Saturday, October 31, 2009

Goodreads Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I haven't had much time to read lately - this book was a gift, in every possible sense.

Here is the first person story of a boy who had to learn how to build his electricity generating windmill by re-inventing each principle along the way toward its construction. Of course, he couldn't have done it without books to demonstrate the possibility and to provide hints for his experimentation. He couldn't have written this book either without his partner who coaxed the author's own voice to the written page.

But for the rest of us who take our understandings as grants already fully processed, and only assume that we understand what we really take on trust, here is someone who created his understandings pretty much from scratch, despite being told that he couldn't or shouldn't. We have never proven even to ourselves what we think we understand. We might be able to pass an academic test, but can we use what we say we know to change our world?

This is a truly humbling story. What then are we waiting for? Why do we let our schools destroy genius when there are so many who are starving for their resources. Why do we persist to measure what students don't know? Why do we sift out, instead of embracing in?

What William Kamkwamba has done is to demonstrate for the rest of us where true genius must always be engendered. His started in a kind of refusal to be told what is true, whether by poverty or poor scores to prevent schooling, by famine to prevent basic living, by corrupt and ignorant government to prevent basic security, or by the collective magic every one else still lived by. Here is a person who always insisted on discovering his own limitations for himself against truly staggering odds. We'd have given up at boo.

And he truly does believe and makes the reader believe as well, that what he did for his own village can be done for all of Africa. Bring light to the night, water to the fields, sanitation to the living, strong upright sanity to where magical thinking invites corruption. But more than that, he provides his example for what we might do if we also were to ignore the certainties which represent our own powers that be. If we were to overcome our own beliefs in corrupting magic.

We also must unlearn as much as William had to unlearn before we will release our own still hidden genius. Let's not be too sure of the certainties which have been granted us.

I doubt any of us understand anything as well as William understands what he does. And what he understands is not the mechanisms which he realizes, so much as the prior impulse which got "magically" engendered in him by a loving family and community, but also and mostly by William loving himself. Forgiving himself. Being himself.

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Do You Digg Fraudd??

Like all the social networking sites which have eaten up capital to gain an audience, now turns to the business side of their engaging enterprise. There have been a series of articles leading up to the big question mark launch of advertisements mixed right in with the rest of the votable copy.

The idea is simple enough; let advertisers submit their "stories" for the digg community to poll up or down. The advertisers get a read of the response of this grizzled jaded audience to how they tout their goods. The digg community gets more grist to their voting mill. It's like wine tastings where the purveyors value the outspokenly critical palates the most.

The big question mark was how the community might react. Would they regard this as contamination, and just vote down and bury each and every ad? Or would they reward the corporate sponsor of their playground, and just let themselves go ahead and respond to a few catchy ads.

The early word is that this technique is working like a charm. Digg is lowering the price per click for advertisers whose ads get voted up, and effectively therefore penalizing the ones which get buried.

It feels win-win, since if no one sees it, no one clicks, and so there's no risk to advertisers for costly duds, and users are essentially voting the ads right into their viewscreen. I'm sure digg, like Google, protects its secret sauce as to how the balance works between floating up and in or down and out.

Word is that the revenue is starting to flow.

But what does Digg do when gamers game their system, as gamers always will? Do they discreetly spirit away the votes they count as fraud? What about their own motives, then, to disappear enough counts to increase the costs per click? How would we know the difference? Trust us, digg and Google say, we would never do you wrong.

But this is real money we're talking about now. How will you really ever know what gets promoted to your screen and why? Perhaps you don't really care. Perhaps you're happy to pay attention only to what the corporate sponsors want you to pay attention to. Except that you were drawn to digg in the first place because you thought that maybe the crowd would get to decide what gets raised to prominence, and that it might not be the same as what the Main Stream Media wanted you to know about.

Check out these simple screen shots. They are cookies-cleared sequential takes of tallys up on But you don't have to trust the sequence. It's the context which tells the story. Look at the differential among the three stories on the screen and see how it changes, relatively speaking.


So, has digg started paying attention to the business side of digg, or have they changed what voting means?

Transparency anyone? This looks like fraud to me!

Halloween Dirty Dancing

This is one of those 'quick bury that previous post' posts. I still have a tiny modicum of modesty left in me.

I'm thinking of Halloween and how, while I was driving home today, I listened, as you may have done, to an author who'd written a book about cannibalism. It was interesting enough that I switched to my handy dandy internet radio so I could hear it over hill and through dale where the old fashioned broadcast signal never reaches.

Now come on, cannibalism?! Even for Halloween that's a little gross.

But the author was eminently qualified, both because her Dad was a chef to stars (OK, yuch for the associations) and she herself has been a chef, but mostly because this was her professional field. Cultural paleontology or something like that. As with all good research, her study had become a prism for all of life and history.

I listened and sure enough she included the Christian "this is my body" stuff along with her discovery that in every case where cannibalism is sanctioned, there are elaborate religious rituals and justifications around the practice. She also pointed out that, just like slavery, cannibalism is still very much with us, ranging in forms from criminal to martial to sexual to primitive.

As a proper scientist she was utterly certain that this is only a cultural taboo, and that we could be normalized to the practice as easily as to any other practice if that were how we got brought up. Fine, no problem here. She was as grossed out as you or I are, and she had plenty of cases from history about how normal it can be, even within shouting memory in mainstream Western civ.

But it does get you thinking. There's a lot about the way we live which is at least as grotesque. Yep, you betcha, I'm going to pound those idiot Republicans again. Not conservatives, if there are any left. I mean the Republicans who seem bent on confusing outsized business with business, and think somehow they should be exempted from being thought to have normal human natures.

These are the ones, remember, who fight for free speech for corporations. Who insist that campaign contributions don't interfere with their judgment. Who accept the undoubtedly incredibly well researched and well written opinions of corporate lobbyists for the positions they themselves are too busy to formulate. And who still love to complain about the so-called Main Stream Media who use the same process to generate the news they produce for us, the consumers, to consume.

This strikes me for all the world as a kind of cannibalism. After all, these massive companies have so much power that they can determine our tastes and our preferences; what we consider to be important to pay attention to, what we're afraid of, who we hate, who we agree with. I'm not immune. How could I be? How else am I going to know what's going on in the world if not via the MSM?

But the process definitely fuels itself. And there is plenty of religious seeming ritual around the choices we're meant to feel are the only ones available to us. That health care has to be expensive. That drugs won't be developed unless greed is harnessed to do it. That without drugs, our lives would be a nightmare of savage living. That we really must not only own cars, but love them too. And care about the fine distinctions among brands.

I just reviewed a set of videos for the Obama administration for the sake of voting up the most effective anti insurance-lobby health-care reform ad to place on TV. I was extremely disappointed. They were all pretty good at hitting at your emotive gut. But nowhere among them was the highly conservative position that it would be darned good for business if they could count on a healthy and educated workforce without putting that burden on their own books as an expense. How the hell else are we to compete with the rest of the "first" world, which is increasingly healthier and better educated than we are on the whole? Shall we all just be slaves to global corporations? That seems the default desire.

Shall we also go back to toll roads run by private companies because the government is so inept? Maybe. I'd just like to think that there is some nourishment to the system which isn't generated by the system's owners.

OK, I'm not trying to defend the Democrats. They seem to be just as embedded, and even my favorite living Pres. is acting as if he has to play the same game the same way if he wants to make any progress at all. I'm sure he does. We don't leave him any choice.

