Monday, 13 November 2000

I’m not sure how he ran across it, but my dad saw my name on a discussion and vote tally to create the newsgroup comp.lang.perl.moderated. He also asked if I knew there was a writer named Michael Armstrong. According to amazon.com he — Michael Armstrong, the writer — has published several business and management books. Until then, I hadn’t known about the writer, but the newsgroup discussion and vote actually was me.

I guess it’s not that surprising. It’s not like either part of my name is that uncommon. In fact, this kind of thing happens often enough that I’ve learned to have a little fun with it.

When the current CEO of AT&T, C. Michael Armstrong, was installed, I had a news clipping of the annoucement hanging at my desk for the longest time. People would read the article, look at me, read the article again. Most would laugh and offer their congratulations. There were a few, shall we say, less bright people that would ask if it meant that I was the CEO of AT&T. Ummmm, no. Why would I be working as a technical writer and Web developer when being a CEO is more than a full time job?

I’ve heard nearly all the jokes about my last name. Most often it’s some wiseacre that asks, “Are you related to Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy?”

“Yes, in fact I am! Jack is my Great Uncle.”

They’d be dumbfounded. Sometimes they would ask if I knew about the radio show from the 40’s. “Why of course, it was about my ‘Uncle Jack!'” Yes, I know that the radio show was fiction, but Grandpa did have a brother named John and Jack is a nickname for John.

At that point they’d usually be wearing what I call the “dumbass face.” They were trying to be funny and, while they weren’t quite sure, the joke may actually be on them. Well, it was. If you know about the radio show, don’t you think that a guy with the same last name would know about it too?

There’s also Neil Armstrong, the astronaut. Again, I’d make him out to be my Great Uncle, this time because I liked the word play. “Absolutely! Great Uncle Neil is my Grandpa’s brother…Well, of course he was great for the reason you’re thinking too.” People could never tell if I was serious or pulling their leg. Guess.

My favorite though, was Louis Armstrong, the trumpet player — I’d claim he was my Grandfather. They’d look at me for the longest time trying to find something other than Scandinavian and European features in my face. Some of them never figured it out.

Sunday, 12 November 2000

I was sure I’d made a mistake by coming to the party — I was too self-concious to dance or have a good time. I got sick of feeling sorry for myself and decided to join the fun. After a few strained attempts at conversation, I shrank back into the shadows, content to watch from a safe distance.

Looking across the room at the crush of bodies, I wonder… How I can feel so alone, so disconnected? Why is it so much easier for everyone else to get involved? Why can’t I just relax and enjoy myself?

I was completely lost in my thoughts when I felt as if someone was watching me. I looked up to find the most brilliant pair of green eyes watching from just a few feet away. She turned away, blushing, obviously wishing she hadn’t been caught.

She brushed past and I caught the faint smell of her perfume. She said something as she walked by, it sounded like she said “follow me,” but I couldn’t tell for sure. Had she really said anything at all, or was it just my imagination? By the time I turned around, she had dissappeared.

I eventually found her on the patio with her back turned to the door. This time it was my turn to watch. Although I’m sure she knew I was there, she didn’t turn around at first. Several minutes passed before she looked at me and smailed.

She said she wasn’t sure I would follow her, but was happy that I had. I replied that I was powerless to resist her beautiful eyes…so mysterious but at the same time familiar.

We made the usual small-talk and seemed to hit it off. We both hated these huge parties for the same reasons — too much noise, too many people and not enough intelligent conversation. We each preferred small groups over large, unruly crowds.

It was starting to get noisy as people started trickling onto the patio. The louder it got, the more quiet we became. Soon we both fell silent and just looked at the stars. Finally, I took her hand and suggested going for a walk.

We talked about anything and everything. The decline of civilization, politics, war, medicine, past lives, loves, triumphs and defeats. Two hours later we returned to find that the party was winding down and there were just a few stragglers.

Not wanting the night to end, we sat on the couch and continued talking. She leaned over and put her head on my shoulder and snuggled in to find a comfortable spot. It felt so right, almost like we had been together for years. I put my arm around her, drawing her even closer.

I’m not sure how long we sat, curled against one another, before we both fell asleep. When I woke up, she was gone. Only the slightest hint of her perfume remained.

I also found a note in my shirt pocket. It said, “Maybe parties aren’t so bad after all.” That was it. I never even got her name.

