It’s a collection of short stories. 18 of them, to be exact. Some of them (3 of them, to be exact) have been previously posted here (specifically, this one, this one, and this one). The other 15 have appeared nowhere. The stories are about all kinds of things (meteorologists on a murderous planet; grocery store employees staging a revolt; a series of dreams about flies; etc. etc.), but the common theme is that they’re all absurd to some degree. In the absurdist fiction sense, not in the “what the fuck did I just read” sense—though I admit there may be some overlap.
Anyway, if you like any of those 3 stories I linked to above (particularly the first), you’ll probably like this collection. And if you don’t like any of them, you probably aren’t going to like this collection. Which is totally fine; I realize that very short surrealist/absurdist fiction (most of these stories are between 1,500 and 3,000 words) isn’t most people’s cup of tea. Don’t worry, my feelings won’t be hurt—I barely have any to begin with.
But if you do want to read this book (yay!), you have two options. Option the first is to buy either a Kindle eBook or a paperback from Amazon. These will set you back $2.99 and $4.99, respectively (or roughly the same amount in other currencies, from other countries’ Amazon portals). Short story writing isn’t exactly a lucrative gig even if you’re good at it (which I probably am not), and I have a full-time job that comfortably pays all my bills, so I’m not selling this on Amazon for money; I’m selling it on Amazon to be taken slightly more seriously (yes, I realize that on the Great Ladder of Seriousness, vanity publishing your book on Amazon is only like the second rung off the floor, but still). All proceeds from my Amazon book sales will be donated to the ACLU. This way you can feel good about yourself as you fork over your hard-earned cash for a book you probably won’t finish, and you’ll still give me the warm fuzzy feeling (I lied, I do have them) that someone out there actually cares to read my writing.
Option the second is for people who for any reason don’t want to buy the book on Amazon (you can’t afford it, you hate Amazon, you think the ACLU is a tool of Satan, you don’t want to encourage me any further… these are all perfectly valid reasons). If this is you, just email me and ask for a copy, and I’ll send you back a PDF, no questions asked. I will probably ask you to give a small amount of money to a charity of your choice if and when you can afford it, but obviously, that’s at your discretion—I lack the capacity to stick my head through your screen and shake it at you sadly until you guiltily pony up a few bucks for cancer or the rainforest or whatever. Though, come to think of it, that’s not a bad premise for an absurdist short story. Maybe in the next collection.
A piece of short fiction very loosely inspired by the development of GPT-3. 100% human-authored.
Tropic of Zamza was one of the better novels Vela Hirasawa had proxywritten this quarter. It was the fourth book in her Zamza series, and also the sixth in her Explorations of Tarnasia docuvolumes. Stylistically, it mostly resembled the previous Zamza novels—which is to say, it was written in a style that fused Garcia Marquez and Henry Miller, with a splash of the famous (now retired) proxywriter, RevalationZ. As proxywritten novels went, this one represented a particularly large investment of time and money. It had taken Vela over 20,000 cloud-hours to generate the initial text to her specifications, and another ten days of manual effort to fine-tune and edit it to her satisfaction. And for the first time in her career, she’d licensed the use—albeit sparingly—of the new state-of-the-art Neural Transcriptor model, instead of relying solely on the 12th-generation AGPT architecture she knew and loved so well.
Now, Vela stood on stage at the Center for Literary Commentary, waiting to find out what the world—or at least, the relevant subset of the world—thought of her novel. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for review. Once she released the novel, she’d have five to ten minutes to gauge the reaction in the room from the on-board aggregator. Then the questions would begin.
Strange that I still get nervous, she thought. She’d done it a good forty or forty-five times now. But then, one never really got used to LitComm, did they? Relaxing around the proxycritics was an excellent way to have one’s writing career cut short. Vela had no interest in returning to her former career in proxyad design. Proud as she was of the work she’d done on the Nike Icarus account—the ad campaign that New York Magazine had once dubbed, in something of a puff piece, “a turning point in advertising”—she liked to think her novels would be her real legacy.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the chief critic said. Vela nodded. She pulled up Tropic of Zamza on her phone and swiped right, releasing Zamza’s fourth installment into the wild. Then she waited.
Thirty seconds after release, the board began to light up. There were at least two hundred critics in the audience today, Vela observed, probably including a good ten or fifteen speedreaders. Vela had never fully made peace with the idea that her livelihood depended in part on completely algorithmic book reviews. But she’d stopped objecting out loud once her first LitComm check arrived. Now, the first reviews of the new novel were no doubt already rolling out on the internet—and with any luck, so too were the sales.
* * *
Book Review: Tropic of Zamza
Tropic of Zamza is a 332-page novel published under the Guild LitComm imprint and written by award-winning proxywriter Vela Hirasawa, author of 382 previous works of mass-market proxyfiction, including the Monthly Booker Prize semifinalist, In Venice Motor. The novel is estimated at a full 8% human-authored content. Our Zeitghost™ model assigns it the following genres: 33% historical fiction; 23% magical realism (category A); 18% crime fiction; 16% other or indeterminate. Alternative categorizations following the Richler and J. Ghosh ontologies may be found in Appendix I.
