2010 Archive


0. A Note at the Beginning

“A Note at the Beginning” is included in Ursula’s No Time to Spare

1. In Your Spare Time

“In Your Spare Time” is included in Ursula’s No Time to Spare

2. Miners and I-Pods

In Roger Cohen’s New York Times column on October 18, I read that a set of I-pods had been donated to entertain the thirty-three Chilean miners in their underground ordeal, but the devices were not given to the men, whose awareness of their situation and consciousness of one another might be crucial to their survival as a group. As Cohen put it, “The donated iPods were not sent down to the miners for fear they would prove isolating and break the life-saving camaraderie of ‘Los 33.’ Salvation can still depend on seeing those around you.”

This was interesting, this practical application of the idea that people absorbed in their electronic devices may be profoundly insulated from reality. Most of us admit that people talking on cell phones are thus insulated or isolated: They’re unaware, conscious only to a limited degree of people around them, cars on the street, etc. But denial is strong; the gross discourtesy of so many cell-phone users is condoned, there’s endless resistance to banning the use of cell phones by drivers. Have the Chileans a different view of all this? Are they a bit less complacent about what happens to us when we’re plugged in? I wanted to learn more — who sent the I-pods, but more importantly who decided that the miners were better off without them.

When I googled Chilean miners I-pods, I learned at once that it was Steve Jobs who sent the I-pods. But from the information I could find on the Net, it appears the gift arrived only after the men had been brought up into the light. All the stories are dated October 14, and each simply repeats the others. None of them is factually specific or adds any details, except for a couple that mention that PSPs, toys on which you play electronic games, were sent down to the men while they were still in the mine.

So I am left frustrated, as one so often is by the strange fragmentedness of news these days, and by a sense that the whole picture is out there somewhere but you don’t know where to go to get it. I’m reluctant to believe that a Times op-ed writer swallowed a hokey story whole, but I’d sure like to know where he got it; and whether the I-pods did in fact arrive while the miners were still underground but were withheld from them until they got out; and if so, who made the decision, and how they explained it.

— UKL 
24 October 2010

3. The Absent Silence

A year or two ago I was asked to review a novel by José Saramago, and in looking up facts about him on Google I found over and over the same quotation from him —

God is the silence of the universe, and man is the cry that gives meaning to that silence.

It’s from his Lanzarote journals, which aren’t available in English. He quoted it himself last year in one of his own blogs (translated as The Notebook). I wanted it again just a couple of weeks ago for my introduction to the electronic edition of his novels being prepared (hurrah!) by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I wasn’t sure I remembered it exactly, and The Notebook was up in the attic with Charles, and so I went confidently to google it. I thought I knew how it started, so I tried “God is silence.” That got me some hits, but nothing from Saramago. I tried “God is the silence.” That got me the same page as before. So I tried “Saramago quotations” and variants on that. They all took me to a page with lots and lots of quotations from Saramago — singly, in sets of 20, in sets of 43 — but in hurriedly looking through them, I didn’t find the one I was looking for, certainly the most famous single thing Saramago ever wrote. At this point, paranoia raised its stupid little yellow-green head.

Saramago was an atheist, not of the professional Dawkinsian type, but a man to whom the whole God business made no sense, though it interested him. His antipathy was reserved for the profiteers and power-mongers of religion, such as the mufti who authorised marriage for girls of ten, the imam who approved stoning women accused of adultery, the pope who has found it so hard to condemn pederasty among his priests. His speaking out on such matters made him enemies, of course. I mean, the man was a godless commie foreigner. Really. He was.

So I sat there entertaining paranoid thoughts: Had some zealous crusader gone through Google’s material on Saramago and removed the offensive quotation? I knew this kind of thing happens on Wikipedia, but in a wiki people look out for censoring and tampering and can make it unhappen just as promptly. How Google works, I didn’t know, but I knew it’s not a wiki. I didn’t suspect Google of initiating censorship, but wondered if it was vulnerable to sneak-in censorship. A worrisome thought to think about an information service so many of us rely on. So, instead of going on looking for the quotation as I should have done, I wrote a little blog about the mysterious absence of the quotation.

My First Reader read it and said, “But you didn’t try ‘God is the silence of the universe.’”


