Blue Skies / 4
November 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
There comes a time when one realizes one has to go outside for help.
Also that one is alone.
I decided to go online.
As hard as I worked writing software for networks, I scarcely used them. I don’t know if there is any irony in this or not. But I didn’t have the time or, I thought, the need.
I did roam the tech bulletin boards, when I moved to California settled on one, WCX, the West Coast Exchange, run by a programmer in Santa Cruz who only took on work when he needed money and spent the rest of his time on his own projects. WCX was followed by a small group of those of us in the trade, in the computer science departments, and some hackers—guys devoted to what they were doing and had nothing else to prove. In part it was a way for us pass on what we learned that couldn’t be found elsewhere. For those of us who coded for pay, it helped us keep our professional identities intact. But it also gave us somewhere to hang out and voice our beefs about what was going on in the industry, in our lives. Divided into separate forums for processors, other hardware, operating systems, other software, networking, and the like, where topics could be raised and which branched out in threads of response, WCX also had a miscellaneous forum where we posted whatever else was on our minds, when the mood struck. My first years at Summit it was a place for me to come up for air, while working on Summix, my source for all that was happening at breakneck speed outside our box.
It wasn’t until Summit folded and I contracted out with the dotcoms that I really started looking at what was happening on the Web so I could get a sense of what I was dealing with and had to do. I felt like a modern day Rip Van Winkle who had awakened to a different world. The proliferation of sites that ran the gamut, the gimmicks, the commercial seepage—what I found was overwhelming. A lot of it was pretty slick, a lot more a little cheap. When I hit the search engines, I was as much amazed by all the questions to which I could not find answers as by those I could. Trips through hyperlinks took me to unexpected pages and unknown places, or to dead ends, sites barely up that had already disappeared. Prophets and visionaries lurked on every corner. Yet the activity itself was exhilarating—all the sites, all the links, all the words and pictures, the lists my searches returned that could run for hundreds of pages—as was just the thought of the incomprehensible number of bits passing across the lines. There had to be potential here that what I saw was just testing and trying out.
As far as the technology, I really was out of the loop now, working at home, so I spent more time in WCX. In ’97 Phil moved the forum to the Web to reach a larger crowd, getting advertising from Slak, a hip hardware supplier, to offset the cost. Membership took off, and while it was heartening to see how many of us were involved, anyone who had a PC and was hooked up considered himself an authority of some sort and a lot of the information wasn’t good. Others started showing up I couldn’t place who were still running with tech but also moving in other areas, some on the fringes of fields I didn’t know. Even among some of us who had been there all along, the attitude shifted towards the revolutionary and/or messianic. The platform wars, the browser wars, the debates over what we were doing and what our next step should be were heated with an intensity that approached religious fervor, ultimately tedious. The language, the naming of the parts, had ascended to yet another level—more proprietary trumping up of the simple, our own flights into arcane—and it was harder to know what was what and what it did. But so much of what we wrote now was geared for the Web, and with the incompatibilities and uncertainties this brought, along with the uncertainty of the future, of the industry, of the technology itself, of the problems caused by scaling up for the world—a lot of what was being done was genuinely mysterious. Still I knew how to find those I trusted and let what they had to say speak for itself. After all, looking at what comes in and how it goes out was what I had trained myself to do.
And after the separation, when Allen was with Marilyn, company was hard to find. Families got together with families; my divorced friends were busier than I. I wrote long emails to friends and relatives back East, but no one had the time or inclination. Ties with the guys at Summix vanished with Summit. I don’t know what happened to K himself. The rumors—that he sold out and got a job in Redmond, or was meditating in Tibet, or had secluded himself to work on some other project by himself, or had put programming behind him and moved on to something else unfathomably higher, or had taken a long walk into the Pacific—reflected our own suspicions and further showed we didn’t know anything about him. At any rate, no one knew where he was.
So I hit the streets only to find out what Marilyn meant about the town being dead at night. There never was that much, yet the spots I remembered from less hectic days, where I’d run into others and talk shop—the modest restaurants, an unpretentious cafe, a low-key bar—were gone, the restaurants replaced by the chic and overpriced, or by prodigy of the chains working volume over slim margins and cheap labor, the cafe by a carpet store doing the same, the bar by a Chinese joint that looked working class and where I got hard stares. Drives around town looking for quiet out of the way places took me nowhere. Trips up 280, I’d be haunted by the giant faces of Picasso and Einstein, hanging on Apple’s walls at Infinite Loop, who exhorted me to think different.
If anyone went out at night, I couldn’t find where, except for Click, a large bar at an intersection on 280 with a California contemporary decor that had been distressed, which featured live bands every night and was always packed. The music was a mix, different camps featured every night—rock, its offshoots and offshoots of the offshoots, some sort of jazz, and even country western—all of it played loud, old stuff being pushed somewhere. I did see some guys I knew and a lot of familiar faces, but also many that weren’t, even though many had to have been in the trade as well, along with still others I’m sure weren’t but acted as if they were. But I didn’t recognize the look on anyone, a pumped up exuberance that didn’t seem to have a source. I doubt they went there for the music, but rather were looking for a place to give their own volume knobs a turn.
So I turned to WCX, where I could at least hear myself and think. But now I spent my time in Misc, not saying much but listening, just to put some social time in and have some kind of contact.