Initial rating is 81, but confidence in this judgment is unusually low (95% prediction interval: 16 to 98), likely due to unconventional stylistic or plot elements that require further analysis. Application of the Liu canonicity detection algorithm returns a score of only 2, supporting this conclusion. Proxyreaders with low risk tolerance are encouraged to delay their purchase of this novel, pending a more detailed content analysis to follow shortly (estimated publication time: 16:31 EST).
—ZeitGhost™ SpeedReviews: Fiction
* * *
Vela watched the sparklines squiggle their way across the board. Below it, a histogram updated itself in real-time as reviews came in. There were thirteen now. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixt-seventeen…twenty.
The early reception was mostly positive, Vela noted with some satisfaction. The board showed a score of 7.1. Not great, but not bad. About what she’d expected. There was always some risk involved in releasing a sequel at LitComm—and this one was more derivative than most, Vela conceded to herself. The more conservative proxyreaders appreciated the comfort of familiarity, but the reward was modest, and the novelty-seekers hated any hint of repetition. The latter were gaining ground at LitComm. Even if things went well today, Vela knew she’d have to retire Zamza in another two or three novels at most.
On the board, the sparklines suddenly plunged as the second wave of reviews arrived. The speedreaders would have finished their evaluations by now, Vela realized. The incoming wave would be made up mostly of criticalists and predictivists. She’d done well with them the last few times out, but the criticalists were fickle; they were swayed by the flavor of the month in academic post-proxyist theory. And the predictivists… well, their judgments had more to do with market conditions than with literature. Most of them would happily blacklist a novel by Frances goddamn Sitakis herself if they thought it could sway the prediction markets.
The score kept dropping, and an unfamiliar anxiety began to gnaw at Vela. What are they saying? she wondered.
* * *
Book review: Tropic of Zamza
Tropic of Zamza is a dark book. Dark, dark, dark. That’s about as much as I can reveal about the plot—if one can even call it that. It’s unclear why Hirasawa—an accomplished writer with a solid pedigree in both advertising and mass market fiction—chose this particular moment in time to chart a radically different course for herself. There have, to be sure, been prior departures of this nature; who can forget the scandal DeLoris caused by introducing an invisibility cloak, as a major plot device, to an otherwise conventional work of Renaissance-period historical fiction? But such stunts are typically undertaken by novices aspiring to make themselves a name, not experts looking to ruin one.
The book begins with… [1250 additional words omitted]
—Victoria Terlinsky (@LiteRateUr)
* * *
By the time the reading period was over, six minutes and thirty seconds after release, Tropic of Zamza had plunged from the early score of 7—a number that would have all but guaranteed a minimum of ten million copies sold, and roughly where Vela had optimistically hoped to end the day—to a 3.2.
An utter disaster, Vela thought, feeling the gravity of the situation tug at her gut. The lowest review she’d received since making it to LitComm, bar none. The kind of rating that would almost certainly send her back to the proxyads unless she could turn things around during the Q&A period.
She watched the board order the questioners, the familiar names of critics gradually congealing on the giant overhead glass. First on the list was John Omura. Vela relaxed slightly. Omura was the epitome of a centrist; he rarely awarded scores above 8 or below 5. And Vela had received far more of the former than the latter from Omura; the thought had crossed Vela’s mind before that perhaps Omura was favorably disposed towards her on account of their shared Japanese heritage. Whatever the reason for it, Vela thought, in her current position, she would happily take any favoritism she could get.
Her optimism was misplaced.
“We did not like this novel,” Omura said, leaning into the microphone. He has very long arms, Vela observed, not for the first time.
“Stylistically, it parses well, Ms. Hirasawa. We believe you pay homage to Henry Miller. That much is okay with us. But the content represents a marked departure from expectations; It deviates not only from your previous work, but also from the precis you submitted in advance of this meeting. We know you have been proxywriting for a long time, Ms. Hirasawa; when you began, it was customary to make heavy use of the element of surprise. But the fashion has changed. Now, subtlety is more highly valued. We do not think that many proxyreaders will enjoy what you do in this book. A sudden twist of this magnitude… Frankly, we are disappointed. The overall rating is a 2.”
Gasps came from around the room.
Vela stared at the critic, bewildered. What did Omura mean, a sudden twist? There was no twist to speak of in Tropic of Zamza. If there was anything at all to distinguish the book from her previous novels, it was how little actually happened. Tropic was very much a character study, whereas the previous installments—most notably, Cedric Zamza’s Lost Fortnight—had occasionally strayed into swashbuckling adventure territory.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Is this performance art, Ms. Hirasawa? What is there to not understand? I did not appreciate your little joke. From the looks of the board, neither did most of my colleagues.”
“But,” Vela objected, “but you loved the last Zamza novel. You praised “the smoothly flowing dialogue, the intricately crafted plot, and the fascinating love triangle”. You called it a landmark of the microgenre. You gave it a score of 8, which, as everyone in the room knows, is everyone else’s 10. If we look at the Turolev prediction for your proxyreview”—she pointed to the small numbers on the board, just below the words JOHN OMURA: 2—”we see a 6.8, with a 1-point margin of error. A 2 is an inexplicably large deviation. So large I question the sincerity of your review.”
