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Chapter 1
The Year September Never Ended

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The lore of the frontier is filled with contradictions that liken it to those great epics of the distant past populated by characters like Eric the Red and El Cid, who were uncertain of the differences between good and evil. For instance, western hospitality and kindness to strangers, especially to those in distress, is one of the most solid of American traditions. Yet at the same time, a common stereotype is the frontiersman's demonstrated contempt for a tenderfoot or newcomer. Let a tenderfoot fall into the hands of a western miner, cowboy, gambler, soldier, or whomever, and he is certain to be tricked and harassed, cheated of his money at cards, fired upon and made to dance, put into the saddle of the wildest bronco, and otherwise physically endangered or harmed.


--Dee Brown, Wondrous Times on the Frontier


"What's the most amazing thing you've ever found?" Mac (Peter Riegert) asks Ben, the beachcomber (Fulton Mackay), in the 1983 film Local Hero.


"Impossible to say," Ben replies. "There's something amazing every two or three weeks."


Substitute minutes for weeks, and you have the Net. On a good day, something amazing washes up every two or three minutes. On a bad one, you irritably wonder why all these idiots are wasting your time with their stupid babble and wish they would go somewhere else. Then you remember: there's a simple solution, and it's to unplug your modem. Never works.


For one thing, once you get started using email it's almost impossible to do without it: cheaper and faster than fax, far more convenient than letters, more efficient and streamlined than phone calls, email makes it possible for an expatriate American like me to stay in touch daily with old friends and family and even, using online public discussion areas such as online forums or Usenet newsgroups, have a social life with them. You could stay in touch via letter, fax, or phone, but those are all private. Until bulletin board systems (BBSs), online services like CompuServe or America Online, and Usenet newsgroups became generally available, there was no way to enjoy your friends the way you do when you live in the same town or subculture in real life: in social contexts, with other people. No amount of personal updates makes up for that loss of shared experience.


These public discussion areas are a huge source of help and information because they are so widely read; these are places where people participate when they can and leave messages for you to find when you have time. The day I arrived at the 1994 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference to find my palmtop computer's screen had gone black because the machine's settings were wrong for the new batteries, I posted a panicked message in CompuServe's Palmtop forum before collapsing for the night. The next morning, before the first session, I logged back in to find that someone with a manual had been on in the meantime and left instructions telling how to reset it. Every day for the last four years, when I wonder what happened around the professional tennis tours the previous day, I can find out by checking into rec.sport.tennis, where I'll find the match results, and often a live report from someone who was at the tournament and sometimes has more of interest to say about it than the official press stories.


Then there's hard information: maybe you want stock prices, more details on a story your local newspaper missed or covered in a single paragraph, the weather report for Hong Kong, background on the company where you've just landed a job interview, or a look at a painting you've just read about. All these things are on the Net right now in one form or another, some official, some simply the pooling of information that happens wherever humans congregate.


The Net is also a wonderful place if you love jokes and have a taste for the bizarre. Browse one way, and you find someone advertising, for $19.95, a lifetime certificate


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