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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

In or Out?

I have a few rules that govern the contents of my Good Readin’ list (in case you haven’t detected a trend here at treppenwitz, I’m all about rules):

Rule #1: I rarely put anyone on the list just because they have blogrolled me (I’ve made two exceptions to this rule, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by both writers). Reciprocal linking is all fine and good for some, but it is a very slippery slope for those (like me) who use their blogroll as a map to navigate their morning reads. I really read everyone on my Good Readin’ list, every day (or as often as they post). It seems silly to have someone on one’s blogroll if you really don’t find them consistently interesting. That would make it sort of a ‘List of People I Was Guilted Into Sharing With You, But I Skip Them Every Day’. Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

Rule # 2: If you don’t update your site for a month (With the possible exception of Evaporation… I can wait a little longer for El Steve to turn coal into diamonds); Nice knowing you!

Rule #3: If you dray on about the same topic day-after-day-after-day, I’m liable to show you the door. I mean, nobody’s work or family is that interesting to the rest of the world (again, I’ve made a conscious exception in the case of Lileks, because hidden amongst the mind-numbing minutiae of his various deadlines and the daily care & feeding of ‘Gnat’, there are always nuggets of pure gold).

Rule #4: If you are a news or editorial site and you stop giving me the people I’ve come to enjoy… Well, guess what? I’ll be finding my news and/or editorial commentary elsewhere! This happened first when The Daily Outrage over at The Nation suddenly went on hiatus. Then, over the past month or so, Larry Miller disappeared from the rotation over at The Weekly Standard. Needless to say, I gave both of them the old 'heave ho'.

However, after having removed the link to the Weekly standard in a self-righteous huff (I do self-righteous better than most!) a few weeks ago, I now see that the Devine Mr. M is back up on the mound today, serving up his best stuff! Damn!

So now I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. Do I shamefacedly sneak the Weekly Standard back onto the Good Readin’ list, or simply check back there every month or so and search the archives for the latest Larry Miller piece?

Ah well, rules are rules… Nobody’s above the law… Can’t have anarchy carry the day in this sort of thing! I guess I’ll be getting my periodic ‘Larry fix’ the old fashioned way.

I'm curious to know if anyone else takes their blogroll as seriously as I do. Although, now that I think about it... if I'm being a self-important nut-case, maybe I really don't want to know! :-)

[Sorry folks…I hope the slow news day here at treppenwitz hasn’t caused anyone to consider giving ME the hook.]

Posted by David Bogner on July 6, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Riding Shotgun

I’d like to wish a happy 4th-of-July to my U.S. readers. Sadly, this morning’s terrorist attack in which an Israeli motorist was killed, and his wife lightly wounded, has somewhat tempered my celebratory mood (to say the least). As will soon be made clear, I didn’t find out about the attack until I was almost half way to work.

As most of my readers know, Sunday is a regular workday here in Israel (Friday and Saturday being the ‘weekend’). My normal Sunday morning routine includes picking up my pre-arranged assortment of neighborhood soldiers, and driving the hour from Efrat to Be’er Sheva.

However, today my lovely and talented wife is directing a photo-shoot in Jerusalem, and therefore needed the car. So, instead of being comfortably ensconced behind the wheel, sipping my second cup of coffee and listing to a bunch of freshly-laundered teenaged soldiers snore, 7:00 AM found me standing alone outside the entrance to our town with my hitchhiking finger pointed due south into the desert.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on Israeli hitchhiking etiquette, if a driver wants to pick up a hitchhiker, they normally stop next to where you are standing and state their destination. For this reason, I didn’t pay much attention to a car that passed me and came to a stop 20 yards down the shoulder. I assumed that they were stopping to check a map or let off a passenger. But when I glanced back at them, a bejeweled, well-manicured hand was sticking out the driver’s window and waving for me to approach.

When I got to the car, I found a bunch of smiling French tourists (a pretty mother and three well groomed pre-teen kids), offering a ride all the way to Be’er Sheva. Score! Normally I would have had to catch several connecting rides since not many people drive all the way to my destination. The daughter who had been sitting in the front passenger seat even got out and gave me the comfortable ‘shotgun seat’. Bonus!!!

Now, most of us are familiar with the term ‘shotgun seat’, from the familiar practice of ‘calling’ the coveted position (the ‘official’ rules for doing so can be found here), but we seldom think about the origin of the term. It actually harks back to the days when the task of driving a team of horses through hostile territory required the full attention of the driver, or ‘teamster’ (which, incidentally, is how the well-known Teamster’s Union got their name). So, it became necessary to have a second person sitting next to the teamster with a shotgun, just in case of trouble. Thus, ‘riding shotgun’ became enshrined in the American lexicon.

I share this little bit of pioneer-era trivia because about halfway into my ride, I was informed that I was, quite literally, riding shotgun. The mother/driver admitted in a charming mix of French, Hebrew and English (as well as a few gallic hand gestures, for clarity), that her husband (who was already in Eilat waiting for the family), had called her on the cell phone a few minutes before she picked me up, to tell her about the terrorist attack. When she told him that she had decided to take the short route from Jerusalem to Eilat by way of the Hevron road (rather than taking the longer route inside the ‘green line’), he went that special brand of berserk that only worried husbands can pull off. Even though the car was fairly full of people and luggage, he had demanded that she stop at the next intersection and pick up someone with a gun to ride along with them, at least as far as Be’er Sheva.

That explained why they had stopped 20 yards beyond me rather than next to me… they wanted to be able to look back and see if I had a pistol stuck in my belt. It also explained why the daughter had given up the most desirable seat in the car as though someone had hit an ejector button.