Saturday, 11 November 2000

In March 1997 I, or rather my Web site, was mentioned in “Mpls./St. Paul Magazine.” It was a sidebar to a larger article titled Legends in Their Own Minds. The sidebar, or sub-article, read:

Self-Promoting on The Net Dar and Tom have created a Web page called, ingeniously, Dar & Tom’s Web World. After a quick look at “Tom’s Pet Peeves” (“people who drive too fast,” “long lines, especially at the grocery store”), we fixed ourselves a cup of very strong coffee and moved on. We love straightforward Bill’s Little Web Page: “Hello! My name is Bill and this is my Web site…. There are a couple examples of my music here now.” There’s also a photo of Bill, looking like a folksinger with a science degree. Emily has a born self-promoter’s confidence that whatever she has to offer is good enough. Even poetry. Baudelaire she’s not, but the Van Gogh she fitched from someplace are nice. Van Gogh… now theres a guy who could have used a Web page. Born too soon, he was reduced to slicing off his ear to get attention. CarolAnne describes herself as a “colorful” person and her life as “a harrowing stereotypical transgender existance.” Michael Armstrong of Brooklyn Park displays his résumé, which corroborates what we already suspected: He can create a Web page.

I realize they were trying to be snide, but admittedly the site wasn’t that special. I was doing Web design consulting and the site was built to reflect that fact. In early 1997 that meant more effort went into convincing someone they wanted a Web site than why you were better than any of the 5000 other designers out there.

I was thrilled simply because it was a first for me. Never before had I been mentioned, by name, in any large publication. I would not be daunted by their petty sarcasm.

Since then, my little corner of the internet has evolved . It has taken on a new name and a new address. It has even grown. I’ve dumped the consulting business and gone into personal publishing instead. The half-dozen pages extolling the virtues of having a web site have been replaced by an empire that is pages strong.

I’m sure it means my 15 minutes are shot, but hey, how many people get their name in print other than their obituary? At least I got to see mine.

Friday, 10 November 2000

Originally written as an op-ed piece when the Communications Decency Act passed in 1996, it still applies today. Just because the Supreme Court declared the CDA unconstitutional doesn’t mean we can grow complacent. Even now, in 1999, our elected officials are trying to regulate free speech on the Internet. (Ever hear of the Child Online Protection Act or COPA? It’s essentially a stripped down version of the CDA.) Our rights are constantly under attack and we must do everything we can to protect them.

8 February, 1996

Dear “Representative”:

Who are you to decide what I can read and what I can say? You have voted in favor of censorship, something I thought I would never see in this country.

Some may say “Oh, it’s just the Internet, where’s the harm in that?” It’s simple…in the name of “protecting the children” you have abridged my right to free speech. For this I am outraged and frightened.

Outraged because you have voted to limit one of the fundamental rights upon which our country was founded. For 220 years America has been a free country. In the past, we could say what we want how we want. Why has that suddenly changed?

Frightened because I wonder what comes next? Will we need to “protect the children” by restricting where they can go, who they can talk to, what they can think? After all, it’s for the good of the children. Where’s the harm in that?

Why is it the government’s job to “protect the children” from the horrors of the world? What is wrong with making parents take responsibility in teaching their children? If we shelter them instead of educating them, how will they grow up to be our future leaders?

I was brought up to read and think for myself. I was not forbidden from reading some things because they might be “bad” for me. Instead, I was taught what the words meant, how they affect others. I’ve grown up to be a free thinking, productive member of society.

It scares me because you made such an important decision apparently without taking the time to understand what you’re working with. I know it’s impossible to be an expert on every subject that comes to your attention, but to not even try…

What gives you the right?

Sincerely,

Michael Armstrong


For more information about the COPA and other on-line privacy issues, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation Web site.

Thursday, 09 November 2000

When I was about 1-1/2 or 2, I didn’t have much choice but to go shopping with my mom. I could sit quietly in my stroller for hours, armed with only a rattle or some other play-thing to keep me occupied. Of course it helps that I had a hobby.

It seems that, even at the ripe old age of two, I was quite the ladies man.

When a good-looking woman would walk by, I’d lean out of my stroller as far as I could, crane my neck if I had to, and check her out as she passed. I only paid attention to the stereotypical college co-ed types. Twenty-something, decently dressed, good body, and of course pretty. For some reason I wouldn’t pay any attention to the old, ugly or overweight ones. Apparently I had a marked preference for blondes too.

Unfortunately, being so young, my technique wasn’t terribly refined. I’d almost always get caught, but the women didn’t really seem to mind. They’d stop, tickle my chin and make baby noises at me. They’d even tell my mother how cute I was. Of course I’d smile and giggle at the extra attention.

While I’ve honed my skills considerably, there’s no chance I’d get away with such blatant ogling now. And don’t even get me started about the droolng. A mere glance will have to do. Anything more is likely to get me slapped, arrested or sued. Then again, a boy has to grow up some time. But I really miss being tickled under the chin.

Wednesday, 08 November 2000

On the way to work one day, I passed by a football field and saw the strangest sight. There were a bunch of geese and pigeons on the field. About 30 of each, geese on the left, pigeons on the right, facing each other. They seemed to be staring each other down, preparing for battle.

