Remember Smallpox?

I read in an article (“Resurrecting Smallpox? Easier Than You Think”) that the smallpox virus that killed about a billion humans and almost as many characters in The Oregon Trail video at my middle school library, now lives in a computer as a single sequence of 185,000 letters that scientists are now working diligently to pronounce as one word.

Smallpox stored on computers. And now the professional worriers are worried that someone is going to download and print-out, I guess, the smallpox virus and introduce it into the population via direct mailings or flyers posted on those bulletin boards at the supermarket, looking for a cat or a drummer, with little strips of paper hanging off for interested folk to rip off.

The goverment would have to implement a national system of paper management. The IRS would offer a tax credit to every household that purchased a quality shredder, one that shreds the paper vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, so that not even the Penguin from Batman Returns would have the patience to glue the pieces back together.  Unsuspecting households would be taken in by unscrupulous merchants of inferior shredders, that would choke after five minutes of shredding, or one try at those directions for household appliances that are given in three different languages.  A bureau would have to be created to develop a standard for shredders to meet in order to receive the tax credit.  A team of federal shredder inspectors would be trained to inspect shredders, and issue certifications of quality, and soon no one would buy one without asking to see a certificate of quality.  At some point they will start forging the certificates of quality, and another bureau will be created to inspect the authenticity of the certificates after the first set of inspectors reviewed them.

Maybe they won’t print the smallpox on paper. Maybe the virus will be transmitted via telephone.  Using the spreadsheet on the network titled “CELL PHONE NUMBERS – ALL” the government will call people up one by one, and when the people pick up, a recorded message will say, “Please hold for your free vacation,” and then, using a Casio PT-87 synthesizer, the 185,000 letters of smallpox will be sounded as the corresponding note on the scale.  Whoever hears more than ten notes of the virus will contract it and have to be quarantined.  For years the sound of a telephone ringing will bring shudders and flashes of the evil eye and spitting on the floor.  People will go back to communicating using cans strung together and will find it adequate, even though they will all be forced into long service contracts by the can-and-string companies.

Of course the real way that smallpox will be spread will be by the internet. All the bioterrorists will need to do is put the sequence of letters on a website and tell everyone to check it out.  People will go there and stare at the page and not be able to take their eyes off of the letters until the disease was well inside them.  And there the disease would end, for none of these people would have contact with any human beings.

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Remember When You Could Send a Spaceship to Mars for Only $75 million?

So I’m sure you’ve heard by now of the orbiter that India sent to Mars for only $75 million, and seen it compared to the U.S. Mars orbiter that cost $672 million. Whatever the reasons for the difference in price, my main concern is that the two orbiters will start orbiting the planet in the same path at the same time, and they’ll be fighting over the armrest, and we’ll have to turn the spaceship around.mission to mars

The more I think about it, even $75 million starts to sound like a lot. Maybe the first space trip would cost a lot.  But that was decades ago, back when there was an evening paper and people had milk delivered to them in a glass bottle.  There should have been more cost-effective innovation by now, like what they’ve done with coffee.

There are plenty of places where money can be saved on the Mars orbiter. I hope they didn’t bother installing air conditioning.  I’ve found that a good fan well-positioned can cool as quickly, if not more quickly, than central air conditioning, albeit with a plug that can be a trip hazard, especially when one is using a plate with a turkey sandwich on it to balance a large glass of soda.

We shouldn’t be paying for ice either. Space is very cold.  All the spaceship has to do is hold a pitcher of water outside the cabin for a few seconds, and poof!  Instant ice cubes.  The ice cubes would, of course, be in those annoying half-moon shapes that come out of refrigerators.  You can’t have everything in life.

The biggest cost-saver would have to be cable and internet. The price that NASA pays to have cable and internet on every one of its spaceships was probably, in the beginning, quite modest.  And after a few months, NASA got accustomed to the price, and the astronauts were too tired from walking in slo-mo in those bulky suits to read the monthly cable bill very closely anymore.