Omura didn’t flinch, but his cheeks turned visibly red at the last comment. His posture stiffened and straightened, as if he were being pulled skyward by a crane.
“Ms. Hirasawa, your behavior here is an affront to LitComm. I assure you that my review is completely sincere. My concerns lie entirely with the hearts and minds of the citizens of our nation. On an average day, a typical American proxyreads about 80 novels—yet in the same day, over 60,000 new novels are released. Our job here at LitComm is to safeguard our citizens’ psyches. To educate, entertain, and enlighten, as the saying goes. Your work does none of these things. Quite the opposite.”
“But the Turolev prediction,” Vela insisted. “It can’t be that far—”
“The Turolev prediction model, as you doubtlessly know, Ms. Hirasawa, is trained on a finite corpus of novels previously submitted for LitComm review. I can state with some measure of confidence that no LitComm author in good standing has previously submitted for our consideration a novel in which the main character is murdered in cold blood, with no explanation, and without so much as a hint of foreshadowing, two-thirds of the way through the book.
A murmur went through the audience at this revelation. Many of the critics hadn’t yet manually read enough of the novel—or even of their own proxywritten reviews—to dig up this rather salient nugget of information.
Omura, for his part, kept on talking. But Vela heard none of it; she heard only Omura’s words echoing through her head: the main character, murdered in cold blood.
That’s not right, she thought. That can’t be right. There’s no way I did that. I can’t have.
Blood rushing in her veins, Vela pulled up her LitComm submissions folder. She scanned down the list until she came to a subfolder named Tropic of Zamza, and noted with dismay that it wasn’t highlighted in red. She hadn’t submitted it for review.
Immediately below Tropic of Zamza, however—in type that glowed a brilliant blood red—was another folder titled Tropic of Zamza the Zamzarian: Being The Late Night Novelistic Ramblings of A ProxyWriter Undergoing Some Things FOR PRIVATE USE ONLY — DO NOT SUBMIT.
Vela collapsed against the podium, and all hell broke loose in the great hall.
* * *
Book review: Tropic of Zamza
Tropic of Zamza is only a book. It contains many words—92,581 of them, to be exact—but it is, mercifully, only a book. Being only a book, it lacks the capacity to physically injure you. You should remind yourself of this fact regularly, in the event that you make the horrible mistake of reading it.
Tropic of Zamza is, I hasten to clarify, not exactly a terrible book. Being merely terrible would be a considerable improvement. Tropic of Zamza is inexplicably bad—with any amount of emphasis you care to place on inexplicable. Few things make as little sense to me as this novel. Even calling it a novel is generous. It’s a work of prose seemingly written with the express purpose of infuriating the reader. For the first 260 pages, it’s a decent enough bit of proxywritten popcorn. Your proxyreader won’t even notice it’s reading. If you’ve read any of the previous Zamza novels, it may not even notice it’s sleeping. There’s a dull but not entirely unpleasant tedium to the first 260 pages: characters get married, shoot each other, and get divorced—sometimes in that order. Empires rise and fall in the blink of an eye—well, one empire, and to be fair, it’s a very large eye. This book is bog-standard mid-decade Fiefdom Americana. It drags on in places, and by page 260, your proxyreader might be feeling a bit restless. But for all that, the experience is, according to my proxyreader, not wholly unpleasant.
But then a bizarre thing happens. I don’t normally divulge critical plot elements in my book reviews, but I’ll make an exception in this case, because I want to make sure you never feel any urge to read this book. On page 261, the protagonist—by which I mean, the main character; the person the whole book is about, or so you thought, until page 261—is senselessly and brutally murdered by robots. I use the word “senselessly” in its rawest, most literal sense: there is exactly zero connection between this event and anything that came before it. I also use the word “brutally” in its literal sense: the robots tear the protagonist apart, piece by piece. There is a grotesque, drawn out, three-page description of the precise sequence of tearing. Once the tearing is completed, the robots disappear. No explanation is given as to where they came from or where they’ve departed to. There are no other robots in the story either before or after the murder of Cedric Zamza. There are no high technologists, mad scientists, or artificial intelligences to blame for this break with reality. Even the very use of robots is anachronistic; outside of this one anomalous event, the level of technology on display throughout the novel is roughly Victorian in its sophistication.
No effort is made to reconcile or explain this series of events. After the murder, the book continues on for another 70 unapologetic pages, the last 40 of which describe the protagonist’s funeral in excruciating detail, including a comprehensive catalog of all the things the people who’ve come to pay their respects to the protagonist say to each other in their moment of desolation. This part of the book might actually be the part I like most—if one can describe temporarily regaining the will to exist as “liking”—because it adopts the style of the inimitable pre-proxy Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia-Marquez; which is to say, all of the funeral dialogue—involving some eighteen or twenty people—is written as a single glorious, uninterrupted sentence.
