Saturday, January 07, 2006

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Captain Future's Log

Ranting Back at the Engineers of Interconnected Ignorance

Charlie Rose just had one of those fascinating and infuriating group interview shows on what’s next in technology and society, global economics and the U.S.

These people---like the head cheese of Cisco systems, president of Stanford U., John Doerr and Ether Dyson who have so many titles for so many entities (virtual or not) that they should have extra names---are undoubtedly smart, and they make a lot of sense on a number of issues. Doerr has a list for immediate needs, like a commitment to 100,000 new engineers from U.S. schools (and the end of idiotic Homeland Security laws that chase away foreign students) in four years, U.S. energy independence in five years, commitment to dealing with pandemics, plus real broadband, real health care, actual education in schools, etc. These priorities (many being widely shared among technology celebrities and ceos) are inarguable.

How far the U.S. has fallen behind in Internet related technology, in producing scientists and engineers, as well as in supporting a decent society with good public health, health insurance, education and respect for learning---it's all an immense and depressing scandal.

But some of the rah rah for innovations that technology will and should create, especially via the Internet, are a lot more troublesome. Some are the product of the limitations of scientific and engineering thinking. Some are just dumb.

For example, the idea that all information will be and should be digital, because it makes it accessible to more people. This is part of the Internet=Everything approach, so typical of a new technology yet in this case particularly dangerous because it’s possible.

In ten years, says Ether Dyson, the Internet will be like electricity---you won’t even think about it, you’ll just think about what you can do with it. It’s got a McLuhanesque prophetic non sequiter ring to it, and it’s also functionally insane. Because a great many of our real problems today are due to the fact that we don’t think about electricity, the infrastructure that delivers it, the costs to individuals and the planet of how we deliver it and especially the energy used.

On a practical level, it’s very easy for me to focus on this because I’ve just gone for 36 hours without electricity---and people I know who live within a couple of miles went 3 or 4 days, and within15 or 20 miles went 6 days without it. But 36 hours was enough to teach the lessons that we are more and more dependent on electricity---even for (as I mentioned in previous posts) things that didn’t used to be, like gas heating and cooking. So there are a lot of people around here talking about getting blowers for woodstoves that are powered by the heat of the stove itself, or kicking themselves for throwing out their manual typewriters.

The lesson may be forgotten, but fried systems and downed lines due to storms (which are likely to increase in many places in the next decade) or supply and demand problems and other infrastructure difficulties are both real and indicative. The same fossil fuel energy that is fueling those storms through global heating, is the energy that is running out. Local disruptions are likely to increase as the problems of supply and infrastructure grow.

And though technologists don’t like to point it out, the tremendous growth of the Internet has accounted for a large percentage of the growth in energy use. One normally tech-friendly futurist predicts that Internet use will soon consume as much power as the entire U.S. economy did way back in 2001. A single server farm uses as much energy as the city of Honolulu. Not to mention the tremendous energy used to build computers and especially make all the materials used (and wasted) in their construction. And so on. Not thinking about it is ignoring the cost, in pollution and the sicknesses created, in our current unthinking global suicide. (I'm not saying that Dyson would necessarily disagree, just that it's the kind of glib statement she made that gets repeated as the whole answer.)

And don’t tell me wireless is the solution—microwave technologies are quite vulnerable, and also depend on the physical world of structures with transmitters, as well as energy sources.

I ask you, who in their right mind would discard multiple ways of storing and presenting “information” in favor of a single highly vulnerable system? Scientists and engineers and people who would make a lot of money creating such a system, apparently.

Unless and until highly portable, decentralized, highly efficient, sustainable and renewable energy systems are widely and cheaply available as part of every electronic device, linked to a digital distribution infrastructure that is impervious to physical or software sabotage or disruption, this Internet as Everything within ten years is a moronic fantasy.

And if you haven’t accomplished this and a lot more in ten or maybe twenty years, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to have this fantasy ever again, at least in this millennium.

The urge to digitize entire libraries is supposed to supplant the need for those libraries, which the president of Stanford characterized as imprisoning information within walls. That’s very attractive to schools like Humboldt State, strapped for cash, which has already gone two years without buying a single new book for its library, apparently with little complaint.

