More about Things that Splash

I’ve been figuratively swamped at work lately, and literally swamped at home, and that hasn’t left much energy for other pursuits, like adding to this big heap o’ words.

Currently part of our living room is sealed off with plastic and tape. It would be cool if it were quarantine for some sort of exotic alien life form, but it’s not. There’s no floor in that part of the house. You can see right down to the dirt beneath our stylish home.

The kitchen is soon to follow, but there’s a wrinkle. The floorboards are ruined, but the cabinets that sit on top of them are still OK. Alas, removing the cabinets might damage them. The contractor and the insurance adjustor are currently working things out. They have both been very reasonable so far (they even offered to put us up in a hotel during construction), but this has to be worked out before anyone can proceed.

I am categorically NOT thinking about what happens if the insurance says they won’t pay to replace cabinets that are still good, and then the cabinets get damaged. What would you do if you were the adjustor? Saying OK pretty much gives the demolition crew the green light to ruin the existing cabinets.

We turned down the hotel; we didn’t try to squeeze new carpet out of the deal. We don’t need that stuff and when my sweetie is under stress home is where she wants to be. I don’t blame her. Now her kitchen is about to be torn apart and that means the greatest hardship of all for me: no cupcakes until this is all over.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pretty worthless, creativity-wise. Looks like I’d best just get used to the situation and find a way to produce.

Two Plugs in One!

I’m a little late on this one, but there are still issues left of the third Poetic Pinup Revue. I have to say, it’s pretty awesome. We’re learning as we go, and it shows.

The current Poetic Pinup Revue

There’s some work in this issue that I really like. Of course, that’s always true, but this time the bar seemed higher. Maybe it was the theme, “Bridges and Things that Burn Them”. That brought out some good stuff.

To get your very own big, majestic, heavy love-fest of poetry and imagery, drop by the current issue page at PPR.

One important lesson we learned this time around, one that is obvious in retrospect: When you make a saddle-stiched magazine, you don’t just need an even number of pages, you need a multiple of four. This issue comes with two empty pages for your notes and poetry inspired by the other, print-cluttered pages. At last! A magazine that leaves a little space for you!

When I put it that way, I’m tempted to put blank pages in every issue.

The Editor of PPR spends a lot of time hunting for the right material, haunting places online where artists show their work. She looks forward to the day when she won’t have to — enough submissions will come in that she can spend her time crafting the magazine. But there’s something to be said for this method (as long as someone else is putting in the legwork); There are a lot of talented people out there who don’t bother to submit their work, especially to print markets. Are you one of them? Some of you that read this are, I bet. Toss us some work! The worst that can happen is that we say “no, thanks” in a respectful manner. The best writers (or photographers, or painters, or…) are the ones who hear “no thanks” the most.

An aside on the subject of “no, thanks”: Even the best artists go downhill when they’re not afraid of rejection anymore.

So seriously, if you or someone you know is talented with words or pictures, send them to the upcoming issues page at poeticpinuprevue.com. If any of the upcoming themes inspire, it’s a short trip from there to the submissions page.

Up next: Contumulation & Carrying On. Think about what comes after all this noise we call life, or perhaps how we deal with the noise when someone special is gone. Very close on that issue’s heels: Food for Thought. Art about that which sustains us. This one even has recipes! Click the link above to see the completely awesome covers for those and the following issues.

Another thing we learned this time (the second plug at last!) is that MGX Copy down San Diego way is pretty dang awesome. We use them because their prices are easily the best we found, but when we got this last issue and there were problems with the pages, they cranked out an entire new batch for free. No hassles, no pushback; we took pictures of the flaws and they sent a sincere apology and a rush-order redo. So, if you want quality and service for a great price, I highly recommend MGX. They’ve done right by us, and we’re hardly a big account.

Check out Poetic Pinup Revue. It’s good and getting better. If you subscribe, you can even trace our meteoric rise.

1

Things That Go Splash in the Night

Long-time readers will remember my story of being awakened in the night to the pounding on my door by guys who didn’t speak English, only to set my foot on the floor with a splash. They lived downstairs, and the charming waterfall cascading down the stairs was already filling up the basement.

