Letter from a Newbie to an Old Master

I've been moseying through e2, learning its ropes, and so far all is well except for one thing that bothers me a bit. That is the voting thing. I have never cared for voting. When it is legitimate, it often leads to the tyranny of the lowest common denominator; when it isn't, it often becomes just another tool for those currently in power to use against the rest of the population. And I have never much cared for hierarchical political structures.

An example of how voting can be a bad thing is when voting with one's wallet can affect a society's cultural level. For example, we live in a runaway capitalistic society today where the only value anything has is its market value. Because of this, "popular music" has become the only music readily available, and serious music like Vivaldi's beautiful Concerto a due Chori in B-flat Major "Con Violino Discordato" (second movement: Andante), or the early music of Albinoni, say Op. 2, is no longer either played in public or recorded -- after all, if the multi-national corporations who control the industry can't make a quick buck off of something, then that something will remain off the market. This is what B&N is all about, and it is what Microsoft is all about. So this voting thing (in this case with one's wallet) is one of the forces that is destroying the intellectual life in this society, along with many of the other things that make life worth while. For if it ain't "popular", it ain't gonna be.

I have run across traces of this on e2, where mention has been made of writing what folks want to hear so as to gain votes and status. This is not a good thing if literary quality is to survive. Much better is the old hacker ethos (which is now beginning to fade away because of the media focus and commercialization of their subculture):

We reject kings, presidents,
and voting. We believe in rough
consensus and running code.

Actually, this concept was not discovered by the hacker subculture, since it has been in existence for a very long time. It is, in fact, where I parted company with guys like Burroughs and Ginsberg so many years ago. They were rebels against the system, and very focused politically. But from my earliest years I saw this rebellion as a futile cause. Part of my reasoning was that the system was just too large and entrenched (they have the guns and the courts and the laws and the money, after all); but even more important was the herd factor -- the hard fact that most people are (as the Direct Marketing Association points out) busy, not very thoughtful, not very well-informed, not very intelligent, and impatient. Focused on the bottom line, their bellies, their entertainment, and their comfort. And therefore easy to manipulate.

So I rejected the idealistic movements of my time, Beatnik, Hippie, New Age, as a lost cause, and just walked away from the McCarthy Era mindset and police-state conformity of my youth and the single-minded greed-infested consumer society of my dotage. Decided to create my own world where I could live according to my own values. Which I did, both in Alaska and, later, the Sonoran Desert. Places where a life of music and books and the natural world was my day-to-day reality.

These worlds are fragile, though, and soon population pressures and corporate greed and the control fetishes of the "Outside" world invaded Alaska, and the lifestyle I (and many others) had there faded into the past as civilization and progress and development came and did their thing. So I moved on once again. For as a friend of mine (the aviation writer Doug Ritter) once noted:

It seems inevitable that frontiers will
be tamed for the masses, then abused, and
those who must be on the frontiers to
exist will always have to move on.

Today that type of life is more difficult to obtain (since the wilderness is almost gone, and serious music and literature have been depreciated almost into non-existence), but along with those changes technology has provided us the means to create on-line communities, and within these on-line communities we have the tools to make virtual worlds which are more to our taste. This is what was going on in that sf novel we were discussing, though none of the book's readers whom I have spoken to so far seem to have noticed it (it was one of the book's minor themes).

Two of the earliest of these on-line communities were The Well and Compuserve's AVSIG. AVSIG in the late 80s and early 90s was quite successful because it was based on an informal meritocracy -- one's position within the community was based on their postings, along with their intelligence and knowledge and wisdom and willingness to help others within the community. This success lasted until the discovery of the net by the outside world, then quickly died (as did the Dakotas and Alaska and every place else once it has been "discovered"). But while it lasted it was a pure example of our modus operandi (though, of course, they didn't run code).

Well, enough with a first message, for these subjects can be dwelled on for eternity. The thing for me is that I have a problem with voting, and because voting is something that is expected of one on e2 I may have a bit of a problem adapting to the community. Only time will tell. And, of course, these thoughts are based on the very briefest, most cursory of impressions, and with more experience I may well discover they were incorrect. Anyway, it makes a good place to start, and suggestions are most welcome.


Though this initial effort by ern--his very first writeup here on E2--could be construed as "noding about noding" by those of us charged with guarding the integrity of the database, it is clear to me--and I hope to others--that his thoughts, expressed so honestly and well, are informed and--perhaps more important--thought provoking.

Compared to ern we are obviously ALL newbies. Which of us can reflect upon "the old hacker ethos" firsthand? Who among us could have been a hippie, let alone a beatnik?

If one reads carefully, it is clear that ern was a young man when Joe McCarthy was polluting the bandwidth of an earlier version of our holy network. What lessons, I ponder, might be forthcoming should he decide that our little band of brothers-in-baud is worth his time?

From a single writeup, as he meditates openly upon his existence here in our community, those of us who've paid attention have learned that ern has:

I don't know about you, but I want to hear more from a guy who's been around the block a few times, a guy who can both code and write. The words wisdom and experience come to mind.

I've got kids. I know how they get when they sense the story's gonna be good.

More from ern, I say, like a kid. I want more.

(And this is as well, you see, a Letter from a Newbie to an Old Master.)


