ashes and geeks

I went outside that morning into a land gone crazy; it choked and smelled of smoke, and I walked a good twenty feet before realizing that the dust layer on everything were ashes falling slowly from the sky. The sun was bright red, the sky was brown. You could easily make out sunspots with the naked eye. The air was full of acid burning when I breathed. It was supposed to be a sunny day, said the weather, but the earth itself had cancelled.

The news mentioned fires, so I went to the first conference tutorial and used the wireless to read more. The city of San Diego was surrounded with a ring of fire; three blazes to the north, east and south, that all burned in tandem and consumed dry brush and suburbs alike. Over the day, the smoke got worse and the ashes fell on roses and swimmming pools and restaurants and cars.

I sat down in an anonymous hotel meeting room to learn about some acronym happy technology. I was towards the back of the room. On my left sat a large jolly person, who spoke too loud and had anime backgrounds decorating his FreeBSD laptop. Hundreds of little doodads blinked on his screen, telling him weather, stocks, and CPU cycles. He asked questions in a loud voice and make jovial jokes about Microsoft.

On my right, there was an older gentleman, who instead muttered about Microsoft. He talked too quietly for anyone else to hear, intending his wisdom as a gift for only me I imagine. LDAP is nothing like DNS, apparently. Putting two services on a system is a high crime worthy of execution, and not simply a bad idea. There is no such thing as a good MTA. PAM is stupid. Macs aren’t good, they just suck less. I am always assured by those who enjoy their work.

I liked the guy on my left, not the guy on my right, but by the end of the day had no desire to speak to anyone like either of them. I had at home a friend trying to deal with his friend’s cancer. I teach students worried about parents and colleges and lovelives, people not much younger than me who have barely discovered the painful beautiful juice of life, which tastes faintly of blood. I read novels and overwrite poetry when I can; I teach and learn and want to see the beauty of a city here.

I took a break and checked my email, and started chatting online with Jared about college and Mike about his job and Shawn about his music and Rudy about his friends. I laughed out loud at the screen and sucked in breath at bad news. I look like any other geek spending an hour staring into his laptop, but none of them make noise. I break the etiquette of the laptop crowd. I’m reaching out to humanity, because I’m not here.

I am not superior to any of them. Brilliance visits here, people who can paint structures in code and who can design systems that will withstand time and pressure. Authors and speakers and teachers walk alongside traditional geeks, and the traditional geeks themselves, for all their cultural maligning, can burn brighter than them all. I, however, don’t quite fit. The gods of Harvard pay me to care about computers from 9-5 and I do so with diligence and whatever mental powers I can gather — but then I use both to pursue other ends. Systems don’t interest me such that I can pick them up and put down a novel, given a choice.

I sat in the chair listening to stories from three thousand miles away and heard in the corner a religious argument about text editors. I shrugged to myself and left. The open-air mall where I tried to get dinner closed; the restaurants were horribly short staffed as people checked their homes and relatives near the blazes. I ended up getting room service and waiting an hour and fifteen minutes, and gave the waiter a big tip.

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