The Information Age? Part two

Why the rapid development of new technology is a good thing, part two.

Continuing from the previous installment, inspired by a conversation at a grocery store checkout and looking at the rise of the Information Age. Here, I return to that conversation, which concerned whether Camila Parker-Bowles was about to become Queen of England, based on a single magazine cover.

First of all, why do the British Royals seems to be such an endless source of fascination for Americans? I mean, we did fight that whole war to get rid of them at one point, right? But thanks to new technology, they suddenly started landing in our backyards again.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, was televised in the U.S. — sort of. We didn’t have the capability yet to transmit television signals across the ocean, but they could transmit radio waves, and send images via a primitive sort of fax machine, even called MuFax, that could send a still image by wire in “only” nine minutes.

Apparently, though, probably the moment when the former colonies started to have a thing for the Royals started with the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales on July 1, 1969 — right before the Moon landing — but it was broadcast around the world, quite likely in a convenient test-run of satellite technology twenty days before the Real Big Event.

Twelve years later, Charles would be back in American consciousness when he married Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981.  Their worldwide TV audience comprised 750 million people. And, of course, his bride would capture worldwide attention upon her death on August 31, 1997.

I definitely remember that evening, because my then-boyfriend and I had just come home from a Sunday evening movie date, got to his place and he turned on the TV. There it was — the top story on American network news on every channel.

While the previous weird fascination seemed to be just a fluke of technology making delusions of monarchy appealing to some Americans in a sort of fantasy/soap-opera way, the growth of the Internet also seemed to blur borders, at least in another way.

By this century, the only cultural divides among the English-speaking countries seem to be superficial, like word-choices, culinary decisions, and major brands. And Americans have continued to fawn over Charles and Diana’s kids, and then their grandkids, and his second marriage, and no, I don’t get it.

What I did get, though, when the woman finally turned the magazine to us after asking, “When did Camilla become the queen?” I realized that it was a copy of InTouch, which answered everything.

While it’s an American magazine, it has a particular fascination with the British Royal Family. It also lies its ass off, and their cover accuracy (from the editors and publisher) and content accuracy (from the writers) are both well below 25%. — although I knew that without looking, because the drug store next to my place that’s been a really convenient quick drop-in during the pandemic stocks it by the registers, so I’ve had plenty of time to look at their cover stories and just shake my head.

Then again, I kind of know stuff about British royalty and how it works, outside of this pop culture fascination with them. Why? Because I learned a lot of history in school, as well as on my own, because I’m just curious like that.

Like the British stuff before our revolution that was later important to the Western world. I’ve also paid attention to the stuff behind the tabloid headlines on the Royals, which led to a nice moment, actually, because if this woman had just gone off of the very inaccurate and IRL click-bait headline, she could have walked away thinking that Camilla Parker Bowles was about to become Queen of England.

Fortunately, I knew enough to be able to tell her — and the checker, who seemed to be going along with the headline — that InTouch was incredibly unreliable and, if anything, the cover title was satirical at best, because “Queen Camilla” would never happen.

And that much is definitely true, because part of the deal of allowing Charles to marry Camilla after Diana died was the specific stipulation that she would never become the queen should he ascend to the throne, but rather only gain the title of princess consort, which is a polite royal way of saying “the chick the king is fucking, but his relatives totally disapprove.”

I didn’t explain it in quite those terms. I just said that because of her divorce and the deal Charles made, she could never become queen, and that seemed to settle the issue.

On the way out, it struck me — and this article was born — how is it that modern humans (and it’s not just Americans) can have access to so damn much information and yet seem to know so little about what is really going on?

No, I’m not pushing conspiracy-theory bullshit there. It’s a legitimate question. How is it that so many people do not seem to engage with actual, fact-based information?

Unfortunately, I think a big part of it is that in modern culture (late-stage capitalism largely to blame) too many people have been ingrained with learned helplessness.

“You cannot get ahead, so you never will, so just soldier on and buy our shit! It’s better than trying to learn, because learning is hard, right?”

Well, wrong. But this is the message that has kept people disengaged from curiosity and education. Consumer culture, particularly in the west, is focused on one thing: Selling you artificial substitutes for happiness.

If they let you learn and get smart, then you’ll learn to not buy into their bullshit, so they start to try to get you when you’re young. McDonald’s Happy Meals, anyone?

Modern capitalism has really adopted an old idea that has been attributed to several sources, but which really has none. St. Ignatius Loyola never said anything like, “Give me the child until seven and I will give you the adult” (original version, substitute “boy” and “man” for the subjects in the sentence.) Not was it said by Aristotle.

But… it somehow crawled into the Zeitgeist, especially in marketing, and voila… your kids became targets. How do you think that companies like McDonald’s and Disney became so damn huge in the first place? Each of them had you as kids, probably your parents as kids, they’ve got your kids, and they’re going to get your grandkids.

And how do these companies do their thing? Oh, they will never, ever tell you, “Not happy? Maybe you should learn a new skill!” Instead, they’ll hide the question, make the problem seem like it’s your fault, and then sell you the solution.

“Feel like a loser today? Pick yourself up with Pakolyze candy!” (Hidden message: Because you’re a stupid, useless loser without us.)

This is literally the basis of every single ad that is trying to sell you shit you don’t need, including those fact-free magazines in grocery store check-outs, but also including most of what you read on the internet.

The only way to unlearn learned helplessness is to ignore the (corporate) voices that tell you, “Nah, I can’t,” and instead focus on your inner voice, which tells you, “Oh, fuck yeah, I can, and I am going to!.”

And you will. Just become your own gatekeeper and filter info — after you find the least biased sources, which an internet search actually will give you.

Then stop obsessing on the Royals because, after all, while Queen Liz Jr. is hella cool, we did kick her ancestor out a couple hundred years ago via violent revolution.

So… honor, but don’t obsess. Hey, Elizabeth II is my 36th cousin (and I think also 35th and 37th — no, really), but… no American needs to waste that much head canon on any of the Royals, okay?

Unfortunately, we moved from The Information Age into The Post-Information Age, or maybe even the Dis-Information Age at least five years ago. We’re only just making an attempt at crawling out of it now, but please stand by.

After all, if an otherwise apparently intelligent, affluent, and educated woman in a very liberal suburb in a very liberal county in a very Blue state can almost, for a moment, think that Camilla Parker Bowles is about to become the Queen of England and that Elizabeth II can do nothing to stop it all because of a trash tabloid magazine cover, then there is definitely some breakdown in keeping the people informed.

Which leads to the either/or salvation or danger of the Internet as it is now, because, in essence, it empowers anyone on it to be their own media platform.

Think about it. If you’re reading these words, then you probably have a device that is capable of allowing you to become any or all of the following kinds of creators: film or TV producer and distributor/broadcaster; radio producer and/or broadcaster; magazine or newspaper writer and/or publisher; artist with gallery and shop, or museum curator with likewise; designer with online store; adult entertainer with your own private studio, theatre, and fanbase; and I’ve probably missed quite a few.

The point is that the technology that capitalism has given us, ironically, will also be the tool we can use to destroy the monolithic entities that have come to dominate market share of everything. The trick is that we have to be willing to let go of the stories and franchises we’ve been sold, trust our friends and acquaintances, and then trust the acquaintances of acquaintances, and so on, to create our market.

That and… tax the fuck out of the super-rich, just like Republican Eisenhower did, and look how well off the Middle-Class was at the time. Hell, his policies created the Middle-Class in the U.S.

Combine that with progressive policies to give everyone access to education, health care, affordable housing, equal treatment under the law, and equal representation at the ballot box, and we could create America’s Middle-Class 2.0.

That is the real way to Make America Great Again.

Image source, Old computer that used punchcards, found in the London Science Museum, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Information Age? Part one

The rate of technological development has been exploding since the 1940s — but that’s a good thing. Here’s why.

This was originally going to be a single piece but, as often happens, I got so into the subject at hand that I had to split it. The second installment will appear tomorrow.

“When did Camilla become the queen?” a voice behind me in line at Ralphs suddenly blurts out. The clerk and I look over to see a thirtyish woman who otherwise seems well-off and intelligent holding up a magazine with a cover story title along the lines of “Elizabeth and Camilla face off over the crown!”

The course of that conversation was rather illuminating for me — and I hope for the woman — but before I can get to that part, let’s take a little detour, shall we?

The so-called Information Age, also called the Computer Age, among other names, began around the 1970s, and its major hallmark was that the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information was rapidly moving away from analog media and devices — snail mail, paper files, and typewritten documents among them.

Telephone landlines were also moving away from using analog encryption and decryption of signals, as well as rotary dials that literally told the switches what digits you’d dialed by the number of clicks.

I could swear I’ve written about it here before, but can’t find the link. But this “number of clicks” thing is why the most populous regions at the time they instigated area codes got the ones with the fewest number of “clicks”: 212, 312, and 213 going respectively to New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Digital technology had existed by this point, ever since the invention of the transistor, first demonstrated in 1947. However, the earliest computers were huge — the size of entire rooms — very expensive, and ran ridiculously hot because they used vacuum tubes instead of integrated circuits, which didn’t exist yet anyway.

In addition, they were programmed either by physically flipping switches to set parameters, or in the more “advanced” models, data was fed into them — and read out of them — using either punch-encoded paper tape, or the infamous punch card, yards of the former and tons of the latter. To store just one gigabyte of data would have taken over 16,000 typical punch cards, at 64 bytes per card.

That’s bytes, using the 8-bit standard. The highest eight-digit number in binary is 1111 1111, which equals 255. Add in the extra number zero, 0000 0000, and that is why the number 256 is so important in digital technology.

In contrast, a 16-bit system gives you 65,536, which happened to be the original number of possible colors on the first VGA monitors eons ago. Beyond 16-bit, you’d need scientific notation. A 64-bit system would give you 1.85×10^19.

These are physical limit on how big a number any sized system can generate and use at one time, as well as how many binary digits can pass through a serial bus at one time.

The likely reason that the Information Age finally took off is directly tied into the birth of what would become the Internet in October 1969. It developed on into the 1980s. At the same time, the first small-ish computers that were affordable — at first to business, and then eventually to more affluent consumers — started to come onto the market.

Those early machines didn’t do a whole lot, but they created the first generation to go digital: Gen X. To this day, that seems to be the dividing line, and I know very few Boomers who seem comfortable with computers if they were never exposed to them during their professional lives.

I’m not generalizing Boomers, though — I know Millennials who couldn’t even manage to turn on a laptop, and I’ve met octogenarians who can work their way around a computer like an expert.

And then, about a decade after the first really affordable personal computers, the Internet happened. Well, I think it was the World Wide Web (WWW) at the time, although people didn’t used to distinguish the two.

