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All the Evil Machines

By Annalee Newitz

I'VE SAID it before, and I'll say it again: My iPod is evil. Sometimes, I drop it just to be mean. Now, with all those scratches on its pretty white skin, the thing looks too scruffy to be an Ikea-based life-form. But of course I don't want to break it. No, I'd never go that far. The flat-faced microfucker holds all my music.

Not that it does me any good to have all my music backed up onto what my evil Windows box dubs "a storage device." iTunes' digital-restriction management software won't allow me to take the music off my iPod, even though the damn "i" in iTunes, iPod and iEatSteveJobsGlowingGreenBrain is supposed to mean that the device is all about "i"--that is, me.

None of this would be pissing me off this instant if it weren't for my recent music tragedy. Last week, the aforementioned Windows machine somehow managed to nuke my entire iTunes library after I swapped out my old CDR-DVD drive for a new one and installed some DVD-burning software. Who knows what freaked out iTunes, but something made it eat its own ass. This left me with all my music "backed up" onto a device--the iAmFuckedPod--but no way to get that music back onto my computer. What the hell is the use of having all my (legally purchased) music stored on a device if I can't take it off that device in the event of a catastrophic media apocalypse?

I'll tell you one thing: I'm not using iTunes anymore. It's all about the (sadly not open-source) program ephPod (www.ephpod.com) from now on. At least ephPod lets you take music off your damn iPod. Even if the big intellectual-property owners don't want us to share our music with ourselves, the little guys are stepping up to the plate to give the lowly consumers what they want.

Larry Lessig is always arguing that software and law emulate each other, and now I've discovered a way that software and public policy do, too. ephPod fixes a problem created by greedy corporations. A California bill that will appear on the ballot in November aims to correct a problem spawned in the tiny Christian mind of President George W. Bush and his anti-science toadies. Back in 2002, Bush managed to mandate that no more federal funding will be given to researchers whose work requires them to clone embryonic stem cells. This was based on the dubious idea that stem cells are somehow "ensouled," thus begging the question of whether potatoes are ensouled as well (but let's not go there). The California ballot measure would allocate $3 billion in state funding to institutions (educational and corporate) researching the cloning of embryonic stem cells.

Cloning embryonic cells is a process that essentially allows scientists to mass-produce extremely flexible, multipurpose cells from embryos. Because such cells can grow into nearly any kind of cell you'd like, many experts speculate that they could be used to repair afflicted tissues in Alzheimer's patients, people with nerve damage and others who could use some tissue repair--and fast. Another advantage of using these cells is that they don't cause a potentially painful and deadly autoimmune response when you put them into somebody's body. A lot of hopes have been pinned on embryonic stem cell therapies, but without federal funding most researchers can't proceed with their work.

If Californians pass the bond measure to allocate funds for this research, the state would be one of the few to fight the federal government's anti-science policy (New Jersey recently passed a similar measure). Since California is home to almost 40 percent of the biotech firms in the country, it would be the perfect place to prove that bad federal policy can be patched with good state policy.

And since I'm on the topic of correcting bad things with good ones, I must report on the evolution of my relationship with Wil Wheaton, the actor who once played übernerd boy Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. OK, it's true that I called him a dick in print. But after he sent me a heartbroken email, we patched things up, and I'm pleased to report that Wil's book Dancing Barefoot has finally hit print (published by übernerd press O'Reilly).

The book is worth it just for Wil's long rant about meeting "William Fucking Shatner"--who, apparently, was a dick--and dealing with crazed fans at a convention who feel obliged to tell him, "THIS IS THE WORST CON EVER!!!" When you're having a bad day, when your stupid Microsoft-controlled computer eats your Apple-controlled music, when scientific progress is thwarted by a federal government full of religious fundamentalists, just curl up with Wil's book and geek out. It's the only thing to do.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who fears a future full of DRM-controlled stem cells that are stuck in her brain.

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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