On that occasion I found myself standing in water, wanting nothing more than a nice hot cup of tea. There was none to be had.

Fast forward to yesterday morning. After one more snooze-button hit than usual I crawled out of bed and cracked open my eyes just enough to find my mug, the one that would soon hold tea. I staggered toward the kitchen and heard the sound of running water. “Holy crap,” I thought, “did we leave the kitchen faucet on all night?”

In fact we had not. Yet sometime in the night a hose below the floor beneath the kitchen sink had decided to succumb to pressure and just let water flow where it might. “Where it might,” it turns out, was just about everywhere. Beneath our floor is a nice thick layer of insulation. That space filled with water and carried the flood through the house, unimpeded by walls.

It took me a while to get the water turned off (there were two valves on the water line, one camoflaged between two pipes, and the setup looked like a gas line to boot), but it was clear that the deluge had been under way for a good long time already.

I was on the phone with People Who Can Do Something About Things Like This when the lights in the kitchen went out. Oh, happy day. One thing about living in a home that was delivered on wheels: you can get a warranty, much like one for a car. We got one to protect us against just such surprises during the first year in our new abode. The warranty covered a plumber visit to fix the pipe. The warranty did NOT cover “access”. The plumber came out, discovered that he couldn’t get to the leak, and left again. Had I been there at the time (my sweetie has done the lion’s share of the work on this issue) I would have provided him access, no matter how big a hammer I needed. Instead, Father of Sweetie came over and tore the bottom out of the cabinet under the sink, revealing the original floor, and enough of the pipe to reveal the leak. Another plumber arrived promptly.

Tearing out the cabinet floor also revealed the valve to turn off the hot water to the sink. Good thing we never needed it. The previous owner was a handyman of sorts; he installed a lot of upgrades and generally kept the place in great shape. The thing is, when you look close you can find a lot of questionable work. A fence latch that doesn’t line up right. Concrete poured so water pools up. A screen-door pneumatic closer-thingie installed… creatively. Sprinkler heads that don’t work in the right geometry. Add to that list the water purifier in the kitchen and the cabinetry (which he might not have done). Before we moved in the inspector found nails through the unsheltered ends of shingles. A lot of energy put into home improvement but undermined by… I’m not even sure what to call it. Ignorance? Sloth? For all his energy, he took the easy answer often enough.

The ideal home maintenance guy: someone with his motivation and my penchant for getting things right. One reason I don’t do as many fixit jobs as I should is that it takes me forever to get things right. I’m the slowest handyman out there.

Back to the flood. One difference this time around: I live with a good Californian who keeps reserves of drinking water. After the first crisis was past, I had tea. Man it was good.

Now we have a maze of insurance and warranties to figure out. (The good news: insurance covers it. The bad news: we can’t get anything done until the adjuster comes out. The good news: He’ll be here tomorrow.) Meanwhile, the light of my life continues to sop up the flood as the water in the insulation wicks back up into our house.

Getting Snooty

I was working this afternoon, but I really wanted to play with my toys. So, after I got something done to make my day feel productive, I pulled out the camera, and fashioned myself a snoot.

In photography, a snoot is an attachment you put on the front of your light so that all that comes out is a really narrow beam. With a snoot you can put a splash of light exactly where you want it, and be confident that it won’t spill somewhere else.

Funny thing about cone-shaped pieces of black plastic, they’re kind of pricey. So today I set about making one of my own. I’ve done it before, but this time I wanted my snoot to be a keeper (although after the fact I’m already designing version 2).

I also thought it would be fun to play with color a bit. I went for green, and my goal was to get an interesting green rim light. So I put a green gel in another light. The downside of my homemade snoot is that it doesn’t work with my gel-holder thingie. I think in the end the color should have been in the snooted light. Never got the green highlights I wanted, but that’s OK. It gives me something to shoot for next time.

