Category Archives: fiction

the weeble distribution: a love story

“I’m a statistician,” she wrote. “By day, I work for the census bureau. By night, I use my statistical skills to build the perfect profile. I’ve mastered the mysterious headline, the alluring photo, and the humorous description that comes off as playful but with a hint of an edge. I’m pretty much irresistible at this point.”

“Really?” I wrote back. “That sounds pretty amazing. The stuff about building the perfect profile, I mean. Not the stuff about working at the census bureau. Working at the census bureau sounds decent, I guess, but not amazing. How do you build the perfect profile? What kind of statistical analysis do you do? I have a bit of programming experience, but I don’t know any statistics. Maybe we can meet some time and you can teach me a bit of statistics.”

I am, as you can tell, a smooth operator.

A reply arrived in my inbox a day later:

No, of course I don’t really spend all my time constructing the perfect profile. What are you, some kind of idiot?

And so was born our brief relationship; it was love at first insult.

“This probably isn’t going to work out,” she told me within five minutes of meeting me in person for the first time. We were sitting in the lobby of the Chateau Laurier downtown. Her choice of venue. It’s an excellent place to meet an internet date; if you don’t like the way they look across the lobby, you just back out quietly and then email the other person to say sorry, something unexpected came up.

“That fast?” I asked. “You can already tell you don’t like me? I’ve barely introduced myself.”

“Oh, no, no. It’s not that. So far I like you okay. I’m just going by the numbers here. It probably isn’t going to work out. It rarely does.”

“That’s a reasonable statement,” I said, “but a terrible thing to say on a first date. How do you ever get a second date with anyone, making that kind of conversation?”

“It helps to be smoking hot,” she said. “Did I offend you terribly?”

“Not really, no. But I’m not a very sentimental kind of guy.”

“Well, that’s good.”

Later, in bed, I awoke to a shooting pain in my leg. It felt like I’d been kicked in the shin.

“Did you just kick me in the shin,” I asked.


“Any particular reason?”

“You were a little bit on my side of the bed. I don’t like that.”

“Oh. Okay. Sorry.”

“I still don’t think this will work,” she said, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

She was right. We dated for several months, but it never really worked. We had terrific fights, and reasonable make-up sex, but our interactions never had very much substance. We related to one another like two people who were pretty sure something better was going to come along any day now, but in the meantime, why not keep what we had going, because it was better than eating dinner alone.

I never really learned what she liked; I did learn that she disliked most things. Mostly our conversations revolved around statistics and food. I’ll give you some examples.

“Beer is the reason for statistics,” she informed me one night while we were sitting at Cicero’s and sharing a lasagna.

“I imagine beer might be the reason for a lot of bad statistics,” I said.

“No, no. Not just bad statistics. All statistics. The discipline of statistics as we know it exists in large part because of beer.”

“Pray, do go on,” I said, knowing it would have been futile to ask her to shut up.

“Well,” she said, “there once was a man named Student…”

I won’t bore you with all the details; the gist of it is that there once was a man by name of William Gosset, who worked for Guinness as a brewer in the early 1900s. Like a lot of other people, Gosset was interested in figuring out how to make Guinness taste better, so he invented a bunch of statistical tests to help him quantify the differences in quality between different batches of beer. Guinness didn’t want Gosset to publish his statistical work under his real name, for fear he might somehow give away their trade secrets, so they made him use the pseudonym “Student”. As a result, modern-day statisticians often work with somethinfg called Student’s t distribution, which is apparently kind of a big deal. And all because of beer.

“That’s a nice story,” I said. “But clearly, if Student—or Gosset or whatever his real name was—hadn’t been working for Guinness, someone else would have invented the same tests shortly afterwards, right? It’s not like he was so brilliant no one else would have ever thought of the same thing. I mean, if Edison hadn’t invented the light bulb, someone else would have. I take it you’re not really saying that without beer, there would be no statistics.”

“No, that is what I’m saying. No beer, no stats. Simple.”

“Yeah, okay. I don’t believe you.”

“Oh no?”

“No. What’s that thing about lies, damned lies, and stat—”


“No. Statisticians.”

“No idea,” she said. “Never heard that saying.”

“It’s that they lie. The saying is that statisticians lie. Repeatedly and often. About anything at all. It’s that they have no moral compass.”

“Sounds about right.”

“I don’t get this whole accurate to within 3 percent 19 times out of 20 business,” I whispered into her ear late one night after we’d had sex all over her apartment. “I mean, either you’re accurate or you’re not, right? If you’re accurate, you’re accurate. And if you’re not accurate, I guess maybe then you could be within 3 percent or 7 percent or whatever. But what the hell does it mean to be accurate X times out of Y? And how would you even know how many times you’re accurate? And why is it always 19 out of 20?”

She turned on the lamp on the nightstand and rolled over to face me. Her hair covered half of her face; the other half was staring at me with those pale blue eyes that always looked like they wanted to either jump you or murder you, and you never knew which.

“You really want me to explain confidence intervals to you at 11:30 pm on a Thursday night?”


“How much time do you have?”

“All, Night, Long,” I said, channeling Lionel Richie.

“Wonderful. Let me put my spectacles on.”

She fumbled around on the nightstand looking for them.

“What do you need your glasses for,” I asked. “We’re just talking.”

“Well, I need to be able to see you clearly. I use the amount of confusion on your face to gauge how much I need to dumb down my explanations.”

Frankly, most of the time she was as cold as ice. The only time she really came alive—other than in the bedroom—was when she talked about statistics. Then she was a different person: excited and exciting, full of energy. She looked like a giant Tesla coil, mid-discharge.

“Why do you like statistics so much,” I asked her over a bento box at ZuNama one day.

“Because,” she said, “without statistics, you don’t really know anything.”

“I thought you said statistics was all about uncertainty.”

“Right. Without statistics, you don’t know anything… and with statistics, you still don’t know anything. But with statistics, we can at least get a sense of how much we know or don’t know.”

“Sounds very… Rumsfeldian,” I said. “Known knowns… unknown unknowns… is that right?”

“It’s kind of right,” she said. “But the error bars are pretty huge.”

“I’m going to pretend I know what that means. If I admit I have no idea, you’ll think I wasn’t listening to you in bed the other night.”

“No,” she said. “I know you were listening. You were listening very well. It’s just that you were understanding very poorly.”

Uncertainty was a big theme for her. Once, to make a point, she asked me how many nostrils a person breathes through at any given time. And then, after I experimented on myself and discovered that the answer was one and not two, she pushed me on it:

“Well, how do you know you’re not the only freak in the world who breathes through one nostril?”

“Easily demonstrated,” I said, and stuck my hand right in front of her face, practically covering her nose.

“Breathe out!”

She did.

“And now breathe in! And then repeat several times!”

She did.

“You see,” I said, retracting my hand once I was satisfied. “It’s not just me. You also breathe through one nostril at a time. Right now it’s your left.”

“That proves nothing,” she said. “We’re not independent observations; I live with you. You probably just gave me your terrible mononarial disease. All you’ve shown is that we’re both sick.”

I realized then that I wasn’t going to win this round—or any other round.

“Try the unagi,” I said, waving at the sushi in a heroic effort to change the topic.

“You know I don’t like to try new things. It’s bad enough I’m eating sushi.”

“Try the unagi,” I suggested again.

So she did.

“It’s not bad,” she said after chewing on it very carefully for a very long time. “But it could use some ketchup.”

“Don’t you dare ask them for ketchup,” I said. “I will get up and leave if you ask them for ketchup.”

She waved her hand at the server.

“There once was a gentleman named Bayes,” she said over coffee at Starbucks one morning. I was running late for work, but so what? Who’s going to pass up the chance to hear about a gentleman named Bayes when the alternative is spending the morning refactoring enterprise code and filing progress reports?

“Oh yes, I’ve heard about him,” I said. “He’s the guy who came up with Bayes’ theorem.” I’d heard of Bayes theorem in some distant class somewhere, and knew it had something to do with statistics, though I had not one clue what it actually referred to.

“No, the Bayes I’m talking about is John Bayes—my mechanic. He’s working on my car right now.”


“No, not really, you idiot. Yes, Bayes as in Bayes’ theorem.”

“Thought so. Well, go ahead and tell me all about him. What is John Bayes famous for?”

“Bayes’ theorem.”

“Huh. How about that.”

She launched into a very dry explanation of conditional probabilities and prior distributions and a bunch of other terms I’d never heard of before and haven’t remembered since. I stopped her about three minutes in.

“You know none of this helps me, right? I mean, really, I’m going to forget anything you tell me. You know what might help, is maybe if instead of giving me these long, dry explanations, you could put things in a way I can remember. Like, if you, I don’t know, made up a limerick. I bet I could remember your explanations that way.”

“Oh, a limerick. You want a Bayesian limerick. Okay.”

She scrunched up her forehead like she was thinking very deeply. Held the pose for a few seconds.

“There once was a man named John Bayes,” she began, and then stopped.

“Yes,” I said. “Go on.”

“Who spent most of his days… calculating the posterior probability of go fuck yourself.”

“Very memorable,” I said, waving for the check.

“Suppose I wanted to estimate how much I love you,” I said over asparagus and leek salad at home one night. “How would I do that?”

“You love me?” she arched an eyebrow.

“Good lord no,” I laughed hysterically. “It’s a completely and utterly hypothetical question. But answer it anyway. How would I do it?”

She shrugged.

“That’s a measurement problem. I’m a statistician, not a psychometrician. I develop and test statistical models. I don’t build psychological instruments. I haven’t the faintest idea how you’d measure love. As I’m sure you’ve observed, it’s something I don’t know or care very much about.”

I nodded. I had observed that.

“You act like there’s a difference between all these things there’s really no difference between,” I said. “Models, measures… what the hell do I care? I asked a simple question, and I want a simple answer.”

“Well, my friend, in that case, the answer is that you must look deep into your own heart and say, heart, how much do I love this woman, and then your heart will surely whisper the answer delicately into your oversized ear.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said, tugging self-consciously at my left earlobe. It wasn’t that big.

“Right?” she said. “You said you wanted a simple answer. I gave you a simple answer. It also happens to be a very dumb answer. Well, great, now you know one of the fundamental principles of statistical analysis.”

“That simple answers tend to be bad answers?”

“No,” she said. “That when you’re asking a statistician for help, you need to operationalize your question very carefully, or the statistician is going to give you a sensible answer to a completely different question than the one you actually care about.”

“How come you never ask me about my work,” I asked her one night as we were eating dinner at Chez Margarite. She was devouring lemon-infused pork chops; I was eating a green papaya salad with mint chutney and mango salsa dressing.

“Because I don’t really care about your work,” she said.

“Oh. That’s… kind of blunt.”

“Sorry. I figured I should be honest. That’s what you say you want in a relationship, right? Honesty?”

“Sure,” I said, as the server refilled our water glasses.

