Well folks, the gods of money and free time have finally collaborated to give your Dear Author a free moment to address the mounting pile of correspondence sitting on his virtual desk.

Sound good? Cool, let’s dive right in!

FUCK OFF, spies like YOU!

Swear to god, this is a real email I received from a Romanian living in California. It goes on for some length, saying things like this:

You are crystal clear a SPION = SLEEP CELL!

Wow. I swear, there were times when this possibly could have been true but alas, it never came to pass. I say alas because there’s something kind of thrilling about being part of a conspiracy. Whether it’s a group of government-sanctioned individuals or a rogue network, it’s kind of fun to be making plots. Plus, there are usually some benefits, including money.

For what it’s worth, I’m really not a spy. As for being part of a sleeper cell, unfortunately, that’s untrue as well. I sometimes feel like I’m half asleep, but I just don’t have any secret plans to pull off a really dramatic move and “awaken” some kind of plan, or plot, or action, or device.

It’s really just me here, me and my wife and a gaggle of animals.

Sorry I haven’t written you lately. I’ve been quite ill.

That’s okay. I don’t even really know who you are. But I hope you feel better soon! It was kind of… *ahem*, intimate of you to tell me all about your psychological troubles, though.

Stay positive!

I want to advertise my [product/book/service/concert/etc] on your blog!

Oh gosh. You know, I’m pretty much a mole (or perhaps gopher is the better term) on the internet. I am deep down in some weird corners of the internet most weeks, so I realize that pretty much all of these marketing messages are “fake”. No, that’s not the right word. They’re just shotgun broadsides that occasionally hit my email without getting caught up in Google’s spam filters.

The truth is that I highly doubt that anything being pitched to me is worth abusing the trust of my readers. I’m kind of weird about my pride sometimes. For instance, I’ve asked several strangers during my life to help me jump my car but I’d rather walk five kilometers than ask a stranger for money to ride the bus.

Make sense? Probably not. Long story short, unless you’re both a real human being and want to advertise something to make Romania and Moldova a better place, I’m probably not interested.

True story, though: I’ve actually used internet gophers before. It was a weird thing to be sure, but then again, the internet was a pretty weird place back in 1993. For instance, the very first time I ever saw the internet with my own eyes, I was using a Sun Sparcstation. Don’t ask me how I remember that!

How’s married life going?

Pretty well, thanks! I don’t know what to say more than that. I’m not the wisest person walking this earth, but it does seem to be that every relationship is unique. In other words, what works for me (and my wife) isn’t always applicable to anyone else, so I always feel hesitant to say too much to avoid other people feeling like they need to compare their situation to mine (for better or for worse).

Long story short = still married, no kids unless you count a bunch of furry creatures, and we’re doing good.

Sam, when are you coming (back) to Romania?

Good question! I honestly have no idea. It’s more about money than anything else. I live in Chisinau right now and it’s kind of like a big black hole that’s hard to get out of. The roads are shit (not that I own a car), the train is slow as molasses, and the only place the plane flies is Bucharest. And I honestly can’t think of a reason I need to be in Bucharest right now.

Strangely enough, my wife has been to Romania a bunch of times over the past year. One organization or another paid for her trips because she’s so smart and interesting. So far, nobody’s knocking on my door with a similar offer :P

Do you miss Romania?

Of course! Good lord, I spent a decade of my life there having all kinds of adventures. But right now I’m doing this married thing and living in Moldova, so it is what it is. Maybe I’m afraid that if I go back once, I’ll be homesick. Or maybe there’s still work for me to do here right now.

All in good time, eh?

How’s the Russian going?

Uh, not too well, despite all claims to the contrary. Chisinau is practically a different universe than the rest of Moldova, so what goes down here is a bit different than what all those poor Peace Corps people deal while out in their country settings (I mention the PC only because they write some pretty good blogs).

Around here, the educated people tend to speak English, and the vast majority of folks speak Romanian. Yes, they all speak Russian too, but being monolingual is pretty rare. I’d estimate maybe 10% of the people I deal with only speak Russian (or pretend to), and I’ve got enough go-to phrases to deal with that. After all, it’s not that frigging hard to memorize a few sentences like “How much does it cost?” and all the numbers. In terms of personal relationships, everyone I know either speaks English or Romanian, including a very sweet friend of ours who is from Moscow.