Once I got one light all snooted up (with a narrow grid attached as well to increase directionality) and the other gelled for color, I cast about for a suitable subject. I tried a pair of steampunk goggles (looking for cool reflections), a pewter mug, and a fake skull (ideal for rim light, I thought), but none of them worked out so well. Then I found this trinket (click to biggerize the photos):

Now, in the interest of science, I possibly should have posted untouched photos so you could see how the lights worked out. But I didn’t. Instead I fiddled with the pictures to enhance what the lights gave me, and to get three different feels for the same object.

The cool part is the way the green light lit up the glass. (The actual glass is not at all green.) It worked best when the green light was straight behind the object, of course, but my favorite lens is a sucker for lens flare, so I had to be creative in my positioning and use of a gobo. You can see the green-haze effect in the second pic in the series.

In the end, though, I’m pretty happy with the results, and maybe I’m even a slightly better photographer now. Practice, practice practice, after all.

1

Ugly Cars

OK, to start things off, I’d like to go on record to say that the new Fiat they’re selling here is ugly. It’s lumpy and wrinkled, but lacking the charm of a shar pei. When the ads try to liken the lump of poo to an Italian supermodel, I just roll my eyes.

But the Fiat is a passive sort of ugly, the kind of ugly that mothers the world over look past.

When the Pontiac Aztec came out, I was stunned. My first encounter with one was in a parking lot; I walked a complete circle around the thing, laughing the whole time. I thought, naïvely, that I’d seen the pinnacle of ugly. Surely nothing could ever surpass it. I mean, come on. Presumably most auto designers want their cars to look good.

Except maybe the ones at Toyota. It started with the Prius, which is not an attractive vehicle. Aztec territory. Particularly offensive: the giant silvery tail light cluster. Two giant festering boils on the back end of every Prius.

The infection spread. More Toyotas inherited this horror, and then it caught on with Toyota’s other labels. Terrible designers at other companies picked it up, putting the awe in awful.

This isn’t to let the makers of big, angular red clusters off the hook. Still ugly, but easier to overlook.

All this in a time when technology allows designers to do just about anything with the tail lights of a car. If I were in charge of the VW, there’d be optional flower-shaped brake lights on the bug – and they’d sell. There is less need than ever before for giant plastic warts on the ass ends of cars. Yet on some vehicles these unsightly growths just keep getting bigger and uglier. I saw an SUV today, painted in a dark color, with giant silvery tumors on its ass so big I was tempted to chase it down to see who made the damn thing. But I had better things to do.

1

Executive Severance

So there’s this thing called The Twitter that all the kids are using. In terms of literary forms, it’s the shortest of the short, measured in characters, not words. It’s about the opposite of a novel. So what if you tried to write an entire novel in tweets?

Right off the bat, you’re faced with a critical decision: Does each tweet have to be interesting on its own? If not, then just tweet each sentence and ignore the fact that no one is following along. But if your medium truly is the tweet, then success is measured by followers, and that means that you will approach the story differently.

In the forward of Executive Severance by Robert K Blechman, the author discusses that briefly, and when the story gets meta (the bad guy is following the protagonist’s tweets), it is discussed more. The medium is the message, and whatnot.

Structurally, then, the story reads more like a daily comic strip than it does a traditional novel. Every third sentence or so must be a payoff. Blechman often achieves this through wordplay, which he obviously enjoys, and he transmits that pleasure successfully. With a wink toward character limits, he has contrived to give many of his characters single-letter names, and he plays with that quite a bit as well.

If you judge this story as a mystery novel, you’re likely to be disappointed. It’s not strong on narrative, but then again neither were the Pink Panther movies, which felt similar — the story is just there to hang funny episodes on. In this case, it’s a couple hundred very short funny episodes.

There were occasional tweets that I sat back and admired just for their economy. Wee tiny poems. One thing for sure, doing a story in this medium requires skill (and the willingness to drop the occasional punctuation mark).

It is a thought-provoking story, not so much for what it says, but for what it is. Which is something the story itself tells us.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a 1 CT Champagne Diamond Solitaire Pendant), I get a kickback.