“Well,” I offered. “Maybe not that much honesty.”

“Would you like me to feign interest?”

“Maybe just for a bit. That might be nice.”

“Okay,” she sighed, giving me the green light with a hand wave. “Tell me about your work.”

It was a new experience for me; I didn’t want to waste the opportunity, so I tried to choose my words carefully.

“Well, for the last month or so, I’ve been working on re-architecting our site’s database back-end. We’ve never had to worry about scaling before. Our DB can handle a few dozen queries per second, even with some pretty complicated joins. But then someone posts a product page to reddit because of a funny typo, and suddenly we’re getting hundreds of requests a second, and all hell breaks loose.”

I went on to tell her about normal forms and multivalued dependencies and different ways of modeling inheritance in databases. She listened along, nodding intermittently and at roughly appropriate intervals. But I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. She kept looking over with curiosity at the group of middle-aged Japanese businessmen seated at the next table over from us. Or out the window at the homeless man trying to sell rhododendrons to passers-by. Really, she looked everywhere but at me. Finally, I gave up.

“Look,” I said, “I know you’re not into this. I guess I don’t really need to tell you about what I do. Do you want to tell me more about the Weeble distribution?”

Her face lit up with excitement; for a moment, she looked like the moon. A cold, heartless, beautiful moon, full of numbers and error bars and mascara.

Weibull,” she said.

“Fine,” I said. “You tell me about the Weibull distribution, and I’ll feign interest. Then we’ll have crème brulee for dessert, and then I’ll buy you a rhododendron from that guy out there on the way out.”

“Rhododendrons,” she snorted. “What a ridiculous choice of flower.”

“How long do you think this relationship is going to last,” I asked her one brisk evening as we stood outside Gordon’s Gourmets with oversized hot dogs in hand.

I was fully aware our relationship was a transient thing—like two people hanging out on a ferry for a couple of hours, both perfectly willing to having a reasonably good time together until the boat hits the far side of the lake, but neither having any real interest in trading numbers or full names.

I was in it for—let’s be honest—the sex and the conversation. As for her, I’m not really sure what she got out of it; I’m not very good at either of those things. I suppose she probably had a hard time finding anyone willing to tolerate her for more than a couple of days.

“About another month,” she said. “We should take a trip to Europe and break up there. That way it won’t be messy when we come back. You book your plane ticket, I’ll book mine. We’ll go together, but come back separately. I’ve always wanted to end a relationship that way—in a planned fashion where there are no weird expectations and no hurt feelings.”

“You think planning to break up in Europe a month from now is a good way to avoid hurt feelings?”


“Okay, I guess I can see that.”

And that’s pretty much how it went. About a month later, we were sitting in a graveyard in a small village in southern France, winding our relationship down. Wine was involved, and had been involved for most of the day; we were both quite drunk.

We’d gone to see this documentary film about homeless magicians who made their living doing card tricks for tourists on the beaches of the French Riviera, and then we stumbled around town until we came across the graveyard, and then, having had a lot of wine, we decided, why not sit on the graves and talk. And so we sat on graves and talked for a while until we finally ran out of steam and affection for each other.

“How do you want to end it,” I asked her when we were completely out of meaningful words, which took less time than you might imagine.

“You sound so sinister,” she said. “Like we’re talking about a suicide pact. When really we’re just two people sitting on graves in a quiet cemetery in France, about to break up forever.”

“Yeah, that. How do you want to end it.”

“Well, I like endings like in Sex, Lies and Videotape, you know? Endings that don’t really mean anything.”

“You like endings that don’t mean anything.”

“They don’t have to literally mean nothing. I just mean they don’t have to have any deep meaning. I don’t like movies that end on some fake bullshit dramatic note just to further the plot line or provide a sense of closure. I like the ending of Sex, Lies, and Videotape because it doesn’t follow from anything; it just happens.”

“Remind me how it ends?”

“They’re sitting on the steps outside, and Ann—-Andie McDowell’s character–says “I think it’s going to rain. Then Graham says, “it is raining.” And that’s it. Fade to black.”

“So that’s what you like.”


“And you want to end our relationship like that.”


“Okay,” I said. “I guess I can do that.”

I looked around. It was almost dark, and the bottle of wine was empty. Well, why not.

I think it’s going to rain,” I said.

Jesus,” she said incredulously, leaning back against a headstone belonging to some guy named Jean-Francois. ” I meant we should end it like that. That kind of thing. Not that actual thing. What are you, some kind of moron?”

“Oh. Okay. And yes.”

I thought about it for a while.

“I think I got this,” I finally said.

“Ok, go,” she smiled. One of the last—and only—times I saw her smile. It was devastating.

“Okay. I’m going to say: I have some unfinished business to attend to at home. I should really get back to my life. And then you should say something equally tangential and vacuous. Something like: ‘yes, you really should get back there. Your life must be lonely without you.’”

“Your life must be lonely without you…” she tried the words out.

“That’s perfect,” she smiled. “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

then gravity let go

This is fiction.

My grandmother’s stroke destroyed most of Nuremberg and all of Wurzburg. She was sailing down the Danube on a boat when it happened. I won’t tell you who she was with and what they were doing at the time, because you’ll think less of her for it, and anyway it’s not relevant to the story. But she was in the boat, and she was alive and happy, and then the next thing you know, she was unhappy and barely breathing. They were so far out in the water that she would have been dead if the other person she was with had had to row all the way back. So a medical helicopter was sent out, and they strapped her to the sky with hooks and carried her to the hospital dangling sixty feet below a tangle of blades.

All of her life, my grandmother was afraid of heights. She never got on a plane; never even went up a high-rise viewing deck to see the city unfold below her like a tourist map. “No amount of money or gratitude you could give me is worth the vertigo that I’d get when I felt my life rushing away below me,” she told me once. She was very melodramatic, my grandmother. It figures that the one time her feet actually refused gravity long enough for it to count, she was out like a light. That her life started to rush away from her not in an airplane over the sea, as she’d always feared, but in a boat on the water. That it took a trip into the same sky she loathed so much just to keep her alive.

*          *          *

Bavaria occupies the southeast corner of Germany; by area, it makes up one-fifth of the country. It’s the largest state, and pretty densely populated, but for all that, I don’t remember there being very much to do there. As a child, we used to visit my grandmother in Nuremberg in the summers. I remember the front of her brown and white house, coated in green vines, gently hugging the street the way the houses do in Europe. In America, we place our homes a modest distance away from the road, safely detached in their own little fiefdoms. I’ll just be back here, doing my own thing, our houses say. You just keep walking along there, sir—and don’t try to look through my windows. When Columbus discovered all that land, what he was really discovering was the driveway.

When we visited my grandmother, I’d slam the car door shut, run up to the steps, and knock repeatedly until she answered. She’d open the door, look all around, and then, finally seeing me, ask, “Who is this? Who are you?” That was the joke when I was very young. Who Are You was the joke, and after I yelled “grandma, it’s me!” several times, she’d always suddenly remember me, and invite me in to feed me schnitzel. “Why didn’t you say it was you,” she’d say. “Are you trying to give an old lady a heart attack? Do you think that’s funny?”

After her stroke, Who Are You was no longer funny. The words had a different meaning, and when I said, “grandma, it’s me,” she’d look at me sadly, with no recognition, as if she was wondering what could have happened to her beloved Bavaria; how the world could have gotten so bad that every person who knocked on her door now was a scoundrel claiming to be her grandson, lying to an old lady just so he could get inside and steal all of her valuable belongings.

Not that she really had any. Those last few years of her life, the inside of her house changed, until it was all newspapers and gift wrap, wooden soldiers and plastic souvenir cups, spent batteries and change from other countries. She never threw anything away, but there was nothing in there you would have wanted except memories. And by the end, I couldn’t even find the memories for all of the junk. So I just stopped going. Eventually, all of the burglars stopped coming by.

*          *          *

When my grandfather got to the hospital, he was beside himself. He kept running from doctor to doctor, asking them all the same two questions:

“Who was she with,” he asked, “and what were they doing on that boat?”

The doctors all calmly told him the same thing: it’s not really relevant to her condition, and anyway, you’d think less of her. Just go sit in the waiting room. We’ll tell you when you can see her.

Inside the operating room, they weren’t so calm.

“She’s still hemorrhaging,” a doctor said over the din of scalpels and foam alcohol. They unfolded her cortex like a map, laid tangles of blood clot and old memories down to soak against fresh bandages. But there was no stopping the flood.

“We need to save Wurzburg,” said another doctor, tracing his cold finger through the cortical geography on the table. He moved delicately, as if folding and unfolding a series of very small, very fragile secrets; a surgical scalpel carefully traced a path through gyri and sulci, the hills and valleys of my grandmother’s mnemonic Bavaria. Behind it, red blood crashed through arteries to fill new cavities, like flood water racing through inundated forest spillways, desperately looking for some exit, any exit, its urgent crossing shattering windows and homes, obliterating impressions of people and towns that took decades to form, entire histories vanishing from memory in a single cataclysmic moment on the river.

*          *          *

They moved around a lot. My grandfather had trouble holding down a job. The Wurzburg years were the hardest. We stopped visiting my grandmother for a while; she wouldn’t let anyone see her. My grandfather had started out a decent man, but he drank frequently. He suffered his alcohol poorly, and when he became violent, he wouldn’t stop until everyone around him suffered with him. Often, my grandmother was the only person around him.

I remember once—I think it was the only time we saw them in Wurzburg—when we visited, and my grandmother was sporting a black eye she’d inherited from somewhere. “I got it playing tennis,” she said, winking at me. “Your grandfather went for the ball, and accidentally threw the racket. Went right over the net; hit me right in the eye. Tach, just like that.”

My grandmother could always make the best of the worst situation. I used to think that kind of optimism was a good trait—as long as she had a twinkle in her eye, how bad could things be? But after her stroke, I decided that maybe that was exactly the thing that had kept her from leaving him for so many years. A less optimistic person would have long ago lost hope that he would ever change; a less happy person might have run down to the courthouse and annulled him forever. But not her; she kept her good humor, a racket on the wall, and always had that long-running excuse for the black eyes and bruised arms.

Years later, I found out from my mother that she’d never even played tennis.

*          *          *

My grandfather never found out who my grandmother was with on the boat, or what they were doing out on the river. A week after she was admitted, a doctor finally offered to tell him—if you think it’ll make you feel better to have closure. But by then, my grandfather had decided he didn’t want to know. What was the point? There was no one to blame any more, nowhere to point the finger. He wouldn’t be able to yell at her and make her feel guilty about what she’d done, yell at her until she agreed she’d do better next time, and then they could get into bed and read newspapers together, pretending it was all suddenly alright. After my grandmother came home, my grandfather stopped talking to anyone at all, including my grandmother.

