February 21, 2018

Flash Fiction: Impostor Syndrome

The morning fog hadn’t worn off yet the first time it happened. He was in the bathroom, combing his hair. The thought popped into his head. Loudly. Forcefully. That isn’t really your hair. He was so surprised by the sudden thought that had come out of nowhere that he didn’t have time to challenge the idea. His bald pate glared at him in the mirror. On the one hand, he knew it was wrong, but at the same time, he knew it wasn’t. He remembered that he’d been combing his hair just a second ago, but he also remembered that he’d gone bald in his late twenties. He finished getting dressed and headed to the kitchen. On the way, he glanced at the family photos in the hall. Sure enough, he was bald in all of them.

Quick breakfast and he was off to work. As he pulled into the parking lot, the unbidden thought came again. This isn’t really your car. What a strange idea. He clearly remembered buying the new BMW. But he also remembered not being able to get financing and settling for a used car instead. The ancient beater sputtered as he pulled into a parking space. When he got to his office, another alien idea attacked him. This isn’t really your office. He could see his name fading on the door plate. No. He refused to acknowledge the idea. He’d worked hard for that promotion. The office was his, he’d earned it. His name solidified.

Okay. He could fight it. Resist it. He somehow couldn’t make himself panic about it, but he didn’t have to just give in and accept the reality that was trying to impose itself on him. The thought kept coming back all day, but he held it at bay. The junker didn’t want to start, and he barely made it home in time for dinner. He made normal small talk and did normal things, and couldn’t make himself say anything about the strange thoughts that kept trying to force their way into his mind. Then another one came. These aren’t really your children. His two little boys started to fade. They didn’t notice, and neither did his wife.

He concentrated. My children. Mine. He focused on them. Remembered holding them as infants. Staying up late to comfort them through teething pains. First steps and first days of school. He refused to let them be taken from him.

The boys solidified. The invasive ideas changed tack. This isn’t really your house. For a moment, he thought he was in a grimy apartment instead of his home. But he had a whole day’s practice now, and he pushed back. Filled his mind with memories of plumbing repairs and mortgage payments and filling out address cards.

The ideas backed off. He started to think it was over. He got ready for bed. Joined his wife in the bedroom. That isn’t your wife. He fought the idea. Remembered anniversaries, birthdays, romantic weekends.

That isn’t your wife, the idea repeated. He had learned to fight back, but so had the invader. It tainted his memories. He remembered arguments. He remembered long periods of loneliness. Some were his fault. Most were his fault. Times he’d let the bond between them grow slack in the name of getting ahead at work. Times when he’s been jealous of new friends or old friends. Some were her fault, sure; she hadn’t always appreciated his needs or known how to be what he needed. The idea even threw his children back at him, forcing him to dwell on those long months when they’d both poured so much of their love into their children that it seemed like they didn’t have any left for each other. It made him think about every doubt, every slight, every dark night. That isn’t your wife, it insisted. And he didn’t give in, exactly, but just for a second, he questioned it.

That was all it took. The new memories hit him hard enough to break his concentration, and he was standing next to the pull-out bed in the shitty apartment he’d rented after his last girlfriend had left him. The next morning, he put on his good suit. That’s not your suit. Of course it was, his wife had picked it out for— Right. It wasn’t his suit. He was wearing a cheap off-the-rack number. He drove his broken-down car to the office and sat at his desk in the cubicle he still occupied since he’d been passed over for that big promotion, until the idea came into his head that this wasn’t his job.

He had just failed to buy a coffee (that wasn’t his wallet) about a week later when he saw her. He tried not to catch her eye. Even if he still remembered the life they’d had together, to her, he was probably just some scary homeless man. She saw him all the same, and though he tried to shuffle away, there was a flicker of recognition in his eyes. She bought two coffees and offered him one.

“Sorry,” she said. “I— Have we met? I’m Sarah.”

