Summary: Oblique reference to the Big Dig... What part of No Vacancy didn't I understand? ... Trinity... foreshadowing... Robotuna and friends... "What are you, a spy?" ... Thomas Manshreck... cheated, mistreated... MIT... foreshadowing... Bldg 20... I am the world's wimpiest hacker... Abelson and Sussman... "Maynard"... Fireside chat...
1999.04.21 WED In Between Places
I again lugged my luggage through the streets of Mystic, under flowering trees, past ship-captain's homes. It was gorgeous, and this time I wasn't lost. Soon I was on the train to Boston. Soon I was in Boston's South Station. Soon I was emerging from that station and emerged into some huge construction project. I extracted myself from that and found myself on the streets of Boston.
People refer to New York City's streets as sunless canyons. These people are reaching for metaphors. Boston's streets are much more like sunless canyons. They are narrow and they twist unpredictably. I was just wandering around trying to get to a place where I could figure out where the sun was. I'd forgotten to pack my compass and was trying to get oriented. It took a few blocks.
Eventually, I figured out where I was and how to get to the Chandler Inn, the first place I would try to find an available room. I walked down twisty streets whose intersections were beyond my cartographer's ability to describe. It's a good thing that Boston's famed bad neighborhood, the "Combat Zone," had become so tame in past years, because I cluelessly walked right through it. I eventually found my way.
There was a line at the Chandler Inn's check-in counter. I got in line. Things just got worse and worse.
At first I just noticed that the line was long.
Then I realized that all the people ahead of me in line were gym teachers. It turns out that the AAHPERD convention was in town. I always thought that the whole reason to graduate from high school was to get away from gym teachers.
When I got closer to the counter, I saw the "No Vacancy" sign sitting on it. Oh no. I flicked my eyes over the lobby, looking for a pay phone from which I could call up other places. I didn't see one. (It was hiding behind a pillar.) I was close to the head of the line. I decided to stay in line. When I got to the front of the line, I would ask the clerk for advice. Maybe they knew about some multi-hotel reservation system. Seeing as how I was still the last person in line, it's not like I would be making anyone else wait.
And that's what I did.
I got up to the front of the line, apologized for not having a reservation, said that I hadn't noticed the "No Vacancy" sign until just then, and asked for advice.
"Oh, we can get you a reservation here."
I figured that they must have just got a cancellation. Good luck for me. I set about checking in.
"Smoking or non-smoking?"
"Whichever's available, I guess. I don't smoke."
"Either one. We'll respect your choice."
So they obviously had at least two rooms available--one smoking, one non-smoking. They were signing me into one of them. Therefore, they must have at least one more vacancy. I had just pointed out that their "No Vacancy" sign was up. They weren't in any hurry to take it down.
I wonder how much those "No Vacancy" signs really mean.
I was glad to use the bathroom. But I won't go into details.
Photo: Boston's Trinity, not to be confused with the site of
I walked past Boston's Trinity on the way to buy a tour ticket.
1999.04.21 WED Boston
I bought a tour ticket and the process upset me.
1999.04.21 WED Cambridge
I was upset. I decided to walk up North to MIT. I suspected that it might calm me down and cheer me up. I stormed my way through the crowd, dodged my way past traffic. I was on a bridge. I looked down. There were numbers painted on it. "10". "20". In yellow, green. These must be the Smoot marks, I thought. I started to feel better.
MIT's just North of the Mass Ave. bridge. I wandered past a lawn where people were tossing a Nerf football. I walked in through a door marked "No Trespassing". I was in a hallway full of students, full of geeks. I started to relax.
I walked past posters for physics seminars, bake sales, math symposia. I was starting to feel good. I walked past a glassed-in room. Lots of students inside were sitting at computer terminals. One of the chairs was stenciled on back: "Athena." I stopped, looked inside. This must be part of the famous Athena computer cluster. I remembered back when all email needed routing information, "bang paths" to tell the mail how to reach its destination. A lot of people had !athena! in their bang paths. I felt all mushy inside.