I don’t see libraries as imprisoning information; I see libraries as protecting information. Make it accessible, of course. But don’t destroy it. (I can hear them objecting now—of course, we didn’t mean burn the books. Well, wake up, dreamers. They’ve already burned the card catalogues. Now in a brownout nobody can find anything. Of course, you burn the books. The San Francisco Library did when it went digital. I suspect the practice is widespread, even before digitizing those destroyed books was affordable. Who can afford to store them? And pretty soon, who can afford to print more? Sure, this is a broad question with many individual solutions, but the prediction was also broad.)

Then there’s the knotty problem of who is going to pay “content providers” in this new digital world. There are real problems involved, but the solutions I heard proposed show the fundamental idiocy embedded in the very vocabulary used to discuss these matters.

We have to find a way to “pay content providers” so they will have “incentive to create content,” as Charlie explained on the behalf of panelists. The Cisco Kid said that the wave of the future would be to pay not for information or access but for interaction. His two examples were: you don’t pay the doctor to take your blood pressure. You take it online yourself. You pay the doctor to interpret it, along with other medical information; you can instantly get three or four opinions on the same information. Second, you don’t pay somebody to write something, you pay them to answer questions about it.

The practicality of getting four competent doctors to comment on the same trivial case aside, the writer example gave me chills, perhaps because it revived every fear sweated into me by some of my English lit professors who took the Leavis side over C.P. Snow in the perennial Two Cultures debate, particularly on the cultural cluelessness of engineers.

I presume some of these “content providers” are artists, musicians and literary writers. First of all, they don’t need to be paid as “incentive.” They need to be paid so they can a) live and b) write, not necessarily in that order. Incentive is not the problem.

Secondly, this seems to propose that you don’t pay Doris Lessing or Gabriel Garcia Marquez for writing their books. You pay them for answering questions about them.

In some ways, this is only an extension of what’s been happening for the past two decades, which is writers like Doris Lessing are forced to go on book tours and promote their books in order to get paid. Now writers must do Internet chats, etc. or their publishers may very well refuse to publish them. Agents are more interested in your marketing plan than your words. (Whereas nobody seems to care about the expertise at writing of a marketing expert.) This is due to the marriage of technology and business. And this might be a real rather than prophetic example of the Cisco Kid’s belief that “technology will dictate business strategy.”

But promotion makes celebrities, not writers. And only someone who doesn’t have the foggiest notion of what a literary work is, who possibly has never read a literary novel or even a short poem of Rumi, could possibly suggest that the proper job of literary writers is explaining what they write.

By all means give us 100,000 new engineers, and teach them Chinese while you’re at it. But you’d better pay some attention to developing 100,000 new literature majors if you want a society in which humans can be human. And make a few new portable typewriters while you’re at it.

Friday, January 06, 2006

New DNA studies trace the cat lineage through many
continental migrations. They are the most successful nonhuman predators,
yet all but the housecat and a few small species of the 37 in existence
are now endangered. There are fewer than 15,000 tigers,
snow leopards and cheetahs (pictured; a species that developed
in North America) left in the wild. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, January 05, 2006

"Pink Spiral Leap" by Elizabeth Murray Posted by Picasa

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Some say the novel is dead. But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Quaker Invasion of Guantanamo

AT THE CENTER OF A LARGE, sparsely furnished room in an Arcata home -- so large a room that a grand piano at its far end is conspicuous but not dominant -- six Humboldt citizens gather in a circle on an oatmeal rug. With afternoon light spattering off the leaves of trees beyond a wall of windows, or in a cocoon of lamplight against the winter evening darkness outside, they talk about what they've done to further their agenda, and consider their next steps. They spend a large part of their time together -- perhaps 35 minutes of it -- in silence.

They've been meeting like this at the home of Dr. Fred Adler and Carol Cruickshank at least once a month for a year now. They are trying to do something that's never been done: To go with official permission to the Guantanamo Bay prison on the island of Cuba for a week, to visit with the prisoners and their captors, to offer comfort and bear witness to what both groups are enduring. Guantanamo is where the U.S. government has brought men and boys from 38 countries to be interrogated and held as part of the "war on terrorism."

