At dinner tonight, I thought my waitress was hitting on me. Or maybe not hitting on me, but trying to get me to hit on her. She was about my age, and nicer than one would normally be to a stranger, but of course that’s just part of the job. What gave me the impression she was hitting on me were the long pauses she left after everything I said.

She would say “Are you ready to order?” And I would reply “Yes, I’ll have the Tortelini Portabella.” This is how normal waitress-diner exchanges go in my experience. But then she would just stand there and look at me. What was she waiting for? It was like a scene in a romantic comedy, where one person is afraid to say anything about the obvious chemistry, and instead just waits for the other to bring it up.

Except there was no chemistry. Not on my end, anyway. Not only am I married, but even if I weren’t, she was more creeping me out than attracting me. I was eating at the restaurant attached to the hotel I’m staying in, and charging my meal to my room. So I had given her my room number. In one of those romantic comedies, she would maybe show up at my door later. But in a horror movie, I would wake up in the bathtub missing a kidney. And I was seeing myself more in the horror movie plot. Even if she wasn’t a serial organ-thief (and really, it would be kind of dumb doing that so close to where she works), did she make a habit of picking up guests in the adjacent hotel? Guests wearing wedding rings? Isn’t that a little odd?

Yes, it is, I concluded. I tried to watch as she spoke to other tables. Did she do the same thing with them? The nearest occupied table was too far away to tell. I looked at her co-workers as they walked by. Did any of their faces reveal a secret fear that my waitress was a nutjob? They offered no clues.

But then, toward the end of my meal, my waitress herself revealed the truth. If I weren’t already suspicious, I may not have even noticed. “Is everything alright?“ she asked. “Yes, thanks,” I said. Normally I would expect a waitress to leave my table at this point, but by then I expected this waitress to awkwardly stand there for a moment in silence. She did neither. Instead she did something I didn’t expect at all. She said “Are you done with your sal- *hiccup* salad?” I answered “Yes, thanks,” as I had long ago finished my salad.

Now I’m a little disappointed. My dinner was neither the would-be romantic comedy nor the horror movie I had imagined. It was just a waitress with the hiccups, trying not to hiccup in the middle of talking to me. That’s not very interesting at all. But still, I locked the door.

 

This May I will visit Machu Picchu with Jessica, my wife, and Libby, our friend from Des Moines. I’m currently in Des Moines, attending interviews of some would-be new web developers at my company, which is putting me up in a hotel for a few days. It’s an odd experience, both because I’m living like a tourist in a city that still feels like home, and also because I’m living like a businessperson, which I don’t feel like at all.

For example, this afternoon I was sitting in the hotel room, which my company paid for, eating leftovers from last night’s dinner, which my company will also pay for. I feel like I should instead be going out for lunch, since my company is paying for meals anyway, maybe take out some other businessperson and explain to them the synergy of our new product or something. But I was happy eating my cold Pad Thai and watching the end of a show on the History channel about Machu Picchu.

In that show I learned something that you might have learned if you followed the previous link to Wikipedia’s article on Machu Picchu: that Peru is suing Yale University over some bones taken from Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham. In 1911, Bingham rediscovered the Incan city of Macchu Picchu, which had been abandoned since the 1500s, when the Spanish conquered the Incan empire, after first dividing it. The Incan government did not have clear lines of succession, and the Spanish took advantage of this by promoting a competition of authority within the government, which ended up destroying the empire. History repeats itself.

So then everyone left Machu Picchu, and it was empty when Hiram Bingham started digging up bones. He brought the bones back to Yale, where they remain today. Then he went on to become Governor of Connecticut, then US Senator. Interesting footnote: he was only governor for one day before he became Senator. In 1929, Bingham was censured by the Senate on corruption charges involving lobbyists. History repeats itself.

Hiram Bingham was a Republican, and was pushed from office in 1932 when Democrats won in a nationwide landslide following the Great Depression. Bingham’s father and namesake was a missionary to Hawaii, as was his grandfather. Interesting footnote: his grandfather was also pastor of an African American church in Connecticut. One of his sons was a Democratic congressman, while his namesake son helped Jews escape the Holocaust in France to the US, despite official US policies intended to limit such immigration. US Secretary of State Colin Powell later praised Hiram Bingham, the 4th, for his “constructive dissent.” History repeats itself.