In fact, I’m sure that NASA at this point feels rather powerless to do anything against the cable company. But the company is expecting you to do nothing! I wish I could say.  Just call up, and say that you heard that other large and inefficient agencies are paying less for cable and internet, and that you as a loyal customer demand the same low price.  The cable company will grant your wish.  And do you know why?  Because they don’t want to lose you as a customer.

Friends, it has been over two days since I shamelessly plugged The Issue Box on this blog, and I suspect that many of you have not had the opportunity to check it out. I know, I know.  They’ve been showing episodes of Roseanne. I get it.  TV marathons happen.  But still there are commercials.  So feel free to stop by during a commercial break.  Unless it is one of those commercials that is better than the program you were watching.  It’s fun when that happens.

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Big Announcement

Instead of writing something that purports to be funny, I want to let you know about a website that I’ve been visiting recently. It is called The Issue Box. And you can find it by typing theissuebox.com into your browser’s URL field. Or you can Google it. Or you can follow this link.

The Issue Box allows users to post and vote on an infinite number of political and other public issues, without requiring any personal information – no names, no financial information – save for an email address that is used solely to verify that you are a human being and not a bot or toaster oven.

So, for example, you could say something like, “There are not enough restrictions on pollution,” and then vote “Agree” or “Disagree.” And then that issue, with your one vote, will be available for any other users to vote Agree or Disagree.  As the votes tally, you will be able to see a pie chart showing the split of yeas and nays, and how each voting user voted.

Now let’s say that you are a user of the site, and you didn’t create that issue, and you don’t want to vote on it either.  You think the issue misses the point.  So now you create the issue “We need to enforce the pollution restrictions we already have,” and vote Agree, and now your newly-minted issue is posted on the Home page for all to see and vote Agree or Disagree.

Now let’s talk real controversy.  What information do we require to sign up? A valid email address. That’s it. The email address is your username for logging in, but on the site you are identified only by a random assortment of words that we assign to you.   The password is a random combination of numbers, also assigned.  So your presence on the Issue Box will be totally anonymous. There is zero chance of us sharing your information with others because we don’t have any information to share.

An email address and the issues created and voted on by that email address, and that’s it.  If your email address has your name in it, and you’re not comfortable sharing it with us, then go use another email address, even one created just for the purpose of authenticating that you are a human, which is done once and never again.  But regardless of whether your email address has your name in it or not, to other users and to the public, you will be identified by only the randomly generated handle that is assigned to you at registration.  No one need ever know how you vote…unless you decide to tell them.

In case you are wondering, I have more than a passing interest in the Issue Box. I helped create it and am hoping that if enough people go on it, I will be able to sell the website for billions of dollars, and retire to a mansion with its own movie theater, where I can watch the movie they’ll make about how I screwed over my friends to take control of the company, and hope that the screenwriter is nominated for an Academy Award.

So if you get a chance today and you want to do something that’s 100% risk-free, costless, and permits – nay, encourages – you to simply say, yes or no, how you feel about an issue, and see how many people agree with you, then go to theissuebox.com and get your issues out there!

Postscript: You should know that, strictly speaking, we are still in the Beta-testing phase of the Issue Box. So if you encounter anything that looks like a glitch, please be patient and, if you have a few moments and are so inclined, send us a note about it and we’ll take care of it.

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Remember When the Internet Was Anonymous?

Today marks four years since I started this blog. Seems like just yesterday. Thank you all who have read this blog and taken the time to comment. I know that I don’t post as often as I used to, but I’ve got a few big projects I’ve been working, and I’m going to share one of them with you very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this post.

The Director was sitting in his office, enjoying a pumpkin spice latte. He did not like pumpkin flavor, but it was the law of the land that pumpkin flavor must be consumed in the fall.

There was a knock at the door and an intern entered.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But do you remember when we demanded that all social media websites turn over all of the personal information and preferences of their users? Well now they say they are not producing the information.”

“They’re not? I was afraid of this. All right, time for Plan B.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I do. House calls.”

