45,000 Lawns

When I was five years old I wanted to have a life’s work. I didn’t know what that meant. I just overheard my mother use that phrase. She said it as if it was something very valuable, something not many people possessed, only the very lucky few. She said she was not one of those people. As far as she could tell, she would spend the rest of her days doing other people’s laundry and taking out their trash. So I asked her, if you could have a life’s work, what would it be? She thought about it for a moment, and then said, you know? I can’t think of anything!

I was not happy with that answer. I was only five, and didn’t have much experience with the world, so I couldn’t think of anything either, but I decided right then and there to make it my mission to have a life’s work. I locked myself in my room and told myself I couldn’t have another pretzel until I’d thought of a life’s work of my own, and since I loved pretzels more than anything, you can tell I was really serious. I stared at the walls of my room. I stared at the floor. I stared at my toys. I looked out the window. That was when I had my big idea.

Lawns.

I grew up in a small city in the mid-west where everybody had a lawn, even the poorest of the poor had a small patch of something in their back yard, maybe it was only weeds, and maybe it was mostly broken cement, but they counted. Even my mom’s sorry excuse for a backyard counted for a lawn. I looked at that patch of dirt and dandelions and I said to myself, George? (my name is George). You are going to make that lawn count if it’s the last thing you do. But no, I said to myself. Not make the lawn count. Count the lawn! That’s the thing. I was going to count the lawns, every last lawn I ever encountered for as long as I lived.

I did not originally have a target number in mind. I thought maybe there were about a hundred lawns in the world, and at the time, one hundred was the biggest number I knew. I didn’t hesitate. I was never a dawdler. I ran right down the stairs and raced outside and started counting lawns.

It wasn’t enough to see them. I had to physically occupy them in one way or another, even if only for an instant. That’s how I came upon the strategy of “one step, one vote”. I ran up and down the street, “tagging” every lawn in the neighborhood with either my right or my left foot (never both). I soon got quite carried away, so carried away in fact that by the time I counted my forty-fifth lawn I was already blocks from home and had no idea where I was.

When the police woman found me all I could tell her was that my name was George, and that my house had the sorriest excuse for a lawn, and that my mother did not possess a life’s work whatsoever. I don’t know how they ever tracked her down, but they did.

Of course I never told her what I was up to, not then, and not ever, not even when I graduated from high school some eleven thousand, two hundred and eighteen lawns later, and not when I graduated from law school, where I studied property law and amassed a total of twenty six thousand four hundred and ninety lawns by the time I passed the state bar. Somehow I knew it was nothing to be particularly proud of, especially on those occasions when my life’s work got me into trouble.

I was something of an expert on trespassing by then, but even experts make mistakes.

Still I kept my secret, even under severe cross-examination and throughout the lost years I spent in prison when I stepped on no lawns at all. I can promise you that the first thing I did on my release was begin to make up for all that time. I racked up hundreds more within my first few months of freedom.

I became a connoisseur of lawn treading. I began to resist the urge to stomp on every mere patch, reserving the right to refuse steps for lawns that didn’t measure up to my increasingly lofty standards. Now my lawns were required to be cared for, to be respected if not always treasured. My lawns deserved a degree of dignity. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a figure had begun to take shape, the number 45,000 began appearing in my dreams and randomly occurring to me even during daylight hours. Perhaps it was a shadow, a reflection of those early forty-five, the first I had counted before I got lost and had sat down by the side of the road, sobbing and miserable and certain I was doomed forever.

Now, as I approached the numinous integer, I applied my standards ever more rigorously, until there was hardly a lawn that qualified for my attention. I stalled out in the mid forty-four thousands, and for an entire sixteen months I stepped on nary a lawn. Finally I decided to break through this blockage, this self-inflicted obstacle barricading me from the achievement of my life’s work, and I resolved to trod on every lawn until I reached that sacred figure and that once I did, my journey would be complete. Only then could I rest.

So you see, your honor, that’s what I was doing in Mrs. Jenkins backyard on the evening of the 27th. I was certainly not attempting to break into her house, and of course I always wear all black when I go out counting lawns. Doesn’t everyone?

 

(the narrator would like to think that this story has been illustrated in the manner of the classic children’s book, Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millions_of_Cats)

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Stories I Don’t Feel Like Writing

(Some a bit redundant from recent entries but hey it’s my blog)

Bit by a radioactive spider but only got the tingly spidy-sense.

