented me from shaking and crying as I lay on the paper-covered table, the evidence of my deeply rooted fear of being cut open was impossible to hide when it was all over. Although I somehow managed to keep from wetting my pants, the paper I had been lying on was soaked through.

Dr. Molotov: "I thought you said you were okay with this. You weren't okay at all."

Me: "I think there's something wrong with my sweat glands."

Dr. Molotov: "Get serious. You were sweating bullets!"

Me: "Well, when you started cursing I thought you'd hit an artery or something. I couldn't see what was going on."

Dr. Molotov: "Oh jeez."

Unlike the scar on my finger, the location of Dr. Molotov's handiwork is difficult to discern now. But I haven't set foot in a surgeon's office since, or a hospital; hospitals are known for their high concentration of surgeons, most of whom probably have at least one scalpel. So I avoid those places, but every once in a while I'm reminded of their utility for people who might not function properly if they aren't cut open. I hope I'm not faced with that sort of decision anytime soon, but for my friend—who's probably in pieces by now—it may be the right thing to do. Unless the surgeon accidentally leaves part of his sandwich in there, that is.


The Anti Noah

Bad NoahLooking back on it now, all the signs were there. Maybe I chose to ignore them; maybe I didn't want to believe that evil is alive and well and working in a coffee shop. All the talk about installing electrified chicken wire on rooftops—the answer to pigeons, he had said—and the unhealthy interest in animals generally. He may not be the antichrist, exactly, but Tucker is not a nice man.

His preoccupation with weapons should have been a warning, and then there are the eyes. But I ignored the eyes, and shrugged off the chill I felt when he fixed those eyes on me and asked whether I wanted whip on my mocha. Cruel eyes. Invariably, the conversation would turn to weapons, but never the ordinary kind. Tucker's obsession with Taser weapons is legendary, but there are other, stranger weapons that occupy his dreams. A cannon, for example.

"A cannon?" I had to ask, even though every fiber of my being was telling me to nod, smile, and get out of that place as quickly as possible. "What would you do with a cannon?"

"Put a squirrel in it, of course." Tucker's lips curled in a grimace of sadistic pleasure. "Then I'd shoot the other squirrel with it."

"I don't understand," I said, trying to smile. "You want to load the cannon with a squirrel? And what other squirrel?"

Tucker held up two fingers. "One male, one female. Two by two, get it?" His eyes were shiny. "Like Noah."

I shivered. "Right. But I thought Noah's thing was taking a pair of every animal to save them, not kill them."

Tucker shrugged. "Yeah, well. Noah did his thing and I do mine. I want to kill two of every animal. I'm the Anti Noah."

I repeated the words under my breath, trying to come to grips with the madness. I envisioned Tucker in a white robe, standing on the deck of his newly constructed ark, firing his cannon at every animal in sight.

Tucker looked up as he adjusted the espresso machine. "Think I can hook up the ammo? Shouldn't be too hard to attach a couple wires to a squirrel, right?"

"Like a Taser cannon, you mean?" I was starting to catch on; I was beginning to understand the demented logic.

Tucker winked a cruel eye. "Snap . . . crackle . . . pop!" He shouted the last word, and every head in the place turned. A young child began to cry.

I paid for my coffee, trying to avoid Tucker's questioning gaze. I knew he was waiting for a response. An encouraging word, perhaps; something to indicate my acceptance of his diabolical scheme. But my mouth had gone dry, and I could only manage a cough. As I left the coffee shop, I could hear Tucker's voice over the hiss of the espresso machine. He was repeating his own name, over and over again. It sounded like Pig Latin.


The Invisibility Experiment

Toil and troubleA couple weeks ago, someone made the observation that I could reduce my output to one post per week, and that would be enough. I disagreed, based on the idea that this would only contribute to its rapid disappearance from the blogospheric radar. But after thinking about it a bit, I decided to test the hypothesis. After all, how do you really know what's going to happen until you actually conduct the experiment?

So last week turned into a small hiatus from the computer, which was something I really needed anyway. Well, not entirely a hiatus, considering the software upgrades and subsequent malfunctions resulting from those upgrades. But that comes with the territory, as I've come to understand during some 25 years of propping up the infernal software that enables these infernal machines.

