04/14/2001

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One night last week, I had a beer with a good friend. He invited me to join him for dinner; I always learn a lot from him (I hope it’s mutual) and it seemed like he needed to talk, so while I’d already eaten, I joined him for a beer.

Hopefully I can say this without betraying any confidences. There are two people who mean a great deal to him; I know both of these people, so I understand why. In their minds, he let each of them down. In his mind, there wasn’t much he could have done differently; there certainly wasn’t much of anything he could have done better. He did his best, and in these instances, his best wasn’t good enough. In the time since, they’ve let him down. The question is, did he get their best? He doesn’t know. And it hurts.

It always hurts when a friend or someone else you really care about lets you down. When someone you don’t like does something stupid to you, it hurts, but let’s face it. You don’t expect anything else from those kinds of people. What more can they do to you? They continually try to show you what more they can do, but usually it’s not much. It’s lost its impact.

But like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who, at the end of a day whose events particularly repulsed him, realized it was his 30th birthday, these last couple of days are significant. Thursday was the holiday known as Maundy Thursday. Some 1,972 years or so ago (no one’s ever precisely pinned down the day) on Thursday night, the most infamous letdown by a friend in history took place. A young Jewish rabbi was praying on a hilltop with his three closest friends trying to keep watch despite total exhaustion. An armed mob of his political enemies ascended that hill, led by another one of the rabbi’s closest friends. Judas Iscariat walked up to the man he’d followed and dedicated his life to for the better part of the past three years and forever tainted a sign of love and respect. With a kiss, he pointed the target out to the mob. The result of that betrayal, of course, was the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus Christ.

But I’m convinced that Judas’ kiss hurt more than the crucifixion. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were nothing more than self-righteous scum who couldn’t stand seeing someone understand the things they didn’t. This was to be expected. And the Romans? Well, what else do you expect from a spineless governor under the thumb of a totalitarian dictator? He didn’t get his office by doing the right thing, after all. But Judas… Judas was capable of so much better. Jesus knew it, and the 11 knew it. They’d all seen him do great things. Those religious leaders were no loss. They were lowlives, doing what lowlives do. Judas showed flashes of brilliance, then he flamed out. The other 11, who were just like him, went on to change the world. Judas could have been one of them. But he chose another path, even though he knew better.

Or maybe the significance of last week means nothing, because to me it seems a sacrilege to compare 11 people who changed the world to a ragtag band of people who keep online journals. Or maybe the awkwardness is perfect, because some of us have been attaching too much importance to it. Maybe that puts it in perspective a little.

At any rate, we’ll never change the world, but for whatever reason, there are people who have high expectations of the crowd known collectively as Daynoters. Maybe it’s because of the difficulty of doing what a Daynoter does–getting up each day and having something to say. It’s hard to write something new every day. And a lot of the Daynoters not only write something every day, but they write something consistently thought-provoking, or entertaining, or informative, or useful, nearly every day. And occasionally, someone writes something that manages to be all five.

It’s hard to do. We all know it’s hard to do. Usually we just settle for writing something, anything, each day. We write our stuff, then we go wander around and see what some of the others have to say. Invariably, there’s a jewel out there somewhere. Someone exceeds expectations. And maybe what they write is something we can relate to, so we feel close to them, even though in most cases it’s someone we’ve never met in person and in many cases it’s someone we’ve never even spoken with on the telephone. Even still, expectations rise.

Most of us are computer professionals or hobbyists, and in this field, wild and hairy problems breed. They’re everywhere. When one of us gets surrounded, we post something to the backchannel mailing list. Invariably, someone’s been there before, seen it, conquered it, and has guidance to offer. Again, expectations rise.

I would argue that in some cases, we may expect more of a fellow daynoter than we would a close friend. I know my friends’ faults. I spend enough time with them that it’s impossible not to know them. I don’t know any of the Daynoters that well. I know Dan Bowman better than any of them, but I don’t know his faults, let alone those of the other 29-some people on the Daynotes mailing list. From where I can see, his biggest fault is drinking too much Pepsi. But he’s the exception. At least I know he has to drink Pepsi. I’ve got some indication the guy’s human. What do I have of these other guys? All I know is they know more than I know, write books that sell more copies than mine do, write for bigger-circulation magazines than I do, get more Web traffic than I do… It’s easy to start thinking of them as larger than life.

And then the talk strays from computers… I like talking about computers, because there’s almost always a right answer, and it can be proven conclusively. If you want to boot off an IDE hard drive, you plug it into IDE0 and set it as master. Period. End of argument. Anyone who disagrees with it goes off and quickly makes a fool of himself. Sure, there are holy wars, like AMD vs. Intel, or Apple vs. 98% of the market. But you can do something even with those arguments. No sane person would use a non-Intel CPU in a mission-critical system? I can respond to that. My Cyrix-based PC was only up to producing a 292-page book. In the end, it turned out that Cyrix CPU was a whole lot more reliable than my wrists were.