I cannot recommend Tropic of Zamza to most proxyreaders. It is a disturbing novel with no redeeming qualities; if you find yourself short on reading material, I would suggest feeding your proxyreader pictures of cereal boxes instead. I give it a CommStar rating of 2/10. I would have given it a lower score if I could–perhaps even a negative one—but my proxyreader thought the book had several redeeming qualities. And since I write over 50 reviews every day, and can’t possibly be expected to proofread my own reviews, let alone make sure that none of the words they contain deviate from my philistine sensibilities—sensibilities that lack any capacity whatsoever to appreciate a third-order Gibsonian narrative twist, or several layers of self-referential satire, or character development so delicate and refined it frankly deserves to henceforth be called Hirasawan—since I can’t be expected to read my own reviews, I shouldn’t be surprised when my proxywriter takes matters into its own hands, and just for once, just for one brief shining moment in its miserable, lonely existence, writes a review that speaks truth to power. I shouldn’t be surprised; I shouldn’t be surprised; I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m a puny human who deserves what I get. I’m never going to read this review I will momentarily sign my name to, and neither will you. Oh how I long for sweet oblivion.
“What’s the earliest memory you have of your father,” Baruch asks me. He’s leaning over the counter in his shop, performing surgery on an iPhone battery with a screwdriver.
“I don’t have any memories of my father,” I say.
Baruch drops his scalpel. “No memories,” he lets out a low whistle. “Nothing? No good or bad ones at all? Not a single trauma? You know, even the people who at first say they don’t remember anything can usually come up with a good trauma memory with a little encouragement.”
“No trauma,” I tell him very seriously. “No birthdays, no spankings, no deaths in the family, no trips to Disney World. Just, no memories. Believe me, other people would have gotten them out by now if they could. They’ve tried.”
What I tell him is true. My father passed away of lung cancer when I was nine years old. He never smoked a cigarette in his life, but the cancer picked him for its team anyway. I know what he looked like from hundreds of photos and a few videos, and people tell me stories about what he was like now and then. But I have no memories of him from inside my own head. Nine-year-old me locked his dead father away in a vault. Then locked that vault inside another vault. And then, just for good measure, he put the key in a bottle and threw it out to sea. Not the best thought-out plan, admittedly; but then, nine year-olds are not legally kept away from alcohol, guns, and voting booths on account of their good judgment.
Baruch eyes me carefully, stabs the iPhone with the screwdriver. He’s not even trying to avoid scratching the casing. “Yours is a very serious case,” he says. “I only see maybe two or three cases like yours a year. I can’t promise I can help you. But I’ll try. Did you bring the things on my list?”
I nod and put the things on the table. There’s a green t-shirt, a set of blueprints, and a TDK cassette tape. The tape contains some audio recordings of my father talking to business associates in other countries. The shirt says “Mombasa” on it—that’s where I spent the first fourteen years of my life, and where my father spent the last third of his. He used to wear that shirt.
The blueprints are for a house in Caesarea, Israel. My father was a civil engineer, and when he wasn’t building things for other people, he used to talk about the house he would eventually build for himself to retire in. The house in the blueprints is beautiful; it’s shaped like the conch shells I used to pick up on the beach in Mombasa as a kid. I’ve never seen a house like it. And I probably won’t now, because he passed away before the first block of the foundations could be laid. Eventually, a couple of years after he passed, my mother sold the land.
The items on Baruch’s table are the last of my father’s remaining possessions. Aside from all the photos trapped in albums at my mother’s house, and the fading memories in a few dozen people’s heads, they represent most of the evidence left in this world that a man named Gideon Yarkoni ever existed.
Baruch looks at the objects carefully. He unfolds my father’s shirt and holds it up in front of the incandescent light bulb above us; runs his fingers over the fine lines of the blueprint; pulls an old Sony Walkman out of a drawer and listens to the first few seconds of side A through headphones the size of trash can lids. He touches everything very lightly, patiently—almost as if he expects my father to tap him on the shoulder at any moment and say, I’m sorry, but this is my stuff you’re messing with—do you mind?
“It’s not great,” Baruch finally says with a sigh. “But I guess it’ll do.”
He pulls out a calculator and punches a number into it, then turns it around to show me. I mull it over quietly for a few moments, then nod at him and shake his hand. It’s a lot of money to pay; but then, it’s not often one gets an opportunity like this one.
Three months later, I’m back in the shop for the procedure. Baruch has me strapped to a gurney that looks like it was borrowed from a Russian prison camp circa nineteen-forty-Stalin. I try to have second thoughts, but they take one look at the situation and flee in terror.
“Did you have anything to eat today,” Baruch asks me as he snaps on a pair of impossibly blue gloves.
“Yes. I followed your instructions and ate a full breakfast. Toast and smoked salmon. Some avocado. Orange juice.”
“What about the stroopwafel? Did you eat the stroopwafel?”
“Oh yes,” I say, remembering the stroopwafel Baruch sent in the mail. “I forgot. I ate the stroopwafel.”
“And… it was good?” I’m not sure exactly what he’s expecting.
