Archive for February, 2003

The Thinker

Snow what else is news?

Just for the record, it’s back! That white stuff. You know, snow!

The foolish around here thought that maybe after the blizzard a couple weeks back we were done. Since that time we’ve actually had a couple more snowfalls. Blissfully the first two didn’t amount to very much. Then there was the last couple of days. Two inches, then another four or so in the last 24 hours. This morning looked pretty nasty actually but 6 inches DOT can deal with, 18 they can’t. So the street was reasonably well plowed (but of course they never pushed the snow to the curbs … too much bother) and the big adventure was getting out of our driveway. And the main roads were spotty in places but driveable.

But of COURSE the schools were closed the last two days. Yesterday they could well have been open but the storm moved slower than expected so the two inches or so we got would have only slowed an arthritic school bus. But Wednesday night they were thinking it would move faster than it was did, so they closed schools on an expectation. Today of course schools were closed again. Terri and I made it to work okay. On the way home the snow had stopped, the roads were mostly just wet and things were just melting in general. By this evening with the sidewalks shoveled it was hard to understand what all the fuss was about this morning.

So Rosie was out of school ALL of last week and two days this week. There have been 3 or 4 other snow days during the year. And Monday school started two hours late and they sent the kids home around noon on Wednesday due to fears about that white stuff. At this rate she may be in school in July. However, our school board consists of a bunch of weenies. They won’t let it cut much into summer vacation. They’ll petition the state and the state will say, sure, why not. Who cares if an education is cut a bit short … we want to send these kids to camp instead!

Anyhow we are weary of the stuff around here. We’re just not used to this much snow. We were getting used to global warming. Now we long for Spring the way a sailor six months at sea longs for a port and a loose woman. But I have a feeling it will arrive late. There is still a lot of snow to melt first.

 
The Thinker

Danger Will Robinson

My wife has been part of a community of Slash writers and readers for about four years now.

In case you don’t know, Slash is a form of fan fiction that accentuates implied same sex longings of established characters in TV shows and movies. It started with the original Star Trek series. Kirk and Spock appeared to many people, women in particular, to be a bit more than good friends. Kirk/Spock, get it? Erotic fan fiction started appearing at Star Trek conventions everywhere in the form of “zines”. Zines are fan fiction stories loosely bound together, often sloppily assembled and edited and sold at cost. Based on early “Slash” zines it appeared that Kirk and Spock had deep feelings and sexual longings for each other, at least in the minds of a largely female population of fans. In numerous Slash stories there are many a tender and not so tender homosexual act between these principle characters where the full depth of their soul is endlessly plumbed. There are probably millions of Slash stories on Kirk/Spock alone out there.

From such humble beginnings a genre was spawned. My wife got into it as a result of watching “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” movie. She was a huge Star Wars fan from the beginning. She found some Phantom Menace fan fiction stories on the internet, enjoyed them, and started writing and corresponding with a number of fellow fans. Before long though it was the slash stories she was mostly reading and writing. In the movie Obi-Wan is an apprentice to Qui-Gon. The female fans of the Star War series went nuts imagining erotic power play between these two characters. There are numerous web sites, fan fiction archives and mailing lists just for this one erotic fandom alone. Yes, the Internet is a beautiful place where virtually any need can be gratified.

For fans of female erotica there is perhaps a lot to be admired about this genre. I always knew women were a lot more erotic than they often let on, even in private between the sheets. A lot of these stories would make sailors blush. Most male pornography is just graphic. These stories are not just graphic, but rife with deep emotions and conflicts as the relationships between these same sex pairings invariably gets deeper and deeper. It’s a shame, in a way, that it is an art form I can’t appreciate very much. Being a heterosexual male I find reading endless stories of two guys (and sometimes two gals, such as Xena/Gabrielle) get it on and having heavy relationship conversations just doesn’t do much to trip my trigger.

My wife Terri wrote a very successful series called “Wheel of If”, based on the Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon relationship. Just last week it was formally published and released to the Slash universe as a zine for those who want to part with thirty bucks or so. It was an effort of love for her and it generated a lot of comments and a lot of fan mail. And now finally it is in zine form, with many full color illustrations by talented artists. She is a published author, of a sort. She beat me to it. In that sense I am a bit jealous. But I’m also proud of her because she is a terrific writer.