Anyway, the experiment produced results that weren't entirely what I had expected. Not that I was expecting the Omegaword blip to utterly vanish from the tracking screens, but I figured a sharp reduction in blog posts would result in a proportional reduction in output from the search entities that consider freshness a virtue. Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a difference between four or five monologues per week, and no monologues at all. At least not yet.

It's possible, of course, that a week simply isn't adequate for this experiment. It's possible I'd have to maintain Web silence for two weeks, or three, or perhaps even a fortnight before meaningful results can be obtained. Another possibility is that momentum isn't necessarily defined by duration alone; a blog that's been in existence for only nine months may seem—to some search algorithms at least—weightier by virtue of sheer volume. Assuming equal content, a nine-month-old blog with 100,000 words may have more inertia than its two-year-old, 50,000 word counterpart. There may be other reasons, too, like serendipity.

In any case, I'm not sure I want to find out what would happen, were I to abandon the blog for two weeks, or a month. Maybe nothing would. Maybe it would begin to write itself, with a little help from the cyber intelligence that—some say—has already flickered to life among the sticky strands of the Worldwide Web. But that's an experiment for another day.


The Evil of Summer

When the bee stingsAt this time of year I like to begin mentally preparing myself for Summer, which generally involves thinking about things like green lawns and trees, sprinklers, and the smell of barbeque smoke. Although Spring won't officially arrive in this hemisphere until next week, it's never too early to start thinking about the season that follows. In the spirit of fairness, it's also a good time to contemplate Summer's evil.

One of my earliest memories of Summer—I think I was three at the time—is of my little wading pool in the backyard, and how much fun it was to splash around in it with my toy boats. It was a happy oasis amid the heat of many Summer days. But one morning everything changed. On that morning evil visited my wading pool, and Summer hasn't been the same since. That was the day I discovered a bumblebee drowning in my wading pool, and offered my finger as salvation.

This is why there was a cloud of dust and tire smoke in my rearview mirror as I tried to bring my vehicle to a stop on a similar Summer day, many years after my awareness—not to mention my finger—was first expanded by that bumblebee. It had nothing to do with careless driving, and everything to do with the sudden realization that a large black and yellow object had just been deflected into the open driver's side window, and had landed squarely in my lap. I think it would require superhuman restraint and presence of mind to remain calm with evil incarnate between one's legs, actively searching for a suitable stinging point as retaliation for whatever—in its insect mind—might be responsible for its dilemma.

I've heard it said that bumblebees violate the laws of physics; their stubby wings don't provide sufficient lift for their oversized bodies. This may be, and wouldn't really be at all surprising when you consider evil's reputation for thumbing its nose at rules and regulations. But unless an invisible hand threw the bee at my car, I don't see how else the creature might have been in a position to enter my window in the first place.

Well, there's one other possibility, but it's one I'm reluctant to contemplate this early in the presummerization cycle. It's possible a rift in the space-time continuum allows the same bumblebee to repeatedly materialize in my world, thereby not only scarring my childhood, but continually scraping off the scab throughout my adult life. If so, I imagine I can look forward to at least one black and yellow wrench in the gears of Summer, and all the pain and suffering that goes with it. Now that I think about it, maybe Summer isn't such a great time of year after all.


My Next Life

A cheerful dogIn my next life, I think I'd like to be a cheerful dog. I want to get really excited over little things, like going for a walk or chewing up a shoe. I want to lose myself in all the odors at the park, and the smell of my food dish when I get home. I want to instantly fall asleep, even if that happens to be in the middle of the kitchen floor. I want to bark at a passing car and feel the satisfaction that comes from knowing I did the right thing, even though I wouldn't know exactly why.

I want to chase squirrels, too, because I think that would be fun. I wouldn't want to actually catch the squirrel, though. And I'd like to have my own kitten, because kittens are fun to play with. I once knew a dog who had her own kitten, which was just small enough to fit in the dog's mouth. The dog would kind of chew on the kitten sometimes, and the kitten would get all wet and nasty and start making growling sounds to tell the dog she'd had enough, and then the dog would open her mouth and the kitten would swipe the dog's nose just to let her know who's boss, and after a while they'd take a nap together. So it would be good to have a kitten.