So I asked Google for “God is the silence of the universe“ (and put it in quotes) and there it was, about a ten thousand times, pages and pages of God is the silence of the universe.

So much for paranoia. No crusaders. Just my own (lazy) incompetence at googling.

But the mistake sometimes leads the mind to the place it really wanted to go...

By embarrassing myself (and thanks to my First Reader) I began to consider something I’d only very vaguely known and hadn’t given much thought to: the fact that how Google gets and handles its information is an industrial secret.

Understandably. If how Thomas’s get the nooks and crannies into their English muffins is an industrial secret, how Google comes to know everything that is known certainly deserves to be one too.

And yet it is disturbing. (Paranoia?)

I know that people far better equipped to discuss this whole matter have discussed it at length. Undoubtedly I could look up such discussions through Google. At this point I’m not ready to read them. I need to think about it in my own terms first.

Putting it into language familiar to me: it’s as if a great library, say the Library of Congress, refused to tell where they got their books and how they got their books and who chose the books and whether all the books they had were in the catalogue and available or some were held back, kept secret.

Of course there’s no point in libraries doing that. A public library has no industrial secrets, not being in business for the money. A public library is a public trust. And the “trust” in that old-fashioned phrase is, has to be, mutual, reciprocal. The public trusts the library not to censor, change, or withhold valuable books or information, as the library trusts the public won’t force them to censor, change, withhold, or destroy books or information. And if the library, at the request of the public, does withhold some material from some people (as in finding ways to keep exploitive pornography from children using the library) this is done (if it’s rightly done) openly, with knowledge and consent on both sides.

But a great corporation, even one sworn to do no evil, makes no such bargain with the public. There is no reciprocity. Trust is not mutual. It’s understood that the public interest, if considered at all, comes second to the interests of the corporation — profit, growth, and power. So the corporation can and will keep its secrets, even though what it is dealing in is information, even when its business is making knowledge accessible, open, free — the very opposite of keeping secrets.

What a strange, paradoxical situation! It is quite beyond me. I can’t help but wonder if it might also be beyond even the intelligent and competent people who run Google. Do they really know what they are doing? And if they don’t, do they know they don’t — or is that too a secret, kept even from themselves?

— UKL 
27 October 2010

4. Someone Named Delores

“Someone Named Delores” is included in Ursula’s No Time to Spare

5. Exorcists

“Exorcists” is included in Ursula’s No Time to Spare

6. The Lynx

“The Lynx” is included in Ursula’sg No Time to Spare

7. A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters

“A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters” is included in Ursula’s No Time to Spare

8. The Sissy Strikes Back

“The Sissy Strikes Back” is included in Ursula’s No Time to Spare

9. Confidential reports from FBI agents to the Bureau, intercepted by Wikileeks 
(Welsh Information Kontrol Institute):

As instructed, trained Subject 443 with machine gun and live ammo and got him worked up to enter his fourth-grade classroom with dud gun we have provided to quote “kill my asshole teacher and all them asshole kids what are always laughing at me,” however am requesting further review of this project in view of fact that Subject 443 although of part Muslim ancestry may be undesirable subject for media attention due to fair complexion, blond hair, blue eyes, and Anglo-Saxon-sounding name. Please advise.

— 003

Have attempted to carry out Project Egregious as instructed, but have failed to implement suggestions that the subjects carry out jihad against vile American infidels at their work place, possibly because languages spoken by subjects appear to be Zulu and English and I deliver the suggestions as instructed in Pakistani. Subjects appear uninterested and at times irritated. Will continue making suggestions until I receive further instructions. Please advise.

— 774.0

Urgent. Subject 088 has turned me in to local police force as “would-be terrorist,” accusing me of plotting to blow up City Hall, which is what I was encouraging him to do with a fake bomb, unfortunately I was instructing him in detonation practice with small real bombs which are now in his possession. Local officials of county jail where I am incarcerated refuse to listen to me, describing my i.d. as “easily faked” and making remarks such as “Yeah we know how you A-rabs love the USA” and “Tell that to your fucking terrorist pals, wog.” Please advise at earliest opportunity.

— .63

Daniel Berkowitz