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Entropy Gradient Reversals is just a couple days away from its first anniversary. Funny what stock we put in the accidental periodicity of our particular rock in its tireless circling of that big yellow star whose life-giving warmth and light, whose very gift of vision and the world's immediacy, is always eight minutes old. Other planets take much longer to make the annual pilgrimage; some far less. Mercury, for instance, has pretty much always operated on Web Years, but as the temperature there requires a level of sunblock not yet invented, no one has ever expressed much interest. Whatever; wish us a happy birthday. We are one.
Irrespective of the ultimately inconsequential nature of the occasion -- more probably because of it -- we feel it necessary to do something new, different, mark some kind of departure here. Or embarkation. For starters, we are going to drop speaking in the first person plural. The Royal We has become such an ingrained habit that this may prove difficult, but we are going to try. I am going to try...
Christ only knows why. But then, the same applies to having started this thing at the end of April 1996, which already seems about a thousand years ago. Here's how it happened.
I had been working at IBM not more than a few weeks before I was approached by this guy who was some kind of ranking individual in the company's corporate public relations machine. "I've heard a lot about you, Chris!" Already I was worried. He takes my arm and claps me on the back in that infuriating demonstration of patronizing paternalism that passes for camaraderie among "the guys." Why don't they just cop a feel of your crotch to see how big it is? "Whoa, nice set!" But that would be too overt. Instead they wink and ask if you've been getting any. More than you'll ever see, scumbag. So, you should be getting the impression from this that we were off to a great start.
He wants to do lunch sometime. Where have I heard this before? But in contrast to the usual case, we actually do lunch -- in the company cafeteria. Which, in this particular nook of the IBM empire, tells me everything I need to know about the company. Every time I walk into the place I get flashbacks of my elementary school lunchroom. Eisenhower is still president.
That's something else you probably don't know about me -- the other things being everything there is to tell, outside of what little you may have gleaned from reading EGR. In November, I will turn 50. As in: years old. Are you picking yourself up off the floor? Did you figure someone who wrote stuff this whacked could only be a precocious teen with a dysfunctionally large vocabulary? Well, the truth is that I'm pushing the final days of my fifth decade in this cosmic penal colony and -- would you believe? perhaps you would -- this trashy zine is the best I've got to show for it. But back to our IBM flack.
He says he understands I have a wonderful collection of contacts in the business press, as if I picked them up like interesting seashells on some remote postcard beach. Yeah, I said, I've run into a bunch of writers, what about it? And this was his opportunity to rhapsodize on the subject of the Fourth Estate and the marvelous things I could do for The Company with those connections. I had assumed this was among the (to be honest, rather mysterious) reasons IBM had hired me in the first place, so none of this came as any surprise. The stunner was what came next: that I was never, ever, under any circumstances to speak with any of these journalists again without, a) direct permission from himself, or b) someone official listening in on another line. And with that he folded his napkin, gave me a winning smile and a little punch in the arm and disappeared into the bowels of whatever organization this company can lay claim to in the misty senility of its twilight years.
Wow, I thought. That's really fucked.
More to the point, I was really fucked. Because for whatever twisted reason, and I really don't know what the reason is, I write. I have always written one thing or another. Once it was poetry, usually when I was so smashed I could hardly hold the pen and couldn't make out the next morning what I'd been trying to say. Sort of like the signatures on my bar tabs in those days. The bank would call to say they thought someone was forging checks in my name. Reeling, crazy, out of control. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
So to feed this penchant for connecting words into sentences and seeing what kind of paragraphs these sentences might lead to, I had gravitated to other writers in what they call the working press -- evidently to distinguish themselves from the non-working louts who litter their ranks. Language, as it transpires, is our only clue to many otherwise occulted truths.
But I was not a journalist myself. No, I was something far, far worse: a PR sycophant. I don't mind telling you about the acid, the drinking, the women -- there is definitely something to be said along these lines for never getting old, as seems to have happened to me while I was paying inadequate attention. But to admit that I was once in Public Relations... well, try to imagine how painful this is for me.
It wasn't like I had aimed for such a career. I didn't wake up one morning and say to myself, hey I've got it! I want to be a loud-mouthed asshole who goes around collaring innocent people to tell them about The Product! I want a plaid sports jacket and some really nice white bucks and, above all else, I want to play a lot of golf! It wasn't like that at all.
