Some of the most interesting conversations I have are with cab drivers. Oh, I know I've bad-mouthed them in the past, but that's just because they're surly, disagreeable and unreliable. I don't actually hold that against them. I've complained, publicly and privately, that it's near impossible for me to hail a cab after 10pm, when it's not compulsory for them to pick up whoever's signalling, but secretly, I have to admit I'd probably not pick me up late at night either. The word lycanthrope leaps to mind - if you don't know what it means, simply trust that it's not a thing you want in your back seat in the dark.
Anyway, as I was saying, cab drivers are wildly opinionated, and their opinions tend towards the extremely opposite end of the spectrum from me on pretty much any issue. I suspect it's merely a conversational ploy, but I like it. Cabbies never waste my time with observations about who Gwyneth is dating or what Leo wore to the premiere of whatever. I don't care about these things, and cabbies don't seem to either. They go for the big issues, on which they're likely to get a rise. Politics, religion, yeast. Disagreeing with someone on fundamental points forces me to think more seriously about my attitudes to fundamental points. And it's fun, as long as I can pay my money and be finished with it after a few minutes.
The weirdest conversations I have with cabbies happen when they clearly don't have any particular topic they'd like to sermonise on, but want the conversation anyway. I've been rather ill lately with a serious chest infection, so I've been going to and from doctors frequently in cabs. Any conversation you have in such a state tends to be a little "out there", but I've had some doozies even by delirious standards.
Take, for instance, the one who ascertained that I grew up in Canada, and then proceeded to quiz me on the capital cities of Canadian provinces and territories - giggling crazily with each one I answered correctly. Honestly, there was someone else in the cab at the time who assures me it really happened, and wasn't some fever-induced hellish vision of a third-grade geography class. I'm at Death's door, knocking hard, and the guy in the driver's seat thinksit's hilarious that the capital of Saskatchewan is Regina, not Saskatoon. Who issues these licences? Isn't there some kind of screening process?
Another of the cabbies who ferried me to doctors worked out, in my moments of relative lucidity, that I was somehow involved with computers. He asked me about Denial-of-Service attacks, and how one goes about launching one. Would one need many computers, or could one launch such an attack from a single PC? I presumed he must be technical, so I gave a technical response. His follow-up question was about the impact such an attack would have on a site such as eBay, Amazon or Yahoo. It didn't follow very well from the first question or my answer, but I soldiered on nonetheless. (Incidentally, the actual DoS attacks on Amazon, eBay and Yahoo all happened weeks before this conversation). When he asked a third, again unrelated question about Denial-of-Service attacks (from memory, it was about how easily one could be tracked down), I became suspicious. I sat up a bit straighter and looked into his little plastic bubble (poor guy clearly had some immuno-deficiency), and saw that he was reading the questions from a notebook in front of him. He wasn't conversing with me - he was waiting for me to pause, ready with the next pre-fab question he asks any passenger who uses the word "computer".
This worried me in some deep-rooted way that I can't quite put my finger on. I don't know if it's because the art of conversation had been reduced to a bullet list of questions, three to a page, categorised according to subject and ready to be thrown at whatever hopped into the cab. Or maybe I'm worried that arcane notions such as Denial-of-Service attacks have managed to creep beyond the staid, dignified pages of publications like this and into the glare of the public eye. I felt like part of the secret code had been violated, and opened up to people who didn't understand its power. It's one thing for hoi polloi to stare in wonderment at the achievements of the technology industry, quite another for them to tremble in fear at its darker side.
Or maybe it's just that some Travis Bickle out there has just been dictated instructions on how to bring major Web sites to their knees, and it's my fault. I need more medication.
Matthew JC. Powell is an expert on Canadian capital cities. e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org