Kai-Fu Lee and me

For the summer of 1987 I had two programming internship job offers. One — the one I accepted — was from Nathaniel Borenstein, who’d been my professor for a comparative programming languages course and liked my take on the design for an e-mail filtering language, which is what the school’s Information Technology Center (ITC) would pay me to implement. The other was to work on a speech recognition project with a different Carnegie Mellon researcher, Kai-Fu Lee. That project had a strong artificial-intelligence flavor, which appealed to me at the time; but after a semester as Nathaniel’s student I knew and liked him, whereas I’d met Kai-Fu Lee only once, for the job interview. That meeting was cordial enough, but I went with the known quantity and the rest is history.

I next heard of Dr. Lee in the 90’s, when he was a senior researcher for Microsoft. He made headlines when he fled Microsoft for Google — just as I did a few years later.

Now comes the news that Kai-Fu Lee is leaving Google. That’s too bad for Google, but at least we still have Al Spector — who was Nathaniel’s old boss and mine at the ITC!

You can’t spell leisure without (some of the letters in) socialism

The future, as seen from the 1920’s through the 1960’s, was one in which automation of ever-increasing ubiquity and reliability would liberate humans from every manner of drudgery: cooking, cleaning, driving, working. Thus liberated, the “permanent problem” of humanity, as celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930, would be “to occupy the leisure” time that would be the inevitable result of consistent technological and economic progress.

Well, here we are in the future, and in spite of a conspicuous dearth of hovercars and Mars colonies, things are indeed fantastically more automated than they used to be. Those of us old enough to remember changing typewriter ribbons, getting up from the couch to turn the channel knob, and painstakingly placing the tone arm in the shiny stripe between songs would never go back. Cars aren’t driverless — yet — but some of them do unlock when their owners approach, and some of them tell you when you’re about to back into the car behind you. Robots vacuum your floors. Satellites tell you how to get from point A to point B. And don’t forget the Internet, which allows you to shop, work, communicate, renew your driver’s license, look up airline schedules, and be informed and entertained without ever leaving the house, licking a stamp, picking up the phone, or indeed engaging any muscles north of your elbows.

And yet, I don’t know about you, but figuring out what to do with our copious leisure time doesn’t appear to be the problem of anyone I know.

Here in the era of Google and PDF files I am much more productive than I ever could have been in the bad old days of filing cabinets and mimeograph machines, and the same is true for pretty much everyone else, everywhere in the developed world. And after various innovations or outright revolutions in manufacturing, construction, supply chain management, materials science, agriculture, finance, chemical engineering, electronics, and plenty more, the cost of meeting our basic material needs is much less than it used to be.

So at first glance it seems like there should be lots more slack in our economic system, and that we ought to be able to distribute that slack to the benefit of everyone.

But when robots displace thirty percent of a factory’s labor force, the increase in productivity does not result in a life of leisure for the workers that were sent home. They’re just plumb out of work. When simpler delivery systems for news and for classified advertising come along, employees in the crumbling newspaper industry don’t kick back, job-well-done, satisfied at achieving their own obsolescence.

The investment blogger Brad Burnham recently pointed out that “Craigslist collapsed a multibillion dollar classified advertising business into a fabulously profitable hundred-million-dollar business” — an example of a phenomenon common enough to have a cool new name: the “zero-billion-dollar business.” Herein lies the problem that seems to have escaped the mid-century futurists: when dramatic efficiencies arrive in an industry, lowering its overhead, that industry doesn’t suddenly become more profitable, pocketing the difference between the new lower costs and the same old price for its goods and services, able to retire its laid-off laborers with cushy pensions. No: the industry passes the savings along to you, the consumer, according to the inexorable pressures of capitalism. Any company that didn’t would find itself undercut by its competitors. As a result, the entire industry deflates, occasionally to the vanishing point: witness the fate of horse-drawn buggies, ice vendors, and more recently, consumer-grade photographic film.

Disruptions like these are great for the majority (else they wouldn’t happen) but disastrous for those who become idled by them. In the past, the people affected would slowly filter into new positions elsewhere, but as is often observed, we’re living through a period of accelerating innovation and upheaval. It’s possible that entire job categories are disappearing faster than the remaining ones are able to absorb the jobless, and if we haven’t quite reached that tipping point yet, chances are good that we will soon. Technology and the enhanced productivity it brings means society is learning to get along — thrive, in fact — with far fewer people working, period.