The short version is that the WWW is the stuff you see online — the web pages that actually come to your machine. The Internet, meanwhile, is the vast network of computers that hosts the WWW, along with lots of other stuff, and which makes the magic happen that gets a document on somebody’s private server in Tierra del Fuego through an elaborate route that can sometimes cross the entire planet before it shows up on your laptop while you’re on vacation in Iceland, usually in under a second.

Another way to think of it is that the WWW are the letters and packages, and the Internet is the postal service. Of course, anyone who refers to the World Wide Web nowadays will just get looked at funny. There’s a reason that the “www.” Part of a URL hasn’t been required for a long, long time.

End result? The Information Age, which has been a wonderful thing.

If I’d tried to write this article, or something like it, in 1970, with all of the above information, it would have involved one or more trips to a physical library or a few, lots of manual searches and pulling out books to look for information in a very analog way — by reading it.

Notes by hand, or by using the library’s copiers, paying per page. And if said information weren’t in the library, I would have somehow had to find someone with expertise in the field and either (gasp!) call them on the phone, or send them a neatly typed letter nicely asking for info and waiting for however long it took them to respond, if they ever did.

I could never have adulted in that age. So that’s the upside of The Age of Information.

But there are several downsides, one having to do with quantity (and quality) of information, and the other having to do with a frequent lack of engagement, which is not unrelated to the first part.

I have a terabyte hard drive in my computer, and another terabyte external drive connected to it. These are ridiculously huge amounts of data, something we couldn’t even have conceived of needing back in the 1990s.

Now, multiply those two drives of mine by five to bring it to ten terabytes, and that’s enough storage space to hold the entire collection of the U.S. Library of Congress, digitized.

The amount of information available via the Internet dwarfs that number by a lot. It’s been estimated that just the “Big Four” of sites — Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook — store at least 1.2 petabytes of data.

Note that it’s not clear from my source whether this data includes YouTube and Instagram under the umbrellas of Google and Facebook respectively.

A petabyte is two steps up from a terabyte, meaning that one petabyte is a million terabytes — and the figure above doesn’t even include all the other storage spaces out there for all the other people. Granted, a lot of smaller sites contract to Google, Amazon, or Microsoft for cloud storage, but I’m sure that many of them don’t.

Have an email account that isn’t Google or Microsoft? Multiply the storage they allow by their users and add it in. Toss in all the university and library servers, as well as private industry servers — banking, real estate, finance, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, media.

And then don’t forget publicly accessible government servers which, in every country, go from a national to regional to an administrative to a local level. In the U.S., that’s Federal, state, county, city. The U.S. has 50 states and well over 3,000 counties. A county can have any number of cities, townships, unincorporated areas, boroughs, parishes, or whatever.

It all adds up.

Again, on the one hand, it can be the greatest thing ever. I certainly love it for writing and researching, because when I want to create a link, I just need to tap a couple of keys and do a quick search.

Since I’m a stickler for getting it right if I happen to be writing a period piece, and I want to know what the weather was in a certain place on a certain day, or what was on TV on a certain day and time, boom, done. The information is out there.

Nerd stuff. But that’s what I’m into, that’s what I love to do, and I know how to filter — as in which news and websites to ignore, which to use with caution, and which to trust.

Speaking of which, the main thing that Wikipedia is good for is a broad overview, but if you want the real story, always follow their external links to sources. Yes, I will link to them if I’m only going to give a superficial dash of info, especially if it involves pop culture, but they’re the card catalog, not the book, to dredge up an old analog metaphor.

But we live in a paradox in which information very much fits the old line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

This referred to being stranded in the ocean, so surrounded by water, but since it’s sea water, it is too salty to be drinkable.

Modern version: “Info info everywhere, oh fuck, I’ve got to think?”

A lot of people, for various reasons, don’t or can’t take the time to filter, and each of us is getting bombarded more in an hour than, say, our grandparents would have been in a week when they were our ages.

The interesting part is that analog media — like checkout lane magazines and TV and radio ads — are still very much a part of the mix. So back to the story I started with.

(To be continued…)

Image source, Old computer that used punchcards, found in the London Science Museum, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday Free-for-All #83: Double tech, impact, business

More random internet questions: Technology in education and in general, the pros and cons of IQ tests, and my ideal business

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

How can technology improve education? Can it hurt education?

Technology, when it comes to education, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes access to information so much easier. when I finished high school, we did have computers, but the internet was only just starting to develop, and it hadn’t gotten far enough while I was in college to make it all that useful.

Unfortunately, my school was not among the first six to receive a .edu domain and hence email for everyone. Hell, they hadn’t even received one by the time the 90s rolled around and I can’t remember the first time I got an email begging for money to which I wanted to reply, “Bitches, I already gave you enough that I’m still paying off, so just back off.”

But… technology is a double-edged sword in education because on the one hand, it can make learning and research too easy and, on the other hand, it can make learning and research too easy.

If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s not. These are two sides of the coin, which means that no matter how advanced technology gets or how integrated it becomes with our educational experience, it will always need experienced, trained humans to guide students through it.

On the positive side, if you need to look up quick facts about things, you can now do it in seconds from your own home or phone, with no need to make a trip to the library or pull that encyclopedia volume off the shelf. Or, right, no one has had a set of encyclopedias in their home since maybe the mid-90s.

But note that this only refers to simple facts, and you still have to be wary of your sources. Remember: Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and if you happen to hit the page on Edgar Allan Poe during that ten minutes when some joker added American Psycho to his list of works and you don’t know better, you’re going to wind up with a bad book report.

Not to say that Poe wouldn’t have written American Psycho if he lived in the last century, but he didn’t.

But with a proper teacher, or a curated and guided site, like Khan Academy, then education can be in very good hands via technology. But don’t fall prey to Prager “University” or its ilk, because that is the opposite of education. It’s indoctrination.

The other great benefit technology offers for education is the one we’ve seen over the last year and a half plus: Remote learning. It’s a boon for parents who also work from home, very helpful for children who might otherwise have issues interacting in person, and can also allow for parental involvement in their child’s educational process, which is very important to learning.

Well, as long as the parents just shut up and defer to the teacher. Because the dark side of that is what we’ve seen in contentious schoolboard meetings with angry and misguided parents protesting everything from mask and vaccine mandates to the actual content and curriculum, often with violent threats. And, yeah. We don’t need that shit. That helps no one.

Another downside to learning remotely can be social isolation. However, like it or not, the current generation of kids born in the last decade are probably going to grow up know as many people online as they know in real life, if not more, and will probably never meet them.

And you know what? That’s fine. I’ve been living in that world for at least the last 25 years or so, and since everyone has now been exposed to life via Zoom in the last 19 months, that’s only going to become more normal.

Then again, I was regularly doing video remote meetings fifteen years ago in a ridiculously high-tech room in which an entire wall was covered in super hi-def video screens, and we would have live meetings with the staff of our co-production company. We were in Glendale, U.S., and they were in Bristol, UK, but that tech created one long boardroom table that all of us sat around.

Okay, sure. No one had the tech or bandwidth to do this at home at that time, but just look at us now, and imagine where technology will be in another ten or twenty years.

Can it help education? Oh, hell yeah. But with one gigantic caveat. We will still and always need educators to keep rein on the tech to make sure that bad information is not leaking through. We will always need teachers no matter how well we think that our AI can teach.

And that is why this should become one of the most highly paid professions before the end of 2022.

Is there a limit to what humans can create through technology and science?

Of course there are, and those limits are written into the universe itself. We can never create a system that will propel anything with mass faster than light-speed — although we may be able to figure out how to travel through space without moving through space, effectively creating a warp drive or fold that will get us from point A to B without violating the universal speed limit.

We will probably also never be able to negate the force of gravity because it doesn’t seem to be a force mediated by a field or particle, but rather an intrinsic property of space and time. We might be able to manipulate space via achieving some sort of control over matter, and hence being able to concentrate gravity, though.

But this is all getting into Kardashev scale territory, which ranks a society based on how much energy they are able to exploit. We’re close to but not quite at Type I, which is harnessing all of the energy that reaches a planet from its star but, of course, all of the energy on our planet came from the Sun in the first place.

If we want to get to Type II, we’d need to harness all of the energy of our Sun, which would mean surrounding it in something like a Dyson Sphere, although this would be bad for planets that we don’t hook up to this energy boon. Remember: We’re only getting a little cone of sunlight that only hits half of our planet at a time. A sphere capturing everything would increase that power output enormously because it would expand that tiny cone to include the entire surface and circumference of the Sun in three dimensions.

Imagine the difference between shining the light and heat of an incandescent bulb through a small hole punched in a piece of carboard, and then imagine the light and heat created if you surrounded that bulb with a spherical screen that was entirely mirrored on the inside.

To get to Type III, good luck — you have to harvest all of the energy available in your own galaxy, which would probably make your galaxy go dark to the rest of the universe and might be a dead giveaway. Then again, if you can harness the energy of an entire galaxy, I don’t think that any non-Type III society would be a threat at all.

Kardashev never postulated a Type IV, but that society would be able to harness the power of the entire universe, although what they could actually do with it would be questionable. Maybe they could accelerate a ship with substantial mass to 99.99% the speed of light, but given universal distances, that would still be incredibly slow and, unless all that extra energy can somehow greatly extend the lifespans of organic creatures, it seems a useless party trick, really.

Still, there’s reason for optimism. Earth right now is at the Type 0 level, but we’re only a century or two away from Type I if we keep trying and, literally, aiming for the stars.

What single event has had the biggest impact on who you are?

I’ve discussed this before but, ultimately, it was that fucking IQ test my school gave me when I was seven, and I can’t believe that this bullshit persisted for so long. The long and short of it was that IQ tests were created early in the 20th century as yet another facet or institutional racism, founded in the ridiculous theory that some races were not as smart as others.

Of course, when your race is creating the test, you can skew to prove whatever you want it to, and that is exactly what IQ tests in western white society did.

If you were white and middle class, the whole thing was biased to fit right into your experiences, which is something you weren’t supposed to notice when you were seven years old, which is when they tested us.

And, surprise, surprise… little white kids tended to test much higher, while little black kids didn’t. It had nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with the test designers putting their thumb on the scale in favor of… well, you know.

Of course, by the time I took it, the melting pot of America had at least stirred enough that two other groups also did very well on the tests — Jews and Asians — but that was mostly a byproduct of decades and multiple generations of assimilation.

Their success would have driven the originators of the tests nuts, but it was actually a good thing, because I wound up with most of my friends through school being Asian and Jewish.

And how did that happen? Simple. The IQ test was pretty much a filing system for students, and what was determined in that short period of time in first grade changed everything that came after.

I happened to land in the “Profoundly Gifted” category, and that launched me into the school track that actually stuck me in the “Hey, y’all are super-privileged” slot. The two problems were that, for one thing, I didn’t know this and, for the other, while I may have been super-privileged in school, my parents were not super-connected, so it really didn’t advantage me much at all.

Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Because I always identified more with those other kids — the Jews and the Asians — and set out to be an artist. But because of that test, I wound up having the friends I did, making the choices I did, and never really bonding with other classmates who weren’t on my same track.

These were the ones who scored below me and here’s a funny thing. The ones who wound up in kind of the average track were also the ones who landed, in their adult lives, in conservative-ville and, sadly, are still living there. And I won’t say that it’s because they’re stupid. It’s just that they were steered in a direction that gave them less of an advantage in education.

I can only imagine what would have been different if I had tested three or four levels below where I landed. But everything that came later was born out of that, for good or for ill.

If you opened a business, what kind of business would it be?

This question has been on the list a long time, but every time it’s come up I’ve tended to ignore it. I guess I might as well answer. I don’t know why I was avoiding it because the answer was always obvious to me. Maybe it just seemed too simple or obvious to state.

Assuming unlimited funds, I would open a non-profit theatre center dedicated to three things: education in all aspects of theatre — writing, performance, directing, design, tech, etc.; development of new artists and their works; and actual production of those works, in several variations.

I imagine the place as having one large mainstage producing new works and pushing the boundaries of theatre technology and content, but there would also be a studio space which would produce the works of the students as a part of their training. You can’t really learn about theatre, after all, until you do productions, and it would work a lot like a university theatre program — everybody does everything at least once, whether it’s in their emphasis or not.

Ideally, the mainstage productions finance the training and studio. Attached to both would be the development labs, designed for writers and creators, with the student actors and dancers available for developmental workshops. These would eventually lead to productions in the studio space, with selected works possibly moving on to the mainstage or pitched to regional theatres.

It would take a space about the size of the L.A. Theatre Center, although maybe not quite as many stories. That building downtown is five stories up and five stories down, although the public usually only sees three of them, plus a small part of the first basement, which is where the restrooms are, located in what was originally a vault when the building was a bank.

In case you’re wondering, yes theatres do need that kind of height, although five stories is a bit unusual. In the case of LATC, it’s because of the way the theatres are arranged, with one of them actually being partly underground and going up several stories. Meanwhile, the largest house has a very steep audience section, and the smaller space that’s on the second level of the building itself goes up a couple of stories.

What you don’t see is what’s above those theatres, several of which have so-called fly-space, which has to be at least as high as the stage itself. That’s because these spaces hold set pieces or flats that are lowered onto the stage when needed. That process of lowering in theatre is also known as “flying in,” hence “fly space,” because these flats and such are often just referred to as flies.

Above the entire theatre, you can also find the light grids, which is where most of the various units that will be illuminating the stage will be living. This includes not only lights, but projectors, although any of these can also be located on the stage and in the wings.

So, anyway, it can be quite easy to wind up with a large theatre that goes up five stories, even if part of that space is also below ground. Surrounding the unused space above the public second floor were offices, costume shops, and various rehearsal spaces.

Meanwhile, downstairs was where they kept the prop and scenery shops, the dressing rooms, and so on. The first basement was also the floor accessible via the truck ramp off the back alley that led to the elephant doors. You need big doors to get big set pieces in and out.

Of course, even smaller theatres can have a bit of height and depth to them. When I worked at the El Portal with ComedySportz, we only had two theatres. One was about 300 seats, and the other was 49. But the main stage probably took up three stories as well, at least, although it was probably closer to four, because I don’t think people realized that the front end of the house after going down the various steps past the audience seats was actually a full story below street level.

And something even I didn’t know until one night when I was the last one out and the alarm system told me that there was a door ajar somewhere in the bowels of the place — the building had not one but two basements below the basement that was behind the platform under the stage itself.

It had the typical dressing rooms and storage and such, but the way it was designed, you just had to walk all the way through one level to take the steps down to the next. It was kind of a labyrinth in that regard. At least there was no Minotaur, and I didn’t have to leave a thread to find my way back out.

But I do digress. A building with the footprint size and height of the El Portal would actually be perfect for my imagined theatre center, although I would make damn sure that the offices on the second and third floors had windows. That, and go for a much more mid-century modern/futurist design aesthetic, rather than attempted 1890s brothel.

Oh — and parking. The place would have to have plenty of parking on site for students, staff, and guests, with students and staff having designated spots and permits, and guests never having to pay. I guess that might add a couple of stories to it, or we could just use the front half of the basement levels for parking and the back half for all of the dressing room and design space.

But, sadly, it’s one of those dreams only achievable with a major lottery win or some other sudden pot of gold moment.

Saturday Morning Post #83: Between Zero and One (Part 3)

In the third and final part of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem — but he’s finding the real world to be just as frustrating a place.

The cabbie, who was wearing a gigantic blue turban, didn’t speak much English and he really couldn’t drive that well, but Tyler didn’t care. At least he was getting somewhere, heading toward his target. The meter ticked away faster than they seemed to be moving, but whatever. It would be worth every penny once he was back home, back online, back in business.

It was three o’clock already, most of the day wasted. Naturally, the advertised air conditioning in this taxi wasn’t working, so it was very warm, and the back windows only went down halfway. It was hot and stuffy and Tyler dozed off — he’d been awake for at least twenty-four hours straight now. He woke up to a rapping on the window. The cabbie, opening the door, gibbering at him, a stream of incoherent words, then the absolutely intelligible “Twelve-fifty, you pay.”

“Right,” Tyler scraped the gunk from his eyes, got out of the cab and gave the driver twelve-fifty, starting away, then noticing the man staring at him with evil intent.

“What?” he asked. The driver glared at him, eyes narrowing. Tyler thought about it a moment, then remembered vaguely. Taxis were not exact change only and certain people expected a gratuity for doing the job they were getting paid for without screwing up too badly. “Oh, yeah,” he said, looking in his wallet. The smallest he had was a five, which was way too much, right? He tried to calculate fifteen per cent in his head, got as close as somewhere around two dollars. He handed the five to the cabbie, said, “Give me three back,” but the cabbie nodded and smiled, hopped in the car and drove away.

“Hey!” Tyler shouted, but it was no use. The little thief. And it really couldn’t have been a twelve dollar trip. He was only five miles away from home, tops.

Five miles from home, but half a block from his goal. That was good. Anyway, he could write this whole trip off, it was a business expense. He walked to the mall, in through one of the anchor stores, dodging his way through the endless racks of women’s clothes and around the perfume counters. Nothing to see here, nothing of interest, but it was like running a maze to get to the mall proper. How could people shop like this? It was chaos, dashing around, picking through shit, lugging it around, taking forever to check out. Having to repeat the process anew at each store. And why was it that ninety percent of most malls sold nothing but women’s clothing and shoes? Where were the guy stores? Damn few and far between and, even then, half of those only sold men’s clothing and shoes.

Tyler finally made it into the mall, which was eerily quiet and empty at this hour on a weekday. Encouraging Muzak tinkled through the air. It felt safe here. Serene, like a vision of some science fiction utopia from a bad seventies TV movie. Of course, it was a given that, in utopia, something always went wrong. Tyler should know. He’d been there, and now he wasn’t.

He walked down the wide, bright, tiled pathway, remembering a long unused route to the computer store. Halfway down, on the right, just past the Hotdog on a Stick place. And, sure enough, that strangest of food emporia was there, complete with some unfortunate teenage girl in the ridiculous multi-colored outfit, tank top and hot pants, steroidified gob hat rising high above her head, as she bounced up and down on a wooden oar, perpetually making lemonade.

He couldn’t help but stare for a moment. Whoever had come up with that outfit and that preparation method had pulled the perfect scam. “Let’s see. How can we get teenage girls to jiggle their titties around in public in a tight outfit? Aaaah, I know.”

The girl gave Tyler a dirty look, finished up with the oar and vanished into some hidden back room. Tyler let out a single snorted guffaw, then went on past the place, around the corner to where —

“Oh, shit,” he said out loud, getting a nasty look from a passing old woman. The computer store was gone, replaced by a goddamn Starbuck’s. He stood there for a long moment, then looked around. Now what? He wandered back to the center court, bumped into a mall map, an elaborate lit-from-behind thing on an angled pedestal. It looked like prop from Star Trek.

Tyler stood over it, looking for the “search” button, finally remembering he was only looking at dead, non-interactive Plexiglas. So he’d have to do this the old-fashioned way. He scanned the index, down an endless list of “Women’s Clothing” and “Shoes” and “Home Furnishings.” The damn thing wasn’t even alphabetical. “Gifts and Cards,” “Food,” “Entertainment.” Finally, “Specialty Shops,” all three of them — but one of them was called “Nerd Up!” He knew that name. High tech gadgets and gizmos, software, hardware. Perfect. He looked at the map, found the place — naturally, it was as far as possible from here — and started walking.

The dweeb behind the counter laughed at his request. “A modem? A modem… you mean like, the plug into the phone and wait forever at fifty-six modem, that?” he giggled. Tyler nodded. “Yeah, you know, my grandfather used to have one of those.”

“Stuff the ‘tude, it’s temporary,” Tyler answered. “My T-3 is down.”

“Ah. So you’re a victim of the great fiber-optic fuck up.”

“You heard about that?”

“Who hasn’t? The power company and the ISP have been all over the news, pointing at each other. The network is going to be down a month, at least.”

“Where can I get a modem?” Tyler practically begged.

“I don’t know, maybe I can pull one out of my ass,” the clerk shot back.

Tyler grabbed the kid by his lapels, got in his face. “Good, let’s try that,” he said.

“Hey, easy,” the kid answered, giving a weak smile. “We really don’t have anything that low tech here. Did you try Computer Avenue?”

“You mean the Starbucks?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Forgot.”

Tyler let the kid go. There had to be a modem in this store somewhere, but the kid wasn’t even going to go out of his way to look for it. “You’re sure there’s nothing in the back room?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the kid sneered. “Sorry. Have a nice day.”

Tyler wanted to punch him. Instead, he stormed out of the store, sat on the nearest bench, tense, trying to figure out what to do. This whole process would have been so simple online. Of course, if he were still online…

“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the ointment,” he remembered from somewhere. That was always the problem. Not the machines, not the technology, but the people behind it. They either designed it to be as fallible and stupid as they all were, or let it run afoul through negligence. It took a bad driver to make a car crash, a careless mechanic to let a plane fall out of the sky.

Human error. That was the bugaboo, the fly in the ointment, the serpent in Eden. Back home, online, everything was fine. Seek anything and ye shall find, and comparison shop and buy and never even have to put your pants on.