I never told my grandfather that I knew what had happened on the boat. I’d found out almost immediately. A friend of mine from the army was a paramedic, and he knew the guy on the chopper who strapped my grandmother to the sky that night. He said the circumstances were such that the chopper had had to come down much closer to the water than it was supposed to, and even then, there was some uncertainty about whether they’d actually be able to lift my grandmother out of the boat. They guy who was on the chopper had been scared. “It was like she had an anvil in her chest,” he told my friend. “And for a moment, I thought it would take us all down into the water with it. But then gravity let go, and we lifted her up above the river.”

*          *          *

In the winter, parts of the Danube freeze, but the current keeps most of the water going. It rushes from the Black Forest in the West to the Ukraine in the East, with temporary stops in Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade. If the waters ever rise too high, they’ll flood a large part of Europe, a large part of Germany. Ingolstadt, Regensburg, Passau; they’d all be underwater. It would be St. Mary Magdalene all over again, and it would tear away beautiful places, places full of memories and laughter. All the places that I visited as a kid, where my grandmother lived, before the stroke that took away her Bavaria.


This is fiction.

The party is supposed to start at 7 pm, but of course, no one shows up before 8:45. When the guests finally do arrive, I randomly assign each of them to one of four groups–A through D–as they enter. Each assignment comes with an adhesive 2″ color patch, a nametag, and a sharpie.

The labels are not for the dinner,” I say, “they’re for the orgy that follows the dinner. The bedrooms are all color-coded; there are strict rules governing inter-cubicular transitions. Please read the manual on the table.”

Nobody moves to pick up the manual. There’s a long and uncomfortable silence, made longer and more uncomfortable by the fact that we can all hear the upstairs neighbors loudly having sex on their kitchen counter.

“Turn on the music,” my wife says. “It masks the sex.”

I put on some music. Something soft, by Elton John, followed by something angry—a duet by Tenacious D and Leonard Skynyrd. One of the guests—unsoothed by the music, and noticing the random collection of chairs scattered around the living room—grows restless and asks whether we will all be playing musical chairs this fine evening.

“No,” I reply; “this fine night, we all play Mafia.” Then I shoot him dead as everyone else pretends to stare out the window.

In the kitchen, my wife uncorks the last bottle of wine. As trendy wines go, this one wears its pretention with pride: Jugo de Jirafas, the label proclaims in vermilion Helvetica Neue overtones.

“What does jirafas mean,” I ask my Spanish friend. “Giraffes?”

“No,” she says. “Jirafas was a famous rebel general who came out of hiding during the Spanish Civil War to challenge Franco to a fight to the death. They brawled in the streets for hours, and and just when it looked like Jirafas was about to snap Franco’s neck, Franco screamed for his deputies, who immediately pumped several rounds straight through Jirafas’s heart. They say the body continued to bleed courage into the street for several weeks.”

Jugo de Jirafas, I enunciate out loud.

There’s an awkward silence in the living room as the assembled guests all hold an involuntary thirty-second vigil for the dearly departed General Jirafas, who was taken from us much too soon. Poor man—we barely knew him.

Then the vigil is broken up by the arrival of my Brazilian friend João, who lives across the way. Our housing complex is nominally open to all faculty and staff affiliated with the university, but in practice it more or less operates as a kind of hippie commune for expatriate scientists. On any given day you can hear forty different languages being spoken, and stumble across marauding groups of eight-year old children all babbling away at each other in mutual incomprehension. Walking through our apartment complex is like taking a simultaneous trip through every foreign-language channel on extended cable.

It does have its perks, though. For example, if you want to experience other cultures, you don’t need to travel anywhere. When people suggest that I’ve been working too hard and need a vacation, I yell at João through the bedroom window: how’s Rio this time of year?

Exceptional, he’ll yell back. The cannonball trees are in full bloom. You should come for a visit.

Then I usually take a bottle of wine over—nothing of Jugo de Jirafas caliber, just a basic Zinfandel from Whole Foods—and we sit around and talk about the strange places we’ve lived: Rio and Istanbul for him; Mombasa and Ottawa for me. After dinner we usually play a few games of backgammon, which is not a Brazilian game at all, but is acceptable to play because João spent three years of his life doing a postdoc in Turkey. Thus begins and ends my cosmetic Latin American vacation, punctuated by a detour to the Near East.

Tonight, João shows up with a German lady on his arm. She’s a newly arrived faculty member in the Department of Earth Sciences.

“This is the bad Jew I was telling you about,” he says to the lady by way of introduction.

“It’s true,” I say; “I’m a very bad Jew. Even by Jewish standards.”

She wants to know what makes a Jew a bad Jew. I tell her I eat bacon on the Sabbath and wrap myself in cheeseburgers before bed. And that I make sure to drink the blood of goyim at least four times a year. And that I’m so money-hungry and cunning, I’ve been banned from lending money even to other Jews.

My joke doesn’t go over so well. Germans have had, for obvious reasons, a lot of trouble putting the war behind them. When you make Jew jokes in Germany, people give you a look that’s made up of one part contempt, one part cognitive dissonance. They don’t know what to do; it’s like you’ve lit a warehouse full of bottle rockets up inside their heads all at once. As an American, I don’t mind this, of course. In America, it’s your god-given birthright to make ethnic jokes at your own expense. As long as you’re making fun only of your own in-group and nobody else, no one is allowed to come between you and your chuckles.

The German lady doesn’t see it this way.

“You should not make fun of the Jews,” she says in over-articled English. “Even if you are a one yourself.”

“Well,” says I. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?”

She shrugs her shoulders.

“Other people,” offers João.

So I laugh at João, because he’s another person. There’s an uncomfortable pause, but then the earth scientist–whose name turns out to be Brunhilde–laughs too. A moment later, we’re all making small talk again, and I feel pretty confident that any budding crisis in diplomatic relations has been averted.

“Speaking of making fun of others,” João says, “what happened to your lip? It looks like you have the herpes.”

“I damaged myself while flossing,” I tell him.

It’s true: I have a persistent cut on my lip caused by aggressive flossing. It refuses to heal. And now, after several days of incubation, it looks exactly like a cold sore. So I have to walk around my life constantly putting up with herpes jokes.

“I’ll go put something on it,” I say, self-consciously rubbing at the wound. “You just stand here and keep laughing at me, you anti-semite.”

Turns out, I’ve forgotten the name of the lip balm my wife buys. So I walk around the party with a chafed, bloody lip, asking everyone I know if they’ve seen my Tampax. The guests mostly demur quietly, but one particularly mercurial friend looks slightly alarmed, and slowly starts to edge towards the door.

He means Carmex, my wife yells from the kitchen.

Eventually, all of the wine is drunk and the conversation is spent. The guests begin to leave, each one curling his or her self carefully through the doorway in sequence. For some reason, they remind me of ants circling around a drain—but I don’t tell anyone that. There is no longer any music; there was never an orgy. There are no more Jew jokes. I turn the phonograph off—by which I mean I press the stop button on my iTunes playlist—and dim the lights. My wife stays downstairs.

“To do some research,” she says.

Much later, just as I’m making the delicate nightly transition from restless leg syndrome to stage 1 sleep, I’m suddenly jarred wide awake by the sound of someone cursing loudly and repeatedly as they get into bed next to me. I vaguely recognize my wife’s voice, though it sounds different over the haze of near-sleep and a not-insignificant amount of wine.

What’s going on, I ask her.

She mutters that she’s just spent the last hour and a half exhausting the infinite wisdom of Google, circumnavigating the information superhighway, and consulting with various technical support workers scattered all around the Indian subcontinent. And the clear consensus among all sources is that there is not now, and never was, any General Jirafas.

“It just means giraffes,” she says.

the seedy underbelly

This is fiction. Science will return shortly.

Cornelius Kipling doesn’t take No for an answer. He usually takes several of them–several No’s strung together in rapid sequence, each one louder and more adamant than the last one.

“No,” I told him over dinner at the Rhubarb Club one foggy evening. “No, no, no. I won’t bankroll your efforts to build a new warp drive.”

“But the last one almost worked,” Kip said pleadingly. “I almost had it down before the hull gave way.”

I conceded that it was a clever idea; everyone before Kip had always thought of warp drives as something you put on spaceships. Kip decided to break the mold by placing one on a hydrofoil. Which, naturally, made the boat too heavy to rise above the surface of the water. In fact, it made the boat too heavy to do anything but sink.

“Admittedly, the sinking thing is a small problem,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “But I’m working on a way to adjust for the extra weight and get it to rise clear out of the water.”

“Good,” I said. “Because lifting the boat out of the water seems like a pretty important step on the road to getting it to travel through space at light speed.”

“Actually, it’s the only remaining technical hurdle,” said Kip. “Once it’s out of the water, everything’s already taken care of. I’ve got onboard fission reactors for power, and a tentative deal to use the International Space Station for supplies. Virgin Galactic is ready to license the technology as soon as we pull off a successful trial run. And there’s an arrangement with James Cameron’s new asteroid mining company to supply us with fuel as we boldly go where… well, you know.”

“Right,” I said, punching my spoon into my crème brûlée in frustration. The crème brûlée retaliated by splattering itself all over my face and jacket.

“See, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to you if you invested in my company,” Kip helpfully suggested as he passed me an extra napkin. “You’d have so much money other people would feed you. People with ten or fifteen years of experience wielding dessert spoons.”

After dinner we headed downtown. Kip said there was a new bar called Zygote he wanted to show me.

“Actually, it’s not a new bar per se,” he explained as we were leaving the Rhubarb. “It’s new to me. Turns out it’s been here for several years, but you have to know someone to get in. And that someone has to be willing to sponsor you. They review your biography, look up your criminal record, make sure you’re the kind of person they want at the bar, and so on.”

“Sounds like an arranged marriage.”

“You’re not too far off. When you’re first accepted as a member, you’re supposed to give Zygote a dowry of $2,000.”

“That’s a joke, right?” I asked.

“Yes. There’s no dowry. Just the fee.”

“Two thousand dollars? Really?”

“Well, more like fifty a year. But same principle.”

We walked down the mall in silence. I could feel the insoles of my shoes wrapping themselves around my feet, and I knew they were desperately warning me to get away from Kip while I still had a limited amount of sobriety and dignity left.

“How would anyone manage to keep a place like that secret?” I asked. “Especially on the mall.”

“They hire hit men,” Kip said solemnly.

I suspected he was joking, but couldn’t swear to it. I mean, if you didn’t know Kip, you would probably have thought that the idea of putting a warp drive on a hydrofoil was also a big joke.

Kip led us into one of the alleys off Pearl Street, where he quickly located an unobtrusive metal panel set into the wall just below eye level. The panel opened inwards when we pushed it. Behind the panel, we found a faint smell of old candles and a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs–which turned out to run three stories down–we came to another door. This one didn’t open when we pushed it. Instead, Kip knocked on it three times. Then twice more. Then four times.