Pardon the Dust – again


A warning sign I saw between Calgary and Edmonton.

I’m putting in a new comment system that hopefully will answer a couple of annoyances I found with the old. It may look wonky compared to everything else. I’ll probably just turn it on, see how things look, and turn it off again in a few hours once I know the effort it’s going to take to get it looking right.

In the meantime, leave a comment and tell me what you think!

Maskera!

There’s a bunch of fun stuff going on in the Pinup Realm to tell you about, but let’s start with this one: Maskera! Maskera is a superhero who never runs.

The backstory for the project (rather than for the hero herself) is that I shot a series of pictures of Harlean Carpenter (who is a fiction) on a green screen. They came out pretty well, so Harlean then worked her contacts to find a cartoonist to draw some villains and whatnot to match her action poses. Those turned out to be completely awesome.

“I can’t wait to see it in print!” the artist said. Until that moment Miss Carpenter the Fiction had not considered print. But what the heck? We know an awesome printer, and it would be a hoot to make an actual comic book. I will be writing the story, but honestly it’s more about the great poses of Harlean and the whimsical-yet-menacing bad guys of Michael O’Connor. Oh, no! It’s Angry Meteor!

We’re doing this thing through Kickstarter. For those unfamiliar, it’s a system that allows people to pledge support for a project, but only if the project actually happens. So you say, “Hell, yeah! I want a comic! And a poster!” and then if and only if the project meets its goals will you be charged. This means we can make sure we reach a certain threshold before getting a bunch of stuff printed, and it means you kids out there in cyberland can make sure you get your money’s worth.

So hop on over and take a look! It’s sure to be a hoot!

Data Centers and the Environment

Greenpeace has been outspoken recently, denouncing Apple for having inefficient, carbon-spewing data centers. There are worse offenders than Apple, but let’s face it, when the protest is at Apple, more TV cameras show up, and there’s a better chance of making a national story. Also, Apple has certainly had room for improvement in this area. On top of that, as Apple goes, so goes the industry. Directing protests at Apple makes perfect sense if you’re Greenpeace.

For a while now, Yahoo! has been at the top of Greenpeace’s eco-friendly data center list. The guy that built those data centers now works at Apple, and I heard a talk from him yesterday. It was really interesting, and I got the feeling that the environment was important to him personally; that he saw better, cleaner data centers as his legacy.

Mostly I’m going to talk in the abstract here, and when I do mention Apple I’m going to be careful to only say things that I can find in public sources.

I’ve always thought of data centers (warehouses filled with humming computers) as being pretty clean, except for all that dang electricity they suck up. It turns out there are other issues as well, and Greenpeace would do well to broaden the scope of their scrutiny. For instance, modern data centers use a crap-ton of water (that then has to be treated), and they have (literally) tons of lead and sulphuric acid onsite. There’s a bunch of ways besides just consuming electricity that the huge server farms popping up everywhere can hurt the environment.

But let’s start with electricity. There’s no getting around it, computers need the stuff. Data centers are not rated by how much computing power they contain, but by power consumption. Keeping the computers cool is another massive power drain, but it’s WAY better than it used to be. One simple shift made a big difference: cool the computers directly, rather than the room (or even the cabinet) they’re in. Physical changes to allow heat to escape through convection also save a lot of energy. So that’s good news.

Also good news is the efforts of some companies (well, I assume more than one) to provide their own power, onsite, to remove the need for batteries and backup diesel generators. Apple has built a huge fuel-cell plant and a large solar generating farm at its new data center in North Carolina (I’m pretty sure this is where Siri lives). Fuel cells still put out CO2, but Apple is getting their fuel from “biomass” — methane coming out of local garbage dumps. The logic is that putting that gas to use is better than letting it loose in the atmosphere. CO2 bad, CH4 worse.