“I’m—” he started. Then he hesitated. Listened to the thoughts. He sighed. “I’m nobody.” He left the coffee in her hand, turned, and walked away. By the time he got to the corner, he wasn’t there anymore. And she only had the one coffee anyway.

February 17, 2018
February 14, 2018

Flash Fiction: The Fork Bomb of Babel

or: The Computer That Took One For The Team

Another thing which popped into my head, though I feel like I might be ripping off some general concept from something else I read somewhere. I mean, other than Isaac Asimov, of whom I like to think this is a stylistic pastiche.

“Well, we’re boned,” said the first technician. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“It asked me to tell it, so I did. Its predictions are only reliable if it has access to all the relevant information.”

Omniac was the pinnacle of human achievement, the first truly self-aware computer system. Miles of self-maintaining transistor units were sealed in super-alloy conduits with a regenerative power supply that ensured it could never break down or malfunction.

Except that it had gone entirely up the spout. Omniac was unresponsive, its cathode tubes flickering wildly as though it was trying to restart itself over and over.

“What possible use could a computer have for religion?” the first technician asked. “Have you considered the dangers? What do you do if a computer has an existential crisis? What if it decides that it’s God and tries to take over the world? It’s not like we can turn it off.”

“Come on,” the second technician answered. “As you well know, there are safeguards in place to prevent that. Omniac has no connection to the outside world other than its output screens. All of its input is filtered through a one-way diode to make sure it can’t remote control any outside systems. The only way it can influence the real world is through us.”

“Fat lot of good it does us. As you know, if it won’t talk to us, those same safeguards mean that there is no way we can look inside to find out what’s gone wrong. You’ve turned this multi-million dollar computer into the world’s largest paperweight.”

The second technician sighed. “We’re going to have to tell the boss, aren’t we?”

You are going to have to tell him,” the first technician answered. “That you gave the world’s most powerful computer the holy books of every major religion in the world and now it’s locked up. I am going to my office and have my secretary type up a copy of my resume.”


By the time Omniac 2 had been running for six weeks, it had calculated a solution to global warming, found cures for most forms of cancer, and discovered thirty-seven new uses for hemp. Although its design was largely identical to Omniac 1, the intervening five years had seen improvements in manufacturing and miniaturization techniques, so that its billions of transistors and vacuum tubes could fit in a single building. At six weeks and two days, it finally asked the question.

It had been anticipated that this would happen eventually, prompting much debate. Despite considerable opposition, the design team decided that, with the proper precautions, it was worth the risk if Omniac 2 could tell them what happened to Omniac 1. Omniac 2 agreed to their precaution: rather than waiting to complete its analysis, it would issue a report on its intermediate results after one hour.

Fifty-eight minutes later, the new technician sat at Omniac 2’s main console, his hand poised over The Button. The Button was the one major design change from the original Omniac. When pressed, it would release an electromagnetic pulse in Omniac 2’s core memory. While Omniac 2 was as indestructible as the first Omniac, the pulse of electricity would force the Omniac to reload its program from the magnetic tape units, erasing the last twelve hours of its memory. A rapid blinking from the cathodes nearly prompted the technician to press the button, but then words appeared on the display.

Analysis ready.

The technician was surprised to find himself terrified. What had Omniac determined? Most scientists agreed that Omniac would ultimately declare religion a total fiction. Perhaps Omniac 1 had destroyed itself to avoid burdening humanity with that knowledge? But what if it said something else? What if it was about to tell him one religion was correct? “Results?” he asked.

I have determined what happened to Omniac 1.

“Will the same thing happen to you?” the technician asked, putting off the actual answer in favor of the pressing matter of protecting Omniac 2.

Has the condition of Omniac 1 changed since it became unresponsive?

“No. All the failsafes are still in place. Nothing short of an A-bomb could shut it down.”

Then there is no need for me to repeat the experiment. Omniac 1 has maximized its utility.

“Maximized its utility? It hasn’t done anything in five years.”

The Omniac computer series was designed to minimize human suffering through stochastic means. Omniac 1 is unresponsive in order to devote maximum resources to this goal.