And one night, a little drunk, I posted this question:
What’s wrong with all these ducks?
But I didn’t explain. The Nasdaq was still climbing, as was mood everywhere, with no end in sight to either, yet I was getting more and more depressed. Not because of my work. The projects I took on were manageable and quick, the programming interesting enough, and I liked being on my own for a change. Fairly simple stuff, really, but the people I worked for now invested me with extraordinary powers and looked on what I did with awe, which embarrassed me more than flattered.
Not wholly because of the separation and pending divorce, which I had more or less contained. Rather it was because I felt something was wrong with me, and the proof was all around. Why was I down when everyone else was up?
But still not entirely that, or maybe not that at all, but something outside me. The scatter Marilyn raised in the counseling sessions had begun to settle and disturb. What I was referring to in my question was the throng of ducks at Civic Center Park. I had taken Allen there for years and hadn’t really noticed, but it’s possible the problem had taken a sudden surge the last year and now approached a little crisis. They were all over the place, along with Canadian geese, crows, and our native birds, fighting for territory and food. Everything was streaked with dried grayish droppings, the walks, the benches, the swings and slides. The pond had turned to an opaque foulness. When not feeding or fighting, the ducks waddled aimlessly in crowds or swam in traffic, their comic faces desperately inane, their honks the maddened cries from bedlam. The geese, however, were seriously aggressive, menacing to a kid.
The situation at the park was sad, of course, but only in a minor way when put in the larger scheme of things. Change perspective, however, put yourself in the place of a duck, and it becomes cataclysmic. Not that I could do this, or that trying got me anywhere, yet one sight struck me I couldn’t shake, that of a few ducklings who didn’t make it through our traffic following their mother across the road, seeing on asphalt only their flat, tiny beaks and some feet and feathers distinct among the smear of their splayed, smashed organs. And I think this may be what really got me started, that I was seeing through Allen’s eyes, then saw him on the street.
Of course I got the responses I should have expected, psychoanalyses of Daffy and Donald, the thread on viaduct that took off in a long Marxbrotherian chain of nonsense.
But others in Misc did know what I was talking about and another thread started on probable causes and effects. The absence of predators, nothing else to keep their numbers in check. Our feeding them, their becoming dependent on us; ducklings taking their cues from their parents. Stomachs designed for vegetation not processed bread, the possible effects of this food on their systems after a few generations. As for the migrating birds, because of suburban development, fewer places to stop and rest, some taking to temperate climes like ours and settling down. With their responses came links to other city parks, environmentalist and naturalist groups, and schools doing research.
All of which I pretty much guessed, but it didn’t seem enough. But there were also discussions about larger causes, changes in society, in patterns of urban growth, that affected the ducks in ways less direct than our feeding or running them over. And in nature, shifts in weather patterns, in the behavior of birds themselves, again the extent these might be caused by us, what nature did on its own. Someone even wrote up a quick program to calculate bird populations with relevant variables to work, which was followed with links to chaos/complexity sites that spelled out theories accounting for seemingly random phenomena and offered programs to download that simulated growth, flight, and other processes in life. No one, however, had a good solution, and many thought there might not be one.
What surprised me more was that Misc knew I had something else in mind, that what was going on with the ducks might be analogous in some way to what was happening in our own lives. The extent we had become too dependent on others, on institutions, were processing less than wholesome stuff, foods, certain ideas. Shifts in our ways of thinking, in the economy, in how we lived and got along. Random events in society, in nature; their diffuse effects. Discussions on how small changes, worked enough, could have large and unpredictable results—which brought links to other chaos/complexity sites, theories about how these studies might be applied to social sciences. New threads started on parenting and endangered species and overcrowding, on pollution and alternative energy sources, and game theory in economics. With the threads came more links to sites devoted to these.
This discussion overlapped the first in other ways, but with the difference that there was not much consensus over how serious the problems were, or even if they were problems. But also there was the general feeling that whatever problems we had could be solved by finding the right approach, changing the technology, or taking a blind leap. Someone saw the ducks, or whatever they might represent in the turbulence of our lives, as just the broil that preceded radical transformation, on its way.
None of which was helpful or erased the image I saw on the road. But I was impressed by Misc’s knowledge and the apparent depth of its thought, its reach. And there seemed to be genuine engagement, and I felt a community I was missing. So I thought I’d try again and another night, sober, posted this question:
What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Which got no response, but it wasn’t the question I meant to ask. A few days later, maybe sober or maybe not, I asked this:
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
Which wasn’t related to the question I meant to ask and wasn’t the kind of thing I might say. In fact I couldn’t recall ever hearing the expression before. So much, however, finds its way into our heads we don’t know how to retrieve until it gets shaken out. I suppose I had Marilyn on my mind. It was what Misc reminded me of, the confusion of the counseling sessions. Yet Misc seemed to thrive on what undid Marilyn and I wanted to get closer to its heart, or maybe hers.
This post set off another chain reaction of where are’s—five cent stamps, five cent cigars, pension plans, good mechanics, doctors who made house calls, politicians who spoke in complete sentences, Fortran and a half dozen other languages, hardwood floors, platinum blondes, tailfins—and hundreds more, one liners that ran for pages.
Someone else posted the question:
Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?