The media at first was skeptical of the government’s new program, whereby they sent government agents to canvass the neighbors, door to door, asking the inhabitants for their personal information. Many pundits thought it an intrusion on people’s privacy, while others thought it a patriotic duty and a chance to expose themselves to some new germs.

Analysts on both sides, however, agreed that people would not want to reveal their personal information to an agent of the government who showed up at their doorstop uninvited and in most cases without even a bottle of wine or piece of fancy cheese wrapped up in nice paper.

So they were really surprised by the responses. People provided their names and ages, of course, and their email addresses and phone numbers, and where they like to shop, and what they think about the things that other people’s kids do, versus the things that their own kids do. They asked about music tastes and food tastes and whether they were more likely to choose a table or a booth when offered both at a diner.

The program was so successful and the responses so thorough, that the government turned it into a reality tv show.

“You know, usually I go for the booth. If I’m offered both, I go for the booth.”

“So you’d classify yourself as booth in response to question 19a?”

“Well, now, sometimes I don’t feel like a booth. I gotta be honest, I like booths. But sometimes – I don’t know – I just feel like a table.”

“So would you classify yourself as a hybrid booth/table? There’s a choice for that.”

“Well, you know,” he says with his finger in his mouth, and looking up at the ceiling. “Now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure if I ever chose a table over a booth when offered both. I think I was thinking of something that happened to my mother. Maybe I really am a booth guy after all.”

In fact, so effective was the government program that the social media websites started offering the government money for the personal data of the citizenry, in hopes of offering content that would attract more viewers. The official answer was no, but then some Congressmen and Senators got into a bit of hot water over selling of personal data to social media companies, and had to do penance by reciting the 80s pop hit single “Safety Dance” a cappella, including all of the instrumental sounds, before every session of Congress.

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Remember When Your School Got Its Own Tank?

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now of the school district that obtained an armored vehicle – actually, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle or MRAP if you want to impress someone – from the United States military through its Excess Property Program.  The vehicle was free, and the district had to pay just the cost of transportation, which was $3.95 for regular ground, or $5,000 for 2-day express.Tank1

I remember when my school got its first tank, the graduating seniors’ class gift to the school they loved so much.  At the dedication ceremony, the Class President, Class Vice President, and Class Risk Assessment Manager spray painted the sides of the tank with “Woo Hoo Class of Awesome!  To Thine Own Self Be True!”  There was an after-party, mainly for those three people, where they ate pizza and discussed what they were going to do with all their Barron’s review books.

Some concerned parents managed to have the tank classified as dangerous, so the school had to keep it under strict lock and key in the A/V room, along with the televisions on those tall skinny carts.  The School Tank, as it came to be called, was taken out for special events like Homecoming, where the Homecoming King and Queen would ride atop the military vehicle, holding flowers and wearing their crowns, and waving to the crowds in the stands.

The following year, a neighboring school district, a rival in football, basketball, and Monopoly, got its own tank. It was larger and shinier than ours, and at the Memorial Day parade, at which all high schools in the region could march in whatever formation they liked as long as it met federal safety standards, their tank got more cheers from the crowds of parents and siblings.

Over the summer, the school diverted some funds earmarked for social studies books and ordered up another tank. This one was bigger and shinier than even the tank that our rival had obtained. Next to our first tank, it was a giant. We started calling them Big Tank and Little Tank. At lunchtime now, the school paraded the two tanks, sometimes Big leading, sometimes Little, around the track. All students could look out the window and see the two tanks parading.  The tanks were driven by students, and for some reason this job attracted the same students who were in charge of the audio/visual technology.

At the Memorial Day Parade, Big Tank and Little Tank rolled down our town’s main thoroughfare in triumph. Parents and siblings cheered loudly and the day appeared to be ours. But then a sound…a buzzing chop-chop sound filled the air and all were quiet.

And then we saw it. A helicopter with a bad drawing of a wildcat – the mascot of our rival school – spray painted on the side.  The tank was rolling on the street, directly underneath the helicopter, with balloons floating from the nozzle of the gun.