What is kind of weird is how much Russian is infiltrating my brain through some weird osmotic process. The other day I was standing on a street corner lost in thought when I saw one of the ubiquitous Aquarelle ads that are everywhere and I glanced over and saw this:

And my eye focused on the bit of English (Balkan Pharmaceuticals) and I realized holy shit, I understood every fucking word written underneath (здоровье людей – наша миссия). In Latin letters, it says “Zdorove lyudei, nasha missiya” which means “Public health is our mission” or perhaps “Our mission is keeping people healthy”.

How did I know that? No clue. But the Cyrillic alphabet is no longer twisting my brain banana like it used to. Even the weird “lowercase” version where “m” is mysteriously “t” and all that jazz.

So it goes!

Sam, what was all that talk about gophers and moles earlier?

Ah, my apologies. If you can forgive one more animal metaphor, I do act a bit squirrelly sometimes.

Okay, where to start? Back in the real good old days when the spooks at DARPA and eggheads like Tim Berners-Lee were actually designing the internet, what do you think they expected would come of it?

Really. Imagine you had a time machine and could go back and sit in on a brainstorming session with the smartest computer scientists on the planet, and you ask them, “Hey, what do you think people will do with all these networked computer once it goes public?” And no matter how long that list of possible applications (play games, send messages, etc) was, do you think that they would’ve ever guessed that the internet would contain so many frigging cats? Hell no.

Of course, looking at it now, it actually was pretty predictable. People have had a weird relationship with cats for a really long time (at least 10,000 years). Cats are (objectively!) much different than every other animal on the planet, starting with the fact that they purr (and scientists still have no idea how they do it) and continuing to the fact that they’re the only “domesticated” animal generally A) not eaten for their meat or B) doing anything resembling “work”. Yeah.

So, roll back the clock and you’ve got ancient Egyptians mummifying literally tens of thousands of cats (to say nothing of carving all those statues) and the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH, the Muslim one) writing long paeans about how much he loved them, and yeah, cats are the world’s most popular pet, hands down.

Think about that for a second. There are roughly 600 million cats on the planet, and yet they don’t pull any carts, don’t help plow fields, aren’t raised for their fur, and (almost) never get eaten. Triple weird.

But back to the internet. We all tend to think of the internet as being used the way we use it. For example, we think of the internet as a place where we download movies and music, send messages to our friends, and write about what is interesting to us. And so the natural presumption is that the other billion people on the internet are doing approximately the same thing.

And that is true. But there are other things living on the internet besides people. I’m not just talking about botnets, but little scraps of “microbial life” too, bits of scripts, codes, unfinished documents, oceans of “draft” versions of things, lost accounts, and tons of other flotsam and jetsam. There are forgotten websites both on the regular internet and the “dark web”. Oddball pictures, tiny avatars, icons, emojis, stickers, and GIFs that are sitting around on lost servers whirring away somewhere in a closet.

We tend to spend time on the “good” internet, the place where there’s actual life, where real human beings post comments or fix connectivity issues, data that’s active and doing things. But it’s simply too easy to launch and deploy automated things that fire off millions of rounds, and some of those fail to either hit their target or decay into nothingness.

Think about this. When you look something up in your favorite search engine (and no, the entire world does not use Google hehe) and it says “2,867,000 results”, it’s easy to overlook all those low results. But what happens when you burrow down to the 2 millionth result? What will you find? I’ll tell you what it is – nonsense. It’s some kind of fossilized wake left behind from a fired “torpedo” of ancient SEO crud, link farms and auto-generated websites and clunky copy written for microcents by some poor bastard sweating in an internet cafe on an island in the Philippines you’ve never even heard of.

But there’s much more of this “crap” out there than some webpage ranked at number 2 million by Google. If you’re a coder, you know about “libraries”, little chunks of data that someone, somewhere wrote a hundred years ago and have since been recycled a billion times since. There’s a good reason why ATMs (UK: cash point, RO: bancomat) fail on a regular basis. Some of the code being used by even the biggest banks is positively ancient. Next time you’re withdrawing 20 lei* from one of those things, take a look at just how old and crappy that interface is. Honestly, it looks worse than the computer I was using 20 years ago to gopher through the internet.