This weekend she returned from a slash convention in California full of fellow slash writers and fans, many of which are into her two fandoms. Her other fandom is “The Sentinel”. These two fandoms alone so consumes her she has no energy to join another. I am grateful she stopped at two, but that doesn’t stop lots of other women. It would not be an exaggeration to say lots of slash writers and readers are addicted to this world they are in. I often feel like my wife is right on the borderline. I don’t feel capable of making an accurate assessment because I am not a clinical psychologist nor am I particularly unbiased in the matter.

She has naturally made lots of friends in this new world, to the point where most of her friends now come from her Slash world. I have enjoyed meeting a number of them. Back in 2000 my wife even sponsored a big party for her friends at our house. (I was wisely out of town that weekend). Most live far away, but a number live within commuting range. A couple of her friends make it to the house every month or two and have enjoyed dinner with us, or have camped out in our spare room.

The Slash world is populated with interesting, but often very troubled women. My wife is a bit strange in that she is quite heterosexual in a domain full of lesbian and bisexual women. As a general rule men don’t write or read much Slash. Those that do enjoy it tend to be homosexual men.

The good points about the women I have met into this universe are that they are very bright and creative people as a rule. My wife is certainly that way. She is also an excellent writer who could probably be a successful writer if she wanted to channel her energies in other directions. But these women are often very troubled. Some are in bad marriages. Some have no marriage prospects at all or even want to be married. Lots are into role playing, or would like to be in submissive-dominant relationships. Many are overweight. Many have large self-esteem issues. Many, probably most based on my observation, suffer from clinical depression. And it’s no surprise that many of these women are struggling with mixed feelings for their own sex. But there are also a fair number of otherwise ordinary women who just enjoy Slash as their hobby.

At four years this newest obsession of hers shows no signs of ebbing, so I am likely going to have to deal with it for the long term. It is not always easy because I often feel she loses herself in the genre, sometimes to the expense of her obligations as spouse and mother. It is my nature to be supportive and encouraging, so I try not to complain too much. In many ways she is a happier creature, having found an online home and a set of friends with similar interests I don’t think she has ever had before.

But I wonder how healthy it is. It seems to my myopic eyes to be an obsession. I see an addictive nature to it, just like gambling. It’s almost compulsive. Given any free time she will almost always choose to spend it in that universe.

I’m not sure what conclusions to make from all this. My initial impression was that Slash was pornography for women. But it’s more than that I think: it’s an expression for a longing for a sort of relationship that is probably impossible in real life.

Whatever she is getting from it, it is something I apparently cannot supply. But I still wonder what it is about the genre that draws so many women into it, and makes them so compulsive about spending so many of their free hours imbibed in it? I’d like to think it is harmless. Perhaps it is just another low level vice. But it brings out my inner robot:

Danger Will Robinson!

 
The Thinker

Our snow event

The Northeast United States, as you may have heard, has been under a “snow event” lately. This blizzard dumped two feet of snow in my neighborhood and kept my family largely confined to our house for three days. Today we adults struggle back toward something called normalcy. Our daughter Rosie still has no school. Somehow I doubt (seeing the condition of the streets) that schools can possibly open tomorrow.

Our last major “snow event” (as the newspapers called it) was back in 1996. Happily this went a bit better than that event. That blizzard found me with a bad case of the flu and my daughter with a chronic ear infection and unable to see a doctor. That left my wife to do all the work, including the snow shoveling. One improvises at times like that. We reached a doctor on the telephone and found out it was okay to borrow some antibiotics from a friend down the street. The DEA wasn’t going to come after us.

This event allowed me to repay the karmic debt to my wife for not being available in 1996. It was my wife Terri’s turn this time to be miserable. Something triggered severe headaches and she was largely down for the count. That left me to tackle winter. My philosophy was “keep shoveling” so during the blizzard I was out three times clearing surfaces. Monday morning found the storm finally receding but four inches of heavy, crunchy new snow on the ground. The stuff weighed a ton and had to be broken up one square at a time. It was hard going and tedious work. However, the weight machines I have been using at the health club were a big benefit. My biceps and shoulder muscles were in great shape. They never got particularly sore.

With the driveway cleared we realized we were all dressed up but had no place to go. Tuesday morning arrived and we discovered a snowplow had opened a single lane to our subdivision. Unfortunately that was it, and there was an additional twelve feet of road I had to cut through until we could connect our driveway with the street. So like my neighbors I was out there basically shoveling the street! But at least the sun was shining. I took off my coat for a while.

There is something about a major snowstorm to both fear and admire. The fear was wondering what would happen if we got sick or injured. My wife Terri was convinced for a while she had a sinus infection. The wonder was how awesome Mother Nature can be when she wants to be, and how transformed and peaceful all can become during and after such a snowstorm.