I reminded myself that my friend 'Shreck would be giving me a tour of MIT soon enough. I shouldn't look at too much of it ahead of time. I turned around, started navigating the halls back towards the Mass Ave bridge.
Off to the side, I saw some model ships. It was the Hart Nautical museum. MIT has a mighty fine museum, but not all MIT exhibits are in the museum. Some of them are scattered elsewhere. So you can walk down a hallway and find yourself looking at model ships. And, much cooler, there was an exhibit on AUVs. Yesterday, I'd seen maritime history. Now I was seeing a bit of maritime future. There was a Robotuna. There was a boat that paddled like a penguin.
I was feeling pretty good as I walked back South over the 364.4 Smoots (plus one ear) of the Mass Ave. bridge. I had a sandwich at The Other Side Cosmic Cafe. I bought some comics at Newbury. I was eating tasty food and had comics to read. Things were looking up.
1999.04.22 THU Boston (all over)
I wanted to take the Duck Tour of Boston because it's in an amphibious vehicle. They're trucks whose bodies have a sharpened prow. In addition to wheels, they've got propellors so that they can putt about in the water.
Photo: Duck Tour amphibious vehicle
As it happens, just about every lame tourist in Boston wants to take this tour, too. In retrospect, maybe I should have just have looked at the vehicles where they sat outside. Maybe I didn't really need to take a ride in one.
It was a wacky tour with a wacky tour guide. I live in dread of wacky tour guides. I don't trust people who are constantly reminding me of what a fun time I'm having. And there's another thing about wacky tour guides. "Where are you from?" he asked. He asked the people in front of me. They told him. He asked me.
Wacky tourguides have a tendency to make fun of Californians. Like we're all a bunch of weirdoes and freaks. I suppose that if I had a better sense of humor, I wouldn't mind being teased for the amusement of a bunch of Iowans. But I replied, "I'd rather not say."
"I don't think I should say where I'm from."
"What are you, a spy?"
Other people said where they were from. He didn't tease any of them. I needn't have worried. Actually, he seemed like a nice guy.
Should I talk about the tour? It pointed out the sites of Boston. I got to hear about the molasses flood. The Smoot marks got a mention. Whatever.
After the tour, I stopped to talk with the guide a bit. He asked me again where I was from. I 'fessed up, said that other guides, less kind than himself, would have made sport of such.
The guide said he'd had one other passenger, about a year before, who had refused to give his place of origin. Afterwards, the passenger had said he was from Iran.
Photo: Self portrait with Duck Tour amphibious vehicle, traffic cop.
1999.04.22 THU Cambridge
I crossed the Mass Ave. bridge again, careful not to step on any Smoot marks. I walked through a few halls of MIT, then emerged onto Mass Ave, walked North through the somewhat seedy Central Square area on up to Harvard Square.
Not Harvard Yard. Harvard Yard is a big lawn. This was Harvard Square, a paved plaza with a newsstand and a subway entrance. I was an hour early, so I sat down to wait. I jotted down some notes in my notebook as a light sprinkling of rain tried to blur my words.
Clumps of young-looking European tourists shuffled past. You'd think that they'd be used to spaghetti tangles of streets meeting at odd angles in non-rectilinear "squares", but they seemed rather non-plussed. Punk students loitered, muttering a conversation. One of them raised his voice to declare, "Philadelphia sucks!" An old man emerged from the train station, talked to the punks about something. He went into the newstand and emerged with cigarettes, which he started handing around. He appeared to be discussing politics.
Then the guy I'd been waiting for showed up--Tom Manshreck, 'Shreck for short. He'd been my manager at Geoworks until he quit. He'd moved back to Massachussets. Now I'd finally come to visit. It had only taken a few years. Soon we were ensconced in a nearby Indian restaurant.