The real trouble is monopoly capitalism - corporatism - and the fact that, like normalized cannibalism, we don't even see it as strange. We still actually do believe that there was no other choice from granting our land to the pathologically lying railroad barrons so that they could bind our lands. My very favorite President ever, Old Honest Abe, was the one who got duped for this.

I'm not saying the railroads were necessarily a bad thing, but we can't even see that they weren't inevitable in the form they took. We still believe that there is only one direction for what gets called progress, and that it will and must go on forever and ever, amen.

Sure, we have pretty well harnessed the greed of the foundational developers, and turned what they wrought into something which works pretty well for all of us. But within very short order, from the twinned foundational efforts of Darwin and Lincoln until now, we've moved from connecting the frontiers to actual danger of boiling away the lifeblood of the entire planet.

And we're still enamored of the most rapacious among us, so long as they turn their efforts to the public good upon late or early retirement. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates, Nobel. These are all monsters of monopoly. I'm pretty sure the list could go on and on and on.

If you ask me, you might as well include the Church and its Board of Directors. Tholugh at least they have the decency to call cannibalism by its rightful name. At least we know we're eating that Man we worship.

It is no mistake now that Halloween begins to rival Christmas for the extravagance of decoration and celebration; outdoor lighting and blowup animatronics lawn decor. The main thing is that we can pretend to be what we're not. And that we don't have to escalate our gifting.

My sister reminded me recently of that Halloween dance she'd invited me to crash when we were so much younger. Where my friend Peter and I decided to share an ape costume. Where there were that many more women than men among the nursing graduate students. Where I was the one to arrive dressed as an ape, and put on my very best and uninhibited moves. I think I might have been a really good Saturday Night Date in my mockery of myself.

Then halfway through, we swapped. My sister tells me some girl was disconcerted by this transformation. The guy she'd been coming on to had changed somehow internally. It makes me wistfully sad only in the retelling from some outsider's point of view. By myself, I never would have had the nerve, and the shy me without costume would never be confused for that dancing ape.

So you can point to computers and claim they would never exist nor surely be as ubiquitous as they've become without the Microsoft monopoly. You can point to the massive transportation and communications infrastructure which supports our just-in-time goods and services manufacturing economy, and understand that it never would have come about without the energy devouring orgy of industrial strength oil-fed warfare. And you can call these facts the price of progress.

I see them rather as some mockery of human, some abdication of our need to own up to who we actually are in the face of very local and very personal responsibilities to be decent. No matter how mild the ruse, it's not nice to fool with peoples' hopes and dreams. It's not nice to make them feel that their only real choice is to eat or be eaten.

I'll dance and play the fool myself now, and learn by aping those around me until they think I know some moves. My costume's off for good. It's no real fun to act the monster when the real life powers pull it off so well.

I take no real position on cannibalistic practices; am willing to guess that it can be an act of honor as much as revenge. I do think that our meat eating habits could use some adjusting. That our orgies of speed and life-projection have reached their terminal limits.

I also believe that as unnecessary as have been these rapacious monopolists' victories, they have brought us to this particular brink from which we can, in fact, if we wish to, reclaim humanity from our ash heap.

We can realize that indeed things have come about very much as if it were inevitable. The the singular and unifying language of science, which has made possible all the predatory exploitations of the innocence of masses of people for the sake of serial and parallel incarnations of this or that Attilla the Hun, has also brought us all together to this particular moment in our collective history - and we are still very much all one - from where it's possible, if we want it, to become that fully human.

I am vigilant now. Internally silent. Waiting for the CERN Large Hadron Collider to go looking again for the next so-called particle or boson or scintillating string. I have no particular hopes attached. What I am hoping for and waiting to see is that a few people will have, just in time, awakened to the obvious.

It is not our choosing which determines reality. It is our response. There is infinite regress on the one hand - an endless chase after our own tail toward particles indistinguishable from flitting fancies in our minds. This will always empower our blood lust.

Or there is a stepping back to find that this ape has always been animated by something human. That the accidental and random merging of waves which causes hard reality to condense from merest possibility is always emotionally prefigured.

That conquest is never victory. That pinning down in words or deed the stuff of our dreams can only destroy it by making it far too real. That meaning is minimally dialogic, and that machines and beasts are both excluded from the exercise. I'll not be eating any human flesh, nor even mocking that ghoulish practice.

The stuff I want to realize can only exist in communication - call it communion if you will - between onself and others. There is no imaginable world where that reality can be touched in the flesh. Or reified on some highly instrumented screen.  That chase is terminal, terminated and boring already. It postpones, for glory, a response we already know.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Male Vibrator (an Immodest Proposal)

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Cloud Wars

So this time I simply want to tell a story. I want to tell how I came to work with computer networks, and how I've made that also part of who I am and what I want to write about.

I now exit Information Technology work after what has been for me the extravagant commitment of two consecutive sabbatical stretches. I'm talking about seven year spans, each as long as I've stayed in any one full-contact relationship.

So, even though you will have to agree that I'm the consummate dilettante, objectively speaking I'm more a techie than anything else I've ever been. I call myself a "Microsoft drone" to the people I run into high up in the Company, just to be sure they know who's bringing in their honey.

You might say my heart isn't in it anymore. I just honestly don't find the technology all that cool, or even, truth be told, very useful the way it often gets deployed. I mean, sure it's useful, but as its prices drop and the hype hyperbolizes, a question gets begged about a corner turned.

I'm not convinced in the end that the actual inputs to our economy go toward better living, as much as toward bubbly froth. In that, I'm reminded, of course, of how the recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown happened.

Technology feeds its own expansion, and will and can and must end only with our terminal boredom.

For sure the work that I would prefer to do could be done as well with pen and paper. But as the medium has changed, the message changes too. And it's not all bad.

It ought to be the case that these words might strike some sympathetic harmonic in you. Our connection could never occur in other past universes I've known.

The way I write cannot be identical to penned words prepared for publication. My audience can be as diminutive as only myself and still it seems worth my while to write as if for you. My writing has been whittled down from publication form, through and past once formal epistolary manners. I blew right by, as we all did, the highly personal letters we might have written, now so thoroughly destroyed by e-mail.

And while I have learned to make personal contact by emails, with those few people who have the patience actually to read, it is this new form which still draws my actual labors. The others are so purely pleasurable, and informed as though spontaneously by my feelings.

This would all be narcissistic if I cared what you thought of me, or if I thought there was something all that charming about the me whose being here provides the evidence for what and how I think. Sure I fear that narcissism, but I think the connection might also prove to be that much closer to personal. I like this medium fine.

It's true, I don't distinguish very well between my life's story and who I am, and I'm never certain which is writing whom. I strive for truth, and marvel at my own very good fortune. So blogging suits me, you know, almost as though I'd have had to invent it if it didn't already exist.

And sadly, my handwriting has atrophied now to where I can't even read it myself. Blame it on information technology, starting with the keyboard.

Effectively used by trained engineers, computers are clearly awesome. But, it's also pretty clear that these effective users of computing power could never afford to do their work if it weren't for the subsidy from the rest of us, releasing our minor passions through our purchase decisions. Phenomena like the blogosphere get created as byproduct. And maybe IT is important after all.

For me, between or among careers, I got my start with a need to master statistical calculations for the social sciences. My career path would have required geographic mobility, which my divorce stopped in its tracks. So naturally, I ended up going back to school.