For a while anyhow I didn’t have to worry about Code Orange. Life became a lot less complicated. Life was pretty much shoveling snow, listening to my wife complain about her headache, and in those few spare hours taking advantage of the extra time to prepare for the class I teach on Saturday. I could mostly tune out impending wars in Iraq as something surreal. This was how we survived most of human history: just getting through one day at a time using our wits. It was nice to know that through sheer human perseverance I could beat Mother Nature one more time. All I needed were a few snow shovels, a lot of time, and a huge amount of endurance.

You can find pictures of our “event” here.

Back to Code Orange.

 
The Thinker

Who Moved Our Cheese?

I can’t seem to escape this talk of war, war, war. I try not to think about. But I am a federal employee and I work in DC. It’s hard not to think about it, particularly when less than two years ago I was here when a jet roared into the Pentagon. Now, pushed on by our Department of Homeland Insecurity, we can spend most of our days fretting about whether today is the day something catastrophic happens. I could use some plastic sheeting and duct tape here in the office. Shouldn’t someone issue me chemical warfare garments and a gas mask? How do we go about life as usual when talk of our demise is omnipresent?

Some people do get by. Every six weeks or so I do lunch with my friend Sokhama. She is from Cambodia and grew up there at a time when Pol Pot and his lunatics were running around, and when Nixon’s air force was dropping not so secret bombs on her fellow citizens. She managed to deal with it, although it helped that her father joined the diplomatic corps and she eventually spent much of her life overseas. On 9/11 she was quite calm, figured there was nothing she could do, worked as usual, took a late bus home figuring it was pointless to leave too early because it would be too jammed.

Lots of things are bothering me about of war on terrorism. But today what is bothering me is that no one realizes our cheese has been moved. Paradigms have shifted but we are still treating terrorism as if it is something we can win on the battlefield. We’re about to send over a hundred thousand troops into Iraq to make it safer for us. We will eliminate any biological, chemical and (unlikely) nuclear weapons we find. And we will be safer, right? Umm, no. The paradigm has shifted. We can’t ever be safe from these sorts of threats again through the application of military force. It’s like our pointless war on drugs: if we plug one place, it will pop up some place else.

There are two real problems here that our administration is working hard to ignore. Problem number one is that nuclear (as well as chemical and biological) non-proliferation is a failure. The price of entry into the nuclear club has gone way, way down. It’s a game any country not in the third world can play if they want to, and many of them feel they have to because their traditional enemy across the river is starting to play it. It is a fiction that we can contain the spread of WMD through the application of military force.

Problem number two is that conventional war is obsolete. That’s not to say it won’t crop up now and then. We’ve seen it in the Balkans, and might see it in regional fights like those between Pakistan and India. The whole nation metaphor is really obsolete. A lot of the reason we are being hated, loathed and targeted is because we insist we are a nation. But we’re not. We’re an interconnected world. As much as we declare we shall go it alone all nations are part of the same soup pot. We have no choice but to get along together or die together. The US Army can’t do much to protect us from some disgruntled Islamic extremist with visions of having a dozen virgins to himself in the hereafter. Borders are too porous. Weapons are easier to make miniaturize.

There are possible solutions to international terrorism but this administration doesn’t want to hear them. It the prism of its lens everything is in black and white. President Bush has said as much: “You are either for us or against us.” (I guess we can add France and Germany to our “Axis of Evil”, right?) It doesn’t want to hear that maybe having so many of our troops and airplanes in a region like the Middle East actually adds to the instability. It doesn’t want to hear that maybe the $6B plus we give Israel every year to oppress the Palestinians is one of the reasons so many people over there hate us. It doesn’t want to hear that although we claim to love democracy we support governments like Saudi Arabia, which runs a feudalistic, anti-feminist state, or Egypt, which we bribe to be our friend while it ruthlessly oppresses dissent. No wonder we are seen as the great Satan. We are keeping generations of Arabs from having normal lives, participating in the political process, and having much hope of a future. Naturally we are a tempting target.

I can see the future and it is not pretty. I can only hope that within six months after our invasion of Iraq, after enough Americans come home in body bags, after hundreds of guerilla attacks on our troops over there, we finally come to our senses, bring home our troops and scale back our presence over there. Maybe, if we haven’t had too many new terrorist attacks in the interim, we can let those people sort out their own problems. Maybe we can stop lecturing the world and throwing temper tantrums when nations don’t agree with us. Maybe we can act a whole lot more like Switzerland. Then maybe I will live to bounce a grandchild on my knee.

