Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dreams of Free WiFi Evaporate?

Years ago, after we spent a lovely afternoon catching up on our e-mail in Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, Bill proposed something called Wireless Woodstock, to broadcast WiFi throughout the village of Woodstock (which amounts to about four city blocks) and perhaps beyond.

Who would pay for it? Bill and others proposed various options, including support by advertising on the welcome page, or having a slower free service and faster pay service. But none of these things ever quite materialized. I always thought Wireless Woodstock was something of a Geek Gap victim: Bill had a great idea but lacked the suits skills of writing a business plan or marketing the idea to local businesses or governments enough to get it off the ground.

It may also have been too early to make that proposal: at the time there were no businesses in town that offered WiFi (now there are at least two, plus the library) and most people had not yet tumbled to how useful wireless can be. Woodstock would have been the first village in the U.S. to offer wireless everywhere.

Five years or so later, WirelessWoodstock is still on permanent hold, but other, much larger cities have started--or tried to start--much more massive free-wireless projects. And fallen victim to the Geek Gap in their own right.

In Philadelphia, a plan to provide free municipal wireless (especially to lower-income residents, along with some training) morphed into a low-cost plan after business interests forcefully attacked the offering as competing unfairly with their offerings.

Now comes the disheartening news that San Francisco, long expected to be a model for free Wi-Fi, is pusing back a controversial and much-delayed vote on a free (lower speed and pay higher speed) wireless plan because of hesitation from Earthlink, which was to have provided the service. San Francisco's plan ran into a host of objections based on privacy, health, the environment--you name it. It's hard not to suspect, though, that corporate interests providing Internet for pay might be behind some of the fuss.

It was a beautiful dream, wasn't it? You're in any large city in America, and you pop out your laptop or your PDA and right there, right then, you're online. No credit cards to enter, no monthly fee. Pretty soon, you won't even think about it, you'll just assume the Internet will always be there, no matter where you are, the very second you want it.

I still believe someday it will still come true.

Geek vs. Geek - Who's the suit here?

I love using Google search. It's my encyclopedia, my dictionary, phonebook, roadmap, medical info center, my source of any and everything I need to look up. Almost everyone I know, certainly all the geeks, use Google the same way. Google has always been very connected with the open source community, something I look for in any tech company.

So why is Jimmy Wales so worried about Google?

Wales, founder of Wikipedia and his for-profit company Wikia, is concerned that Google wields a bit too much control over too many things. In particular, he's worried about how much Google controls the Internet search business, which is why he's just acquired, through Wikia, the distributed crawler Grub from LookSmart. And he plans on making Grub available in open source.

He believes open source search tools like Grub will force Google to stay on its toes, and keep things honest. Grub functions via users who donate their computing resources towards a common goal, namely crawling websites to build an ever larger and accurate database for Internet searching.

It's true that open source approaches to operating systems like Gnu/Linux have made Microsoft more than a little worried, and pushed it into making somewhat better deals with competitors than the Seattle Bomber Balmer might have wanted to make. Not that it's made Microsoft any more ethical in its business practices, but at least it lets the company know that there are alternatives for computer users, and if it goes too far, then it can hurt its bottom line.

Monopolies need a little fair competition to keep them at least pretending to be honest. And that's why Wales says he's taking on Google's dominance in the search realm, pushing the underlying message that it's now somehow on the "dark side" and he's leading the forces of goodness and light, so he can free Internet search for the masses.

“Search is part of the fundamental infrastructure of the Internet. And, it is currently broken,” Wales said back in December 2006. “Why is it broken? It is broken for the same reason that proprietary software is always broken: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency.”

Huh? So does this mean that Google is now one of the "bad hats" in the tech world? I don't think so. In fact, Google just seems to do it better than all the rest, which of course makes it a target. To my thinking, Wales and his company sound more like suits finding fault with the way geeks do business, and is using the open source orientation to attack the large and still growing Google empire. Earlier this year, Wales launched something called Search Wikia, and the Grub acquisition is part of that strategy.

