Monthly Archives: May 2011

A Letter To My Clients

This is a letter I just sent out to several companies and individuals I do web design/development subcontracting for. I thought it was worth posting here. I’m not particularly secretive about what I charge (or, as you’ll see, am going to be charging from now on) for websites, so I don’t think it’s inappropriate to put this here.

Some of you may think that there’s nothing here I shouldn’t have been doing years ago. I agree. The fact is that I have been very bad at business for a long time, and my desire to be helpful to people with small budgets for their web projects has ended up costing me a great deal of time and money. As I am a married man now, I can no longer afford to be “cool”. I have to be responsible.

——

Hi there folks!

You’re receiving this email because you’re one of the people I regularly do web design/development business with, and I’m announcing a few changes in my contracting policy.

Effective immediately, I will not be undertaking any website projects with a budget under $1000. This is non-negotiable. I may take on design projects (such as logo creation or non-production site design) for less, but this is the baseline for hiring/contracting me to make a website. In addition, I will require a minimum of one-third of the project’s fee to be paid up front, non-returnable, as a sign of good faith. This is also non-negotiable. I will also be providing scope of work documents for each project, to be signed by both the client (or the client’s representative, i.e. you) and myself, so that each party is clear about their own roles and responsibilities within the scope of the project. I will also require that any changes to the project during the course of the work be given to me in writing (via email, preferably) so that there are no misunderstandings or confusion about what needs to be accomplished. Changes made during the project will also require a renegotiation of fees.

Each project will include, as part of the negotiated cost, a fixed, reasonable amount of hours dedicated to phone or physical meetings with the client (or with you). If this amount of time is exceeded, I will bill the client $25 per hour of meeting/phone time. Hopefully this will encourage the client to contact me via email, which is my preferred method of communication, as it is much less ambiguous and easier to refer to.

In addition, I will be extremely selective in taking on any projects with less than a two week turnaround time; any such projects will be considered “rush jobs” and I will add an additional 50% of my estimated fee to their total. Also, any timeline specified by the client will be understood to begin when the client provides deliverables such as branding and content, as well as any and all pertinent logins and password for the client’s domain name registrar and hosting provider and any contact information for the client that needs to be included within the project’s content (such as an email address for a contact form to send messages to).

Please note that these new policies do not affect any projects I am currently engaged in with you, or projects for which I have already agreed to work on for an existing fee — merely new projects going ahead from here on out. I will carry out any existing projects for the fee I’ve negotiated with you. It will, however, apply to any and all projects that are not yet begun. If you’re unsure whether a project falls under my new guidelines or not, feel free to contact me about it.

I apologize if these changes and requirements are inconvenient for you. However, after a great deal of consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is simply not economically sustainable for me to work on projects with budgets below $1000. After doing the math I’ve realized that my current policy of working on small sites for small money means that I am a 33 year old married designer/developer, with sixteen years experience in every aspect of website creation, who makes roughly the same amount of money as a Starbucks barista. (Less, actually: they make tips. I don’t.)

Also, frankly, I’m tired of dealing with small clients. They’re pushy, they contact me at strange hours, they don’t have even basic understanding of how the Internet or even their own websites work, they make absolutely unreasonable and unfeasible demands (both in terms of website functionality and turnaround time), and they don’t pay on time. They are, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass.

Ultimately, it makes more sense for me to seek and take on three or four larger projects a month than seven or eight smaller ones; they’re easier and less stressful to manage, and are more financially lucrative in the long run.

If you find that you or your clients cannot work within these new policies of mine, I will be happy to refer you to another designer or developer who can better service your needs.

However, if you find my terms acceptable, I can guarantee that your clients’ projects will receive my full attention and the full benefit of my long years of experience in this field and my considerable creativity and professionalism.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.

Thanks, Josh Ellis

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Random Ontologies, entry 3

Three concepts: Planck length, Planck time, Conway’s Game of Life. Read those Wikipedia entries and come back to this.

Imagine a game of Life, played on a three-dimensional grid in which each space is one cubic Planck length. Each “round” of the game takes one unit of Planck time. The grid’s resolution is precisely that of the universe itself. For the purposes of this game, we’ll call each “on” cell a quantum (plural “quanta”).