God had better bless America. We seem incapable of seeing the new world order. This war is about changing hearts and minds. Invading Iraq will not do that at all, it will only make us more vulnerable.

Where do we need to go as a planet? The solution is out there, but you can bet it is the last place the Bush Administration wants to go. But you can learn more about the World Federalist Society. It’s our only real hope.

 
The Thinker

Old Friends

They’re back: people I thought were out of my life years and years ago. In some cases I found them. In other cases they found me. In some cases they just showed up again.

I went and found Tom, my best friend from grades 4-9. It took the Internet for me to find him. We lost touch with each other a year or two after my family moved to Florida in 1972. Tom was a cool friend who loved the space program as much as I did, and together we collaborated on a number of things that made childhood really exciting and kept us from smoking dope or hanging out with loose women. We constructed model rockets and model spacecraft together (Tom was so good with the detailing!). We built interiors of simulated spacecraft and made pretend trips to the moon, or just went into a pretend orbit around the earth. We formed our own movie company and created Super 8 films that seemed brilliant to us. But there were tensions in our relationship. His family was pretty dysfunctional. Mine was dysfunctional too, but on a different sort of level. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found him many years later, living in Oregon, he had followed his creative bent and had done quite well for himself in the advertising business. But with the crash in the economy he was vastly underemployed and I believe he is still struggling. He now has two young sons and a lovely wife. But he is 3000 miles away. I’m hoping one day we will be able to share the same room again. It’s been 30 years! It’s so nice to find that when we email each other to find that we are still fundamentally the same people. We’re 15-year-old kids still on the inside. And his passion for the space program is undiminished, as is mine. Was it just coincidence that after so many years we would both be passionate liberals, even though we were faux Republicans in the early 70s?

Tim and I were young adults together. I was freshly relocated to Gaithersburg, Maryland. The year was 1980. It was recession in America. I had a degree in communications but no one wanted to hire me. I was working for not much more than dog food at a Montgomery Ward. Tim showed up one day and became one of our fence salesmen. Tim and I were ducks out of water in that place. We were both failures as salesmen. He had a wife and her income to fall back on, I had to eek out a living on wages averaging $4-$5 an hour. We conspired to turn the place into a union shop, but largely failed (retail workers are such weasels). I was drawn to Tim anyhow because he was a brilliant person. We were both so out of place at Wards, but we enjoyed analyzing the people who worked there. We had it all figured out. It was Tim who helped me get out of the retail business and into the federal government. Tim had somehow gotten a job doing clerical stuff at the Defense Mapping Agency. With his help I knew were to send applications. A GS-4 paid a lot better than a lawn and garden salesman. We worked together for DMA for a number of years, and even carpooled together. By the mid 80s though Tim had divorced his wife and had moved to Illinois to do graduate school. I was moving in with my live in girlfriend who would eventually become my wife. And he dropped off my radar until he found me last year on the Internet. Ah, the power of Google! Last year he was in town and we got together and looked at old haunts. The Wards store we worked at now as Toys R Us on the bottom floor and a Burlington Coat factory on the top floor. Tim worked a variety of jobs in the Midwest and recently completed a midlife PhD. Still brilliant he certainly could be doing better, but is home on the farm helping the family and his aging mother. He’s doing the right thing and stepping up to the plate where most sons wouldn’t. I hope the second half of his life allows him to put his considerable talents to more practical use. It’s funny how life turns out for people sometimes.

Stephanie was in my carpool during my early Pentagon days. She was there for six months, or maybe it was a year. I didn’t have too many fond feelings for Stephanie, but heck we were just riding a car together. It was a casual relationship. I liked the fact that she was young, and blonde, and had just gotten a degree, and was an environmentalist. But she didn’t know how to be on time. That drove the rest of us in the carpool crazy. So often we would wait for her to show up, or we would just leave without her. When it was her turn to drive we had no idea if she’d show up. Around 1993 she fell in love with an older man and was going to run off to Utah of all places to live with him while she did the grad school thing. She also wanted to be a Mom and envisioned herself carrying her kid in her knapsack while she did her field research. One lady in the carpool got a wedding invitation. I didn’t but I didn’t feel hurt. When she left I figured she was living happily every after somewhere, except I had a kind of gut instinct that her happily ever after marriage wouldn’t work. And I was right about that. It was over very quickly. Anyhow last year she shows up at the Unitarian Church I attend last year. Was I surprised when I got up to speak during Joys and Sorrows to see her face staring back at me. As I had suspected, real life had indeed wacked her around pretty hard. Her ideal marriage quickly crumbled, but she met the true love of her life on the rebound. She has three kids, all preschool age, and she plans to home school all of them. And we talk quite a bit after services. I like the new Stephanie much more than the old Stephanie. Whatever she has been through these last ten years it must have been tough. It’s taken a toll on her. I haven’t pried into her personal life. But she seems to be the model mother and Unitarian Universalist now. In a strange way I’m glad real life wacked her around a bit. Now she is imbued with a depth of character that I personally appreciate a lot more than the right out of college Stephanie.