“Secret code?” I asked.

“No. Obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

The door swung open.

“Evening, Ashraf,” Kip said to the doorman as we stepped through. Ashraf was a tiny Middle Eastern man, very well dressed. Suede pants, cashmere scarf, fedora on his head. Feather in the fedora. The works. I guess when your bar is located behind a false wall three stories below grade, you don’t really need a lot of muscle to keep the peasants out; you knock them out with panache.

“Welcome to Zygote,” Ashraf said. His bland tone made it clear that, truthfully, he wasn’t at all interested in welcoming anyone anywhere. Which made him exactly the kind of person an establishment like this would want as its doorman.

Inside, the bar was mostly empty. There were twelve or fifteen patrons scattered across various booths and animal-print couches. They all took great care not to make eye contact with us as we entered.

“I have to confess,” I whispered to Kip as we made our way to the bar. “Until about three seconds ago, I didn’t really believe you that this place existed.”

“No worries,” he said. “Until about three seconds ago, it had no idea you existed either.”

He looked around.

“Actually, I’m still not sure it knows you exist,” he added apologetically.

“I feel like I’m giving everyone the flu just by standing here,” I told him.

We took a seat at the end of the bar and motioned to the bartender, who looked to be high on a designer drug chemically related to apathy. She eventually wandered over to us–but not before stopping to inspect the countertop, a stack of coasters with pictures of archaeological sites on them, a rack of brandy snifters, and the water running from the faucet.

“Two mojitos and a strawberry daiquiri,” Kip said when she finally got close enough to yell at.

“Who’s the strawberry daiquiri for,” I asked.

“Me. They’re all for me. Why, did you want a drink too?”

I did, so I ordered the special–a pink cocktail called a Flamingo. Each Flamingo came in a tall Flamingo-shaped glass that couldn’t stand up by itself, so you had to keep holding it until you finished it. Once you were done, you could lay the glass on its side on the counter and watch it leak its remaining pink guts out onto the tile. This act was, I gathered from Kip, a kind of rite of passage at Zygote.

“This is a very fancy place,” I said to no one in particular.

“You should have seen it before the gang fights,” the bartender said before walking back to the snifter rack. I had high hopes she would eventually get around to filling our order.

“Gang fights?”

“Yes,” Kip said. “Gang fights. Used to be big old gang fights in here every other week. They trashed the place several times.”

“It’s like there’s this whole seedy underbelly to Boulder that I never knew existed.”

“Oh, this is nothing. It goes much deeper than this. You haven’t seen the seedy underbelly of this place until you’ve tried to convince a bunch of old money hippies to finance your mass-produced elevator-sized vaporizer. You haven’t squinted into the sun or tasted the shadow of death on your shoulder until you’ve taken on the Bicycle Triads of North Boulder single-file in a dark alley. And you haven’t tried to scratch the dirt off your soul–unsuccessfully, mind you–until you’ve held all-night bargaining sessions with local black hat hacker groups to negotiate the purchase of mission-critical zero-day exploits.”

“Well, that may all be true,” I said. “But I don’t think you’ve done any of those things either.”

I should have known better than to question Kip’s credibility; he spent the next fifteen minutes reminding me of the many times he’d risked his life, liberty, and (nonexistent) fortune fighting to suppress the darkest forces in Northern Colorado in the service of the greater good of mankind.

After that, he launched into his standard routine of trying to get me to buy into the latest round of his inane startup ideas. He told me, in no particular order, about his plans to import, bottle and sell the finest grade Kazakh sand as a replacement for the substandard stuff currently found on American kindergarten sandlots; to run a “reverse tourism” operation that would fly in members of distant cultures to visit disabled would-be travelers in the comfort of their own living rooms (tentative slogan: if the customer can’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must come to the customer); and to create giant grappling hooks that could pull Australia closer to the West Coast so that Kip could speculate in airline stocks and make billions of dollars once shorter flights inevitably caused Los Angeles-Sydney routes to triple in passenger volume.

I freely confess that my recollection of the finer points of the various revenue enhancement plans Kip proposed that night is not the best. I was a little bit distracted by a woman at the far end of the bar who kept gesturing towards me the whole time Kip was talking. Actually, she wasn’t so much gesturing towards me as gently massaging her neck. But she only did it when I happened to look at her. At one point, she licked her index finger and rubbed it on her neck, giving me a pointed look.

After about forty-five minutes of this, I finally worked up the courage to interrupt Kip’s explanation of how and why the federal government could solve all of America’s economic problems overnight by convincing Balinese children to invest in discarded high school football uniforms.

“Look,” I told him, pointing down to the other side of the bar. “You see? This is why I don’t go to bars any more now that I’m married. Attractive women hit on me, and I hate to disappoint them.”

I raised my left hand and deliberately stroked my wedding band in full view.

The lady at the far end didn’t take the hint. Quite the opposite; she pushed back her bar stool and came over to us.

“Christ,” I whispered.

Kip smirked quietly.

“Hi,” said the woman. “I’m Suzanne.”

“Hi,” I said. “I’m flattered. And also married.”

“I see that. I also see that you have some food in your… neckbeard. It looks like whipped cream. At least I hope that’s what it is. I was trying to let you know from down there, so you could wipe it off without embarrassing yourself any further. But apparently you’d rather embarrass yourself.”

“It’s crème brûlée,” I mumbled.

“Weak,” said Suzanne, turning around. “Very weak.”

After she’d left, I wiped my neck on my sleeve and looked at Kip. He looked back at me with a big grin on his face.

“I don’t suppose the thought crossed your mind, at any point in the last hour, to tell me I had crème brûlée in my beard.”

“You mean your neckbeard?”

“Yes,” I sighed, making a mental note to shave more often. “That.”

“It certainly crossed my mind,” Kip said. “Actually, it crossed my mind several times. But each time it crossed, it just waved hello and kept right on going.”

“You know you’re an asshole, right?”

“Whatever you say, Captain Neckbeard.”

“Alright then,” I sighed. “Let’s get out of here. It’s past my curfew anyway. Do you remember where I left my car?”

“No need,” said Kip, putting on his jacket and clapping his hand to my shoulder. “My hydrofoil’s parked in the Spruce lot around the block. The new warp drive is in. Walk with me and I’ll give you a ride. As long as you don’t mind pushing for the first fifty yards.”

deconstructing the turducken

This is fiction. Which means it’s entirely made up, and definitely not at all based on any real people or events.


Cornelius Kipling came over to our house for Thanksgiving. I didn’t invite him; I would never, ever invite him. He was guaranteed to show up slightly drunk and very belligerent, carrying a two-thirds empty bottle of cheap wine, which he’d then hand to us as if it had arrived unopened from some fancy French cellar.

Cornelius Kiping was never invited; he invited himself.

“Good to see you,” he said to me when we let him in. “Thanks for inviting me over. It’s very kind of you, seeing as how my other plans fell through at the last minute.”

“Hi Kip,” I said, knowing full well he’d never had any other plans.

“Ella,” Kip nodded in my wife’s general direction, taking care not to make direct eye contact. He’d learned from extended experience that once he made eye contact with people, it became much harder to ignore social cues.

“Cornelius,” she said, through a mouth as thin as a zipper.

“Just Kip is fine,” said Kip.

“Cornelius,” my wife repeated, louder this time.

“What are we having for dinner,” Kip asked, handing me a two-thirds empty  bottle of Zinfandel.

“Well,” said Ella, “I was going to make a turducken. But now that you’re here, I figure I should make something special. So we’re having frozen chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes.”

“We spare no expense!” I added cheerfully.

“Funny you should mention turducken,” Kip said, ignoring our jabs. “My new business plan is based on the turducken.”

“Oh really,” I said. “Do pray tell.”

I wasn’t surprised Kip had a new business plan. If anything, I was surprised he’d managed to get as far as exchanging pleasantries before launching into a graphic description of his latest scheme.

“Well,” he said, “it’s not really based on the turducken. The turducken is more of an analogy. To illustrate what it is that my new startup does.”

“And what is it that your new startup does,” Ella’s mouth asked, though the rest of her face very clearly did not care to hear the answer.

“We miniaturize data,” Kip said. He waved his hands in the air with a flourish and looked at us expectantly. It made me think back to something my wife had said about Kip after the first time she ever met him: He thinks he’s a magician, and he acts like he’s a magician, but none of his tricks ever work.

“Prithee, do continue,” I said.

“We take big datasets,” he said. “Large datasets. Enormous datasets. Doesn’t matter what kind of data. You give it to us, and we miniaturize it. We give you back a much smaller dataset. And then you carry on your work with your wonderfully shrunken new spreadsheet, which keeps only the important trends and throws out all of the unnecessary details.”

“Interesting,” I nodded. On a scale of one-to-Kipsanity, this one was a solid five. “And the turducken figures into this how?”

“Weeeeeell, imagine someone hands you a turducken and asks you to figure out what’s in it,” said Kip. “I grant that this may not happen to you very often, but it happens all the time in KipLand. So, you know there’s a bunch of birds in there, all stuffed into each other’s–well, you know–but you don’t know which birds. All you see is this giant deep-fried bird collage, and you want to disassemble it into a set of discrete, identifiable fowls. Now, you hear a lot about how to construct a turducken. But if you think about it, deconstructing a turducken is a much more interesting engineering problem. And that’s what my new venture is all about. We take a complicated mass of data and pick out all the key elements that went into it. Deconstructing the turducken.”

He did the little flourish with his hands again. Again, Ella’s words rang out in my head. None of his tricks ever work.

“That’s quite possibly the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” I observed. “This whole turducken analogy isn’t working so well for me. I hope you haven’t put it in your promotional materials.”

Kip stared at me unpleasantly for a good ten or fifteen seconds.

“Actually, I take that back,” I said. “That conversation we had about the shinbones on Isaac Newton’s coat of arms that time I ran into you at the dry cleaner’s… that was an order of magnitude more ridiculous.”

Maybe it was a mean thing to say, but you have to understand: my friendship with Kip is built entirely on mutual abuse. And he who flinches first, loses.

“Whatever,” Kip said. He looked annoyed, which filled me with schadenfreude. It wasn’t often he got to experience the full range of emotions he routinely visited on others.

“I didn’t come here to talk about turducken,” he continued. “You brought up the turducken, not me. I just wanted to get your opinion on something…”

Again the hand flourish. Again the voice.

“I’m trying to figure out what to call my new startup,” he said. “Which do you like better: ‘Small data’ or ‘little data’? Neither has the ring of ‘big data‘, but I think both sound better than ‘Kipling Data Miniaturization Services’.”

“How about MiniData,” Ella offered. I noticed she was hitting the wine pretty hard, though we both knew it would do nothing to blunt the Kipling trauma.

“Or maybe NanoData,” I offered. “If you can make the data small enough. What level of compression are you aiming for?”