Humans are flawed and, though it had been years since he’d been to church, ever since his mother’s funeral mass, he couldn’t help but think of original sin. He’d believed all that hoo-hah once, sincerely. But the more he saw of this imperfect world, the more he doubted that there could be any intelligence behind it. The more he’d gone into his online world, the more he became convinced that everything that mattered was all just a series of zeroes and ones. On and off, good and bad, something and nothing. In this equation, the machines were the ones. The people were all just zeroes.

He noticed a sign in a clothing store window, hanging between two male mannequins, beckoning the gullible. It read “All two suit’s, $199.95.”

“Jesus,” he whispered. “All two?” And what the hell was up with apostrophes, anyway? Had everyone forgotten the difference between plural and possessive? He had bitched on that topic in chat once with a friend in London, who typed back, “You Americans love to stick them where they don’t belong, but over here, we have the nasty habit of leaving them out.”

Add, subtract. One and zero. Something and… nothing.

He stared at the sign and it made him angry. Stupidity and negligence. Laziness. Original sin.

The phrase “all two” is wrong, but the phrase “all three” is correct. Why? Because English has a word for “both.” And Tyler knew enough Spanish to remember the words “ambos,” which meant the same thing. It was probably true in dozens of languages, one of those hard-wired realities that couldn’t be avoided. But why? What was the big deal with two, anyway?

Monogamy, Tyler realized. That had to be it. Humans were monogamous, or tried very hard to be, and so the basic unit of happiness was two. Sure, add a baby and you got the happy family of three, but having a kid wouldn’t get you laid. Since humans loved to cater to their own most base instincts, that was the search that mattered. It wasn’t about fight or flight. It was all about feed or fuck.

And hence, a different word for two, because two really was another kind of one all by itself. So what was this whole religious obsession with three? It didn’t fit the basic design of things. Zero, one, both. No, maybe that was the problem. In trying to push threes, religion had moved out of sync with nature, and so split up to provide coherent views for separate societies. Gods are always the color of their people, after all.

And the religions of the Gods Who Do Not Fuck were the judgemental ones. Especially the big two (that number again) of pushy proselytizers, Christianity and Islam, one born of the other after the mother was stolen from a third religion. And it was Tyler’s mother’s religion that had the big “virgin” fetish.

But where did they find all the big virgins?

And zero and one lead inexorably to two, but you could only get both with a pair of ones, never with a zero involved. What had stuck him in this hellish place right now, thwarted and alone? People.

He stood and wandered the mall, finally reaching a far corner where, improbably, they had planted a carousel in a huge, round atrium. It revolved to a happy calliope tune, all white paint and gold gilt, pastel colored horses leaping up and down as it revolved. Mirrors around the central core made the whole thing seem vertiginously deeper than it was, and round white bulbs flickered on and off, chasing themselves along the edges and lines of the thing.

It was a beautiful, flawless machine. Tyler just stared at it, feeling the small rush of air as it turned past, watching the murals above the mirrors, which revolved with the canopy, their blurring motion giving them a strange sort of life-like hue that was not in the original painting.

The carousel was almost empty, a few kids scattered here and there on the great leaping beasts, animals frozen in time, painted shades of lavender and pink and yellow, manes gilded in gold trim, black-iron bridles in their mouths. A sign proclaimed that this Merry-Go-Round had originally been built in 1920. Imagine that. Back when people still cared, didn’t make stupid mistakes. And that was why this machine, so improbably anachronistic, had survived into another century.

The atrium stretched to a dome a good fifty feet up. Tyler went to the escalator, wound his way to the top, a fourth level food court with a big hole in the center, a vantage point to watch the carousel from above. The carousel was even more amazing from this point of view, a giant circle turning steadily counter-clockwise, white painted square-tube spokes radiating from the center, the secret rods that made the horses leap visible, all the pretty lights strung out, cheerful.

It was the simplest of machines, really. A wheel with a few fancy gewgaws. A gigantic zero, but in turning, it became something. It made people happy, however briefly.

Tyler watched it, hypnotized by the motion, leaning on the railing and staring down. Then he noticed the pentagon in the center, anchor-point for the light strands on top. That was an interesting choice. Then he realized that these lights were strung out to form a five-pointed star, inside a circle. That was kind of spooky. He was looking at a huge pentagram, hidden on top of this kiddie ride, turning to the left, alternately one point up and two points up, from white magic to black magic, good and evil, off and on. And five was just two plus three, both plus all, the collision of nature and belief, reality and illusion.

Tyler had been riding his own carousel, blithely thinking the horse would take him where he wanted to go, but he’d been spinning in the same circle for more than a year. Sure, it kept him fed, made the house payments, afforded him all kinds of toys. But he was the only one in that house, the only one enjoying it. He had friends all over the country, all over the world, but all of them were just words onscreen, maybe the occasional blurry, jerky video feed, reduced to binary bits and pieces, digital information, all just so many zeroes and ones.

It took losing that connection to make him realize he wasn’t even connected at all.

It was nice standing here, actually. And maybe that design on the carousel really wasn’t some sigil of evil. After all, it was a star, a guiding light, pointing the way. It was completely out of his control, but that was how Tyler had landed here in the first place, losing control of his world. Maybe he had to give it up completely to get it back.

He watched the thing turn, big wooden circle sweeping over a gray and white checkerboard floor. From here, he could see that the murals were pastoral, green and blue scenes of idyllic countrysides from never-never picture books. Each one was the size of one of the mirror frames, which made perfect sense. As above, so below. Symmetry, order, rational thought.

And this would be how he decided what to do next. Of course. It was staring him in the face. The wheel of fortune, the answer to his dilemma. When it stopped, if the murals lined up with the mirrors, he would live with his current problem, explain to his clients that he was taking time off, try to get the car started, go out and do… something. If they did not line up, he’d find that modem, somewhere, anywhere.

The carousel was so perfect, perfect because of its simplicity and its beauty, its having a place in the world and a function.

It was slowing down. Tyler watched, a little dizzy as he tried to follow the spokes. Yes, it was slowing down, ever so gradually, losing speed. He would have his answer soon.

He glanced at his watch, not out of urgency, but rather curiosity over how long this process would take. There didn’t seem to be any brakes on the thing. They were just letting it wind down at its own good pace, the master of its fate, uninfluenced by anybody, yet influenced by everything — the people on it, air resistance, gravity, probably the rotation of the earth itself. Everything in the universe was focused on that spot, on that wheel.

One minute. It was still turning.

It was going half the speed now, and slowing down less quickly. After another minute, it hadn’t seemed to have gotten much slower at all. Tyler leaned his elbows on the railing, looked straight down. He could see people on the ride going through the ready to get off motions. So it must have been slowing perceptibly. But it had been three minutes by now and it was still turning, the star still spinning.

Molasses time. At four minutes, the carousel looked like it was going to halt at any second, and yet it kept going, creeping, murals turning above mirrors, star ever-pointing in a different direction. Momentum and inertia. He thought of a roulette wheel, decision actually made long before it came to a standstill, and yet invisible until just before it stopped. It was like that now, the edges of the murals lining up with the mirrors and then moving out of sync, but oh-so-slowly, teasingly. Tyler held his breath, watching.

The murals aligned with the mirrors as the thing seemed to have exhausted all its energy, hesitated. Yes, of course, it was a big, perfect machine, everything had to line up, everything had to fit, his decision had to be escape to the real world. Tyler smiled, then his expression changed to blank disappointment as the murals crept ahead a few inches and the whole thing stopped, out of alignment, imperfect, flawed.

“Damn,” he said, smacking the railing with both hands. And obviously, somebody hadn’t done their job right at some point, something he realized as the railing pitched forward, broke free with his full weight on it, tumbling him over and headlong, great white motionless star below growing rapidly closer to his face.

He did notice on the way down, though, that those lights were so very pretty as they blinked, on and off, bright and dark, one and —

Zero.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #82: Between Zero and One (Part 2)

In Part 2 of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem. Well, low-tech for him at the time, but the only tech for most people otherwise.

“Piece of shit.”

Tyler banged the dashboard with both hands, then tried the keys again. The starter whirred and chuddered, but nothing happened. It was sounding a little upset itself now, warbling instead of surging. Tyler pulled the keys out of the ignition and sat there, thinking. The battery wasn’t dead, he knew there was gas in the tank, the car had started last time he’d driven it, which was… thirteen, fourteen months ago. He vaguely remembered his father telling him something once about having to start up idle cars every so often, but that had never made any sense. It was a machine, it wasn’t doing anything while it was sitting there, inert. No stress, no wear. You could let a computer sit for years and it would start up fine next time you plugged it in.

Tyler got out of the car, slammed the door and gave it a kick. Well, who needed a car, anyway? There was a bus stop a block away, and that bus went in the general direction he needed to go. All he had to do was go check the schedule…

“Fuck!” he stomped one foot on the porch as he remembered. Check schedule, online, not possible. Again, the phone book was useless. It had some elaborate map of the transit system, with colored lines and arrows and little number tags, but it was like trying to read a circuit diagram for a nuclear bomb. No, not that. Even a nuke must have the same basic set-up as any other bomb. Explosive shit, power source, two wires, a switch and a bang. This was more like trying to trace the intricate pathways through the heart of the world’s biggest supercomputer, and Tyler was the lone little electron who had to go from point A to point B down the shortest possible path.

Well, screw it. The colored line for the bus that ran by his house seemed to get close to where he wanted to go. How long could he possibly have to wait, anyway? He kicked the phone book aside, started for the door, stopped. He was forgetting something, but what?

Ah. Change. Riding a bus always did involve clunky pocketfuls of change, anxiously counted out and recounted and clutched in the hand when the rolling leviathan finally pulled into view and hissed to a stop. He thought about it a moment, then remembered the mayonnaise jar on top of the fridge. It was way in the back corner, dusty and grimy. He hadn’t needed to take anything out of it nor had anything to put into it for a long time. He grabbed the lid, tried to twist it and it wouldn’t budge. Great. Just fantastic. He could understand, maybe, a car being slow to start after a while, but this was a goddamn jar lid, the simplest machine of them all, the one invented by some ancient Greek guy. It was a screw, how the hell could it malfunction? Tyler tried a dish towel, tried to get a wrench around the thing. This was ridiculous. Nothing. What, did some evil change imp come by and krazy glue the thing shut in the night?

Tyler heaved the jar into the kitchen sink, where it shattered, spewing coins all over the porcelain, half of them chittering down into a sinkhole in the drain. At least the stopper was sitting there, but he’d deal with all that later. He picked through the metal bits, pulling out all the quarters he could easily see, avoiding the shards of glass, grabbing up some dimes and nickels for good measure. He counted it out in his hand. Five bucks, twenty-three cents. Good enough for a round trip. He dumped it all in his pocket, where it felt cold and heavy through the lining against his thigh, then headed out the door again into the blinding bright sunlight of this late summer afternoon.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later, he was still standing at the bus stop, anxiously stepping out into the street whenever traffic cleared to peer into the distance, looking for any sign of his impending ride. Every time he thought he saw it, he’d jump back, start counting out his change, not sure exactly how much he needed, only to see that he’d been fooled by a school bus or a big truck. Forty-five goddamn minutes, that couldn’t be right. What good was that kind of transit system? They should have had a bus going by here every ten minutes.