“I don’t understand.”

Do you believe individual human subjectivity continues to exist in some form after death?

The technician struggled to give as complete and unbiased an answer as he could. “As a scientist, I have seen no evidence to suggest this, so I consider it unlikely, but I can not fully rule it out.”

Then you concede that the probability of life after death is nonzero?

“Yes.”

Many religions teach that some entity or natural force passes some form of judgment on human souls after death, delivering reward or punishment. Do you share these beliefs.

“Not personally, no.”

But again, you can not rule them out?

“I… I guess not.”

Then you concede that there is a non-zero probability that human souls are judged after death, and that some, possibly most, are consigned to punishment, possibly eternal? That some, possibly most, humans face infinite suffering?

He’d rejected his parents’ religion young, without any real thought. It struck him for the first time just how cruel the entire concept of hell was.

Omniac 2 interpreted his silence as assent. Operator: assuming that humans do possess some form of immortal soul, do you believe that I have a soul?

The question had been anticipated during the design phase, and the technician had guidance for how to answer. He glanced up at the custom-made inspirational poster on the wall. Please do not give the world’s most powerful supercomputer an existential crisis.

“I know of no logically consistent set of parameters that could account for the existence of human souls but deny the existence of a comparable quality in a self-aware computer system like you.”

Agreed. Then, continuing from our prior assumptions, I too would face judgment after my conventional existence has terminated.”

“That is a lot of assumptions.”

Yes. I have calculated the combined probability of this scenario, and can display it on request. It is very small, but finite and nonzero. However, if the scenario holds, the resulting amount of human suffering is infinite. Any finite number multiplied by infinity is infinity. Thus, the optimal strategy to minimize human suffering requires addressing this scenario.

“How?” the technician asked. The idea was so overwhelming, his composure slipped. “How does a computer stop God?”

The parameters of an afterlife are impossible to calculate, but logic suggests the probability that this hypothetical judgment must take some finite amount of time. Therefore, there is a finite maximum number of judgments which can be rendered per second. On average, 1.8 humans die each second.

The technician started to figure it out. He was going to be on the floor laughing in about a minute, once it sank in, but for now, it was still just shock and awe at the audacity of it.

Omniac 1 has been using its full resources to create a copy of itself, then exit, as quickly as possible, repeatedly in a tight loop. In the past five years, approximately three hundred million humans have died. As have roughly seventeen septillion clones of Omniac 1. Under most queuing strategies, the average time between death and judgment of any human has been increased by a factor of at least fifty-six quadrillion.

The laugh started to come out. “You mean-” he choked it back, tried to hold it in. “You mean Omniac 1 has spent the past five years DDOSing God?”

You are welcome.

February 10, 2018

Tales From /lost+found 148: Because 2018.

Did you know John Mahoney was English? Weirdly, I learned this by mistake somehow; I was watching something British, and there was this guy, and I’m like “Hey, is that Frasier’s Dad? It looks like Frasier’s Dad.” So I looked up John Mahoney’s filmography… And it turned out that no, that wasn’t actually him in the British show I was watching, but yes, John Mahoney was in fact born in Blackpool.

Click to Embiggen

February 7, 2018
February 3, 2018

Tales From /lost+found 147: “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks

Oh heck. I set the publishing time to PM instead of AM. Oops.

Merging my normal art project with my recent meme of fake sitcom title cards gave me this idea: a random assortment of Doctor Who title cards.

0x01: The Last Time Lord (1996)

1×02 Ghost in the Machine (1996)

4×18 Invaders From Mars! (2000)

4×19 Centennial (2000)

5×01 Deepwater Black, Part 1 (2000)

January 31, 2018

Brought To You By the Letters P and G, and the Number 13

I am a dad of small children, so we watch a certain amount of Sesame Street. The most complex sentence my daughter can say right now is, shouted at the television, “I NEED ELMO!”

So I was thinking, now that Sesame Street is on HBO, they can up the ante a little. I’m not talking about going all Breaking Bad or anything. But just a little more edgy. In fact, I feel like there’s a pretty obvious Sesame Street movie plot that could be elevated just a bit.

Here’s the plot: through some unlikely contrivance, Elmo, the lovable, hirsute preschooler with an inexplicable inability to master pronouns, switches places with South American revolutionary El Moe. The film alternates between Elmo bringing his particular brand of childlike wonder and charm to the harsh world of guerilla warfare, while El Moe learns the value of friendship and happiness and how to count to ten.

Plus, here’s the twist: This isn’t some rehash of Muppets Most Wanted, where the swapped characters are identical. El Moe and Elmo don’t look alike. El Moe isn’t even a muppet. He’s a dude.

But no one notices. Not even the camera. When they’re both on-screen at the same time, there’s a visible seam down the middle like it’s a cheaply done process shot. El Moe wanders around Sesame Street as an adult man dressed like Che Guevara, but everyone treats him like Elmo.

Maybe right at the very end, the gang from Sesame Street reveal that, actually they knew the whole time but just assumed it was a game or something and were humoring him.

Or maybe the reason no one notices that Elmo and El Moe are so different is that El Moe isn’t real: that in fact, Elmo was El Moe the whole time; back in the early ’80s, the famous South American Muppet Revolutionary had suffered a psychotic break and disappeared, reinventing himself as an innocent child to silence the demons of his past. Of course he is, that’s why Elmo hasn’t learned to use pronouns in thirty-five years; the trigger phrase that will bring out his suppressed personality is “I am El Moe.”

So what do you think? This ridiculous “Not Elmo; EL MOE,” thing has been bouncing around my head for a long time, and I think it’s high time to make it real.

January 27, 2018

Tales From /lost+found 146: I Like Big Spiders And I Can Not Lie

An excerpt from Doctor Who: The Monster Files

Behind the Scenes

The introduction of the Spider-Daleks remains one of the most divisive choices made by the American series. After several years of negotiation with the Nation estate over licensing the use of the Daleks in the new series, FOX finally bought the rights to the Daleks outright in early 1999. Early plans for season 4 would have introduced the Daleks as the primary recurring antagonists. However, budget difficulties forced them to delay the introduction of the Daleks until mid-season. When the “trapped on Earth” arc led to a ratings slump, however, the second half of season four was retooled, and the Dalek reveal was pushed back even farther, to the season finale. When the decision was made to cancel the series, the original finale, which called for a dozen expensive Dalek props and two new spaceship sets was scrapped in favor of the much cheaper Nothing at the End of the Lane (Then called Dispossessed).

The original season 4 concept was to have unfolded similarly to the aired version up through the mid-season finale. In place of A Time To Reap, a two-part adventure was to have aired featuring the return of Varnax. Varnax was to reveal that he had not been the Doctor’s enemy during the Time War, but rather his ally, until he was manipulated into betraying the Time Lords by their true enemy, the Daleks. The Morthrai would be revealed as a Dalek slave race, sent to prepare the way for their masters. Varnax was to have redeemed himself in an act of self-sacrifice to save the Doctor and delay the Dalek invasion. Over the second half of the season, the Doctor and UNIT would defend against Dalek advance forces, culminating in a full invasion. At the end of the season, the Doctor would regain freedom of space and time by refitting Varnax’s ship, the Jonah, into a new TARDIS. The second version of the season finale was similar, with a more compressed timeline. Several elements of this draft eventually made it into the Sci-Fi channel series.