You start the game with a mostly empty grid, where all of the quanta are packed densely into the center. When you hit “Go”, you see that the quanta begin to expand out from the center, unstable at first but eventually forming into stable, simple shapes, which then begin to cluster into more complex stable ships.

Run this for 14 billion years.

I suspect that what you would have would contain almost precisely the same amount of information, measured in entropy, as the universe we reside in.

If we take the quanta as the smallest binary unit in the universe — a simplification, I know, but it kind of works — in this way we can understand the entire universe as a computation. The rules may not be identical to Conway’s rules, but they’re probably similar.

This is why digital physics is so interesting.

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An open letter to my social network “friends”

Like many people, I’m fairly liberal with the “Approve Friend Request” button on Facebook. I’ll add friends of friends, casual social acquaintances, former work colleagues, people I went to high school or grade school with or who laid in the adjacent crib to me in the hospital when I was born. I’d say 75% of these people never actually interact with me at all, nor me with them. And that’s fine; I don’t need to have deep, meaningful conversations with the kid who sat next to me in history class in eighth grade. It’s kind of cool to simply see his posts on my main news feed, along with some dude I worked with in 1999 or some girl I went on one date with in 1997…to see small glimpses into lives that briefly converged on mine and then diverged forever.

Unfortunately, this means that I end up accidentally friending people who have no actual interest in me, my personal life or the things I create and produce. To these people, I’m simply another notch on their social marketing belt, another name on a mass messaging list, another “friend” they can show to their marketing clients as an example of their successful penetration of the social network market. These people don’t interact with me. They don’t read my posts or comment on them. They just send me endless invites to inane events and “Buck Shmerkle Productions is a fan of CLUB ROOFIEZ HIP-HOP LADIES NIGHT!!! and thinks you should be too” requests.

I despise the marketing and advertising industry. (The fact that I’m a professional web designer, which essentially makes me a sort of marketing sub-contractor, is not lost on me. But that’s a whole other story.) I despise people who try to manipulate every single human relationship into a meaningful brand extension opportunity. I want to punch these people in the face very hard and very long until something goes soft behind their eyes.

Most of all, I hate people who pretend even casual intimacy with me when their sole goal is to sell me something I don’t need or even want. If any of these pricks actually took ten minutes to look at my Facebook profile or Twitter feed, they would probably be able to guess that I’m less likely to attend their “420-friendly reggae-metal jam!!” or gallery show of bad derivative paintings or acoustic poetry performance/hootenanny/rally for veganism than I am to shove Jon Cryer’s head up my ass whilst performing the entire songbook of Andrew Lloyd Webber in flawless Tagalog.

But they don’t know that, because I’m not a human to them. They’re pimps and I’m a john — an unwilling and uninterested one. They don’t notice if I never respond to any of their messages, never attend their events; they just keep spamming me, day after day, month after month, year after year, under the guise of a false camaraderie. (It’s even funnier when these are people whom I know for a fact don’t actually like me. You know who you are. Unfortunately for you, so do I.)

Luckily, I’m learning to be liberal with another Facebook button: the one that says Unfriend. As of today, if you’re one of these people, you are not on my friends list. And if you start becoming one of these people, I’ll kick your ass to the curb quicker than you can say “personal brand”. Sorry. Actually, no I’m not. I don’t care what you think.

This doesn’t extend to people who are actually my friends or colleagues or even acquaintances, or people who post events I care about. Even if I don’t show up to every play you put on or show your band plays, or even most of them, I’m more than happy to know when you’re putting on another event. And I think most of you know who you are.

The rest of you…well, I’d tell you to go fuck yourself, but you probably aren’t even seeing my posts anymore.

And the world seems a little lighter to me.

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Random Ontologies, Entry 2

When I was a very young kid, maybe five, I found the book Stranger Than Science by Frank Edwards — a sort of compendium of Forteana, UFO tales and ghost stories.

There was one story in the book about two American women — schoolteachers, as I remember — who were visiting Versailles on vacation. As they walked around the grounds, they turned a corner and found themselves surrounded by people in late 17th century clothing who appeared to be having some sort of party. Assuming it was some sort of historical re-creation event, the women observed the whole spectacle for a while, amused…but when they turned another corner, they found the “actors” had simply disappeared.