“The other thing we’re looking to is some of the second-tier search companies,” Wales said in a Fast Company interview. “We’ve talked to–I can’t say who–different people, asking, would they be better off participating in a project that helps quality search results to become a commodity?”

So, there you have it. With Grub well in hand, Jimmy Wales is hoping to use the open source initiative to try to commoditize online search. Sounds awfully suit-like to me.

The Battery That Wouldn't Budge

Last month, Apple's iPhone launched to a more-than-usual amount of ballyhoo.

This month, Apple faces a class-action suit over what is undoubtedly the iPhone's most controversial feature, or non-feature: the fact that its battery is sealed in place.

The sealed battery compartment makes the iPhone no different from the iPod, a product that has achieved enviable dominance over its category. But it does make the iPhone different from most other mobile phones. Because sending and receiving radio waves drains power quickly, mobile phone batteries get more of a workout, and therefore don't last as long, as MP3 player batteries do.

As a result, a whole generation of mobile phone addicts has become accustomed to opening the back, popping out the old battery that no longer holds a charge well, and popping in a new one in its place. It's simple enough, except the iPhone isn't made that way. The only way to change the battery is to send the whole phone to Apple and have them do it for you. If the phone is beyond its one-year warranty, the service costs about $80, plus another $29 if you want a loaner phone in the meanwhile.

The lawsuit turns on when and if Apple adequately warned customers about the non-changeable battery before the iPhone went on sale. But here's the question that interests me more: Why not have a user-changeable battery, and avoid all this fuss?

Apple itself isn't saying, but battery vendor ipodjuice.com claims that, as with the iPod, this was a design decision that allows the iPhone to be smaller and sleeker than it would be with a removable battery cover. Sounds reasonable, except we've all seen devices much smaller than the iPhone with removable battery covers, so the logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Besides, it's hard to see how a screw the size of a pencil point holding the battery cover in place could meaningfully add to the iPhone's weight or thickness.

I think the sealed battery cover reflects with Apple's overall marketing strategy, which centers on the Apple mystique. Part of that strategy is to deeply discourage customers from tinkering with Apple products in any way. (This philosophy is seen with scorn by geeks like Bill, for whom tinkering with things is what makes life worth living.) At the same time, Apple encourages its customers to keep in touch with Apple throughout the product's life, coming back for services, extra information, and anything else the company can offer to keep them connected.

The result of all this is to make owning Apple products something akin to belonging to a cult, a strategy that seems to be working. Last summer, my 13-year-old cousin Nathan came to visit us from Paris. He spent much of his time using the laptop we'd put in the guest room for him, so at the end of his visit, Bill offered to send it home with him as our gift. Alas, it was a Windows computer. "My father won't let anything but Apple products in the house," Nathan said sadly. Even though they really needed it: this family of five was stuck sharing a single computer.

Part of any good cult is mystery, and the less you can open something up and see what it looks like inside, the more mysterious it is. This is, I believe, the real reason for the sealed battery, and not some attempt to make a slimmer phone. Even something as simple as removing a battery can take on a mystical quality, and that mystical quality is what gives Apple a lot of its marketing power.

If you can get your customers to start acting like cult followers...well that's worth a dozen lawsuits, isn't it?

Monday, July 30, 2007

SunRocket Backstabs Customers

Why is it many geeks tend to mistrust the suits? The recent cut-and-run action of VoIP company Sunrocket could be a perfect illustration of why.

In case you missed the news, Sunrocket, Inc., the second largest VoIP provider, closed its doors, even shutting down customer service lines without even notifying customer service employees, and left over 200,000 customers hanging without a dial tone. Many of these customers had paid for a year in advance, so not only were they phoneless, but they were robbed as well.

According to the Sunrocket website, the company has "agreements" with two other VoIP companies which are accepting Sunrocket customers at a discount. The site lists a phone number to call. The only thing you get when calling the number, however, is a recording with the information of how to get in touch with the two "preferred" companies, Packet8 and TeleBlend. Sounds reasonable, yes?