Getting back to Machu Picchu, I found one line from the BBC’s report on the lawsuit from Peru particularly interesting: But Yale says it followed standard collecting practices at the time, and that it has made a reasonable offer to return some of the artefacts. That phrase, a reasonable offer, was recently used by the White House to explain why members of the American government will not be testifying under oath about their actions. History repeats itself.

President Bush, you may recall, is a graduate of Yale, so perhaps that’s where he developed the impression that an offer in clear violation of established rules is "a reasonable offer." Unlike the Incans, there is little ambiguity about authorites in the American government. And there is apparently little ambiguity over who owns the Machu Picchu bones at Yale. Hiram Bingham the third, the one who took the bones, wrote Now they [the bones] do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in eighteen months. That was ninety five years ago.

I suspect riding up the Hiram Bingham Highway to Machu Picchu will be just as odd an experience as this week in Des Moines, or most of my travels for that matter. Another place I don’t really belong, playing another role I don’t really understand. I guess that’s what makes this life interesting.

 

We start with Cory Doctorow. Cory is most famous among geeks for writing on Boing Boing, one of the most popular blogs. If you don't read Boing Boing, and have no idea what a "blog" is, that’s okay. I’m su’ll find your opportunity to jump on the geek-mobile later. From Cory we connect to Mark Frauenfelder, who also writes on Boing Boing, and is editor of MAKE magazine. In relation to MAKE, Mark was recently on The Colbert Report, so from there we connect to Stephen Colbert. Stephen was previously on The Daily Show, of course. (Are you a geek yet?) Also on The Daily Show: super-geek John Hodgman. You may also know John from his role as "PC" in Apple's recent ads, or maybe from his recent geeky book, Areas of My Expertise. In the audio version of the book, Jonathan Coulton appears. Jonathan writes geeky songs. Yesterday, Jonathan appeared on Ze Frank’s The Show. Ze Frank has a geeky video show.

Thus completes our six degrees of geek: Cory-Mark-Stephen-John-Jonathan-Ze. This is the geek train I ride on. Seeing Jonathan with Ze Frank today was the geek-fest that prompted me to write this. But now that I look at the list, I note that these are six white men of roughly the same age and economic background. And we can easily branch out in other directions of geekiness (e.g. Stephen Colbert vs. The Decemberists) and find more of the same. It’s hard to dismiss as coincidence that I am a geek, and also a white male of roughly the same age and economic background. I’d never heard of any of these people as I was becoming a geek, so how did that happen?

 

I’ve been living in Southern Illinois for about two months now, and I haven’t really made any friends yet outside Jessica’s friends. I left a note at the local Co-op grocery store expressing interest in volunteering, but no one ever called me. I sent an email to the Big Muddy Independent Media Center volunteering my web development skills to improve their website, but no one responded. I posted on the local Craig’s List about starting a band, but no one responded. One might conclude that this town doesn’t like me, but I suspect it just has different means of communication.

Southern Illinois isn’t big on web-based communication, and I can’t often bring myself to drive the twenty minutes into town, from our place out in Murphysboro, for what often seems like a waste of time and gas. So I stay at home a lot, which I think is a bad thing. We’ve been looking at moving, but our lease here goes through August, so we’ll need to find a pretty nice place to make it worth moving before then. Meanwhile, I’m writing a lot more email and talking on the phone a lot more than I ever have before. But that’s not really making me any friends.

There are a few people in the area who actively communicate via the internet. There’s a group of bloggers at Carbondale Bytelife who seem to share my inclination towards online communication. They were searching for additional contributors when I first moved to the area, and I tried volunteering for that too, but the email bounced and I didn’t follow up, so no friends there yet.

But I believe I am making some enemies there, so I guess that’s a start. Part of the reason I didn’t follow up on my bounced email was that Carbondale Bytelife is full of discussion of Carbondale, and being new to the area, I don’t really know much about Cardbondale, so I have few opportunities to jump in. I do know a bit about electoral politics though, having participated in a few campaigns, served as electoral judge, and managed a voter registration drive. So the Carbondale mayoral election seemed like a good place to add my voice to the mix.