* My local bancomat lets you take out as little as 20 lei, which is roughly 1 US dollar, and I’ve spent far too many hours ruminating on what that says about Moldova and ATMs in general.

This section is already getting too long, so I’ll wrap this up by saying that I’m not a programmer. The hip-deep crud I wade through on a daily basis is all the shit in English (or pseudo globish) that is analogous to the ancient code in the local bank’s ATM machine. For instance, roughly 99% of the stuff sold on the internet is made in China, and somewhere, some poor guy is tasked with ginning up some English-language material to sell, describe, and otherwise market that said stuff. And that gets propagated through a million channels until it lands on Amazon or wherever else that people buy stuff.

Some of the money I make is polishing those literary turds into something that can then be stuffed back into marketing shotguns and blasted at untold millions of email addresses, Prime members, and Facebook accounts.

Sam, tell the story about the pigeons!

I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m no longer responding to genuine correspondence. Is that true? Ah, better not to ask ;)

I read a lot. It’s part of my job and it’s also part of my nature. And one day I came across a story about an Australian manufacturer that had trained pigeons to sort pills (or maybe it was some other object) as they came down the line. And all was well until some animal rights organization sued and said that forcing pigeons to work all day sorting pills (or whatever it was) was cruel. The net result was that the company had to hire humans to do the work formerly done by pigeons.

I can’t seem to find the original story, so maybe I’m remembering it wrong, but I do know that pigeons can actually sort things, so I don’t think it’s all my imagination. But my mind kept going back to those humans who were working in the factory after the pigeons were “fired.” What did it feel like to be doing a pigeon’s job?

And then I realize that pretty much every dollar (or leu) that I’ve ever earned has been from pushing a series of plastic buttons on a keyboard. Yes, it’s a bit more complicated than sorting colors, but what kind of work is that really, to push keys all day long? Isn’t that a kind of pigeon work?

Well, yes and no. In a bygone era, I would’ve been moving a goose feather dipped in ink across a page made from animal skin, but is that really any different than tapping square plastic keys? Go visit a really old monastery and you can see the place they called the scriptorium, effectively the medieval version of what drove poor old Bartleby insane.

Some days, it just feels like it’s pigeon work all the way down.

Sam, quit being so maudlin! You’ve got to end on a high note.

Good advice!

Uh, let’s see. Well, I’ve got my health and my wife does too, so that’s a blessing. The three cats drive us nuts, but only in the normal, everyday way that cats do. The dog is far saner, but she mostly only cares about playing with other dogs and eating literally anything on the planet that has a modicum of nutritional value.

What else? Well, spring is here, and that’s nice. They’re shifting the clocks back next week, but for now, it feels really natural to have the sun pop up nice and cheerful when we wake up and go (fairly) strong throughout the day.

Oh, and I quit my bizarre “legitimate” job that was more akin to serving aboard a pirate ship than clocking in at a “respectable” job like sorting pills at some pharmaceutical factory. They ended up screwing me out of a couple hundred euros, but honestly, I don’t wish my former employer any ill will. I learned quite a lot there, although not because of anything they did, but because I “dove deep” into all kinds of subjects I had never even considered before (especially “development”, a topic for another day).

Honestly, I feel much, much better working (solely) for myself again. I’m not saying I’ll never go work a “regular” job again, but I feel way better mentally and physically when I can focus on work without being constantly interrupted by ridiculous shit like open plan offices, meetings, and other corporate bullshit. And I actually make more money sitting at home, so that’s definitely a plus.

As for what the future holds for me, I just don’t know. Onwards and upwards!


One thought on “Mailbag

  1. So you’re not a spy, how disappointing!! Your blog will lose lots of readers. :)) It’s not a common thing to read a spy’s blog. On the other hand, you just missed the opportunity to be the very first spy that says “Yes, I’m a spy! Keep reading”.
    Now, supposing that you’re OK with the “immigration office” or perhaps the other way around, how many money do you think you’ll need to move back to Ro? No joke here, maybe your fans here can do something, you know?


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