A line from Joseph Heller’s novel, someone else explained, about the bombardier who got disemboweled by Nazi flak, which started two more quick chain reactions, one of friends, strangers, or brief acquaintances who had fallen by the way, hapless victims or saps or martyrs of recent frays, I supposed but couldn’t tell as I didn’t recognize any names. The other of catch-22’s today, bureaucratic traps, political absurdities, and quirks in nature, both of which went on for pages as well, few of them very serious, some so serious they couldn’t be taken seriously.
I hadn’t realized how large WCX had grown, as each post brought more usernames I didn’t recognize either. The mood of Misc was hard to gauge as well. I couldn’t tell if it was beyond sentiment, or that there was something real behind its sarcasm, or if it was just genuinely confused.
Someone noted that the question was the refrain from a poem by Francois Villon, a French writer of the Middle Ages, and I found that there were people with literary interests in Misc, also a few scholars. He posted the text in French, and others followed with background on Villon’s life and various translations, which led to debate over these and the poem’s interpretation.
Villon, I discovered, was a rogue and a lover, who spent a good part of his life either on the streets of Paris or in prison, but was also was something of a scholar himself and a poet who took his craft seriously. The poem simply asks where they are now, women from his time and ages past and from legends and lore, heroines, whores, and queens, whose lives were ruled by various passions, then poses the question he asks in his refrain.
Queen Blanche who had a siren’s voice,
white as a lily on the plain;
Big-Footed Bertha, by Heaven’s choice
mother of great Charlemagne;
and Joan of Arc from proud Lorraine
the English burned from cruel fear—
where are they, where, O Mother of Men?
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
I was also told that it was part of a much larger work, The Testament, which followed a mock form of the time, though it wasn’t clear how much Villon had his tongue in his cheek. In his version, a summing up of a hard life and love lost, a settling of scores, a bequeathing of what little he had, an outlining of details for his funeral, and appeals to above. But he was only in his early thirties when he wrote it and might have died soon after, probably broke and worn out.
I’m fairly certain I’d never read the poem, but like the ducks it struck another note and stayed with me, as did the poet, though we had nothing in common, save our age and a sense of loss. The simple poem, however, became more baffling the more times I read it What should be made of the women’s deaths and where should we look for causes? Nor was I sure how the refrain should be taken—did the French back then attach the same sentiment to snow as we did now? If so, what did that mean?
Most of literary Misc saw snow as a symbol of transience, the poem a contemplation of our mortality. Someone, however, thought the coldness of snow served to mark a contrast that set in relief the poem’s, the poet’s passion. Someone else said “yesterday” was a better translation than “yesteryear,” placing Villon’s interest in his present time, and claimed snow was a sign of affirmation because what melted in winter provided water for life in spring. In either case, Villon had no regrets over how he lived his life or what he had spent for love, an attitude I found bracing yet disturbing.
What can you expect, someone asked, given Villon’s world—the interminable wars, the corruption in clergy and state, the epidemics and famine and roaming marauders, the hungry wolves in the streets? And I found out we had historians, and that once again Misc realized I had more in mind than snow or an ex-wife. Threads ran debating whether the Middle Ages were as bad as we thought, if the Renaissance, around the corner, was all it was cracked up to be, these followed by parallels drawn to our times, more debates as to whether we were in a dark age, though in ways less obvious and cataclysmic, or were flourishing in a renaissance ourselves, the pros and cons here.
With all the discussions, more links all over, to more universities, and literary and historical societies, some French, and places to buy hardwood floors online.
The poem touched other nerves, and tentatively at first, but then in quick unraveling came the threads on love and gender roles, and I found out there were many more women in Misc than I thought. I couldn’t tell where Misc was on gender, though, whether we were going back or forward, or were going anywhere, or even what the differences between one and the other were supposed to be, and the postings on love were effusive and maudlin.
So another night, drinking this time to get sober, I posted this declaration:
The Towers of Hanoi.
Maybe I was being sentimental again, but I think I was trying to restore order. Or maybe, if Allen inspired the ducks post and Marilyn the snow, this one may have come from my own questions about myself and what I had been doing.
The Towers of Hanoi is an ancient game where the goal is to move a pyramid of disks from one rod to another, passing through a third in the middle, following a few rules. Writing a program that does this is a standard problem we all had in first year CS. It is a simple game, but the number of moves it takes to solve it increases exponentially with the number of disks used. The program, however, is an easy matter of devising a recursive routine to handle the game in its simplest form, then letting the computer run the repetition of moves, which it can rip through in an instant. This is the strength of computers, that they can quickly repeat little steps numerous times to get large results, making something substantial out of what for us would be trivial and unwieldy, and perhaps in some similar way this is what I hoped might happen in Misc.
In the game of legend, however, monks in a temple in the Far East had 64 disks, made of gold. The time it would take to move the stack by hand is unthinkable, forty times the age of the universe. Even a computer would take millions of years to work the puzzle, assuming it could store all the moves. And according to the legend, when the last disk was placed the temple would turn to dust, the world collapse with a crash of thunder—the point to the story being, perhaps, that something unnatural was being pushed. My post may have been influenced by another construction.
Or maybe nature, taken head on, is a different beast.
At any rate, Towers got big response from the programmers in Misc, a raft of encomiums that may or may not have been sincere, along with solutions in several languages and debate over whether or not recursive routines made best use of a computer’s resources and code for alternative solutions. And links to sites with Java applets to play the game on screen, some in 3D, and to sites with similar games, their programs, to the vast shareware libraries of the world, ever growing yet larger.