Which begs the question: is this kind of progress ultimately good for humanity? Yes, it lowers the cost of our material needs, increases abundance, and lengthens and improves our lives, but only for those who remain employed and can afford the fruits of progress.

Take this trend to a plausible extreme. When driverless cars are perfected, there will be no more need for bus, truck, and taxi drivers. A coffeemaking robot in my office portends the demise of the barista. Voice recognition keeps getting better and keeps putting phone operators out to pasture. The postal service appears to be at the beginning of what promises to be a lengthy contraction.

It’s not hard to imagine a future in which only a small fraction of the eligible workforce is actually needed to do any work. Is the resulting wealth destined to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands? What will the rest of us do?

In our march towards a shiny future of leisure we have overlooked one important ingredient, probably because it’s been taboo even to mention it. In a 2,500-word article about the world to come, written soon after the 1964 World’s Fair (which depicted that future temptingly and convincingly), and not coincidentally at the height of the Cold War, Time magazine glosses over the missing ingredient almost completely, giving it just three words at the beginning of this remarkable sentence (emphasis mine):

With Government benefits, even nonworking families will have, by one estimate, an annual income of $30,000 — $40,000 (in 1966 dollars).

(That’s about a quarter million today.)

That’s right: at the same time that Americans were getting worked up about the Red Menace, ironically they also embraced (without quite thinking it through) a vision of the future that depended fundamentally on socialism — the redistribution of wealth, by government, from those whom society needs and rewards to those whom it doesn’t but who stubbornly continue to exist.

Unfortunately, even as we’re headed towards a workerless society that will depend more and more on government assistance, we are abandoning our traditional values about civic responsibility and the common good. We are becoming a nation of selfish graspers who by and large would rather demonize the unemployed than provide for them (even if we could afford to, which isn’t at all clear). Too many Americans are opposed in principle to any form of welfare, even though it’s right there in the Preamble of the Constitution, even though they rely on social programs themselves, knowingly or not.

These folks cling to two soundbites from the 1980’s — “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” and “Greed… is good” — in lieu of any reasoned philosophy. An entire generation’s worth of politicians and civic and religious leaders have built their careers around these empty ideas, all but precluding rational debate on the subject, a debate we desperately need to have. We are barreling towards that efficient, workerless future, that’s for certain. But when the merest suggestion of government assistance prompts mobs to equate President Obama with Hitler or Satan, what hope is there that that future will even be livable?

What’s in a number, part 2

Gay-rights activists everywhere are abuzz with political strategy in the wake of last week’s decision by the California Supreme Court to uphold the ballot measure, Proposition 8, in the face of a challenge to its constitutionality.

I admit I’m a little confused. Proposition 8 was clearly flawed, but why do gay-rights activists in particular care so much about a mildly hysterical attempt to keep drugs out of K-12 classrooms, toughen teacher credentialing standards, and reduce class sizes? Besides, even though it was a long time ago, I seem to recall that measure failing at the ballot box, so what is there to uphold, and why all the furore now?

Ohhh… it’s the Proposition 8 of 2008 that everyone’s buzzing about, outlawing gay marriage; not the Proposition 8 of 1998. Well that explains everything…

…except why California has two Proposition 8’s. I arrived in this state in time to vote on propositions 152 through 154 (and to choose Bill Clinton as my party’s candidate). I still remember the controversy over Prop 187 a couple of years later. Even today people still refer to 1978’s Prop 13 as shorthand for the state’s constant budgetary woes. For decades, California’s ballot initiatives were numbered sequentially, which meant that important propositions, which were occasionally burdened with awkward titles (“Permanent class size reduction funding for districts establishing parent-teacher councils; requires testing for teacher credentialing; pupil suspension for drug possession”), had a unique, handy-dandy built-in nickname.

Until 1998. In the primary election that June, voters weighed in on propositions 219 through 227. Then, unaccountably, the numbering system reverted to 1 for the November ballot, started at 1 again in 2000, counted sequentially for a while, then rolled over to 1 once more in 2008 after reaching only 90 in 2006.

I know California’s education system is badly broken (thanks, most agree, to Prop 13 — the 1978 one), but really, I think most voters can count at least a little higher than 227.

(Previously in inexplicable innumeracy.)

A much better George W.

