Blue Skies / 5

July 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

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Of course WCX went under. There was a period, winter into early spring 2000, when the forum had yet another surge and it seemed it could only keep growing and doing whatever it was doing forever. We trailed the Nasdaq curve by about a month: it peaked in March, we peaked in April, then began our rapid descent. We did have a brief flurry over the Florida recount that November. It was the kind of issue WCX loved, detailed, technical, yet ambiguous. Snow outlined the legal precedents and hashed the fine points of Constitutional law, while Towers debated the accuracy of the different polling machines and made fine distinctions between the types of chads, and Ducks excoriated the unctuous Baker. The Supreme Court gave the election to Bush; WCX declared Gore the winner, though didn’t have much to say about him or his party and lost interest in the election not long after the results were made official. After that the forum limped along for a few more months before I had to let it go.

It is tempting to draw parallels between the two, the Nasdaq and WCX, and say they both collapsed for similar reasons—or the same, as WCX had a stake in the market—that essentially both were built on nothing but desire and self-deception. Such an interpretation, however, doesn’t give much credit to profit or the motives of the self, and I’m not convinced that money or its ego analogues wholly account for either, possibly at all. But even so, it underestimates the power of both and ignores what to me is the greater wonder, that they could have become so large so fast in the first place. Technology obviously had a hand, allowing effortless, instant multiplication of the word, but can only be seen as a catalyst for what was already there and helped it realize its form. A bubble is a marvelous creation, beautiful in its geometry, blissful in the tensions it contains.

There are measurements. When the Nasdaq broke 5000 that March, membership in WCX surpassed 600,000. A half gigabyte of text-only data was pouring in every week, an encyclopedia’s worth of information, and more. We never got much attention in print or on the tube, but had we lasted a few more months we probably would have. We did get exposure on the Web, only a fraction of which I had time to track down and see, and the counter on our site indicated visitors whose number well exceeded that of members.

A year later the Nasdaq was down to 2000. Some three trillion dollars of market wealth had disappeared that could have gone somewhere else. Membership didn’t fall in WCX because few took the trouble to remove their names, but posts had dropped to a trickle of idle gossip. I don’t know any concrete way, though, to measure what was lost when members stopped logging on.

So much, however, can be concluded:

The volume of talk in WCX on the tech stocks, when added to the other online talk and that on the tube and in print, helped to inflate stock prices quickly and just as quickly sped their fall after the market peaked. Late March WCX reversed direction almost overnight, when talk turned to which stocks to unload. I didn’t hear panic in their voices, however, but rather zeal. WCX acted as if they had expected the collapse all along, and somehow the new discussion sounded like a continuation, not a contradiction, of what they said before.

And also this:

It didn’t take long for even my broadband connection to clog and complaints pile up in Call to Order about delays getting in. So Christmas ’99 I bought a bigger, faster machine for the forum and put it in a cage in a server farm in Santa Clara that had a connection to the Web the speed of light. Both cost a few bucks, but by then money was not a problem, because—another certain effect—WCX was making serious cash. Services had taken a surge itself. Once a few dotcoms posted, a host more jumped in to hawk their goods. Word had also somehow passed to other firms, large and small, who added their names to the list. When the ball fell in Times Square and the country’s computer systems didn’t crash, we had over a thousand subscribers. Some looked dubious, but I had no way of knowing and once more had to hope that WCX would beware.

I never thought I’d get more than a page of headings, but when the ads started pouring in, previous ones got pushed to back pages, out of sight. So I devised rough categories to spread them out with separate pages for each: Home, Office, Recreation, Health, and Learning. These pages quickly filled, however, and I spent more nights trying to come up with a better scheme but ran into the same problem I had with the Misc forums, that, given the variety and the oddness of some products—where should an online store that specialized in incense or lava lamps go?—I couldn’t think of logical headings that might hold them all. I ran into other problems with my scheme. Some firms posted to several categories because their products overlapped—home office equipment, executive toys. But some posted to all categories just to get maximum exposure. And some, when their products got pushed off the front page, simply posted a fresh ad so it would go near the top, and a few had automated the process so it stayed there every week.

My system was out of hand and I knew at some point I had to make changes, but not only did no one complain, everyone paid up, even for the repeats. I don’t know if their ads produced results or not, but I doubt that was a concern. When the dotcoms were paying two million for thirty-second spots on the Super Bowl, what I asked was nothing. Yet all this nothing added up. When the Rams beat the Titans, WCX had grossed half a million.

I tried to explain the forum to Allen, and account for all the hours I spent at home. I showed him the home page, let him click through the forums, and went through the databases, which had no effect. When I showed him a report on revenues, however, he was impressed and had something to tell the other kids, though the figure was too large to mean anything to him.

I toyed with going public myself, just to formalize the fact that I was turning a sizable profit, but didn’t know what kind of enterprise I had and couldn’t think how to promote it, though I doubt either made a difference.

So then I had the problem of what to do with the money. I was reluctant to put the question to Call to Order, given their dissension on just about everything put before them. Besides dividing the money up evenly—a dollar a head—would have been overwhelmingly tedious and pointless. I marked some as reserve to cover whatever might come next. I had already grossly underestimated the forum’s growth and the future was beyond anticipation. I also gave myself a small salary, with some justification, as, at least mechanically, I was the stabilizing force behind the forum. Less justifiably, I put a down payment on a house in the complex where I was renting. I needed to feel settled, and thought this would be is WCX’s interest as well, but really did it for Allen and myself. As for the rest, I just kept it, because I didn’t know what else to do.

But WCX saw the ads and could have calculated the revenues. Yet no one raised the issue once. I think their feelings were the same many had those months, that there was plenty of money to go around and only more would come. Anything anyone sat on then wasn’t even worth a look. And still not that, but more, or less, the sense that money was just a side effect of what we were really doing, a blessing bestowed upon those who could look past it, with no strings attached. What it could buy was beside the point, which meant we could freely spend it. I didn’t buy anything myself or even watch it grow in the WCX account. I did, however, let my contract work go and for the first time in my life I didn’t have to think about the grind to cover essentials or meet deadlines, but was free to pursue what else might lie ahead, and do it on my own terms. Also I was at home and had time with Allen to catch up on the years I had missed.