Personality uploaded to the cloud but split into multiple zones.

First-person shooter game but no one on either side ever has any ammo and there is no way to reload.

Famous brains uploaded to the cloud waiting forever for anyone to ask them anything.

Sherlock Holmes incarcerated for possession solves every cold case he committed to memory before being put in solitary confinement.

A person who can see the future quite clearly whenever they are the third person in a line.

A player piano that speaks and bosses people around.

Someone lives their whole life and no one gives a shit.

A helpful person who watches for people who seem lost and offers to help them find their way.

Middle-class mid-western American couple living in a double wide trailer with their valet and their chambermaid.

The time traveler’s toothbrush.

Robots training people on how to fix them.

A song goes on trial for murder.

Time gets stuck in a loop and everyone relives the same five minutes over and over 288,000 times.

Distributed Systems

So you want to “upload your consciousness to the cloud”. Let’s discuss the situation with Fred, our Site Reliability Engineer, shall we?

You: So, Fred, I want to upload my consciousness to the cloud. What do I do?

Fred: First of all, which cloud are we talking about? Amazon, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Oracle?

You: Well, maybe we should mix it up a bit, just to be on the safe side?

Fred: Good thinking, you’ll want a distributed system anyway, just in case one data center goes down. They do that, you know. Data centers “go down”. If you have your consciousness in just one zone of just one region of just one cloud, well then you’re as good as fucked. They do call them that, by the way, zones and regions. You’re supposed to get the idea that there can be multiple zones in a region and multiple regions in a cloud. I’m not sure exactly how you’re supposed to deduce that hierarchy, but there you go. When in Rome, as they say.

You: Ok, I hear you. Zones, regions, clouds, whatever. Where am I going to put my consciousness anyway, and how?

Fred: Depends. Chances are you want to stick it in a container, shall we say a Docker container, and maybe deploy it using Kubernetes ..

You: Wait a minute, hold on there pal. What’s a docker? What’s a kubernetes?

Fred: Oh I was just assuming you were going to want people to be able to communicate with your consciousness, so you’d need to use some sort of back-end service, some protocol as well, shall we say protobuf over RPC? You’ll need to get some international consortium to put that together so that everyone knows what’s what. That’ll take a decade or so and they’ll end up with competing standards anyway so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Now, if you just want to store the thing, then any old file service will do. Shall we say S3 perhaps? Or maybe just cold storage using GCS, or maybe some combination of things like those?

You: Well duh I want people to be able to communicate with it. It won’t do any good just sitting there in some cloud. How do things sit in clouds anyway? Aren’t they all just water vapor?

Fred: You’re a funny guy, you. Clouds aren’t really clouds. They’re just a boatload of rack-mount computers, mostly hard drives with some boot kernel software and low level processes running to support your VM.

You: I’ve got a VM? I don’t even know what that is.

Fred: Don’t worry about it. We’re going to replicate the shit out of your consciousness. We’re going to use a quorum system, so that the various VMs hosting you can synchronize with each other continuously and make sure enough of them are in agreement at all times so the whole thing doesn’t go kablooey, which it can (and will) do, especially since I’m assuming you want your consciousness stored for some period of time.

You: Sure, like forever.

Fred: Ha ha, forever, ok. For sure. You do know it’s only been a generation since we didn’t even have personal computers, right? You might want to consider storing your consciousness on microfilm or microfiche. Or maybe you want to etch the thing onto a gold record and send it hurtling into outer space. Any of those options will give you a better chance at preserving your data for longer than a decade or two.

You: Hmm, maybe you’re right.

Fred: Yeah, in any case, your consciousness ain’t gonna be worth jack in a decade or two anyway. What are you going to know about the world that’s coming? Nothing, that’s what. You won’t know a damn thing. Your consciousness will be up there talking about the meaning of Kanye’s lyrics when everybody else has moved on way past Kanye, if you get my drift. Like does anybody even say “get my drift” anymore even now? You might as well be analyzing the lyrics of Perry Como.

You: Perry who?

Fred: Exactly. Your consciousness will be speaking 2018 English to a world that doesn’t talk it any longer, but that’s okay. Previous generations have persisted their consciousness successfully through the medium of writing on paper. Maybe you should just do that.