Turned out, of course, that there had been no such “event” held that day…and furthermore, when the Americans talked to one of the resident historians, they discovered that what they’d seen corresponded with a very specific party held during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

I have no idea of the veracity of this story, but it often occurs to me when I think about the theory of the multiverse — the notion that there are an infinite number of parallel universes, new ones being formed every nanosecond, each one containing one possible “timeline” of probability. (I’m simplifying the hell out of this, of course, but you get the general idea.) In this multiverse, adjacent universes would be almost identical to one another; for example, a nearby universe to ours would be absolutely identical except that one molecule of one leaf on one tree on one planet halfway across the galaxy would be slightly different. Presumably, the further you got away from any given universe (along some dimension perpendicular to linear time, one would guess) the universes you passed through would be more and more different from the one you started from.

Because an infinite number of universes would display an infinite number of possible initial conditions, not only any but every possible universe one could imagine, and an infinite number of universes one couldn’t, would exist — including universes where, say, everything was identical to ours, except human civilization started a few centuries earlier, but played out identially otherwise. Such a universe would seem absolutely identical to ours, but if we visited it it would seem like we’d gone back in time. (Dates would be the same, because nobody’s counting precisely from the time human life formed or anything.)

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the premise of the Michael Crichton novel Timeline, in which a group of medieval archaeologists have to travel back in time to feudal France, because otherwise it’d be a short and rather pointless book. Crichton pointed out, correctly, that most physicists who subscribe to the multiverse (or “many-worlds”) theory believe that other universes are impossible to reach from our own; that all of these universes are only permeable from one to another at the very smallest quantum levels of scale, where reality itself seems to break down entirely.

But here’s my question: if all of the “adjacent” universes are essentially identical to our own, how would you know if you’d walked out of one and into another, if everything was exactly the same except our one molecule on one leaf on one tree on one planet ten thousand light years away? How do you know it’s not happening all the time, a dozen or a hundred or a million times a day, you flitting from one reality to another, like walking back and forth across the border between one US state and another? What if we exist not in a single universe, but in a sort of cluster of probabilities, universes almost but not quite exactly the same?

And what if, one time out of a million or billion or trillion, you walked out of your own “home” universe into one that wasn’t identical enough as to be unnoticeable? One where, for example, it was still the 17th century, on a lazy summer day when Louis the Sun King was having a revelry in his country palace?

I’m not saying I believe this, or even necessarily think it’s possible. I see no reason why it couldn’t be possible, though the notion is a bit too tough for Occam’s razor to easily cut.

But what if the fundamental way reality works is much more complex than we think? And what if those teachers weren’t mad or lying?

What if they simply walked through a hole in one universe and spent a charming afternoon in another?

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The Indelicates – David Koresh Superstar

I’ve given up trying to explain The Indelicates to people, but if you put me against a wall and put a gun in my mouth and told me to describe them, I’d say “Mrrgh mrrff wgggffh fggghh”. Then, when you took the gun out of my mouth, I’d tell you that The Indelicates are like Belle & Sebastian meet Gilbert & Sullivan meet Sacco and Vanzetti. And that’s the last I’ll say on the subject.

David Koresh Superstar is a concept album, which is normally one of the more loathsome excesses of pop music. Or perhaps it’s a cast recording of a stage musical that never happened (at least, not yet): the life of Vernon Howell, better known to you and I as David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian Church of Waco, Texas, who collectively had a standoff with the federal government in 1993 that ended with Bradley tanks and machine guns and most of Koresh’s followers finding out firsthand if there really was a Heaven or not.

I grew up in Texas, not terribly far from Waco (though on the other side of Dallas), held in the bosom of that Old Time Religion; my great-grandfather was a minister — albeit a Methodist one, and Methodists are sort of like the caffeine-free diet Coke of Protestantism. We didn’t roll in the aisles or speak in tongues. (Though I did know a mentally challenged kid who became a snake-handling preacher after high school; he was once sodomized with a Golobulus G.I. Joe action figure by another kid while rummaging in a Dumpster, and I always wondered if that had anything to do with his later career choice. That’s a whole other story, though.) Texas Methodists are far more into Sunday potlucks and preachers in business casual playing acoustic guitar on the pulpit than any of the shit Koresh apparently got up to. But Texas is chock full of demented religious fervor, and I certainly knew and was exposed to a lot of people who fully believed that the Rapture was coming, possibly next week. You could tell who they were, because their big American cars all had bumper stickers warning of uncontrolled vehicles, were the Rapture to occur whilst they were driving.