I said, "Dude, I kind of cheated. I knew you were going to give the the tour, but I kind of peeked at MIT. I thought it might calm me down. I was pretty upset. You see, I bought a ticket to this tour. I handed the clerk a twenty dollar bill and a ten. But she didn't give me back enough change. She said I'd only given her $25."
I was all set to explain exactly how I could be so sure that I hadn't just spaced out. But that wasn't necessary.
Tom sighed, "Yeah, man. They do that here."
"I mean, what do--Dude, what can you do about it when it happens?"
Tom shrugged, "I don't know, man. It happened to me at the Burger King down around Central Square. I yelled about it. But what's the manager going to do? I mean, he could check the cash drawer, but it's pretty obvious that the clerk has stolen the money and is hiding it somewhere."
I slumped. "Yeah, dude."
Tom said, "I didn't go back to that B.K. for years, man."
1999.04.22 THU Cambridge (Harvard)
We wandered over to Harvard Yard. I saw a bunch of snooty-looking young white people mincing about. Tom led me down some stairs, under a school building, to a door marked Gato Rojo Cafe. We got coffee.
"Dude, what is it with these Harvard students? Just looking at them, I want to... I don't know, something violent or something."
Tom said, "I think that the women start out okay, man. It takes them a year or so before they..."
"Start to realize how, like, very important they are?"
"Heh, yeah. The men, though, the men start out that way."
1999.04.22 THU Acton
I forgot exactly what all we talked about, but after a while Tom said, "...I like that, when you can--not lie--but just talk around the truth."
"Like this place, man. Officially, it's only for Harvard students. So I came here with my friend. And normally no-one hassles me, but this time the guy says, 'Hey, are you Harvard students?' And so I say, "Well, actually, he's not. Is that okay?' And that was okay."
We walked down to M.I.T., once again heading through Central Square.
'Shreck used to live in Cambridge, but moved out after his rent increased a total of 50% over the course of two years. He said that rents were going up all over Cambridge. A lot of poor families were getting squeezed out. A lot of African-American families were getting squeezed out.
"Dude, where do they have left to go?"
"Maybe nowhere in Massachussets, man. It's all getting up there."
1999.04.22 THU Cambridge (MIT)
At M.I.T., I got to see the infinite corridor. I learned that the Green Building isn't just a favorite for throwing things from--it's also a favorite for suicides. At the MIT coffeehaus, there were crayons and a book to draw in, so I left a nice Pirate Kitty page behind.
I told 'Shreck I was going to have to go back to MIT on May first: "The Model Railroad club is having an open house, dude. I've been hearing about them for years now. Like, they're the ones who got the words 'hack' and 'kludge' out there in the language, right? Dude, I have to see them."
"I was in the Tech Model Railroad club, man."
"Dude, no way!"
"I mean, I wasn't really in it. But I went a few times."
"Dude! Was it, like, cool?"
"You might like it. The things controlling the track switches are these old phone switches. It was--the place used to be the phone switch room for the campus. When you wanted one of them to change direction, you'd dial it up."
"You're making that shit up, dude."
"It's true, man. You'd call it up on rotary dial."
I shrugged in amazement. "Anyhow, they moved the club. I was reading about it on their web site. They had to move to a new place, something about their old building getting torn down. Now they're in the same building as the museum."
"I think you'll like it, man."
"I think you're right, dude."
I wanted to see Building 20, which Stewart Brand mentioned as a good example of an adaptable building in How Buildings Learn. I wanted to see the site of the "Rad Lab", where a lot of RADAR research happened during WWII. 'Shreck knew that this lab was in Building 20. We headed over to Building 20.
I'd seen it when I stormed over to MIT the day before. I hadn't recognized it, though--because it was halfway torn down, a steamshovel rending its innards and tossing them about.
If only I'd been there about two weeks sooner, I could have wandered the halls of historic Building 20. As it was, 'Shreck carried away a scrap of wood as a souvenir.