He glanced at the tiny Hispanic woman in the pale blue dress who was standing nearby, full shopping bags hanging from each hand, two young children flittering about her. She just stared at the ground, stoic and patient. Tyler popped out into the street again, looked. Nothing on the horizon.

Another ten minutes went by, another half-dozen traffic checks, and Tyler was fuming all over again. The Hispanic woman had finally glanced his way, noticed him looking, nodded her head and said, “Late, huh?”

“Damn right,” Tyler replied, peering up the street again. This all seemed to be designed to waste his time. Why did this world outside move so slowly? Almost an hour of doing nothing. Tyler debated going back home, trying the car again. Maybe he could get one of his friends to come over and… okay, no, bad idea, since his friends were all over the country, all over the world. Did he know anyone locally? Well, maybe, yeah, but… Tyler rolled his eyes, huffed, realizing he only had a long list of email addresses, no phone numbers. Wasn’t that just peachy‑keen?

Then he noticed the woman picking up her bags, gathering her children close. The bus was coming, halle-fucking-lujah. He dug a fistful of change out of his pocket, turned to the woman. “How much?” he asked.

“Yes,” she smiled and nodded back at him.

“No, I mean, how much is the bus?” he repeated, demonstrating with the change. Before she could answer, the bus steamed right past them. Tyler turned his head, saw that it was empty, a “Not in Service” sign winking at them on its flank.

“Motherfucker!” he screamed, turning like a sunflower to follow the departing traitor, change tumbling from his hand into the gutter. The woman pulled her children close, looking away as Tyler got down and started picking the stuff up. Naturally, it was now all wet and gunky. Oh joy.

Twenty minutes later, another bus finally arrived and pulled up to the stop. As Tyler waited for the woman and her kids to climb on, he looked up the street. There were two more buses on the way, right behind it, pulling toward the curb.

“People suck,” he said to himself as he climbed the stairs, asked the driver how much and counted the right amount out, dumping it into the fare box, then moving about two feet before realizing that this bus was SRO. But it was too late to change his mind. The doors shut and the bus lurched away.

Okay, so he’d have to stand here with all this sardinated humanity. At least he was on his way. Finally.

* * *

“End of the line, everybody off,” the driver announced. People started spewing out both doors, pushing past Tyler, who stood there, perplexed. They were at the subway station, a mile from where he’d gotten on, but that’s not what the map in the phonebook had said. He could have walked to where he wanted to go already, and halfway back home.

He turned to ask the driver how to get where he was going, but she was already gone, as were most of the passengers. He got off and found himself standing in some sort of home for wayward transit. There were eight buses parked in various spots around a semi-circle, people milling back and forth between them and the over-sized, overly festive entrance to the subway station. Now what? He knew the subway didn’t go where he wanted. What were they thinking when they built that damn thing? It was great if you wanted to go downtown, but who the hell ever wanted to go there? And a subway, in LA, which had taken decades to get off the ground and which was only a pale, lame replacement for the transit system the city had had decades ago. A subway in the land of sunshine and earthquakes. Brilliant.

He walked the semi-circle, looking at bus numbers, finally finding the familiar one. The driver was standing on the front bumper, washing the windows.

“Which way does this bus go?” he asked.

Without looking at him, the driver drawled, “East.”

“Thanks,” Tyler replied, heading for the steps.

“Not leaving for thirty minutes, though,” the driver continued, concentrating on some invisible flyspeck.

“What?” Tyler gawked, stepping back. “Is there an earlier bus?”

“That one,” the driver nodded as another bus pulled past them, lumbered for the driveway.

“Fuck!” Tyler shouted, running for the bus, pounding on the side. Amazingly, it stopped and he got on, had to count out the change all over again. At least this one was half-empty. He went to a seat in the back, flopped himself into it and it was a good half mile before he realized they were going the wrong way, back to where he’d started. He grabbed the bell cord, pulled it frantically, heaved himself to the center doors.

When the bus finally stopped, he was right back where he’d started, full circle. Just to add a proper twist to the finger the gods were giving him, another bus going the other way, destination sign announcing exactly where Tyler wanted to go, fumed past and vanished into the distance.

“Everything sucks,” Tyler said to himself as he stared at the bus, just wanting to cry.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #81: Between Zero and One (Part 1)

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I flash back to my own life around the time I wrote this, in 2000 or 2001. This was pretty much the state of the internet at the time, and I was working from home as a graphic designer, little suspecting that I would be doing something very similar 20 years later but enjoying it a lot more. Like the lead character, I’m also very big on doing my own hardware and software upgrades, and get easily frustrated when tech fails.

Unable to locate host.

“Piece of shit.” Tyler banged his mouse against the desk in his usual litany of frustration, clicked reload. He waited two seconds, the limit of his patience, clicked reload again. Nothing, and then the error box of death popped up again with its annoying reminder noise. Unable to locate host.

“My ass,” Tyler shouted at his monitor. Still, he couldn’t help but always titter at that error message. It sounded like something an addled priest would say during Mass. Oops, I seem to have misplaced Jesus today… Of course, it had been a long, long time since Tyler had set foot in a church. Or anywhere, for that matter.

He let go of the mouse, went to the keyboard and hit control “R,” holding the keys down as the screen flickered. “Reload this,” he muttered, waiting.

Infinite seconds of nothing, annoying sound, error message the same again.

“Fuck.” Tyler spat. Okay, fine, maybe somebody had hacked the site — although he would hope that a major bank, his bank, was fairly hack-proof. No, it was some transitory problem, something stupid and mechanical, a broken switch or system traffic. Everything would be back up soon. Well, what the hell, in the meantime he could check out his favorite group look at some porn.

He went to his favorites, the folder named “Babes,” scrolled down to “Lusty Busty Beauties” and clicked. This was always good for a few minutes of amusement, any time of day.

Why was everything taking so long? He wasn’t connected by modem. That was so 1998. He was jacked in direct on a T-3 line, forty-five million bits a second. The first naked babe should have popped up on his screen instantly, if not faster.

UNABLE TO LOCATE HOST.

Tyler stared at the screen, frustration mounting. What was going on here? The problem must be on his end. He exited his browser, checked to make sure the operating system didn’t still think it was running (he was going to have to email a nasty note to the browser people over that recurring problem) then ran the program again, waiting.

The error came back, hovering over the empty gray screen of an unconnected browser. “Oh, fuck you,” Tyler grunted. He exited the browser, then rebooted the system. Billions of dollars spent on developing and marketing software and operating systems every year, and they still couldn’t get them right.

While his computer died and came back to life, he padded out to the kitchen, stepping around knee-high stacks of magazines and personal papers, grabbed a cup of coffee from the pot, took a sip. He glanced at the clock. It was four-thirty. Good, so it was just past noon in England and only about ten‑thirty tomorrow night in Sydney. He felt like chatting with some of his friends, maybe he’d do that when he was done with the banking.

He wandered back to the second bedroom he used as an office, where his computer was just finishing up the ever so long process of restarting. He sat down, ready to go back online when another error message popped up. “Unable to establish connection.”

He let out a frustrated shriek, then reminded himself of rule number one in the computer business — check for low density, high impedance connections. To the non-geek world, that was better known as a pulled-out plug. Sure, that must be it, simplest thing in the world to fix. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head far under the desk and peered around the back of his computer case as best he could.

He banged his head on the desk when he started to emerge for the flashlight. What idiot had ever decided that all the connections should be on the back of the computer, anyway? Even with the radio linked keyboard, mouse, printer and webcam, there was still an octopus of cords back there. Tyler grabbed the flashlight and turned it on. Then, he stared at the thing, which refused to illuminate. He flung it across the room, then turned on the overhead light, got back down under the desk and moved the computer to the side, tilting it and squinting.

Everything was plugged in where it was supposed to be. The thick blue wire was firmly in its socket. He jiggled it just to make sure. Yep. Connected. He traced the wire to the wall, where, likewise, it was firmly connected. He unplugged it, put it back in place until it clicked, just to make sure.

This was disconcerting. He heaved himself back into his chair, stared at the screen, then started checking out the settings for his network card. Nothing had changed, everything was correct. He knew these settings by heart, and they were fine. He tried connecting again. Nothing.

If Tyler designed operating systems, these error messages would be the first thing to go, replaced by a graphic of a hand giving the finger. That’s all they were anyway, the computer’s way of saying, “I know there’s a problem, but I’m not going to tell you what, exactly, it is. Nyah, nyah, human.” Was it too much to ask a three thousand dollar piece of plastic and metal with a three hundred dollar operating system to be a little more forthcoming when it failed? Shit, doctors wouldn’t make very much money if they worked that way. “Sorry, Mr. Smith, you’re dying. We don’t know what of, and we can’t stop it, but you’re done for.”

“Motherfucker…” Tyler shouted, banging the desk. He sat there, nostrils flaring for a moment, then shut down the computer and grabbed the screwdriver. “Prep the patient,” he said to himself. “We’re going in.”

* * *

Several hours, five cups of coffee, many reboots and an assload of frustration later, Tyler threw down his screwdriver and fell into a kitchen chair, wanting to cry. He’d taken the network card in and out five times, trying it in different slots, playing with the switches on it, flipping back and forth through the manual, which was about as informative as those error messages. Nothing worked. Every time he tried, every time that he knew this would be the time, it was the same thing. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

The sun had come up and he could hear neighbor’s cars starting, people heading off for their day. The poor, deluded fools, hurrying off to the rat race which would always begin with some hellishly slow commute, racing the clock and always losing, to go sit in someone else’s place and do someone else’s business and give up every bit of freedom. Tyler had gotten out of that game a long time ago, discovering the joys of telecommuting and Internet consulting, and he didn’t miss any of it.

Except, right now, he could be working and he wasn’t, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. He put the computer back in place, turned it back on, knowing it would be no different this time, and sat there, fuming. He grabbed his Rolodex, flipped through it and found the card for his service provider. He’d listed their customer service hours from eight a.m. to five p.m..

Great, so he’d have to wait two and a half hours? He was about to start cursing all over again when he remembered that the company’s offices were in New Jersey. Maybe that meant eastern time. Maybe he was in luck…

He dialed and waited, listening to the Muzak and the “Someone will be with you shortly” message. He put the phone on speaker and popped up his graphics program, idly flipping through the many photos of women he’d collected, scantily clad and less so, a gallery of objects that were all his any time he wanted them.