There’s an old saying about the three things you should never talk about in polite conversation: sex, religion, and politics. I regularly discuss all three, so I guess I’m a slow learner. Or maybe just impolite. I believe my first comment to a Carbondale blog was to question why Bob Pauls listed the age of each mayoral candidate in a post about candidate websites. It struck me as a way to caricature candidates and vote on those caricatures rather than actual issues (e.g. Obama is "the black candidate," nevermind what his positions are). But apparenly Bob is just concerned about the "digital divide" and thinks age is a big part of it. I’m not so sure age is a big part of it, but I thought better of pursuing the issue and establishing myself through disagreement.

But I guess my better judgement lapsed when I read a post by someone I only know as "dave" on the mayoral primary, which seemed to be subtly skewed in favor of the incumbent, Mayor Cole. Truth be told, I didn’t realize as I was pointing out the bias I saw that I was commenting on dave’s personal blog and not Carbondale Bytelife, which I believe was formerly known by the name of dave’s blog Carbondaley Dispatch. But that probably wouldn’t have changed what I wrote much. I don’t know much about the candidates, but I’ve had an anti-incumbent bias every since I learned that incumbent candidates have a ridiculously high re-election rate. That just can’t be healthy for democracy.

So I’d been reading a lot of pro-Cole discussion in the local blogs, and had the general impression that he was a widely liked Mayor and would probably win by a landslide. But then he lost in the primary (came in second to the only other candidate who will be in the final election), and that made me wonder if the people I’d been reading weren’t confusing their hopes for reality. So with that suspicion, I read dave’s post, which makes an analogy between Cole losing the primary and a famous boxing match between Ali and Foreman. I don’t know a lot about boxing, but I know Ali won that fight, and Cole was analogous to Ali in the post, so it immediately struck me as a sort of cheerleading for Cole.

So I said as much. I suggested dave was letting his own bias slip into his writing in subtle ways throughout the post, and he should state his bias upfront so readers could interpret his words with a grain of salt. At this point, I had no reason to think dave was anything other than a voter who somewhat favored Cole, but was trying not to show bias. I know there’s a widespread myth that people shouldn’t have bias, and I think that’s harmful to public discussion, so in my comment suggesting dave should be more open about his bias, I said It's okay to have a political bias, in the hopes that he wouldn’t feel the need to act unbiased.

I think everyone is biased, and pretending otherwise is just silly. Later in the comments, someone wrote I believe you should tell them you're on Brad's payroll, Dave. I first thought this was sarcasm, suggesting that my perceptions of bias were inaccurate, that I was seeing bias where none existed. But then dave wrote How many times must I say that I maintain Cole's web site? That’s when I realized that the earlier comment was not actually sarcastic. This really changed the whole discussion. So dave’s writing about a mayoral election, and he maintains the website for one of the candidates. I tried to move past my initial reaction of "are you serious?" and actually answer dave’s question, saying I think it's standard practice for writers to include such a disclaimer every single time a conflict of interest comes up.

I do this myself, as you may have noticed. When I wrote about ethanol, for example, I mentioned in the second sentence that my employer has clients in the ethanol industry. I’ve had very little interaction with those clients, and the largest of them had just recently cancelled their contract with my employer somewhat abruptly, so I could make a reasonable case that this doesn’t bias my opinion of ethanol at all. But that would be ridiculous. Everything biases my opinions. Everything I read, everyone I work for, even everything I eat. I likely have a bias towards brown things because I like chocolate. I don’t really recognize this bias, but it makes sense that I would have it, because everyone is biased. Everyone.

Everyone except dave apparently, who wrote a new post today titled Biased my *sterisk, explaining his belief that he is not biased regarding the mayoral election, despite being employed by one of the candidates. He wrote: So what am I supposed to do? Quit? Not comment on the race?

To answer the rhetorical question: no, dave is not supposed to do any of those things. That would be ridiculous. Because bias is so pervasive, we shouldn’t let it disrupt our ability to discuss interesting topics. And we don’t need to go out of our way to try to compensate for it, as dave did by listing a bunch of things he doesn’t like about his employer, Cole. All we need to do is simply state obvious conflicts of interest when they come up. I don’t think that’s a huge burden, and it makes it easier for everyone to understand our perspective.

One might argue that our employers are not actually our primary conflicts of interest, that focusing on them creates a distorted image of our perspective. And I think that would be an interesting argument. But dave doesn’t appear to be saying that. He’s just claiming he has no bias, which I maintain is just silly. Because everyone is biased.