Author Archive

August 5, 2021

Living Worlds Considered Harmful

A Response to the Documentation of the Living Worlds Working Group
1997-02-27

[A post by Douglas Crockford, recovered from the internet archive.]

Introduction

The Livings Worlds Initiative is the work of a small but dedicated group of VRML developers who have a deep interest in extending VRML into the basis for interconnected virtual worlds. This project has been inextricably bound to a very effective public relations campaign and standards setting effort. The project is still in development, but is already being promoted as an industry standard for virtual worlds.

The Living Worlds Working Group has been signing up a large number of companies as supporters of the effort, including IBM and Apple. What is not clear to most observers is that support means nothing more than agreeing that standards are desirable.

Within the industry, there is common misunderstanding of what support for Living Worlds means, even among the supporters. The result is that support for a Livings Worlds Standard is starting to snowball. It is being regarded as a proposed standard, but it has not had to face any sort of rigorous review. The purpose of this response is to begin the belated review of the Living Worlds Documentation as a proposed standard.

Premature Standardization

There is a growing list of companies that are developing VRML-based virtual worlds. The sector is attracting a lot of attention. Even so, most of the social activity on the Internet today is in IRC and the chat rooms of AOL. The most successfully socialized avatar worlds are WorldsAway and The Palace, neither of which are VRML-based. The VRML worlds have seen a lot of churn, but are not creating significant sustaining communities.

The weakness of community formation in many of the VRML worlds may be the result of the newness of the worlds and the inexperience of the world designers, who have hampered themselves by putting 3D graphics ahead of socialization.

It is too early to be standardizing 3D social architecture. More experimentation is required. If the Living Worlds Initiative is an experiment conducted by a group of cooperating companies, then it is a good thing. If it is a standard-setting activity, then it is premature and harmful.

The operation of 3D worlds has not been shown to be a profitable activity. The business model is driven by affection for Neal Stephenson’s satiric cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. Snow Crash describes a virtual world called the Metaverse. Some day, we may have a real Metaverse, and it might even be as important in our world as it was in the novel.

Living Worlds does not implement the Metaverse. It only makes something that looks like it, a meta-virtual world.

VRML itself is still new. VRML 2.0 was announced at Siggraph 96, and complete implementations are only now coming on line. The VRML 2.0 initiative was as frenzied as the Living Worlds Initiative, and because of the haste, the result was suboptimal. A consequence is that part of the Living Worlds Initiative contains some workarounds for VRML 2.0 limitations.

Security

The word “security” does not occur in the Living Worlds Documentation except to point out a security hole in VRML 2.0. The lack of attention to security by the Living Worlds Working Group is not a problem if the Initiative is viewed as an experiment. One of the benefits of the experiment will be to demonstrate why security is critical in the design of distributed systems. If the Living Worlds Initiative is setting a standard, then it is harmful.

Security is a very complicated and subtle subject. Absolute security is never achievable, but diligent design and application can produce systems which are worthy of trust.

The Living Worlds Documentation identifies three issues in which distributed security is critical.

  1. handle everything via dynamically downloaded Java applets
  2. protect the local scene from damage by imported objects
  3. support authentication certificates (dice, business cards)

The Documentation does not adequately address any of those issues.

Lacking security at the lowest levels, Living Worlds is not strong enough to offer a credible trust model at the human-interaction level. In systems which can be hacked, concepts like identity, credentials, and accountability are meaningless.

This severely limits the application scope of Living Worlds. Environments which permit interpersonal commerce or confidential collaboration should not be implemented in Living Worlds.

Secure software distribution

Software is the lifeblood of virtual communities. The value and diversity of these systems depend on the ability to dynamically load and execute software from the network. Unfortunately, this raises a huge security concern. Software from the network could contain viruses, trojan horses, and other security threats. Because of the dynamic and interconnected nature of virtual communities, the protection mechanisms provided by Java are not adequate.