This was absolutely the last straw. Classes were cancelled for a week while school officials sold books and some desks where the chair and desk are fused together to get another military vehicle. As we sat at home and wished we could be back in English class reading Wuthering Heights, we speculated on what the new vehicle would be. What could be more impressive than a helicopter?

The Warren G. Harding High School Air Craft Carrier was delivered via overnight courier. Since our physical school building was not that near the water, we had to be relocated to a coastal town on the bay. It was a lot windier but we didn’t get as much snow.

One night our radar caught a few blips off the coast of Madagascar. Our commanding officer, who was also the official wearer of the school mascot costume at home football games, ordered our battleship and guided missile cruiser – gifts of the National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America, respectively – in for a closer look.

“Identify yourselves,” Kevin said into the microphone, which no one except him seemed to know was not connected to the unknown ships.  “Prepare the guns,” he said to the crew, who were making posters for a pep rally. “This could get ugly.”

Our ships were moved into position and guns aimed. Now we were worried about the math test in third period and the possibility of war.

“Man the cannon!” Kevin said. “Ready, aim…”

“Wait! Wait!” said the Class Gluten-Free Bake Sale Coordinator. “What’s that on the side of the ships? I think it says…Go Wildcats?”

Yes, it was our dear rivals from the neighboring town. Looks like they had obtained for themselves a navy. Had it not been for the unsteady block printing and pathetic drawing of a wildcat on the sides of the ships, we would have launched on them and probably have had to make up our math test.  The near risk of war marked a turning point in the relationship of our schools, and I can safely say that today we are not rivals but allies.

Editor’s Note:  It turns out that the San Diego School District has returned the armored vehicle.  I hope they kept the receipt.

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Remember When the World Cup Wasn’t On?

I was walking down the street, with my headphones on, listening to Sir John Gielgud’s performance of the “To Be, Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet.  Suddenly a long black car pulled up to the curb beside me, and two large men with black suits got out and pulled me into the car.  They blindfolded me, I imagine so that I could not see their faces, or perhaps they wanted to surprise me with a gift, the way parents would do after we lit the Hanukkah candles.

Then someone spoke to me.

“We heard that you said football was boring.”

I protested and said that I never said such a thing, that I love football and cherish every tackle as if it was happening to me or someone I loved.  There was some whispering, and then the man who spoke cleared his throat and spoke again.

“I mean, we heard that you said that soccer was boring.”

I tried to remember if I ever said that soccer was boring.

“Well, I certainly remember thinking it,” I admitted.  “But saying it?  I’m afraid I don’t remember.  I mean, I’m not saying I didn’t say it.  I’m saying I just don’t remember if I said it or not.”

The car stopped moving and the door opened and someone led me out of the car.  We walked for a while and I wondered if I was going to be killed for thinking or perhaps even saying that soccer was boring.  Then I remembered that many great people had died for a deeply held belief, and I was comforted.

Then someone stopped me, and removed my blindfold.  I was standing in the middle of a field.  It was a sunny day, and I felt around for my prescription sunglasses, and realized that I had left them at home.  Then someone called to me from my left.

I turned and a large man in a black suit, perhaps one of the pair who had kidnapped me, was standing by a soccer ball.

“We are going to show you how much fun soccer is!”  And he kicked the ball over to me.

“Now kick it back,” he said cheerfully.  I kicked it back.  I admit it was a little fun, kicking a ball.  I’ve never been able to hit a baseball or throw a perfect spiral.  But kicking a soccer ball?  It’s just like kicking a TV that doesn’t work, except it rolls.

The man kicked the soccer ball in different direction, and I saw that the person he had kicked it to looked as confused and out of place as I did.  Without a word, he kicked the ball back to the kidnapper, who then gracefully kicked the ball in yet another direction to yet another person looking confused and out of place.  I turned my body around a full 360 degrees, and saw many other people standing around, looking confused and out of place, all with a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here playing soccer.”  I was apparently part of a soccer game designed to expose soccer to people who were rumored to have said that soccer was boring.