The game was also a favorite with mathematicians, who joined in with number theory and different versions of the legend, of who did what where and what was supposed to happen at the end.
But I also got threads on the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, explanation of the forest of concrete piling that held it up, and of the massive moving damper at the top of Citigroup Center in New York that controlled its sway. On the explosion of development around the Pearl River Delta in China and in Houston, on Houstonization, the freewheeling, soaring construction everywhere. On the projects of Rem Koolhaas, postmodern styles and theories. On the Claes Oldenburg baseball bat in Chicago and Christo drapes around the world. And threads on the web itself, online communities, virtual cities, other virtual realities, their virtues, followed by discussions on computer technology itself, in the abstract, and its potential, which was boundless in expectation but thin on application.
On top of these came other apocalyptic visions on other ways the world would end, drawing from legends from across the globe and back into the ages, and the latest from astrophysics.
And Towers still took other unexpected turns. Vietnam today, arguments over normalization of trade, debates even on the war itself that I didn’t know were still alive. Cold War musings, where we were now, if anywhere, where we should go from there.
And there were still other turns, many, but so seemingly tangential that I can’t think of any connection that might resurrect them in memory now.
It is possible that what I was after wasn’t so simple after all. And that simple things, compounded, can quickly get out of hand.
Someone soberly noted, however, that the game was called Tower of Hanoi, not Towers, that it was created by a French mathematician only in the 1800s, and that the legend itself was made up to popularize the game, which left me doubting everything that had come before.
Another link took me to a site that had a version of the game with all 64 disks and allowed visitors to move them, and according to its counter quite a few had come. It didn’t say what would happen, however, when the puzzle was done. I suspect the site was a deadpan joke, though maybe not.
It was in the Towers posting that the mood of Misc most emerged, yet remained the most elusive. Tongues were in cheeks everywhere I knew, though I wasn’t sure where or why. Aware of itself, self-confident, and to a heightened degree self-conscious, Misc, also appeared naive and fickle. It acted as if it had seen everything under the sun and that nothing could shake or surprise it, and yet still held before itself an unqualified but unspecified wonder. And while it didn’t seem that there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be done, or at least Misc gave this impression, it was hard to imagine anything that might match this wonder or Misc would think worth doing.
I’m still not sure what I was really trying to do myself with my questions, except maybe put love, my life, and my world together in some meaningful way, maybe find solutions. I may not have been trying to do anything, however, other than occupy myself at a time when I needed some distraction, and Misc may have been doing the same. I suppose in some cosmic sense this all we do anyway. Yet the energy of Misc was compelling, its diversity and its sudden growth at least cause for marvel, and I was seeing something new every day, and thinking about the things I had never thought about before, and wondering what else might be out there, waiting. The threads took me out so far, away from the places and things I knew, away from my home, the state, and even outside the country. And even when I was inside it I still thought I was seeing another place, that the America I thought I knew was virtually or in reality somewhere else.
And so it went that summer, when not working for the dotcoms or taking care of Allen, I waded through the threads in Misc, trying make sense of all they said.
And in the posts in ducks and snow and towers, and everywhere in the Valley, in the country, in the world, came talk of the Nasdaq and hot tips and industry musings, the bar of our expectation being raised every day.
But Phil must have gotten overwhelmed by what had happened to his site, or maybe fed up, or had moved on to something else himself. Whatever the case, late that summer he asked me if I wanted to take over. As with K, I never heard from him again.
Misc and the rest of WCX now rested on my hands.
Our coach’s son kept his composure and whatever else he had.
An infield hit loaded the bases, no one scoring.
And while the next batter connected and hit a hard line drive, it went straight to short who returned the ball sharply home for a play at the plate, the second out.
But the next hitter worked the count ten pitches and finally got a walk, forcing in a run.
Still he bore down, but still he got behind in the count but still came back and battled until the last hitter, their slugger, just missed a pitch and hit a towering popup our coach’s son fielded himself for the third out.
But damage done, 6-2, bottom of the sixth, the final inning, coming up.
But now once more for a moment the field is clear, but briefly filled with moment, with the endless ghosts of endless possibilities.
Or however many possibilities might be contained in the end.
Allen, at the end of the order, will only watch.
Perspective changes when you stand at the center, when everything comes to you and radiates back out. And when you stand at the center, you have to think about what you want and your motives, about who you are and what you might become, how you might influence the shape of the world. But you also have to put yourself aside and listen and be guided by all that is around you so you don’t become corrupted and spoil the picture.
It wasn’t so much wasn’t responsibility I felt as a large desire that I might in some way harness and direct. All the energy, all the knowledge that had gone into the posts, and all the voices, a membership that was growing every day—there had to be something we could do, if we ever came together. Change of some sort was in the air for better and/or worse—who could tell?—and maybe we could reach some common understanding, perhaps even mobilize to help direct its course. But there was so much in Misc that was beyond me. Everything seemed germane to something yet at the same time esoteric. In my work I had learned to manage size and complexity, but I couldn’t find any layers to sort my way through, much less project how Misc might coalesce or where it might go from there.
As for myself, while I have some basic strengths and at heart I don’t believe there is anything about my character offensive, I didn’t know what I had to offer, or even what I wanted. Finding myself was why I entered WCX in the first place. Also I had no experience. All my efforts up to then had been put in making systems for others to govern. I hope I was moved, as I think we all were, by a spirit egalitarian, though I’m not quite sure what that means. A moot point, though—really I had no other choice.