The Living Worlds Documentation notes that

…at present, most systems prohibit Java from accessing local files, which makes it impossible, for example, to connect to locally installed third party software features. Until this problem is generically solved by the Java community, the management of downloads and local access are left to proprietary MUtech solutions.

The proprietary MUtech solutions will create a security hole, and possibly compromise the goal of interoperability at the same time. In order for the dynamic, distributed virtual community to be viable, the issue of secure software distribution must be solved from the outset. Class signing is not a solution. A secure, distributed architecture is required. It is doubtful that credible security mechanisms can be retrofitted later.

Protect the local scene

Related to the problem of software distribution is the question of rights granted to objects. Objects that are valued in some places might be obnoxious or dangerous in others. The Living Worlds Documentation describes an incontinent puppy as an example of such an object. A secure architecture needs to deal with these sorts of issues from the outset. The Living Worlds Documentation identifies the problem, but does not solve it.

Authentication

The Living Worlds Documentation calls for the use of authentication certificates as a mechanism for assuring confidence in certain objects. Unfortunately, if the architecture is not secure, there is not a reliable context in which certificates can be trusted. Because Living Worlds is hackable, certified objects can be compromised.

Community

Communities need tools with which they can create policies to regulate the social order. Different communities will have different needs, conventions, standards. The Living Worlds Documentation says this about the task of designing those tools:

Two things seem clear. First, that designing a persuasively complete infrastructure for managing user rights, roles and rules is an essentially open-ended task. Second that building a simple, open-ended framework for the same domain can probably be completed with very little effort.

Unfortunately, the Working Group does not adequately understand the issues involved. They will create a tool based on a limited understanding of the problem, attempt to drive it into a standard, and leave to others the social and administrative headaches it will cause.

This general strategy applies to the rest of the Living Worlds effort as well. Our goal is to reach quick consensus on a minimal subset, and then to encourage the rapid creation of several reference implementations of that proposed feature set. Refinement of the concepts can then proceed in an atmosphere usefully disciplined by implementation experience.

Problems of this kind cannot be solved by refinement.

Incomplete

If the Living Worlds Documentation were just the work in progress of a working group, then it is appropriate that they publish their materials on the net for comment by interested parties, and it would be absurd to point out that the work is unfinished. But because it is also being presented publicly as a networking standard, and because the Living Worlds Working Group has already begun the work of standard setting, the Documentation needs to be tested for its fitness as a standard.

If the Living Worlds Documentation is read as a proposed standard, then it should be rejected out-of-hand, simply because it is incomplete. In its present form, the Living Worlds Documentation is not even complete enough to criticize.

Principles

The Living Worlds Working Group selected a set of principles to guide the development process. Membership in the working group is open to anyone who can accept the principles. This is a reasonable way for a working group to define itself. Unfortunately, the principles of the Working Group are problematic for a standards body. While the Living World Documentation is not complete enough to criticize, the principles and basic architecture can be criticized.