Once the little secret was out of the bag, I experienced an odd mix of emotions.

First, came horror. There had been a fatal shooting (it had happened after 6:00AM, so I hadn’t heard about it during the previous hourly news) of someone doing what I do almost every morning. I try not to dwell on the possibility of such things because I have to do so much driving through ‘iffy’ areas. But hearing about a husband, probably not much different than myself, being killed behind the wheel was extremely distressing news.

Next came a little twinge of pride as I looked around the car. Seeing the relaxed demeanor and smiles (two of the four sets with braces), and inhaling the tropical aroma of Bain de Soleil®, I realized that they viewed me as the perfect solution to their quandry: They were on summer vacation from their cosmopolitan lives in Paris… there had been a terrorist attack… dad had wigged at the spectacularly bad choice of driving routes mom had made… and now here was this nice Israeli man with a gun stuck in the waistband of his pants who was going to make sure that everything turned out OK. Problem solved.

Then came shame. I didn’t have the heart (or words), to tell them that I was far from the solution they were seeking. How do you communicate the essence of the Israeli (and international) dilemma… that there is really very little an individual can do to defend against a really determined terrorist. True, there have been rare cases where armed citizens have successfully thwarted attacks… but I have always known that my gun provides little more than an illusion of safety… at best a very slight statistical advantage. However, if my ‘riding shotgun’ allowed these tourists to get on with the important business of being on vacation, I didn’t have the heart to rain on their parade.

Once we reached Be’er Sheva, I thanked them profusely for the ride and ‘poo-pooed’ their profuse thanks that I had somehow gotten them safely through any real danger. Despite the (admittedly asinine) urge to squint like Clint Eastwood and tip my hat, I simply said good-bye and wished them a nice vacation, knowing full well that this was an exciting story that would be retold many times to their well-heeled Parisian friends.

The last two emotions arrived as I walked into my office: that familiar mix of relief and guilt. Relief that, today, I wasn’t the husband killed … that my wife wasn't widowed and my kids weren't orphaned. And, guilt because my filthy, selfish relief comes at the expense of someone else’s tragedy and grief.

Riding shotgun, indeed. What a fraud I am.

Posted by David Bogner on July 4, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The gift that keeps on giving

Why does it feel so damned good to give a Gmail invite? It’s clear why getting one would make you feel good… but to answer this basic question about giving is to reveal the brilliance in Google’s Gmail marketing campaign.

A close friend, who also happened to be the Rabbi in our old synagogue in Connecticut, once gave a wonderful talk about the mechanics of giving. He suggested that, like any kind of physical activity, the act of ‘giving’ was a painful and difficult task for those who did it seldom or not at all… and effortless, or even enjoyable for those who did it often. He said that the practice of handing children a few coins each day so they could give charity would build up their ‘giving muscles’… so that by the time they were adults, the act of giving would be second nature.

The connection is quite apt if you think about it. The people in any community who are involved in large-scale philanthropy are almost always the one’s who grew up in an environment of modest, but regular giving. Like comparing a weekend jogger and a marathoner…the physical act is the same, but the scale of possibility is exponentially expanded through proper practice and training.

Whether by accident or design, the folks at Google seem to have stumbled upon this concept. Obviously part of the cachet of Gmail is the fact that it is not available to everyone…you have to be ‘invited’ into the club by someone who is already a member. However, if you think about it, the idea of gradually, and incrementally releasing their e-mail client by making it a ‘giftable’ commodity was pure genius.

Like a parent handing coins to a child, Google has essentially enabled its ever-expanding circle of beta-testers to experience the small joy of giving without any of the pangs of loss that sometimes accompany giving.

Of course, it was inevitable that not everyone involved in the process would rise to the altruistic heights that Google envisioned. For instance, a web site called www.gmailswap.com quickly appeared on the scene, offering the Gmail-less ‘hordes’ a forum to barter or buy an account from people in possession of the of invites. Basically, upon realizing that there might be some intrinsic value to the ‘coins’ they had been handed, thousands of people gladly accepted everything from web-design services to sexual favors (I kid you not!), in exchange for their unearned bounty.

In a somewhat less-chilling display of avarice, it has become quite common to see bloggers holding impromptu essay contests with themes like “What have you done to deserve a Gmail invite?” or, “What is the most disgusting thing you would do for a Gmail account?”.

To my way of thinking, this is like a parent giving a child some coins, and then the child making some bum (excuse me… ‘urban outdoorsman’), dance, or bark like a dog in order to receive the charity. Not a very pretty picture when you look at it like that, eh? You might say it takes some of the ‘awww isn’t that sweet’ factor out of the whole jr. philanthropist concept.

However, my faith in the system was restored when a fellow blogger unexpectedly dropped an invite on me. That surprise invite seemed like such a generous gesture, that as soon as I was given my first batch of invites, I immediately went about offering them to anyone I knew (or read) who I though might enjoy an account. I must admit, it felt really good!

When Google started sending me invites faster than I could find good homes for them, I tacked a couple of codas onto the end of my posts letting everyone know that the invites were there for the asking… and again, giving them away felt really, really good.

I’d really like to think that this is what the folks at Google had in mind. It would be really great if most of the people who have handed out Gmail invites with no strings attached have experienced that same good feeling. Who knows, maybe, from this simple act of pang-free giving… just passing out the 'coins' we’ve been handed… we will all become a little better at doing other, more important kinds of giving.

Posted by David Bogner on July 1, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack