I knew James Taranto from when he lived in Phoenix, Arizona, attending Arizona State University and living in an apartment on Terrace Ave. near campus. He had skipped most of high school to attend college through ASU's Project for the Study of Academic Precocity (PSAP). I met him because we were both active in computer bulletin board systems (BBSes), especially on Cliff Kolostow's Apollo BBS. I was also a user of Taranto's Genesys BBS. When we first encountered each other online, he was an atheist and I was a born-again Christian who was having doubts. My interactions with him and others on BBS played a role in my own conversion to atheism.
Taranto was one of the most obnoxious people I've ever met, which I found incredibly amusing at the time (end of my high school career). He enjoyed pushing people's buttons on the BBSes, taunting people, and posting under false identities to screw with them. He also engaged in numerous prank phone calls. I was part of a group of people who all had three-way calling and would connect to each other in a linear conference call. The people on each end of the chain would have a free line for outgoing calls, so that we could crank call two people at the same time and make them think each had called the other. Taranto was frequently the person who would speak and organize the calls. They were usually quite funny even to the recipients, such as when he called "Pizza Heaven" and asked to speak to the "Pizza God," or called "Mr. Submarine" and asked to speak to him.
Taranto enjoyed putting one over on other people. On one occasion, Taranto and a few others came over to my house, and I had a bunch of record albums I was planning to get rid of. Taranto offered to buy them from me for $1 each, on the knowledge that he would be able to resell them to Zia Records for triple that amount. I sold them to him, oblivious to the resale opportunity, and I'm sure that he felt he had suckered me. Unfortunately for him (which I learned from a mutual friend--he never admitted this to me), all of the records he bought from me were in such great supply at Zia already (mostly AC/DC albums) that they refused to buy any of them from him.
It's sad to me that Taranto's become such a conservative. He seemed far more libertarian back when I knew him, though a look at 1987 Apollo BBS postings shows him already a defender of Reagan and Oliver North. From what I've read of his writings, he has retained his nasty streak, but now seems to have become a prude, a homophobe, and a rather blindered supporter of the Republican Party, and even of morons like Michael Savage. I wouldn't have thought to apply those labels to him at the time, though he certainly displayed strong misanthropic tendencies which seem to me rather common for extremely intelligent people. I never knew him to have a girlfriend, and his interactions with females that I observed I could perhaps characterize as misogynistic in hindsight--he seemed to enjoy demonstrating lack of intelligence and naivete on the part of females, though he enjoyed doing the same to males as well.
Some of Taranto's old Apollo BBS postings may be found here, though it looks like he stopped posting regularly around the same time I did (1988). Here's a good example of a Taranto posting:
Message: 1546 Author: $ James Taranto Category: Chit-Chat Subject: Melissa Date: 07/14/87 Time: 22:47:26 Two of my cats got eaten by coyotes or run over by cars, so I only have one left and could use some replacements. Would you mind mailing me a couple of kittens?