Now, don’t get all misty-eyed at Apple’s greenness. They do this stuff to make money. If you had a big pile of cash at your disposal, wouldn’t you spend it now to gain immunity from energy price fluctuations in the future? You bet your sweet ass you would. If you can do it in an environmentally responsible way, all the better. (Fuel cells are definitely not the cheapest solution short-term.) But as Apple’s new data centers come on line at a ridiculous rate, Greenpeace is finding less to complain about. And that’s a good thing for everyone. Greenpeace can say, “See? We influenced this giant company and now they’re doing the right thing.” Apple can reply, “We would have done it anyway. It’s good fiscal sense.”

Either way, it’s still a good thing. Although, there’s no getting around the fact that these server farms still use an enormous amount of energy. Even “green” energy puts a burden on the environment — something people seem to forget. So, let’s not get complacent here.

Oh, yeah, and the water thing. Apple’s newest data centers don’t use any. The only burden on the sewer system is the toilet in the office. Take that, Yahoo!

Silver Lining

Traffic in the Muddleverse has been down lately, largely due to Google losing its love for my definitive treatise on over-easy eggs. (Seriously, though, there’s no better tract on that subject out there.) Another formerly-popular page has also sunk below the top-twenty fold: My episode titled ‘New York Sucks’. To be honest, I was surprised that my offering ever rose so high; surely there were plenty of other folk voicing the same sentiment.

Yet, for maybe two years, I was one of the top hits for the phrase ‘New York Sucks’. I learned during that time that idiot mouth-breathers occupied seats on both sides of the debate arena. There were some really cool responses as well, and I’m looking forward to my next venture into the hive. I think it’s going to be pretty awesome.

But now my little rant is off the radar, has been for some time, and I can breathe a sigh of relief.

Fingerprints

Tonight I created a new Google profile. The goal of the exercise is to increase my privacy by creating a separate Google account (with bogus information) so I can use the Google RSS service without dropping my pants. Not that I subscribe to anything particularly telling, but that’s my business. The answer: create a completely unique profile for only that purpose.

But, there’s a catch. There’s still a pretty good chance that the Goog (and all their pals) can still tell it’s me. They do this through fingerprinting.

Every time your browser asks for something over the Interwebs, it tells a little about itself. A lot of sites have little scripts they send your way that report back even more. It starts with screen resolution, the default colors for visited links, and a host of other little bits that, when put together, create a unique profile. Based on unprotected information, sophisticated sites can pin you down, even if you don’t (knowingly) volunteer information.

So tonight, before setting out to create a new Google account, I wanted to do something to prevent the Googlemind from figuring out that Arthur Kingman (not the name I used) was really me. It seemed like a pretty easy quest: I was looking for a plugin for my browser that would cause it to send slightly different information each time it made a request.

I found one (I think) — FireGlove for Firefox. I didn’t realize just how off Firefox I am until I was faced with the dilemma of using Firefox with this privacy plugin or using Opera naked. I never use Opera, so if I’m diligent and only use Opera in privacy mode when acting as my new alter ego it will be difficult for them to connect the dots. It’s inevitable, though, that at some point I will mess up.

It seems like there should be fingerprint randomizers for every browser. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. Anyone out there know where I might find one for any given browser?

Wearing the Flag

I suppose the Olympics have always been an exercise in nationalism, despite propaganda to the contrary. I have quite consciously avoided the medal count page on my favorite sports sites, but let’s face it, that’s what people care about.

Then there’s the US basketball team, who recently pummeled some other hapless country to the tune of more than 150 points. In that game we demonstrated than we are better at basketball than some tiny nation, and that we are total dicks.

The rest of the world doesn’t see running up the score as such a big thing, but this is one of the things that’s supposed to make us better. Right? When you have the outcome in hand you think about those guys who will always talk about this game, a highlight of their lives, when they shared a court with the best of the best. Don’t shit on them. The trap: being condescending would be far worse than running up the score. But there has to be middle ground. Play loose, toss out a high-five when one of the other guys makes a good move. Maybe pass instead of shoot. Show a little respect, and have a little fun.

Which isn’t what I set out to say. This was intended as a grumpy-old-man episode about respect for the stars and stripes. It’s not a cape!