Well, think again. All reports I've gotten about Packet8 service have been that the service is crappy, but even worse, TeleBlend is a brand new company that seems to have been started on the exact same day Sunrocket closed down, July 17th, and is suspected to be run by several former Sunrocket execs (scroll down to the bottom of that page). Evidently owned and operated by a Singapore based company named Unified Communications Corp., in fact when you go to the TeleBlend website and click the "About Us" link, it says nothing about Unified Communications. The only evidence that it is the parent company is at the bottom of the page, in the tiny print copyright statement. All very questionable at best.

So, from at least circumstantial evidence, it seems we have a company that took many thousands of customers payments for a year service in advance, which then without any warning shut down in bankruptcy, and all its monetary assets seemingly vanished. An almost identical company that started the same day the former company closed and is possibly run by the same weasels now offers the screwed Sunrocket customers the same deal all over again. So far, no one has gone to jail, and the money seems to be flowing along nicely. Is this a great country or what?

Now, what was the question again? Why do many geeks mistrust the business suits? :::shrug:::

Sunday, July 29, 2007

How Does Oscar Know?

I should apologize right up front, because this post is not about technology. Or business. It's about a cat, I'm sorry to say. But it's also about trying to figure out how things work, which is the essence of what geeks do.

Today, I read about Oscar, a two-year-old cat who has lived most of his life on the third floor of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Where he lives is not a particularly happy place, at least not for the patients there. It's a dementia unit, full of very elderly people with advanced disease, such that they no longer recognize their loved ones, or know where they are, or perhaps even who they are. Patients don't go home from units like this one. They are, in many cases, waiting to die.

This is where Oscar comes in. At some point, the nursing staff noticed that the cat was making rounds, just the way the doctors did, checking out each patient. Sometimes he would pick one to curl up next to. And when he did, it was a sure sign that this particular patient would be dead within a few hours.

So far, Oscar has settled in at the deathbeds of 25 patients, and the Steere House staff find his presence such a dependable predictor that whenever he curls up next to someone and stays, they call the patient's family and alert them that death is imminent. A local hospice agency has put put a plaque awarded to Oscar "for his compassionate hospice care."

Very amazing and very sweet, but I'm left with the question: how does it work?

I should begin by saying I'm convinced that Oscar is not unique in the feline world. Anyone who lives side by side with cats, as I have for most of my life, knows they have some abilities, especially sensory abilities, that can seem quite mysterious.

Some observers have suggested that the cat identifies the dying by smell, and this is certainly possible, but cats don't have a uniquely good sense of smell in the animal kingdom, though it's 14 times better than the rudimentary sense of smell we humans are left with.

I tend to suspect hearing: cats actually hear higher frequencies than dogs, and are finely attuned to the slightest changes in sound (which helps them catch stealthy rodents). Once when I was out somewhere, Bill was hanging out on our porch with our late lamented cat Truman. Truman was sleeping, but suddenly he jumped up, walked to the door and waited there expectantly. Nothing happened for a while, but after a few minutes, Bill heard a car in the distance, which proved to be my car. Truman must have recognized the particular tone of my engine compared to all other engines, and heard it when I was still at least half a mile away. Maybe there's some difference in the sound a dying person makes, in his or her breathing that Oscar can identify.

The other factor is that cats care. For whatever reason, cats are inexorably drawn to humans in in distress. Most people who live with cats have experienced having a bad emotional upset, or feeling particularly unwell, and having the cat insist on snuggling up to you. One standoffish cat who never ever jumped up on our bed spent an entire afternoon in bed with me, stretched out against my leg when I was laid up with a bad flu.

I'm not entirely sure what the explanation is for this either, but it leads to another possibility to consider: Maybe most animals can tell when a terminally ill human is about to die. Maybe cats are the only ones who respond such that we can tell that they know.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What's in that Sunscreen?

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

The above text has been falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut (at a mythical MIT graduation address) and--I just found out through the good graces of Google--is one of those Internet hoaxes. It never had anything to do with Vonnegut, but probably originated in a 1997 newspaper column by Mary Schmich.

Whoever first came up with it, it certainly seems like good advice. Recently I read a major women's magazine article all about how to care for your skin and the first thing it said was to wear sun-blocking moisturizer, and if you're not going to do that, not to bother doing anything else. Made sense to me. I bought some the next day. Been using it ever since.