Besides, Texas breeds lunatics. (I’m living proof.) In his brilliant and venomous routine about the Waco standoff, Bill Hicks said “Lemme see here: frustrated rock musician with delusions of grandeur, armed to the teeth and ready to fuck anything that moves. I don’t know how to tell you this…but that sounds like all of my friends in Austin.”

My point is that when Koresh went apeshit, it wasn’t actually all that surprising; and, as Hicks also pointed out, there’s a lot of evidence that the FBI and BATF’s handling of the standoff was a colossal clusterfuck, and that they basically slaughtered the Branch Davidians and Koresh…who were loopy, but not possibly actually breaking any laws; for foreigners and other aliens, it is not illegal to own a military-grade weapons cache in Texas. (Nor is it illegal to kill someone who comes onto your property without your permission; one of the funniest things to me, in the world, is that very little of what Leatherface does in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is actually against the law, since the teenage kids not only come onto his land without permission, but actually walk into his house without being given permission. As far as I know, the Texas law about defending your property from intruders doesn’t specify how you have to kill said intruders.)

It’s really interesting to hear the Indelicates’ take on all of this. I guessed, and Simon Indelicate confirmed, that he’s a fan of Garth Ennis’s remarkable, bloody, blasphemous and wholly incredible comic series Preacher, which — like David Koresh Superstar — deals with the trials and tribulations of a Texas preacher, albeit a very different one. Ennis is Irish and the Indelicates are British, and in both cases their Texas is a mythical landscape of gun-toting God-ridden white trash, a post-apocalyptic frontier landscape filtered through a thousand cowboy movies and the endless parade of embarrassing stories about the place in the global media. It’s strange to hear the voices of this passion play singing with English accents, the way it’s odd when an occasional Britishism comes out of the mouth of Preacher’s Jesse Custer, but of course these characters aren’t really Texan; they inhabit a notional Lone Star State.

The album follows Koresh’s life from his childhood to his ascension (if you can call it that) to cheap roadside messiah, and eventually to his sudden backhanded step into the global spotlight as a crazed cult leader who reportedly sport-fucked his way through the ranks of his female congregation and, of course, eventually led most of them to a horrible death at the hands of the Feds.

Both structurally and musically, it bears echoes of Luke Haines’s Baader-Meinhof record, which similarly narrated the history of the Red Army Faction. It has the same odd elements of 70s funk and acoustic folk; the similarity is most evident on opening track “Remember The Alamo”, first single “I Am Koresh”, and particularly “McVeigh”, an almost-disco track about Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh that’s reminiscent of “There’s Gonna Be An Accident” from Baader-Meinhof. It has always been apparent that The Indelicates are fans of Haines, his relentless acerbicism and his various musical products (The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder); it would seem like pastiche except for the fact that Simon Indelicate is at least as good a lyricist as Haines is, and certainly at least as clever. I would provide examples for you to pore over, but I don’t have a copy of the lyric sheet for DKS, so you’ll have to trust me.

The Indelicates aren’t playing this for cheap laughs, though the album is shot through with the darkest of black humor: it’s obvious that behind the absurdity and uniquely American excesses of Koresh’s tale, there’s a story about a frankly pathetic man whose delusions created a great deal of horror and terror for a group of people without the innate capacity to see through his cheap bullshit; brainwashed cultists or not, the Indelicates refuse to make them — or Koresh himself — the butt of the joke, and it turns what might have been a simplistic and cruel comedy record in less deft hands into a genuinely tragic musical story.

Not that they don’t use DKS to strike a few blows at the pomposity of musical theater and the notion of the “concept record” itself. “The Road From Houston To Waco”, Koresh’s first-person narrative of his life, sounds like a Broadway composer’s notion of country music (which sounds, to my ears, oddly like 70s-era Jimmy Buffett). “Something Goin’ Down In Waco” has a chorus of various voices that sounds like the unbearable moments in musical theater when spoken lines are shoehorned into sung lyrics. (If it’s not obvious, I labor under a lifelong hatred of musical theater.)