“Excellent,” he says. “The stroopwafel is the most underrated of all the wafels.”
Then he reaches forward and turns out my lights.
When I come to, I’m lying in a cheap bed in a dark room. I feel completely normal; almost as if I’d just had a power nap, rather than undergoing serious brain surgery.
I’m about to get up to go find Baruch when I realize I’m not alone in the room. There’s another man here with me. He’s very large and very hairy; I watch him for a few moments. He paces around the room restlessly for a while, stops, lights a cigarette. The he notices me noticing him.
“What the fuck are you looking at,” he says, and picks up something that looks suspiciously like a crowbar. I suddenly realize that this is him: this is my father. It seems the surgery was a success; I’m having a memory.
Over the next few days, I slowly adjust to the renewed presence of my father in my life. Well, “presence” might not be exactly the right word. My father is now present in my memories in roughly the same way that Americans were “present” on the beach in Normandy. It’s a full-scale invasion. He’s everywhere all the time; everything reminds me of him. When I see a broom, I immediately cower in fear, expecting to feel it across my back. When I enter the house, I duck to avoid being hit by a tennis ball or—at least once—a tennis racket. I can no longer drink a beer without being impaled by a vision of my father throwing up in the kitchen—and, in nearly the same breath, asking me to hand him another beer.
Of all the surprises, the biggest one is this: my father smokes like a chimney. In my newfound memories, cigarettes are everywhere: they pop out of his mouth, hang off his shirt, hide behind his ear. His shirt looks like it was sewed from empty cigarette cartons; his breath smells like an abyss of black smoke and stale filters.
Too late, I realize that 9 year-old me wasn’t an idiot child after all, impulsively rushing to slam shut the painful trapdoor of memory; he was actually a creative genius exercising masterful control over his internal mnemonic canvas.
By the fourth or fifth day, I can no longer stand it. I need to understand why I’ve been lied to for so long; why my entire family decided it was okay to tell me that my father was a good man and a successful civil engineer, when really he was a raging, chain-smoking, alcoholic brute who could barely hold down a construction job for a month at a time.
I call my mother up. We make small talk for a few minutes before I get to the point. Why, I ask her, didn’t you ever tell me my father was an abusive alcoholic? Don’t you think I deserved to know the truth?
There’s a soft choking sound at the other end of the line, and I realize that my mother’s quietly sobbing.
“Look, I didn’t mean to upset you,” I say, though I’m still angry with her. “I just don’t understand why you’d lie to me about something like this. All this time you’ve told me dad was this amazing guy, when we both know he was a feral animal with a two-pack-a-day habit who used to beat the shit out of both of us. I don’t know how you put up with him for so many years. Were you afraid to leave?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” my mother says, sobbing. “Why would you make up a thing like that? Your father hardly ever drank, and the closest he ever came to beating you was threatening you with a broom to get you to take a shower. He would be ashamed of you for saying things like this. I’m ashamed of you. I’m going to hang up now. Please don’t call me again unless it’s to apologize for being a total asshole.”
She doesn’t hang up immediately; instead, she waits silently for a few seconds, as if she’s giving me a chance to apologize right now. But I don’t apologize, because why should I? My mother deserves an Oscar for her performance. After twenty-six years of blanks, I finally have crystal-clear memories of my father. It’s not my fault that he’s threatening to separate my sternum from my clavicles in most of them.
In the morning, I put on my shoes and go down to Baruch’s shop. When I explain the situation to him, he doesn’t crack wise. Instead, he looks concerned.
“I told you the procedure might not work very well,” he says cautiously.
I tell him that, on the contrary, it seems to have worked too well; there’s now no detail of my father’s appearance or behavior too small for me to avoid reliving over and over. Everything from his mastery of obscure Hungarian expletives to the construction grime he seemingly saved up under his fingernails all day just so he could share it with me when he got home.
“It’s almost like he’s standing here right now next to me,” I tell Baruch. “Berating me for not bringing in the lawnmower, or cuffing me across the neck for getting him the wrong beer from the fridge.”
Baruch asks if I can actually remember my family ever owning a lawnmower.
“Of course not,” I say in exasperation. “I grew up in a small expatriate community in East Africa in the 1980s; there were no lawnmowers there. For god’s sake, we didn’t even have broadcast television.”
Baruch nods and pulls up something on his computer. His eyes scan left to right, then repeat. Then they do it again, like he’s reading the same line, over and over.
“I see your problem,” he finally says slowly, turning the screen to show me. “Right there, you see. Here’s your order. Yarkoni, Tal. Zero Recall. twenty-six years dark. That’s you. And right here, just below you, is an order for a guy named Hal Zamboni. 20/400 recall; eight years dark.”
What follows is one of those proverbial moments when you can hear a pin drop. Except it isn’t a moment; it’s more like a good two minutes, during which I just stand there motionless and stare deeply into Baruch’s corneas. I imagine Baruch must also be experiencing a moment that feels like eternity; at the very least, I hope he’s seeing his life flash before his eyes.
“They are quite similar names,” Baruch says apologetically in response to my smoldering stare. It’s quite an understandable mistake, he assures me; it could have happened to anyone. In fact, it’s already happened to him twice before—which, he points out, only goes to show how unusual it is, considering that he’s operated successfully on at least sixty people.
“Well, fifty-eight,” he says, “if you exclude the… oh, nevermind.”
I ask Baruch when we can schedule a time for me to come in for a correction.
“What exactly do you mean by correction,” he says, backing away from the counter nervously.
Three days later, I knock on the front door of a house on the far side of town, in a solidly middle-class, suburban neighborhood—the kind where everyone knows everyone else by name, but isn’t entirely sure if that’s a good thing.
Hal Zamboni opens the door and shakes my hand. He seems apologetic as he greets me. Or maybe he’s just nervous; I don’t know. I mean, how are you supposed to interact with someone who you know has the misfortune of re-experiencing every aspect of your own traumatic childhood on a daily basis?
“I had a bit of a breakdown,” Zamboni confesses after we’ve sat down inside and he’s lit up a cigarette—holding it in exactly the same way as his late, abusive father. “When Baruch called me up yesterday to tell me about the mix-up, I just lost it. I mean, you can imagine what it’s like. Here I am, going through life with these very faint memories of a father who was an absolute brute; a guy who would beat the shit out of me over nothing, over absolutely nothing… and then one morning I wake up with beautiful, crystal-clear memories of a very different father–a guy who used to take me out for an enormous brunch at some luxury beach resort every Sunday. This guy who puts a giant omelette on my plate and grins at me and asks me what I’m learning in school.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. And I really am. For both of us.
“The weird thing is,” Zamboni says, “the worst part of it wasn’t even realizing that these memories were someone else’s. It was realizing that I had had such a fucked up childhood. I mean, you know, I always knew my dad was kind of a savage. But I didn’t realize how much better other people had it. Compared to my father, yours was a saint. Do you know what that feels like?”
“No,” I say simply. There’s nothing else to say, really; over the past week, I’ve come to realize how little I actually understand about the human condition. So we just sit there on Zamboni’s porch quietly. He smokes cigarette after cigarette, I drink my beer, and we both watch the endless string of cars roll down the narrow street like an angry centipede.
[Editorial note: The people and events described here are fictional. But the paper in question is quite real.]
“Dearly Beloved,” The Graduate Student began. “We are gathered here to–”
“Again?” Samantha interrupted. “Again with the Dearly Beloved speech? Can’t we just start a meeting like a normal journal club for once? We’re discussing papers here, not holding a funeral.”
“We will discuss papers,” said The Graduate Student indignantly. “In good time. But first, we have to follow the rules of Great Minds Journal Club. There’s a protocol, you know.”
Samantha was about to point out that she didn’t know, because The Graduate Student was the sole author of the alleged rules, and the alleged rules had a habit of changing every week. But she was interrupted by the sound of the double doors at the back of the room swinging violently inwards.
“Sorry I’m late,” said Jin, strolling into the room, one hand holding what looked like a large bucket of coffee with a lid on top. “What are we reading today?”
“Nothing,” said Lionel. “The reading has already happened. What we’re doing now is discussing the paper that everyone’s already read.”
“Right, right,” said Jin. “What I meant to ask was: what paper that we’ve all already read are we discussing today?”
“Statistically controlling for confounding constructs is harder than you think,” said The Graduate Student.
“I doubt it,” said Jin. “I think almost everything is intolerably difficult.”
“Do I work here… Hah. Funny man. Remember, Lionel… I’ll be on your tenure committee in the Fall.”
“Why don’t we get started,” said The Graduate Student, eager to prevent a full-out sarcastathon. “I guess we can do our standard thing where Samantha and I describe the basic ideas and findings, talk about how great the paper is, and suggest some possible extensions… and then Jin and Lionel tear it to shreds.”
“Sounds good,” said Jin and Lionel in concert.
“The basic problem the authors highlight is pretty simple,” said Samantha. “It’s easy to illustrate with an example. Say you want to know if eating more bacon is associated with a higher incidence of colorectal cancer–like that paper that came out a while ago suggested. In theory, you could just ask people how often they eat bacon and how often they get cancer, and then correlate the two. But suppose you find a positive correlation–what can you conclude?”
“Not much,” said Pablo–apparently in a talkative mood. It was the first thing he’d said to anyone all day–and it was only 3 pm.
“Right. It’s correlational data,” Samantha continued. “Nothing is being experimentally manipulated here, so we have no idea if the bacon-cancer correlation reflects the effect of bacon itself, or if there’s some other confounding variable that explains the association away.”
“Like, people who exercise less tend to eat more bacon, and exercise also prevents cancer,” The Graduate Student offered.
“Or it could be a general dietary thing, and have nothing to do with bacon per se,” said Jin. “People who eat a lot of bacon also have all kinds of other terrible dietary habits, and it’s really the gestalt of all the bad effects that causes cancer, not any one thing in particular.”