But more than that, or less, I just felt free.

But still not that—

But equally of course Services took the plunge with the Nasdaq. After the elections WCX had only a handful of subscribers, Slak and a few hopeless dotcoms, and I stared at red.

Yet the losses were not quite real either. If the market rose too high, it also fell too low. There were survivors among the dotcoms. Structures were put in place that remained and changed the way we did our business. The productivity curve had moved out. Nor was the need, nor the desire, to come together and talk and make decisions dead. We still had the means to do these on the Web. Other forums kept going, and I had enough in reserve to keep WCX alive for several more years until it turned around.

But I had to pull the plug because WCX had this effect on me as well, it burned me out.

Not what I did. Technically, I didn’t do much at all, aside from the moves and routine maintenance. The rest was nearly automatic. Rather it wasn’t I didn’t do that consumed me, all the energy spent accomplishing nothing. My work in programming had trained me how to put confusion aside and devise boxes that enclosed what was certain and made it do some kind of work. Yet every effort I took to direct the forum failed. Even small plans that I thought made sense and might produce some useful result crashed when put to the test. The only way I could think to make larger schemes work was to bracket everything, in which case they would return nothing and have no function beyond they did by themselves. Still, for months I plunged into the late hours every night reading the posts, looking for a thread that might give a clue and point in some direction, but with the volume coming in, even that became impossible. I could only dip in here and there, check the forum stats, and watch my hard drive fill in that cage in Santa Clara without knowing what was there.

Then there was what I did see the last few months before it and the Nasdaq fell. WCX took more turns that disturbed me. But I wasn’t sure and wondered if WCX wasn’t a vast program itself whose syntax I hadn’t learned, that possibly was beyond my means. The data I thought I recognized only looked familiar, but might have represented something entirely different from anything I knew.

Perhaps if I had waited for the forum to rebound—

And perhaps with one more long, hard push I might have understood—

Yet while I didn’t have much to do at all in the months of its decline, it still consumed me, that and perhaps the specter of what was no longer there.

There were other problems.

I guess I needed a break.

There is a whole year I have trouble accounting for.

I think I know what happened to Marilyn.

I guess we all needed a break. We had quite a run.

As to meanings, I have to punt. What WCX meant in itself or to the world is a question as large and involved as the world itself, whose answer, as far as I can tell, is still unsettled. Because WCX was a part of the world, and at the rate it was growing, it soon would have virtually absorbed it.

Needless to say, we never got around to Call to Action.

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Our first batter, third in the lineup, who in the third put on such a show of swings before reaching the plate, staged another, still with style but less impressive. But he didn’t even make contact this time, went down on four pitches, and left the plate in resignation.

Two outs to go, and Bear is in command. Yet he shows no recognition of this fact as he waits for the next batter, staring at the ball in his hand in his glove, as if listening to it.

Now our coach’s son comes out, showing nothing either, walks up, and digs into the box.

Now Bear kicks, winds back, and hurls heat down the middle.

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Only lately have I tried to sift through the ashes of WCX. So much data, a teeming mass of facts, stats, dates, names, studies, and theories, as well as all that it pointed to, beyond the forum. Something substantial had to have been there, vital to some end. A great deal of the effort was spent in correction and debate. Perhaps all this work was preparatory, and once the facts were nailed down and the issues resolved we would have had a solid base of knowledge upon which to build.

But it didn’t seem WCX would ever stop anywhere and settle down. Perhaps it got so involved with what it had before it that it couldn’t see anything further out. Or perhaps WCX believed that giving information and debating it was enough, and that was its sole purpose, or the only purpose it understood. From the evidence I could gather, it hadn’t given the matter much thought, however, and all I could see was an eternal mincing.

Other problems made it difficult to get a grasp. Many topics reflected fields of specialization—zero gravity hydroponics, indigenous epistemologies—that I didn’t know existed, studies so fine, whose only movement appeared to be to separate themselves from the body from which they sprang and from each other in endless division, an outward radiating of lines that could never intersect. Or interdisciplinary studies, just as specialized, that joined fields in such odd, particular ways—religious iconography of teenage-directed advertising in post-Soviet economies—that it didn’t seem any pattern would ever emerge from their collected viewpoints, that all they could produce would be a large map of pointless precision, like a Jackson Pollock.

I was concerned that the specialists might take over and worried what that might mean for the forum. To the extent that members identified themselves by what they knew and the more they refined their field of interest, the more they isolated themselves from each other, and it wouldn’t be long before no one would know what the other was talking about, much less care. One project I spent weeks on but scrapped was building a relational database that might help members navigate all the information and make connections. But I couldn’t think of any logic that might organize its tables. If I could have, I still would have had to create so many fields to provide the links that another huge database would have been needed just to sort through those.

But even if I understood where a post came from, little it held remained stable for very long. Nothing was what it appeared to be, everything was something else. WCX contextualized anything that crossed its path, but provided no context for its contexts. While I never figured out the politics of WCX, a great deal of its efforts were devoted to finding the politics behind politics and everything else, literature and history, even science and technology, all subject to the turbulence of revision.

Towers took on W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium.

Ducks dismantled the Sierra Club.

Snow tore apart FDR’s New Deal for its narrow-mindedness, its toadying to big business.

It was what WCX proved most adept at, dispelling myths, exposing the self-interest, the self-delusion behind affirmation and toppling the construction of its arguments, along with any institution built upon it. Myth busting itself took on epic proportions as the whole world had come to WCX, and the world was revealed to be a fragile structure. It didn’t seem there was anyone who wasn’t on the take or that anything could stand very long, and for all I knew WCX was right.

The New Economy, however, the view that argued IT had solved the problems of unemployment, inflation, and growth, seemed to have been embraced by many, or at any rate passed by unscathed in all the forums. Not mentioned was the class of workers we had created, all those now working the hours to man screens and move stock in the huge warehouses cropping up across the country, though I suppose they had stock options to prop their pay.