If DKS has an obvious flaw, it’s one that’s endemic to this genre of work: namely, a lack of subtlety. It’s very hard to write narrative non-fictional lyrics while still wrapping yourself in nuance and metaphor; a great example is Dylan’s “Hurricane”, which is maybe his least poetic work (while still being a kickass song). Doing an entire album means you’re sacrificing poetry for description; you stop asking questions and start making declarations. Simon balances this here as best he can, but you do lose a bit of the complexity that makes his work so interesting normally.

On the whole, though, I think David Koresh Superstar does precisely what it’s supposed to do, and does it perfectly well. The album’s story ends with “Superstar”, a melancholy ballad in which Julia Indelicate seemingly plays the part of an angel receiving Koresh into the afterlife, stripping him of his self-illusions and informing him of his precise place in history — which, according to many theologians and thinkers, would place him firmly in Hell. ”The Texas sky is great and wide, the ashes drift away / Stutters and drifts away,” Julia sings in her Received Pronunciation accent, and a piercing violin rides Koresh to his judgment.

The album ends properly with a gospel-style reworking of the old blues song “John The Revelator”, complete with choir, which Simon spits out with his characteristic venom. It’s a folk apocalypse, absolutely apropos as a coda to the story of a man who believed himself to be the American Messiah, only to discover at the end that no one at all was going to pluck him from the flames and carry him aloft on the wings of angels — his final and perhaps most important revelation, you might say.

I’ll be honest: when The Indelicates (who, full disclosure, are Internet friends of mine) announced this project, I was a bit nonplussed. But David Koresh Superstar absolutely surpassed my expectations. The Indelicates manage to capture both the deranged eschatological fervor of the Branch Davidians and the bland suburbanism of their aspirations. It’s a challenging and fascinating work from a fascinating and challenging band, and well worth your time.

David Koresh Superstar is available via a pay-as-you-like model from The Indelicates’ record label, Corporate Records.

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How can we go from 419 to Web 3.0?

Here’s a quote from an amazing TechCrunch article about former and current Nigerian 419 scammers by Sarah Lacy:

Boakye’s sheer hacker genius was the most astounding. It’s not just technical ability– he tries to figure out how the person who set up the security system he’s trying to break thinks, and outsmart him at his own game. If he can’t crack the software, he studies the hardware and learns its vulnerabilities. The way he described the chess match with this unknown nemesis reminded me of another entrepreneur in the Valley: Dennis Fong. Fong spent his teens as a professional gamer, better known by the name “Thresh.” He rarely lost thanks to an uncanny ability to anticipate opponents’ moves. Opponents called it “Thresh ESP,” and it earned him six-figure computing endorsement deals. The way Boakye explained how he breaks into multi-national banks was identical to Thresh’s approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hacked into at least one of my accounts by now just out of curiosity. I asked him not to do anything malicious, and he promised he wouldn’t. But we were both pretty convinced he could. As a person, I found these meeting more terrifying than my run in with Bones and his machete men in Alaba. As a business reporter, I couldn’t stop the broad smile from spreading across my face as we spoke, even breaking out in laughter once or twice. It’s the same Cheshire cat grin I get when I meet any amazing entrepreneur, anywhere in the world. You know them after five minutes of conversation. And several of these guys just had it. Born into a different circumstance, they could be on the cover of any magazine, ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq.

The article also points out that Nigeria’s small but fierce tech entrepreneur community is furious at the 419 scammers (or “Yahoo boys” as they’re called in Nigeria) for providing the ugly global face of Nigerian technology.

I have long been an advocate for an African technology community and industry. As Lacy points out in the quote above, the problem isn’t lack of ambition or knowledge; the problem is hooking into the outside global economy. (And probably things like endemic government corruption, one of the nasty legacies of Western colonialism everywhere.) The 419 scams always struck me as a fascinating example of the interface between the First World and the Third World; the criminals were the ones who caught on first and hardest on how to get the white man to part with his money.