Speaking of presidential inaugurations, it was only a few days ago that we were deeply moved by watching America’s latest one; and then last night we watched the very first one — that of George Washington, also very movingly staged, in the HBO miniseries John Adams.

The kids have been clamoring to watch each new episode of this enriching and educational show, which we pause often for discussion. They love it! How lucky am I?

Once in a lifetime

This morning we woke up a little earlier than usual. I sent e-mail to Jonah’s teacher saying he’d be late to school. We ate breakfast, piled into the car, and drove to 142 Throckmorton, a theater in downtown Mill Valley. The sky was blue and the bright sunshine made it too warm for the jackets we wore. Inside the theater were old hippies, young families, and teens gathered to eat pastries, drink coffee, and watch Barack Obama take the oath of office. On the screen at the front of the theater, C-SPAN showed the activity on the steps of the Capitol and the throngs packed onto the National Mall. The crowd cheered for Bill Clinton and booed for Bush and Cheney. We took our seats, Jonah on my lap, Archer and Andrea beside me. Obama appeared and the kids began to cheer without any prompting. The audience rose to its feet for the first of several times. We watched the ceremonious proceedings with our arms around one another, exchanging frequent smiles. Andrea and I cried. Obama was sworn in; the place erupted with jubilation. He delivered his speech. The kids asked questions; we explained. Many times, a phrase spoken by Obama was answered with a heartfelt “Yeah!” from one person or another in our audience. “We will restore science” — huge cheers. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” — huge cheers. Afterward: catharsis, hugging, strangers congratulating one another, and as we filed out, an impromptu drum circle on the street.

It meant more to me than I can express to watch this inauguration with my sons in my embrace, all of us appreciating the historic importance of the occasion. It is for them, after all, and for their adorable counterparts Malia and Sasha, that President Obama and I must fix America.

Moon type

I saw somewhere that today is the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, inventor of the Braille system of writing for the blind. As his legacy can easily withstand a little friendly competition, I figured it’s a good day to mention Moon Type, the little-known alternative to Braille.

Tell it like it is

In the same sally through the encyclopedia that uncovered Moon Type, Chuck discovered in the entry for “warthog” this caption beneath an illustration: “The warthog is one of the world’s ugliest animals.” This tickled us no end, but a year or two later when the library got an updated edition of the encyclopedia, we were even more amused to see that the same illustration now had a more scholarly and much less colorful caption, along the lines of, “The warthog can be distinguished by its tusks.” We delighted in imagining the outraged protests from some Warthog Appreciation Society that resulted in the politically correct change.

My friend Chuck discovered Moon Type in seventh grade while browsing through a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia in the school library. Developed around the same time as Braille, its alphabet consists not of raised dots but of simplified, recognizable letterforms.

The Moon Type alphabet
(lovingly rendered by yours truly)

Chuck and I decided that Moon Type, as obscure and yet as simple as it was, was ideal for passing coded messages to each other. We committed it to memory and used it thereafter from time to time when we desired an (admittedly light) extra level of security on our written communications — which consisted mostly of jokes, plans for world conquest, and not-fit-for-publication commentary on our female classmates.


On one dismal occasion, that extra security failed memorably. Chuck and I were at the apartment of my girlfriend Andrea (not the Andrea that I married). Andrea’s parents were out of town and I was hoping Chuck would get the hint about giving us some privacy. I wanted to use this perfect opportunity to advance with Andrea to, shall we say, a less consistently frustrating level of physical intimacy. We were having a grand old time, the three of us, but when the hour began to grow late and Chuck was still hanging around, I decided to pass him a coded message — coded once with Moon Type, and coded again by being worded obliquely in case of interception. The message was, “book.” I expected Chuck immediately to apprehend its slang meaning, which we sometimes used, of “leave” — and to be unoffended by the request, and to comply at once while making it look like leaving was his idea, as demanded by the Guy Code.

Unfortunately for me and my hormones, all of those expectations were wrong. I handed him the folded piece of paper behind Andrea’s back. Of course Chuck deciphered the Moon Type immediately — this was in tenth grade, and by now we had been using Moon Type for years. But our usual ability to know just what the other was thinking left him just then, and he said to me in a puzzled voice, “Book?” I tried to shush him and to clarify my intent nonverbally, but this only puzzled him more and he inquired again, within Andrea’s hearing, as to what I could have meant. Now she grew curious too. Ignominiously I tried to change the subject, and then (when that failed) to pretend I’d been trying to remind Chuck about a book he’d borrowed from me, but then why would I have written a coded message about it? Suddenly Chuck got it — “Oh, you want me to leave!” — and he got huffy, and Andrea got pissed off, and that was the end not only of that evening but of all future attempts to, ahem, “advance” with her.