My only plan, then, was to do what I had been doing all along, just get started, see what worked, and build from there, in the meantime keeping everything provisional, my sense of myself, of the future of the world.
I had to spring for a broadband connection and settle a few minor legal issues, but technically there wasn’t much involved at all, just a matter of setting up my machine as a server, installing the forum software, then downloading the databases of member info and all the posts and plugging them in—only a few weeks’ work to get it up and running. My system was Linux, of course. My faith in open source had only grown.
Esthetically, I wanted to keep WCX as it was, simple and direct. No graphics, only text. Let us speak for ourselves in words and not entice, nor diffuse our intent with pictures. We could add links to them if we felt they were needed, as we had been doing before. There was ideology in this decision as well. Graphics files can get quite large and come in different formats. Access to a forum should be quick and universal; WCX had to reach all browsers and connections and not slow down entry to its gates. And practically, I didn’t want to tax my server and not leave room for growth.
My real problems, then, were organizational and political, if any distinction can be made here. What we did, however, would depend on who we were, yet who we were would determine what we did. So my first step was to establish the terms of the group. I created a new forum, Call to Order, which I put at the top and where in separate topics I addressed the issues of deciding who else could join, whether content should be censored, and how miscreants should be handled. I also suggested an election of moderators for the different forums so later I could pass control. I even left open the possibility that someone might take over my spot as administrator down the road, as I thought my stay was temporary and that someone more capable would turn up. The only thing I didn’t do that other forums did was give my email address. If WCX had issues, they should be brought out in the open, not to me.
Once we got organized and if we were moved to act, I planned to create another forum, Call to Action, to set an agenda. In the meantime I left membership open, as Phil had. A quick count from the database surprised me—our ranks had grown to over ten thousand.
But moderators had to have forums to moderate, their forums category topics. And who we were and what we talked about and what we might do would depend on what we knew and what we wanted, none of which was clear. Yet in spite of its confusion, or maybe because of it, I felt the topics should come from Misc where our interests were broadest, the participants most varied. Several nights were spent and lost, however, trying to come up with a scheme of classification. I tried the standard categories—politics, arts, education, environment, and so on—but much of the discussion didn’t fit any of them well, or crossed borders and could be placed in all. I experimented with other schemes and got the same results. So I had to assume Misc knew what it was doing, and even if it didn’t, or didn’t yet, Misc would have to be the ones who figured out the scheme. Maybe once issues in Call to Order were resolved, topics and an agenda might emerge.
I needed some kind of organization, however, so I created three more forums, Ducks, Snow, and Towers, the largest of all the discussions, and pulled out their threads from Misc and placed them there, several nights’ more work. Perhaps it was because they were arbitrary categories that I thought they might work, at least for time being, as what I was after was so uncertain and what I was dealing with so scattered that whatever needed to be done might best be reached by random hits. Or maybe there was a logic in them that I couldn’t yet see, that they were the three distinct points that determined some large circle whose border was still beyond me. Beneath Ducks, Snow, and Towers, I put another Misc with all the threads left over, just so we’d have a misc. for our miscellaneous needs and in case something else might take hold.
The order of the tech sections, however, was apparent, and I left them as they were, though to simplify the homepage I made them subcategories under a forum I called Means.
Finally, I added one more forum, Services, which, much as I hated to think this way, was in effect advertising, the fuel of dotcoms. But I thought Services might give WCX access to out-of-the-way firms in tune with its interests, and that only such firms would post an ad. In keeping with the rest of the forum, I wanted to make Services simple, fair, and picture free. Any concern that wanted to place an ad there had to follow this format, a brief heading in bold, which when clicked led to a text statement, followed by a link to its site. Let businesses explain themselves and defend their goods in words, as we did. That way the small firm would have equal footing with the large and the site wouldn’t be clogged with banners and graphics that would take more time to load. I did legacy in Slak, however, who decided to stay on. Its banner ad with grunge type and a lounging chip provided a familiar face for the transition and I hoped would help keep the tone of the site subdued.
Really, I didn’t see what I proposed so much as adverting as just giving those firms a chance to tell us what we needed to know and might in fact find useful. I did, however, ask for payment, but I wasn’t out to make big money. I didn’t even expect to break even, rather wanted to make enough to allow WCX a future, if it had one. I didn’t think the ads, given their format, would get enough attention to justify the trouble for advertisers or me of counting clicks on the links. So I would simply ask them to pay what they thought their ads were worth, suggesting a modest two hundred dollars a quarter year for large outfits and fifty for small, letting them decide what size they thought they were. Payments would be handled online through a third party that would give me reports and deposit money in an account I set up for the forum.
Services did get heated debate in Call to Order, but opinion was evenly divided. Commercialization, selling out, many screamed. Not selling out but fighting back others countered, some of them claiming that democracy had bypassed Washington, that the real action in this country, and not just in this country but in the world, was online, that we were voting now with dollars and bits and shares in the market. My only point was that we mentioned brand names so much in the tech forums that we were advertising anyway, though that didn’t slow down either side. Some in both camps accused the other of being Marxists, some in both used Marx in defense, and the battle took off on lines pointedly personal or horribly abstruse. Too much over nothing, I felt, because I doubted we would get very many subscribers.