  1. Build on VRML 2.0.Use VRML 2.0 would have been a better first principle. By Building on VRML 2.0, the Working Group is hoping to work some or all of the Livings Worlds work into the VRML 3.0 standard, thereby increasing the importance of the Living Worlds Standard.This component-oriented principle led the Working Group to put the display processor in the center of a distributed architecture, ignoring decades of experience in the separation of I/O from other computational goals.Fortunately, the recent moderating influence of the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratory (MERL) has opened the Living Worlds Working Group to the possibility of other presentation models. Unfortunately, the Living Worlds Architecture is already fixed on a set of unwieldy interfaces which were motivated by a VRML-centric design space.
  2. Standards, not designs.The second principle is intended to give implementers a large amount of leeway in realizing the standard. The amount of leeway is so great that it might not be possible for independent implementations to interoperate with implementations developed by the Working Group. Since that is specifically what a standard is supposed to accomplish, the second principle is self-defeating.The other benefit of the second principle to the Working Group is to provide an expedient method of dealing with disputes. When the members of the Working Group do not agree on an architectural point, they agree to disagree and leave the choice to the implementer. Sometimes the reason they do not agree is because they were confronting an essential, hard problem.
  3. Architectural Agnosticism.The third principle concerns the question of centralized (server-based) or decentralized (distributed) architecture. Centralized social networking systems often suffer from performance problems because the server can become a bottleneck. The Working Group therefore wants to keep the option of decentralization open:
      A centralized architecture cannot be transformed into a decentralized architecture simply by being vague about the role of the server. Decentralized design requires the solution of a large number of hard problems, particularly problems of security. An insecure architecture can facilitate the victimization of avatar owners by miscreants. Insecurity will also limit the architecture to supporting only limited interactions, such as chat. Higher value services like cooperative work and interpersonal commerce require a secure platform. Such a platform is not a goal or result of the Living Worlds Initiative.Because the third principle does not explicitly call for the solution to the problems of secure decentralization, it is self-defeating, resulting in an implementations which are either insecure or devoutly centralist or both.
    1. Respect the role of the market.In the fourth principle, the Working Group chooses this unfortunate non-goal:
        The process does not pay adequate attention to the consequences of the design. The goal of the Working Group is to establish a standard early, relying on iteration in the maintenance of the standard to make it, if not the best imaginable, then good enough for commercial use. The process is not forward-looking enough to provide confidence that the standard can be corrected later. Significant architectural features, such as security, are extremely difficult to insert compatibly into existing systems.
      1. Require running code.The fifth principle appears to be the most respectable, but when coupled with the urgency and recklessness of the fourth principle, it becomes the most dangerous.A standards development process that requires demonstration of new techniques before incorporating them into the standard can be a very good thing because it provides assurance that the standard is implementable. It can also provide early evidence of the utility of the new techniques.But if such a process is driven by extreme time pressure, as the Living Worlds Working Group is, then the fifth principle has a terrible result: only ideas with quick and dirty implementations can be considered. The Working Group will finish its work before hard problems can be understood and real solutions can be produced.So, by principle, the Working Group is open, but not to good ideas that will require time and effort to realize.

      Conclusion

      The software industry sometimes observes that its problems are due to not having standards, or to having too many standards. Often, its problems are due to having standards that are not good enough.

      Premature standardization in the area of virtual worlds will not assure success.

      The Living Worlds Initiative is a model for cooperative research, and as such it should be encouraged. The Working Group is using the net to create a virtual community of software developers working together on a common project. This is very good.

      Unfortunately, the Living Worlds Initiative is also a standards-setting initiative, building on the momentum of the recent VRML 2.0 standard. It would be harmful to adopt the Living Worlds Initiative as a standard at this time.

      February 7, 2017

      Open Source Lucasfilm’s Habitat Restoration Underway

      Habitat Frontyard taken 12/30/2017Project Hub taken 12/30/2017

      It’s all open source!

      Yes – if you haven’t heard, we’ve got the core of the first graphical MMO/VW up and running and the project needs help with code, tools, doc, and world restoration.

      I’m leading the effort, with Chip leading the underlying modern server: the Elko project – the Nth generation gaming server, still implementing the basic object model from the original game.

      http://neohabitat.org is the root of it all.
      http://slack.neohabitat.org to join the project team Slack.
      http://github.com/frandallfarmer/neohabitat to fork the repo.

      To contribute, you should be capable to use a shell, fork a repo, build it, and run it. Current developers use: shell, Eclipse, Vagrant, or Docker.

      To get access to the demo server (not at all bullet proofed) join the project.

      We’ve had people from around the world in there already! (See the photos)

      http://neohabitat.org #opensource #c64 #themade

      Habitat Turf taken 12/30/2017Habitat Beach taken 12/30/2017

      April 29, 2014

      Troll Indulgences: Virtual Goods Patent Gutted [7,076,445]

      Indulgence Another terrible virtual currency/goods patent has been rightfully destroyed – this time in an unusual (but worthy) way: From Law360: EA, Zynga Beat Gametek Video Game Purchases Patent Suit, By Michael Lipkin

      Law360, Los Angeles (April 25, 2014, 7:20 PM ET) — A California federal judge on Friday sided with Electronic Arts Inc., Zynga Inc. and two other video game companies, agreeing to toss a series of Gametek LLC suits accusing them of infringing its patent on in-game purchases because the patent covers an abstract idea. … “Despite the presumption that every issued patent is valid, this appears to be the rare case in which the defendants have met their burden at the pleadings stage to show by clear and convincing evidence that the ’445 patent claims an unpatentable abstract idea,” the opinion said.

      The very first thing I thought when I saw this patent was: “Indulgences! They’re suing for Indulgences? The prior art goes back centuries!” It wasn’t much of a stretch, given the text of the patent contains this little fragment (which refers to the image at the head of this post):

      Alternatively, in an illustrative non-computing application of the present invention, organizations or institutions may elect to offer and monetize non-computing environment features and/or elements (e.g. pay for the right to drive above the speed limit) by charging participating users fees for these environment features and/or elements.

      WTF? Looks like reasoning something along those lines was used to nuke this stinker out of existence. It is quite unusual for a patent to be tossed out in court. Usually the invalidation process has to take a separate track, as it has with other cases I’ve helped with, such as The Word Balloon Patent. I’m very glad to see this happen – not just for the defendant, but for the industry as a whole. Just adding “on a computer [network]” to existing abstract processes doesn’t make them intellectual property! Hopefully this precedent will help kill other bad cases in the pipeline already…

      March 5, 2014

      Two Recipes for Stone Soup [A Fable of Pre-Funding Startups]

      There once was a young Zen master, who had earned a decent name for himself throughout the land. He was not famous, but many of his peers knew of his reputation for being wise and fair. During his career, he was renowned for his loyalty to whatever dojo he was attached to, usually for many years at a time. One year his patronage decided to merge with another, larger dojo, and the young master found himself unexpectedly looking for a new livelihood. But he was not desperate, as he’d heeded the words of his mentor and had kept close contact with many other Zen masters over the years and considered many options.

      As word spread about the young master’s availability, he began to receive more interest than he could possibly ever fulfill. It took all of his Zen training and long nights just to keep up with the correspondence and meetings. He was getting queries from well-established cooperatives, various governments, charitable groups, many recently formed houses, and even more people who had a grand idea around which to form a whole-new kind of dojo. This latter category was intriguing, but the most fraught with peril. There were too many people with too many ideas for the young master to sort between. So he decided to consult with his mentor. At least one more time, he would be the apprentice and ventured forth to the dojo of his youth, a half-day’s journey away.

      “Master, the road ahead is filled with many choices, some are well traveled roads and others are merely slight indentations in the grass that may some day become paths. How can I choose?” asked the apprentice.

      The mentor replied, “Have you considered the wide roads and the state-maintained roads?”

      “Yes, I know them well and have many reasons to continue on one of them, but these untrodden paths still call to me. It is as if there is a man with his hands at his mouth standing at each one shouting to follow his new path to riches and glory. How do I sort out the truth of their words?” The young master was genuinely perplexed.

      “You are wise, my son, to seek council on this matter — as sweet smelling words are enticing indeed and could lead you down a path of ruin or great fortune. Recount to me now two of the recruiting stories that you have heard and I will advise you.” The mentor’s face relaxed and his eyes closed as he dropped into thought, which was exactly what the young master needed to calm himself sufficiently to relate the stories.

      After the mentor had heard the stories, he continued meditating for several minutes before speaking again: “Former apprentice, do you recall the story and lesson of Stone Soup?”