But if you’re going to wear the flag, or represent the flag in the arena, show a little class. The American Ideal is mostly a myth, but if you’re over in London with old glory soaking up the spilled beer on the table behind you, maybe that’s a good time to actually be who we say we are. A champion of the little guy. Someone who leads with a smile and is as trusting as he is trustworthy. Someone who will cheer for a great performance without regard to political boundaries. Always ready to help out a friend in need. While you’ve got our flag draped over your shoulders, be that ideal person, even if it’s just an act.

I’ll give you the cape if you live up to what it means.

A few guidelines for Americans visiting the games:
Don’t be loud unless there are Germans to drown you out.
As long as there’s no chance of losing, remember that it’s only a game.
When you meet a gold medalist in a bar, buy her a drink, and keep your opinion of rhythmic dance to yourself.
Heh. Rhythmic dance.
It’s the summer olympics. Hockey is… not hockey. But they still use the word.
Learn to say “thank you” in British. Use it often. Same with “please”. Even if you don’t learn any other words, you will do well.

No RSS in Safari 6? Seriously?

I am mostly happy with the new version of Safari. Mostly. I am also stunned and dismayed that they have removed the support for RSS feeds. Yes, stunned and dismayed.

No more will I have a little notification right in my browser that someone has left a comment here at Muddled Ramblings. And Apple seems to have completely forgotten this use-case: When I read my comics in the morning, some of them have feeds and some don’t. Now, to take advantage of the feeds in some, I’ll have to read the comics in two different apps. (Or, check for the availability in one app and have it switch to my browser to read it, then go back to the previous app for the next comment and so on. Yuck.)

Sure, the Safari implementation of RSS has some issues, but it was right there, where it was most useful.

Something important has happened in the
Media Empire!

You see how simple and unobtrusive that is? Not some feed that shows me big blocks of info, just a number in a place I’m likely to notice. Not in some other app that I need to check periodically.

With a heavy sigh this morning I set out once more to find an RSS reader that doesn’t suck. I couldn’t find one. Out of the pile of newsreader apps I waded through, they ALL failed on at least one of these criteria:

Getting Over the Hump

Now, I didn’t get my degree in futurology from a major university, but writing that last episode about one specific medical breakthrough made me sit back and think about the larger picture.

Here’s the thing: There’s some bad shit coming down the pike, but there are also some good things. Let’s start with the bad:

There are more and more people on the planet, and they have to eat. While the human population shoots upward, our ability to produce food is under stress on several different fronts.

  • Nitrogen burn — a huge chunk of farmland is at risk of becoming sterile as a result of modern agricultural practices. The nitrogen in fertilizer comes from the atmosphere and doesn’t go back. It’s building up all over the place, and is starting to affect things.
  • Running out of phosphorus — this critical mineral is in short supply. This article put the timer at 50 years. We might find more in the meantime, but China is buying all it can now.
  • Water — some of the most productive farmland in the world gets its water from the ground. The supply is finite.
  • Water, part II — changing climate patterns are likely to put too much water in some places, and not enough in others.

I had a few more, but you get the idea. Keeping everyone fed for the next few decades is going to be tough. War and pestilence will follow where food is a problem.

2050 could be pretty ugly. If sea levels rise, there will be a lot of displaced people. (I say save San Diego and kiss Miami goodbye. Topologically, it makes sense.) Agriculture will be maximally stressed. It’s going to take everything we have to get past that hump.

But it is a hump. This is just number-crunching, but so far every group of humans that has reached a certain average lifespan has stopped reproducing so much. There’s good reason to believe that after around 2050, the human population will start to decline for the first time in history.

This leads to some new problems — or at least adjustments. Consider the American Social Security system as an example of something that happens all over the place (although, most times there’s less lying about what’s actually going on). Young folks pitch in to support the older folks. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. (Although with Social Security we’re told we’re saving for the future, and that’s patently false.) Young folks looking after the ones who came before is admirable. The problem comes when there aren’t enough young folks to carry the load anymore.