I began wondering…would the geese or the pigeons attack first? Probably the pigeons. Geese are too fat and wobbly to do anything that isn’t absolutely required.

Then I imagined the rallying cry of the geese. Their dignified strut would seem even more ominous accompanied by a chorus of honking and the thunderous beating of their wings.

The battle call for the pigeons, on the other hand, would consist of irritated squawking, flapping wings and jumping about. What they lack in noise would be made up with speed and agility.

What would geese and pigeons have to fight about? Were the pigeons upset because the geese left droppings all over the place, only to mistake them for food? Maybe the pigeons got there first and the geese are trying to move in. Who could blame the pigeons for defending their turf?

Maybe the geese were first to arrive. Later, the pigeons show up, thinking there must be something good if the geese are hanging around. Pigeons aren’t picky, and why should they let the geese hog it all?

Perhaps it was a conflict reminiscent of the frontier days, two factions arguing over the same plot of land. The kind of dispute that could only be settled with bloodshed.

You and I may not see the reason, but what is open land worth to a flock of birds? After being chased away from most every place else, a football field may be something they’re willing to die for.

On my way home I passed the field again. The pigeons and geese were gone without a trace. Where I expected to see the carnage of war, there was none. No war-torn bodies. No broken off wings. Not even a single ruffled feather.

It must have been important for them to have left without a fight.

Tuesday, 07 November 2000

It all started when I was looking for a program to sync my home computer with one of several time servers on the Internet. The government runs several of these machines, which are considered to be “the correct time,” so I started my search at their Web page.

As with most Web surfing, I got distracted while looking through the site. Among other things, they had information about how the atomic clocks worked and how leap years are calculated. Did you know that there are also leap seconds? The site also had job postings…I could not resist a look.

One opening caught my eye, but it required a Ph.D. and several years experience in nuclear physics, a degree in astronomy, space science and other lofty qualifications. It had to be the single coolest job title in the world. The position was called “The Directorate of Time.” With a job like that, even President of the United States would rank down along-side burger-flipper at McDonalds.

Then I got to thinking about the possibilities.

Do you dread birthdays? Hate the though of growing older? Simply change how long the year is. Loathe tax time? Just set it up so April 15th never comes.

Imagine never being late for dinner, work or a big date. If you’re running a bit behind, just redefine the time. “Oh, you must be mistaken, I can’t be late. My watch says 7:30 on the dot.”

FedEx, UPS and their ilk would be at your mercy. “Next day air” would take on a whole new meaning with a day that was only 10 hours long.

Why stop there? Go for “metric time.” In addition to 10 hour days, you could mandate 10 minutes to an hour and 10 seconds per minute.

Of course, every silver lining has its dark cloud. Friends would always be asking for more holidays, longer weekends and more hours in the day (so they could get everything done.)

In a way, I’m glad that I wasn’t qualified…I’d never be able to take the pressure.

Monday, 06 November 2000

I love fortune cookies. Not because of the games people typically play with them, saying “in bed” or “between the sheets” at the end of each one. I love them because I’m enchanted with the idea that a random slip of paper can, somehow, predict the future.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. The fortunes are fewer and farther between, and what I’m really getting can only be called “platitude cookies.”

A real fortune would be something like “Pleasant surroundings and a happy time ahead” or “Love is in your future.” Platitude cookies, on the other hand, say things like “Your first wealth is health” and “Free advice is usually worth what you paid for it.”

Now, I must admit that “Now is the time to try something new” is surely a sign to quit procrastinating. There’s also a certain Zen-like quality in “To understand, listen beneath the words.” But they’re still not real fortunes.

There was a time when I could count on getting a real fortune just often enough to overlook the occasional platitude. Even gems like “No one ever died from laughing too often” could be washed away by something as simple as “You are next in line for a promotion.”

I had resigned myself to a life of platitudes rather than good fortune. I figured it couldn’t get much worse. Or so I thought. Then I got what can only be described as a Yogi Berra platitude cookie. It said, “The game ain’t over ’til it’s over.” That was the last straw, the game…is over!

I’m sick of platitudes! I want substance, not sentimentality! If I wanted platitudes, I’d buy a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book” or “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” I’m not asking for next week’s lottery numbers, just a hint of things to come.

As if Yogi Berra wasn’t enough, the other day I got a “fortune” that didn’t even qualify as a platitude. I got an Ole and Lena joke in my fortune cookie. It was a lame one too. It said “Ole chuckled as he read through the obituaries. ‘You know, Lena, it seems like everyone died in alphabetical order.'” Sheesh! Just what I needed. Somebody give me a gun so I can shoot myself!

Saturday, 04 November 2000

If you only knew what I see what I can’t say and remains unspoken.

If you only knew what is hidden kept inside and out of reach.

If you only knew what I think how I feel things might be different.

If you only knew…