      “Yes, master. We learned it as young adepts. It is the story of a man who pretended that he had a magic stone for making the world’s best soup, which he then used to convince others to contribute ingredients to the broth until a delicious brew was made. This story was about how leadership and an idea can ease people into cooperating to create great things for the good of them all.” recounted the student. “I can see the similarity between the callers standing on the new paths and the man with the magic stone. Also it is clear that that the ingredients are symbolic of the skills of the potential recruits. But, I don’t see how that helps me.” The apprentice had many years of experience with the mentor, and knew that this challenge would get the answer he was looking for.

      “The stories you told me are two different recipes for Stone Soup,” the master started.

      “The first caller was a man with a certain and impressive voice that said to you ‘You should join my dojo! It is like none other and it is a good and easy path that will lead to great riches. Many people that you know, such as Haruko and Jin, have tested this path and others who have great reputations including Master Po and Teacher Win are going to walk upon it as well. Your reputation would be invaluable to our venture. Join us now!'”

      “The second caller was a humble and uncertain man who spoke softly as he said ‘You should join my dojo. It is like none other and the path, though potentially fraught with peril, could lead to riches if the right combination of people were to take to it. Your reputation is well known, and if you were to join the party, the chance of success would increase greatly. Would you consider meeting here in two days time to talk to others to discuss our goals and to see if a suitable party could be formed? Even if you don’t join us, any advice you have would be invaluable.” The mentor paused to see if his former student understood.

      The young master said “I don’t see much difference, other than the second man seems the weaker.”

      The mentor suppressed a sigh. Clearly this visit would not have been necessary if the young master were able to see this himself. Besides, it was good to see his student again and to be discussing such a wealth of opportunities.

      He resumed, “Remember the parable of Stone Soup. The first man did not. He recited many names as if those names carried the weight of the reputations of their owners. He has forgotten the objective of the parable: The Soup. It is not the names or reputations of the people who placed the ingredients into the soup that mattered. It was that the soup needed the ingredients and the people added them anonymously, in exchange for a bowl of the broth. The first man merely suggested that important people were committed to the journey. I am quite certain that, were you to ask Haruko and Jin what names they have heard as being associated with the proposed dojo, you would find that your name was provided as a reference without your knowledge or consent.”

      The student clearly became agitated as the truth of his mentor’s words sunk in. There was work to do before the day was done in order to repair any damage to his reputation that speaking with the first man may have caused.

      The mentor continued, “The first recipe for Stone Soup is The Braggarts Brew. It tastes just like hot water because when everyone finds out that the founder is a liar, they all recover whatever ingredients they can to take them home and try to dry them out.”

      The mentor took a quick drink, but gave a quelling glance that told the apprentice to remain silent until the lesson was over.

      “You called the second man weaker, but his weakness is like that of the man with the Stone from the parable. He keeps his eyes on the goal — creating the Soup or staffing his dojo. Without excellent ingredients, there will be no success; and the best way to get them is to appeal to the better nature of those who possess them. He, by listening to them, transforms the dojo into a community project — which many contribute to, even if only a little bit.”

      “Your skills, young master, are impressive on their own. You need not compare yourself with others, nor should you be impressed with one who would so trivially invoke the reputation of others, as if they were magic words in some charm.”

      “The second recipe for Stone Soup is Humble Chowder, seasoned with a healthy dash of realism. This is the tempting broth.” And the mentor was finished.

      The apprentice jumped up — “Master! I am so thankful! I knew that coming to you would help me see the truth. And now, I see a greater truth — you are also the man with a Stone. Please tell me what I can contribute to your Soup.”

      “Choose your next course wisely, and return to me with the story so that I may share it with the next class of students.”

      “I will!”