At the time it felt like a disaster for my relationship with Andrea, and indeed it was; but I didn’t realize then that the lasting injury would be my guilt about having offended Chuck, my best friend. In the many years that have passed I doubt I ever apologized to him for it, and though I’m sure in hindsight he considers this incident to be minor and excusable by the ordinary cravenness of teenage boys, I still feel like I owe him this public: “Sorry, man!”

The Sue-S-of-A

I’m on a mailing list where, earlier today, a discussion arose about patents, the lawsuits they can spawn, and whether the great early American inventors had to contend with anything like today’s legal environment. One participant made an offhanded comment about “200 years ago, before society became so litigious,” and so I emerged from the woodwork to write the following.

Oh yay, someone triggered one of my favorite rants.

Though it’s common to hear people say so, it’s not true that our society is qualitatively more litigious now than it was in some halcyon past. Americans have been suing the pants off each other since even before we were Americans. A notable feature of colonial America was the litigiousness of its people compared to their British counterparts. (Indeed, compared to all the rest of Christendom.) And though it’s easy reflexively to decry this aspect of American society, I would like to persuade you that this is actually the very root, or at least a reflection, of American greatness.

What does it mean for a citizenry to be litigious? Does it mean that they have more grievances against one another than elsewhere? Almost certainly not; neighbors have had the same complaints about each other throughout recorded history. Does it mean they’re more vindictive toward one another? More spiteful?

No. It means that when disputes arise, even the lowliest commoner has such faith in the law and such equal access to it that he readily turns to the courts for redress. Not to individual reprisal. Not to generational vendettas. Not to local strongmen. The law. In America the courts are and always have been accessible to everyone who wishes to bring business before them. This was not true in 18th-century England and is still more true in America than in most other places. So when Americans disagree and can’t settle the difference themselves, they sue each other, and they trust the justice that’s dispensed, and they abide by it, and it’s the very height of civilization to do so.

Obviously it’s better when people can work things out themselves, but they can’t always. What better next step is there (when the issue is not frivolous) than to sue? Why must there be such a strong negative connotation attached to it? It’s your right to sue that keeps honest those people who might otherwise have inordinate power over you: your doctor, your accountant, the makers of your car, of your food, the executives of companies in which you own shares, etc.

We’ve been convinced to equate the right to sue with frivolous, wasteful lawsuits that line the pockets of greedy litigators. It’s only because of that association that we think nothing of routinely waiving that right. It is now ubiquitous for corporations to insist on binding-arbitration clauses in contracts with individuals who are all but powerless to negotiate them away. This is as un-American a practice as I can imagine and I urge everyone to agitate against it.

8/8: lines about a 44 woman

It’s 8/8/08, the day Julie Epelboim would have turned 44. 4+4 is 8. 44 is half of 88. Julie was born on 8/8/64, and 8×8 is 64.

I mention these things not to be glib about my friend who succumbed to cancer at age 36 (which is 44 minus 8), but because she would have taken delight in these simple number patterns. I still remember how excited we were when she turned 24 (which is 8+8+8) on 8/8/88.

Yes, we were nerds, but that was the whole point. It was my great good fortune to befriend a smart, sexy girl who was actually attracted to math nerds. What would I have done otherwise?

It happened like this. When I arrived in Pittsburgh I was three hundred or more miles away from everyone that I knew, the state’s motto — “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania” — notwithstanding. I spent a few days envying the busy social life of my roommate Joe, who was a Pittsburgh native. Classes had not yet really gotten underway and there was little to do other than attend a few orientation events, buy textbooks and supplies, and feel lonely.

Finally I set out for campus one afternoon with the specific intention of making some new friends. Pretending to be confident, I spotted a group of freshmen chatting in the student center, listened in on their conversation, and broke into it at the first opportunity. One of the freshmen was Julie; another was David, her brand-new boyfriend. A third was Julie’s roommate Michelle, whom I dated for a couple of months. For a while, she and I and David and Julie were an inseparable foursome. Later, Michelle was out of the picture but David, Julie, and I continued to have adventures together of various kinds.