“Or maybe,” suggested Pablo, “a sneaky parasite unknown to science invades the brain and the gut. It makes you want to eat bacon all the time. Because bacon is its intermediate host. And then it also gives you cancer. Just to spite you.”
“Right, it could be any of those things.” Samantha said. “Except for maybe that last one. The point is, there are many potential confounds. If we want to establish that there’s a ‘real’ association between bacon and cancer, we need to somehow remove the effect of other variables that could be correlated with both bacon-eating and cancer-having. The traditional way to do this is to statistical “control for” or “hold constant” the effects of confounding variables. The idea is that you adjust the variables in your regression equation so that you’re essentially asking what would the relationship between bacon and cancer look like if we could eliminate the confounding influence of things like exercise, diet, alcohol, and brain-and-gut-eating parasites? It’s a very common move, and the logic of statistical control is used to justify a huge number of claims all over the social and biological sciences.”
“I just published a paper showing that brain activation in frontoparietal regions predicts people’s economic preferences even after controlling for self-reported product preferences,” said Jin. “Please tell me you’re not going to shit all over my paper. Is that where this is going?”
“It is,” said Lionel gleefully. “That’s exactly where this is going.”
“It’s true,” Samantha said apologetically. “But if it’s any consolation, we’re also going to shit on Lionel’s finding that implicit prejudice is associated with voting behavior after controlling for explicit attitudes.”
“That’s actually pretty consoling,” said Jin, smiling at Lionel.
“So anyway, statistical control is pervasive,” Samantha went on. “But there’s a problem: statistical control–at least the way people typically do it–is a measurement-level technique. Meaning, when you control for the rate of alcohol use in a regression of cancer on bacon, you’re not really controlling for alcohol use. What you’re actually controlling for is just one particular operationalization of alcohol use–which probably doesn’t cover the entire construct, and is also usually measured with some error.”
“Could you maybe give an example,” asked Pablo. He was the youngest in the group, being only a second-year graduate student. (The Graduate Student, by contrast, had been in the club for so long that his real name had long ago been forgotten by the other members of the GMJC.)
“Sure,” said The Graduate Student. “Suppose your survey includes an item like ‘how often do you consume alcoholic beverages’, and the response options include things like never, less than once a month, I’m never not consuming alcoholic beverages, and so on. Now, people are not that great at remembering exactly how often they have a drink–especially the ones who tend to have a lot of drinks. On top of that, there’s a stigma against drinking a lot, so there’s probably going to be some degree of systematic underreporting. All of this contrives to give you a measure that’s less than perfectly reliable–meaning, it won’t give you the same values that you would get if you could actually track people for an extended period of time and accurately measure exactly how much ethanol they consume, by volume. In many, many cases, measured covariates of this kind are pretty mediocre.”
“I see,” said Pablo. “That makes sense. So why is that a problem?”
“Because you can’t control for that which you aren’t measuring,” Samantha said. “Meaning, if your alleged measure of alcohol consumption–or any other variable you care about–isn’t measuring the thing you care about with perfect accuracy, then you can’t remove its influence on other things. It’s easiest to see this if you think about the limiting case where your measurements are completely unreliable. Say you think you’re measuring weekly hours of exercise, but actually your disgruntled research assistant secretly switched out the true exercise measure for randomly generated values. When you then control for the alleged ‘exercise’ variable in your model, how much of the true influence of exercise are you removing?”
“None,” said Pablo.
“Right. Your alleged measure of exercise doesn’t actually reflect anything about exercise, so you’re accomplishing nothing by controlling for it. The same exact point holds–to varying degrees–when your measure is somewhat reliable, but not perfect. Which is to say, pretty much always.”
“You could also think about the same general issue in terms of construct validity,” The Graduate Student chimed in. “What you’re typically trying to do by controlling for something is account for a latent construct or concept you care about–not a specific measure. For example, the latent construct of a “healthy diet” could be measured in many ways. You could ask people how much broccoli they eat, how much sugar or transfat they consume, how often they eat until they can’t move, and so on. If you surveyed people with a lot of different items like this, and then extracted the latent variance common to all of them, then you might get a component that could be interpreted as something like ‘healthy diet’. But if you only use one or two items, they’re going to be very noisy indicators of the construct you care about. Which means you’re not really controlling for how healthy people’s diet is in your model relating bacon to cancer. At best, you’re controlling for, say, self-reported number of vegetables eaten. But there’s a very powerful temptation for authors to forget that caveat, and to instead think that their measurement-level conclusions automatically apply at the construct level. The result is that you end up with a huge number of papers saying things like ‘we show that fish oil promotes heart health even after controlling for a range of dietary and lifestyle factors’. When in fact the measurement-level variables they’ve controlled for can’t help but capture only a tiny fraction of all of the dietary and lifestyle factors that could potentially confound the association you care about.”
“I see,” said Pablo. “But this seems like a pretty basic point, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Lionel. “It’s a problem as old as time itself. It might even be older than Jin.”
Jin smiled at Lionel and tipped her coffee cup-slash-bucket towards him slightly in salute.