      And with that, the young master ran as quickly as he could to catch up with the group meeting about the second man’s dojo. He wasn’t certain if he’d join them, but the honor of being able to contribute to its foundation would enough payment for now. When he approached the seated group, he was delighted to see several people whose reputation he respected around the fire, discussing amazing possibilities. One of them was Jin, who was shocked to learn that the first man had given his name to the young master…

      [This is a long-lost post, originally posted on our old site six years go. Once again, the internet archive to the rescue!]

      February 21, 2014

      White Paper: 5 Questions for Selecting an Online Community Platform

      From Cultivating Community (a Ning blog)

      Today, we’re proud to announce a project that’s been in the works for a while: A collaboration with Community Pioneer F. Randall Farmer to produce this exclusive white paper – “Five Questions for Selecting an Online Community Platform.” 

      Randy is co-host of the Social Media Clarity podcast, a prolific social media innovator, and literally co-wrote the book on Building Web Reputation Systems. We were very excited to bring him on board for this much needed project. While there are numerous books, blogs, and white papers out there to help Community Managers grow and manage their communities, there’s no true guide to how to pick the right kind of platform for your community.

      In this white paper, Randy has developed five key questions that can help determine what platform suits your community best. This platform agnostic guide covers top level content permissions, contributor identity, community size, costs, and infrastructure. It truly is the first guide of its kind and we’re delighted to share it with you.

      Go to the Cultivating Community post to get the paper.

      December 19, 2013

      Audio version of classic “BlockChat” post is up!

      On the Social Media Clarity Podcast, we’re trying a new rotational format for episodes: “Stories from the Vault” – and the inaugural tale is a reading of the May 2007 post The Untold History of Toontown’s SpeedChat (or BlockChattm from Disney finally arrives)

      [sc_embed_player fileurl=”http://traffic.libsyn.com/socialmediaclarity/138068-disney-s-hercworld-toontown-and-blockchat-tm-s01e08.mp3″]
      toontown1

      Link to podcast episode page[sc_embed_player fileurl=”http://traffic.libsyn.com/socialmediaclarity/138068-disney-s-hercworld-toontown-and-blockchat-tm-s01e08.mp3″]

      October 30, 2013

      Origin of Avatars, MMOs, and Freemium

      Origin of Avatars, MMOs, and Freemium – S01E06 Social Media Clarity Podcast

      The latest episode of the Social Media Clarity Podcast contains an interview with Chip Morningstar (and podcast hosts: Randy Farmer and Scott Moore). This segment focuses on the emergent social phenomenon encountered the first time people used avatars with virtual currency, and artificial scarcity.

      Links and transcription at http://socialmediaclarity.net

      August 26, 2013

      Randy’s Got a Podcast: Social Media Clarity

      icon 800x800 with border

      I’ve teamed up with Bryce Glass and Marc Smith to create a podcast – here’s the link and the blurb:

      http://socialmediaclarity.net

      Social Media Clarity – 15 minutes of concentrated analysis and advice about social media in platform and product design.

      First episode contents:

      News: Rumor – Facebook is about to limit 3rd party app access to user data!

      Topic: What is a social network, why should a product designer care, and where do you get one?

      Tip: NodeXL – Instant Social Network Analysis

      August 23, 2013

      Patents and Software and Trials, Oh My! An Inventor’s View

      What does almost 20 years of software patents yield? You’d be surprised!

      I gave an Ignite talk (5 minutes: 20 slides advancing every 15 seconds) entitled

      “Patents and Software and Trials, Oh My! An Inventor’s View”

      Here’s some improved links…

      I gave the talk twice, and the second version is also available (shows me giving the talk and static versions of my slides…) – watch that here:

      August 2, 2013

      Armed and Dangerous

      [This is a repost from my long-dead Yahoo 360 blog, originally posted August 2006 about events in spring 2002. I decided to recover this posting from the Internet Archive because recent events, 12 years after 9/11, show that the authorities are STILL over-panicking about our security.]