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Even count.

Our coach’s son soon got behind, taking a couple of good cuts at pitches he couldn’t time. But he has been patient, and has watched a few, and now is fighting them off as if there is nothing better in life to do, and he devotes himself to the task wholly.

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There was more I couldn’t place because I couldn’t follow the language. Some kind of battle was brewing among the academics in Snow, a jockeying for position, a scrambling for theoretical underpinnings. But in their backpedaling syntax and with all the strange roots and familiar word parts in odd juxtapositions, I got lost and couldn’t tell what the fight was about or who had taken high ground.

Not just the academics, though, as language was taking turns everywhere, becoming more technical on the one hand and on the other more offbeat, more off into the argot of uncharted lands. Both hands were given equal play so it was hard to know what was straight and what was on a slant. The language of the world was being pushed and was breaking at the seams.

And one night I ran across this post:

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

From someone who obviously hadn’t seen the threads on my post of months before. Again it set off a run of where are’s, some repeated, some new, and eventually found its way to Villon, with the same debates over interpretation and translation. This time it also triggered The Song of Roland, the poem about early French wars, and led to threads on its translation and interpretation, on codes of honor and betrayal and wholesale slaughter, the Crusades and the destruction of religious icons and edifices, as well as the sayings of Durandal, though someone noted that Durandal was the name of Roland’s sword, and the political cartoons of Oliphant.

There’s no telling how much else was repeated there or in the other forums, or, once repeated, where it led, but it didn’t matter. This may have been the greatest problem, that the stuff was piling up in WCX and getting buried, forgotten, and for all purposes lost. The forum had a search engine, but it proved to be virtually useless, as any query could return a thousand pages.

Ducks was aware of the information explosion, with someone estimating the world was producing now over an exabyte—a billion gigabytes—a year, though it was hard to tell from the way he talked if he took issue or found it a source of pride. A lengthy thread on info overload did follow, though it was only a matter of time before it got lost as well.

Some confusion had to be expected and much uncertainty, but it was fairly certain some members posted deliberate misinformation, either for purposes of parody or power or pure malice. Yet it was impossible to discern their motives, as all put on a straight face and were awfully good at their craft. How could anyone know who was just fooling around or who might have had a purpose, or distinguish among voices that might have been serious in their insincerity, or insincere in sincerity, or seriously sincere, or insincerely unserious? Some distortions—posts about the CIA, terrorist activity in the Middle East—were so subtle and insidious that pages of threads got tangled following their leads or trying and failing to correct them.

Yet for the most part there seemed to be a selfless devotion behind its efforts. It occurred to me, however, that WCX wasn’t looking at its own motives and that the opposite might be true, that showing what one knew and showing others up was what moved it, not setting the record straight. Information was just the dross. And the more one specialized, the more he set himself apart from the others and insured his special place. How else account for the forum’s wholesale misdirection? WCX might only have been a battleground of egos and could be seen itself, collectively, as a vast expanding ego, self-sure, self-defining—and self-destroying—with nothing to keep it in check.

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Our coach’s son has worked a walk and now stands on first base, where he takes a cautious lead.

And now our next hitter, the one of our hefty kids who is still in the game, an even match with Bear at least in weight, quickly runs up two strikes.

But as if he’s taken a cue from our coach’s son, he starts fighting off pitches as well.

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What most made me question the forum was its lack of distance from its behavior when it wasn’t engaged in pursuing knowledge, if that is what it was doing. Buying things and having things and investing in the companies that made them evolved into an attention that could only be called materialistic, though not all the things and companies WCX cherished had substance. Yet the forum saw no contradiction, or if it did, ignored it. Or if it had found a way for things and the spirit to happily coexist, it didn’t spell that out.

Our devices took center stage, but interest in machines was more in their speed and capacity rather than how well they were made or what they were supposed to do, in software for all the features we didn’t need, all the gimmicks we never used. Our operating systems and applications had become bloated with so many add-ons that they resembled theatre organs, having routines to bang a drum or squeeze a klaxon. It pained me to think about their code, as they violated everything I had learned while working on Summix about discretion and efficiency.

Means dutifully critiqued the many revisions as they came and listed all their bugs, though I’m not certain their voices were heard, because, where I expected WCX to reverse the course, distinctions between public and commercial life had blurred even further. Not only did WCX define itself by its devices, but had shifted in the way it approached them. Promotion outstripped evaluation as a primary mode of discourse, and most of the talk in Means sounded more like undiluted testimonial than careful evaluation. Some posts I suspected were planted by the firms themselves, though I doubt in many cases they could have done so good a job.

And not just our computers, but other things, which WCX embraced with a fondness that bordered on obsession. Products of the sort featured in Wired in its column frankly called fetish—cell phones, cameras, gadgets that could be held in the hand or strapped to the waist or wrist or strung around the neck, $300,000 sports cars and $2,000 espresso makers and $10,000 stereos, Gehry patio furniture—were advertised in Services and touted in all the other forums, whose attraction came from their oddness, their impossible size, their expense, their technological marvel, and maybe from how they made one feel in his or her nether region. Also night vision goggles and indoor skyrockets and portable synthesizers that made sci-fi noises—what was WCX doing with these?

And not just our things, but also ourselves. I only had to get one in Services for the rest to pour in and have to create another category there I called, borrowing from Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself. The headings contained a name and usually an epithet—Michael the Mover, Cynthia the Shaker, Imo the Immovable—which, when clicked, led to lengthy bios and lists of accomplishments, their plans for the future, their smallest whims, their largest desires. All paid up, and almost all paid the full $200, though I couldn’t think what kind of return they envisioned from their investment. Nor could I know whether they were who they said they were or what they said was true, though was inclined to think some of the wildest ads, because of their wildness, were from actual people and were not made up. I doubt, however, identity or truth made a difference in what those who bought the ads were really trying to do. Promotion itself had been taken to another level, and that was my general sense of whole forum, that what most moved WCX was making an impression stick, regardless of who or what was behind it.