Another reason I'd like to be a dog is that dogs can go around without any clothes on, so they never have to do laundry. And if you're a dog, I don't think you care about whether or not another computer is trying to establish a NetBIOS session with your computer whenever you go online. Dogs don't have to worry about firewalls, or laundry detergent.

If I get to be a dog in my next life, I hope the people I live with like to go fishing. I think it would be fun to go out on the lake in a boat and look for fish, and maybe jump out of the boat if I saw one. I hope I'm one of those dogs with big lungs, so I can hold my breath for a long time when I'm under water.


The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The original

This is incredible. I just discovered a Web site that's such a perfect knock-off of another that I can't believe it's even legal. Alerted by yesterday's All Things Considered program on NPR, I was able to locate the copycat site and compare it to the original. It's a jaw-dropping similarity, to say the least.

I imagine most people have at least heard of Conservapedia, and in fact it's likely you've availed yourself of its pool of knowledge on more than one occasion. But unbelievable as it may seem, someone apparently decided to copy not only the intent of this valuable online resource, but its look and feel. The perpetrators are referring to their copycat site as Wikipedia, a somewhat disingenuous variation, in my opinion, of the original site's name.

With over 4,600 entries, it seems obvious that Conservapedia already covers the lion's share of human knowledge. The so-called Wikipedia, on the other hand, claims over 1,000,000 articles—in English, as if that matters—on their site. I think any rational person can immediately see what's going on there: if you can cover everything with less than 5,000 entries, anything beyond that is just filler. Apparently, these wickipedialites have quantity confused with quality. Sure, they're really similar, but that doesn't mean they're exactly the same.

Conservapedia works so well because it relies on a few simple rules of operation, such as "everything you post must be true and verifiable," and "do not post personal opinion on an encyclopedia entry." Similarly, sock puppets are blocked, which I'm assuming is not the case on Wikipedia. This ought to tell you something.

Something else you ought to be told is that you should never vandalize Conservapedia, because they use protected computers. The proof of this can be had by following the 18 USCS § 1030 link near the top of the main page, which states in part

. . . having knowingly accessed a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access, and by means of such conduct having obtained information that has been determined by the United States Government pursuant to an Executive order or statute to require protection against unauthorized disclosure for reasons of national defense or foreign relations, or any restricted data, as defined in paragraph y.[(y)] of section 11 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 [42 USCS § 2014(y)], with reason to believe that such information so obtained could be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation willfully communicates, delivers, transmits, or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it . . .

or possibly even atomic computers but not the kind that tolerate vandalism and maybe even graffiti so watch out.


The Wordless Faux Pas

Say nothing and still say a mouthful!

Normally, a faux pas implies uttering words that shouldn't have been said. They're words that should never have left one's mouth, at least not at that particular moment. For example, gloating about the longevity in one's family, in the company of someone who's recently suffered the premature loss of a loved one, could be considered a faux pas. On the other hand, boasting about habitually exceeding the speed limit to one's neighbor—who also happens to be a cop—is less a faux pas than an incomprehensible lapse of reason.

But sometimes the faux pas doesn't involve words at all. As someone with extensive experience, I can testify that actual words aren't required in order to commit the crime. Really, simple sounds used at exactly the wrong moment are every bit as effective as the more conventional use of actual sentences. For example, a loud snorting sound perpetrated immediately after someone else has commented on the beauty of the baby in the stroller can be every bit as useful for provoking the familiar gasps—and in some cases physical violence—that commonly result from the more traditional form of the faux pas. In a similar way, a spontaneous facial expression—one that under other circumstances might be considered comical—can become a perfectly serviceable faux pas under certain conditions. Rapidly raising and lowering the eyebrows at a child's birthday party almost always results in giggles from the young audience, but wiggling one's eyebrows at the judge in traffic court generally produces the opposite result.

In addition to the classic inappropriate snorting noise, a sharp whistle can be used as a faux pas. Useful for summoning one's dog from the backyard, the same sound becomes a faux pas in a pool hall full of large angry men wearing leather vests emblazoned with the colors of the local outlaw motorcycle gang.