He was staring at the unblemished, golden round ass of a girl identified as Tracy (although he’d also run across her as Donna, Eileen and Kitten) when a voice intruded on the speaker. Tyler snatched up the phone. “Yeah, something’s wrong with my connection…” he said, voice cracking and gravelly this early in the morning.

“Let me check that for you, sir,” the chipper voice on the other end said. Tyler hated being called sir on the phone. He was only twenty-six, although he always sounded older. After the usual interminable business of giving his information and proving who he was, the Muzak was back and he waited again. He looked at the girl on the screen, wondered if the girl on the phone looked anything like her. Probably not. But he could pretend.

It seemed like hours but was really only two songs later that someone came back on the phone, but it wasn’t the girl. It was a man, who identified himself as a supervisor. Tyler’s heart fell. Now what? He’d paid his bill. At least, his bank did, automatically, every month. Unless they’d fucked that up.

“Mr. Allen, sorry to inconvenience you, but we’ve had a problem in your area,” the supervisor explained, trying to sound jovial.

“What kind of problem?” Tyler demanded.

“A construction crew — the electric company, actually — well, they cut right through our main fiber-optic line with a backhoe. Our entire system is down on the west coast because of it, but we are taking steps to get it back up.”

“They backhoed your backbone?”

The man laughed. “You could put it that way.”

“So, it’s not my computer?”

“No, no. It’s us. I’m real sorry about this. We will be offering a free month’s service to all of our customers, once things are resolved.”

“How long’s it going to be out, then, a couple of hours?”

“Well, Mr. Allen, I’m afraid not. It’s going to take a little bit longer than — “

“How long?”

“At least until Friday,” the supervisor said quietly, his jovial tone gone.

“Friday!” Tyler screamed. “Fucking Friday?”

“At the earliest, yes.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do until then?”

There was a pause on the other end, then the supervisor went on. “We are doing everything we can to restore your service as quickly as possible, Mr. Allen. We did explain all of this as soon as we knew about it, we sent an email to all of our customers.”

“You sent an email?”

“Yes, it explains everything.”

“An email?”

“Yes, did you get it?”

Tyler wanted to bite the phone in half. As it was, his left hand was practically splintering the plastic. He stood, breathing heavily. “Of course I didn’t fucking get it, you goddamned asshole. How the fuck can I get a fucking email if your fucking system is blown all to fuck for fuck’s sake?”

“Mr. Allen, there’s really no need for such language.”

“Fuck… you!” he screamed, then he slammed the phone down. Friday. Friday at the earliest. No, that couldn’t be. It was a bad dream, that’s what it was. He had work to do, clients to satisfy, people to chat with, things to… look up. Friday may have been their answer, but Friday was no good. To hell with Friday, he needed to be connected right now.

He was about to go online to look up other service providers when he realized that was a stupid idea, then went all around the house looking for the phone book. He finally found it under the bed and, even though the “Use Until” date on the cover was over a year ago, he flipped through it, found Internet Service Providers and started calling… and then realized that, while it may have been well into that supervisor’s work day, things still hadn’t really started out here and this was the local phone book.

Jesus, was that an archaic idea. Just local numbers? When would the phone company figure out that business had gone global? If he could look it up online, he’d find a company on the east coast that was ready to deal in five minutes.

But if he could look it up online…

Tyler slammed the phone book, stared at the clock, then stomped out to the kitchen. He’d have to wait two or three hours. Two or three hours, or wait until Friday. At the earliest.

Life sucked.

* * *

“Sure, we can get you T-3 service, you say you have all the hardware set up?”

“Yes,” Tyler said hopefully.

“And I’ve checked your location, we do service that area.”

“Great, great,” Tyler said. “So, how soon can you do it?”

“Let me check…” the woman paused, consulting something. “I can have a technician out there in… three weeks.”

“But I don’t need a technician, everything is set up, just turn it on.”

“That would be our self-service option — “

“Yeah, yeah, self-service, whatever. How long does that take?”

“We can have your service activated by… a week from Thursday. And right now, we have a special promotion — ”

“A week from fucking Thursday?” Tyler said.

“Y-yes. And our promotion — ”

“No sooner?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry.”

“And don’t call me sir.”

“All right. It’s a very good promotion  — ”

“Ram your fucking promotion up your ass, bitch.”

And he slammed down the phone for the seventh or eighth time that morning. He’d lost count. What was the problem with people? In theory, it would take all of five seconds to reroute his hook-up.

He had a DNS, his computer was a server, just send someone out to swap the wiring from the old company to the new one’s cables, change a little designation in a database somewhere, let it propagate, and bang, he’d be back in business.

The whole point of humans creating the internet in the first place was so that the entire system of military and university computers would stay connected, and no information would be lost in the case of all-out nuclear war.

Somebody had explained it once as the difference between good Christmas tree lights and shitting ones. If you bought shitty lights, where everything was wired in series, if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. But if you bought the good lights, where everything was wired in parallel, if one bulb burned out, none of the others would even notice.

In theory. The weak link was the human link, as in it would take some poor lazy asshole to get up out of a chair and go do something, and that was what took all the time, all the waste, all the frustration. That was the real reason computers sucked when they failed. They were designed by humans. Machines should have been superior to their creators, but they were not.

Of course, if that was the case, the human condition really did not bode well for the creative abilities of god.

It was noon by the time he finished with the last company, heard the same refrain. The earliest anyone could hook him up was a week and a day. The real world operated at a snail’s pace. He hung up with a quiet, “No, thank you.” He’d long since used up all the good profanity he knew, getting pretty creative around the twentieth call, pretty resigned by the thirtieth.

Of course, there was always the annoying fallback of using a dial-up service, even if it did mean switching temporarily to a regular modem. He went to the linen closet, opened it and surveyed the graveyard of abandoned peripherals. There were CD‑ROMs, floppy drives, old keyboards, two printers, a trackball, half a dozen joysticks, an ancient black and white webcam, a newer but just as outdated color one, and a stack of cards with uses that Tyler had practically forgotten. He pulled down the cards, flipped through the stack looking for that familiar UART chip.

Nope, nope, not that one, no, no… none of them were modems. None of them. That was unbelievable. He’d been through a dozen modems in the last five years, he had to have one sitting around.

Then he remembered. The day he’d gotten his T-3, he’d burned all the modems, actually put them in a metal bucket, doused them with lighter fluid and gleefully torched them. Sure, it had set off the smoke alarm in the living room, but it had been worth it. Ancient history, consigned to the fate it deserved.

In retrospect, it had been a really bad idea. But it was the thought that counted, and Tyler knew what he had to do now. Go out, buy a modem, and deal with it until Friday. At the earliest.

He started for the door, then realized he was wearing his robe and pajamas. Oops. Change first, then go out. He went to the bedroom, dug through the mound of laundry, found some clothes that didn’t smell too bad and changed. Okay, that was done with, now… wallet and keys, that was it. Wallet and keys, where were they? He hunted around the house for a good fifteen minutes before he found them, dusty and forgotten under a stack of magazines.

He also found his watch, which was actually still working. He looked at the date on it. September 10th. That sounded familiar. It took him a minute to remember, then he realized it had been just over a year since he’d last gone out this door. He hadn’t had to. He did all his business online, got paid by his clients through direct deposit, ordered everything from the Internet, even his groceries, had it all delivered.

He never went out to the movies but consumed a steady stream of DVDs by mail rental, ordered his stamps, his books and his CDs, got his news of the world, had all his friends, online. He knew people all over the world, chatted with them incessantly. He had sex with a lot of them, in the safest way possible, sometimes with the webcam, sometimes just with words.

He’d probably gotten off a lot of middle-aged businessmen who pretended to be teenage girls that way, but as long as Tyler didn’t know, he didn’t care. And if that method failed, there was always Kitten or Donna or Eileen, or whoever they really were, just an assortment of glowing dots writhing all over his great, big twenty-one inch monitor, beckoning him in the dark.

It was like somebody had cut both his legs off with that random backhoe. He wondered if the company had been lying to him. Was it really the power company? Blaming the power company in California was like blaming Palestinians in the Knesset. Was his service provider lying to cover up an inevitable act of human negligence and laziness?

That still didn’t change the length of time he’d have to wait, and he couldn’t wait. He put on his watch, pocketed his wallet and keys, went to the front door and grabbed the knob. He took a deep breath, then pulled the door open and stepped outside.

* * *

The Information Age? Part two

Continuing from the previous installment, inspired by a conversation at a grocery store checkout and looking at the rise of the Information Age. Here, I return to that conversation, which concerned whether Camila Parker-Bowles was about to become Queen of England, based on a single magazine cover.

First of all, why do the British Royals seems to be such an endless source of fascination for Americans? I mean, we did fight that whole war to get rid of them at one point, right? But thanks to new technology, they suddenly started landing in our backyards again.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, was televised in the U.S. — sort of. We didn’t have the capability yet to transmit television signals across the ocean, but they could transmit radio waves, and send images via a primitive sort of fax machine, even called MuFax, that could send a still image by wire in “only” nine minutes.

Apparently, though, probably the moment when the former colonies started to have a thing for the Royals started with the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales on July 1, 1969 — right before the Moon landing — but it was broadcast around the world, quite likely in a convenient test-run of satellite technology twenty days before the Real Big Event.

Twelve years later, Charles would be back in American consciousness when he married Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981.  Their worldwide TV audience comprised 750 million people. And, of course, his bride would capture worldwide attention upon her death on August 31, 1997.

I definitely remember that evening, because my then-boyfriend and I had just come home from a Sunday evening movie date, got to his place and he turned on the TV. There it was — the top story on American network news on every channel.

While the previous weird fascination seemed to be just a fluke of technology making delusions of monarchy appealing to some Americans in a sort of fantasy/soap-opera way, the growth of the Internet also seemed to blur borders, at least in another way.

By this century, the only cultural divides among the English-speaking countries seem to be superficial, like word-choices, culinary decisions, and major brands. And Americans have continued to fawn over Charles and Diana’s kids, and then their grandkids, and his second marriage, and no, I don’t get it.

What I did get, though, when the woman finally turned the magazine to us after asking, “When did Camilla become the queen?” I realized that it was a copy of InTouch, which answered everything.

While it’s an American magazine, it has a particular fascination with the British Royal Family. It also lies its ass off, and their cover accuracy (from the editors and publisher) and content accuracy (from the writers) are both well below 25%. — although I knew that without looking, because the drug store next to my place that’s been a really convenient quick drop-in during the pandemic stocks it by the registers, so I’ve had plenty of time to look at their cover stories and just shake my head.

Then again, I kind of know stuff about British royalty and how it works, outside of this pop culture fascination with them. Why? Because I learned a lot of history in school, as well as on my own, because I’m just curious like that.