When the talk turns to political or social issues, there are few slam dunks. Is the American way of doing things demonstrably better than the European way? The majority of Americans think so. The majority of Europeans do not. And professional politicians, having no answers, frequently fall into logic traps, or, worse, finger-pointing and name-calling and other things no human being over the age of 15 should fall into. We turn away in disgust when politicians do it. And when the world’s problems show up on the Daynotes backchannel, and the great minds can’t slam-dunk them?

Well, it turns out they’re human too. And soon, the same traps come up, and we’re disgusted. But it’s worse than seeing Dick Gephardt roll around on the floor and throw a temper tantrum. We expect that of Dick Gephardt, because we already know he’s a finger-to-the-wind, unintelligent, uncreative individual who can’t think for himself who’s in politics because he’d be a total failure in the real world. He’s not worthy of respect. But then we see people we know, people who’ve earned our respect, reduced to that…?

Sometimes when that happens, we join in. If we agree with them, we try to help them out. If they’re attacking someone we agree with, we lob a grenade.

Or we can get disgusted and ignore it. All of our keyboards do have Delete keys, and a lot of our delete keys are starting to wear out from excessive use these past few days.

Or we can get disgusted and try to stop it. Or we can get disgusted and leave the community.

On Tuesday, the Daynotes.com mailing list shut down to mixed reactions. In some cases, our disgust with one another turned into disgust with the one who would try to exercise authority over us. Personally, I thought it was the only sane thing to do–close things down, let things cool down for a time. That turned out to be the right decision. Reality hit. People started realizing that name-calling wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems, and that a valuable resource was suddenly gone.

I don’t know how many people know this, but I had a run-in with a fellow Daynoter back in January, 2000. You can ask my sister about it, because she was visiting when it happened. She and I lived in the same house for about 18 years, so she’s seen me mad, but never madder than I was that night. I was ready to chuck it all and leave the community then. It was bad enough that I had gender in common with this guy, let alone had my name on the same Web page as his. I didn’t want people to associate him with me. But my sister advised me to sleep on it, say as little as possible, do as little as possible, and sort it out after I’d had time to cool down. I called a friend who knew both of us and got his counsel. With their help, I determined that leaving wouldn’t solve anything. So I didn’t. He and I haven’t spoken since. And that’s fine. We couldn’t resolve our differences, but at least we didn’t let it become a war.

Late on Thursday, the Daynotes.com portal was also shuttered. I didn’t see any point in that measure. It was more a symbolic gesture than anything else, and as far as I can tell, the only thing it accomplished was making a lot of people as mad as I was that night in January 2000. I was mad too. Chris Ward-Johnson and I both published that address as a resource for people to reach us and others like us. Now we look like just another fly-by-night dotcom.

And as soon as the thought had occurred to me that Daynotes.com’s absence might be intentional, rather than just a flipped bit in Tom Syroid’s Apache configuration file, the coup occurred. I had notification in my inbox that I’d been subscribed to the Daynotes mailing list at Bobwalder.com. I had messages in my Daynotes folder–mail from the new backchannel, all thanking Bob for his efforts. Then I had notification that Bob had registered the domain name daynotes.org and he expected it to be active come Monday. In the meantime he offered an alternative portal for people to use…

And the talk on the backchannel? It was mostly like old times. Lots of well-deserved thanks and congratulations headed Bob’s direction. A little patching up. And some traffic was exactly like old times. Jonathan Hassell wrote in asking for recommendations for a hotel in New York. Then I made a rare appearance, asking my cohorts across the Atlantic whether Murphy’s Law meant the same thing there as it does here, because I didn’t know and I wanted to invoke it in the Shopper UK article I was writing yesterday. The result? Jon got hotel advice, and I got a brief, “Well, over here it means ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong…'” from the Good Dr. K.
This has dragged on far too long, so I’ll conclude with this. Three years ago this past week, I had a life-changing experience. I spent a week in a big room 120 miles from home with about 50 people I didn’t know from Adam. And I learned something in that room. Friends aren’t people who like you because of the superhuman qualities they see in you. Our group spent close to 90 hours together that week, and trust me, we didn’t see much in the way of superhuman qualities in one another. Indeed, mostly we saw the very worst that 50 people can offer the world. We could have held it against one another. But those 50 people continued to stand by and admire one another. I never did figure out if that was in spite of what we knew about one another, or precisely because of what we knew about one another.

I’ll never, ever forget that life lesson. True friends learn how to work around their weaknesses and disagreements. It’s hard sometimes, but even at its worst, it’s a whole lot easier than living in isolation.

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