Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

So I'm driving in to work, deeply mired my usual commuter's stupor, crawling (and crawling, and crawling) by the junk that lines the side of the 405: glass; underwear; big, tattered sheets of plastic, billowing against the fence on the divider; and the remains of tires.

Huge, hulking truck tires, all torn to pieces and shreds. Long strips of steel fibers and worn black rubber, left to rot by the side of the road.

I used to wonder where these came from. They obviously come off trucks, yeah, but the tire bits are so common that -- heck -- maybe they just fall off, and nobody driving next to the truck would even notice.

I don't hear it, but up ahead there's a truck pulling over to the side of the road. As it starts to get over, an extruded black circle spits out from the back, bounces along heavily for a bit and comes to rest -- smoking; literally, with soft grey-white wisps being pulled out of it by the wind off passing cars -- just outside the slow lane.

The tire -- what remains of the tire -- is huge, and, at 50 miles an hour, would have quite happily squashed my car (and, say, anybody in it) if I'd been in its way. I quietly resolve never to drive behind big trucks ever again. Assuming, of course, I ever drive again.

I used to wonder where those skid marks that zip out of one lane, across two others and into a crumbling part of the freeway divider came from, too, but now I don't wanna know.

So it's ten years ago and I've just turned 18 and I'm holed up in the administration offices of Rolling Hills High School, working on an Apple IIe. A week before, I'd managed to convince the teacher I was supposed to be working for to let me do something for him other than sit in the library and re-read "The Phantom Tollbooth."

I'm having a lot of fun. I'm using AppleWorks, and am setting up a database to automatically tabulate test results and spit out GPAs. Eight thirty-eight AM ticks by unnoticed. Just before the bell rings to send me off to my next class -- journalism, where I'm an editor -- I head out of the tiny side-office with the computer and into the lobby were the receptionist and the secretaries sit.

"G'bye," I say.

"Did you hear?" they say. "The space shuttle blew up!" Suddenly, I'm light-headed; confused and disoriented. Of course I heard them, but I say anyway: "What?" I run off to my next class. The journalism room has a TV and people are already gathered around it, watching Dan Rather point out a small flare on the side of the left booster rocket just before the orbiter is engulfed in a rolling white plume. The tape runs again and again.

My journalism teacher, Mrs. Grassinger, insists that we take the current events quiz that had been scheduled, and I'm sitting at my small desk unable to concentrate, the images playing over and over in my head.

Eventually, of course, most people get cynical. I like to think it's a form of self-protection, but even before the end of the period, I hear people getting bored. "Do they have to play it again? They never say anything new."

In the next issue of our school newspaper, one of the other people on staff writes an editorial objecting to the use of the word "heroes" to describe the astronauts. It should be reserved for those, say, who are fighting famine in Ethiopia. A lot of people agree with her.

But I don't. Not then and not now.

The Challenger blew up ten years ago today. I still remember everything.

I remember the day after the accident, the editorial cartoonist for the LA Times, Paul Conrad, draw a picture of the explosion -- you know the shape -- with a hand emerging from the end, its finger pointing upward.

I remember the tape of "Go with throttle up." I remember a guy -- Richard Feynman, it turns out; before I'd read his books -- dipping a piece of plastic into his ice water to show how it stiffens, how the same thing can happen to an O-ring. I remember the jokes. "NASA: Need another seven astronauts." I remember the talk that some of the crew might have lived until the cockpit hit the water.

I remember the slow-motion TV pictures of the crew walking to suit-up. The "first truly diversified crew" -- white guy, black guy, civilian woman -- going into space.

Space. A hundred years ago man couldn't even fly and these people -- including a school teacher -- were going into space. The nerd's dream. My dream.

I think the Challenger explosion affected everybody my age, including the cynics, more than they could have imagined. Seven lives, gone in an instant; joy becomes confusion, confusion becomes grief. The idealization of America, what this country could accomplish, was damaged beyond repair that day.

I don't remember Viet Nam or Watergate or the assassinations of JFK or MLK or RFK. I don't remember George Wallace or Charles Manson or even Gerald Ford. They're only people and places in history books.

But I do remember the shuttle. I will always remember the shuttle. It represents everything America can be, and how incredibly fragile it is.

I will not forget.

So Joanne and I are in Vegas on New Year's Eve, watching "Enter the Night," the big, Vegasy, New-Year's-Evey show at the Stardust.

And suddenly, without warning, it goes from an unimaginably expensive high-school talent show -- complete with over-vocalized classics ("Uhn-foooor-gheeet... ablllle!") and long- and well-forgotten pop tunes (DeBarge lives!) -- to the wet-dream of a profoundly disturbed 13-year-old boy.