Only now I wonder...what exactly is in that sunscreen?

It turns out sunscreen is one of the most popular uses for nanotechnology. Apparently one of the great things about nanotechnology is...you can make things really, really small. One of these things is zinc oxide particles, which spread on really well and are transparent, and are extraordinarily good at absorbing sunlight. All of which are highly desirable qualities in sunscreen.

The question is, do these nanoparticles operate differently from other particles? Research suggests they might. Nanoparticles can apparently enter the bloodstream if inhaled. There's no proof whether or not they can do the same by penetrating the skin, but it certainly seems like a possibility. What they do inside the body once they're there is another question, but some research suggests it might not be good for your body at all to have them roaming around.

So, should I fear my sunscreen? I just wish there were some group...maybe a government agency or something...that would investigate things like this and make sure products like sunscreen or blush or "lip paint" didn't contain tiny particles that might damage my cells and raise my risk of getting cancer. If such an agency actually existed it could investigate the use of nanotechnology and, at least until we know for sure what the health risks are or aren't, make sure products with nano-sized components were clearly labeled as such.

Of course, there is something called the Food and Drug Administration, and you'd think they'd be in the business of checking out these nanoparticles, but instead they're in the business of telling us not to worry about them.

The agency issued a report Wednesday saying it saw no need to worry about nanoparticles, or even label products that contain them. "At this point, we lack an ability to say that nanoscale alone raises safety concerns worthy of putting on the label," said Randall Lutter, the agency's deputy commissioner for policy.

In other words: What we don't know about can't hurt us.

Gee, I feel safer already. Don't you?

(Just in case you don't here's where to find an inventory of consumer products containing nano...)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Doing the Obvious

If you're a registered sex offender the social networking site MySpace has a message for you: "Don't come around here no more!"

Tthat's right, in a bold and surprisingly unprecedented move, MySpace announced two days ago it had decided to eliminate 29,000 users from the system because they were registered sex offenders. It had apparently dawned on MySpace that it might be a bad idea to have registered sex offenders socializing on its site with millions of teenagers. The service hopes other social networking sites follow its lead, according to a statement by Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam.

My first reaction: Well, duh. Does anybody out there think it's a good idea to have registered sex offenders interacting online with 14-year-olds, which is the minimum age for joining MySpace?

My second reaction: It's a defensive ploy. MySpace was sued earlier this year by parents of teens who were sexually assaulted by people they'd met on the service. Some bloggers at the time derided parents too preoccupied with their own lives, out of touch or lazy to take responsibility for knowing the whereabouts or doings of their own children. Not being a parent myself I feel unqualified to judge. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that just a few months after the lawsuit, MySpace suddenly felt inspired to take decisive action--to at least remove the most obvious of threats.

So now, if a child is sexually assaulted by a MySpace acquaintance, at least it won't be someone already well known to law enforcement officials to have that particular activity as his or her lifestyle.

If I were a parent, I'd feel safer already.

And that's really the point (and my third reaction): So what? Will kicking registered sex offenders off MySpace make it safe? Well, maybe marginally safer. And it's such a gimme it seems idiotic not to do it. But really, little has changed. Parents must be responsible for their children, and children must be responsible for themselves, whether they're wandering the pages of MySpace or the streets of Manhattan as I did when I was an adolescent.

I remember once a middle-aged man in perfectly clean clothes offering me money to come "stand guard" while he changed his pants because, he claimed, he'd spilled motor oil on them. I was about 11, and I knew better than to go with him.

And that's the bottom line. A child who doesn't know to view such invitations for what they are doesn't belong unsupervised on any urban street. Or on any online community, which is pretty much the same thing.

Technology We REALLY Don't Need - Take 1

I'm a guitar player, so please take my opinion with a grain of salt.

I think "air guitar" aficionados are sad, untalented losers who, instead of getting off their pimply butts and learning something about playing music, would rather pretend they're playing music. The fact that there's an "air guitar" championship just gives me cramps.

And now, we have this wonderful product - the Air Guitar Pro. Japanese toy manufacturer Takara Tomy has developed what they call a special "air guitar controller," essentially a plastic mock-up of the upper neck and head of a real guitar. The "player" presses chord buttons on its fretboard and then strums fingers across IR sensors in the neck, and it plays little noises simulating guitar chords. The Air Guitar Pro is available for around $22 and will likely never hit our shores. One can only hope.

Spokesperson for the World Air Guitar Competition, Bjorn Turoque (yes, folks, that's how it's pronounced) says that items like the Air Guitar Pro will not be allowed in the competitions, that they have "very strict rules" for the competitions. Yeah, I'm sure. God forbid they actually use a REAL guitar and actually PLAY something.

'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky.

Congress Promotes Resistance to Technology - Again.

Reading this "Listening Post" item (a Wired Mag blog) made me want to bang my head on the keyboard.

In a typically technophobic reaction combined with their continued kowtowing to the demands of the insane R.I.A.A. and their slimey pocket-picking lawyers, Congress is encouraging institutions of higher learning to attempt to block the use of P2P services, obviously without giving thought to:

1 - Whether there was actually good reasons to use file sharing,
2 - Whether the colleges could actually succeed in blocking them.

File sharing is used by some to, yes, acquire illegal copies of commercial software as well as music, but that's by far not the only ways P2P technology is used. Film companies regularly release trailers and teasers of soon-to-be-released movies on file sharing systems. Many perfectly legitimate software companies use P2P sharing to distribute their shareware or freeware. In particular, Open Source producers like Linux distros make great use of file sharing.

P2P file sharing is an efficient method of distributing anything digital. The downloads come through faster and from multiple sources, in the long run using less (NOT more) bandwidth overall than old style FTP up and downloads. It only seems like more bandwidth is used, because far more people are using it at a time. If the same numbers of downloads were being done via FTP alone, the bandwidth load would be much higher.

And as to their actual ability to block a determined P2P file sharer, well...maybe. They really try, and can stop the uninformed or incapable casual users, but there's a concerted group of far more talented techies out there who are addressing the problems of getting past a blocked IP. Here and here are a couple examples of ways a block can be defeated, and this is just after a few minutes googling. There's much more out there, and yet more to come, so stay tuned.

Congress, get your fumbling, ignorant thumbs off the Internet. If you can't get your cojones together enough to address the HUGE problem of corporate-sponsored spyware (you know, your big money sources and overlords), and at least declare it illegal, then go back to your quills and parchment and leave the technological decisions to the more qualified.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Filter Ate My Homework?

It had to happen eventually.

The law firm Franklin D. Azar & Associates was ordered to pay attorney's fees for opposing counsel when its lawyers failed to show up for a court appearance May 30. Why'd they miss their day in court?

Pornography was the initial problem. Or rather, the real or spurious offers of pornography that pour in every day to all active e-mail accounts. Enough of it was getting through that some employees of the law firm began complaining.

Of course, this is a familiar problem to most of us. Clever spammers who devote their lives to learning their way around spam filters, even if only 1 percent of their messages get through, are busily working at defeating spam detectors as quickly as programmers can write them. And so, even with a very good spam filter, you're still going to get the occasional e-mail assuring you that "You can make it bigger," or inviting you to collect funds for your dear contact in Nigeria.

Those who understand the technological world understand this ongoing battle. They might perhaps have suggested some ways that employees disturbed by the spam that got through could have filtered or lowered the incidence of spam on their individual computers.

But the partners at Azar & Associates apparently couldn't be bothered to learn these details--they simply insisted that their IT manager "do something." I imagine it as a Kirk-talking-to-Scotty moment: "I don't care how you fix it, just fix it! You have three hours!"

The IT manager fixed it by raising the security levels on the firm's firewall/spam filter. Only one problem: it also blocked the e-mail from the U.S. District Court for Colorado, advising the parties to a lawsuit of their court date. The judge in the case annoyed that he and the other parties had wasted their time, ordered Azar to pay up.

A higher court overturned the ruling, which I think is kind of a shame: the expense of having to pay the other side's attorney fees might have proved a good lesson in why it's important to understand technological issues--instead of just demanding that they disappear.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Debates: The Medium Is the Message

Well, tonight was a first: the first presidential debate with questions submitted by YouTube.