That these six comprise a tiny group of ordinary citizens in a forlorn corner of the country would seem to make their attempt even more futile. But their efforts have already involved Rep. Mike Thompson, the U.S. Defense Department and hundreds of other people in California and across the country.

For my complete article published today as the cover of the North Coast Journal, go here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

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The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"If you have to ask what poetry is good for, it's never going to be any good for you."

Jim Harrison
Death and Its Strange Bedfellows

There's a little flurry of interest on the web concerning the death by hospital decision of Tirhas Habtegiris, who I wrote about here, notably on skeptical

It seems to have been prompted by a commentary in Slate by Steven E. Landsburg. This column is obtuse in the extreme. There is no paragraph after the opening one in which Landsburg gets the point.

The opening graph however is interesting in how he decides to summarize the case:

Tirhas Habtegiris, a 27-year-old terminal cancer patient at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas, was removed from her ventilator last month because she couldn't pay her medical bills. The hospital gave Ms. Habtegiris' family 10 days' notice, and then, with the bills still unpaid, withdrew her life support on the 11th day. It took Ms. Habtegiris about 15 minutes to die.

The facts reproduce those in the two TV station reports, the only reporting I've seen. But he goes farther than those reports in stating categorically that Habtegiris was taken off life support because her bills weren't paid.

But then Landsburg goes off on a bizarre riff about the relative value of ventilator insurance and a quart of milk to a poor person. In countering a blogger's claim that pulling the plug on a conscious person wasn't "compassionate", he lectures thusly:

Now let me remind you what "compassion" means. According to Merriam-Webster Online (which, by virtue of being online, really ought to be easily accessible to bloggers), compassion is the "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it." By that definition, there is nothing particularly compassionate about giving ventilator insurance to a person who really feels a more urgent need for milk or eggs. One might even say that choosing to ignore the major sources of others' distress is precisely the opposite of sympathetic consciousness.

It takes a very active if deformed imagination to interpret the act of compassion the blogger--or any other non-deluded person--meant as providing this woman with ventilator insurance (whatever that may be I personally have never seen it offered.)

Landsburg doesn't even bother to spell out his premise, as if we all share it with him: that if someone doesn't have ventilator insurance, or some other means to pay, then naturally they deserve to die.

Let's stipulate that there are some moral ambiguities in this situation, particularly in the fact that this woman would not live without the intervention of a ventilator machine. But it can be argued---and it seems to me---that this is a distinction in degree and not in kind, from any sort of life-saving care. If someone is denied medication to avoid an oncoming heart attack--if you refuse to go get the pills--how different is that?

To most reasonable people, the compassion referred to here is in continuing to provide care to a conscious living person, to abide by her wishes to continue living, and work out who is going to pay for it later (as if there aren't a thousand ways to manage that.) At minimum, to keep her on the ventilator until her final wish is granted: to die in the arms of her mother, then in Africa and unable to get to the hospital in Texas within the 10 day to death sentence. That's the "compassion" argument.

But there is an even more fundamental issue, which is: justice. How is this different from murder? This is reportedly a conscious person. Can you define keeping a machine on for the time it takes for her to die as extraordinary means? Yes, the woman was defined as terminally ill. But death is certain for everyone, though the time it will occur is generally uncertain. Everyone who is murdered is therefore dead "before their time," if that time might be 60 years or 60 seconds.

There are laws and rules about allowing certain terminally ill patients to die by withdrawing life support, but as far as I know, these require the patient to be persistently unconscious, or "brain-dead." In other words, the person as a person is already dead. There is an argument for "mercy killing" if the patient wishes to die rather than suffer prolonged pain leading directly to death. But neither of these seems to have been the situation. She was conscious, and not asking to be relieved of her life. The fact is that this woman's death at that time required an act: turning off the machine. Under the circumstances as we know them so far, how is that different in kind from hitting her in the head with a pipe?

And if a conscious person is denied life because she can't pay her bills, how is this different from murder for money?

My first concern here is that there has been no serious reporting on this situation. Until we know the facts in more detail--what the true situation in the hospital was, what the law was and what it says that was applied to her case, along with some idea of the laws and rules and ethics that bear on this situation, we're all just speculating.