I'd been intrigued early on by word-processing, by the excitement of virtualized commitments to textual experimentation. It felt quite liberating, up against the literal cutting and pasting I'd had to do, last minute of course, to graduate from college. And then the mouse!! I was transported. Sitting at a word-processor keyboard, I almost felt that my thoughts were flowing from the very world around me.

This was a proper "computer" and not one of those early "dedicated" word processors, which could do only that one thing the designers had in mind. I doubt anyone would take the counterpoint that it is their very universality which makes the computer interesting at all. It seems that you can make it do almost anything done by any other machine in the house now! No wonder they have to subsidize the dedicated gaming machines so that they can sell you their lucrative cartridges.

I do have to tell you though, that the very first true computer-based word processor I used had almost no hard memory, and so it had to store my texts right on the huge and actually quite floppy spinning disk. The next one, which I actually bought myself, had a "hard-drive" equivalent, extravagantly, to some 100 of those floppy disks. The much higher RPM hard disk made the swapping in and out from texts that I might scroll through a little quicker and less noisy than the spinning up and down of the slowly turning floppy drive.

The actual code underneath the text up on my screen was also just plain text, using "control" characters almost exactly like the hypertext markup language underneath these web-pages. HTML. There was no human unreadable binary "code". That was all stored away, "compiled," in the program, and not listed right along with my typed words.

So, if you wanted to, and I often did, you could look under the covers to see the actual guts of what you were working on. That was especially useful when things went wrong, as they often do, and the screen got a little scrambled. Now I can't even remember the name of the program - I think it was called PC-Write - but it was free way before open source got fully defined, and got me all the way through graduate school.

But when I bumped against SPSS, the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, which I was required to master in order to pass a course, my old machine was no longer adequate. I'd paid well over $5,000 when that was real money. When I also was, not incidentally, earning an actual living wage as I've seldom done before or since.

So now, as a graduate student, and having to fund child support payments, I had to find a way to make my old PC work.

I could have used the "mainframe" for SPSS, but it was so darned cool to be able to load up my own computer with huge datasets from the world bank or some other global agency. I could play with the numbers to my heart's content, way way into the night. I wanted my regressions fast. I wanted them completely within my control.

I have to admit that I was having fun. I discovered that I could buy a new "motherboard" cheap, and then I discovered that I had to buy a floating point co-processor to handle the statistical math, and then I discovered that I would need more memory.

I remember well that price - a whopping fifty bucks per megabyte after laborious bargain hunting - dirt cheap at the time. Now you can get more than a few thousand times that much for the same nominal money.

Meanwhile, I ended up with a kind of monster computer which, like the U.S.S Constitution, has maybe one board in it from when it was first built. It still gets to be called the original ship because it has persisted as such through all the repairs and upgrades. I think my computer had the original power supply in the end. Maybe. And I never added up the total cost, although it sure felt cheap.

So I had a skill, and the university had a need, and I jumped ship again myself at some point, feeling very very tired of being quite so broke. Professors were moving around too, leaving me behind, and I just wasn't being turned on by my academic work anymore. I know what you're going to say, that it's not all about being turned on, and no that isn't why I left my wife.

But I started working in the newly created "distributed computing" infrastructure, to support the School of Education, among other graduate and professional schools. The University had just then gotten ether-netted, and was pretty near the cutting edge of the new and great big 'net. This was back in the day when there was no commercial use. Either because no-one had thought of it, or because it was a University franchise.

Computer support at the big U. had previously been premised on a centralized service which ran "big iron" mainframe computers whose disk drives were about the size of a Model T once upon a time.

Through various central computing services, some of us learned to hyper-link across continents using a text-based program called Lynx, as I recall its name. It was pretty exciting. No pictures. Just text.

And the professors were starting to find uses for inexpensive PCs right on their desktops, especially once color and graphics became universal. And their own grant funding was paying for them, having nothing at all to do with central anything.

As a suggestive and possibly meaningful aside, I remember visiting my uncle Roger once, in his office at Syracuse University. I had no idea then, and I have a dim one now, about how important he has been in the development of the electronics from which computers, ultimately, descended.

I think he was more a radio frequency than a digital guy, but he developed the method by which components in an electronic circuit which are idealized in the schematic can be brought into close and miniature proximity, such as had to be done for integrated circuits, for instance, descended from those cute transistor radios we were all so excited to have when I was a kid.

He'd gotten his start in crystal radios, tube-type amplifiers, and other things which geeky kids back then would play with. My own dad went into the law, which was the family tradition, but number two was liberated to do his own thing. In case you didn't guess, my older brother's a lawyer, and I'm pretty um, yeah.

Anyhow, real things don't behave the way the idealized ones do on the schematic. I'm pretty sure that with tubes and their high power brute force circuits having lots of real distance to separate the parts, you can safely ignore or guesstimate the interactions among the components. But as you miniaturize these things, and multiply them, they start to interact in sensitive ways far beyond the power of schematic designers to either represent or account for.

A kind of math would be required to compute those interactions. It can't be done on paper in a human lifetime, and no answer can be gotten in theory. You have to whittle down the interactions by high-speed computational machine to get your answer. Pretty much the way your mortgage gets calculated. So the older art of tuning became the high-speed calculus of miniaturization.

Anyhow, my Uncle Roger was excited to show me the calculator on his desk, and marvel that it contained as much computing power as had the mainframe on which he'd developed his 'method of moments,' as I think it is called. He had an Apple II on order. You and I can't fathom his excitement.

Now that's what computers are really good for. But computers are also good for all sorts of things they weren't intended to be good for.

I still do remember, among the early adopters for dialup from home to the University network where my work increasingly was, learning how to squeeze pictures from plain text. Now that, if you ask me, was way cool!

It wasn't unrelated to how you could get Chinese written characters to reify from simple pairs of Western letters. You probably already fully understand that the basic set of characters as used in my first Word Processor - the ASCII set - is roughly descended from what a typewriter is good for. Or a teletype machine. It's rationalized almost like the periodic table of the elements, and it is truly a beautiful thing when you grok it.

But there are a radically limited number of "characters" which can be represented each by 7 bits of data. The first 30 or so were never meant to be "printable," and could be exploited as control characters to provide effectively many more combinations than a mere 7 bits could determine. In the case of my word processor, these could be things like font or italics or spacing.

You wouldn't want to use a Chinese mechanical typewriter, which includes trays and trays of somehow organized Chinese characters, descending in order of frequency, just like the Querty keyboard doesn't do (it was designed to avoid collisions among the flying hammers).

You can imagine the pressure to keep your writing within the top tray. And always a toolshop to create the ones you rarely use, or you could just handwrite them in. Who could ever afford the full 50,000 or so blocks of metal type which would be needed to compose the full set of distinct Chinese written characters..

So, early on, there had to be a way to combine two ASCII characters to come up with code for how Chinese gets written. You could display Chinese easily enough by heading off these strings of letters with the same kind of control character my word-processor used. These could be taken as a kind of trigger - the control characters - not to be taken literally and printed up on the screen. And then, provided you had a graphics-capable display, you could retrieve the Chinese character graphic from its trivially indexed store.

You could do the same with pictures. I think the idea is to imagine being able to transmit only text, just like in the days of teletype so far before the fax machine. In the early days of on-line connections, we were transmitting only text as well.

Text was all that was supported on the various media for exchanging words, scholar to scholar. It was a matter of cost and efficiency, also descended from those early teletype machines which were all that could be planted on each end of the wire.

People will innovate. Just as much as you can squeeze Chinese written characters out of the ASCII code, so you can squeeze out full color pictures, which plenty of clever people seemed plenty motivated to do. You can tell them not to, and they will still build tunnels beneath your walls.