       

      FDNY Memorial Tshirt Back

      How could I know that singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” in public could be considered a terrorist weapon?
      One early spring evening in 2002 I went for a walk in my neighborhood wearing my FDNY September 11th Memorial T-Shirt (shown above), telling my family that I would return just after sundown (about 30 minutes).

      About an hour and a half later I arrived at home teasing them by explaining that I’d “ just been handcuffed, interrogated, searched, had a machine gun pointed directly at me, been ordered to my knees two feet from a K-9 gnashing it’s teeth, and was nearly arrested as a terrorist … all just for singing out loud.”

      My family didn’t believe me at first – until I showed them the reddened cuff marks on my wrists and the business card of PAPD Sergeant, Sandra Brown.

      Now they wanted to hear the whole story…

      One mild spring evening in 2002, I felt like singing. I wanted to teach myself some bluegrass and spirituals that I’d discovered recently (mostly as the result of recently seeing O Brother Where Art Thou?) and I felt like being real loud. So, rather than disturb by family, I decided to go for a walk and practice elsewhere. Given the weather, I’d only need a tshirt and jeans to keep me warm until well past sundown. I started singing right away when I got outside, but then noticed some of my neighbors, so I thought that it’d be better if I could find a place to belt out my baritone/bass tones where no one would care if I were in tune. I was practicing, after all.
      “The pedestrian walkway over 101 would be perfect”, I thought, “with any luck I’ll be completely drowned out.”

      I’d made good time hiking to the pedestrian overpass, humming “Ahhhh am a maaaaan, of con-stant sah-roooow…” along the way. By the time I reached the apex of the passage, the sun was very low in the west dropping just below the hills. The gold-purple sky was an inspirational sight. The constant breeze from the cars whizzing by below was quite effective in carrying my voice away, so I cranked up the volume. I was having a great time and expanded my material to include my favorite Webber show tunes. Other than a pair of guys walking by, my only audience was the late evening commuters most of who had just turned on their headlights. It was a blast. For 15 minutes I was able to belt out anything I wanted, as loud as I could.

      When I was starting to feel the effects of singing continuously that loudly the sun had completely set, so I decided to head home. I was running a little later than I’d expected, so I increased my gait a just bit.

      As my stride increased (mostly due to gravity) on my way down the sloped ramp back into the neighborhood, directly in front of me appeared two Palo Alto police officers who had just started their way up the ramp. Just a moment after I noticed them, they noticed me, and then did something very, very, strange. They quickly walked backward away from me until they were out of sight, around the corner, at the base of the ramp. I’d never seen anyone do anything like that before. How on earth could I intimidate two police officers just by walking down a pedestrian ramp? As I proceeded down to the exit I called out loud: “HELLO? Is everything alright?”

      As I came to the bottom and walked around the corner there were about a half dozen of Palo Alto’s finest, one with what looked like an M-16 and others with pistols pointed directly at me. There was much yelling and I see and hear a dog barking threateningly – “Don’t move!” “Turn Around!” “Get Down!” “Put your hands where we can see them!” “Bark! Bark! [Jangling of a large dog chain.]”

      I wasted no time at all, I put my hands in the air and turned my back to them. I kneeled, quickly enough that it hurt. “I think there’s been some mistake, whatever you do, please don’t let go of that dog” is all I could think to say at the moment. I had no idea what the heck was going on, but I didn’t want to give them any reason to make a horrible mistake.

      “Who are you?” “Where are you from?” “What are you doing here?” “What are you carrying?” were the rapid-fire questions I can remember. I quickly explained that I was on a walk, singing songs. “The only thing I’m carrying is my wallet, which shows I live two blocks from here”, I said, still kneeling, I didn’t even have my house keys. “Take it out and toss it on the ground, but move very slowly”, said a woman who seemed to be in command of situation, She was to my left, but still behind me where I couldn’t see her. Very, very cautiously, I complied. “Do you have anything else?”, the request was rather urgent and sounded specific. “No. Nothing.”