One of the biggest hurdles for an African tech economy is that there’s no built-in local market for most tech revenue streams, aside from connectivity (re: cell phones, Internet cafés, etc.).There’s no b2b market and very little consumer market, because most people don’t have a whole lot of money. The real money for African tech companies, as far as I can tell, is exporting tech goods and services to the West…which means, as I said, that African entrepreneurs have to figure out how to hook into Western markets. It’s not just an economic problem; it’s also cultural, especially given the unfortunate reputation that Nigeria and other African countries have in the West, technology-wise.

(This is mostly conjecture on my part; I can’t claim to have any firsthand knowledge of Africa’s tech industry, other than things I’ve read and heard from people who’ve lived and worked over there.)

It would be wonderful to see a self-contained tech industry appear in Nigeria and Ghana and other West African nations. Most of the success stories I’ve heard seem as though they’re related to hardware and infrastructure-building (such as mobile phone-based projects). I can imagine why: mobile phones are usually subsidized by carriers whose main revenue stream is based on service contracts, and in a country like Nigeria where the average income is $330 per year, that means that mobile devices are probably often the primary technology that people are working with. It would be interesting to see how something like Google’s new strategy of renting netbooks monthly would go over there.

Personally, I wish there was more focus in the West on investment in African entrepreneurship rather than in relief aid. Don’t get me wrong; I fully understand that, for most Africans, technology advancement comes a distant second to having enough food and not getting murdered by some random lunatic asshole. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a solid place for us to focus on helping Africans help themselves, whether it be by helping to provide educational resources or straight-up venture capitalism.

I’d love to get involved in these sorts of initiatives, but a) I don’t have any money to invest, and b) I’m not a hardcore enough techie that my skillset would be appealing to nonprofits or anybody else trying to help start initiatives in Africa. I don’t have a BS (much less a master’s degree, which is often a requirement) and I’m a talented generalist, not a specialist. (I still think I would be extremely useful to any such organization, but the few times I’ve reached out and offered my services I’ve mostly been ignored.)

The day will come, though, when Africa becomes a force to be reckoned with in technology. Twenty years ago, who would’ve believed that India and Bangladesh would be hubs of technology labor? The wheel always turns; eventually, it’s going to turn south.

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The New Record

I sat down and talked with Aaron Archer (my extremely talented guitarist and friend) about the next Red State Soundsystem record (the next LP, not the Sophia Sessions EP of acoustic versions of Ghosts In A Burning City songs that I’m recording right now), and what it’s going to sound like. I told him I wanted to make a three in the morning dive bar record; music for drunk brokenhearted dudes who read Nietzsche and sultry girls in cocktail dresses with whiskey voices. A velvet and black leather record, a red and black record. I may have mentioned Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan several times, and also Paul Westerburg.

The long and short is this: I’m moving away from the sound of the last record. This new record is going to be more aggressive, a bit more rock and roll…though I’m not abandoning the ambience and electronica entirely. I told him I wanted to make an Afghan Whigs record as produced by Brian Eno. The album’s also going to be a bit less…eclectic…than the first one. Aaron’s going to be working with me a lot more on the arrangements, and I want the songs to have a unified sound. Which is not to say that all the songs will sound alike, but that they’ll probably jump around a bit less than the last one.

And I want it to be fucking noisy.

I have almost the entire record written, at least in terms of lyrics and chord progressions, and in the next couple of months Aaron and I are going to start the actual recording. I’ll probably drop rough mixes of a couple of the tracks, as we go.

So there’s that.

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“Heroes” « Pushing Ahead of the Dame

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

via “Heroes” « Pushing Ahead of the Dame.

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Thanks For All The…Well, You Know.

In 1987, when I was nine years old, I was living in the tiny village of Afşin, Turkey, with my grandparents — my grandfather was working on a coal refinery project for TEK (the Turkish electric company). We lived in a little compound for the expatriate workers, made up of a few blocks of Soviet-style apartment buildings, some small brick houses, a commissary that kept us in American and European cereal and bootleg VHS tapes of American TV shows, and a pub that served Turkish Efes beer and the most amazingly wonderful greasy-as-hell pizza I’ve ever eaten.

There was also a “library” of sorts: a small storage room in the basement of one of the buildings, filled with paperbacks and book club editions of pop novels and such. It never occurred to me, until this moment, to wonder where the books came from; I guess they were just donated by various people working on the projects over the five years or so they were there.