Time passed. I’d come to Carnegie Mellon to learn computer science, but after three semesters I still hadn’t had any computer classes. (I’d aced the first-ever Computer Science AP exam in 1984 and so placed out of CMU’s introductory courses.) So by the fall of 1985 my interest in school was almost nil and my grades showed it. I was placed on academic suspension! I remained in town, though, taking a class and a part-time job at the University of Pittsburgh down the road and keeping in touch with my friends. During that time I contemplated a career as a writer rather than as a computer scientist, and in fact I applied to transfer to Hampshire College, a liberal-arts school in Massachusetts.

But then two things happened. First, David and Julie, still together after more than a year, had hit a prolonged rough patch in their relationship. Julie started spending more of her time with me, her oldest other college friend. Suddenly, thanks to the magical power of alcohol, one night we were fooling around, and in the following days and weeks we kept it up. I hated cuckolding my friend but it was just what I needed.

Second, thanks to spending more time with Julie, I was exposed to Carnegie Mellon’s first wave of non-introductory computer-science courses, which she had finally reached. I helped her often with her homework. By the time I heard from Hampshire College admissions — my application was approved! — my enthusiasm for computer science had returned with such vigor that I was able to talk the dean into ending my suspension a semester early. That fall I was a CMU computer science student again and kicking academic ass.

Julie helped to ensure my life turned out the way it has in a variety of ways. Getting me back into computer programming was one. Being the reason I met Steve — my friend, frequent co-worker, and future business partner — was another. Her perspective on the world — she’d grown up in Moscow, which was unspeakably exotic to me — broadened my narrow one.

None of which is to overlook her other important contribution to my future: in a word, sex. Andrea won’t like my recalling this so publicly (or, really, at all), but the fact is that if it hadn’t been for Julie, then by the time I met Andrea I would still have had too many wild oats left to sow. We could never have built the life together that we have.

In fact I started becoming friendly with Andrea around the same time that my friendship with Julie was winding down — that same summer of ’88, when Julie turned 8+8+8, we all graduated, and she made plans to leave Pittsburgh for grad school in the fall. (By then I was employed by CMU and remained for another four years.) On the one or two brief occasions that their paths crossed, Andrea, sensing my fondness for Julie, regarded her askance. (Andrea’s dog, Alex, must have picked up on her coolness toward Julie, for when Julie made a surprise visit a couple of years later to attend a housewarming party we were throwing, Alex — who loved everyone, sometimes to a fault — immediately began snarling at her!)

More time passed. Julie got married, had a son, earned a doctoral degree. Andrea and I moved to California and had our own adventures. I remained in occasional e-mail contact with Julie; once in a while we’d forward one another something funny from the web, or something nostalgic, such as when someone else had the idea of naming a computer matchmaking service “Yenta.”

I think it was late 1999 — when Andrea and I finally got married, incidentally — that I learned Julie was having some medical problems, apparently a complication from the Crohn’s disease she’d suffered most of her life. When I corresponded with her again a few months later I was dismayed to learn her problems were continuing. By the fall of 2000 she was fighting a major cancer battle. To her lasting credit, Andrea urged me to visit Julie in Maryland where she was hospitalized in an ultra-sterile cancer ward getting powerful chemo treatments.

I spent a few days chatting with her, reading to her, running errands for her and her family, removing myself when the doctors wanted to practice medicine on her or when the drugs — Gemzar and Taxotere, I somehow remember very clearly — made her too sick to tolerate company.

She was brave and in good spirits but confided in me toward the end of my visit that she didn’t think she’d win the battle. By that point she’d been released from the hospital, I’d helped her family get her settled back at home, and I thought things were looking up for her. Her flat self-prognosis frightened me, so I put on a brave face, pooh-pooh’d her pessimism, and promised her what ongoing support I could.

After I got back to California I sent her a postcard or a letter about once each week on any random subject to keep her connected with the living world. The then-current Florida election struggle was a frequent topic. After a while I started to get miffed, in spite of myself and of knowing what she was going through, that she hadn’t sent a reply — hadn’t even dictated a postcard — even once.

On January 13th I got a call from David. Julie and her family had traveled to Mexico for some promising cancer treatment that was not yet FDA-approved, so not available in the U.S. While there she slipped into a coma from which she never awoke. She was dead.