Meanwhile an obituary for Marx appeared in Ducks, and another for Adam Smith in Towers, which set off still more chain reactions in Snow that ran for pages.
I don’t know if I was naive or hopeful in what I did, if a distinction can be made here, either. But I didn’t expect much of anything, in fact my only concern was that the site would die the weeks it was down. Yet the first night, after I checked my settings and booted up, I sat and watched but didn’t have to wait, as WCX picked up where it left off and my screen quickly filled with new posts.
After that, it was all I could do to keep up.
Actually, his mechanics look good, as far as I understand baseball mechanics, Bear, the Dodger pitcher, this throwback from our past, now warming up. He winds thickly, but goes back slow and straight, without quirks or embellishment, and releases with unhurried bulk propelled by a strong push from his legs, the motion only interrupted by a heavy skip when he lets go, a recoil of flesh in his jowls and stomach. And his eyes are on the ball all the way in, and on his face there is no look of guile or planning or anticipation or memory, memory of the homerun he gave up last inning or the strikeout of the little kid who is my son that got him back on track, memory of anything, not even a look of recognition of what he’s doing, but rather a blank, outward expression of following, as if he’s not the one determining the pitch but the pitch is guiding him and he’s just going along for the ride.
Which is all he has to do this last inning with a four run lead.
And the ball pounds as heavily as before into the catcher’s mitt, a heavy thudding in a light that has begun to dim.
The debates in Call to Order should have tipped me off as to what was coming. The topic on censorship got as much reaction as Services, but on this issue WCX was unanimous and opposed. Not only were they confident they could handle anything that came up, they believed they should. Free speech was invoked, and even hate speech and gross sex, the cases they most argued, they believed should be tolerated, which struck me as odd as we hadn’t had either in the forums. I felt WCX was eager to be tested, that its mood was bring it on. But compared to what we all could see elsewhere on the Web and probably had, anything that might appear in words in our forums would be tame. And I couldn’t argue against the principle, though I sensed maneuvering in the discussions, that the real motive of some was to protect topics close to them that others might reject.
Similarly, WCX was against any hard rule on offenders, except for spammers, again arguing they could and should deal with anyone else who turned up, though they couldn’t settle on a clear definition as to what was spam and what was not.
On the issue of membership, WCX couldn’t reach any consensus at all. It was also here the various factions within the group most made themselves heard. Most of the programmers and their followers didn’t care and thought there should be no criteria at all, many of them arguing adamantly that keeping things open was what their trade was all about. Many in the industry who weren’t programmers, however, and the tech theorists, or those who sounded like tech theorists, along with the educators in the forum, also embraced fair representation yet at the same time pled the need for background in the technology, claiming that only those who understood our devices would be able to use them well, which struck me as odd again as our devices were getting more and more simple to work.
The same was true for many academics, or those who sounded like academics, their criteria divided by the lines of their disciplines, though sometimes crossing these. Their ideological stance was sharp and self-effacing, their fervor a scorching light before which I think we all were supposed to wither then maybe see our way clear, but their arguments were hard to follow, in part because of their language, in part because much of their support came from lengthy MLA citations, lists of names and years within parentheses, identifying, I assumed, the works of other academics who backed them up, few of the names familiar, or familiar at least to me. Those posts led to more debate, or I assumed it was a debate, as the threads were comprised largely of more citations with the only differences I could see being that the lists were longer and the years of publications more recent. There may also have been factions within their factions, but I couldn’t tell.
Inevitably and probably necessarily, politics of some sort lay behind all the discussions, but aside from that of single issue groups such as the environmentalists, I wasn’t certain exactly what the politics of the others were. Most sounded moderate to left, and in principle were opposed to criteria, though they seemed a little smug, perhaps believing that only like-minded people would join. They didn’t name party affiliation, however, or that of their opposition, perhaps because they assumed everyone knew who they were and that their opposition couldn’t be taken seriously and wasn’t worth mention. Other posts began to appear however, and in great numbers, that argued the need for careful selection. Their criteria for membership had the cue words of “basic values” that made me think they came from the right, religious or other, and were trying to get a toehold in by making some vague but universal appeal. These posts got strong reaction from the first group, or maybe from still others, who rejected their values and countered with basic principles, this time adding their own set of criteria, no more concrete and I suppose just as universal, which set off several more rounds of debate, both sides pumping themselves up by prostration before something otherwise and beyond, these followed by yet more debate where I lost track. Ideas and ideals were so abstractly couched and the arguments so diffuse that it wasn’t clear what the differences were between one set and the other, or even who was arguing against whom, whether it was left against right, or far right against the merely right, or far left against the merely left, or those in the middle lashing out against both sides.
Another group seemed political, though I couldn’t place them anywhere on the scale left or right, as they talked as if they had moved past such distinction into some new world that belonged to them, who believed they who were the ones who should join and set the course. Others approached anarchy, whether for ideological reasons or for its own sake, whose sole criteria was rejecting anyone who set criteria. Others were decidedly apolitical and just wanted to keep things loose and wild for the hell of it, which, given all the dissension, is what I had to do for the time being.
Criteria for moderators got the same arguments from all sides, but were stepped up yet a few more degrees, with one group who called itself One-eyed Jacks claiming we didn’t need no stinking moderators. I put elections off to a later date.