Instead, I wanted to be a knowledge engineer and monster Lisp hacker. At this distant remove from the heady days of AI's ascendancy, the allure may be a trifle difficult to grasp. But during the early eighties I stumbled -- literally in some cases -- into the innermost sancta of this priesthood and became instantly addicted to a particularly bizarre and virulent new form of raw intellectual power worship. This was not my initial target either, truth be told. What I really wanted to be was a rock star, more specifically Mick Jagger. Sadly, the job was already taken, not to mention that -- while I managed some reasonably decent blues guitar for a white boy and once even got stoned out of my mind with Buddy Guy's sideman, Luther "Snake" Johnson -- my sense of rhythm was definitely marching to a different drummer, and I was therefore forced to seek other career options. Artificial Intelligence seemed as good as anything, especially as earlier experiments in certain drug-assisted magickal rites had not entirely panned out as expected. Which is to say, they worked a bit too well.
Confused? If you know anything about Lisp, what we're doing here is opening parentheses, so to speak, many of which will no doubt wait forever to be closed. This came to be seen by many -- at least those not on the receiving end of Major Government Grants -- as the Non-Trivial Problem for AI. As the challenges to reasoning get more interesting, closure becomes what is technically known as a Total Bitch. Fair warning: this state of affairs is likely to continue into any foreseeable future, the opinions of Wired magazine notwithstanding, especially with reference to this little one-sided discourse we are having. So here's where things stand so far. EGR has anniversary coming up. How did EGR get started? IBM. How did I end up at IBM? Something vaguely to do with public relations. Yeah, and what about that? Well, it started out as an AI kinda thing, but that was really just displacement activity driven by despondency over the patent lack of viable arena-rock options. If this doesn't exactly clarify everything, believe me, you're not alone. Just be glad that EGR is a sometime thing for you; imagine living this 24 hours a day!
Anyway, I came back to the U.S. from Tokyo in 1985 after a couple years there. When the plane touched down in Portland I thought it significant that Aretha Franklin was singing Pink Cadillac into my headphones, something to the effect that the girls should pop the top (on said Cadillac, presumably) on accounta Papa was back in town. Not that I was any longer much of a threat along such lines, having been much chastened by the experience of the couple years preceding my self-inflicted exile to Japan.
She was blond, from Texas, liked the red lizard Tony Lama boots I bought her, the diamonds, the cocaine -- not necessarily in that order. She would say she was not that kind of girl. Trust me: she was that kind of girl. To be fair, I was that kind of boy, which is why the attraction was so mutual, so instantaneous. And so deadly. From the words alone, you'd think "meeting your match" was a good thing, right? God, she was beautiful. It still hurts to talk about it. As far as I know, she still lives here in Boulder, to which I just returned (for the third time) six months ago. Sometimes I think about picking up the phone. Sometimes I think about picking up a drink. But it's been 13 years in the latter case and 15 for Texas. In neither case is there any doubt what'd happen after the first few hits.
This sort of thing is sometimes referred to as a Valuable Learning Experience -- ranking right up there with not sticking your finger into electrical outlets. Some people just need to learn the hard way, I guess. But damn, the voltage was incredible!
Skipping lightly over the fact that this may be more than you really wanted to know, we now jump to Pittsburgh -- The Land That Time Forgot -- which is where I ended up mere days after Aretha's false prophecy in Portland. While Japan was in many respects enlightening -- everyone should have a chance to be suicidally deranged in a totally foreign culture where nothing makes any sense -- I had been itching to get back to the U.S. and into a red-hot AI startup. I understand that the logical progression of concepts may be a little thin here, but that's the way it was. And I got my chance in the form of an offer to work for Carnegie Group, a spinoff from the geeky University of similar name.
It is by now painfully obvious to many that none of this should have ever happened. I sassed my teachers in grade school. I dropped out of college. I dealt drugs to minors. I spent time in jail -- though not for that. I kissed the girls and made them cry (and not for that either). I have never been a Team Player. I do not Question Authority, I piss on it at every opportunity.
But it did happen. I ended up working for Larry Geisel, Carnegie Group's then-CEO, with whom I had interviewed six months earlier wearing blue jeans and a dirty sweatshirt well after midnight at the Imperial Hotel in beautiful downtown Tokyo. It's a long story which maybe I'll get into later as I unpack and expand the contents of these telegraphic parentheses. Larry is CIO today at Netscape. You could look it up. I owe this guy. He didn't know I had less than a year of white-knuckle sobriety under my belt at that juncture and was in fact crazier than your average shit-house rat. What he saw was that I could write. So he said, "We think you'd make a good director of corporate communications."
"Cool!" I said. I had no idea what he was talking about. If he had explained it in simple terms -- "You'll be our PR monkey" -- I would have bolted right there and maybe I'd still be at Fujitsu fixing broken English in badly translated documentation about reverse-engineered IBM mainframes. Or pounding 16-penny nails, my previous job before Japan. But he was smarter than that. He just said my first challenge was to write the press release on the Ford deal. "OK, just two questions," I said. "First, what Ford deal? And second, what's a press release?"
