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?

 

Last weekend I attended a wedding. Somewhere between the readings and the rings, the officiator (judge? minister?) said something about how the ceremony was a public acknowledgment if a commitment long since made, or something to that effect. I thought this was an interesting reinterpretation of the wedding ceremony.

I know several couples who had weddings this year. It may be a skewed sample, as one of those weddings was my own, but all of them lived together for years prior to marriage, and they were all pretty much "married" long before the wedding. This is the kind of change that many fear as part of the gradual destruction of families in America.

But it’s a surprisingly subtle change in practice. The ceremony looks and feels just as it would if the wedding was actually the marriage. And I think the result is actually a gradual strengthening of marriage, by detaching it from what is ultimately an arbitrary wedding ceremony, generally scheduled more around the progression of the weather than the progression of the relationship. Now we just need to detach marriage from government.

 

Last week, Shelley Powers wrote about web browsers in terms of "Cane and Able," which was strikingly similar to the old tale of Cain and Abel. Today Danny Ayers wrote about the upper- and lower-case semantic webs in terms of the Garden of Eden, and added a disclaimer at the end ...if anyone feels uncomfortable with my use of Judaic mythology here...

In both cases, I think discussing technology in terms of a shared mythology makes for much more interesting — and thus easier — reading. It's too bad we don't have more shared mythology from which to draw. Certainly we have more mythology than we ever have before, but it's less and less shared. I can discuss complex issues in terms of Battlestar Galactica, but how many people will understand the references? How many people even understand the Biblical references today?

I know many people who are worried about the loss of "morals" (which more often than not means "the right to be comfortable among homogeneous people" — but that's another post) in society, but I think more troubling is the loss of shared stories. Even if someone were able to write a modern epic, commonly accessible by a wide variety of cultures throughout the world, I think there's a modern intolerance for believable fiction that would kill the story before it spread.

In the past, we could weave a lie in with the truth, and make a new truth from it. I think that's how most religions have begun. But I'm not sure we can do that today.

 

I don't know a lot of Americans into Asian self-improvement practices such as Buddhist meditation or Yoga, but from the few I do know I have developed a theory. My theory is that self-improvement practices from distant lands more often than not act as a particularly effective placebo.

I used to be very interested in Buddhism. I got some books on the subject, even took a course in university, and some of it I found useful, but never life-altering. But one after another, I've listened to friends and acquaintances with major personal problems extoll the virtues of this or that Asian self-improvement technique after a week or a month of practice. The thing is, they're still just as messed up. They just don't realize it anymore because they've convinced themselves that Shiatsu, or transcendental meditation, or whatever has cured what ails them.

So I've developed this theory. Basically, I think some people with big problems start looking for some answer they never thought of before, because nothing they've done previously seems to be working. And they find some teaching from the other side of the world, and it tells them to do everything different, and they do, and their lives seem different. So they go out and tell everyone else about this great new thing.

Which is great, until everyone else realizes that the person hasn't changed at all. They're just as angry, only now they have mantras to recite about anger. They're just as unhealthy, only now they can lecture everyone else about healthy living. Maybe it's just me and the people I know, but the net result of all the eastern evangelism I've heard has been to make me want to stay as far away from a Tai Chi class as possible.

When someone starts telling me how great Asian cure-all X is, I have a game I like to play now. I replace X with "Ronco Food Dehydrator."

"I've been practicing Ronco Food Dehydrator for about a month now, and it's really helped me. I think you should consider trying it. There's a center in California that gives away free Ronco Food Dehydrator lessons. It will really change your life. I know you probably have a lot of bias from American culture about how weird Ronco Food Dehydrator is, but it's really easy to use."

And maybe Ronco Food Dehydrator really does amazing things to improve peoples' lives. But when I hear someone selling it so hard, I start to think they're not trying to convince me - they're trying to convince themselves that something has really changed, trying to make the placebo last. That's my theory, anyway. I wonder if it would translate into actual placebos. I wonder if giving people "herbal medicine" sugar pills would cure them more than traditional sugar pills.