However, if Landsburg's commentary is all we get, we're all in big trouble. Behind all our concerns is the spectre of you or me in that hospital bed. Maybe Landsburg is well fixed enough to not worry. Few of us are.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

monarchs Posted by Picasa

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Depth is hidden. Where? On the surface."

A little wind overnight, some driving rain today, but by afternoon it's settled down. Some 20,000 Humboldt County residents are still without power--that's about a third of the total. Our main access highway still is blocked about an hour to the north, and access south is intermittent. The governator has declared a state state of emergency for this county among others. Damage to roads and bridges is still being assessed, there's concern about contaminated water supplies, local reporting is still dangerously abysmal.

So on to the main business of the day, which is:

The New Year's Eve Story

With no electricity, and a soggy night outside, we settled in for a quiet New Year's Eve by the fire. We'd finished our Scrabble game. Margaret was leading most of the way but I finished strong to squeak out a last minute victory. Scrabble is a frustrating game; I actually had the word "Zodiac" and no place on the board to put it. But that's not my story.

Although I should say that it occurred to me while we were playing that this particular board had been in my family since I was a child. A couple of summers ago, while I was in San Francisco on an article for the Chronicle, Margaret spend a couple of days with her mother, her mother's sisters and her son. They all played Scrabble on this board. So it occured to me that Margaret had played with her mother on this board, and I with mine. It's their only point of contact, since my mother died many years before I'd even met Margaret.

We'd finished our game and we were talking, about something Margaret had read. I think I'd just said something about "consensual reality" when we heard a loud coughing. It had to be just outside. We assumed it was a student outside the students-occupied house across the street, or on our side of the street, perhaps going to a car. But the cough repeated without moving. Then it was a voice, sounding angry. A female voice. Then nothing. Now we were both thinking it was a drunken student. Then we were interupted again by a bad coughing fit, and I grabbed a flashlight--we were each carrying one, to supplement the candles in various parts of the house--and opened the front door.

I saw somewhat sprawled on the bottom of the two steps onto our porch an older woman with long hair, looking up at me. She was soaking wet. I didn't recognize her but I thought who it might be. I called to Margaret, "Is this the woman from" and I named a house in our neighborhood. Margaret came and looked. Yes, it was.

When we moved in here, an elderly woman came by one day to introduce herself, and she told us a little about the neighborhood, and the people who had lived in this house. We didn't see her much after that, and then several years ago, she passed away. Two women moved into her house, one of them her daughter. She was also elderly. The other woman moved away, and the daughter remained. She was a bit strange but harmless. I think I only saw her once or twice, but Margaret had some dealing with her, enough to realize that she was having a lot of problems with her short term memory.

Vans come nearly every day to pick her up, and there was often another car there, and another woman. She was being taken care of. That's all I knew.

But on New Year's Eve she had been alone in her dark house. She was trying to get on our front porch because she thought she was at her house. As we took her home, she told us she had been asleep, and seen lights and heard noises in the back yard. She went outside and there was no one there, but people were shooting at her. She became confused and had been wandering around.

The lights and noises weren't in themselves delusions; at a party down the street, they had shot off some fireworks early in the evening. In her house, furniture was overturned. A chair and a table in the living room. While Margaret cleaned her up a bit and tried to find dry clothes in her bedroom, I found the phone. It was hooked up to some electrical device I couldn't identify and couldn't see clearly with a flashlight---I assumed it was some alert device, useless now without electricity, and even worse, since the phone was hooked up to it, the phone was useless.

We asked her if there was someone we could call. She said her brother lived across the street. She told us his name, several times. So while Margaret got her dry and in dry clothes, I went back to our house and looked up the brother's name. Indeed it was in the phone book, and I called him. It was in fact her brother, though he didn't live in the neighborhood, and said he and his sister "weren't close anymore." Her children, he said, did live in the area, and he would call them. She had told us her children didn't live nearby (she told us she had three), and in a way she was right.

Her brother did thank me for being concerned; there were times I felt he was expecting to hear bad news about her.

I went back to the woman's house, filled Margaret in, then came back to find a flashlight we could leave with her. It was clear the woman was trying to be charming with us, but she couldn't remember anything for more than a few minutes (she kept trying the electricity, and we had to explain over and over that it was off for everyone.) Margaret got her dry and into bed, and we went home. No one from her family arrived. I checked outside her house after midnight, when there was another round of fireworks and noise, but it seemed quiet.