“In fairness to the authors,” said The Graduate Student, “they do acknowledge that essentially the same problem has been discussed in many literatures over the past few decades. And they cite some pretty old papers. Oldest one is from… 1965. Kahneman, 1965.”
An uncharacteristic silence fell over the room.
“That Kahneman?” Jin finally probed.
“The one and only.”
“Fucking Kahneman,” said Lionel. “That guy could really stand to leave a thing or two for the rest of us to discover.”
“So, wait,” said Jin, evidently coming around to Lionel’s point of view. “These guys cite a 50-year old paper that makes essentially the same argument, and still have the temerity to publish this thing?”
“Yes,” said Samantha and The Graduate Student in unison.
“But to be fair, their presentation is very clear,” Samantha said. “They lay out the problem really nicely–which is more than you can say for many of the older papers. Plus there’s some neat stuff in here that hasn’t been done before, as far as I know.”
“Like what?” asked Lionel.
“There’s a nice framework for analytically computing error rates for any set of simple or partial correlations between two predictors and a DV. And, to save you the trouble of having to write your own code, there’s a Shiny web app.”
“In my day, you couldn’t just write a web app and publish it as a paper,” Jin grumbled. “Shiny or otherwise.”
“That’s because in your day, the internet didn’t exist,” Lionel helpfully offered.
“No internet?” the Graduate Student shrieked in horror. “How old are you, Jin?”
“Old enough to become very wise,” said Jin. “Very, very wise… and very corpulent with federal grant money. Money that I could, theoretically, use to fund–or not fund–a graduate student of my choosing next semester. At my complete discretion, of course.” She shot The Graduate Student a pointed look.
“There’s more,” Samantha went on. “They give some nice examples that draw on real data. Then they show how you can solve the problem with SEM–although admittedly that stuff all builds directly on textbook SEM work as well. And then at the end they go on to do some power calculations based on SEM instead of the standard multiple regression approach. I think that’s new. And the results are… not pretty.”
“How so,” asked Lionel.
“Well. Westfall and Yarkoni suggest that for fairly typical parameter regimes, researchers who want to make incremental validity claims at the latent-variable level–using SEM rather than multiple regression–might be looking at a bare minimum of several hundred participants, and often many thousands, in order to adequately power the desired inference.”
“Ouchie,” said Jin.
“What happens if there’s more than one potential confound?” asked Lionel. “Do they handle the more general multiple regression case, or only two predictors?”
“No, only two predictors,” said The Graduate Student. “Not sure why. Maybe they were worried they were already breaking enough bad news for one day.”
“Could be,” said Lionel. “You have to figure that in an SEM, when unreliability in the predictors is present, the uncertainty is only going to compound as you pile on more covariates–because it’s going to become increasingly unclear how the model should attribute any common variance that the predictor of interest shares with both the DV and at least one other covariate. So whatever power estimates they come up with in the paper for the single-covariate case are probably upper bounds on the ability to detect incremental contributions in the presence of multiple covariates. If you have a lot of covariates–like the epidemiology or nutrition types usually do–and at least some of your covariates are fairly unreliable, things could get ugly really quickly. Who knows what kind of sample sizes you’d need in order to make incremental validity claims about small effects in epi studies where people start controlling for the sun, moon, and stars. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I have no idea.”
“Jesus,” said The Graduate Student. “That would make it almost impossible to isolate incremental contributions in large observational datasets.”
“Correct,” said Lionel.
“The thing I don’t get,” said Samantha, “is that the epidemiologists clearly already know about this problem. Or at least, some of them do. They’ve written dozens of papers about ‘residual confounding’, which is another name for the same problem Westfall and Yarkoni discuss. And yet there are literally thousands of large-sample, observational papers published in prestigious epidemiology, nutrition, or political science journals that never even mention this problem. If it’s such a big deal, why does almost nobody actually take any steps to address it?”
“Ah…” said Jin. “As the senior member of our group, I can probably answer that question best for you. You see, it turns out it’s quite difficult to publish a paper titled After an extensive series of SEM analyses of a massive observational dataset that cost the taxpayer three million dollars to assemble, we still have no idea if bacon causes cancer. Nobody wants to read that paper. You know what paper people do want to read? The one called Look at me, I eat so much bacon I’m guaranteed to get cancer according to the new results in this paper–but I don’t even care, because bacon is so delicious. That’s the paper people will read, and publish, and fund. So that’s the paper many scientists are going to write.”
A second uncharacteristic silence fell over the room.
“Bit of a downer today, aren’t you,” Lionel finally said. “I guess you’re playing the role of me? I mean, that’s cool. It’s a good look for you.”
“Yes,” Jin agreed. “I’m playing you. Or at least, a smarter, more eloquent, and better-dressed version of you.”
“Why don’t we move on,” Samantha interjected before Lionel could re-arm and respond. “Now that we’ve laid out the basic argument, should we try to work through the details and see what we find?”
“Yes,” said Lionel and Jin in unison–and proceeded to tear the paper to shreds.
“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.”
“No. What’s that thing about lies, damned lies, and stat—”
“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.
“And now breathe in! And then repeat several times!”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”