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Our big kid connects—

But doesn’t get his weight behind the ball.

Yet his drive splits first and second, who cannot field it—

But goes softly into right.

Yet the right fielder, charging, overruns it—

Now he can’t get the ball out of his glove—

And the big kid chugs to first—

And our coach’s son, watching, then running hard, dives into to third.

Men on the corners.

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There were other posts that made me wonder if WCX had lost its grip, on reality, on itself. Services got scams and other patent corruption, and caterings to deep-seated desires and loosened imagination: not only pitches for buy-ins to obvious pyramid schemes, but also ads for pyramids for the bedroom, and perpetual motion machines and orgone boxes, and weight reduction plans and pills and exercise equipment and devices and pills and plans to enlarge the male and female parts.

I let these go because I expected them to die out, as I was certain WCX would recognize them for what they were and ignore them. But they kept coming in and generated a lot of traffic in the forums. The drift of the discussion was ambiguous, and while it wasn’t clear WCX actually bought these things, it was no less clear they hadn’t. If they had, did that mean they were suckers who got taken in? If they hadn’t, was the attraction camp and they just enjoyed talking them up? Or were they campy suckers, who knew exactly what they were but still had to have them and bought them anyway?

And there were posts that made me question reality itself.

Florida real estate passed through Towers with a fever, posts that claimed phenomenal returns on investment and gave ecstatic, mushy praise for land where one could sit and watch at twilight the fronds of the graceful palm, latticed against the fading gold of the sun-kissed sky—lots that must have been in swamps, or virtual swamps, as they were just replaying the boom and bust in the ’20s, for the hell of it, I assumed.

But then lots for Ponce de Leon Park appeared in Services.

Another ad came from someone who had bought a virtual island in a virtual realm of an online role playing game, who was selling hunting and mining rights so players could get the iron and gold and meat they needed for their warriors to conquer other lands—yet this, I discovered, was a serious offer, and one that produced serious profits.

Where my sense of reality most got stretched was with the dotcoms, talk of which soared to new heights. Concept stocks with only the barest plan got heavily promoted, which had no revenues or customer base or, in some cases, the technology they would need. In many discussions it wasn’t even certain what a firm made or did, and the names that popped up of the companies that went public the year that WCX was alive—Luminant Worldwide, E.piphany, Kana Comms, ITXC, RADWARE, Breakaway Solutions, iGo, Cysive, Zapmel, Viador, Be Free, iBasis, Retek, Fogdog, eBenX, Extensity—suggested entities freeing themselves from themselves into the marvelous, the unknown and otherworldly, or into the utterly something else.

Some of the stocks the forum plugged might have had potential that hadn’t yet materialized, and perhaps WCX suspended disbelief so that virtual hopes might one day become real. It was hard not to believe, though, that boundaries had been crossed, of ethics, of economics, of common sense. Some dotcoms had to have been scams and others misguided attempts by the overly hopeful and naive. Neither would have mattered to the speculators in WCX, however, who were pumping them up, pulling out, and cashing in.

Yet to suspend disbelief, one has to have a base of beliefs from which to hang it. Nor could I tell if lines had been crossed because I couldn’t find any. It was impossible to know what to make of any of the stocks or even distinguish between the real and phony because the language used for all of them was the same. WCX had abandoned any pretense of valuation in favor of unbridled exclamation and typographical license. Stock X, we were told, is HOT HOT HOT!!!! X will MELT your SHORTS! X is working on GIANT DEALS! X is the NEXT STEP and NOBODY has X’s technology!! X will change EVERYTHING! Load up NOW while prices are BOTTOM FLOOR!!!!!!!!!!!

Bathos had been elevated to the sublime.

Some of the stocks that received the highest praise, however, did not exist.

When I checked http://www.projex.tba, though, I found it listed.

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Our fourth batter, hitless in the game, an older kid who has a clueless look he should have grown out of by now, got behind early, too, but watched the pitches up the ladder meant to strike him out.

And now he looks inspired, and fights them off with a joy that has forgotten purpose.

But Bear keeps throwing heat, and is only getting stronger.

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And it was just as hard not to believe that WCX had lost its mind. Each time I stepped into the currents of the forums, I felt something slip. All I could see was pathology, either in WCX or the world itself, if the two were distinct, or both combined. Yet in order to diagnose, an analyst has to trace attachment to objects and gauge reactions, then set these against some standard of normality. It also helps to know if one is getting hurt by his behavior, or hurting others. But first an analyst must locate the patient.

There was obvious perversion, or obvious virtual perversion, or movement in that direction. Sex became almost as popular in the forums as the dotcoms, though talk about the stocks was sexier. Ducks showed undue interest in the mating habits of wildlife while Towers courted VR playmates who stripped on desktops and sex toys were advertised in Services. The criteria in the personals in Snow, such–and–such man or woman seeking such–and–such woman or man, turned exotic, then he or she stopped looking and frankly turned her or his attention to sex fetishes—toes, feet, calves, thighs, etc.; shoes, stockings, silk underwear, satin pants, leather vests, etc.—and these threads multiplied so fast and wildly that I had to create another forum with that head myself, where they thrived.

Some nights I left my screen feeling a little sick.

As with knowledge, as with the community of the forum, I was concerned that love had degenerated into parts, separate and incapable of being joined. But most of the effort in Fetishes was spent devising ways to organize them—and it ran through hundreds of schemes—rather than actually indulging. Or did Fetishes make a fetish out of logic itself? Nor was it certain where the others’ interests lay or how seriously they took what they said, yet the direction went out, not in, and it looked more like they were putting up a front to show off, show what they wanted others to think they could handle. I had no way of knowing what anyone actually did at home, on the side.

Or maybe they were just giving their libidos a playful, public workout. If so, I couldn’t decide what to make of that. Or maybe they didn’t take what they said seriously at all, and maybe there was a point to that, and pushing the talk as far as they could was their way of making it. But how long can someone play with obsessions before they take hold, or expose himself, herself, before she or he is laid bare? Yet sex talk seemed to bring members closer and gave WCX yet another push.