Photo: Historic Building 20
I was hoping to see the Towing Tank--sort of like a wind tunnel, only with water, for testing boats--where some of those AUVs had been developed. I'd found out which building it was from a web page, and so 'Shreck and I headed over to building E48, finding it by means of a helpful campus map. Building E48 appeared to have been decomissioned. There were businesses inside; nowhere did the building say "E-48". 'Shreck snuck us in the back stairs and we sneaked a peek inside. Demolishers were gutting one floor. It looked as if the building had changed purpose recently. "Did you say that the room number was 0-something?," Shreck asked, "Could it be in the basement?" "Uhn, I guess so."
'Shreck wandered down a stairway behind the building, came to a locked door. There was a doorbell next to it. "Ring it," he suggested. I looked around in anguish: "I don't think this is happening, dude." 'Shreck rang the bell. I hunched my shoulders, waited for a boom to fall. 'Shreck's eyes danced around. I don't know how many excuses he'd had for hacking lately. He seemed to be enjoying this one. Seconds passed; a minute. I said, "I think it's gone, man. Maybe the web page was out of date. C'mon."
Later, I would find out more about the numbering of MIT's buildings. Specifically, I would find out that there were two distinct buildings, building 48 and building E-48. But that was later.
We went to Quantum books, which looked to be a fairly intense engineering and computer bookstore.
'Shreck asked me, "Do you have this book, man?"
"Abelson and Sussman? No, dude."
"You should read it, man. It's a great book."
"Well, yeah, dude, I, I mean, uhm, I read it. I mean, we used it, Berkeley uses it. It's a good book and all. I just didn't hang onto it is all." I tried to remember if I'd ever owned the book or if I'd just borrowed someone else's copy.
"You didn't keep it around, man?"
"Well, you know, I moved to a smaller place. And I moved a lot. And I learned from that book, you know. But when am I going to refer to it? Next time I want to write a metacircular evaluator?"
"Hey, man, the metacircular evaluator was cool."
1999.04.22 THU In Between Places
It was time to go to 'Shreck's place. We caught a bus that took us part of the way North, then walked the rest of the way to the train station. Boston's public transit system isn't the best thought-out thing you've ever seen.
I asked, "So what are you doing now? Are you still--dude, are you still contracting for New Deal?"
"Nah. I'm contracting, man, but not with them. Right now I'm contracting with this place, makes thermal printers."
"So, did you get 'Clived' once too often?"
"So you don't work for Clive anymore, dude?"
"Good for you."
We were on the train heading Northwest.
'Shreck said, "This train goes by Walden Pond, man. You can see it."
"Dude, no way. Like, Thoreau and all that?"
"Yeah, man. In fact, there it is now."
"Dude, that's like--What's with all the gravel? I don't see a pond. What's that steamshovel doing?"
"I was kidding, man. That's not it."
"Walden is a pond, not a gravel pit."
"Dude, I would have figured it out."
1999.04.22 THU Acton
'Shreck was renting a two story house on the border of Concord and Acton. It had some land around it, some trees, a firepit, a bench. The downstairs was full of bookcases: three cases of history, three cases of literature, a shelf of poetry, a case of philosophy. There weren't cases for all the books. Those which were involved in current projects were in little piles on the floor. Those which he didn't consult so often were in the attic.
Newspapers awaited recycling. I didn't check the TV's screen to see if the CNN logo has burned in to the corner, but I wouldn't have been a bit surprised.
The music room was upstairs. Guitars, amps, a 4-track recorder, effects pedals. 'Shreck wanted to jam. "Didn't you say you played bass for MegaBrööce?"
"No, dude. I played the bass line to 'Teenage Wasteland' once, but that wasn't with MegaBrööce. It was, like, another project." The bass line had had three notes repeated over and over. It had taken all of my concentration to play, and I still hadn't done a good job of it. I didn't get a chance to say all that before 'Shreck had handed over an instrument and told me to get cracking.