It’s probably good that I am seeing people from my past. In particular both Tim and Tom are critical links to a past that seems increasingly distant. Yet both were essential characters in my story, and perhaps I am in their story as well.

 
The Thinker

Crying in my bier for Microsoft … NOT!

Microsoft is beginning to cry uncle.

Admittedly this is a strange thing to hear from the “innovators” at Microsoft. But it appears they are starting to realize that their software is, well, massively overpriced. It’s not very good either, but that’s not something they are going to admit, despite almost daily press articles about the latest security holes found in their products. Their web server, Internet Information Server, is so riddled with security holes that you have to be more than a bit nuts to install it today.

Anyhow according to this article in its SEC filing Microsoft is warning its earnings may be lower in the future because of the growth of the open source movement. For those of you who don’t know, open source is software that is free of license and cost, and is maintained and written by volunteers. Microsoft is having a real hissy fit about open source software. They are calling it unreliable, which is hardly ever the case. They are calling it anti-American because no one is making a profit from it. (Not quite true. Open source software is often a platform upon which companies add value by creating customized packages that work with it. Oracle is laughing all the way to the bank.) They are even pressing for laws and regulations that would forbid governments from using open source.

This would be laughable if they weren’t so serious and were not stuffing so much money into the pockets of congressmen. Nonetheless many federal agencies have figured out that open source software is not only free to use, and of much higher quality than what can be maintained commercially, but can actually be inspected and modified. Yes, users can actually fix their own problems! What a concept!

The Microsoft approach is, of course, to make you pay for the privilege of talking to one of their technical support folks and maybe, if you are lucky, getting a patch or a work around to allow you to get things done. Release their code so you can inspect it and fix it yourself? Not a chance.

But Microsoft is beginning to understand it may not have a choice. European countries are looking at using open source software exclusively. The article I referenced above says that Microsoft has come up with a “Government Security Program”. This will allow governments like the United Kingdom to actually look at Microsoft’s source code and maybe fix things themselves.

Clearly it takes a lot of clout to get Microsoft to do something like this, and governments are one of the few institutions large enough to tell Microsoft to piss off.

As a federal employee working on information technology issues I can tell you that using open source software is a no brainer. Not that all open source software is great, but much of it is excellent and of extremely high quality. Even if it is unlikely that I personally will go in and inspect the software if an error is found, it’s easy enough to hire people or a service that can do this if needed. But the main reason open source is a no-brainer is because you are no longer locked in to a vendor. No or low cost, higher quality software, and the ability to actually make permanent fixes sounds like a winning combination to me. Open source is creeping into my agency. We have some Linux machines. Some of our software is written in PHP, an open source scripting language. We also have a comments database written in Perl. Our Linux web servers, for some reason, don’t seem vulnerable to so many security flaws.

I’ve been playing with open source software for a few years now. It’s amazing what is readily available for free. On one domain I put up a free content management system. When it no longer suited my needs I replaced it with an even better free content management system. On a forum I run, I am using phpBB bulletin board software. It works great. And I’ve been able to do in and tweak it to do things I want it to do. This blog software is not quite open source, but it is free to use for personal use. And it’s easily inspected since it is written in Perl. And if Moveable Type no longer suits me there are plenty of quality open source alternatives I can choose instead.

I doubt Microsoft will go into bankruptcy court. But if they fail they will have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile I sense that their desktop monopoly is likely to crack in the next couple years. The software is there to do away with Windows and its whole Microsoft Office suite. It’s free and programs such as Open Office work seamlessly with Microsoft Office. I would not be surprised at all if Microsoft realized Windows can’t be viable operating system much longer. Perhaps like Apple they will build a new Windows around a solid Unix interface. I know I would be happier. At least my computer is more likely not to crash and work predictably.

Karma seems to work on many levels, including the corporate level. Microsoft: beware. What comes around goes around.

 

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