Like the British stuff before our revolution that was later important to the Western world. I’ve also paid attention to the stuff behind the tabloid headlines on the Royals, which led to a nice moment, actually, because if this woman had just gone off of the very inaccurate and IRL click-bait headline, she could have walked away thinking that Camilla Parker Bowles was about to become Queen of England.

Fortunately, I knew enough to be able to tell her — and the checker, who seemed to be going along with the headline — that InTouch was incredibly unreliable and, if anything, the cover title was satirical at best, because “Queen Camilla” would never happen.

And that much is definitely true, because part of the deal of allowing Charles to marry Camilla after Diana died was the specific stipulation that she would never become the queen should he ascend to the throne, but rather only gain the title of princess consort, which is a polite royal way of saying “the chick the king is fucking, but his relatives totally disapprove.”

I didn’t explain it in quite those terms. I just said that because of her divorce and the deal Charles made, she could never become queen, and that seemed to settle the issue.

On the way out, it struck me — and this article was born — how is it that modern humans (and it’s not just Americans) can have access to so damn much information and yet seem to know so little about what is really going on?

No, I’m not pushing conspiracy-theory bullshit there. It’s a legitimate question. How is it that so many people do not seem to engage with actual, fact-based information?

Unfortunately, I think a big part of it is that in modern culture (late-stage capitalism largely to blame) too many people have been ingrained with learned helplessness.

“You cannot get ahead, so you never will, so just soldier on and buy our shit! It’s better than trying to learn, because learning is hard, right?”

Well, wrong. But this is the message that has kept people disengaged from curiosity and education. Consumer culture, particularly in the west, is focused on one thing: Selling you artificial substitutes for happiness.

If they let you learn and get smart, then you’ll learn to not buy into their bullshit, so they start to try to get you when you’re young. McDonald’s Happy Meals, anyone?

Modern capitalism has really adopted an old idea that has been attributed to several sources, but which really has none. St. Ignatius Loyola never said anything like, “Give me the child until seven and I will give you the adult” (original version, substitute “boy” and “man” for the subjects in the sentence.) Not was it said by Aristotle.

But… it somehow crawled into the Zeitgeist, especially in marketing, and voila… your kids became targets. How do you think that companies like McDonald’s and Disney became so damn huge in the first place? Each of them had you as kids, probably your parents as kids, they’ve got your kids, and they’re going to get your grandkids.

And how do these companies do their thing? Oh, they will never, ever tell you, “Not happy? Maybe you should learn a new skill!” Instead, they’ll hide the question, make the problem seem like it’s your fault, and then sell you the solution.

“Feel like a loser today? Pick yourself up with Pakolyze candy!” (Hidden message: Because you’re a stupid, useless loser without us.)

This is literally the basis of every single ad that is trying to sell you shit you don’t need, including those fact-free magazines in grocery store check-outs, but also including most of what you read on the internet.

The only way to unlearn learned helplessness is to ignore the (corporate) voices that tell you, “Nah, I can’t,” and instead focus on your inner voice, which tells you, “Oh, fuck yeah, I can, and I am going to!.”

And you will. Just become your own gatekeeper and filter info — after you find the least biased sources, which an internet search actually will give you.

Then stop obsessing on the Royals because, after all, while Queen Liz Jr. is hella cool, we did kick her ancestor out a couple hundred years ago via violent revolution.

So… honor, but don’t obsess. Hey, Elizabeth II is my 36th cousin (and I think also 35th and 37th — no, really), but… no American needs to waste that much head canon on any of the Royals, okay?

Unfortunately, we moved from The Information Age into The Post-Information Age, or maybe even the Dis-Information Age at least five years ago. We’re only just making an attempt at crawling out of it now, but please stand by.

After all, if an otherwise apparently intelligent, affluent, and educated woman in a very liberal suburb in a very liberal county in a very Blue state can almost, for a moment, think that Camilla Parker Bowles is about to become the Queen of England and that Elizabeth II can do nothing to stop it all because of a trash tabloid magazine cover, then there is definitely some breakdown in keeping the people informed.

Which leads to the either/or salvation or danger of the Internet as it is now, because, in essence, it empowers anyone on it to be their own media platform.

Think about it. If you’re reading these words, then you probably have a device that is capable of allowing you to become any or all of the following kinds of creators: film or TV producer and distributor/broadcaster; radio producer and/or broadcaster; magazine or newspaper writer and/or publisher; artist with gallery and shop, or museum curator with likewise; designer with online store; adult entertainer with your own private studio, theatre, and fanbase; and I’ve probably missed quite a few.

The point is that the technology that capitalism has given us, ironically, will also be the tool we can use to destroy the monolithic entities that have come to dominate market share of everything. The trick is that we have to be willing to let go of the stories and franchises we’ve been sold, trust our friends and acquaintances, and then trust the acquaintances of acquaintances, and so on, to create our market.

That and… tax the fuck out of the super-rich, just like Republican Eisenhower did, and look how well off the Middle-Class was at the time. Hell, his policies created the Middle-Class in the U.S.

Combine that with progressive policies to give everyone access to education, health care, affordable housing, equal treatment under the law, and equal representation at the ballot box, and we could create America’s Middle-Class 2.0.

That is the real way to Make America Great Again.

Image source, Old computer that used punchcards, found in the London Science Museum, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Information Age? Part one

This was originally going to be a single piece but, as often happens, I got so into the subject at hand that I had to split it. The second installment will appear tomorrow.

“When did Camilla become the queen?” a voice behind me in line at Ralphs suddenly blurts out. The clerk and I look over to see a thirtyish woman who otherwise seems well-off and intelligent holding up a magazine with a cover story title along the lines of “Elizabeth and Camilla face off over the crown!”

The course of that conversation was rather illuminating for me — and I hope for the woman — but before I can get to that part, let’s take a little detour, shall we?

The so-called Information Age, also called the Computer Age, among other names, began around the 1970s, and its major hallmark was that the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information was rapidly moving away from analog media and devices — snail mail, paper files, and typewritten documents among them.

Telephone landlines were also moving away from using analog encryption and decryption of signals, as well as rotary dials that literally told the switches what digits you’d dialed by the number of clicks.

I could swear I’ve written about it here before, but can’t find the link. But this “number of clicks” thing is why the most populous regions at the time they instigated area codes got the ones with the fewest number of “clicks”: 212, 312, and 213 going respectively to New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Digital technology had existed by this point, ever since the invention of the transistor, first demonstrated in 1947. However, the earliest computers were huge — the size of entire rooms — very expensive, and ran ridiculously hot because they used vacuum tubes instead of integrated circuits, which didn’t exist yet anyway.

In addition, they were programmed either by physically flipping switches to set parameters, or in the more “advanced” models, data was fed into them — and read out of them — using either punch-encoded paper tape, or the infamous punch card, yards of the former and tons of the latter. To store just one gigabyte of data would have taken over 16,000 typical punch cards, at 64 bytes per card.

That’s bytes, using the 8-bit standard. The highest eight-digit number in binary is 1111 1111, which equals 255. Add in the extra number zero, 0000 0000, and that is why the number 256 is so important in digital technology.

In contrast, a 16-bit system gives you 65,536, which happened to be the original number of possible colors on the first VGA monitors eons ago. Beyond 16-bit, you’d need scientific notation. A 64-bit system would give you 1.85×10^19.

These are physical limit on how big a number any sized system can generate and use at one time, as well as how many binary digits can pass through a serial bus at one time.

The likely reason that the Information Age finally took off is directly tied into the birth of what would become the Internet in October 1969. It developed on into the 1980s. At the same time, the first small-ish computers that were affordable — at first to business, and then eventually to more affluent consumers — started to come onto the market.

Those early machines didn’t do a whole lot, but they created the first generation to go digital: Gen X. To this day, that seems to be the dividing line, and I know very few Boomers who seem comfortable with computers if they were never exposed to them during their professional lives.

I’m not generalizing Boomers, though — I know Millennials who couldn’t even manage to turn on a laptop, and I’ve met octogenarians who can work their way around a computer like an expert.

And then, about a decade after the first really affordable personal computers, the Internet happened. Well, I think it was the World Wide Web (WWW) at the time, although people didn’t used to distinguish the two.

The short version is that the WWW is the stuff you see online — the web pages that actually come to your machine. The Internet, meanwhile, is the vast network of computers that hosts the WWW, along with lots of other stuff, and which makes the magic happen that gets a document on somebody’s private server in Tierra del Fuego through an elaborate route that can sometimes cross the entire planet before it shows up on your laptop while you’re on vacation in Iceland, usually in under a second.

Another way to think of it is that the WWW are the letters and packages, and the Internet is the postal service. Of course, anyone who refers to the World Wide Web nowadays will just get looked at funny. There’s a reason that the “www.” Part of a URL hasn’t been required for a long, long time.

End result? The Information Age, which has been a wonderful thing.

If I’d tried to write this article, or something like it, in 1970, with all of the above information, it would have involved one or more trips to a physical library or a few, lots of manual searches and pulling out books to look for information in a very analog way — by reading it.

Notes by hand, or by using the library’s copiers, paying per page. And if said information weren’t in the library, I would have somehow had to find someone with expertise in the field and either (gasp!) call them on the phone, or send them a neatly typed letter nicely asking for info and waiting for however long it took them to respond, if they ever did.

I could never have adulted in that age. So that’s the upside of The Age of Information.

But there are several downsides, one having to do with quantity (and quality) of information, and the other having to do with a frequent lack of engagement, which is not unrelated to the first part.

I have a terabyte hard drive in my computer, and another terabyte external drive connected to it. These are ridiculously huge amounts of data, something we couldn’t even have conceived of needing back in the 1990s.

Now, multiply those two drives of mine by five to bring it to ten terabytes, and that’s enough storage space to hold the entire collection of the U.S. Library of Congress, digitized.

The amount of information available via the Internet dwarfs that number by a lot. It’s been estimated that just the “Big Four” of sites — Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook — store at least 1.2 petabytes of data.

Note that it’s not clear from my source whether this data includes YouTube and Instagram under the umbrellas of Google and Facebook respectively.

A petabyte is two steps up from a terabyte, meaning that one petabyte is a million terabytes — and the figure above doesn’t even include all the other storage spaces out there for all the other people. Granted, a lot of smaller sites contract to Google, Amazon, or Microsoft for cloud storage, but I’m sure that many of them don’t.

Have an email account that isn’t Google or Microsoft? Multiply the storage they allow by their users and add it in. Toss in all the university and library servers, as well as private industry servers — banking, real estate, finance, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, media.

And then don’t forget publicly accessible government servers which, in every country, go from a national to regional to an administrative to a local level. In the U.S., that’s Federal, state, county, city. The U.S. has 50 states and well over 3,000 counties. A county can have any number of cities, townships, unincorporated areas, boroughs, parishes, or whatever.