“Oh, sky’s the limit. Actually, that’s one of the unique features of my service. Most compression schemes have a fixed limit. Take a standard algorithm like bzip2. You compress text, you might get a file 10% of the size if you’re lucky. But binary data? You’ll be lucky if you shrink it by a factor of three. Now, with my NanoData compression service, you as the customer get to choose how much or how little you want. And you select the output format. You can hand me a terabyte of data and say, ‘Dr. Kipling, sir, I want you to distill this eight-dimensional MATLAB array down to a single Excel spreadsheet, no more than 10 rows by 10 columns.’ And that’s exactly what you’ll get.”

“And this miraculously distilled dataset that you give me… will it, by chance, have any passing resemblance to the original dataset I gave you?”

“Oh, sure, if you want it to,” said Kip. “But the fidelity service costs double.”

I resisted the overpowering urge to facepalm.

“Well, it’s certainly not the worst idea you’ve ever had,” I said diplomatically. “But I have to say, I’m amazed you keep launching new startups. A lesser man would have given up ten or twelve bankruptcies ago.”

“I guess I just have an uncanny sense for ideas ten years ahead of their time,” Kip smiled.

“Ten years ahead of anyone’s time,” Ella muttered.

“Right,” I said. “You’re a visionary. You have… the visions. Hey, what happened to that deli you were going to open? The one that was going to sell premium hay sandwiches? I thought that one was going to make it for sure.”

“Terrible shame. Turns out it’s very difficult to get sandwich-grade hay in Colorado. So, you know, it didn’t pan out. Very sad; I even had a name picked out: Hay Day Sandwiches. Get it?”

I didn’t really get it, but still nodded in mock sympathy.

“Anyway, since you brought up my new startup,” Kip said, oblivious to the death rays radiating towards him from Ella’s head, “let me take this opportunity to give the both of you the opportunity of your lifetime. I like you guys, so I’m going to cut you in as my very first angel investors. All I’m asking…”

And here he paused, looking at us. I knew what he was doing; he was trying to gauge our level of displeasure with him so he could pick a number that was sufficiently high, but not completely ridiculous.

“…is fifteen thousand,” he finished “You get 5% of equity, and I’ll even throw in some nice swag. I’m having mugs and frisbees printed up as we speak.”

Around this time, Ella put her head down on her arms; she may or may not have been softly sobbing, I couldn’t really tell.

“That’s quite an offer, Kip,” I said. “And I’m really glad you like me enough to make it. It’s not like I’ve ever bought into your ideas before, but then, the thing I like best about you is how you never take repeated failure for an answer. Unfortunately, I just don’t have fifteen thousand right now. I just spent my last fifteen thousand souping up an old John Deer lawnmower so I can drive around the bike path blaring Ridin’ Dirty from three hundred watt speakers while glowing pink neon lights presage my arrival by five hundred feet. You should see it, it’s beautiful. But I swear, if I hadn’t done that, I’d be ready to sign on the dotted line right now.”

“That’s quite alright,” Kip said. “No harm, no foul. Your loss, my gain. It’s probably crazy of me to give up that much equity for so little anyway; this idea is going to make millions. No. Billions.”

He paused just long enough for some of the delusion to drip off; then I watched in real time as yet another unwise idea corkscrewed through his ear and crawled into his brain.

“Hey,” he said. “I’ve never thought of pimping out a John Deer lawnmower, but that’s a pretty good idea too. You sound like you have some experience with this now; want to go fifty-fifty on a startup? I’ll provide the salesmanship and take advantage of my many business contacts. You provide the technical knowledge. Ella, you can get in on this too; we’ll throw in a free turducken with every purchase.”

This time I definitely heard my wife sobbing, and just like that, it was time for Cornelius Kipling to leave.

sunbathers in America

This is fiction. Kind of. Science left for a few days and asked fiction to care for the house.

I ran into my friend, Cornelius Kipling, at the grocery store. He was ahead of me in line, holding a large eggplant and a copy of the National Enquirer. I didn’t ask about it.

I hadn’t seen Kip in six months, so went for a walk along Boulder Creek to catch up. Kip has a Ph.D. in molecular engineering from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and an MBA from an online degree mill. He’s the only person I know who combines an earnest desire to save the world with the scruples of a small-time mafia don. He’s an interesting person to talk as long as you remember that he gets most of his ideas out of mail-order catalogs.

“What are you working on these days,” I asked him after I’d stashed my groceries in the fridge and retrieved my wallet from his pocket. Last I’d heard Kip was involved in a minor arson case and couldn’t come within three thousand feet of any Monsanto office.

“Saving lives,” he said, in the same matter-of-fact way that a janitor will tell you he cleans bathrooms. “Small lives. Fireflies. I’m making miniature organic light-emitting diodes that save fireflies from certain death at the hands of the human industrial-industrial complex.”

“The industrial human what?”

“Exactly,” he said, ignoring the question. “We’re developing new LEDs that mimic the light fireflies give off. The purpose of the fire in fireflies, you see, is to attract mates. Bigger light, better mate. The problem is, humans have much bigger lights than fireflies. So fireflies end up trying to mate with incandescents. You turn on a light bulb outside, and pffftttt there go a dozen bugs. It’s genocide, only on a larger scale. Whereas the LEDs we’re building attract fireflies like crazy but aren’t hot enough to harm them. At worst, you’ve got a device guaranteed to start a firefly orgy when it turns on.”

“Well, that absolutely sounds like another winning venture,” I said. “Oh, hey, what happened to the robot-run dairy you were going to start?”

“The cow drowned,” he said wistfully. We spent a few moments in silence while I waited for conversational manna to rain down on my head. It didn’t.

“I didn’t mean to mock you,” I said finally. “I mean, yes, of course I meant to mock you. But with love. Not like an asshole. You know.”

“S’okay. Your sarcasm is an ephemeral, transient thing–like summer in the Yukon–but the longevity of the firefly is a matter of life and death.”

“Sure it is,” I said. “For the fireflies.”

“This is the potential impact of my work right now,” Kip said, holding his hands a foot apart, as if he were cupping a large balloon. “The oldest firefly in captivity just turned forty-one. That’s eleven years older than us. But in the wild, the average firefly only lives six weeks. Mostly because of contact with the residues of the industrial-industrial complex. Compact fluorescents, parabolic aluminized reflectors, MR halogens, Rizzuto globes, and regular old incandescents. Historically, the common firefly stood no chance against us. But now, I am its redress. I am the Genghis Khan of the Lampyridae Mongol herd. Prepare to be pillaged.”

“I think you just make this stuff up,” I said, wincing at the analogy. “I mean, I’m not one hundred percent sure. But I’m very close to one hundred percent sure.”

“Your envy of other people’s imagination is your biggest problem,” said Kip, rubbing his biceps in lazy circles through his shirt. “And my biggest problem is: I need more imaginative friends. Just this morning, in the shower, this question popped into my head, and it’s been bugging me ever since: if you could be any science fiction character, who would you be? But I can’t ask you what you think; you have no vision. You didn’t even ask me why I was checking out with nothing but an eggplant when you saw me at the grocery store.”

“It’s not a vision problem,” I said. “It’s strictly a science fiction problem. I’m just no good at it. I’ll sit down to read a Ben Bova book, and immediately my egg timer will go off, or I’ll remember I need to renew my annual subscription to Vogue. That stuff never happens when I read Jane Austen or Asterix. Plus, I have this long-standing fear that if I read a lot of sci-fi, I’ll learn too much about the future; more than is healthy for any human being to know. There are like three hundred thousand science fiction novels in print, but we only have one future between all of us. The odds are good that at least one of those novels is basically right about what will happen. I won’t even watch a ninety-minute slasher film if someone tells me ahead of time that the killer is the girl from Ipanema with the dragon tattoo; why would I want to read all that science fiction and find out that thirty years from now, sentient goats from Zorbon will land on Mt. Rushmore and enslave us all, starting with the lawyers?”

“See,” he said. “No answer. Simple question, but no answer.”

“Fine,” I said. “If I must. Hari Seldon.”

“Good. Why?”

“Because,” I said, “unlike the real world, Hari Seldon lives in a mysterious future where psychologists can actually predict people’s behavior.”

“Predicting things is not so hard,” said Kip. “Take for instance the weather. It’s like ninety-three degrees today, which means the nudists will be out in force on the rocks by the Gold Run condos. It’s the only time they have a legitimate excuse to expose their true selves.”

We walked another fifty paces.

“See?” he said, as we stepped off a bridge and rounded a corner along the path. “There they are.”

I nodded. There they were: young, old, and pantsless all over.

“Personally, I always wanted to be Superman,” Kip said as we kept walking. He traced an S through his sweat-stained shirt. “Like every other kid I guess. But then when I hit puberty, I realized being Superman is a lot of responsibility. You can’t sit naked on the rocks on a hot day. Not when you’re Superman. You can’t really do anything just for fun. You can’t punch a hole in the wall to annoy your neighbor who smokes a pack a day and makes the whole building smell like stale menthol. You can’t even use your x-ray vision to stare at his wife in the shower. You need a reason for everything you do; the citizens of Metropolis demand accountability. So instead of being Superman, I figured I’d keep the S on the chest, but make it stand for ‘Science’. And now my guiding philosophy is to go through life always performing random acts of scientific kindness but never explicitly committing to help anyone. That way I can be a fundamentally decent human being who still occasionally pops into a titty bar for a late buffet-style lunch.”

I stared at him in awe, amazed that so much light and air could stream out of one man’s ego. I think in his mind, Kip really believed that spending all of his time on personal science projects put him on the side of the angels. That St. Peter himself would one day invite him through the Pearly Gates just to hang out and compare notes on fireflies. And then of course Kip would get to tell St. Peter, “no thanks,” and march right past him into a strip club.

My mental cataloging of Kip’s character flaws was broken up by an American White Pelican growling loudly somewhere in the sky above us. It spun around a few times before divebombing into the creek–an ambivalently graceful entrance reminiscent of Greg Louganis at the ’88 Olympics. American White Pelicans aren’t supposed to plunge-dive for food, but I guess that’s the beauty of America; anyone can exercise their individuality at any given moment. You can get Superman, floating above Metropolitan landmarks, eyeing anonymous bathrooms and wishing he could use his powers for evil instead of good; Cornelius Kipling, with ideas so grand and unattainable they crush out every practical instinct in his body; and me, with my theatrical vision of myself–starring myself, as Hari Seldon, the world’s first useful psychologist!

And all of us just here for a brief flash in the goldpan of time; just temporary sunbathers in America.

“You’re overthinking things again,” Kip said from somewhere outside my head. “I can tell. You’ve got that dumb look on your face that says you think you have a really deep thought on your face. Well, you don’t. You know what, forget the books; the nudists have the right idea. Go lie on the grass and pour some goddamn sunshine on your skin. You look even whiter than I remembered.”