You: You mean paper like toilet paper?

Fred: Yes I have seen “Idiocracy” and I highly recommend it. Also very good is “Sorry to Bother You”. Go see that one now.

You: That sounds like a good idea. I have a feeling that nobody really wants my consciousness anyway and really, how the fuck could I even monetize that shit if I’m already dead and gone? You must think I have the world’s biggest ego.

Fred: Nah, you’re probably just another rich white dude in Silicon Valley. They all like that.

Data Mining and Data Undermining

“Write what you know,” some say, while others recommend the opposite, or even “write what you knew, or thought you did.” I recently visited that prescription in a bit of seriously lightweight fiction I wrote (The White-Hole Situation, now available where e-books are free to download and/or pirate). I was a kid during the first generation of Star Trek, and a young adult during the next, and I got to know that world pretty well, well enough to riff on its larger implications, and it was fun to do, enjoyable writing if not meaningful, deep or otherwise significant in any way.

That bit of writing, combined with the concurrent death of Philip Roth and all the various “takes” on his life and work, I’ve been thinking about how writers mine the data of their own lives and the worlds they’ve experienced. Some writers do this far more than others. Philip Roth, for example, was of white upper-middle class east coast Jewish extraction, and I the same. His generation was my parents’ generation, so there’s that gap, but it would never have occurred to me to write the kind of fiction he wrote. In fact, I never liked his books or his writing and as an author he was only stock-on-the-shelf to me during my lengthy career in bookstores. He was a classic self-data-miner and an exemplary representative of his era of white male patriarchal misogyny and whatnot. I don’t see how there can be any argument about this. If you enjoyed his books then good, you’re the audience for them. If you didn’t then you’re not.

Data under-miners could be the reverse – writers who deliberately attempt to flee from the identities imposed on them from their surrounding culture, writers who feel they are not what they appear to be. Perhaps analogous to transgender individuals, whose inner identity is not pegged to their biological happenstance, some writers know in their heart who they are and that who they are is not who they are seen to be. Some will use pseudonyms as a way of dealing with the disconnect. Some will hide from the public, become reclusive so as not to be tied to the photo on the jacket of their books. Some will go further and lie about their identity, make up alter egos for their public life. Others will just go about the business of writing and not worry about all that.

In my case I’m pretty much the last case there, but I do wonder when people see my name on my books, and how some of them are science fiction, do they think I’m related to the famous Jacqueline Lichtenberg? (I am not). Do they think I am as Jewish as my name (and face) imply? (I am not). What else do they infer? That I am Caucasian (I am considered white in America these days, although my grandparents were not considered white in America when they were young), that I am male (I am), that I am probably cis-gendered (I am) though who knows, I could be gay. After all, I write, and that’s kind of arty, which is kind of gay (to a large swath of the populace). I’m pretty sure that data-mining my books would make it pretty clear that I am white and male (from my vocabulary, and the majority gender of my characters, though I do like to think I’ve done a decent job with my female characters, who are the protagonists in many of my books).

Textual analysis would probably come up with a decent portrait of me as a person, despite the fact that I’ve written almost nothing autobiographical or even much taken from my own life and background (Raisinheart and The Part-Time People are the only ones I can think of that even cast a shadow on my own history). It would not surprise me if the accuracy of such an analysis came close to one similar for Philip Roth, or for any writer. Whether we write what we know, or what we don’t know, or what we knew or what we thought we knew, in the end the “we” who writes is the “we” who we are, and that’s true even if you think you’re only a medium through whom the Holy Spirit is communicating its own soap opera.

It’s also made me think about what other influences I could dredge up, what else do I know as well that I could transpose onto another platform, that I haven’t done already. I’ve already done a bit of that with noir fiction (Death Ray Butterfly), and my Outlier series was a mashup of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage and Freakonomics. You wonder just how much you can cannibalize (everything!) whether consciously or not. Are all writers mere data-miners of their histories, and/or how could it really be otherwise?

Some tropes I’m bound to ignore. I grew up on spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry but have absolutely no interest in writing anything shoot-em-up (Star Wars included in that genre), slice-em-up (as much as I liked samurai flicks) or yuk-it-up (how many sitcoms have I seen every episode of?).

When you start making a list of your childhood and youthful influences it can get downright discouraging as well as embarrassing!

We Tortured Some Folks

In honor of the new CIA Directory, Gina Haspel, who was very much involved with the CIA torture program during the last time we had a republican president who surrounded himself with vile, cruel and downright terrible people, pigeon weather productions presents the immortal words of Barack Obama: We tortured some folks.

The White Hole Situation

Sometimes a story has momentum, sometimes that only goes so far. We’ll see how far this one goes. It’s already gone through several title changes, from “IBU” to “IBU: a white whole situation”, to “September and the Situation” to, finally,  “The White Hole Situation“. It’s kind of a fun story to write. One could riff all day on the implications of technology and the benign attitude towards it as reflected in the original star trek series and in “white male sixties moon shot sci fi” in general.

Sci Fi is one of many (most?) fields long dominated by the white western male human. The realm has been opening up more and more to women and people from other regions and groups in general, and that’s got to be a good thing. As a white male science fiction writer, it doesn’t bother me at all. I use the analogy of a shower. If you want a nice warm shower, you can’t just have the hot water turned up all the way and the cold water off. No, you need to adjust the mix until you get it just right. So to let more non-white non-male writers into all of these fields, you’ve got to turn down one knob and turn up the other. There’s an expected backlash, as with affirmative action and desegregation and any other program attempting to redress imbalance, but I’m sorry if you were born at the wrong time for your turn. Everybody else who’s not like you has been born at the wrong time for centuries.

Anyway, I digress.

Back in those days, technology was going to solve every problem, ease every load, make the impossible not only possible but easy. Warp speed? Sure. Teleportation? Why not. Handheld devices that not only diagnose but cure every ailment? You got it. All you have to do is talk to the thing.

“Computer,” you say, followed by your heart’s desire.

Everybody on board is assigned a rank and some color uniform. There’s hierarchy and patriarchy in full force, for no good reason, really, since the machine does everything. And the machine is only for good. Now and then they dabbled with some danger coming from that side of things, but in the end, pure reason saves the day and men are rational creatures who might be a bit hot-headed but damned handsome and charming as fuck.

So what’s it like to live in such a world? What could be wrong? What could you complain about? What if the technology continued on that trend for another two hundred years. By that time, it gets so good that it has pretty much figured it all out. Smooth as clockwork, smooth as silk, smooth as the whole space-time continuum. The universe is a hologram, says Stephen Hawking.

There’s no Matrix in this one, no Twelve Monkeys, no horrible future, no dystopia, just a bunch of randos minding their own business and living their lives in a world that’s been made perfect just for them. Of course, something is bound to go horribly wrong. Otherwise where’s the plot? But what if a tree falls in a forest and the computer doesn’t let anybody see it? Was there a tree? Was there a forest? Who is the dreamer and what is the dream? (ok, I stole that line from some peak TV show. Damn they’re good these days – I especially recommend Twin Peaks, Atlanta, Babylon Berlin, The Dark, Legion, and Superstore)

Too Good to be True (story germ)

I always thought the universe of Star Trek was a little too good to be true.  They’ve managed to solve pretty much all the problems of humanity and become total good guys in space. How is the whole thing not a fantasy? How is it not really happening in the Matrix? It’s a virtual reality game which includes its own virtual reality games (holodecks and whatnot). What’s most amazing is how they solved all those problems using computers but without any of the now-commonplace worries about artificial intelligence. It’s all pre-Terminator stuff, I know, but come on. Where did all that starry-eyed idealism come from, but even more importantly, where did it go?

Can you smell the shift from dystopia back to utopia? Positive futurism is going to be making a comeback so I figured I’d hop on board with that – too soon, way too soon of course – and at the same time explore this optimism a little bit with my usual cynical eye. I’ve started this exploration on Wattpad under the title I.B.U. (which in my mind stands for universal basic income, but backwards). That Star Trek world has no inequality, has no racial or gender bigotry, and the implication was abundance for all somehow, and everyone has the freedom and opportunity to explore their own personal sense of mission. What would that really be like, especially keeping in mind the kinds of technology that might make this possible?

I have some plot ideas that may or may not work out. We’ll see. It could be another false start – that happens – but for now it seems to have at least a little momentum.