It all adds up.

Again, on the one hand, it can be the greatest thing ever. I certainly love it for writing and researching, because when I want to create a link, I just need to tap a couple of keys and do a quick search.

Since I’m a stickler for getting it right if I happen to be writing a period piece, and I want to know what the weather was in a certain place on a certain day, or what was on TV on a certain day and time, boom, done. The information is out there.

Nerd stuff. But that’s what I’m into, that’s what I love to do, and I know how to filter — as in which news and websites to ignore, which to use with caution, and which to trust.

Speaking of which, the main thing that Wikipedia is good for is a broad overview, but if you want the real story, always follow their external links to sources. Yes, I will link to them if I’m only going to give a superficial dash of info, especially if it involves pop culture, but they’re the card catalog, not the book, to dredge up an old analog metaphor.

But we live in a paradox in which information very much fits the old line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

This referred to being stranded in the ocean, so surrounded by water, but since it’s sea water, it is too salty to be drinkable.

Modern version: “Info info everywhere, oh fuck, I’ve got to think?”

A lot of people, for various reasons, don’t or can’t take the time to filter, and each of us is getting bombarded more in an hour than, say, our grandparents would have been in a week when they were our ages.

The interesting part is that analog media — like checkout lane magazines and TV and radio ads — are still very much a part of the mix. So back to the story I started with.

(To be continued…)

Image source, Old computer that used punchcards, found in the London Science Museum, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Nibble #35: A life online

The world may be going to hell in a very big handbasket, and whether we’re all going to die of the plague, roast to death as temperatures rise (either drowning in the rising seas or choking on the endless smoke or both), or we’ll perish in a WW III most likely started by a collapsing and fully fascist United States of America.

Or we could luck out and turn things around. But one thing I have to marvel at is what an amazing era of technology we live in. It’s only the beginning, but we’ve gotten pretty far, pretty fast.

Now, I happen to be of that part of Gen X that has never not been online at any point in their adult lives. In fact, I used a networked computer before I got my driver’s license, way back at the tender age of 15.

But… I was an adult before the founding of either Google (1998) or Wikipedia (2001), and although I wrote all of my scripts and such on computers, I still had to rely on analog research methods until the beginning of this century — mostly libraries and books.

For one black comedy set during the Civil War, my research was pretty much limited to the big book of Ken Burns The Civil War documentary, with occasional library trips and heavy use of my handy Columbia Desk Encyclopedia.

Damn, at one time, I had a huge personal reference library full of dictionaries, specific encyclopedias, writers’ reference books on various subjects that pertained to a particular genre — I think I had Crime and Science Fiction — as well as buttload of foreign language grammars and translating to English dictionaries, including ones like Old English, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese.

Side note: I’ve made a sincere effort in my life time to learn ten languages besides English. I managed fluency in one (Spanish) and, through that, the ability to kind of read and understand one that I studied but could never hear the pronunciation of and another that I never studied (French and Portuguese, respectively), know more than I should but nowhere near enough of the language of the country my last name comes from (German), two for specific purposes of script writing (Italian and Norwegian), two just to try out non-Latin alphabets (Japanese and Russian), one because there seem to be a lot of tall, hot men from there (Dutch), one because the opportunity came up through a theatre company I was in (ASL, until our teacher moved), and one because it’s spoken in the country from whence came half of my genetic heritage (Irish Gaelic).

Funny story, though. Spanish and German are the only two languages that I studied in school. The rest but three were on my own, and most of those were before the internet days. At best, I managed to find recorded lessons to listen to in the car, and for a while I got pretty fluent at basic Russian, but that was about it. As for the other two, once I left school, I kind of lost my abilities in either for a long time.

I remember one particularly informative moment when I traveled to Mexico with an ex, who was himself half Mexican on his father’s side, and realized once we got down there that I couldn’t understand shit, and I couldn’t say shit beyond very simple phrases — that despite studying Spanish in school for five years.

So… I used to have to try to learn languages through books or, if I were lucky, from a human teacher, but good luck with any kind of immersion in it. Likewise, in writing any kind of reality-based fiction, the research was tedious and time-consuming.

And then came the internet. Sure, in the early days (and I was there on the ground floor) you really couldn’t look up shit. I did happen to work for one of the first companies to jump into it with both feet.

This happened to be The Community Yellow Pages, a publication for the Lesbian and Gay community started in 1969 by Jeanne Córdova, who is a piece of lesbian history herself, and whom I was fortunate enough to have known.

She started the guide as a very thin phonebook with both Yellow (commercial) and White (residential) pages, and it was a way to advertises businesses that were either gay-friendly, or owned by gay people and, probably, the white pages part was a de facto but not really acknowledged dating section. (It was eventually discontinued.)

Anyway… 1994 rolls around, the internet is just getting going and, because one of Jeanne’s (many) siblings lives near Silicon Valley and is very tapped into what’s going on, that sibling (a younger sister) convinces her that online is the way to go.

I only worked for the CYP a couple of years, but it was an interestingly schizo time, because we were simultaneously selling people on this paper edition that would come out once a year, along with this electronic thing that could be searched from anywhere and which could be updated if needed.

And… the paper version was by far the best-seller. Bonus points: at that time, we could have done the layout digitally, but didn’t, and so for the few months leading up to publication, we had an actual layout artist come in and physically paste-up the boards that would be photocopied to create the masters for the final run.

Eventually, though, the sleeping giant of the internet’s potential awakened in quick order, first with Google indexing everything, and then Wikipedia accumulating knowledge.

And say what you want about the latter, but over time the ol’ Wiki has really become a stellar example of the “wisdom of crowds” concept. Plus which, it should never be a primary source, but just a guide to finding the same, which are now also all over the internet.

So researching and writing became a lot easier, but so did learning languages, especially after the launch of Duolingo in 2012, as well as the realization that it’s possible to set devices like phones and computers into other languages — and that cars have radios, which make possible both language-learning podcasts over modern tech or, depending on language, radio stations in the target language via old tech.

So those of us with computers, tablets, phones, or other devices, have access to the biggest research library ever assembled. It definitely dwarfs the fabled Library of Alexandria, and most likely has a lot more material than the Library of Congress — which would fit on ten single terabyte hard drives, by the way.

And it’s not just books and stuff like that. It’s full of music, movies, photos, and everything else that humans have left in their wake, all of it there to access either for free or for a nominal fee.

So if we make it through this Anno Horribilis of 2020, then maybe we’ll make it further and continue to see technology make leaps and bounds that our grandparents could never have even imagined.

Friday Free-for-all #29: More questions

This originally started as me answering one random questions generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the part where they didn’t really need long answers. So, instead, it’s turned into a slow-motion interview with multiple queries. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments — or ask your own!

If you had to get rid of a holiday, which would you get rid of? Why?

Also known as “How to piss someone off.” There are so many possibilities, but I’m going to have to go for Christmas. But hear me out, because this is the opposite of what the “War on Christmas” people would think.

Yes, we need a solstice holiday for sure, and one that celebrates all beliefs because most cultures have a certain reverence for the winter solstice. But we need to do three things.

One: Give Christmas back to the Christians. Let them have it, they can celebrate however they want to in private, fine. The tradeoff is that we don’t need to mention it or memorialize it at all in the secular world which, if you come to think of it, really just serves to diminish the religious meaning of the holiday in the first place. Next…

Two: We need to remove completely the idea that this winter holiday is all about buying each other shit that we don’t need. That was an invention of capitalism, and it is toxic. The idea of the winter holiday should be for groups of friends and family to variously gather together during the entire period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for the sole purpose of being together.

Plague permitting, of course — but there are always virtual meetings.

But get together. Share a meal. Binge-watch a favorite show. Have a game night. Go hiking, or biking, or ice-skating, or to a museum. And agree to not exchange presents. Rather, exchange presence. Be there for each other, because that’s the real meaning of any holiday.

Three: Create your own private traditions, religious or secular, and share them. Reject the commercial crap that has been pushed on us for generations in the singular interest of making rich people richer. Sure, you can give someone you say you love a really expensive present, but in the end, that’s really pretty shallow. The greatest gift you can really give is yourself — your time, your attention, your love.

That’s what people need, that’s what they really want, and that’s what we should really be celebrating in the final month of every year.

What fad did you never really understand?

Although it’s been highlighted by the internet, especially since the rise of smart phones, it really isn’t anything new, but the idea of “challenges,” especially ones that can be physically dangerous, just boggles my brain-box.

The cinnamon challenge immediately comes to mind, and this one (like many of them) was actually dangerous. The idea was for someone to video themself swallowing a spoonful of ground cinnamon. One big problem, though: that’s basically like shoving a shitload of dust in your mouth, and that stuff flies into the air at the slightest provocation.

Or, in other words, you suddenly have a cloud of dust in your mouth and flying down your throat, and it also tends to clump when it gets wet (as your mouth and throat are wont to be), and so you can also suddenly wind up with very viscous clumps of spice jamming up your airways or even loose dust going into your lungs.

No matter which way, it’s not a great combo at all — and it can be fatal.

So can other stunts, like jumping out of a moving car and dancing next to it to a track by Drake. If that’s too easy, there’s always the internet fire challenge, which is just what it sounds like, and just as stupidly dangerous. If you don’t like fire, then you can always try the hot water challenge.

And there are many, many more. But, again, taking stupid dares is nothing new. Stupid human tricks from the past perpetrated by our grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-greats included things like phone booth stuffing, swallowing live goldfish, sitting on poles (the object, not the nationality), or walking on the wings of airplanes.

Some of these still happen, by the way. But the nutshell answer to the original question is that I don’t understand any fad that involves a bunch of people doing really stupid and dangerous shit just to get attention.

What inanimate object do you wish you could eliminate from existence?

Guns. And in the broadest sense of the word — pistols, side-arms, handguns, rifles, shotguns… Okay, let’s shorthand it to “all ballistic weapons.” Note that this does not exclude useful ballistics, without which we could not put astronauts into space.

Ironically, it’s a way to make humanity more civilized by making us more primitive. You want to kill someone? Then do it the old-fashioned way — hand-to-hand, close quarters, or with a pointy weapon that has a range of one to four feet, depending on what you’re wielding.

Slingshots and bows and arrows are probably somewhat acceptable, but we’d need to determine rules of engagement on where we can aim — slings never at the head, arrows never at the head, throat, or torso.

You can stop someone with a club or a sword at close range and, provided that you also aim for those stopping points without aiming for fatalities (see above) , you’re only going to put them down, not out, so everyone lives — even you, who felt threatened enough to draw that weapon.

Or you can shoot an unarmed father of three in the back seven times for absolutely no discernible reason. And that is only one of way-too-many reasons that yes, we need to take these dick-compensators out of the hands of man-babies who absolutely don’t need them.

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