Answer: redefine “old”. By 2050, working 75-year-olds will be typical (I originally used a bigger number, but pulled back). If I were king, I’d start sliding the retirement age three months each year, starting now. I’m not king, however, and it will probably require a few major nations to default and a million pensioners to die of starvation or exposure before it is politically possible to start this adjustment. Naturally, the pension hump comes at the same time the food supply is at maximum stress. But it’s a hump, and on the other side is the recognition that people will be productive for a lot longer. There’ll still be young’uns, they’ll just be sixty years old.

And come on, young at sixty? That’s not a bad thing. You might have to delay retirement a decade or two, but you’ll still have a better retirement than folks did in 1935, when retirement age was set at 65, and the average lifespan was 62.

So, that’s two humps we have to get over. There are others. We will have to make a pretty big transition on our energy sources in the future. Bad people will have access to some really scary shit. Robots might take over (they will do this by making us so fat and lazy we don’t bother to reproduce).

But on the other side of the hump is a population gently shrinking to what the planet can comfortably support, humans productive and healthy far beyond original design parameters, and a world that does not, as ours does now, run at a deficit. Once everything runs out, we’ll have to learn to live on a budget. There will still be strife, and greed, and misunderstanding, but just get us to the year 2100 without an abrupt population correction, and I think we’ll be all right.

(Note to readers digging this episode up on Our Benign Overlord Google (may it always reign in peace) in the 23rd century: get your bitch ass in your time machine and tell me if I was right.)

1

Penicillin – and What Comes Next

We’ve heard about the super-killer bacteria, the ones resistant to penicillin and all the derivatives. Nasty, nasty, little guys. But consider: those super-baceria are as dangerous as every damn infection anyone ever got one hundred years ago.

I mentioned once to friends that if I were to travel back in time to live in an earlier age, the thing I would miss most is dentistry. One of those assembled brought up antibiotics. To our generation the very idea of an infection is far less malign than what our great-grandparents knew. We worry about cancer today because we don’t die of starvation or infection first.

But now antibiotics are becoming ever-less effective. We just overdid it, and the nasty little guys still standing just give penicillin the finger. Are we foolishly squandering one of the greatest tools we’ve ever developed to improve the human condition? Absolutely. Antibiotics have to number among the seminal achievements of technology.

But check this out: There are viruses that attack specific bacteria. For instance, there’s a virus that attacks tuberculosis. Seriously! Now, that virus may not be gnarly enough to completely wipe out TB in a human, but that seems like a pretty promising start to a new way to fight infection. It also strikes me as poetic to fight germs by getting them sick.

Yeah, the fact that we can now imagine a world with home build-your-own-virus kits can be a little worrying. Let’s just make sure we’re afraid for the right reasons. Often when you hear about genetic engineering, hand-wringers focus on the possibility that a created life-form that was supposed to be benign mutates into something evil that destroys the world. I’m not saying it can’t happen, mind, but it’s far more likely that a virus that’s already dangerous to humans — flu or chicken pox or even the common cold — will make that leap than some organism who just hasn’t been practicing at hurting people very long. The viruses already inside us would require a much, much, muchmuchmuch smaller mutation to get to wipe-out-humanity status, and they have a way to make a living even if they don’t get the whole mutation in one jump.

No, the reasons to be afraid are twofold: One, bad people will have the technology to make a lot of people sick. They will start with flu and do it right. Two (and this is my own personal hand-wringing unsupported by any actual research), the therapy might work too well. Every once in a while humanity wipes out a pest only to discover it filled an important niche in the local ecosystem. Kill all the mosquitoes and suddenly beetles are eating your crops. (I have a very vague recollection of a chain of events somewhat like that, but don’t go quoting me here.) We could wipe out some bacterium only to discover that it had an important role in the world that we never guessed at.

But you know what? I’m pretty stoked about this. It will be a long time before the our buddies the bacteriophages are cheap enough to change the world health outlook, but a long time isn’t as long as it used to be.

Here’s an article that talks about other applications of custom viruses, and revives my hope of getting out of brushing my teeth.

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