In certain situations, silence can be a faux pas. One example of this would be saying nothing in response to the always popular question—generally posed by one's wife or girlfriend—concerning whether or not a particular item of clothing makes her look fat. Of course, in that situation it may be that the faux pas is unavoidable regardless of the choice of words, sounds, gestures, or the absence of any of those choices. This is known as a Catch 22, so called because it almost always takes less than 22 seconds for the significant other to tackle and bring down the perpetrator. A common alternative definition—used in connection with married couples—refers to the number of dollars one has left after the divorce is final.

Unfortunately, the only sure way to avoid the faux pas altogether—at least for me—is to completely avoid any situation that might involve contact with living human beings. Although I've been known to go to extremes in the pursuit of this ideal, I continue to find myself in situations where contact is unavoidable. No matter how much I try to avoid it, hunger eventually leads me to the supermarket, and all the risk that goes along with that environment. So far, I've been able to minimize my liability by wearing a hockey mask, and duct-taping my mouth before I enter the store. But I know it's only a matter of time until those measures, too, are overcome by my uncanny ability to turn any situation into the opportunity for a good faux pas, especially when discretion would dictate a safer, more reasonable path.


The Ratios of Joe

The Java Ratio, or not. Ratios are important. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that ratios make all the difference between simple existence, and a rich, meaningful life. If you've ever botched the catsup to mustard ratio on your burger, you already know something about the devastating effects of a ratio gone terribly wrong. But every once in a while—perhaps by sheer serendipity—one arrives at the perfect ratio of elements in the equation, and at that moment life is as close to perfection as it's ever going to get.

I'd be the last to suggest that mustard isn't important, but mustard isn't the staff of life. Coffee is. So when I asked the espresso dude to modify my usual iced mocha drink, it was with the knowledge that I was threatening my own survival. The thing is, milk isn't my friend. It hasn't been for years now, but I've been lulling myself with lies about 2% and similarly weakened versions of the real thing, just so I can have my favorite drink. But no matter how much I want to believe the lie, milk still makes me fart.

Over the weekend, I decided to stop the madness and explore a few alternatives. I'd already tried the usual substitutes, but for me, soy and rice products aren't viable alternatives; they just don't taste like the sort of thing I'd want to drink. Suddenly, the light went on. Where is it written that my iced mocha drink has to contain milk? I mean, it's coffee, not a milkshake, right? Armed with this new insight, I asked Tucker—at the Trail of Turds Coffee Shop, of course—to substitute something else for the milk that normally accounts for most of my drink. Something coffeelike, I suggested. He thought for a moment, then turned to look at the refrigerated case behind him.

With the slightest hint of a smile, he said he had just the thing. The clear pitcher he took from the case contained an opaque liquid that, I thought, looked more like used motor oil than a drink. As he poured the liquid into the cup, I noted its viscosity resembled motor oil, too, but I was too excited to speak. "This stuff," said Tucker, "will stop your heart."

I don't know if I slept an hour or a minute that night. It was as if my mind had been given the order to dump its core and await further instructions, but there were no further instructions; there was only the erratic pounding of my heart as its rhythm degenerated into random blips and bursts. Not unlike a Willy's in four wheel drive, I had thought, giggling into the darkness. Then, grateful I could still laugh at all, I had closed my eyes and watched the patterns dance on my eyelids.

By Sunday afternoon it was clear to me that something had been a bit off. Obviously, Tucker had been careless with the ratios, if he considered them at all. I returned to the coffee shop, determined to improve the equation. But Tucker wasn't there. Instead, Natalie was at the controls, and I immediately wondered how I might communicate the gravity of the situation to someone I hardly knew, someone who might not fully appreciate the importance of the Java Ratios. I approached the counter, and explained what had happened. Natalie listened intently. It seemed she was making mental calculations, adjusting and compensating. A bit less of this, and more of that. Add the missing ingredient. Nudging the ratios toward equilibrium. Then, without a word, she went to work.

The first sip told me everything I needed to know about ratios in a state of grace. It spoke of perfection; it whispered the divine name. The second sip confirmed it: it was the handiwork of the Coffee Samurai. I turned toward Natalie, but she was holding a finger to her mouth, shaking her head. She was right, of course; sometimes words are inappropriate, and even pointless. I left the coffee shop and found a place in the sun, where I sat at length, engulfed in the experience. As the bottom of my cup came into view, I noticed a new clarity of vision. It was as though my eyesight had been amplified; I could make out every detail of the remaining droplets of coffee in my cup. Looking up, I noticed a similar clarity in my surroundings, but all the people were gone. I was alone. Rising to my feet, I walked back the coffee shop and went inside.

All the customers had disappeared. Behind the counter, a robed figure held a sword in midair, as if frozen in time. I blinked my eyes, and every blink produced a flash of lightning that illuminated the sword, which appeared to have some sort of formula etched into its shimmering blade. I tried to approach the apparition, but with every step the lightning became more intense, until finally I was forced to close my eyes. This produced a thunderclap that brought me to my knees, and that's where I lost consciousness.

Some might say it would be dangerous to return to that place; some might even call it madness. That may be the truth, but I know I have to go. Somehow, in some way I don't completely understand, Natalie holds the key to the elusive Java Ratios that are now my obsession, and my life. That she may never divulge the ingredients nor their respective proportions I take as a matter of course; she is Samurai, and so has been entrusted with many secrets. But the path of knowledge is never an easy one, and some day I, too, will wield the sword that separates ordinary coffee from the bliss that results from internalizing the Ratios of Joe.


Unscheduled Maintenance

A wrenching experienceI don't need a calendar to remind me that warmer days are imminent in the northern latitudes. The sun and moon have traded places in the sky; the winter sun's southerly arc is the moon's problem now. The trees are still bare but show signs of impending leafiness. Winter coats are too warm, at least during daylight hours, and things like baseballs and barbeques seem more viable now than they did a few weeks ago.

Unfortunately, I do need a calendar to remind me of that pesky Daylight Saving Time thing, which the powers that be have decided should come earlier this year, thereby not only pre-robbing many of us of an hour of sleep but causing all manner of heartache for those charged with maintaining and administrating the computing systems that rely on accurate timekeeping, not to mention those systems' place in the global timescheme of things. This weekend's earlier-than-usual jump to Daylight Time isn't going to happen everywhere, of course. Other places on the planet that observe the change aren't necessarily participating in this exercise; for them, the change will occur in a couple weeks, as usual. In the meantime, airports will become clogged with weeping travelers, the result of too many nights spent sleeping in baggage carts while the airlines' scheduling systems attempt to cope with the ruptured space-time continuum.

On the more positive side, maybe it's best to get it over with now, so that by the time we really can't stand to be indoors another minute our eyes won't be quite as bleary from getting up an hour earlier. We'll be used to the change by that time, or at least used to coping with the sleep deprivation and miscellaneous physiological effects that result from being abruptly jerked into a different time zone. The new darkness of the morning and lingering light as bedtime approaches cause understandable annoyance for things like pineal glands, which often retaliate by releasing chemicals more appropriate for sea urchins than humans.

Although I continue to believe that worldwide adoption of The One True Time is the only reasonable solution to the chaos of time zones—especially those that wobble back and forth twice a year at random—I'm beginning to come to grips with the idea that this may not happen within my lifetime. But that's okay, because I have a plan. When I'm gone, I intend to have my assistant inject my DNA into the Cesium clock in Boulder that tells us what time it is, or isn't. Maybe then I'll finally have some control over my schedule.


Google Is Evil, Again

Yeah, those evil search dudes againIs it just me, or is there something a bit odd about Microsoft jumping on the Google Is Evil bandwagon? I mean, has Google been crawling through Microsoft's archives, thereby exposing snippets of copyrighted MS software to the world? Or has Microsoft gone into the business of publishing something besides software?

According to today's Microsoft's Copyright Assault on Google article at, Microsoft attorney Thomas Rubin certainly seemed unimpressed with Google during the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers recently, blasting the search giant for "systematically violat[ing] copyright." This, he said, "undermines critical incentives to create."