The news knocked the wind out of me. I spread the news to some friends and they were likewise crushed. I sent these condolences to Julie’s parents, whom I’d known and admired for almost half their daughter’s life:

The last communication I had from Julie was when she left a very garbled (because of cell phone interference) message on my answering machine around Thanksgiving. I couldn’t make out much of what she said, but it sounded like she was calling the people she felt thankful to have in her life. That message, and some of the things she said when I visited her, make me feel certain that, though she had to endure a terrible ordeal, she knew she was surrounded by many people who loved her. She was thankful for my friendship — and I was only the least of a generous phalanx of very supportive friends and relatives.

Julie should have had a much longer life, but it seems to me she could hardly have hoped for a better one. She enjoyed academic and professional success; had an amazing family and true friends who genuinely cared for her; raised an incredible little boy who has wit, intelligence, and a disposition far beyond his years; and had lots and lots of fun.

Julie was my companion during the time in my life that I was growing from a provincial, pretentious kid into a mellow, mature adult. I learned a lot from her and remain surrounded by numerous reminders of how she helped me to become who I am. In a very real sense, she left a part of herself with me, and as long as I’m drawing breath, that part of her will live, too.

It’s hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, before Revenge of the Nerds, the old stereotypes about nerds were largely true: socially inept, unworldly, preoccupied with abstractions and fantasy. Julie was the first person I’d ever met who had one foot in that world — we debated Star Trek and played Rogue together — and one in the world of finer things: good food (we dined out many times on her aunt’s credit card), poetry (in high school she’d written a truly affecting love poem to resemble a program in the computer language BASIC), animals (her cat won awards at purebreed shows), but mostly other people. Today most “computer nerds” can probably be said to have a greater, healthier breadth of interests than in the past. I certainly do. Julie was the prototype.

Matchmaker, part 2

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Matchmaker

Shortly after arriving at college and resisting the lure of fraternity life, I found myself wanting to participate in some organized student activity and so joined the school’s entrepreneurship club. I had the idea that if my computer dating “booth” had been a success in high school despite the small student population, their sexual immaturity, my crappy questionnaire and slow software, and the technical problems I’d had, it should be easy at college to improve on all those problems and repeat that success — and this time, I could make money from it.

(I spent more time thinking about business schemes [and girls] when I got to college than I did about my schoolwork. One idea was for a service that would deliver food from local restaurants to starving students sick of the slop they served us at the Kiltie [“kill-me”] Cafe. My plan never got off the drawing board, but the time must have been right for that idea because within a couple of years, several cities had exactly that. It wasn’t the first time I had an idea that I didn’t capitalize on, and that others later did. Pittsburgh’s restaurant-delivery service was called Wheel Deliver. One of the agents who worked the phones there was named Andrea. “And today that woman is my wife.”)

I got to work writing a new version of the matchmaking software, this time in Turbo Pascal on an IBM PC, hundreds of times faster than the version that Chuck and I had written in BASIC on the Sol-20. My new friends David and Julie (yes, the same David and Julie) helped me to design the questionnaire. It was still two years before the birth of desktop publishing so everything was typewritten or hand-lettered. The master copy of the questionnaire was literally cut-and-pasted together from dozens of bits of paper.

I took some of my $300 budget and headed to Kinko’s, where I ran off reams of copies of the questionnaire and some teaser posters I had conceived as the ad campaign:

The name, Yenta, was taken from the matchmaker’s name in Fiddler on the Roof. I stapled those posters all over campus and managed to create some “buzz.”

Meanwhile I needed to find someone with a computer and a printer I could use when I set up the station for running off customers’ result lists. In 1984 those were still pretty hard to come by. I allocated another $50 as incentive and placed an ad on the campus bulletin board. The taker was a fellow freshman named Bruce, who took my $50, loaned me his equipment, and became a lifelong friend. (A few years later, I visited him often in the house he shared with my other friend, Steve. The house was divided into two apartments. One day on my way to visit Bruce and Steve, I met Andrea, the downstairs tenant. “And today that woman is my wife.”)

Once we had the needed equipment we ran off another batch of posters telling people what Yenta was and to check their campus mailboxes for questionnaires, to fill them out and turn them in by such-and-such a date, and to show up at the student center during certain hours on certain days to collect their match results, just five dollars for a printed list.

