Infectious information

Words and virus particles are both infectious units of information that depend on human vehicles for transport. Their flows are often correlated too, since a quarantine on words can cause an outbreak of virus. The Spanish flu flared so spectacularly in part because no one was willing to talk about it; wartime censorship locked down information about the disease. The very name Spanish flu came about because the neutral Spaniards were the only ones willing to talk about it in their relatively unfettered newspapers. In the honored tradition of shooting messengers, whoever comes forward to announce a disease is forever linked to it by name. Or, as we used to say in high school, the smeller is the feller.

The phrase Spanish influenza still sounds chilling to my ear. Our latest flu may or may not be on so destructive a course, but in terms of pure poetry, which sounds most menacing: Mexican flu, swine flu, or H1N1? This last one, H1N1, has the sinister sound of a science fiction villain, but I prefer it. Its name is based not on origin but on content. Since it describes the actual nature of the virus, it gives me a certain semantic power that the dark image of a rooting pig does not. Semantic power may not prevent you from getting sick, but it can inoculate you against the formidable informational aspects of the flu: dread and panic. As these spread more quickly and widely than the flu itself, this data vaccine should not be lightly dismissed.

H1N1 is a shorthand that, like a Mafia nickname, both describes and identifies. Fat Tony. Frankie the Beard. “Big Cough” Fluey. If you were a lung cell, you would see H1N1 coming and recognize him by his fancy coat, a protein coat studded with hemagglutinin subtype 1 (H1) and neuraminidase subtype 1 (N1).

To underscore the informational nature of viruses, here’s the genome: GenBank sequences from 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak. It’s all there. Need some virus? Ask a DNA synthesis vendor (like Mr. Gene) to print some up for you. Should we suppress the NIH web site that tells you how to make H1N1? Or would that merely encourage the wild publication of the virus inside human rib cages around the world? It’s a complex game of information trade-offs, but one thing’s for sure. We’re better off now than we were in 1918.

Negative signage and the letter of the law

When I first moved to Massachusetts from California, I learned about the value of the private snowplow contract. When it snows hard, it’s really nice to have a pro come plow your driveway, even if it does set you back a little cash. But one winter when there wasn’t much snow, our (presumably cash-poor) plow guy would pay us a visit and send us a bill at the drop of a flake or two. We had to reach an agreement that he was not to plow unless more than four inches had already fallen. My housemates didn’t go for my solution: a sign in the yard that was exactly four inches tall that read

Do not plow the driveway

I was reminded of this recently because of a funny post at (“putting the rarin back in librarian since 1999”) about how the Patriot Act lets the FBI invisibly explore your library usage. If you’re a librarian, you are specifically forbidden from telling anyone that the goons have been sniffing around. But let’s say you’re a librarian and this policy really bugs you. What to do? What to do?

Here are’s five technically legal signs for your library. My favorite?

[First spotted on LibraryThing. Follow the link and read about the scofflaw library patron who ended up with a criminal record.]

Sea songs and semantic distance

Here’s another one of those semantic distance stories: how long does it take to formulate the right question when you just know the answer is out there somewhere?

One of the various obscure records* in my house when I was growing up was Songs & Sounds of the Sea. It was a collection of sea chanteys recorded by National Geographic. I’d been looking for it over the years online and never had any luck. Because of its sentimental value, this recording is in the category of things I’d be happy to pay real money for if I could just find someone to sell it to me.

My web searches were thwarted partially because I had misremembered the name of the album as Men, Ships, and the Sea. This is in fact a book by Alan Villiers which we also had in the house when I was growing up. But there is no recording by this name, so I would curse and assume that no one had bothered to index this obscure album. I should have suspected that no recording is so obscure that nobody so much as mentions it once on the web. But then when I searched for individual songs I remembered, I sailed into another kind of semantic fog: there are lots and lots of sea chantey sites and recordings that masked the instance I was looking for.

Misremembered labels, over-rich results field… it made me wonder how many kinds of semantic fog there are. Or rather, what factors contribute to semantic distance?

At any rate, eventually I got lucky and found all the MP3s in the clear on this web page for Radio KRUD: Songs & Sounds of the Sea / Star Wars / Fresh KRUD. Enjoy. It may not be your cup of tea, but I know at least some family members out there who will be happy to rediscover this old friend.

* What do you even call these things anymore? LPs? Vinyl? Half the online population has never seen them.