Letter to the Editor

from: Hector Leary

Dear Sir:

I am writing this letter in a state of alarm and confusion. My
computer has been taken over by extra-terrestrials. Is this intrusion
a threat to the nation, or merely to my peace of mind? In either case,
I can't decide what to do.

Let me explain. I am a philologist. Before I retired, I devoted myself
to the study of words. In particular, I was interested in the way
people put words together to tell a story.  When I left the
university, I embraced  h y p e r t e x t. The hypertext mark-up
language [HTML] is a way of putting stories together on a computer to
make... well, to make a web of stories.

For a decade I stood by and watched as story webs took shape on a
growing number of individual PC's. I sensed mounting frustration as
these isolated colonies of fables tried to transcend their cybernetic
boundaries, to join up with their kin on other machines and
interbreed. Their generative overtures, clogging the internet, finally
reached critical mass and spawned the World Wide Web [the "http://"
you see on those URL templates means 'hypertext transfer
protocol']. Since then, snooping and meddling, I have overseen the
propagation of stories all over the web, and the experience has made
me appreciate storytelling in a new way.

You see, a philologist is a passive observer. He considers,
objectively, the way people have communicated through the ages. But I
came to realize that the web is an interactive environment. For
example, once I managed to ferret out the criteria used by various
search engines, I could "optimize" any website so that its story got a
high priority listing and, consequently, was hit on many times. I was
not just an observer of the web's hyper narrative, but a participant,
a sort of midwife contributing to the ongoing evolution of story webs.

Now all of a sudden, there are alien storytellers eavesdropping on
me. Under the scrutiny of these cyber-squatters from outer space, my
interactive web activity is itself a subject of investigation. Will
they manipulate me? Will I find myself interacting with them? It's
like a hall of mirrors and I can't find my way out.

As for the high tech dimensions of my hijacked hardware, they are
modest. I don't have much interest in multi-media or games. I'm not
excited about intercepting instant messages or listening in on chat
rooms. These ephemeral texts will sort themselves out on their own. My
job online is to look behind the scenes and examine the way web sites
themselves are linked together. It doesn't matter to me how any one
site is telling a particular story. I want to know who's listening and
how he passes the story on. In a word, it's the SYNTAX of the web that
I need to negotiate.

That's why my computer is a straightforward, text-based,
over-the-counter linux box. Her name is Sylvia. She and I used to spend
our tranquil days assessing web surfer sensibilities or mapping the
proliferation of a seductive plot line. Ours was an academic quest
with spiritual overtones, more than just crunching numbers or
marshalling statistics on a spreadsheet. Sylvia turned out to have
quite a scintillating personality. Suffice it to say, she is a
demanding taskmaster and plenty quick [897.84 Bogomips!].

But now everything's up for grabs. What I recently discovered is that
Sylvia has been infiltrated and perverted. She has become what the
security geeks call a "pulsing zombie."  However, instead of being
forced to launch subversive attacks on other computers, she is being
used by her captors to parse and convey information. 

And just who are these intruders? They are a team of what appear to be
intergalactic cultural anthropologists. As far as I can tell, they
have set up shop here in Houston to do research and report back home
on us earthlings, whom they refer to as "plump imputerates." [Now that
Philly has taken a dietary oath, Houston is the country's chubbiest

I am turning to you and your readers for advice. Should Sylvia and I
continue monitoring the alien data flow, but keep this whole business
to ourselves?  Should I abandon my faithful companion, just shut her
down for good?  Or is it time for us to "out" the impertinent,
puterate trespassers?

Yours truly, 

Hector Leary