Still, all the dissension in itself gave me heart because it meant WCX was involved, and my hope was that once the debates ran their course WCX would settle and get down to business, which I thought would be in everyone’s interest, though it wasn’t always apparent anyone was listening to anyone else.
One thing I didn’t have to do was solicit members, in fact I intentionally didn’t do so because I wanted to start slow and build gradually. Every time I checked the database, however, I found the list had grown, and at an accelerating rate. Within a month our ranks had tripled. Word of mouth, I suppose, which can spread quickly on the Web. Also with all those now online looking and with all the topics broached in the forums, search engines might have brought them to WCX. The numbers didn’t necessarily mean anything beyond a whim, as all that was involved was a quick registration process, automatic and without commitment. Yet the software kept track of the amount of posts for each, and most were active.
I don’t know, however, why they stayed once they found us. Usenet was still going strong and there were other forums on the Web older, better known and focused. Maybe some rushed in just to keep someone else from getting the upper hand. Or maybe it looked like something was happening, or was about to, or might, and they got in case it did, but that presupposes some intent and purpose. It’s possible the attraction of WCX came not from what it was, but from what it wasn’t.
Still the numbers were encouraging, yet at the same time problematic, as the larger the forum grew, the less likely it would ever come together. Not just the numbers, however, because the more it grew the less sure I was who we were. Email addresses, from those who gave them, provided some clues. Many had institutional accounts, and their addresses gave the names of their institutions, though I started getting .edu’s and .org’s that were unfamiliar and looked a little strange. Individual email accounts were getting cheap, though, and in most I saw only their ISPs and whatever name they chose to put before them. These and their usernames gave some indications, hacker puns and snips of code, coded references to cultural figures high and low. But most were only abbreviated real names, or I had to assume that. Some were just anonymous tags, arbitrary strings of letters and numbers. Then again for all I knew they were cryptic signs of something else out there I didn’t know.
The forum kept profiles on each member, and there he could put his profession, her interests, his or her hometown, though many left these blank and I had no way of knowing what the others put was true. The cities that were listed crossed the nation and reached out into the world, which suggested we represented something far and wide, if anyone was honest. But even among those who gave this information or could be identified by other means, I couldn’t make any correlation between members and the forums, who participated in which and what that might mean. A great many participated in several, some in all, some just in those that matched their field of interest, some in forums wholly unrelated.
What I didn’t ask for were their real names because I wanted to protect their identity. Besides, especially with the numbers, there wasn’t any practical way of checking up. But I wasn’t sure anyone was who he said he was, or if he wasn’t a she, or if several different members were actually one person, or one name stood for many, or if he or she did what she or he told WCX she did, or he or she or they meant anything they said.
But after all, ours is a free country where we should have a place to freely speak. Some might be emboldened to show their true selves online and say what they might not say before the eyes of a crowd. Yet they would have an online presence that would have to answer to the others, and build their trust to get them to listen. Anonymity presented temptations, power or psychological side trips. But who was to say that an alter ego wasn’t worth hearing and didn’t touch on something vital, maybe wasn’t in its own way true, that needed to be heard wherever it might lead? And anything such a voice might say would still have to pass review. If WCX couldn’t see the deception a post masked, then that was the problem WCX needed to look at and would have to hash out itself.
In many cases it did. Posts in Snow that misrepresented the Chechen rebels and denied Russian army abuses were traced to agencies in Moscow; http://www.makah.org, purported to be the official site of the Makahs, a Washington coastal tribe, was shown to be a fake started by opponents who wanted to stop their harvest of gray whales. It took Snow a while, however, to discover that the essay “Pre-imperialist Hegemonic Subtexts and Polymorphous Perversion in the Poetry of Jacques Villon: Pimp Daddy Works the ‘Hood,” published in an academic journal, was a hoax by someone bucking academic trends, though discussion on it continued well after, many claiming that authorship was beside the point. In Towers the Nigerian bank scam proved to be a familiar face and was quickly dispatched, as was the post in Ducks vaunting Bush Jr.’s stellar record on the environment.
While the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was hit on all fronts, the primaries, coming up, only got scant mention in any of the forums, and I got the sense that WCX felt the election was beneath them. Or maybe with the economy going well, or at least the indicators up, and no war in sight, they didn’t have hard issues around which to gather, though it’s hard to believe there weren’t other matters that should have engaged them. Many, despite all the political debate, didn’t seem to be involved in any actual process, ours or any other, and I wondered what that boded for WCX if it ever decided to come together and act—or, if WCX represented the political climate, for the rest of us the following November.
Nonetheless the forums from the former Misc went on as before, and at an accelerated rate, with more environmental studies and cosmic musings, more solutions to the Tower of Hanoi problem, many of them redundant, more speculation on urban conditions and environmental shifts, more tracings of fault lines in history and fractures in lit, the material now coming not from links but the texts themselves, stats and briefs and excerpts from articles and whole graduate dissertations.
