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The Thaddeus Gazette

Ben 'n' Finn

As a proud possesor of a recently-purchased smart phone, I'm here to announce that the software for belt-top computers is of necessity limited in its scope and power. Though the considerable cost associated with one is mitigated by the luxuriant apps available (it's a cell phone! It's a video camera! it's a web browser! it's a GPS! it's a tuner! a metronome! a calculator! a...), only the more data-centric uses hold much value. Apart from being a cell phone, of course — it does that pretty well.

At least one program, however, carries the necessary heft and flow to qualify as a certified Killer App, and that's the Kindle emulator, even if for no other reason than that it negates the necessity of purchasing one. The e-reader is self-evidently an idea whose time has come, but the notion of carrying around a device solely for the purpose of reading monopolized DRMed bookfiles, particularly one priced like the Kindle, smacks of 20th century marketing in the rear half of a 21st century horse costume.

I was quite happy to download a Kindle for free in the form of 1's and 0's until I found out how expensive 1's and 0's could be in the form of e-books. Unable to convince the app to open non-Amazoned text, I left the poor little icon languishing on a back page of my phone until the fortunate day I discovered Amazon's Free Classics feature in its Kindle Store. Okay, gratis content from the likes of Aristotle, James Joyce and Edgar Rice Burroughs? I'm so there.

One of the first downloads I extracted was Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, a work I'd seen quoted but had never approached, believing it to be one of those albeit and inasmuch laiden post-Elizabethian trainwrecks, like one of Shakespeare's minor histories without a glossary. Well, surprise surprise, pilgrim, ol' Benjie turned out to be a regular Mark Twain of the 18th century, garroulous and gossipy without a speck of pompousness (well, okay, maybe a speck — it was the style back then), his confessions imparting a vivid impression of the character of the Only President Who Was Never President.

In and amongst reminiscences of his wayward youth, fleeing his tyrannical brother to whom he'd been apprenticed in Boston to Philadelphia and England and eventually entering into the printing profession, as well as a number of doxies, Franklin makes note of some of his higher aspirations as a moralist, formulating aphorisms in his patent Poor Richard way. Predictably, both for Ben and colonial America, his advice to the young is prudence, temperence, hard work and open-hearted honesty as the precursors to success and the Good Life. As a classic rags-to-riches success story, he presents numerous examples from his own history as testimony to the efficacity of his methods.

But there's more to life than virtue, I always say, and upon further scanning the list of open-source literature I struck on what looked like a sure-fire smirk-fest of a title: The Art of Money Getting (or Golden Rules for Making Money) by none other than that sterling prototype of verisimilitude, Phineas Taylor "There's A Sucker Born Every Minute" Barnum. Here, I thought, would certainly be found a cynical, selfish voice of modernity, a message of forthright greed straight outta the Gilded Age.

To the confounding of my sadly jaded expectations, the beloved medicine show huckster holds forth with a message nearly identical to Franklin's, expousing similar platitudes of thrift and industry and good will towards others, even quoting "Honesty is the best Policy." Shame, shame upon you, jaded expectations! Back to your industrious grindstone!

On the other hand, what other message could a sworn agent of the invisible fist of Robber Baronism impart but that simple, charitable, good-hearted, dissembling fable? Would the king of the fast talk switcheroo, the famed exhibitor of the dread Egress, be likely to break character and level on the real source of his considerable wealth? It's the oldest aphorism of all: Those who say don't know and those who know don't say. Right along with the one about who never gets an even break.

Most likely, though, Barnum drank his own snake oil. It's a hazard of the trade. Money, amongst its other delightful traits, is rotten good at inducing doublethink in even the most steadfast of straight shooters. Hundred Dollar Ben, too, is okay with preaching his fancy ecumenical ethical code whilst simultaneously detailing his shenanigans extracting profit from public service at all levels of the government. The best con is the con you believe yourself.

It's tempting to think that, coming as he did at the very inception of Us, Franklin's philosophical poetasting had seminal influence on our national social mores. The bones of a lot of current mainstream socio-economic thinking lurk beneath the skin of his good prescriptions, cohabiting with that well-documented and widely-commented Protestant work ethic. It's also possible that, as a lover of books and learning living as he did at the height of the Enlightenment, he was as much a conduit as generator of his views.

But while those shining values Franklin and Barnum do go on about were suitable and wise for a relatively small, traditionally organized culture, recent history has evidence that honesty, industry and frugality don't scale quite as well as they might. Within a tightly interdependent community, honesty is not only the best policy, it's the safest one as well if you don't want your neighbors standing around watching your house burn down some cold night. Once you've proceeded to the Warehouse O' Strangers model, though, that particular feedback mechanism breaks right down and it's every ape for themselves. Overpopulation makes monkeys of us all, and there's no easy path back to the kinder, gentler times of the City Of Brotherly Love, if they ever were to begin with.

But can this mean that simple, homely virtues are nothing but hot air? Of course not! Eternal truths can never be gainsaid. Oh, and I have this bridge to sell you...

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