What is standard?

What is normal?

Some mornings I woke thinking I was repressed, and wondering if I was the only one.

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Ball four—

The bases are loaded!

But now the subs are up.

Still, it is time to rethink the game, and everyone has found the need to talk.

The coaches on both teams confer, and parents in the winning and losing stands talk to each other, a restrained murmur over the possibility but unlikelihood that what was settled might shift.

Now our coach talks to Stretch, serious yet smiling, man to man. Really, I don’t think he is talking about his home run last inning or what he should try to do in this one. I don’t think he is talking about strategy at all, but is trying to create an adult place the kid can move into when he bats, and later, where winning and losing aren’t everything yet still matter even though both don’t, because, after all, they are men. Stretch nods at all our coach says, cranking his elbows back and forth as he does, and he seems to be finding his way into a smile himself.

And the Dodger catcher is on the mound, talking to Bear, not quite man to man, more like they are going through the motions of what they are supposed to say but aren’t sure but talk nonetheless, though wonder, as we all do, what real pitchers and catchers actually talk about there. Bear’s cheeks wobble when he nods. What he most wants to do is stop talking and get back to throwing heat.

The umpire stands by himself and waits, who has decided it is in the best interest of the game for everyone to have his say.

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And there was senseless violence, or virtual senseless violence, or posts that contained the objects that might have moved in that direction.

Monsters cut a swath through Ducks—giant snakes, ancient dragons, aliens, Alien, Godzilla and Mothra, Gog and Magog, many others. Their figurines were advertised in Services.

Flame wars swept through all the forums, attacks that were unrelenting and utterly vicious. No one was immune.

Suicide pacts were made in Snow, no letters left behind.

Towers provided plans to construct bombs, pipe to A, but didn’t say what should be blown up or why.

At least a half dozen members identified themselves as the Unabomber. Only one of the Unabombers took Kaczynski’s anti-technology stance, but saw no irony in using technology to promote his views.

Or maybe he was being ironic, or something else.

Yet none took offense by the flames and, as far as I could learn, no one or nothing was damaged by bombs made from the plans that came from Towers—perhaps in part because it also provided information on how to recognize and dismantle them? Most names of those involved in the suicide pacts did disappear from our ranks, but it was later revealed that they were only killing off old alter egos so they could take on new. If there were any real victims or if anyone got hurt by anything, no one said so. WCX, in fact, felt no pain at all, but rather was enjoying itself immensely.

But how long can one play at violence?

Doesn’t somewhere there have to be a point?

The forum took some blows itself, hard and soft. I thought my security was adequate and didn’t think, naively, that anyone would attack anything as benign and out of the way as a forum, but throughout the first months I had no problems. That winter, however, subterranean maneuvers were made on the system, tying up the server. Also complaints came in Call to Order that material in discussions had been altered and whole threads had disappeared, along with all the posts they held, that scores of members had been dropped from the forum. Someone—several?—had broached my privileges as administrator and had his or their way with the forum. And that was just the damage reported. There had to have been more because every now then I found large dips in storage on the hard drive, unaccounted for, and more drops in the member database.

Hackers exercising their skills was my best guess. By then we would have attracted enough attention. Or maybe WCX was just putting itself through another test. But I had no way of knowing. I couldn’t find any pattern to the behavior and, not surprisingly, no one assumed responsibility. What did surprise me was that no one took credit. Call to Order had its own ideas, though, and the forum abounded in conspiracy theories that reached in all directions, not all of their culprits from our world. Cries were made for expulsion, but there was no good way to track anyone down or even discover if he were in our ranks. And anyone I expelled could have easily come back under a different guise. Mock trials were held in Snow nonetheless, the alleged offenders virtually punished with a variety of medieval tools.

Really, though, I don’t think any harm was done. I patched and retuned the system, and plugged the leaks. There was only this effect on me, that I now had to monitor the system daily for odd behavior, trying to anticipate what might happen next. But my server went back to humming in its cage, and members returned, still more joined, and the hard drive kept filling up. Material that was altered got corrected, and threads multiplied from there. And threads sprung from those that weren’t corrected, taking off elsewhere. As for the erasures, I had no way of knowing what was lost or its worth. But it wouldn’t be long before anything that was removed got repeated with slight or major variations or even verbatim, and then buried and lost in immensity of the WCX and sooner or later repeated once more.

Just as the flame wars almost died out, they took off once again in Call to Order, where WCX came together to attack a common target—me. I had to create yet another forum that I flatly named The Administrator, not so much to respect their wishes but because the posts started turning up in the other threads, strangling them and whatever hopes I had left for order.

I couldn’t take the flames personally as no one knew anything about me. Rather, WCX must have been attacking what I represented. Authority, perhaps, though I wielded very little. Still, I was a figurehead. Then I wondered if the problem was that I hadn’t asserted myself enough. Or maybe I was a martyr to some cause—or was I a scapegoat? It was impossible to know what they were doing because all the attacks were personal, though the person they attacked was not me but a virtual me they created, and if they all turned on this me, it may simply have been because I was there.

But really, I don’t think I stood for anything and meant nothing to them at all. Their impetus seemed to come from attack itself, or virtual attack, and seeing how far they could take it by exhausting all the possible ways I might be attacked—intellect, character, lineage, physique, and style—as well as pushing the terms of attack past their limits, which came in barrage of expletives, blistering and ecstatic.

It was exhilarating, at least for a few days, not just to be the center of so much attention, but also to stand there and endure everything they threw at me, have my genitals put before public scrutiny, my inner organs splayed. If I could take this and not take it seriously, what else could I take, what else couldn’t I take on?

Then a package came in the mail wrapped in brown paper with grease spots, the addresses written in childish block letters, the return suspicious, my name misspelled. I gave it to the police for the bomb squad to open, just in case.

Harmless, of course. There was only a wooden block inside, wired to a clock.

Or maybe not of course at all. It was here the Administrator began to wonder how much longer he could go on.