I tried to remember how that bass line had gone. Seven years had elapsed since I'd played it; I had no memory. I tried playing a few random notes, but they all sounded shrill. This bass guitar had more strings than any I'd ever seen before. I finally figured out that I wasn't messing with a bass guitar, but a regular guitar.
'Shreck had picked up another guitar and had started to play. I tried to find a sequence of three notes which sounded okay together which I could play consistently. The latter condition proved impossible to meet.
Eventually, I stopped playing and sat back and listened to 'Shreck. Unlike the things I was plucking out, his stuff was recognizable and even enjoyable to listen to.
1999.04.22 THU Maynard (so help me)
We had dinner at a Thai place. It was in a nearby town named, so help me, Maynard.
'Shreck said that people pay about $100,000 extra for houses in Concord vs. surrounding areas. There's prestige in the name "Concord." He guessed that people might pay $100,000 less for houses in Maynard.
I agreed: "It sounds like--it suggests mayonaisse, dude."
"Man, it suggests some dumb guy named Maynard."
1999.04.22 THU Acton
Back at the house, we watched CNN on TV. Some kids in Colorado had gone on a murder/suicide spree at school with rifles and pipe bombs. 'Shreck said that this was a whole new level of ugliness in the psyche of America's youth.
It seemed to me to be just like my junior high school experience except that these kids were able to get ahold of heavy weapons.
We talked back and forth about this for a while, found no middle ground. But that was okay. We knew how to disagree without shooting one another.
Shreck had most of his computers upstairs, all networked together. I logged in, started downloading my all-important email. I spun around in one of his chairs. My foot tapped something. There was a loud electric hum. I think I said something like, "Aiiyow!"
'Shreck pointed out, "Man, you turned on the thermal printer."
I looked on the floor. There was a thermal printer there, no doubt of the model that 'Shreck was documenting. I'd kicked its power switch. I was a bit more careful from then on.
I spent some time on mail, glad for word from my bay area friends.
"C'mon, man. I got a fire going."
I finished writing a last email and wandered all over the house looking for the fireplace before I remembered the firepit outside.
We sat on the bench, watching the fire.
"I had to call the fire marshal to get permission, man."
"Yeah, and if one of the neighbors calls up saying that they smell smoke, the fire marshal knows that the smoke's supposed to be there."
"Really, man, you're only supposed to have fires if they're cooking fires. That's why I always bring out this bag of marshmallows."
"I don't want to think about how old they are."
My voice was a croak. 'Shreck was drinking port. He offerred me a sip. Now my voice was a croak and I had a nasty taste in my mouth. Stupid, stupid port.
We talked about what SWAT policemen do when there's no emergency. Really, 'Shreck talked and I kept my thoughts to myself. I don't like sore throats.
We stayed outside a while. 'Shreck smoked a clove cigarette and talked about mutual friends of ours. I tried to croak out updates. No-one knew where Josh was. (Later, I would learn that Josh was calling himself "J. Heath" and was in Liechtenstein making shell corporations and researching sovereignity.) We talked about Tonya, who had disappeared into the wilds of Utah years ago. We might have talked about Paul Du Bois, except that by this point I could no longer talk and 'Shreck had to maintain the conversation all on his own.
We tossed water on the fire to put it out. We went inside.
We watched TV. The town where those kids had shot other kids was having a town meeting. Some other town where kids had killed a bunch of people were holding another town meeting. A TV show had arranged videoconferencing between the meetings so that the newly bereaved could gain insight from those who had been working through the issues for a while.
Apparently the town with the older shootings still hadn't worked out all of its issues. One man warned people in the newly-bereaved town that the parents of the shooters might not call up every relative of every victim to apologize to each one personally. Which I guess was his way of saying that he wanted an apology.
It occurred to me that if I were in the process of mourning a child, depending on what stage I was in, I might not welcome a call from a parent of my child's killer. It occurred to me that maybe this guy didn't really speak for everyone.
If the whole event hadn't already stunk of exploitation before, this pushed it over the edge for me. I wandered up to the couch in the music room to sleep.
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