As I soon discovered, the Ford deal involved a whacking big investment by that auto maker in artificial intelligence. Live and learn, eh guys? And the stuff I wrote played on Page-one Financial in The New York Times several days later. Oh, I thought, this is going to be easy! As fate would have it, it was five years before I hit the Times again -- a full page story on the Mars Rover robot, on which I worked with John Markoff for thirteen months. But very early on in those five years, a horrible realization struck me like a sharp blow to the head. I had somehow become... that's right: a PR guy!!!
This was brought home to me in the first conversations I tried to initiate with the press about the wonderfulness of Carnegie Group's approach to artificial intelligence (the exact nature of which utterly escapes me today). I would call some guy I'd never heard of at, say, Time Magazine, and start pitching him on whatever it was that was so exciting it just wouldn't keep. The problem was, I could hear the pitch too. It didn't sound very good. It sounded like telephone spam. And, I could tell by his slightly less-than-patient silence, the guy on the other end of the line thought so too. I remember this specific call because it marked a distinct watershed in my just-begun career as corporate flack. I can't do this, I thought after I hung up. It is sleazy. It is despicable. I will never make a call like that again. Ever.
Now if you are paid to "get ink" for a company, and that pay is your sole source of life-support, such a vow hardly constitutes a happy circumstance. This sort of predicament is often called being Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle, a reference to which astute EGR readers will remember from the homepage. The excuse I used for continuing at all was the same all-purpose rationalization you've likely used yourself in similar circumstances: I need the money.
Nonetheless, the vow had been serious, and I therefore needed to answer the Scylla-and-Charybdis conundrum of how to keep both my job and what little was left of my self respect. Having had some Zen-ish sort of meditation training -- this was during the worst days of my alcoholism; don't worry, it's a Tantric thing -- I used this to good effect in solving my problem. And it went like this. I would get furiously working on my media database and wait until my mind was a complete blank. As I maintained this as a flat Emacs file on a Vax VMS system, I never had to wait very long. Then I would quickly grab the first number I saw on my screen, dial the phone and find myself voice-to-voice with some stranger -- and absolutely nothing to say. That sure took care of the spam-script problem in a hurry.
Yeah, uh, hello. My name is Chris, what's yours?
Charlie Smith. Look, what's this about? I'm on deadline.
I dunno. What's it like working there at Time? I just got back from Japan and everything seems kinda weird in the U.S. these days.
Oh yeah, what were you doing over there?
I was in the Japanese government's Fifth Generation Project for a while, and then I worked at a new lab Ricoh set up to study AI or something.
Really? That's interesting. Are those guys getting anywhere?
Nah, not really. It's a lot of bullshit for the most part. Making useless Prolog machines, faking results, the usual...
So what are you doing now? You're back in the States I assume...
I work at an artificial intelligence software company in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Group. Maybe you've heard of it...
No, but I'd like to chat with you sometime. Gimme your number and I'll ring you back when I've got this story about IBM and Microsoft put to bed. Man, this OS/2 thing is gonna be really big!
Sure, OK. It's (412) 555-1212...
And so on. Now this may not exactly seem a breakthrough in the history of human communications, but it sure beat what I was doing before, which was basically reciting a canned spiel. And the effect was almost instantaneous. I started having real conversations. In some cases, really interesting conversations. At first, this was with small fry: "Oswald Spengler's DARPA Policy Tracker" or "Case-Based Reasoning Report" or -- my personal favorite -- "Intelligent Command-and-Control News." Loser pubs like that. But later I got talking with real journalists at places like The New York Times, Business Week, Forbes and Fortune. The first thing that struck me was: hey, some of these people aren't half as dumb as they sound in print!
And I was writing too. Mostly stuff I was ghosting for Geisel, though it was a good collaborative setup. He'd tell me what he wanted to say about something like, say, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, then I'd go off and make up all this wild shit about how AI was going to save Business's collective ass. One day, as I was patching together one of these thumb-suckers, I wrote a paragraph that stopped me cold. Jesus, did I write that? I can't remember what it said, but it had fire, passion, and -- this was the kicker -- I actually believed it. Wow, I thought, and that was the end of the ghost writing.