CNS 2011: a first-person shorthand account in the manner of Rocky Steps

Friday, April 1

4 pm. Arrive at SFO International on bumpy flight from Denver.

4:45 pm. Approach well-dressed man downtown and open mouth to ask for directions to Hyatt Regency San Francisco. “Sorry,” says well-dressed man, “No change to give.” Back off slowly, swinging bags, beard, and poster tube wildly, mumbling “I’m not a panhandler, I’m a neuroscientist.” Realize that difference between the two may be smaller than initially suspected.

6:30 pm. Hear loud knocking on hotel room door. Open door to find roommate. Say hello to roommate. Realize roommate is extremely drunk from East Coast flight. Offer roommate bag of coffee and orange tic-tacs. Roommate is confused, asks, “are you drunk?” Ignore roommate’s question. “You’re drunk, aren’t you.” Deny roommate’s unsubstantiated accusations. “When you write about this on your blog, you better not try to make it look like I’m the drunk one,” roommate says. Resolve to ignore roommate’s crazy talk for next 4 days.

6:45 pm. Attempt to open window of 10th floor hotel room in order to procure fresh air for face. Window refuses to open. Commence nudging of, screaming at, and bargaining with window. Window still refuses to open. Roommate points out sticker saying window does not open. Ignore sticker, continue berating window. Window still refuses to open, but now has low self-esteem.

8 pm. Have romantic candlelight dinner at expensive french restaurant with roommate. Make jokes all evening about ideal location (San Francisco) for start of new intimate relationship. Suspect roommate is uncomfortable, but persist in faux wooing. Roommate finally turns tables by offering to put out. Experience heightened level of discomfort, but still finish all of steak tartare and order creme brulee. Dessert appetite is immune to off-color humor!

11 pm – 1 am. Grand tour of seedy SF bars with roommate and old grad school friend. New nightlife low: denied entrance to seedy dance club because shoes insufficiently classy. Stupid Teva sandals.

Saturday, April 2

9:30 am. Wake up late. Contemplate running downstairs to check out ongoing special symposium for famous person who does important research. Decide against. Contemplate visiting hotel gym to work off creme brulee from last night. Decide against. Contemplate reading conference program in bed and circling interesting posters to attend. Decide against. Contemplate going back to sleep. Consult with self, make unanimous decision in favor.

1 pm. Have extended lunch meeting with collaborators at Ferry Building to discuss incipient top-secret research project involving diesel generator, overstock beanie babies, and apple core. Already giving away too much!

3:30 pm. Return to hotel. Discover hotel is now swarming with name badges attached to vaguely familiar faces. Hug vaguely familiar faces. Hugs are met with startled cries. Realize that vaguely familiar faces are actually completely unfamiliar faces. Wrong conference: Young Republicans, not Cognitive Neuroscientists. Make beeline for elevator bank, pursued by angry middle-aged men dressed in American flags.

5 pm. Poster session A! The sights! The sounds! The lone free drink at the reception! The wonders of yellow 8-point text on black 6′ x 4′ background! Too hard to pick a favorite thing, not even going to try. Okay, fine: free schwag at the exhibitor stands.

5 pm – 7 pm. Chat with old friends. Have good time catching up. Only non-fictionalized bullet point of entire piece.

8 pm. Dinner at belly dancing restaurant in lower Haight. Great conversation, good food, mediocre dancing. Towards end of night, insist on demonstrating own prowess in fine art of torso shaking; climb on table and gyrate body wildly, alternately singing Oompa-Loompa song and yelling “get in my belly!” at other restaurant patrons. Nobody tips.

12:30 am. Take the last train to Clarksville. Take last N train back to Hyatt Regency hotel.

Sunday, April 3

7 am. Wake up with amazing lack of hangover. Celebrate amazing lack of hangover by running repeated victory laps around 10th floor of Hyatt Regency, Rocky Steps style. Quickly realize initial estimate of hangover absence off by order of magnitude. Revise estimate; collapse in puddle on hotel room floor. Refuse to move until first morning session.

8:15 am. Wander the eight Caltech aisles of morning poster session in search of breakfast. Fascinating stuff, but this early in morning, only value signals of interest are smell and sight of coffee, muffins, and bagels.

10 am. Terrific symposium includes excellent talks about emotion, brain-body communication, and motivation, but favorite moment is still when friend arrives carrying bucket of aspirin.

1 pm. Bump into old grad school friend outside; decide to grab lunch on pier behind Ferry Building. Discuss anterograde amnesia and dating habits of mutual friends. Chicken and tofu cake is delicious. Sun is out, temperature is mild; perfect day to not attend poster sessions.

1:15 – 2 pm. Attend poster session.

2 pm – 5 pm. Presenting poster in 3 hours! Have full-blown panic attack in hotel room. Not about poster, about General Hospital. Why won’t Lulu take Dante’s advice and call support group number for alcoholics’ families?!?! Alcohol is Luke’s problem, Lulu! Call that number!

5 pm. Present world’s most amazing poster to three people. Launch into well-rehearsed speech about importance of work and great glory of sophisticated technical methodology before realizing two out of three people are mistakenly there for coffee and cake, and third person mistook presenter for someone famous. Pause to allow audience to mumble excuses and run to coffee bar. When coast is clear, resume glaring at anyone who dares to traverse poster aisle. Believe strongly in marking one’s territory.

8 pm. Lab dinner at House of Nanking. Food is excellent, despite unreasonably low tablespace-to-floorspace ratio. Conversation revolves around fainting goats, ‘relaxation’ in Thailand, and, occasionally, science.

10 pm. Karaoke at The Mint. Compare performance of CNS attendees with control group of regulars; establish presence of robust negative correlation between years of education and singing ability. Completely wreck voice performing whitest rendition ever of Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina”. Crowd jeers. No, wait, crowd gyrates. In wholesome scientific manner. Crowd is composed entirely of people with low self-monitoring skills; what luck! DJ grimaces through entire song and most of previous and subsequent songs.

2 am. Take cab back to hotel with graduate students and Memory Professor. Memory Professor is drunk; manages to nearly fall out of cab while cab in motion. In-cab conversation revolves around merits of dynamic programming languages. No consensus reached, but civility maintained. Arrival at hotel: all cab inhabitants below professorial rank immediately slip out of cab and head for elevators, leaving Memory Professor to settle bill. In elevator, Graduate Student A suggests that attempt to push Memory Professor out of moving cab was bad idea in view of Graduate Student A’s impending post-doc with Memory Professor. Acknowledge probable wisdom of Graduate Student A’s observation while simultaneously resolving to not adjust own degenerate behavior in the slightest.

2:15 am. Drink at least 24 ounces of water before attaining horizontal position. Fall asleep humming bars of Elliott Smith’s Angeles. Wrong city, but close enough.

Monday, April 4

8 am. Wake up hangover free again! For real this time. No Rocky Steps dance. Shower and brush teeth. Delicately stroke roommate’s cheek (he’ll never know) before heading downstairs for poster session.

8:30 am. Bagels, muffin, coffee. Not necessarily in that order.

9 am – 12 pm. Skip sessions, spend morning in hotel room working. While trying to write next section of grant proposal, experience strange sensation of time looping back on itself, like a snake eating its own tail, but also eating grant proposal at same time. Awake from unexpected nap with ‘Innovation’ section in mouth.

12:30 pm. Skip lunch; for some reason, not very hungry.

1 pm. Visit poster with screaming purple title saying “COME HERE FOR FREE CHOCOLATE.” Am impressed with poster title and poster, but disappointed by free chocolate selection: Dove eggs and purple Hershey’s kisses–worst chocolate in the world! Resolve to show annoyance by disrupting presenter’s attempts to maintain conversation with audience. Quickly knocked out by chocolate eggs thrown by presenter.

5 pm. Wake up in hotel room with headache and no recollection of day’s events. Virus or hangover? Unclear. For some reason, hair smells like chocolate.

7:30 pm. Dinner at Ferry Building with Brain Camp friends. Have now visited Ferry Building at least one hundred times in seventy-two hours. Am now compulsively visiting Ferry Building every fifteen minutes just to feel normal.

9:30 pm. Party at Americano Restaurant & Bar for Young Investigator Award winner. Award comes with $500 and strict instructions to be spent on drinks for total strangers. Strange tradition, but noone complains.

11 pm. Bar is crowded with neuroscientists having great time at Young Investigator’s expense.

11:15 pm. Drink budget runs out.

11:17 pm. Neuroscientists mysteriously vanish.

1 am. Stroll through San Francisco streets in search of drink. Three false alarms, but finally arrive at open pub 10 minutes before last call. Have extended debate with friend over whether hotel room can be called ‘home’. Am decidedly in No camp; ‘home’ is for long-standing attachments, not 4-day hotel hobo runs.

2 am. Walk home.

Tuesday, April 5

9:05 am. Show up 5 minutes late for bagels and muffins. All gone! Experience Apocalypse Now moment on inside, but manage not to show it–except for lone tear. Drown sorrows in Tazo Wild Sweet Orange tea. Tea completely fails to live up to name; experience second, smaller, Apocalypse Now moment. Roommate walks over and asks if everything okay, then gently strokes cheek and brushes away lone tear (he knew!!!).

9:10 – 1 pm. Intermittently visit poster and symposium halls. Not sure why. Must be force of habit learning system.

1:30 pm. Lunch with friends at Thai restaurant near Golden Gate Park. Fill belly up with coconut, noodles, and crab. About to get on table to express gratitude with belly dance, but notice that friends have suddenly disappeared.

2 – 5 pm. Roam around Golden Gate Park and Haight-Ashbury. Stop at Whole Foods for friend to use bathroom. Get chased out of Whole Foods for using bathroom without permission. Very exciting; first time feeling alive on entire trip! Continue down Haight. Discuss socks, ice cream addiction (no such thing), and funding situation in Europe. Turns out it sucks there too.

5:15 pm. Take BART to airport with lab members. Watch San Francisco recede behind train. Sink into slightly melancholic state, but recognize change of scenery is for the best: constitution couldn’t handle more Rocky Steps mornings.

7:55 pm. Suddenly rediscover pronouns as airplane peels away from gate.

8 pm PST – 11:20 MST. The flight’s almost completely empty; I get to stretch out across the entire emergency exit aisle. The sun goes down as we cross the Sierra Nevada; the last of the ice in my cup melts into water somewhere between Provo and Grand Junction. As we start our descent into Denver, the lights come out in force, and I find myself preemptively bored at the thought of the long shuttle ride home. For a moment, I wish I was back in my room at the Hyatt at 8 am–about to run Rocky Steps around the hotel, or head down to the poster hall to find someone to chat with over a bagel and coffee. For some reason, I still feel like I didn’t get quite enough time to hang out with all the people I wanted to see, despite barely sleeping in 4 days. But then sanity returns, and the thought quickly passes.

to each their own addiction

An only slightly fictionalized story, for my long-suffering wife.