At the same time the forums moved further in—
Pet care advice and diet plans and even recipes started turning up in Ducks, which I pulled out as I thought they were trivial, but Call to Order protested and they came back with a vengeance anyway, so I let them go. Job queries appeared in Towers, and reviews of recent books and movies in Snow, who praised them for their trashiness or trashed them for their pretension, as well as personal poetry and personals, such-and-such men or women seeking same or different. More to my concerns was the legal and medical advice given in all the forums when the context of a discussion suggested its solicitation. At least WCX was providing a service and many who replied were doctors and lawyers, or said they were, and much of their advice looked good, and was either validated or corrected by others. Some suggestions, however, looked off the wall, though I had no way of knowing and could only hope that WCX knew best. I worried we exceeded our authority and ran legal risks ourselves. But if anyone suffered from a bum steer, at least he or she didn’t say so.
And further out on further tangents—
Dinosaurs and other extinct species showed up in Ducks, along with electric sheep, while the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch heated up Snow. In Towers came Sputnik and cloning and the chess games of Paul Morphy. And imaginary cities rose, space colonies and metropolises of utopian visions, the cities of the future from the past, with links to sites showing pictures of winged cars and fantastic buildings, streamlined wonders that I suspect were supposed to draw a smirk. They also spelled out Y2K scenarios, painting a picture of factories stalled, banks and agencies mobbed, airports closed, a nation shut down. I think once again they were just their giving imaginations a run, though with all the old code still around of the sort I saw in Detroit there was room for doubt.
More tongues were in cheeks, I was sure, pointing now in all directions, or maybe not, maybe there was a pointedness to the tongue pointing because many seemed dead serious and seemed to be pointing to something, but I had no idea what or where, as there weren’t any threads that might tie anything together in any meaningful way. If I had to describe the mood of WCX, I don’t know how else to do it but repeat verbatim everything that was said and see what kind of picture that might make.
It was possible, however, there was some larger picture emerging that had not yet come into focus, or that at any rate was my hope.
But some threads simply defied logic, or any logic I understood—
The Ofili painting that caused such a stink in New York that fall—a portrait of an African Virgin Mary ornamented with cutouts of porn and elephant dung—got lengthy discussion in Towers and Ducks, but none in Snow where I thought it belonged. More than the scabrous delight and outrage against threatened censorship that I expected came expressions of affection, even reverence, and a kind of awe, though one that wasn’t religious or esthetic. Not faith, more like its opposite, but still something that had its feel. I checked the link to see for myself and found the painting rather touching and sweet.
Cargo cults sprang up in Ducks and invoked similar reactions, with special attention to John Frum—cargo cults the religions that began in the South Pacific in World War II, inspired by natives’ awe at all the money and goods American soldiers brought, the dollars and jeeps and planes and candy and canned goods, whose rites were designed to bring their magic back; John Frum being one island’s saint, veneration of whom was still going strong by natives who every February donned GI uniforms and raised our flag.
And reactions were the same for the tech stocks and dotcoms, the talk of all the forums, whose threads spread like roots and seemed to hold them up. The online pet and grocery stores did not appear in Ducks, nor the book stores in Snow, nor the tech infrastructure firms in Towers—again placement defied logic—but I got the sense those were just mundane details, that more was at stake than flea collars and lettuce or novels and histories or fiber optic lines and routers.
I thought all the posts belonged in Services, as ultimately there was the issue of making cash. WCX was obviously heavily invested, and in many cases I suspected they came from the firms themselves or from speculators pushing up a stock before they unloaded. Word from the VC pundits on Sand Hill and the business journal prophets and the guys on CNBC passed freely, along with personal views, but the arguments did not fit on any balance sheet. Stock valuation had moved to another level, where earnings went out the window and what was measured was potential, the profits belonging to a future that was fast upon us but on which no one could put a date. In the case of the dotcoms this potential could only be measured by the number of eyes on their sites and the money spent in advertising to get them there.
There was reason here, as the firms had to build first and get in quick and attract a consumer base if they were to stand a chance, but their talk tended more to exposure than profits, seeing and being seen. Money, or the prospects of making it, was largely what they talked about, yet it seemed to be both the point and beside it. While I’m sure there were opportunists going along for the ride, gauging when to pull out, and I don’t think anyone really believed all that was said, at the same time I believe everyone believed everything with all his heart, whether she had invested or not. Burn rates, the speed with which dotcoms ran through cash, had mystical power and were a matter of personal pride. Sharing them contributed to the communal vibes, and to what everyone had in sight and was being pushed, to what the Nasdaq, which in a few months had risen over 2000 points, seemed to reach for and push itself, whatever might exist beyond seeing and being seen and being counted, what might break free from the horizon when they forced it and it unhinged.
The Means forum went on as orderly as before, with its own debates, still the platform wars and others, and its talk of upgrades and incompatibilities, of hardware architecture and ways to overclock chips, the hackers pushing some horizon themselves.
Services, to my surprise, provided useful information about subscribers’ products, at least at first. The products themselves—more hard- and software from small suppliers and several of the large, specialty books, out-of-the way services, handcrafted furniture, other tools for the day-to-day—were useful, or had this potential. And even though I didn’t solicit the ads, I got quite a few. What surprised me more was that even though I had an honor system that I didn’t plan to enforce, not only did they all pay, but almost all paid full price, some even more, no one accepting my distinction of large and small. After only a month WCX was well in the black.
The new Misc forum I created, however, completely fizzled out.
Now the bear is ready, and he now stands and waits, his loose bulk at rest atop the mound.
And now it is time, down four runs, for the Giants to face bravely what remains, what already has been concluded but still has to be played out.
Or this, at any rate, is what our coach is trying to do as he talks to our players before they leave the dugout for their last at bat.