.

Stretch is behind in the count.

.

No more settling were WCX’s attempts to build.

The academics in Snow were swept up in a moil of demolition and reconstruction, and crystal palaces rose, transparent structures luminous with selfless exaltation, this light refracted through cracks found in motives and splits seen in meanings, and reflected in a glittering of terms self-referential to define the cracks and splits, rose and fell and rose again, taken apart even as they went up, pieces from one removed to start others taken apart as they rose, themselves. I have no idea what went on there, but I think there were executions.

Rising up alongside the palaces in Snow, which made me think there might some connection, the Gene Autry Memorial, which got so large I had make yet another forum for it as well.

Towers hit upon the idea of creating an online forum and put themselves to the task. I don’t know whether or not they saw the earlier debates in Call to Order, by then well into its back pages. At any rate they got into the same arguments and had the same results.

Ominously, Panopticon, a joint project of Towers and Snow, who requested still another forum for it and I gave in. Panopticon was modeled on Jeremy Bentham’s design for a circular prison with that name, where guards stationed and hidden in a tower at the center could see all the prisoners in cells around them, thus putting inmates in a state of mind where they’d think they were always being watched. Bentham, a reformer, a utilitarian of the 18th century, thought his plan a humane solution, but his prison never got built. The forum’s inspiration, though, came from Foucault, who argued that modern society with its hierarchies, not all of them apparent, and its technical means of inspection had become such a prison. The forum wanted to give the metaphor virtual form. Clicking the forum head led to a statement of purpose, followed by slots for names for those who wanted to be confined. Clicking the names led to their posts of whatever they dared reveal about themselves that might be sensitive and damaging if the powers that be saw it. The forum quickly filled.

Another game, more testing, maybe, or maybe they were trying to break the metaphor by pushing it from the inside as far as they could. It is possible, however, they were dead serious. Because I have may have made a serious error in my original assumption about WCX that they, like me, were optimistic about themselves and where we all were going. Instead the future was hopeless, and the Panopticon not only expressed that sober realization but also offered a place to go for anyone ready to give up. What there was in the world to drive them there wasn’t articulated in the statement, but I don’t know that mattered as they ended up in their cells nonetheless. The whole of WCX itself may have been nothing more than a dystopian vision that mirrored the world it saw. The exuberance I thought I saw everywhere in the forums was only the manic glee that flits above despair.

I never found out what the inmates revealed, though, because I was afraid to enter.

.

Stretch connects—

But straight to third, who leaps and catches for the second out, then spins around to see if there’s anyone he can double up.

Now our coach is on one knee, talking to our next sub, that little kid, with his arm around his shoulder. I doubt he is saying much, but know the kid doesn’t hear him because he is in tears.

The kindness on our coach’s face melts icebergs across the globe.

.

There were still other occurrences, on the cusp of the forum’s final surge, at which I could only throw up my hands.

Posts from members with names like iXflurG and h%Z#@7! that contained nothing but lengthy strings of apparently random binary numbers, zeros and ones, appeared in threads in all the forums, apparently at random, and quickly multiplied. Some programmer, I figured, had devised an algorithm to generate them, and when others saw his posts they got in on the act. Towers analyzed the numbers and argued they were real random numbers, created perhaps by sampling and converting outside sources of entropy, such as radioactive decay or atmospheric noise. Either type has uses in programming and cryptography, though I doubted the distinction made a difference and couldn’t think of any good reason why we got them, other than to clog the server and disrupt the flow of talk. Towers argued the distinction did make a difference, and the forum abounded in theories about their source and their purpose, theories that, viewed together, were as coherent as the numbers themselves.

Ducks argued the numbers were not random at all, but written in a code that they set themselves to crack. They also claimed that their appearance was not arbitrary but followed a sequence, and that when all the posts were correctly decoded and assembled there would be a message. They provided no theories, however, about where the posts came from or why because, they said, both were beyond our understanding now and would only become known once their job was done.

There’s no telling what Ducks hoped to find.

Also at this time came posts in every forum except Services from someone who called himself Jon Frum, who claimed he had come to save us, though didn’t say from what. He urged we abandon our corrupt ways, but didn’t list them, and throw away our money and clothes, take our kids out of school, drink kava, worship magic stones, and perform our ritual dances. No one seemed to take him seriously, but not long after membership took another major hit.

There’s also no telling what else happened in all the pages I never saw.

There are, I suppose, reasons that go past reason, and it may have been possible WCX was trying to tap those. Though we don’t think this way anymore, in the dizziness that came at late hours there were moments I tended towards speculation of mysteries and larger causes, matters as simple as yet no less large than good and evil, or whatever might lie beyond them. Were the disruptions in WCX the acts of infidels? Or heretics? Or the beatitudes of saints?

But waking up returned me to reason and its departure. WCX showed itself by turns to be paranoid, manic depressive, schizophrenic, narcissistic, phobic, obsessive compulsive, and sociopathic. Yet I couldn’t make any diagnosis stick because it never stayed in any mood very long. It never stayed anywhere long, and the half-life of its interest in all the things it brought online for all of us to see and ponder was decreasing at an accelerating rate. I didn’t know if there was any pathology in that, but if I had to make a diagnosis now, my best guess is that WCX suffered from mass wisteria.

Presumed either way is that there was reason to ascend or be left behind, which I was no longer certain had to be the case.

I don’t think anyone knew what he was doing.

Yet I never stopped believing that WCX was innocent at heart.

.

If Bear eased up last inning, he isn’t doing so this one and hasn’t had trouble finding the kid’s small zone, as two of the first three pitches have gone in for strikes.

No place for kindness here, but all I think Bear is trying to do is do the only thing he knows.

At least our kid has stood in and seen pitches and shown some courage. He took a somewhat convincing swing at the second.

But Bear misses with the next pitch—

And the next—

The Dodger coach comes out.

.

And the Nasdaq kept soaring, taking the economy with it.

