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During my brief but memorable tenure at Earlham College, I wrote a column for the school newspaper. (For the kids in the audience, that's like Twittering on paper once a week.) Columns aren't news articles (which sounded like work); they're more like the opinions you read on the op-ed pages, without the opinions. Think Dave Barry (my inspiration) or George Will (not so much).

My first trimester (that's right, trimester), I mostly wrote irreverent articles about making the Internet accessible to newbies. My first ever published article was entitled "Getting Wired at Earlham." Don't laugh; this was 1994. It was published on the inside back page, across from a half-page advertisement for the Macintosh Performa 636. The Performa impressively came with "the Internet Companion to help you tap into on-line research resources." Plus ClarisWorks, and a CD-ROM drive. "And now, with an Apple Computer Loan, you can own a Macintosh for less than a dollar a day." Screw those starving kids in Africa; I'm getting myself a Performa!

Anyway, I hereby present my first article, published on September 9, 1994 under the heading "Lost in Cyberspace":

If you've picked up a newspaper in the last year, you've probably seen the term "cyberspace," and if you actually read the newspaper, you are probably confused. This is not entirely your fault; the general media, for the most part, doesn't have the first clue what cyberspace is, where it came from, or what to do about it. [Note: this is still true. -ed]

Loosely defined, cyberspace is anything you can see, hear, taste, touch, or feel on the Internet. Depending on what you read (and what you believe), this may also include anything people claim you will be able to do on the Information Superhighway, just as soon as they get around to building it. These claims range from buying groceries to walking your virtual dog, but none of these things are actually happening yet. [I predicted Second Life in 1994. -ed]

The Internet, on the other hand, already exists, and it resembles the proposed Information Superhighway about as much as Earlham Hall resembles a four-star Hilton.

Dave Barry says that the Internet is just like the Information Superhighway, except that you're driving in pouring rain with no windshield wipers and all the road signs are upside-down and backwards. [Note: this is still true. -ed]

A long time ago, only scientists and tenured physics professors were on the Internet, and cyberspace was a "no shirt, no shoes, no brains, no service" kind of place. The population was 99.44% white males of European descent, and the other 0.56% were widely believed to be a glitch in the original software. [In retrospect, this is not funny. -ed]

By 1994, all that has changed -- the "virtual community" includes virtually everybody (a fact which annoys the scientists and physics professors to no end, and it is easier than ever to get "wired."

If you want to get yourself wired without the help of caffeine or other harmless drugs, the first thing you should do is find Ira Carmel and get an account on Earlham's mainframe. [Note: so not kidding. -ed] This is actually trickier than it sounds, since Ira is usually only in his office during normal business hours, so you may have to wake up early to catch him.

Ira and I are old friends (we had Wiffleball class together last spring) [Note: this is true; it counted as a gym credit. -ed] and if you mention my name, he's give you a 10% discount. This doesn't amount to much, since accounts are free, but it never hurts to ask.

His office is in the computer center in the basement of Lilly Library, and it has no windows, so small talk about the weather will probably only make him angry. But tell him your name and the year you'll graduate (which, for some reason, is assumed to be four years after you get here), and he'll give you an account.

Congratulations, you've just gotten yourself wired.

Next week: omniscient beings in cyberspace.

The next week's article was devoted to the Usenet superstar of the day, James Parry, a.k.a. Kibo. The week after that was on the importance of choosing a good password. Then an entire article about the 'finger' command, then one about Internet-connected vending machines. (Remember the Coke machine at RIT that you could finger? I swear I recycled every 1994 Internet meme into print.) Then an article about the World Wide Web, featuring lynx and a URL with a port number. Then an article on the MAKE MONEY FAST pyramid scheme that infested Usenet and bulletin boards for years. (The article began with this plea: "Will the person who sent me a pyramid scheme chain letter in the mail a few weeks ago stand up, go to the nearest wall, and bang your head against it?") Finally, an article on how to forge e-mail by logging into unsecured SMTP servers. So not kidding. (That article was controversial, even in 1994.)

Looking through my newspaper archives, it appears I took a trimester off. When I came back, I was bored with writing about computer stuff. I came up with a new heading -- "Ars Magna" -- and wrote a series of articles, each a different style of constrained writing. (I didn't know that it had a name. We didn't have Wikipedia back then, you know.)

Did you know that a common word usually has two to six synonyms? It's not as difficult as you might think to find a synonym for a word if you wish. Many programs such as Microsoft Word can look up words for you just by typing and clicking a button or two. in fact, I'm using Word right now for writing this column.

It's practically a truism of writing that using synonyms can add color to your compositions. This is not to say that you should abandon your original word in favor of its synonyms, but substituting a synonym for a common word can transform a dull and prosaic thought into a piquant locution. You can always try substituting a synonym or mixing a common word with various analogous notions, as long as this won't sound confusing to your instructor.

Also, using various grammatical forms can allow you to signify your original thought in various ways, using synonyms, antonyms, or both. But always pick your synonyms and antonyms thoughtfully: words can carry unusual connotations that you may not wish to imply. And, as always, a hazard of writing this way is that, by using too many synonyms or antonyms of common words, or by using highly unusual grammatical constructions, you may actually hurt your writing; your instructor may not know that your abundant synonyms signify an individual notion. Too much of a good thing...

This brings up a similar point: your writing should flow naturally. Adding flair to your writing is a worthy goal, but trying to match Kant's intricacy of forms and vocabulary is not a particularly good way to win favor with your instructors. (Philosophy majors will strongly concur on this point.) Naturally, this calls for a broad vocabulary and a thorough command of grammatical forms. Accomplishing this is no light task, but if you can gain this important skill, you can go a long way towards dramatically improving your writing.

Postscript:

Why am I writing about writing? You may think that this topic is insignificant, but in fact it is anything but trivial. Of all my columns, this probably ranks as my most important; it was without a doubt my most difficult. I had four rough drafts prior to writing this final copy. Why was it so difficult? It has to do with a particular oddity in my writing, a curiosity that you probably will not spot right away. If you do spot it, jot down a quick summary and mail it to my account on yang (PILGRMA). Happy hunting.

I titled it "Writing with Ease." The entire article was written without the letter E. (This is called a lipogram, though I didn't know that until today.) Several of my friends figured out the constraint, which I would say speaks to the quality of my friends at the time. I let the rest of my audience in on the joke in my next column.

After that, I wrote a column about vegetarianism where every sentence included an anagram of the word "vegetarian." (That column was titled "I Love Vegetarians, They Taste Great." My girlfriend's best friend's boyfriend was the newspaper editor, so we all basically did whatever we wanted.) And although I can't find it in my archives, I swear I wrote another where all the article's sentences were in alphabetical order. (This is harder than it sounds.)

Many years later, I published "Addiction is...," which follows the obvious constraint that every item in the list starts with the same two words. A lesser-known example is my story "That Close," which comprises nothing but words of one syllable. (I cheated a little by anonymizing names with single letters.) I couldn't say why I felt compelled to choose those constraints, but in each case the choice was explicit and intentional from the very first drafts. In the case of "That Close," I think it was a vague feeling that the story was simple and blunt, and fancying it up with long words would just fuck it up. "There are not a lot of roles to fill," and all that. To this day, I can re-read those stories and lose myself in them, forgetting the constraints I imposed on myself while writing them.

And that's all she wrote.

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