I wonder if you ever got my real letter. I didn't get yours until a few months after you sent it because my roommate had accidentally had it hidden somewhere and didn't find it until we moved rooms. I wrote mostly inane bullshit, I think. It was one of those things where if I didn't just hurry up and write something, I would have been mulling over it forever and never would have actually got anything down.

I always felt like I should have written something here about the time we met outside Benaroya Hall, but I could never figure out what. It was an amazing experience. To be honest, I think I was still in something of a daze, my head full with recent experience, and, well, I was a little starstruck, too, I guess.

You're right about iceowl; he's a fucking super-badass. What else is there to say? His stories overwhelm me. His experiences fill me with awe; his writing fills me with envy. I can't read too many of his writeups at a time because I start to vibrate, but after reading one of them, I always always always feel like I want to be a polie when I grow up.

I wonder when I will feel like a grown-up. I turned twenty-four recently. I don't know what to make of it. iceowl said you feel all your growth until you're twenty-five, and that's when you stop feeling older, inside, but I'm not sure that I've felt much older than twelve, ever.

Is it all going to feel this overwhelming forever? I walk around these days in a perpetual state of feeling like I'm in over my head. Like I missed a really important lecture and now I'm scrambling to figure out what's going on, and saying things that make it sound like I know what I'm talking about, but hoping nobody figures out I'm faking it. How long can this go on?

Sometimes I feel like killing people is the only subject I can talk about really intelligently without feeling like a fraud. It's not a good feeling.

But I've got less than a year left in now, and that's a pretty good feeling. I've contacted UW about reinstatement, and that's got me thinking about the future, and I'm all overwhelmed again. I laughed with recognition when I read iceowl's thing about how the amount I can possibly learn approaches zero. I guess that makes me free to learn immeasurably little about whatever I want, right?

But with so many infinities in front of me, how can I choose? How can I? Isn't it presumptuous of me to choose one over the others? Won't the other infinities be mad at me? What if I choose wrong? Because I'm pretty stupid. Can I?

Whatever infinity I choose, it's all so connected with everything. It seems there are so many tiny evils I commit every day, just by participating in these giant machines whose far sides I can't really see. How can I know about sweatshop labor in Indonesia and still buy clothes? How can I know about PCB landfills in China and still updgrade my computer? How can I know about American meat-industry practices and still order a delicious burger?

And I guess I knew all this before, but I always managed to keep it all in the abstract compartment, in order to function in society. It's getting harder, for some reason. This isn't normal, is it? Is there something wrong with my brain? Is it paranoid schizophrenia? I know you're not a doctor, but you're a playwright, which is close enough.

But then, this seems more sensical. Shouldn't thought and action be more collapsed? Isn't it really everyone else who's crazy, to be able to know these things and continue to do the things they do?

Maybe it's that I've seen the other side of one of these machines, that I've been one of the ones bleeding for oil. How can I drive my car, when my brothers are dying?

I teach people how to kill people more efficiently. I teach them about hydrostatic shock. And speed-reloading techniques and magazine retention. And three-dimensional threats and mechanical offset and remedial action. I guess I'm pretty good at it. I give them my best, I make sure they know, in the hope that they won't die for my petroleum sins.

As it turns out, I will get one more chance to get myself killed over there. I'm on the MEU, so once we get to Oki, my platoon will get on ship and float around, ready to go to wherever we are called. We might go to Australia, or the Phillipines, or Thailand, or Korea. Or it could be Afghanistan. Or Iraq. I won't know for sure until we're there.

I still dream about the Euphrates occasionally. My hands always smell like cordite, even when they don't. I get all pumped up over nothing, sometimes, and sail through near-death in a state of expressionless calm. I can't hear much in my left ear. Gasoline is getting pretty expensive.

Sometimes when I wake up, I reach for my rifle. I said once, "what is every earnest soldier's ultimate goal, but Peace?" but I guess I've come to realize there are few enough of those around.

I suppose I will start wearing clothes made from bamboo and hemp, shop at American Apparel. I suppose I'll reuse, reduce, and recycle. I will stop eating animals, or at least try to eat certified organic, and free-range. I suppose I will get a bicycle. I suppose I will try to live as green as I can.

Is it enough, though? Shouldn't I feed the hungry and clothe the naked? But where? Palestinian refugees? Poor South American villages? India, Pakistan, Bangladesh? What about North Korea? What about New Orleans? What about the homeless shelter down the street? How do I choose?

I don't have to grow out of wanting to do good in the world, do I?

I wonder how iceowl chose South Pole. How did you choose playwrighting? You did choose, didn't you? Or did it choose you? Will something choose me? Do I just wait around, or what?

So, I met this girl. She's indicated that she likes me more than I feel like I warrant liking. So, in this, as in everything, I feel like a fucking fraud. I feel like soon she will learn the truth and not like me anymore.

I felt like that with you, too. I feel like that with most people. Like I could slip at anytime and reveal myself for what I am. Because I am so very small inside and don't know how to do anything. Except kill people.

Did you ever feel this way? Will it stop?

So, anyway. Thanks for all your encouragement. It meant more to me than I know how to describe. Your children are beautiful. I will do my best not to die during this next deployment so I can maybe meet them. I'll post my deployment address on my homenode as soon as I find out what it is. We leave the first week of December. I hope you find time to send me some paper with ink on it.


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