I don’t know how long I was out there.  Time seemed to stand still as we kicked the ball to this person, then to that person, then to that person.  It was too hot to run around, so we all just stood there kicking the ball.  But after a while it was kind of fun.  Just kick the ball.  At some point someone asked the kidnapper how much time was left in the game.  The kidnapper signaled to the sideline, and two other large men with black suits came onto the field, hit the person over the head with something, and dragged him off the field, his heels leaving tracks in the grass.  He did not return to the game.

At some point the soccer ball disappeared, and we were blindfolded one at a time.  I was led to the car, told to get in, and driven a distance.  Then the car stopped, the door opened, the blindfold removed, and I’m let out of the car.  The kidnapper who played with us was standing next to me.

“You see?  Now you know how much fun foot – I mean, how much fun soccer is.  Tell all your friends!”

The car drove off and I wandered down the street.  I passed a bar where people were watching World Cup soccer, and I walked inside.  The players on the screen were kicking the ball from one to another, just as I had been doing a short while before.  I thought about how much fun I had been having.  I remember the satisfying feeling of kicking the ball, and projected my feelings onto the players on the TV.  No one in that bar was more focused on the game than I was, and soon I started to feel like I was actually in the game.  I was living soccer!  This is what they were talking about!

I lasted almost five minutes.  Then I felt around for my headphones, put them on, walked out of the bar, and continued listening to Sir John Gielgud as the melancholy Prince of Denmark.

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Remember When People Did Not Put Pictures of Their Kids on Facebook?

The young man lounged on the psychologist’s chair, looked up at the ceiling, and exhaled.

“I just couldn’t believe my parents would have put pictures of me on Facebook.”

“And does it bother you that they did that?” the psychologist asked.

“Of course it bothers me,” the young man said. “I mean, imagine you are going through life, thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, or whether it’s time to throw out the ice cream because it has that ice beard growing all over it, and one of your parents’ friends posts a picture of you on Facebook from when you were an infant and in a diaper, with the caption, ‘Remember those days!’ And when you investigate a little to find out how this friend of your parents obtained this picture and proceeded to post it without your written consent, you are told that the picture was already posted by your mother 25 years ago! And then upon even further investigation, discover that this was not the only picture she posted, nor the most revealing.”

“And you think it was inappropriate for your mother to do that?” the psychologist asked.

“How could it be appropriate? How would you like if someone was posting pictures of you without your consent?”

“So people do not post pictures of you now without your consent?”

“Oh, of course they do. Like, when we’re all out at a party or a bar or something. People take pictures of the evening and then post the pictures on Facebook so that the world knows we have a life. If I happen to be in the picture, then I get on Facebook. But that’s totally different. I knows what’s going on. I have some control over what I’m wearing.”

“So is it the not having control over your wardrobe what bothers you about your mother posting pictures of you as an infant?”

“That’s only part of it. Because it wasn’t just the pictures. As I started to speak, there would be these little snippets of dialogue that my mother would share with the world.”

“What were these snippets like?”

“Oh, you know. These little witty things, like ‘Mommy, how come the moon doesn’t fall down?’ or ‘Mommy, why does garbage stink?’ I mean, really, why did the world have to know that?”

“And you don’t think that the ‘world’ as you put it would think it nothing more than the ordinary things that a toddler would say?”

“But that’s just the point! There’s a permanent public record of me saying ordinary things to an ordinary mother who took the ordinary step of bragging to the world about the ordinary things her toddler says and does. If she had stayed silent, the world might have thought me extraordinary!”

“I see. So you believe that by posting your childhood pictures and verbiage on Facebook, your mother removed all the mystery that would have otherwise surrounded you.”

“Exactly!”

The psychologist nodded and jotted a few final notes. Then he looked at the wall clock.

“It looks like that’s all the time we have for today,” he said. “I’m a little jammed up next week so my assistant will call you to schedule your next visit.”

After the young man left, the psychologist went on his computer, logged in to his Facebook account, and started typing a post.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, a patient comes in with a truly extraordinary complaint….

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