What were happy, peppy, perky dancers and singers are now happy, peppy, perky and nearly naked dancers and singers.

For this song, they've chosen a bizarre fantasy motif. The men stalk around in these enormous, awkward cod-pieces and huge white wigs with elaborate horns protruding from the top. One guy, and he almost makes me choke on my $4/8oz. Coke, is dragging a styrofoam horse rear-end around behind him, creating what I suppose we are to interpret as a centaur, but what looks more like a fraternity prank gone horribly wrong.

The woman, more tastefully, parade around in thongs and some lace.

And, I suppose, several thousand dollars worth of surgery. While some of these parading women have normal-looking breasts, others look as if they had their chests applied with a giant ice-cream scoop.

I turn to Joanne, but she's still watching the show, her mouth agape, like she's witnessing a happy, peppy, perky, nearly naked, dancing and singing car accident.

And after it's all over, the performers stream out into the audience and start shaking hands. A parading woman, now dressed, grabs my hand and pumps up and down it a couple of times.

"Thank you," I say.

And I mean it.

So today's my birthday. It's also the anniversary of the Stockton Schoolyard Massacre; the start of the Gulf War; the Northridge Earthquake and; just last year, the Kobe Earthquake.

I wish I knew what to make of that.

So I'm 17-years-old and full of belligerence and outrage. It's 1985 and I, somehow, am attending a speech at the Ambassador hotel given by Edward Zwick, the Director of the US Information Agency for the Reagan Administration. My high-school's Model United Nations chapter wrangled the invitation, and then passed it on to us newspaper geeks when they couldn't find enough MUNers nerdy enough to fill the table.

I'm dressed in the standard-issue uniform for 17-year-old outraged belligerents at formal luncheons where government officials will speak: my dad's tie.

Ed's up at the podium, a thick, dark man, stuffed into an unflattering brown suit. He's talking about a seven and a half minute video tape that his agency used to dramatize to the real United Nations the Soviet downing of KAL 007. "It lead that body to almost unanimously condemn this evil, criminal deed," he says. I half expect him to add, "So my salary is justified."

Then they play a video of President Reagan, on these big-screen TVs around the room, congratulating Ed on his accomplishments.

Then they open the floor to questions.

The questions are pretty dull -- technical posers about the Voice of America being scrambled by the Cubans, content puzzlers about the KAL video -- and things seem to be winding down when the moderator says, "We have time for one last question. Anyone?"

I raise my hand. "Yes," the moderator says. I stand. I suck in a breath. I muster as much belligerence and outrage as I can.

"Aren't you being just the least bit hypocritical?" I say. "I mean, did you prepare a seven and a half minute video tape of a ship sinking in the Nicaraguan harbor?" (This was another one of the Reagan Administration mini-scandals -- the CIA had mined the harbor illegally.)

There's a silence. The entire room, near as I can remember, turns and looks at me.

Ed says, "What?"

"Ah," says the moderator. "The young man suggested hypocrisy and asked if a video was produced of a ship sinking in the Nicaraguan harbor."

The room begins mummering; mummer, mummer. Ed flushes for a moment, then squares his shoulders and begins a ten minute diatribe about Soviet strength in South America. His entire answer does not contain the words "Yes" or "No."

Afterwards, a bunch of people gather around where I'm standing. A few slyly congratulate me, others stare angrily. The school advisor with us jokes that he doesn't want to be walking next to me when we leave the building.

One elderly, hunched woman pushes her way through the crowd. She looks up at me, fire alight in her eyes, and says, "I was with the Resistance in France during the War, and snot-nosed kids like you have no idea what you have!"

She nods her head sharply, then turns and pushes off.

So I'm waiting in line at Vons and the guy in the next aisle is hitting on the cashier. He says:

"...like, y'know? I write out stories and, like, thoughts and stuff. It's, like, y'know? Like, I've been doing it since, like, 1984 and it's really, just, like... Uh..."

"That's cool," she says.

"Yeah," he says, savoring the word. "Cool. It's, like, cool. Y'know?"

And a guy that's standing off to the side of the cashier suddenly speaks up. "I'm living with her," he says.

"Oh..." says the guy. "OK. Like, cool."

He didn't stand a chance. Everybody knows you need a mailing list and a Web site to get the babes. Like, duh.

Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.

Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic and Buzz Clock), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "Things I Learned About My Dad" and "Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard").

My e-mail address is greg@eod.com. I'd love to hear from you!

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