And so the pictures, which were composed of binary code, had to be sent as big long strings of text, chunked up according to the limits conventionally imposed, for a single message, say; to be decoded once you'd chunked them all back together on the other end.

At first you'd have to strip off the leading and trailing padding, pasting these long meaningless messages into a single massive textual body. Eventually, still more clever people would devise ways - and generally distribute them freely - to make this happen auto-magically.

There is something irretrievably exciting about that first picture I successfully decoded. A semi-famous Harley Davidson from some post-modern virtual Hell's Angels club. The denizens of doom I think they called themselves.

Sure there were other pictures I drew the curtains on. There's an almost addictive allure to that kind of reproduction; the conjuring forth from the ether of something made only of indecipherable-by-mere-humans machine-code letters.

Kind of makes you want to believe in teleportation. That there's nothing we can't encode. That no matter what the limitations at first envisioned, or the proper uses of the medium, clever people will figure out how to make it do new tricks. It very much does seem as though there might be no limit to what can come about, especially if the infrastructure is fundamentally open.

I remember, again back at the University, when students, especially foreign students without a lot of money, figured out how to send their voices across the Internet "cloud," to be reassembled on the other end. The chunking apart and back together this time was of very much more finely grained packets than my earlier rendered pictures were, but it's not a fundamentally different process.

I remember how the University IT "suits" - the ones with perfect hair - were up in arms about the bandwidth - the precious bandwidth - and people were encouraged to consider this kind of exploitation of the open-ended possibilities of the technologies to be some kind of abuse.

That was way back when Al Gore was talking about how the government would have to build the "information superhighway." Back when he had perfect hair too, come to think of it. Now whole businesses are converting their phones to take advantage of the free transport of this cloud.

So, that's what got me started. I'd missed the boat in its season, as I always must and do. I'm quite literally surrounded by folks my age who got right into the proper geek pursuits and rode that wave right to its top. I'm guessing none of them really have to work any more.

Sad to say, I do. But I'm happy to take a moment out here to tell you all about myself. Aren't we all?

So anyhow, my first real IT responsibility was to manage the first Local Area Network - or LAN - for the Graduate School of Education, where I had been a student. These early central storage and distribution PCs which were the "file servers" which formed the core for Local Area Networking. They were first developed by a company called Novell, still very much in business.

Novell developed the technology for file "redirection", which simply means that you can fool your desktop PC into thinking that files on the network - in the "ether" or over the wire - were actually on a floppy disk or your local hard disk.

Bill Gates' near monopolistic Disc Operating System for desktops assigned letters, as did nearly everyone else, to the floppy, conventionally written with a colon after it so: a:. There were often two floppies in the early days, one to store the Operating System itself, and a second to store the data you were working on or with. So, if there were a hard disk, it would typically be called c:.

What Novell did was to work within evolving standards for signal propagation over wires, the most versatile to be called Ethernet, and then to develop some code so that your local PC could access "drives" say f: through z: as if they were just a large collection of separate disks.

And then on the other end would be a file server which would keep track of whether your particular account was allowed to access a set of files, and if so, what you could do with or to them, and then provided the access was all good, you would see these just as if they were "locally" available.

I turned out to be really good at getting professors' desktop computers to be able to connect over the wire.

And on the file-server end, I had a pretty good knack for understanding the logic of permissions, file attributes, and even what might be wrong with the hardware if things weren't going right.

Early on, we got into a bit of a mess, as groups of people do, with all the technical staff construed as equals. It was a too many-spoons-in-the-pot kind of messy stew, and so I elbowed others out as the guy who should and would take direct responsibility for keeping the network "up," which it tended often not to be if there were too many, um, chefs in the kitchen. Or strange things would happen in ways different from the promises you made to professors about nobody else being able to see their stuff.

Now Novell, the company, had a training and certification program which was truly a marvel. You might almost say it put the University itself to shame with its exacting standards for competency, and its well thought-out teaching protocols.

I, of course, availed myself of none of that, exercising my perpetual prerogative as a very smart person to make of myself an exception to everyone else's need to have their understandings certified. Besides, it was really expensive, and the departments certainly weren't offering any funding. We were supposed to be a cheap and local kind of dirty alternative to frustrating bureaucratic access to centralized services.

So when I pulled the ticket to head up the project to replace the Law School's file server, there was some perfectly understandable concern from the Centralized Services network engineers who had set it up in the first place. These folks had certifications up and down their sleeves - I think Centralized IT services had funding for that sort of thing, or maybe salaries were high enough to make self-funding worth the prospect of advancement.

First, there was the plain fact of competition for work. We were encroaching on what had been their territory. Next, there was genuine and honest concern that we would screw things up. Lawyers, in a cosmos of prima-donnish professors, tended to be even a little bit more so - after all they could easily point to viability outside the Ivory Tower - and so there might have been concern for our well being and even sanity as well.

The Law School network was a marvel. There were, I believe, well over 100 professor workstations, each running a version of the still fairly new Microsoft Windows 3.12 (if memory serves, which it might not, at least not so efficiently as the File Server I'm about to describe). These machines had no local hard-drives, booting instead from a clever little device which enabled them to redirect right during the boot-strap process to the file server instead of to their local floppy or hard disk drive.

In those days, a graphical user interface, just like Windows sported, was still a pretty new thing, and it required a lot of computing power just to "paint" its screen. And it didn't always work smoothly, depending on how much tinkering might get done to each individual installation.

The goal here was to develop a highly standardized "desktop", centrally managed for ease of configuration, maintenance, and backups, but also to reduce the overall cost of the computing infrastructure.

These basic principles have remained pretty much the same from then until now, with debates still raging about standards and centralized vs. distributed repositories for data, configuration, security and the rest.

Somehow, and I'm really not sure how, we were allowed in the end to have our day in the spotlight. How well I remember the handoff. The old server was stuck in a small closet to which Central Services had the key. Now this machine, "containing" over 100 running desktops, had a total load of 16 MB of RAM, which your phone would laugh at today. It's disk space was far less than the smallest netbook now has, and it's computing power was probably in line, also, with your phone.

That's how well optimized the Novell Network Operating System was.

Very early one morning, as we were going to have to bring this server down to do some necessary maintenance along the way toward replacing it, my colleague and I were waiting for the Central services folks to show up. We had a smallish window before the very demanding professors would show up to work. The lock looked small. Way back when I was a bike mechanic, my buddy had explained to me the principles of lock picking. It was shockingly trivial, and well, thank God nobody asked any questions.

So, we were off! Not only were we going to run the risk of leaving 100 workstations out of service, but we were performing an upgrade to the actual Network Operating System, so at some point, the changes we had drilled and practiced were going to be a one-way street, with no going back possible within reasonable time limits.

I'm pretty sure it took us an entire night, but I'm happy to say that we pulled it off (and I spent an entire sabbatical cycle together with my colleague in a, um, full-contact relationship, but you're not going to hear any more about that here!)

Now already by that time we in our little "node" were swimming against a mighty tide. Windows had just come out with its first viable network operating system, called Windows NT. There was a lot of grousing at first because techie types noticed that the network operating system which was pretty expensive, was code-identical to the desktop operating system, which was much cheaper.

I guess there might have been a single line in what's called "the registry" to distinguish them, and as I recall, Microsoft made a good case that because it was intended to be used and supported differently they could and should charge differently for it.

