High-entropy Time

Somebody whose name I've long forgotten told me he used to stay home from work when he had a "high-entropy day." He meant entropy in the second-law-of-thermodynamics kind of way: You know, the part about how as energy spreads it gets more chaotic.

Well, I've been having a high-entropy week. It started when I began getting calls from a Quebec journalist asking how it felt to have the Recording Industry Association of America suing me, and it ended with a dramatic but nonfatal bike accident on Masonic Street, the most fucked-up street for bicycles in all San Francisco.

Apparently, French journalists aren't very big on checking their sources, and that's why some crappy online newspaper called Le Journal du Net (www.journaldunet.com) printed an article about several Americans being sued by the RIAA for copyright infringement and included me on its list. It even said I was the "plus radicale" of the bunch. The newspaper had found a column I wrote a couple of months ago about why I violate copyright on a matter of political principle, and just assumed that meant I was engaging in file sharing and that the RIAA was suing me. Not being a regular reader of Le Journal du Net, I missed the article. But I learned all about it when a reporter from Quebec called me up to ask what it felt like to be a pirate who would have to pay the RIAA hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I had to quell my urge to snarl "Arrggh!" when she asked me that one. But I kept my piratespeak to myself and instead explained to her that no, I wasn't being sued just for saying I think current U.S. copyright laws are draconian and unjust. I also pointed out to her that Kazaa is not the only file-sharing program available, which is apparently what she'd thought up until that point. "Wow!" she exclaimed when I told her about Gnutella. "You mean there are people who do file sharing for free?" Yes, sweetie -- that's the whole point. People are doing shit for free.

After I wrote a grumpy e-mail in mangled French to the Journal du Net people, they issued one correction. So I'm not a French pirate anymore.

I am, however, an inveterate free WiFi cruiser (FWC). I spend a lot of time riding my bicycle around San Francisco looking for coffee shops with free WiFi, and my high-entropy week was no exception. I like to spend hours in cafés writing and playing on the Internet. I don't mind paying for several coffees in a row; I just don't want to pay $3 for 20 minutes of Net access. As an FWC, I've developed a highly specific map of the city in my head. All coffee-related landmarks are designated as free or not free. If there is no WiFi in a location, it doesn't even register as a place. It's merely some kind of aberrant formation with no 2.4 GHz carrier waves sailing through it. Why would you build a café and not include WiFi? It just doesn't make sense.

Every WiFi café has its own special characteristics, and all of them have their regulars, people like me whose entire work life can be carried out entirely on a laptop. Cole Valley Café on Cole Street has great brownies and nice music and is filled with lots of open-source hackers. Maxwell's on Dolores Street has cute staff who give out doggie treats to anything furry and vaguely canine in appearance.

On the day of my bike accident, I had just discovered a new free WiFi café: Nani's on Geary Boulevard. It had all the elements of a great place: music not too obnoxious, delicious food and coffee, a clean bathroom, and a preternaturally nice owner. I got a big, foamy latte and cracked open my trusty Vaio.

That was when I discovered the spirit of Nani's. He was pure, old-school, unsullied geek. Tall and lanky, vaguely goth, he lounged in an easy chair next to one of the only available outlets, his computer flipped open on his lap. When he heard me marveling at the excellent WiFi, he perked up and told me all about how he installed Red Hat Linux on his Vaio. He runs a MUD; he's a recovering LARPer; he liked the movie Underworld; his screen saver is the SETI@Home program. And he makes a mean cappuccino. This guy should be a poster boy for something sexy and nerdy, though I'm not sure what.

With thoughts of vampires and open-source software dancing in my head, I dove out of Nani's and into the intense rush-hour traffic on Masonic. At one of those crappy intersections where one lane of traffic has to turn right, I tried unwisely to weave my way between lanes and go straight. But sadly, this was not to be. I grazed a truck with my handlebars, got off balance, and threw myself right into the middle of the street. As I looked up in shock from my bleeding knees, I realized that a car had stopped within feet of crushing my entire body.

Sometimes it's important to remember that not everything in my life is digital.

Annalee Newitz (bikerchick@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose computer was not harmed in the accident. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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