As it turns out, Microsoft's reason for lobbing grenades at Google may have nothing to do with a plan to get into the publishing business per se, and everything to do with its new Live Search Books product, which arrives some two years after the well-known Google Book Search made its debut. It's about alliances, in this instance with certain publishers who are less than thrilled with Google's reach, and what they perceive as the free distribution of copyrighted material.

So how bad is Google, really? Are they the scofflaws some paint them as, or are they providing priceless, global exposure that ultimately results in increased revenue for those who create the works in question? If you happen to believe the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the latter answer—again from the previously mentioned article—is the more accurate.

But Google has more legal ground to stand on than Microsoft may think, says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Fred von Lohmann. For a judge to rule that Google's digitizing content is not "fair use" and compliant with U.S. copyright law, lawyers would have to prove that Google Book Search is harming the market for the original content. A short excerpt, says von Lohmann, shouldn't keep someone from buying a book. In fact, he thinks it should entice them to go to the library or make a purchase. "I certainly hope that, when the dust settles on this lawsuit, people won't remember the copyright lawsuit—they will just remember that Google opened the doors for what will ultimately become the greatest thing since the Library of Alexandria," says von Lohmann.

Personally, I'm going to bet on the EFF's grasp of the situation. Besides, we're talking about Google here, not some predatory organization bent on destruction, or simply trying to get as fat as possible at any cost. Where's the malice?


Global Articulation

Think bigCatching up on my e-reading this morning, a post at reminded me, again, of the influence of the new global communication made possible by your friend and mine, Technology. As the article's title implies, Dateline Davos: The Shifting Power Equation has to do with the redistribution of power due to technological advances—specifically, in this case, the wedding of communications systems and computers.

The shift that has caught my attention, however, is that from computing systems that communicate to communication systems that compute. The implications for technology vendors are straightforward but dramatic.

Technology vendors aside, this shift first caught my attention with the advent of cellular telephone systems in the early eighties. Although the voice channels, at that time, were still very much a part of the traditional analog world, the rest of the operation relied on digital signaling and processing, and therefore computers. The individual cells were linked by central controllers that orchestrated the handing-off process from one cell to another as the phones moved through space, but the phones themselves also relied on the digital flow of commands to and from the cell with which they were in contact. The cells, for example, instructed the phones to increase or decrease their power levels based on signal strength and advised of impending transfers to the next cell, which often involved a switch from one channel to another. Rudimentary processing to be sure, but then, there were less than 700 voice channels to deal with in those days, and not a lot of cells—or cell-phone users for that matter—to contend with. Still, they were communications systems first and computers second; any digital processing that occurred was in service to the primary goal of enabling voice communication by telephone.

Probably the most striking shift, as I recall, was from calling a location to calling a person. Unless the person happened to be carrying a two-way radio, calling someone on the phone really meant calling a physical location, such as a house or workplace. That concept has largely evaporated now, thanks to our ubiquitous wireless devices, and the growing network of access points that make their everyday use feasible. But typically, a phone only enables communication to and from a rather limited subset of the world's population; most of us still use a phone to talk with friends and business associates, not to make random calls to unknown people somewhere on the planet. Instant messaging—or e-mail for that matter—whether that's done on a handheld wireless device or with the aid of the computer tethered to the table at home or at work is used in much the same way, although of course the possibility exists to use this type of communication with a much wider audience in mind. Unlike voice communication by phone, it's easy to establish a dialogue with the inhabitants of the planet at large, instead of only those we happen to know.

To me, the most important result of this global connectivity is the opportunity to exchange ideas, and not just with those we know. I mean new ideas, foreign ideas, things that make us look at the world and its people from a new vantage point. The opportunity is certainly there; we have the tools; we have the technology. The only thing standing in the way, maybe, is a reluctance to communicate our ideas. Communicating facts is useful—it's good to be informed—but it isn't quite the same thing. It's harder to communicate ideas than it is to relay the news, but it has to start somewhere. I think there are far too many who do an awful lot of reading, but still haven't made the decision to reverse the process and start putting those great ideas out there on the Net so we can see them. To paraphrase Mr. Moore, you're at a premium, but you have to be willing to participate.