We in our area were already grizzled network engineers and administrators by that time, having pulled off a fairly complicated migration to new hardware and a much more complex network operating system. We'd seen how efficiently it would run on how little hardware, plus we had gotten a flavor of the lively esprit de corps which comes along with a fully professional cadre of workers.

Windows was proposing something completely different. Their operating system was meant to be more intuitive to install and configure. This, naturally, caused concern rather than excitement, at least for me, because it was a pretty open invitation to let lots of chefs into my kitchen, and to allow for as many different combinations of creative configuring as experimental amateurs might like to come up with.

To compound things, Microsoft could in no way replicate the quite sizable pool of professionals who had become well seasoned in the Novell offerings. Which would mean that they would have to play catch up by a combination of financial and ease-of-entry lures into Microsoft's version of Certified Network Engineer.

Traditionally, becoming a Certified Engineer really meant something, and the exams were designed to weed out cramming and memorization of texts. You actually had to have some hands-on smarts before you could expect to get your nod.

But none of this was about to slow the already mighty Microsoft marketing machine. No matter that Windows NT was almost primitive in terms of networking protocol support, cobbling together its support for Novell's routable network "stack" (think ability to go from building to building in a campus, across routers which were located according to physical distance constraints for signal propagation).

No matter that when you mistook a server for a workstation, which it practically invited you to do, the load of the graphical interface would use up most of the actual computing resources. No matter that it could serve up files more slowly than a single elevator with a sleepy attendant could serve up a skyscraper full of workers.

Microsoft was selling a vision of a kind of seamless network ecology, made up of limitless nodes, all sharing code and processing in a fabric of interconnection, defined and held together by a near-limitless distributed network.

I remember the Central Services UNIX guys coming back from a trip to Redmond where they attended a briefing designed expressly for people like them. "We aren't in Kansas any more" was pretty much the sum of their report to the rest of us.

To some great extent, Microsoft has delivered on the vision they set out to sell. I really don't know what their strong-arm and soft-soap sales techniques actually were, but it was pretty clear that this tsunami was going to engulf everyone and everything in its way.

Getting most PCs sold to businesses to ship pre-loaded with the Microsoft OS pretty much meant that having the Windows Network Operating System at the core of your management planning was going to be the best way to leverage your investments in workstations.

Naturally, Microsoft was not motivated to help companies like Novell interact quite so effectively as Microsoft itself could with the Windows desktop ecology. Although, to be truthful, Novell did a pretty darned good job. But you don't sell to the engineers in the field, you sell to the decision making "suits" and they were all pretty much drinking Microsoft's water; even at a place like the university, where the world was also divided between suits and the rest of us. Well, that's just the laity who support the place. I'm not talking about the clergy here.

So, this tension between power and control at the center, and distribution of computing power throughout a kind of ecological grid has persisted throughout the entire span of the surprisingly recent IT revolution. It's become so much a part of our lives that it can also seem as if we've had these things forever.

Clearly there are plenty of people who can and likely have written up this history from the basis of considerable and deep expertise, which I don't have. I'm writing up my impressions as someone who has observed society from, perhaps, a rather more broad perspective from that of those who might be completely enamored of or embedded in the technologies I describe.

At the same time, I've done enough hands on work, much of which I'm quite proud of, to feel that my sense is accurate in at least the broadest outlines.

So, what's the point of all this? Well, as I recall the head of Novell when I was into it was none other than Eric Schmidt, now CEO of Google. I'm pretty sure he was the one who bought WordPerfect in an attempt to go head to head with Microsoft in the soup-to-nuts world of network design and application delivery. On the merits of the products it was not a bad wager.

Plenty of heavy users of word processing software were wildly enthusiastic about WordPerfect, even especially up against Microsoft Word. It had more features, was better thought out, and was designed to appeal to its principle users; professional wordsmiths, rather than to the mass of occasional users like students and professors and lawyers who might want or need to do their own typing once secretaries became obsolete.

In any case, without a prayer of significant market share for a desktop operating system, and given Microsoft's marketing muscle, Novell's was a dream destined for failure. And I don't think, again, that Microsoft was especially helpful when WordPerfect turned the corner to the Windows graphical user interface. Lots of companies were hit with crash and hang peformance, including Microsoft, but not all of them were equipped to make it through.

There is a good enough analogy between Novell's Network Operating System and WordPerfect on the one side, catering to professionals as their core target user group; and Microsoft's Windows and Office, which aimed to become ubiquitous, on the other.

So Google now, interestingly (at least to me) wants to turn your computer into a kind of dumb terminal again, pretty much like those law school desktops I used to support. It won't have to do much other than to boost itself onto the network, which is all that the new Chrome OS will be designed to do.

Ideally, Chrome will be quite similar to the hypervisor OS "shim" which is used to host the latest "virtual machines" where everything about the computer Operating System is abstracted from any particular hardware configuration. The hypervisor shim emulates a universal hardware machine, and the operating system talks to this virtual hardware. The actual "machine" you count on to get your work done is a software file, and can be physically located, virtually, anywhere. It's pretty darned cool stuff.

For the Google vision, in place of the operating system will be a very "lightweight" Internet browser, also called Chrome, which can run applications, analogous to WordPefect, or Excel or what you will, which are actually hosted somewhere in what now almost universally gets called "the cloud". I'm pretty sure it was originally the Microsoft engineers which started calling it that.

Now we in the trenches of IT are pretty used to thinking of Microsoft as "evil". Even though we make our money, indirectly, from their monopoly, we all kind of wish there were more choices, and that we could specialize in the various stuff which might turn us on, or capture our enthusiasm because it works the way we think it should.

That will, of course, be different for different people, but that's the very point. So, Microsoft is "evil" because it pushed or crowded out all the competition, to the point where we all do the same thing almost the same way almost all the time. Whether we work in a bank or in a university, the design considerations are almost identical.

Yes, Apple also has a network operating system, but it's pretty hayfoot-strawfoot compared to where Microsoft's has evolved. And then there's Linux, another story entirely, which I will get to in a minute.

And to tell you the truth, Microsoft's ubiquity is a large part of why I just can't do it any more. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of decisions to make, and plenty of competing companies which ride on top of the basic Microsoft ecology. There are gargantuan ranges of pricing and features, and lots of ways to make a complete ass out of yourself with the wrong decisions.

But the big picture is pretty much shaping up to be Microsoft's vision of a distributed ecology of computing power vs. a seemingly much more distributed version of accessibility.

I now really don't care what machine I use. In most instances, I prefer the Linux OS because it's actually less fussy to load and get going, and is a lot less fussy about the hardware it rides on. It's a little more fussy to use, but not enough to make a difference.

All my documents are somewhere in Google's cloud, as is this blog, as is my email. I'm reasonably confident that it will be there whenever I need it from whatever machine I'm stuck with. There are no features that I find missing, and I'm happy to leave the heavy duty spreadsheeting, or complexly formatted word-processing or databasing to and for users who want to fuss with those complicated and bloated locally installed and expensive programs.

But there's a pretty big catch to all of this. There's pretty much only one company big enough to index and replicate the entire Internet real-time. It's not just a matter of computing power, it's also the electrical power to run and cool the computing power as well as the extremely expensive bandwidth to keep in touch with the vast reaches and every corner of this World Wide Web.

Plus, when I sign on, it's not like I'm always getting my stuff from the same place on the same machine which serves it up to me across this "cloud". My own work is replicated throughout Google's complex infrastructure, such that if the particular machine I'm working on or through or with bites the dust, I won't even know it since my work will be rerouted to another copy.