And WCX kept growing, its ranks swelling with more members I didn’t know and would never know and whose motives and desires and diversions I would never sort out or understand, the hard drive filling with more threads weaving in and spreading out with more posts than I could ever see and those I did would never fathom.

And money kept pouring into the WCX account, though I don’t know where that left me as I had lost faith in our devices.

The ads in Services for weight reduction and body part enlargement suddenly stopped, however, most likely not because WCX saw through them but because they finally got bored. Yet I suppose there was a chance, given everything else I’d seen, that the pills and plans and devices worked, or WCX thought they worked and bought and used them, and the ads ceased because the members stopped buying them because everyone got as thin as they wanted to be in some parts of their body and as big in the others, or at least believed it.

And Montevista kept growing, our members pouring in and apartments going up and out, and corporate offices moving up, their campuses spreading out, the small outfits taking whatever space they could find in between, and you could see people on the sidewalks carrying portable whiteboards as they walked to makeshift offices with card tables and folding chairs, where they planned to make their launch, and though all of this was visible none of it seemed real, either. Because even though visible, nothing remained the same very long, either, but kept going up and out. And in, and because of what I couldn’t see but knew went on behind glass walls and in mazes of cubicles and on folding chairs, the impossible hours put in for what I no longer understood and couldn’t believe even though I had seen it, or at least a part.

The forum was a waste.

Inasmuch as WCX touched the world and the world touched it, there’s no telling how much further the waste beyond it ran.

But if anyone showed the symptoms, it was me. If an analyst came up to me on the street and asked the day of the week or where I was and where I was going, I would have had to stop and think. My ulcer came back and once more I couldn’t sleep, and when I did had dreams that weren’t dreams but dreams of dreams that weren’t dreams either, but dreams of dreams of dreams still chasing other dreams.

I went back to the counselor who refereed the divorce. Ever genial and reassuring, she asked me where I wanted to start. I gave it just a few sessions because my condition only got worse.

I know better, but I want to believe my problem was that I was sane, though I have no way to confirm this because I can’t think what behavior back then I might set mine against to provide a frame of reference. Even if I am right, I don’t know what difference that might make because I don’t think there is a cure.

There were, of course, other possibilities for what was wrong with me, and somehow these give me hope.

If the forum was a waste, it was a glorious waste.

And there was also this effect that still stays with me that I also don’t know how to define or process or even recall, much less know what input might have caused it or where it put me or where it might have taken me from there or where it leaves me now, yet still know that it happened and could only have come from WCX, and/or from the world, if there was any connection between the two, that there was a moment that first winter, or maybe several, we all found transcendence.

.

The little kid connects!

But it’s a weak tap to short and an easy play at the plate—

Yet the shortstop waits for the ball—

And our coach’s son was running with the pitch and is charging down the line—

And he hurls himself, cleats first, at the catcher—

Who drops the ball.

It takes me a moment, however, to realize what this means: Allen, against all odds, will have one more at bat. But more, 3-6, bases loaded, though two outs, he represents the winning run.

Heavy silence in the dugout, as his teammates, too, realize what this means. While they sit on their disappointment, their anger builds—I can feel it—along with the blame they will put on Allen. What they concluded last inning will only be confirmed once more.

But he has not yet appeared.

.

Whatever was going on inside me, I kept myself together and maintained appearances for Allen, and suppose I have done these well enough. If he’s had questions about my being out of work, he’s never asked, but I am not alone here, as other fathers are in the same boat. This, too, is part of the pattern for him, the way things around here work. At least I’ve had time to spend with him, and have, and all there is to do with school and after has taken most of it.

For a long time, when Allen was with Marilyn, I don’t know what I did, but it kept me busy.

Only now does it occur to me that it is Allen who has kept me together the past year.

And now he steps out of the dugout, bat on shoulder, and begins his slow trek to the plate, deliberate, but not purposeful, his round face swelling with failure and whatever else is going on inside of him. Our coach motions to talk to him, but Allen, not looking left or right, doesn’t see him and walks past.

Coach lets him go.

I don’t know what he was going to say, but would like to. It may be the most important thing I need to understand now. I do know, however, what the other parents in the bleachers want to tell him, who now see Allen and realize what he means. I can feel it, too, a holding of breaths, a hush of reservations, as silently they voice their collective advice, that he watch pitches and try to work a walk and leave the game to the next guy, though the odds aren’t good because Bear has shown himself in control all inning, or that he at least not swing so hard and try to make contact, though the odds aren’t good here either.

It is nothing to wish upon a son.

Now Allen stands at plate, and looks out, though I’m not sure he sees the pitcher.

And I look out, at the pitcher, who massages the ball with both thick hands, then look past him at the fence, and think about what that means, and look past the fence and think about what lies beyond.

It is hard to believe all that is not there. Summit, Summix, and WCX simply vanished, and whatever they meant before, and didn’t, they mean nothing now. I wonder if I am the only one who remembers them. And there is so much else that isn’t there now, so many companies and jobs, and plans and visions, and structures and desires, that have just as simply disappeared, and I wonder if anyone else remembers them as well.

Allen steps into the box and sets himself into a tight, anxious coil.

But most of us and have stayed, and what remains is what we didn’t see before, or didn’t stop to notice, the traffic, the crowds, the grayness of our life outside our work. All the problems Marilyn led me to see have only gotten worse. We have turned a place that was somewhat pleasant into a place that is rather grim.

Bear kicks, then lets the first pitch go—

More heat—

Only a little high, but Allen takes.

From the bleachers, a silent, collective sigh.

I have enough money for several more years, if I am careful. But I feel I have recovered, and it is time to make plans and move on. Also I need to be a role model and get into a productive mode and look to the future, or at least show this front to Allen because he will need it later.

And the desire to program has come back and stirs once more inside me, to design and integrate functions and feel the fast pulse of what might flow through whatever else I might create.

Yet he takes a huge swing at the next pitch, which doesn’t come close, and I can almost feel the whiff from here.

Parents bite their inside lips.