I was a bibliophile, even at nine years old. I learned to read rather astonishingly early — my mother says I was reading signs aloud at the age of about eighteen months — and I’ve been a speed-reader my entire life. By the time I ended up in Turkey, I was already reading at least at a high school level. I devoured books, and still do to this day (one of the many things I have in common with my wife). By the time I discovered our compound’s little library, I had probably already read all of the books I’d brought with me from America, as well as the Asterix The Gaul comics my grandparents had picked up for me in Istanbul.

So I was eager to find something new in the maybe half-dozen shelves of the library. But most of it was Harlequin-style romance, a few technical engineering manuals, Harold Robbins and Stephen King, whom I was terrified of. (It took me at least a year or two after returning from Turkey to get into Big Steve’s stuff.) Nothing that looked really interesting to me.

And then I found a small Pan Books paperback, well-worn already, with a picture of a little green grinning sphere on the cover giving the reader a raspberry, and a giant hand with a thumb on it. The title was The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The author was Douglas Adams.

I picked it up, sat down on the floor of the library, and began reading. When I got to the sentence “The ships hung in the air in much the way that bricks don’t,” I was absolutely hooked…and I have been ever since.

Fast-forward many years, to May 11, 2001, ten years ago to the day. I was living in Seattle at the time, in the middle of, shall we say, difficult circumstances. I turned on my computer, logged on to Yahoo! News, and saw the headline: “Author Douglas Adams dies”. The article said that Adams had died while exercising at his home in Santa Barbara. He was exactly two months past his forty-ninth birthday.

I went outside, and I sat on the little concrete stoop of the house I was living in, and I cried. I cried as if a close friend had died, despite the fact that I never met Douglas Adams and only had one very brief email correspondence with him. (It consisted of me asking to interview him for a magazine and him promising to let me do so once the novel he was working on, The Salmon Of Doubt, was finished, which he expected to be very soon. That was 1996. He still hadn’t finished it at the time of his death. That was, as I understand it, par for the course for Adams.)

In many ways, Adams was responsible for making me who I am today. I found his work at an extremely pivotal moment in my mental development, when the world was just beginning to really open up for me. Something in me responded instantly to his particular type of existential absurdism, even at the tender age of nine. I was a terribly geeky kid, obsessed with physics and astronomy and computers, and the worlds of Arthur Dent and Dirk Gently were the kind of worlds I wanted so desperately to live in — worlds where particle physics formed the basis of all the best parties. Anyone who knows me and knows his work can probably guess that the foundation of my sense of humor lies in Adams’s work. Adams opened me up to a whole world of new ideas — Monty Python, P.G. Wodehouse, Doctor Who. (I even forgive him for his occasional digs at Rolling Stones fans.)

By all accounts, Douglas Adams was a kind, funny, excitable, garrulous and very large man who seemed incapable of ignoring the wonder of the world he found himself in. His intellectual curiosity — and ability to always place even the most monumental of events, ideas and scientific theories into a very silly frame — has been an inspiration to me my entire life. Though I never met him, I miss him terribly — I miss his voice – and I am envious of those lucky people who got to know him and have him in their lives.

Man, I wanted to be Ford Prefect so bad. I used to throw myself at the ground, trying to miss.

It never worked. But I still keep trying.

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At Least Sometimes

So this girl comes over and asks you to dance She’s a warm refugee from the cold middle class And you wanna take her home and sing her All your love songs But you feel so awkward and stupid and lame That you can’t even manage to spit out your name And she walks away disappointed And you walk away with your heart on

With your heart on your sleeve ‘Cause you’d love to believe That in love it is better To give than receive That someone’s waiting for you in the night Yeah, you’d love to believe that forever and ever Is not just some poet being clever That everything will all work out alright

At least sometimes

So you stumble back to your sad little room And your roommate laughs, ’cause you’re home so soon And you crumble in about a thousand little ways And you watch all the movies on late night TV About people in places you’d rather be Falling for each other As the soaring music plays

And nobody goes for the kiss too soon And everything’s lit by the glow of the moon And when he calls She answers the phone And nothing ever ends in regret For the words that were spoken Or weren’t spoken yet And nobody ever Ends up alone

At least sometimes

So this girl comes over and tries to be cool But she’s stumbling over her words like a fool And you slowly realize, And you start to smile…

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