Even still it does go down from time to time. So these days some people like to have a backup email service if they use Gmail principally. And they might like to take a copy of their work down to their own PC just in case Google is unavailable when they need it, or God forbid, Google decides not to give them access because they violated some arcane section of the Google terms of service. Yeah, like anyone on the planet actually reads those things you click to agree to.

So, I want to know, who's good now, and who's evil? My Linux-loaded laptop seems to crash just about as often or as seldom as my Windows machines used to. Every single day I must consume bandwidth just to keep it up to date. To keep out the bad guys who I guess are always trying to horn their way in to catch a password and maybe steal my identity or my bank account.

I'll be happy when my computer really is a shim up in to some cloud which is freely maintained on my behalf. But that's a pipe dream. Not the cloud, which is already real. The "on my behalf" part.

I don't kid myself that once people get wind of what I'm really saying here, the plug will be pulled on my saying it. There are no terms of service which can allow Catalytic Narratives to crystalize a web of lies into its inevitable thunking.

Meanwhile, I write freely and with plenty of abandon, confident, as you should be too, that these essentially evil empires will be overcome by the goodness of the people who are their workers.

One day, Google's money-printing apparatus will be overrun by the clear superiority of low power ways to organize our blessed Internet. These will depend not at all on massive replication and indexing of everything that's out there. Instead, machines will resolve actual human clicks into virtual spaces which represent connections among people and things and ideas and places.

Machines will be quieted down, and people who want to teach them to think will do so in universities where they belong - harnessing the surplus power which will otherwise clog our landfills.

Real people don't need or want our machines to do our thinking for us. Real people aren't afraid to expose their identity in ways to make it impossible for someone else to impersonate them. Real people aren't terribly embarrassed by our most private fantasies.

Real people are connected by their actions and words and even clicks, and it is this kind of networking which can result in a kind of automatic indexing, by simple calculation of degrees of separation, of those people and words and things which crystallize our desires; our wants and our needs.

So, that's what I'm working on, while you all (well, not you, but you know who I mean) continue to be fascinated by the fireworks displays of too much light and noise and power.

Peace out dudes.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How Drug-Industry Lobbyists Won on Health-Care

How Drug-Industry Lobbyists Won on Health-Care

I just had a dumpster delivered to my house. I've found a buyer, and I feel blessed. Around here seemingly every second house is for sale. The buyer is a young fellow; a hunter who's already set up a deer stand high in a tree on what will soon be his land.

He'd worked over in Iraq as a contractor to earn his down payment, alongside devoted patriots. Though I have never hunted, we can agree that there is something wrong with the disparity in pay over there. We like each other pretty well, though we come from different backgrounds. Both of us would prefer our patriotic soldiers to be paid more, and for better jobs to be available here at home.

I'm happy that he could afford his nugget of cash to get past the borrowing hurdles which were never there for me. I bought this house for no cash down, way back when they were giving money away. Now, even with lots of money down, the bankers still want to be sure your house is worth at least half its asking price.

Around here in Western New York we never did experience any great bubble in real estate value, and so no real wealth evaporated when that bubble popped. I mean the wealth never was real, but the leveraged purchasing surely was, and we never experienced that either.

I think, but have not done the research to be certain, that there is less unemployment around here now also. Well, it's been so many decades of hemorrhaging jobs by the tens of thousands form Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, never mind the old manufacturing industries like steel and automotive.

Housing prices aren't really down, but the number of qualified buyers surely is, which has approximately the same effect. Stimulus cash doesn't matter if you don't have the down payment nest egg. If you want to be the one to sell, you have to give the buyer his price. We are pricing now well below the replacement cost for similar housing. While there was no bubble, there was a drastic oversupply of sprawl-placed cardboard housing.

Now I face my impossible quarterly bill for health insurance, and life insurance, and disability insurance - shortly to be disburdened of the homeowners which has always been, strangely, the least expensive of the bunch.

There are lots of burned out houses around here, and you can only speculate as to the origins of those fires. Rebuilding a destroyed house would bizarrely leave the insured with a covered expense that much higher than the new house's market value.

I wonder what the insurance companies actually do? Do they pay you just to move?

So, according to the Time Magazine article quoted above, there are that many more drug industry lobbiests than members of Congress - 2.3 for every 1 - and one must assume that each of them is paid more highly than we pay our representatives, or at least that a large number of them are at $180K apiece from my back of the envelope calculations, as compared to $165K for our more patriotic, yeah, servants.

Or, who knows? Maybe these guys also work for peanuts and the bulk of the money goes to perks and parties and campaign or memorial contributions for their favored elected officials. People will do almost anything for money these days.

I've been a kind of Rip VanWinkle for some time now, living way out in the boonies, catching the news as catch can when I return after dark from my ever widening tech support rounds. I had no real clear idea that genetic engineering had already begun reaping multi-billion dollar rewards from actual medical products. I'd been waiting for announcements of gene therapy and brave new disease-free human forms.

And I had absolutely no idea that the cost to use these "biologic" drugs, "derived" from living matter, could exceed in one year the cost of an actual house around these parts. Surely they have perfected now a kind of perfect torture for those afflicted with whatever their drugs can cure.

If you are known to have the disease - let's say rheumatoid arthritis - then you won't be able to get new insurance and so you couldn't possibly afford the $50,000 annually which relief might cost. What then would you do. And which side are the genetic engineers on? Shouldn't they really want publicly funded health insurance. What else aren't we being told? Shouldn't they be arguing for no exclusions for pre-existing conditions? Wait . . . .!

They argue, and apparently win, to extend the period of their patent protection well beyond the 5 years which is customary for other drugs. Their outlays are so huge. And apparently these full outlays must get factored in to however the price gets set to alleviate the suffering for those afflicted.

It's supposed to be a real price, but how does it get measured then, against the massive profits. What is their calculus for returns from the government granted patent monopoly extended out now to perhaps 12 full years? They must know precisely how many of us have which diseases. They must understand the interval of pain against believability. They must have programs to suppress inconvenient truths about alternative methods. They must have budgets to fund the touting of the preferred routes toward solution.

Where does the drive to innovate then come from if the holding pattern to keep the old, and to water-drop-tortuously stage the rollout of the new, can be so unimaginably lucrative?

This is really no different from the torture apologies deployed over in Iraq. What limits can there be when lives are at stake?

I guess there's word that big pharma Rummie might be behind the scares for H1N1 vaccine production, because there is so much money in that too. He chairs big pharmas boards. Cheney won't shut up about why he'd had to torture. And Congress now makes little compromises to get the vote of those others on the take who want re-election that badly. What's matters a few years' patent protection among friends?

I think it might be critically important to whittle away around the edges of our assumptions. There are arguments that all cancer treatment, say, is motivated. That costly to life and wealth amputations and radiations and chemo-therapies are not so drastically better than strict dietary and lifestyle changes would be if they were tried. Certainly from the prevention side, there is much to be said in favor of not holding out medical remedies as a kind of nostrum to allow us to keep living as we have been.

But even from the side of treatment, there is much new to be said about less drastic interventions. That too early treatment might make that mountain of what could have been a disappearing mole-hill.

Science could be brought to bear on differing interpretations, but there would be that much less money in them for sure. And to the desperately afflicted, any margin of better must be priceless. Any statistical assurance of right direction.

But I do think that the margin of pain reflected by the price for relief is an almost perfect measure of the greed which must be deployed to find our cures. Isn't that what price means? These are our fundamentalist foundational Democratic Capitalist assumptions.