Margaret went to her house on New Year's morning, and found her with another woman, her caregiver. They exchanged information. Her caregiver was with her for half-days, and said she hadn't been aware of her adventure the night before, or that she had ever wandered before. She was surprised to learn that the woman's brother was in fact in the general area and that they weren't in touch. The woman spoke of him often with great affection, though continuing to believe he lived down the block.

The woman had a psychologist she saw, and someone who took care of her finances, though the caregiver didn't think either of them paid much attention to her really. But the caregiver said that in the two years she had taken care of the woman, she had never seen any of her children.

Just as this storm and its consequences weren't far away, and something I was reading about on the Internet or seeing on TV, I realized that this woman's plight wasn't being described to me in a news story or a media report,that I might get upset and indignant about. It was in my own neighborhood, and I hadn't paid much attention to its earlier chapters. Until there was a woman with wet gray hair lying literally on my doorstep. Who thought she had finally made it home.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Magritte Posted by Picasa

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"There is a mystery to the universe. But what is it?"

Rene Magritte
The Local Report

We're doing fine, the sun is shining in a scattered cloudy sky. Apparently there was some local damage, but no direct loss of life due to the storm and the various outages, at least as the local media reports so far. But many small communities still face power, water and sewage problems.

Speaking very locally, I'm happy to report that the hummingbirds seem to have made it through. Not only did the wind and rain make feeding impossible, the wind and rain overnight shook the nectar out of the feeder so even when it was calm enough to feed, there wasn't anything there until lazybones got up. But I saw one back at the feeder yesterday, and at least two today. They aren't likely to be around here for very much longer, but I'm glad they made it through okay. I'm sure you are, too.
Blow It Up, Blow the Money, Go Home

If you need any further evidence of the complete bankruptcy of the Bushwar in Iraq, there is this from the Washington Post: [my interpolations in blue]

The Bush administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request going before Congress in February, officials say. The decision signals the winding down of an $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding effort in which roughly half of the money was eaten away by the insurgency, a buildup of Iraq's criminal justice system and the investigation and trial of Saddam Hussein.

Of course, this doesn't count the billions in bribes, kickbacks, fraud and excessive profits by Halliburton and other Bushcorpse pals. Iraq still doesn't have reliable electricity, water or sewage; except for the right to get purple on your finger every few months, Iraqi daily life is worse off than it was under Saddam, apart from thousands of violent deaths.

As for Saddam's trial, the evidence of his torturing people is at this point a highly embarrassing reminder of Bushcorpse torturing people, and not just in Iraq as Saddam did, but in secret prisons throughout Europe and Asia, and at Guantanamo.

AND Iraqis are still be tortured by their government, or rogue elements of it. A month or so ago we had the extraordinary complaint of the country's president that the police or militias or the army (who knows which is which?) were torturing lots of people. Just like the good old days.

Just under 20 percent of the reconstruction package remains unallocated. When the last of the $18.4 billion is spent, U.S. officials in Baghdad have made clear, other foreign donors and the fledgling Iraqi government will have to take up what authorities say is tens of billions of dollars of work yet to be done merely to bring reliable electricity, water and other services to Iraq's 26 million people.

"The U.S. never intended to completely rebuild Iraq," Brig. Gen. William McCoy, the Army Corps of Engineers commander overseeing the work, told reporters at a recent news conference. In an interview this past week, McCoy said: "This was just supposed to be a jump-start."

When the U.S. began the "reconstruction," they employed big U.S. firms, all Bushcorpse pals, instead of contracting with Iraqis who had built the infrastructure in the first place. These companies brought in cheap foreign labor to increase their profits, and Iraqi men had something like a 50% unemployment rate. That act of stupidity, corruption and paternalism led to complete failure, and now that the place is in utter chaos, Bushcorpse decides to leave it to the people they should have financed in the beginning.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Stormy Weather, Part II

Electrical power is back on after about 36 hours of none. After another dark and stormy night, a few minutes of gale force winds (or so they say) from the ocean whipped across Humboldt Bay, Eureka and Arcata here on the extreme northern coast of California, on Saturday morning at 9:30 or so. Trees were downed, and so were power lines. The central transmission capacity for the entire county was damaged. Suddenly something like 60,000 people over an area close to the size of Connecticut didn't have power. In addition to the basic transmission, many substations and power lines to neighborhoods and individual buildings were damaged as well.