Democrats, of course, ever the most tech-friendly, were the ones to try this out. In a memorable moment, Mary and Jen in Brooklyn asked the candidates if elected, would they allow them to be married...to each other? (Yes, said Dennis Kucinich, the others waffled about civil union.)

The reaction to the whole Dem-Tube phenomenon from the rest of the media appeared to be: Big Deal. After all, as columnist after columnist pointed out, the questions did not go straight to the candidates, but were screened and carefully selected.

Of course CNN screened the questions. First of all, there were more than 3,000 of them, so for the candidates to have answered them all would have taken more than 12.5 days. And, undoubtedly, some of those questions were rambling, incoherent, inaudible, or violated FCC profanity rules. I once found myself listening to a low-budget late-night talk show where the host was working alone, and with no one to screen calls for him had to take whatever came in. In one case, the caller simply shouted, "Fuck You!" and hung up. You just never know what kind of stuff is going to come rolling in.

So, yes, there was a gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper was CNN. It was no different from the traditional town-hall setup in which a carefully assembled audience of "ordinary people" asking carefully rehearsed questions.

Except that it was. The press missed the point, which was not whether or not the questions were screened, but what the use of YouTube says about the whole phenomenon of social networking and people posting their own material on the Internet. The point is that YouTube in an incredibly short time has grown to become a major venue for political advertising and debate only because it is so popular. And the reason it is so popular is that it dramatically demonstrates that people are intensely eager to see, hear and know...each other.

The Internet is the ideal medium for satisfying this desire, and it's provided that satisfaction in increasingly sophisticated ways, starting with online message boards and chat, now with video over YouTube and webcams that let us watch places all over the world.

What next? Well, perhaps wireless will be everywhere and webcams will be everywhere and anyone who wants will be able to see, hear and directly talk to anyone else, in real time. We lead lives that are increasingly segmented--most people these days socialize with their co-workers, no longer their neighbors, so perhaps some of us yearn to break out of this segmentation and see what people we don't already know are actually like.

And that's the message here, for politicians: Americans yearn to see and hear from each other and they're using social networking sites to do it. We like those sites because they give us a sense of connection and a look at who the other people on them really are. The only way to make these things work as a political strategy is to find a way to do the same.

Medieval Greenland Vikings - Victims of the Geek Gap?

