Who's taking a look up your address?

There are a lot of exceptional things about Bill Gates. Probably the most exceptional is that having terms like "multibillionaire" or "Midas in glasses" after his name doesn't make him any sexier.

Put a striped shirt on him and he's Waldo. He is a 20th-century wizard, but his bad haircut is as famous as the brain beneath it. His company is named Microsoft, fercrissakes, subliminalese for "little, limp." Bill Clinton is a paunchy old ass-grabber, but he's warm and personal, and now he's got that wink-wink aura going that makes watching him intriguing and, to use the word the PR people like to throw around, sexier. The Microsoft antitrust investigation has power, money, intrigue, but it still ain't sexy. It seems to interest people briefly, probably because we like to watch the mighty humbled. But compared to the exploits of President Hootchie-Coo, it's a word problem.

So what could make Bill Gates sexy? Calf implants? Pouty, red lips?

Nah. If there's anything that's going to give this case some added sex appeal it's that mixed in with the 3.3 million Microsoft documents the federal government is looking at are e-mails going back eight years.

Dangerous liaisons

If you've ever written anything worth reading in an e-mail, this could make you choke, not to mention scour your brain and your system for those you might want to delete. E-mails are private conversations, and we have seen courtesy of Linda Tripp just how easy it is to open up that sanctuary like a hot-dog stand. The Tripp tapes seem to have given prying the green light and make the idea of private e-mail both scary and fascinating. What's going to be in those Microsoft documents? Anything salacious? Anything someone shouldn't have said that's exactly what we all think? It has the air of gossip, and people sense that, like they can tell if the person you love was just in the room by the trace of their scent. Curiosities are tweaked. Dirt is imminent. The game is afoot.

Temptation brings a subcutaneous tingle, the immutable mixture of desire and dread. It wells up when you hear "Let's have a few beers" the night before your big job interview, or when a gorgeous stranger gives you a hard stare your spouse doesn't see. Many have a love-hate relationship with ill-gotten pleasures, and gossip, for me, is up there on the list. Sure, I want to know about other people's personal lives, for the same reason everyone does. It's what's interesting about them. "She has an M.F.A. from U.F. and she's working for P&G," or "She couldn't nail the boss so she's sleeping with his wife for revenge."

Gossip is the body under the clothes, not necessarily as pretty but more interesting for its secrecy. And gossip is about weakness. We like gossip because it makes us feel either superior ("At least I'm not on drugs ... ") or equal ("See? I'm not the only one on drugs ..."). No one gossips about how well someone is doing. "Did you hear? He's a really good guy." You'll never hear that whispered over highball glasses.

Basic instincts

But gossip is a poison truffle. You forget how sweet it was to deconstruct someone else if you find out you're the one being talked about, or just as bad, when the discussion is about someone you actually do know and like. All of a sudden it isn't color -- it's slander. And all the snotty retorts of "Well, it's true" don't matter, even if it is true. Finding strangers talking about someone who belongs to you is like finding those strangers in your bath tub -- they become repellent and ridiculous. Finding yourself gossiped about, especially if you're a relatively open person, makes you feel disgusted and alarmed, like keeping your house really clean and then finding a nest of slugs under the bathroom carpet.

Americans demonstrated exactly how much they disliked the Nosy Rosie contingent when they gave the giant "Who cares?" to all the Republican smut-raking in the last election. Like Mike Brady was always telling that blabbermouth Cindy, "Nobody likes a tattletale." And yet, in what was looking like an MYOB climate, two gay men in Texas were recently arrested for having sex. Officers who were at the home to check a false alarm about an intruder caught the couple and arrested them based on a 119-year-old Texas law prohibiting gay sex. With the atmosphere of karmic takes-one-to-know-one table-turning that's going on in Washington, one wonders if anyone will look up the barrels of two officers that just happened to chance upon something that they took so personally they took the time to make an arrest.

People will never tire of prying into private business. Our interests will always be too prurient and our egos too wobbly. We're never going to stop hearing gossip and watching personal lives laid out like buffets for public consumption. Another sure thing is that soon all our computer systems will go faster. That will be the result of everyone clearing out all those personal e-mails they let build up in their system. You never know who's going to want to take a look up your address.

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