The ability both to create and promulgate such memes and to recognize when a meme is acting upon you or one of your constituents is core to being effective in this new reality. A connected world places an enormous premium on people who are fluent in communications: expressing ideas, positioning offers, inferring power relationships, decoding nuances, deflecting the manipulations of others. We are witnessing the rise of the articulate and the marginalization of the inarticulate, whether in our political and business leaders or in our leading brands and most favored Internet sites.

So how about it? Where's that blog—or similar project—you've been putting off? You don't want to be marginalized by inarticulation, do you? 


Standing Outside Time

It's now or neverAs a general rule, discussions of awareness should never be undertaken on a Monday. Technical stuff, or maybe something related to the law are a better fit for Monday's cold rationality. Still, allowances must be made for the occasional exception.

Freezing time is one thing, but stepping entirely out of its boundaries is quite another. In the first case, time still matters, but has been put on hold for a while. In the second, time has lost its meaning altogether—a jarring proposition, to say the least. And yet, as our grasp of physical principles gradually expands, we seem to move ever closer to the metaphysical explanations that have been there all along. The mathematics of reality are increasingly dependent on our perception, which is by no means a reliable measure of anything. The true nature of things, therefore, is an utterly meaningless concept. There are no absolutes; there are only perceptions.

But how to describe the experience of standing outside the ordinary framework? Words, it seems, don't lend themselves particularly well to this sort of exercise. And yet, it is possible, and here's the proof of it.

Awaking from a deep sleep, I experienced that uncanny phenomenon in which everything appears new and familiar all at once. It was almost psychedelic, the way I seemed to see beneath the surface of things. All veils of subjectivity—the distorting filters of my own expectations, fears, and desires—were stripped away. The air was alive with the colored light of dawn. All was revealed to be in a state of flux. The random movements of the swarming seagulls out my window seemed governed by some higher ordering principle. The plants and trees seemed to be hovering above the architecture. Everything everywhere seemed to be vibrantly humming in excitement and joy. On top of it all, time seemed to have no meaning. It was like standing at the South Pole. All the time zones come together at the end of the world. A single pirouette can last an eternity.

This astonishing description of transcendent awareness is brought to you, of course, by the illustrious Craig Conley, by way of the I Found a Penny Today, So Here's a Thought section of his weblog. Now that Monday's veils of subjectivity have been rent, there's only one thing left to do with this day. I know there's a copy of The Fire from Within around here somewhere . . .


Lunar Facts and Fallacies

Mr. MoonbeamYou might want to stock up on the dark glasses, sunscreen, and pepper spray now, because tomorrow evening will be too late. The approaching full moon has already caused the usual behavior amplification during the past couple days—increased alcohol consumption, cruising, and testosterone-driven posturing by adolescent males, for example—but Saturday's full moon combined with the recent payday and a lunar eclipse is likely to bring out an above-average level of lunacy.

The initial phase of the operation—where our planet begins to cast its shadow on its little satellite—will commence just after 20:00 UTC, achieve its greatest effect at 23:21, and the whole thing will be over by the time 2:30 rolls around. During that time, the billions of camera flashes—since no one can figure out how to turn them off—coming from the millions of cameras trained on the event will have caused great embarrassment and stress for the moon, which is xenophobic by nature. This is why the moon always turns an angry shade of red during a lunar eclipse.

In certain parts of the world, the eclipse will be abruptly cut off just as things are starting to get interesting. If you happen to live in, for example, the western portion of Australia, you'll be forced to watch the moon disappear below the horizon before the eclipse really even gets going. This is because you didn't pay full price for your ticket, and will now have to wait until August 28 to see the rest.

Since tomorrow's eclipse will be at least partially visible on every continent, no one will be completely immune from its effects. Although some so-called experts insist that heavy cloud cover may obscure the event, they conveniently neglect to mention the effect of moon rays, which have been known to penetrate even reinforced concrete under certain conditions. You can run, but you cannot hide. What you can do, however, is exercise a bit of common sense before the sun sets tomorrow. Since moonlight is surplus sunlight spun off by the moon's rotation, a generous layer of sunscreen applied to those expensive sunglasses will minimize harmful effects during the eclipse. And to protect the eyes, I recommend giving each one a good burst of pepper spray before that bad moon rises. In this way, any damaging photons will be washed away by the tears before they're able to do permanent harm.