The response was good enough to require multiple miserable late nights of tedious data entry, which was all too familiar to me but new to David and Julie, who had become my equal partners and shared much of the burden. At the appointed times we set up Bruce’s computer in “Grey Matter” and served our customers. It all went very smoothly.

In the end, Yenta made a profit of around $900, which David and Julie and I split. It was the most successful venture in the entrepreneurship club that semester, and I parlayed my success into a date with the club’s president, a sophomore named Robin who was a Tri-Delt, a sorority about which I had heard some exciting rumors. The date was disastrous, however, which I guess you can take as a comment on the fallibility of computer matchmaking, sort of.

(To be continued…)

I want to suspend my disbelief

[This post is participating in South Dakota Dark’s X-Files blog-a-thon.]

I can’t resist a good blog-a-thon, and South Dakota Dark’s X-Files blog-a-thon, anticipating tomorrow’s release of the new X-Files movie, seemed as good as any. For the past couple of weeks I watched the date of the blog-a-thon approach and waited for a good idea to strike. By the time it began on Sunday, none had yet. And I don’t appear to be the only one — sad to say, the X-Files blog-a-thon appears to be even more sparsely attended than my “I Can Do It Better” blog-a-thon of a few months ago.

What can account for this? The X-Files was a major pop-culture phenomenon in its time. Was its time too recent? It takes a while to ferment a classic after all. Those who were fans while the show was on the air have long since moved on, finding no shortage of well-written, well-acted conspiracy/mystery/thriller/science-fiction shows. (I’m thinking particularly of Lost, whose jaw-dropping third season I just finished on DVD last night.) And it takes more than a scant decade for a new nostalgia-minded fan base to build.

As for myself, every time I tried to think of what to write about The X-Files, my mind kept drifting instead to The West Wing. Why was that happening? I think I know, and if I’m right, it doesn’t augur well for tomorrow’s premiere.

During the late 90’s, Andrea and I used to love sitting down and watching The West Wing each week. It took place in a progressive paradise where, even though the moneyed interests sometimes won — it was about presidential politics, after all, and dealt believably with moral and political dilemmas — at least the public interest was usually uppermost in the minds of the fictional senior officials.

Star Trek had nothing on The West Wing when it came to enticing visions of an enlightened possible future.

That all came to an abrupt end during a few wrenching weeks in late 2000. The real-life presidential election results were up in the air, hinging on voting irregularities in Florida. The bad guys gamed the system and bent the rules to get the count to go their way. The good guys, being too principled, didn’t put up enough of a fight. During those weeks there were reversals of fortune and counter-reversals and counter-counter-reversals. I was a wreck. I followed every development as closely as I could and each scrap of news flayed my nerves raw. Democracy itself was under attack, and everyone involved in the battle had a stake in the outcome — meaning there was no disinterested authority to help settle the matter reasonably, not even, in the end, the Supreme Court. That authority vacuum felt like a taste of anarchy; the election battle, a gang fight in a bad neighborhood where the cops never patrol. The bad guys won, democracy lost — and at once The West Wing went from uplifting, optimistic, educational entertainment to simple-minded, far-fetched wish-fulfillment fantasy. The very thought of watching another episode was almost too painful to bear. We did try a few times, but we weren’t entertained and we weren’t optimistic for the future. The show’s only remaining power was to remind us of the brutality perpetrated on our ideals and the ease and speed with which it had been done, and was continuing to be done.

I think something similar may have happened to X-Files fandom. After seven and a half years of George Bush, who could be entertained by the idea of a shadowy government conspiracy? Who would even find such a story remarkable? Our real-life news is a constant barrage of conspiracies and corruption taking place in broad daylight. Cigarette-Smoking Man, with his furtive ways, would be laughed out of the Bush administration! The Lone Gunmen wouldn’t be three weirdos in a basement shining light on official misdeeds, they’d be DailyKos! As for Mulder and Scully, if they wanted to keep their jobs at the FBI they’d have to accept assignments trumping up new terrorism fears, busting consumers sharing mixtapes, or cracking down on porn. (Hmm, that’s one Mulder might actually like.)

Well, there’s one thing that George Bush hasn’t managed to ruin, and that’s a good working relationship between two intelligent people with a lot of integrity and courage and a little sexual tension. If the producers were smart and made the movie be about that, then tomorrow’s premiere stands a decent chance.