      An officer came up and handcuffed my wrists behind my back, aggressively patted me down, and helped me to my feet. My wallet was retrieved the commander-woman. Once I could face the squad again, I clearly recognized her as Sandra Brown, an officer who had done many hours as a bicycle-beat cop in the downtown Palo Alto area, where my family had spent nearly every Friday evening for nearly 14 years. I was hoping that this meant she might recognize me as well, helping to diffuse whatever this horrible mess was all about.

      She walked me over to the back of her police cruiser, pressing me back on the trunk hard enough that my handcuffed wrists were pressed into the car metal enough to let me know that I wasn’t going to be going anywhere without her permission. She grabbed the walky-talky that I hadn’t previously noticed had been set on the roof of the car and spoke into it “(muffled) check in. Anything?”. I couldn’t make out the response, but the meaning was made clear to me immediately when she asked:

      “Did you go all the way across the overpass?” “No.”

      “Did you see anyone else up there?” “Just two guys that walked by about 20 minutes ago. Nothing unusual.”

      “Where did you put it?” “Put what? I didn’t have anything.”

      “Did you leave behind any clothing” “Clothing? What? No.”

      Fifteen to twenty minutes passed. Officer Brown checked my ID and confirmed that I’m local. She noticed my shirt for the first time. The cuffs were starting to hurt. I’d been told to be quiet. The sturdy, but small blond woman with the assault rifle was keeping it at-the-ready, but it isn’t pointing at me. The dog had stopped barking, but was at some kind of station-keeping pose. Lots more radio traffic. I finally piece together that at least two officers were on the other side of the ramp are looking for something, something that they think I might have hidden there, something critical to this situation.

      Finally, the invisible officers at the other end of the radio apparently gave up the search. My heart stopped racing. My temperature started to drop. You see, I finally stopped thinking that I’m likely to end up wounded or dead due to someone panicking.

      Once the search is over, it became clear that maybe the situation was not what they had expected/feared. Officer Brown started to explain: “We got a phone call from someone on a cel-phone driving on 101 reporting a sniper, wearing a trench coat, was shooting at cars with a high-powered rifle or machine gun.” Apparently this triggered the Palo Alto equivalent of the swat team.

      I couldn’t resist: “An overweight middle-aged man, singing the lead from The Phantom of the Opera (probably waving his arms about, crooning to Christine about being ‘inside her mind’), while wearing jeans and a tshirt that reads All Gave Some, Some Gave All on the back, somehow looks like a Columbine kid terrorizing the freeway with an automatic weapon? What irony: Wear a public-safety-supporting tshirt, get suspected of being a sniper.”. This observation did get a bit of a giggle out of the one with the real Tommy gun, finally hanging peacefully at her side.

      I was feeling a little put out: “One call with such a vague description gets this level of response? Did 9/11 really turn us all into people looking for a terrorist behind every darkened corner? A trench coat? This is pretty unbelievable.” I was starting to get very sore about my wrist pain. “We’re sorry, we need to be extra cautious in situations such as these, if it had turned out to be true… In any case, you’ll have a great story to tell your kids and grandkids.”

      “True. Can I get out of these now?” There were a few more rounds on the radio, getting a final approval to release me. Rubbing my wrists I share, “You know, my family will never believe me when I tell them that this happened. Do you have one of those Palo Alto Officer trading cards our kids got at school a few years ago?”  Turned out that they were out of print, but Officer Brown did have a standard issue business card, which she gave me as they wished me well and I started walking home. [I know I still have it around here somewhere.]

      Other than practicing the first of many tellings of this story on the way home, I have never forgotten that the fear generated by the terrorist attacks on 9/11 had changed our world forever. I don’t think that driver would have ever made such are report if this had all occurred one year earlier.

      Fortunately for me, the police still are trained to get things right before they themselves start shooting reported terrorists.

      “I am a man of constant sorrow. I’ve seen trouble – all my days.”