Around the same time I also abruptly ended my dewy-eyed-groupie romance with AI and began overtly attacking the foundations of its know-nothing materialist catechism. The constellation of ideas and attitudes this precipitated -- think of it as The Birth of RageBoy® -- proved so spiritually cleansing I wondered why it hadn't occurred to me sooner. One piece I wrote in this vein was published in IEEE Expert, one of the journals chronicling the ever-upward advance of The Field, and could reasonably be inferred to constitute the proximate cause of an invitation I received shortly thereafter -- to seek employment elsewhere. I had been working as "Director of Industrial Relations" at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, and the guy I had so rabidly attacked in this article turned out to be CMU's star graduate in Computer Science. How was I supposed to know? Not that it would have stopped me if I had.
Then I wrote a bunch of other stuff, some of which is reprinted on my "other" page. I hope to God none of this smells of flackery. That was the whole idea: to keep earning a living doing public relations without ever doing any PR. It's complicated, but unless you're stupider than I suspect, you catch the general drift. (Just because I'm speaking in the first person doesn't mean EGR plans to drop it's patented Reader Abuse Programme®.)
So all this takes us back to the guy who just folded his napkin and departed our table in the IBM lunchroom, leaving me staring slack-jawed at his retreating back. The Desire for Revenge was a large emotion at that moment, as I recall. Because not only had I been forbidden to talk to the only interesting people I knew -- there sure weren't many among the business pukes I worked with -- but, by obvious extension, I'd been specifically enjoined by this visionary corporation not to write. I freaked.
You hear this stuff about authors going cold turkey if they can't write. Yeah sure, I always thought, what a total crock! But it turns out to be true. If you so much as get started with words -- c'mon, the first one's free! -- there's no end of the pain you're asking for. It must be an endorphin kind of thing, like runner's high. Of course, it's not like dropping 1000 mikes of Sandoz pharmaceutical -- but then nothing is. Sometimes it comes close though. Too goddam close!
What was I going to do? I could either cop, and write chocolate coated PR lies for IBM -- rather than do which I would have preferred to choke myself with a well-plied toilet plunger -- or I could just plain shut up. For a while, I tried the latter tack. I watched the Internet industry from the sidelines. I sat on my hands. I stifled my shouts with a dirty sock that I always kept handy for the express purpose. I tried. God knows I tried! But finally -- and inevitably -- I couldn't take any more.
I first achieved Total Cognitive Meltdown on the last day of April '96, though because of my political beliefs -- several degrees to the left of Kropotkin -- I prefer to remember this as May Day. I decided to start a newsletter and invited a slew of online friends to sign up for it. This invitation is still the first thing on the EGR website (if you don't count Alex). The intention was pretty straight at first. I would deliver my precious insights on The Online Industry to like minded people concerned with the development of the medium. But first I started Capitalizing Things and making snide asides -- and then there was the bit about aromatherapy salespersons and ritual axe murderers.
The response was amazing. Over a hundred subscriptions the first week! I was spooked at first, thinking IBM would find me out and the paychecks would precipitously cease. Then I reasoned with myself. What's your biggest complaint about this outfit? That nobody's online, except on those Neanderthal systems they've got running behind their 10-foot-thick firewalls. Well, what does this tell you? Hmmmm, you've got a point! They'll never find me on the web because nobody ever goes there!
For what it's worth, that's how EGR got started. After ranting for a year about Internet Cluelessness in all its multifaceted glory, I have no illusions about the impact of my work. Clearly the commercial world is finally realizing the error of its ways. That's why you see RageBoy® quoted so often in The Wall Street Journal.
Rather than keep on doing this though -- anything can get to be a rut -- I plan to write more on a subject I'm sure will be of enormous interest to you all: myself. Another reason for this change is that EGR, even though it is now pushing 1200 subscribers, is still woefully short of its initial goal of two million readers. This has so bummed me out that I've decided to retaliate once more, and this time to inflict Real Pain. If you've ever watched MST3K, and moreover understood the fundamental premise of the thing, think of yourself as Joel and me as Dr. Forrester. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just go away. In fact, that's the main idea: to end this whole Koyaanisqatsi thing by driving subscriptions back to zero. Then and only then will Life return to Balance. Then and only then will there be Rest.
The other reason of course -- just in case the above strategy is somehow unsuccessful -- is to amass a sufficient bulk of lurid autobiographical fodder that I can package into a book and hoodwink some publisher into making me filthy rich that way. Clearly, the Webzine Path is a total cul-de-sac.
So that's the new plan. Repent now! Only the Unsubscribers will be Spared.
Next time out in EGR -- RageBoy® on Jungian Tarot and Goat Husbandry: Casual Connection or Global Conspiracy? Until then, do like me and my personal buddy Al Gore...
Be A Good Citizen!
Entropy Gradient Reversals
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Entropy Gradient Reversals CopyLeft Christopher Locke firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.rageboy.com
"reality leaves a lot to the imagination..." John Lennon
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