As Minda and I discussed in The Geek Gap, the concept of a destructive communication gap between the creators of a technology and the users of the tech is not restricted to modern times. One such possible group who suffered from this phenomenon is the Norse Vikings who colonized Greenland in the 11th to the 15th centuries.
They called it Greenland because it was a lush, wonderfully productive place in the 11th century, warm and perfect for farming. Grass for animals was plentiful, and huge schools of cod were in abundance. They colonized Greenland in the 11th and 12th centuries, growing to 3,000 colonists on about 300 farms in the mid-12th century.
But the climate began to change around 1150 AD, and the northern regions began to get colder, the summers shorter, and the winters harder and longer. By the 13th century the freeze really set in - the sea around the settlements began to fill with float ice, and then to freeze solid, causing the cod to migrate elsewhere. More than five centuries of colder weather decended on Northern Europe, and is today called the "Little Ice Age."
The Norse colonists found it harder to produce enough food, depending more and more on trade from home, while at the same time fewer ships made the ever more treacherous trip, and the Vikings began to starve. By the middle of the 15th century, Greenland was no longer the beautiful green place it had been, the lush grasses replaced by ice sheets, and the waters formerly teeming with cod were now frozen most of the year. After centuries of harsh winters and long periods of deprivation and isolation, the Vikings had died out in Greenland.
The really strange thing is at the same time the Vikings were starving and freezing to death, nearby settlements of Inuit tribes were thriving. Why would the same conditions cause vastly different results for these two cultures? The answer is - you guessed it - the Geek Gap.
The Inuit were master Arctic seamen and hunters, with weapons and methods honed to perfection over the millenia. Their harpoons were state of the art technology for hunting in the sea, with complex back-barbs, perfectly weighted shafts, and highly efficient delivery systems. This technology enabled them to successfully hunt and kill seals, walrus, and even the largest animals on the planet - whales. Their multi-layered system of well constructed fur clothing and igloo shelters made it possible for the Inuit to survive even the coldest weather.
By contrast, the Vikings hunting weapon of choice was a basic, crude spear, designed not as a hunting tool but as a weapon of war. While their spear was fine in hit-and-run raids on villagers, they were terrible at catching any kind of food. Their clothing was similarly designed to be used by a warrior, not a hunter. Warm for short runs into frozen towns to pillage, and light enough to allow for easy movement when fighting, but when it came to living for long extended periods in frozen climes, not nearly enough.
The big question that archaeologists ask is why, when the Vikings most certainly knew the Inuits quite well, didn't they learn from their obviously better equipped neighbors and survive? Unfortunately, it was the Vikings own pride that killed them.
They considered the Inuit to be lower beings, barely human, calling them "Kilinger" which means "ugly, little people" in Old Norse. They therefore did not respect or trust the Inuit, nor any of their methods, no matter how obviously superior they were. They simply couldn't bring themselves to use the Inuit technology.
In fact, the very superiority of the Inuit technology was what stopped the Vikings. How could they admit that these half-human, fur-covered savages were smarter, or better, at anything? Their mistrust, lack of respect, and probable loathing for anything not Norse made them blind to the technology that could have saved them. To be fair, I'm sure the Inuit had sufficient reason to not trust or respect the Vikings, so weren't in a big rush to help them out. The Inuit survived, and the Norse died out.
Real communication between cultures that could have saved the Vikings was not achieved, thereby keeping Europe unaware of the American continents for centuries, which would have vastly changed history.

"...And we'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere. And to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys."
----------Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gridlock v. Gridlock

One summer when I was in college, my boyfriend and I were walking home with my father from his 57th Street office. Along the way, we stopped into a drugstore for a few household items.

When we went into the drugstore, Midtown traffic was inching along, like on any other Friday afternoon in summer. When we emerged from the drugstore, less than ten minutes later, everything had come to a complete standstill. Drivers had turned off their engines. As far as we could see looking up and down Eighth Avenue, and across 60th Street, the streets were filled with cars that were simply parked where they sat.

The city had already begun using the term "gridlock" to refer to something its planners were worried about: the possibility that some relatively minor blockage could bring all traffic in the grid that is Manhattan to a halt. No one had seen the concept in action (perhaps I should say inaction) until that day. We walked the ten blocks home and saw traffic moving--slightly--at only one intersection, near Lincoln Center, where a squad of traffic cops was doing its very best to move things as quickly as possible. Everywhere else, the cars were simply frozen in place. What had caused all this, we found out on the news that night, was one brief bridge closure resulting from a chemical leak in a single truck. It was an object lesson in how fragile New York City can be.

"Gridlock" came to be used to refer to political immobilization as well, the kind that happen when Democrats and Republicans decide to dig in their heels rather than deal with a problem that needs solving. Such as the problem of global warming, and our dependence on a dwindling supply of fossil fuels, both of which are worsened when cars sit in traffic for hours, inching toward their destinations, as happens every day in Manhattan.

New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a "congestion tax" of $8 for cars and $21 for trucks that head into the busy heart of Manhattan (below 86th Street) during the workday. The idea would be to dramatically ease traffic in this part of town--which it undoubtedly would. But the plan was killed by the second kind of gridlock, as Democrats, displeased with Bloobmerg's past actions, all got together to stall the proposal till a deadline for federal aid for such initiatives had passed. Then they got together to discuss their own alternative proposal--which looks like it will include a "congestion pricing" initiative similar to what Bloomberg suggested.

The most benign interpretation is that these suits let their emotional need to exert their people-influencing skills override the problem-solving need that was in front of them. A more sinister interpretation would be that some wealthy corporations with a vested interested in having as many cars on the road burning as much oil as possible somehow exerted their own influence over the proceedings.

Of course, there's no way to know for sure. Meanwhile, the traffic on Eighth Avenue inches on.