But no one is hiring. So many of the small firms are gone or have been absorbed into the large, and the large have cut back. And others have gone down with us. Shortfalls at City of Montevista have Marilyn back down to part-time.

I have pushed the few contacts I have and have been interviewing, but nothing has panned out yet. My work on Summix makes no impression and my experience is questioned. I suspect the firms mean something else, that they aren’t sure who I am or whether I would be a good fit, that I might not be a team player, though am not sure why they might have reached those conclusions and doubt I want to know. Still, there are a lot of us looking now, many with resumes that would counter much stronger objections.

Allen watches another pitch, just below his knees.

We remain upbeat, but it is only another front. The way things are is the way they are. No point in questioning or disturbing it. Those I’ve talked to who do have jobs are quiet about their work and keep their shoulders to the wheel. What goes for programmers goes the rest of us, I suspect, more or less.

Yet this is not a permanent state. We will recoup and something else will come to replace what is gone. The odds give us this. It is not a matter of faith. For now, however, the best I can hope for would be a job with a place like Summit, starting once more at the bottom.

I wouldn’t mind, though, because what I most want to do is lose myself in work.

The next pitch is closer, yet still he watches.

But all I have now is what we all have, this game, and whatever it means. But whatever it means, it is real. It is what we had before and what will have later, the game, our kids, ourselves, and whatever we can make of these.

Allen swings grandly once more, tracing one more gorgeous arc of utterly beautiful despair.

Another sigh from the parents.

I don’t think they are thinking about the odds or winning or losing. I don’t think they are thinking about the game at all, but themselves, and what they all want Allen to do is what they are doing now but won’t say to him or themselves, that he contain himself and not overreach.

I realize now what this game means and how much depends upon this moment, not for Allen, but for me.

Full count, this is it.

I have to leave him alone, but what would I say?

What I want to tell him is swing for the fence.

Allen sets—

I’ll worry later about what to tell him after he strikes out.

Bear winds—

Maybe later in his life he will figure out something the rest of us haven’t.

The pitch comes—

Last night I dreamed of a giant erection, the kind the swells up from the oceans and soars into the stars, then woke up—

A shot!

A bullet!

But straight to third—

Yet it tips off his glove and shoots up!

And everyone takes off.

And the Dodger left fielder, who was playing in, now backpedals franticly and our runner on third races in and everyone is shouting because a miracle has occurred and we have a chance and Allen has been redeemed and will have a chance—

But now our third-base coach is waving in the runner on second because the ball has gone over the left fielder’s head and the center fielder is racing to the wall and the other the Dodger fielders are scrambling to find a base to cover or a place to set up a relay and now the coach is screaming at the runner on first, the little kid, to keep going and Allen now turns around to see what he has done now and now our chances are greater yet and Allen—

He’s running to second—

He didn’t run through first but made the turn and now the third-base coach who didn’t see him running does now and is screaming and signaling slide and the ball caroms off the fence and the center fielder is still chasing it and the other Dodger fielders who didn’t see him running because no one would have run see him now and shuffle and rescramble and the Dodger coaches are screaming directions and maybe our head coach, too, but no one can hear them because everyone is screaming because what the hell is he doing running now when he shouldn’t because of what will happen later—

But our guy on second scores and the little kid slides into third and everyone screams louder when Allen stops at second because our chances are greater still but they aren’t the cries of joy because—

Because he’s still running—

He didn’t see the coach and he didn’t slide but made the turn and is now tearing for third and the little kid stares at him in terror then takes off for the plate himself because he has no choice and the Dodgers are scattered all over the field now and the center fielder has the ball and is looking for a relay and the dugouts have emptied and all the kids are on the sidelines screaming and everyone is on their feet and screaming yet louder because what the hell is he doing now and I don’t think Allen sees or hears anything and I don’t know what the hell he’s doing now or what will happen later elsewhere or everywhere for all time and Allen doesn’t either and all I see is a blur of emotion and his eyes and the eyes and the emotion are inside of me and everywhere and I can’t see them and the little kid scores and the score is tied and there is noise in the universe and the world is falling apart and will disappear unless Allen stops at third and the third-base coach again shouts and signals slide with all he’s got—

But he still wasn’t looking and didn’t and again cuts a turn and I can’t see anything anywhere and everyone is screaming for all they’re worth in one voice except me because I cannot breathe and do not want to and everyone is screaming louder though they have nothing left and I cannot tell if they are the screams of terror or joy or both or neither or know I care and everyone is screaming everywhere and processes are unprocessing themselves and reprocessing the process by which they unprocess and tribal drums are beating and the ground is shaking and glass cities are rising and Gog and Magog are breaking over the Wall of China and angels have taken flight and the relay is coming in from someone and the throw is high and oceans are boiling and he throws himself at the plate and stars are falling out of the sky and the catcher reaches down to make the tag and the umpire throws his hands out as far as he can and screams with all he’s got—

Safe.

.

.

.

.

I kept things quiet in the house tonight so he could get a good night’s sleep. From Allen not a word, though I’m sure his mind was racing. In place of joy, his face showed an oval pain. He’s a delicate kid, and I fear the game has upset him. He has unleashed something he doesn’t understand, and doesn’t know yet that joy can sometimes hurt, regardless of where it comes from or what it means. Yet he went to bed early and now soundly sleeps. A blessing—I don’t know how he does it.

There may be other possibilities here, too, of which I am unaware.

It is late and I’m the one who can’t settle down. For the past hours I’ve been trying to find something to bring me back to earth myself. The game may have upset me more than him.

But something else has been nagging me all day, and I remember it now. I check the web for fresh news, looking for the Chicago shooting, the pregnant mother who got shot eight times, the fetus grazed twice. I suppose I wanted to know they are still alive, though the early report said both were stable.

I can’t find the story, however, on any of the sites. So I wonder if I made the story up, and wonder why I might have done so, though am fairly certain that cannot be the case.

But not that, either.

This is the question I wanted answered: What two parts of a baby could be grazed and he still survive?

.

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Part 1 ↔ Part 2  ↔ Part 3 ↔ Part 4 ↔ Part 5

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