October 1st, 2003

pacific torus vedic echoes

The sly and subtle art

So I'm uploading the stories for tomorrow's newspaper onto my employer's Web site, as I always do right before leaving work.

I get to today's top story -- some local researchers have discovered that the first gold found in Auburn during the California Gold Rush, in 1848, may not have been found where everybody assumes it was found.

Along with the top stories, we upload the artwork that was used with the story. The secondary art -- of the two researchers -- I named "1001gold.jpg," because that's what the story package was slugged, and that way I could keep everything straight when I went to do the actual uploading. The dominant photo on the front page -- as those in the biz call it, the day's "lead art" -- was a picture of a statue of Claude Chana, the prospector in question. I uploaded the file as "1001lead.jpg", as is our standard style.

And it suddenly strikes me, while I'm linking the story and the two pictures together so that they'll appear with the proper relative placement, just how arcane all this is. Think about it. At my command I have this stack of ingredients -- bits of data, ones and zeroes, some of which display as brightly colored pixels and some of which display as words. I'm putting them together with predefined recipes that, at some deep level four steps removed from my immediate comprehension, tell this silent, boxy servant on my desk how to turn those ingredients into a Web page.

I'm messing with magic. At base it's all ones and zeroes, but up here, in the world of people, it's arcane and arbitrary formulas that create strange and wonderful results -- and the more you let yourself stop and think about it, the more inscrutable the process becomes. How does the Web browser parse the HTML? How does the operating system interpret the Web browser's instructions? How do the little electronic pathways of the CPU turn the operating system's pulses of energy into meaningful data?

It's alchemy, I tell you. I stopped and thought about this, and I felt like a medieval alchemist mixing strange potions into miracle cures.

But then I took a deep breath and paused for a reality check. Just because it's inscrutable from here doesn't mean that it doesn't have perfectly rational explanations all the way down to every single electron. It may be unnerving, but it's solid, predictable rules. No matter how crazy the process of assembling the photos properly might seem from a detached perspective ... this isn't alchemy; it's science.

Thus reassured, I shrugged, and continued chaining lead.jpg into gold.jpg.