“It’s happening again,” I tell my wife from the couch. “I’m having that soul-crushing experience again.”

“Too much work?” she asks, expecting the answer to be yes, since no matter what quantity of work I’m actually burdened with at any given moment, the way I describe it to to other people when they ask is always “too much.”

“No,” I say. “Work is fine right now.”

“Had a paper rejected?”

“Pfft, no,” I say. “Like that ever happens to me!” (I don’t tell her it’s happened to me twice in the past week.)

“Then what?”

“The blog posts,” I tell her, motioning to my laptop screen. “There’s just too many of them in my Reader. I can’t keep up! I’m drowning in RSS feeds!”

My wife has learned not to believe anything I say, ever; we’ve lived together long enough that her modal response to my complaints is an arched eyebrow. So I flip my laptop around and point at the gigantic bolded text in the corner that says All Items (118). Emotionally gigantic, I mean; physically, I think it’s only like 12 point font.

“One hundred and eighteen blog posts!” I yell at absolutely no one. “I’m going to be here all night!”

“That’s because you live here,” she helpfully points out.

I’m not sure exactly when I became enslaved by my blog feeds. I know it was sometime after Carl Zimmer‘s amazing post about the man-eating fireflies of Sri Lanka, and sometime before the Neuroskeptic self-published his momentous report introducing three entirely new mental health diagnoses. But that’s as much as I can tell you; the rest is lost in a haze of rapid-scrolling text, retweeted links, and never-ending comment threads. There’s no alarm bell that sounds out loud to indicate that you’ve stomped all over the line that separates occasional indulgence from outright “I can quit any time, honest!” abuse. No one shows up at your door, hands you a bucket of Skittles, and says, “congratulations! You’re hooked on feeds!”

The thought of all those unread posts piling up causes me to hyperventilate. My wife, who sits unperturbed in her chair as 1,000+ unread articles pile up in her Reader, stares at me with a mixture of bemusement and horror.

“Let’s go for a walk,” she suggests, making a completely transparent effort to distract me from my immense problems.

Going for a walk is, of course, completely out of the question; I still have 118 blog posts to read before I can do anything else. So I read all 118 posts, which turns out not to take all night, but more like 15 minutes (I have a very loose definition of reading; it’s closer to what other people call ‘seeing’). By the time I’ve done that, the internet has written another 8 new articles, so now I feel compelled to read those too. So I do that, and then I hit refresh again, and lo and behold, there are 2 MORE articles. So I grudgingly read those as well, and then I quickly shut my laptop so that no new blog posts can sneak up on me while I’m off hanging out in Microsoft Word pretending to do work.

Screw this, I think after a few seconds, and run to find my wife.

“Come on, let’s go for that walk,” I say, running as fast as I can towards my sandals.

“What’s the big rush,” she asks. “I want to go walking, not jogging; I already went to the gym today.”

“No choice,” I say. “We have to get back before the posts pile up again.”


“I said, I have a lot of work to do.”

So we go out walking, and it’s nice and all that; the temperature is probably around 70 degrees; it’s cool and dry and the sun’s just going down; the ice cream carts are out in force on the Pearl Street mall; the jugglers juggle and the fire eaters eat fire and give themselves cancer; a little kid falls down and skins his knee but gets up and laughs like it didn’t even hurt, which it probably didn’t, because everyone knows children under seven years of age don’t have a central nervous system and can’t feel pain. It’s a really nice walk, and I’m happy we’re on it, but the whole time I keep thinking, How many dozens of posts has PZ Myers put up while I’ve been gone? Are Razib Khan and Ed Yong posting their link dumps as I think this? And what’s the over-under on the number of posts in my ‘cog blogs’ folder?

She sees me doing all this of course, and she’s not happy about it. So she lets me know it.

“I’m not happy about this,” she says.

When we get back, we each back to our respective computer screen. I’m relieved to note that the internet’s only made 11 more deliveries, which I promptly review and discharge. I star two posts for later re-consideration and let the rest disappear into the ether of spent words. Then I open up a manuscript I’ve been working on for a while and pretend to do some real work for a couple of hours. With periodic edutainment breaks, of course.

Around 11:30 pm I decide to close up shop for the night. No one really blogs after about 9 pm, which is fortunate, or I’d never get any sleep. It’s also the reason I avoid subscribing to European blogs if I can help it. Europeans have no respect for Mountain Time.

“Are you coming to bed,” I ask my wife.

“Not yet,” she says, looking guilty and avoiding eye contact.

“Why not? You have work to do?”

“Nope, no work.”

“Cooking? Are you making a fancy meal for dinner tomorrow?”

“No, it’s your turn to cook tomorrow,” she says, knowing full well that my idea of cooking consists of a take-out menu and telephone.

“Then what?”

She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. The words are all jammed tightly in between her vocal cords.

Then I see it, poking out on the couch from under a pillow: green cover, 9 by 6 inches, 300 pages long. It’s that damn book!

“You’re reading Pride and Prejudice again,” I say. It’s an observation, not a question.

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are. You’re reading that damn book again. I know it. I can see it. It’s right there.” I point at it, just so that there can’t possibly be any ambiguity about which book I’m talking about.

She gazes around innocently, looking at everything but the book.

“What is that, like the fourteenth time this year you’ve read it?”

“Twelfth,” she says, looking guilty. “But really, go to bed without me; I might be up for a while still. I have another fifty pages or so I need to finish before I can go to sleep. I just have to find out if Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy end up together.”

I look at her mournfully, quietly shut my laptop’s lid, and bid the both of them–wife and laptop–good night. My wife grudgingly nods, but doesn’t look away from Jane Austen’s pages. My RSS feeds don’t say anything either.

“Yes,” I mumble to no one in particular, as I slowly climb up the stairs and head for my toothbrush.

“Yes, they do end up together.”

repost: narrative tips from a grad school applicant

Since it’s grad school application season for undergraduates, I thought I’d repost some narrative tips about how to go about writing a personal statement for graduate programs in psychology. This is an old, old post from a long-deceased blog; it’s from way back in 2002 when I was applying to grad school. It’s kind of a serious piece; if I were to rewrite it today, the tone would be substantially lighter. I can’t guarantee that following these tips will get you into grad school, but I can promise that you’ll be amazed at the results.

The first draft of my personal statement was an effortful attempt to succinctly sum up my motivation for attending graduate school. I wanted to make my rationale for applying absolutely clear, so I slaved over the statement for three or four days, stopping only for the occasional bite of food and hour or two of sleep every night. I was pretty pleased with the result. For a first draft, I thought it showed great promise. Here’s how it started:

I want to go to,o grajit skool cuz my frend steve is in grajit and he says its ez and im good at ez stuff

When I showed this to my advisor he said, “I don’t know if humor is the way to go for this thing.”

I said, “What do you mean, humor?”

After that I took a three month break from writing my personal statement while I completed a grade 12 English equivalency exam and read a few of the classics to build up my vocabulary. My advisor said that even clever people like me needed help sometimes. I read Ulysses, The Odyssey, and a few other Greek sounding books, and a book called The Cat in the Hat which was by the same author as the others, but published posthumously. Satisfied that I was able to write a letter that would impress every graduate admissions committee in the world, I set about writing a second version of my personal statement. Here’s how that went:

Dear Dirty Admissions Committee,
Solemn I came forward and mounted the round gunrest. I faced about and blessed gravely thrice the Ivory Tower, the surrounding country, and all the Profs. Then catching sight of the fMRI machine, I bent towards it and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in my throat and shaking my head.

“Too literary,” said my advisor when I showed him.

“Mud,” I said, and went back to the drawing board.

The third effort was much better. I had weaned myself off the classics and resolved to write a personal statement that fully expressed what a unique human being I was and why I would be an asset to the program. I talked about how I could juggle three bean bags and almost four, I was working on four, and how I’d stopped biting my fingernails last year so I had lots of free time to do psychology now. To show that I was good at following through on things that I started, I said,

p.s. when I can juggle four bean bags ( any day now) I will write you to let you know so you can update your file.

Satisfied that I had written the final copy of my statement, I showed it to my advisor. He was wild-eyed about it.

“You just don’t get it, do you,” he said, ripping my statement in two and throwing it into the wastepaper basket. “Tell you what. Why don’t I write a statement for you. And then you can go through it and make small changes to personalize it. Ok?”

“Sure,” I said. So the next day my advisor gave me a two-page personal statement he had written for me. Now I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I have to say, it was pretty bad. Here’s how it started:

After studying psychology for nearly four years at the undergraduate level, I have decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the field. I have developed a keen interest in [list your areas of interest here] and believe [university name here] will offer me outstanding opportunities.

“Now go make minor changes,” said my advisor.

“Mud,” I said, and went to make minor changes.

I came back with the final version a week later. It was truly a masterpiece; co-operating with my advisor had really helped. At first I had been skeptical because what he wrote was so bad the way he gave it to me, but with a judicious sprinkling of helpful clarifications, it turned into something really good. It was sort of like an ugly cocoon (his draft) bursting into a beautiful rainbow (my version). It went like this:

After studying psychology (and juggling!) for nearly four years at the undergraduate level (of university), I have decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the field. Cause I need it to become a Prof. I have developed a keen interest in [list your areas of interest here Vision, Language, Memory, Brain] and believe [university name hereStanford Princeton Mishigan] will offer me outstanding opportunities in psychology and for the juggling society.

“Brilliant,” said my advisor when I showed it to him. “You’ve truly outdone yourself.”

“Mud,” I said, and went to print six more copies.

babygate blues: a neuromarketing tale

Cory Doctorow has a new short story (“Ghosts in my Head“) about the undesirable consequences of neuromarketing run amok up on the Subterranean Press website.  I liked the story, but thought the premise was pretty unrealistic (and, yes, I do know it’s called science fiction for a reason–I’m just sayin’). So as a counterpoint, here’s an alternative neuromarketing future that I personally find much more plausible.

Deborah Stojko didn’t care much for Pockter and Gramble’s corporate headquarters. The building smelled of disinfectant and organization; the halogen corridors all blended together into one giant dimly-lit maze. Stojko had been visiting P&G regularly for several years now; it was never a pleasant experience, but it couldn’t be avoided. Communicating with major stakeholders was a large part of her job as director of the International Consortium for Neuromarketing Research. And P&G was by far the largest stakeholder, contributing over 70% of the money that supported the consortium’s work.

For several years now, ICNR had been pumping out first-class scientific research on the neural mechanisms of economic decision-making. The Richelieu effect, Preinforcement Learning, the neurometric satisficing theorem… ICNR was behind any number of recent discoveries; its members were continually in the news. And all of it was made possible only through the generosity of the marketing and R&D wings of P&G.