Surely, it is impossible to imagine that these cures could be found by the power of a kind of love, as they were so recently by Jonas Salk with his polio vaccine. Surely University researchers, tenured and motivated only by a search for truth, could never develop the wonder drugs so magically revealed by billions in venture capital deployed by motivated researchers?!

Masters of outsourcing are always mesmerized by a kind of perfected efficiency, as though this will magically release the human potential now locked away behind plodding work by ordinary people. Plausible deniability is an outsourced set of instructions to those who understand how to read the secret codes of implication.  Extraordinary rendition is an outsourced set of dirty deeds, no different in essence from the export of toxic wastes that we have accomplished now so perfectly in our tango with China.

The masters of these processes must be that drunk on their powers. There must be something intoxicating to be at that pinnacle of wealth and power and influence. Something nearly equal to the promise of eternal life their championed Jesus grants by proxy to such evidence of grace here on earth.

And what would it be worth to you, to alleviate the chronic pain of your afflictions? I sit now in the ever so mild pain an aging body feels after raking leaves by hand. I still perversely refuse the bottled analgesics, and don't have them available if I'd wanted them: a family member recently and so helpfully tossed the huge bottle of aspirin I've nursed for as old as my adult children now are. It had long expired.

So, I may be that willing to ignore life's small indignities. I still find hand tools near enough as quick, and far more satisfying than the powered variety. My mind is quiet enough to endure the repetitions. My body allows for pain.

But if I were in acute and chronic pain, there might be no limit to what I would pay or do to alleviate it. I think that must be what those people around here start from when they do crystal meth.

I find it unspeakably cruel that we would levy such a fee. No matter the costs, I think these should be born by the same agency which sends our rockets into space. I think our wars should be fought by patriots or not at all. And I think both Rumsfeld and Cheney belong in jail with their compatriot Bernie Madoff.

But that's just me. I'm about to dispose of my spent dreams in a very conveniently deposited dumpster. I'll pay my insurance premiums, up against the pain I would save those who love me. My life, my health, my abilty to continue to rake leaves measured with excruciating precision against my willingness to pay that price.

My true foundational and fundamentalist belief is that ordinary people liberated from the bonds that corporate and financial giants would precisely engineer for them would accomplish that much more and faster than can any of these out-sized quasi humans motivated only, apparently, by greed.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Taxonomy of Love

I had thought that life must still be represented by a tree. That the interconnections among its various branches can and should and must be traced back, in time say, to where the splittings off occurred. That we must care that much about ancestry.

I've known forever that the Great Chain of Being was and remains a hoax. Sure, there is no ladder to take us all the way to heaven, along the rungs of rock through beasts to man and finally God. This can't be retrofitted into Darwin's scheme. There is no trajectory to evolution's thrust.

But I had thought order natural. And now I find that there are no real tracings back. That bloodline defines almost nothing important about the story that is now. That when descendants obsess about what is in their past, they exercise a kind of racism, depending on fictional categories to define their truth.

If grandma was a slave, then I am too? Perhaps I must hide that fact from those who check my purity; my IQ at the door. I cannot be proud either, unless I choose my own line with care. The omissions I make define me too, and control which way I spiral.

For surely our personal resolve cannot be determined by these chains of matings. Why would we leave out those rather more deliberate connections from the distaff line, say, or still better, made among library shelves where once we did learn that to discharge the feelings of those outside our door would exile our very selves from anything that might count for feeling.

So it is the beasts which touch me, and not those remoter in my supposed past, which have set me in my form. These twinned hands and feet and digits almost always counting five. These define my kinship now and not some more original plan.

There were always plenty of dead ends where leaves would grow. Eight fingers, say, but these would dry out at season's end; turn red, say, and pack the earth for others. The five toed would know one another, and before devouring bless the fact of digestibility, through flesh to other leafy stuff; bacteria back to earth.

This tree then, is but a figure which, abstracted from soil or air above looks rather more like the orbs of our brain which also acts as one.

Its trunk a faggot tightly bound, of nutritional information. Without this limination, earth to air, there would be more apparent intertwining of the halves.

We are fooled then, paying attention always and only to that aspect which can greet our eyes. That which we call beauty.

Beneath our soil are invisible claims. These are the ones made by touch or sympathetic vibration or stirrings in our loins.

And at our core, this mysterious quality which sometimes gets called intention is really nothing more or less than what we would do if we were God with she who is right by our side. It animates our story, live, and makes the difference also that cannot be measured, between the one who withers on some branch, and who would thrive.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Balloon Boy

Now surely everyone in the world already knew, or should have, before they even had to chase the thing down, that this guy's nuts, right? The Balloon Boy's Dad? Maybe that's why they had to take him seriously, but seriously now, he wants to be on TV! People wouldn't just use their kids for that, would they?

It's Sunday and I'm feeling pretty lazy, and a little lightheaded, since I'm trying to clean the house for company, so I'm not going to hyperlink everything for you. You'll have to look it up yourself, but it won't be very hard. There's almost nothing else on the news.

No kidding! Just before I move out of my house in the middle of nowhere, I'm having company. You won't find that all over the Internet. I'll tell you all about it some time. I know, you thought I was talking about something more interesting. Sorry.

Meanwhile, in the world of twitter and the blogosphere and just-in-time news (that's the kind where you don't actually have to pay someone to sit around and be expert at reporting the news, you just call it in, at great expense of helium, when you need it), how the hell did people who pay attention to Wife Swap already NOT know what was going on??!!! I'd like to be shouting my head off right there, but I hear ALL CAPS is really impolite.

OK, so I kind of like the guy. He reminds me of myself when I was, like, maybe 14 right before I was into girls. His wife's kinda hot, so maybe he really is onto something, and his kids don't seem all that bad. They might all watch too many spaceships-in-the-backyard type movies, but I really don't want the guy to go to jail.

So we got punk'd. Big Deal! I think we believe stuff that's a lot more outlandish and spend a lot more money on it, with worse consequences, and those guys never go to jail. You know who I'm talking about! No, not the ventriloquist's dummy. He obviously wasn't making up the stuff he told us by himself. Wait, are you that easily fooled??? sorry.

I wish the guy was on the Internet - and that there WAS Internet - back when I was 14 or so. I never could cobble together the right stuff to make my hovercraft support me (mine had a little model airplane engine, but it was still cool). My static electricity Van-de-graf generator never did work, because all I had was wooden spools, long rubber bands, and aluminum mixing bowls. It should have worked, but I got bored.

And we didn't have mylar back then, so my hot air balloon was some kind of army surplus rip-off chewing gum rubber. As I recall you had to boil it before blowing it up, so it wouldn't just pop before it could ever take off. I don't think the air traffic controllers allow those things anymore. Not to mention, shhh, homeland security who musta been all over this one when it got started. And anyhow, we couldn't get helium right at the Dollar Store (r), so all I could do was fill mine up from the ass end of mom's vacuum cleaner and so it never did actually fly. It was cool, though. I mean literally.

But the whole thing felt like a ripoff for sure. I was expecting something the size of at least a shoebox for whatever money they tricked me into spending. I think we had comic books back then instead of the Internet. I was never stupid enough to buy X-ray glasses though. I knew enough not to do that. I had my own ways to spy on naked girls.

I almost got in big trouble myself, launching UFOs which were really dry cleaning bags with a little McDonalds' straw kind of mouth-opening structure, and a little tinfoil container of Sterno (r) just like crazy homeless people used to drink plus something from my chemistry set to lighten it up. So you could see it I mean. The hot air made it float. I almost said stupid. Sorry.