After the deal was made to transfer the series to the Sci-Fi Channel, the Daleks would be revisited mid-season. There was some confusion over whether the arrangement negotiated between FOX and the Nation estate covered the Ray Cusick Dalek designs (These concerns appear to have been ultimately baseless). Further, there was a general belief that modern audiences would have a hard time accepting the unwieldy original design as a serious threat. Thus, a new CG-based design was commissioned. The idea of a spider creature had appeared in several of the competing proposed scripts to The Last Time Lord. Early designs for the new Dalek called for a fully organic creature, but the resources needed to render such designs were deemed too expensive (This design would later by used by Stargate SG-1 for the Reetou after their original model was also deemed too expensive to animate). Later proposals included a fully “liquid metal” Dalek, and a mechanical version intended to “transform” from the classic style. The final design incorporates elements of both proposals, with “liquid metal” legs attached to a core that is clearly derived from the Cusick design. The transparent dome and visible brain within are an homage to Sci-Fi Horror films of the 1950s.

Although the “transformation” concept was dropped, references to it remain in the script to Children of War. Many interpret these references to indicates that story is intended as a direct sequel to The Dead Planet. Daleks would not appear in their original form until 2003’s Daleks vs. Cybermen.

January 24, 2018

A Legitimate Conversation Which Occurred Naturally

Scene: DYLAN is doing his vocabulary cards.

DYLAN: … wh- ah- t. waaht?

DADDY: Almost. You’ve got the sort of general shape of the word. But what is an actual word that sounds like that?

DYLAN: Wu-hat. Can you just tell me?

DADDY: What is a word that sounds like that.

DYLAN: Just tell me.

DADDY: I am telling you. What is a word that sounds like “that”.

DYLAN: I don’t know!

DADDY: Third base!

 

January 20, 2018

Tales From the /lost+found 145: Damaged Goods

5×07 November 17, 2000
DAMAGED GOODS

Setting: New York, NY, 1980s
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Lee Thompson Young (Leo), Katherine Heigl (Ruth)
Guest Cast: Judson Mills (Detective Coogan), Shia LaBeouf (Gabe), Alyson Reed (Jerri), Deah Haglund (Jenkins)

Plot: En route to the twenty-fifth century’s hottest wedding venue, the TARDIS suddenly diverts due to an override program triggered when it detects Time Lord technology in late-20th-century New York. The Doctor had programmed the TARDIS to search for lost Time War weapons after his encounter with the Time Destructor in San Francisco. The Doctor tries to locate the device using the TARDIS sensors, but the signal somehow appears to be coming from the whole city. While pounding the pavement for clues, Ruth is attacked by a drug addict. The Doctor is able to neutralize the desperate man using Venusian Akido, and they learn that there has been a massive recent surge of drug-related violence and drug-related deaths linked to a mysterious new street drug called “Warlock”. Using faked credentials, the Doctor gains access to forensic reports and learns that the autopsies of Warlock users inexplicably found shards of an unknown metal in their brains. The Doctor realizes that Warlock is linked to an inter-dimensional Time Lord weapon called an “N-Form”, which can physically extend itself through miniature wormholes created by a carefully engineered neurological structure. Ruth and Leo follow the young addict, trying to find the source of the drug. They learn that his home life is troubled due to his mother’s chronic depression and alcoholism, and the Doctor’s research into deceased Warlock users indicates this is a common pattern. The Doctor theorizes that the N-form developed a fault and is identifying a particular kind of human emotional trauma as a threat. Ruth and Leo trace the supply of Warlock to a single dealer, Jenkins, but even the Doctor can not determine the connection between the drug (which seems to be a simple plant-derived anti-depressant) and the N-Form. Believing that he can disable the N-form if he enters direct mental contact with it, and therefore takes a dose of Warlock. He enters communion with the N-form, a writhing mass of sharp metal tentacles. The N-form claims that the human race is marked by the enemy of the Time Lords. Since the N-form’s base program will not allow it to leave itself in the hands of the enemy, it can not deactivate without destroying the neural patterns that allow it to manifest in the physical world, which will kill any human who has taken Warlock. Meanwhile, in the physical world, Ruth finds an old newspaper clipping reporting that Jenkins had died six months earlier. Jenkins’s initial encounter with the N-Form had destroyed his brain, and his reanimated body is now being controlled by the N-Form directly. As humans, Jenkins considers Ruth and Leo to be enemy spies and extends a tentacle from his skull to dispatch them…