The generosity, or the naivete? Stojko asked herself as she reached her destination and knocked softly on an office door. Somehow, the executives at Pockter and Gramble had managed to convince themselves that the survival of P&G rested on their ability to mine the deep secrets of the brain. For years now, they’d been throwing sums of money at cognitive neuroscientists that would make European royalty blush. That streak of good fortune, Stojko suspected, was now about to end. Recent events had rendered P&G’s massive investment in ICNR something of a political liability; she had the feeling this was the last time she’d be making the trip to P&G headquarters.

And not a moment too soon, she thought, as the door opened in front of her.

*    *    *

“How long has Pockter and Gramble been funding you, Deborah,” Bob Ramsey, Chief Executive Officer, asked, once Stojko was seated and they’d gotten the standard pleasantries out of the way.

Stojko did the arithmetic in her head. The International Neuromarketing Consortium had formed in 2013, following a massive infusion of P&G cash, so…

“Six years,” she said.

“Right. And do you know how much money Pockter and Gramble has given your consortium in those six years?”

“I’d put it somewhere between 251.8 and 251.9 million dollars.”

“Very clever. A quarter of a billion dollars. We’ve given you a quarter. Of a billion. Dollars.”

“Well, to be fair, that amount is spread out over 8 sites and 30 other investigators,” Stojko pointed out. “It’s not like you wrote me a check for 250 million. My institution only got about forty-five million.”

Ramsey didn’t say anything, but his expression bespoke a thinly-veiled irritation. He picked up a remote control on the desk and pushed a button. Behind Stojko, the wall turned translucent as the embedded display lit up.

“No doubt you’ll recognize this clip,” Ramsey said.

Stojko swiveled around to watch the giant screen. The camera faded in on a bright and comfortable-looking living room somewhere in America. Almost immediately, six or seven babies in diapers filed into the room and began dancing synchronously in a circle. After a few seconds of dancing, the babies started babbling an Eastern-sounding melody in a totally incomprehensible–and, Stojko suspected, nonexistent–language. And a few seconds after that, they started banging spoons on the tabletop in perfect unison, all the while still dancing and singing in tongues. The whole thing lasted exactly thirty seconds, and occupied a very narrow emotional niche between really adorable and utterly creepy.

Stojko did recognize the clip, of course; it was an ad for Dampers, a P&G-owned diaper brand. The consortium had selected the ad from over two dozen candidates that P&G had asked them to test. For reasons that remained unclear to Stojko–and to pretty much everyone else–singing, dancing, spoon-banging babies lit the brain up like a christmas tree.

Stojko had had her reservations about declaring a ‘winner’; she’d written several long emails to the P&G marketing brain trust explaining that, brain activation notwithstanding, there really wasn’t any evidence yet that this particular ad was going to help sell more diapers, and many more studies were needed before the consortium could confidently interpret its own results. But marketing wasn’t into the whole waiting thing, and the ad was on the air within three months of the consortium’s initial report.

As it turned out, it didn’t do so well.

“That ad bombed,” Ramsey said, wagging his finger in the general direction of the screen, “According to you people, it was supposed to push all of the brain’s buttons at once. You spent three million dollars of our money just on that one testing program. Two dozen ads to choose from, and the one you pick completely tanked. It was an epic failure. At this very moment, people in living rooms all over America are laughing at Pockter and Gramble because of that ad.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad” said Stojko, smirking almost imperceptibly. She was well aware of the PR disaster P&G had on its hands, of course. But she couldn’t deny the warm feeling of schadenfreude that accompanied the knowledge that P&G was now paying many times over for disregarding just about every recommendation the consortium had made in its 480-page report. She was pretty sure the suits had never made it past the fifth or sixth page.

“It is that bad,” Ramsey shot back. “We blew half of our network budget for the year on this ad. Our initial focus groups were already pretty positive, and then we received your report saying things like–and I quote–”of all the ads tested, number seventeen elicited the largest response in brain areas associated with reward.” So we figured it was a sure thing, and started airing the ad in all the major markets. And then, out of nowhere, we get this massive backlash. Thousands of angry emails from people complaining that the ad was trite and we were shamefully “exploiting babies”. People saying they would never buy Dampers diapers again; that the CEO–that’s me, mind you–should resign; that someone should “just torch Pockter and Gramble headquarters”. And those were just the serious complaints. There were also the people who apparently thought the whole thing was just a big joke that gave them an opening to do their own thing. We had forty YouTube videos a day uploaded by people spoofing the ad. There was one clip of six guys in giraffe suits singing and doing our baby dance. Sixteen million hits.”

“All publicity is good publicity, right?”

“No. Not even close.”

Stojko chuckled just loudly enough for Ramsey to hear.

“Is this funny to you?” Ramsey asked. “We give you a quarter of a billion dollars for commercials designed to push the brain’s reward buttons, and we get grown men in giraffe suits?”

“Well, let me put it this way, Bob. If your goal was really to make commercials that light up the brain’s reward circuitry, you wouldn’t have needed to do any serious research in the first place; you could have just run 30-second clips of semi-nude women making out with each other, or couples giggling and cuddling in bed. That’d cover most of the bases. You’d have all the reward-related activation you could want. But how many deodorant sticks do you think commercials like that would sell?”

Ramsey stared at Stojko blankly.

“Porn, flashing lights, pictures of hundred-dollar bills, a basket of shiny fresh fruit… lots of things activate the brain’s reward centers,” Stojko continued. “What makes you think a commercial that tangentially elicits reward-related activation is going to make people buy any more of a product?”

“Well, can’t you tell that?”

“Can we?” asked Stojko rhetorically. “I don’t know. Can you tell that? You guys probably have labs full of people trying to figure out whether the fact that people tell you they like a commercial means they’re going to buy more of the product featured in that commercial. And what’s the answer?”

“I don’t know that myself,” Ramsey replied abruptly. “It’s not my job to know that. I can have marketing come up here and tell you the answer if you like.”

Stojko shook her head.

“Doesn’t matter. I mean, it can only go one of two ways. If marketing doesn’t know what makes a commercial good or bad, you can’t really expect us to tell you what it is about the brain that makes people buy things. We don’t track how well your products sell after different ads go into circulation; how the hell would we know which commercials have the largest impact on sales? I can tell you which commercials activate the nucleus accumbens more than others, but so what? How am I supposed to know if nucleus accumbens activation is a good predictor of actual purchases without actually knowing anything about real-world purchases?”

Ramsey had nothing to say to that; he stared down at his shoes.

“So clearly, that’s not going to help us,” Stojko continued. “But suppose instead we pretend that the people in your marketing department are smart cookies, and they do know what it is about commercials that makes people buy your products. Well, in that case, what the hell would you need us? If you’ve figured out that people are more likely to buy your anti-dandruff shampoo after watching ads they rate ‘extremely interesting’, what is peering into the brain going to tell you?”

“Well, I guess you could use brain imaging to figure out what it is that people find extremely interesting, right?”

“Sure, Bob, we could do that. And you know how we’d do that? By asking people which commercials they found interesting, and then correlating their verbal responses with what their brains were doing while they watched those commercials. And you know what that means? It means we can never do any better than your people can do with your focus groups and spreadsheets. Because basically, we’re stuck trying to predict the same variables that you guys are using to predict people’s buying behavior. We’re just one step further removed.”

Ramsey listened quietly, but anger visibly colored his face as Stojko spoke.

“This is the kind of thing that might have been good to bring up, oh, say, five years ago,” he said.

“Oh, believe me, we did bring it up,” Stojko smiled bitterly. “Or at least, we tried to.”

She tapped a few keys on her holoboard.

“Here’s an email dated June 18th, 2014: “Dear Mr. Chauahan–I believe that’s your VP of marketing, right?–senior members of the consortium continue to express their frustration at Pockter and Gramble’s failure to provide us with the sales data we requested. As we indicated in our letter dated April 21st, it is not possible for us to properly evaluate the efficacy of our program without the use of real-world performance metrics. We understand your concerns about sharing private data with outside contractors; however…”

Stojko shot Ramsey a pointed look.

“I’ll spare you the rest; it goes on like that for three pages. See, we’ve been asking for the data we need for six years now–pretty much since we started. And every time we ask, you throw more money at us and tell us to go back to work, that you’re not going to share your numbers with us because they’re confidential and we shouldn’t need that information anyway.”

She tapped a few more keys.

“Here’s another similar one. September 30th: Dear Mr. Chauahan, the consortium is at a loss to understand…”

“Enough!” yelled Ramsey, slamming his fist down on the desk. “I get the point! We’ve spent a quarter of a billion buying you new toys to play with, and all the while you’ve been playing us for idiots. Well, you know what–enjoy your toys while they last, because we’re going to have Legal look at our options for recovering that money first thing Monday morning. Those fancy new scanners of yours are going away.”

He wheeled his chair away from Stojko and sat there fuming. Stojko took it as a sign the meeting was over; she shrugged and got up to leave.

The falling out was unfortunate, she thought as she walked down the long sterile corridor towards the elevator. But it had been a long time coming, and after the whole Babygate episode (as the scientists at ICNR had started calling it), no one at ICNR would be surprised to hear that P&G was pulling the plug.

Nor would most of them mind terribly much. Stojko had always planned for a six or seven-year run, and had stopped hiring people on short-term contracts a couple of years ago. There would be no massive lay-offs, no collective plunge into obscurity for the many researchers invested in the project. The data was already collected, and she and her colleagues would be kept busy analyzing and publishing the results for years to come.

As for Ramsey’s legal threats, Stojko wasn’t the least bit worried. Universities had lawyers too, and there wasn’t a judge in the country who’d award P&G a single nickel for breach of contract; not after reading the long series of emails from the consortium that already explained in excruciating detail exactly why P&G was never going to recoup its financial investment unless it fundamentally changed the way it did things. Which, of course, hadn’t happened–and probably never would.

Stojko left Pockter and Gramble headquarters with a clear conscience. At the end of the day, she thought as she walked to her car, all you could do was represent yourself honestly to the other party and let the chips fall where they may. And that was what she’d done. She’d told P&G all along exactly how the consortium was going to spend the money they received; the service agreements she signed were very clearly delineated in legalese that several lawyers on the institutional payroll had contributed to and pored over. Stojko and her colleagues had worked hard to ensure that no one at P&G was laboring under false pretenses about the likely outcome of ICNR’s work. As she’d once put it to a mid-level P&G executive over dinner, neuromarketing research was great for science, and (in her estimation) utterly useless for advertising. But if the suits were willing to pay for it, she was willing to do the research. That, after all, was her job; it was what she’d be doing with her time anyway, ICNR or no ICNR.

No, she thought, turning the key in the ignition. She’d been right to take the industry money; ICNR had conducted itself impeccably over the past six years. If someone insisted on filling your cup up with change even after you very carefully explained to them that you were only going to buy beer with it, who could blame you for paying a visit to the bar once panhandling hours were over?