Don't try this at home. It's actually pretty scary when you realize that it might come down somewhere and start a fire. I sure was glad my bicycle could keep up with it, and that no-one reported UFOs on the radio. We listened to radio back then and just adored the DJs. Kind of the way folks these days adore Brittney Spears or Paris Hilton, maybe. Well, there weren't any female DJs, but you know what I'm talking about, right?

But come on people. You got punk'd!

You're the ones should pay the price. I mean, any of you who actually watch Wife Swap on TV. OK, sure I caught a glimpse on YouTube of what it's all about, and it would probably be pretty hard NOT to watch if you had the TV on, which, OK clearly I almost never do or I'd know what's actually going on out there where civilization actually lives.

But there's really important stuff going on in the world, that you are going to be asked to weigh in on. Hello, this is supposed to be a democracy, and you can't be chasing tornadoes or rainbows all the time. Helloooo!! You have to vote too, if you're older than, say, old enough to kill people. No drinking though (wink wink)!!!!

The guy's on record, for chrissakes, that he thinks he is descended from aliens. Very public record. And if that's not weird enough, his wife thinks she was too. If that were the case, then the odds are pretty good that we all are, since it doesn't look like he married his sister. I mean his wife looks pretty Japanese.

It almost makes the wife he swapped with, some kind of spiritualist with an endearing lisp, seem pretty down to earth. Although her husband's mullet was a trip. I guess they might still be in vogue along the spiritualist camp meeting trail.

You already know how stylish I am, so I'd be the last one on the planet to know. Seriously. I might wear a mullet myself if it wouldn't look so stupid on me. I mean if I had that much hair.

Well, I've really got to get back to cleaning out some cobwebs. The sun is out for the first time in maybe a month, and so they're showing up pretty clearly. Looking like Halloween, which would be fine this time of year, but I live so far out that in all the time I've lived here - one entire sabbatical cycle - no kids have ever rung my doorbell. So I always just eat the candy myself. Hey, I'm just saying!

My own kids are gone, and I've ordered up a dumpster now for the stuff none of us wants. There's good old fashioned Craig's List for the rest. But did I tell you I've got company coming? So, I can't chuck it all just yet. One last cleaning and tidying up.

Now get this. My house actually has a built-in vacuum. Talk about useless. You can do this thought experiment at home. In your head now, compare, say, dragging around an entire vacuum hose with dragging around an electrical cord.

You see what I mean? I mean, who buys this shit. I priced a power head for mine once, just to see, and they wanted maybe three times what it would cost me for a nice old fashioned Hoover. (you can already tell I'm not into Cyclonic machinery for cleaning, so who knows what you might be willing to pay for suction)

You should see what a whole new system would cost. And people pay it!!! Maybe because they can exhaust outdoors, and then filter the air coming in. But those people breath their own cleaning fluid fumes. Hey, maybe that's what going on in the world now . . . (maybe that's what's going on with me!)

Plus there's the basic law of physics which limits suction to the height of the atmosphere above our heads, which means the longer the hose, the less the suction no matter how big the motor is. And mine's plenty big enough to run a hovercraft that would support me even how big I am now! There's no legal limit to how hard you can blow. I mean real laws, physical laws, not the kind that says you can't talk on your cell phone while driving. I mean unless you're the governator's wife. At least no one would ever elect a Scientologist (r), right?

(back in the day, my vacuum cleaner hovercraft would only work on a shiny tile floor like they have in school. We didn't blow out our gutters or our leaves way back then, never having thought a gadget was actually required for that So there weren't any really strong blower motors available just for the garbage picking. And even I knew enough to put the motor right on the hovercraft rather than hooking up a really long hose. I mean I'm not stupid. I'm just saying . . . )

OK, I really should stop picking on that guy. I already said I like him fine. He looks a little crazed, but I guess all mad scientists are supposed to look that way. You know, in a back to the future kind of look.

Which, speaking of, I still can't get out of my head this Large Hadron Collider they're supposed to start up again in just a few short weeks. I actually read the papers of those guys who calculated the odds of its having failed the first time. Then they factored in the odds of the one we started building here in the good ol' USA actually being scrapped after we'd already spent billions on it.

I already made fun of how that NEVER happens in a democracy. In a democracy, see, you have all these insiders gaming the system, diverting the electorate with stupid can't-not-look-at-it stuff so they won't notice when you build a bridge to nowhere.

But reading the actual paper gave me new insight. They included in their calculations stuff like that the Russkies were out of the game, and so we'd already won that competition by default or whatever it is called when the other team doesn't show. Well, we kicked their asses out, so maybe you can't really call it default. I guess it's about priorities.

Our masculine motivations were rather deflated, if you know what I mean, and Congress, which is still plenty masculine if you read the tabloids, kind of lost its will to carry on with strange science experiments without some kind of competition to give them the right MoJo to keep going.

But those oh-so-much-more civilized Europeans, who play a totally different style of football, picked up the ball and ran with it. Well, you can't actually do that in Euro-ball, but you know what I mean. Hmmm. I wonder why they bash heads over there so much more than we do, even given our low-life manners at the American style games. That's a mystery beyond me to figure out.

I'll bet we've got better cops than they do. And ours carry guns. Yeah, that must be it.

Huh, what, they carry guns over there now too??? Deflate a kid's bubble, why don't you. I guess some things will just have to remain a mystery.

But anyhow, this is actually some serious science. No kidding. They think it's pretty strange that a wildly expensive and complicated machine might not actually work. Hello!!! Haven't they ever wanted to throw their computer out the Window (r)???

I sure have. Like right now, for no reason at all, the little coffee cup holder tray keeps popping out as if in service to my every want, and I just want to slap the bitch silly. I really do. It's annoying, and I never use the thing anyhow, preferring text to things that move. I mean I'll hold my own damned coffee, and like to stop at diners for my break anyhow to get my fix while driving.

Jeeze, I wonder if I have ADHD just like Glenn Beck. I can't seem to keep my mind on anything. What was I talking about??? About how there's no limit to how hard you can blow and still not break the law? Ummmm

Oh yeah, the LHC, a 17 mile circumference machine to coax gravity defining particles out of nothingness. I guess matter hardly ever gets created or destroyed, only transformed, and these guys have made a machine now to come pretty darned close to that point toward the very beginning when something really actually did get created out of nothing.

I gotta tell you, I'm not buying it.

But hey, don't listen to me. They just named a hurricane after me, but no, don't listen to me.

See that's what happens when you put way too much energy into making things go round and round in circles. We used to have these little siren thingies we'd mount on our bikes, see, and when you pulled the string, they'd start spinning against the wheel, but then the cops made them illegal, see, because, like people would think it was actually the cops, you know back when cops had actual spinning things to make their sirens go and not stupid digital noisemakers like they started out having over there in sissy Europe, you know, two tone kind of electronic oscillator machines, and we had them in our backyards too, these motor driven actual sirens, which were set to blow all at the same time in case of nuclear Armageddon, but now they're all rusted out since I don't think they actually test them anymore, you know, now that the world is safe from nutty ideas like communism, and anyhow people figured out that hiding under your desk doesn't really stop the fallout, which isn't really so much coming from the sky which I knew because we had a fallout shelter in our basement and it didn't even have a cement roof on it because, at least this is what Uncle Sam told us, the rays would be coming from the side, and . . . . .