In the meantime, there was some flooding--some quite dramatic, as a storm surge happened at high tide and brought in wave ten feet high. That flooding was the most temporary. There was river and creek flooding, but not as severe here and in Napa and Sonoma counties to our south.

But the downed trees, the mudslides, closed most roads for awhile. New Years Eve was a bad day to try to get in or out of Humboldt. By today most of the major roads were open (and we use "major" loosely up here.) Power was gradually restored to parts of Eureka and Arcata. As what wan sunlight there was disappeared for the second day, we watched the lights go on just a block away. So close and yet so far. But an hour or so later, they came back on here, went off again, and so far have stayed with us. It's pretty calm out there right now, with only showers predicted for the next few days, while southern CA gets hammered.

However there are small mountain communities and more isolated places in the county that are unlikely to get power for days and perhaps weeks. Many small communities had problems with water because of electricity needed for pumps. We at least had both water and a gas water heater. The telephone also worked (the only time in recent months I wished for dial-up again) but again, some rural areas didn't have phone service either.

So we had a candlelit New Year's Eve, seated around the fire, just like we hadn't planned it. Some folks apparently went on with their parties, but don't know much more than that---I'll have to wait for the local newspapers to catch up (their power being out, too.)

We found we were not well prepared but not badly either. We had plenty of candles and flashlights. Enough food in the refrigerator to concentrate on eating before it might spoil, but the insulating properties of the fridge kept things pretty well. The load of firewood we got this year came in handy; we usually don't use enough to warrant a new supply but every few years. The oak burns fast, but the slower burning madrone was still not dried out. Once the fire got hot enough, we could dry a madrone log on the edge of it, and then it would burn.

I've been more than skeptical about our culture's headlong rush into dependence on very vulnerable technologies and their fuel, however wondrous they may be. Making your entire econony and communications system dependent on microwave technologies that can be totally disrupted fairly easily seems like madness. Now they're talking about moving just about everything on the computer hard drive---including word processing and the operating system itself--onto the Internet. That's nuts.

But through my own laziness, I got my share of rude surprises about our vulnerabilities. Even though my laptop could function minimally and for an unknown amount of time on battery, it turned out that to use the DSL connection required electricity for the router. Though there's some backup there, it's very little. So I was completely offline.

Because our gas furnace uses electric motors for the fans, it shut down. Even the gas oven couldn't be operated without the electric sparker, though the stovetop burners could, with the help of a match and fast hands. In my apartment in Pittsburgh just about a decade ago, when the electricity went out, it meant no lights. The gas range (made in the 1950s or perhaps earlier) worked perfectly. The gas radiators kept heating the apartment (it was worse in the summer, with no fans or a.c.).

Plus, I could count on at least a half dozen if not a full dozen of local radio stations to keep me informed of what was going on, why and when, with a simple transistor battery operated radio. Hereabouts, there are no local stations---I mean NO local stations--with regularly scheduled local newscasts. There are a few public radio stations that try to pass on information. We could pull in one, but there was no telling when they'd have something to say. Another local station (commercial one) had a news update on the storm at the top of the hour---exactly the same one, which by the time I heard it, seemed to be 12 to 24 hours old. But that was never disclosed; the time was never mentioned. All of our "local" commercial stations are completely canned, as automated as a robot infested auto factory. The only thing local about them are guess what the commercials.

Apparently there were emergency broadcasts (a state of emergency for the county was declared Saturday) but I never found any, except the Caltrans station with continuously repeating road reports.

This is an earthquake prone area. Sooner or later we're going to get a major quake. It's going to be a real mess.

People were helpful, however, and shared whatever they knew. A few stores in Arcata stayed open on Saturday with their own generators: notably the hardware store and the food Co-op. I got the only substantive information on what happened Saturday from other customers at the Co-op.

We also had another New Year's Eve adventure, but another time...