This and That – a Feed Book

ThisAndThat

This is what’s next – my new work, to be serialized only here on Wattpad. It’s an idea I’ve been tossing around for a while and I think it might have some legs. If fictions are reflections of life, then a lot of “the way we live now” is through endless scrolling through a variety of sources – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, news feeds and so on. As in Julio Cortazar’s book “All Fires the Fire”, in our world it’s “All Apps the App” – they all blend together in the day-to-day experience of them. Along with blogs and postings of our own are mingled the postings and realities of everything we choose (and some we don’t) to let into our senses. This work is an attempt to capture some of that experience. It will also have story, characters, and drama stirred together in the overall pot. It will incorporate some of my ongoing thoughts and personal experiences with cancer and with the world as it is,  along with ideas from my own collection of items in my Flipboard magazine Cashier World, my own feeds feeding into this feed book.

How to Be Rated

I recently wrote a couple of stories based on a dream I had, in which my younger brother had invented a system of perpetually rating everyone and everything in the world. The stories were a couple of variations on the theme, and it was my intention to write either more stories or a longer novella based on the idea. Instead, I have gone ahead and programmed the novel.

I have built the System.

I will soon unleash it on the unsuspecting world, where I strongly suspect it will languish in the same obscurity as its author. Correction, it will THRIVE in the same obscurity!

The app is called “Be Rated” and it will allow anyone, anywhere, at any time, to rate anyone or anything in the world. In the dream (and stories) the system rated from zero to one hundred, but in the app, mirroring the real world, the System uses the familiar 5 star ratings, complete with little gold stars to choose from.

The System will overcome some of the biggest peeves I personally have:

  1. You can rate the same things over and over again. The System will display historical data along with the averages (both personal and universal). In the real world now, you can only rate something once, but what it if you liked it one day and hated it the next? There is no room for that in the current universe. The System solves this problem.
  2. You can find all the ratings for all the things in one place – The System. No longer do you have to go to Amazon or Yelp or Google or Goodreads or ITunes or SoundCloud etc to find ratings of various things. All things are rated all the time in the same one place.
  3. It’s so easy, anyone can do it, and best of all, there is no required Sign In, no Accounts, no Passwords, no Personal Data of any kind (required, that is. You will be able to sign in with third party accounts if you want to be able to view your own personal rating history).
  4. It should drive the whole world even more fucking crazy than it already is, because for the first time, People will be rated as well as Products, Businesses, and Places. That’s right. And not only People (meaning You – You will be rated!) but anything at all. Concepts can be rated. That’s right. You can give “Free Will” two stars if you want because really, is Free Will all it’s cracked up to be? Personally, I’ve been somewhat disappointed.
  5. If you think people are obsessing over their smart phones now, just wait until they are addicted to checking the ratings of their own personhood.
  6. There used to be no God but God, but soon there will be two: God, and the System
  7. Your welcome very much

(The stories are here: The System, Out of My System)

The Outlier #5: Jumpers

Outlier5_Jumpers_Cover2

Dillon Sharif was the world’s greatest data detective, but he had too many cases. He needed to apply the same analytics techniques he used for solving mysteries to manage his own workload issues. He was also going to need help. A lot of help. Part Freakonomics, part Doctor Who, part Sherlock Holmes, and one hundred percent absurd, The Outlier series continues with #5: Jumpers. Let it rain!

The Outlier #5: Jumpers

by Tom Lichtenberg

copyright 2014 by by Tom Lichtenberg

Commander Bethany Rush felt she had never really fulfilled her potential, never reached the greatness she had striven for all her life. As far back as she could remember, she’d been pushing herself, never pausing, never relenting, and yet she still could not see an end to it or now even where she was headed. As a child, she’d been slight and flexible but strong and determined, and excelled in the special gymnastics school her father had placed her in. Geremy Rush was a striver himself, but more of an achiever-by-proxy. His own pursuits had come dramatically to a halt the day his daughter was born, her mother lost to “complications” of childbirth. Until that hour he’d been an inventor, an explorer, a self-trained scientist, a dabbler in all things he’d happened to randomly come across. He continued in that line, but with a child in tow who became the focus of all his attentions and all his aspirations. Whenever she displayed the slightest interest in anything, he tried to learn and teach her everything there was to know about the subject, whether it was caterpillars turning into butterflies or the patterns in cloud formations or the intricacies of garbage collection. He was exhaustive and exhausting in his efforts to satiate her curiosity, talking and talking and talking, and more talking all the time.

For her part, the child was patient and indulgent with her father, if not always as fascinated as he imagined. She appreciated the fact that he had her interests at heart, but in time she mastered the art of not always letting her cards show. She began to evade his intellectual domineering by directing her own activities towards the physical, beginning with gymnastics. There she found her own space for the first time, a territory she could venture where he could not follow, and in the practice she also discovered a deeper layer of her own mind, a level of reflection and distance. She determined to live in that region as much as possible, and her body became the tool her mind required to build its nest down there. She won medals and tournaments from tumbling and the high bar and the parallel bar and the vault, and her father dutifully watched from the sidelines, cheering, and gladly drove her all over the state, wherever and whenever she needed to be. She never knew if he understood how she used these methods to escape his oppressive attentions, and she later regretted to some degree how she let that distance grow and grow until the day he too passed away and that space became an infinity that could never be bridged again.

By then she’d worn out so many roads and changed in so many ways. From the tiny bendable girl she’d been to the strong lithe young star of the track and swim teams in high school to the Air Force Academy’s top ranked pilot to the highly decorated veteran of several official and unofficial wars to the tenured professor of Engineering Aerodynamics at the International University of Advanced Technology, Bethany Rush never felt like she had fulfilled her potential. There was still something missing, and she had no idea what it could possibly be. Her body had long since ceased to be the fine machine it once was. The passing years plus genetics and carelessness had led it to a state of profound rotundity, a shape-shifting from which there was no turning back. She’d made her peace with that, living now only in the deep reflexive home of her mind, which probed and searched throughout all of the topics and ideas collected by the most extensive queries she could pose, and came up with nothing. The world was full of things, too many things, and every one she crossed off the list was one that might have turned out to be “the one” if only she’d given it a chance. Was art the link she was missing? Was it music? Medicine? Feeding the hungry? Architecture? Could she have been the one to find a cure for cancer if only, if only, if only. She tormented herself with doubt, with regret, with the fuzzy thinking of roads not taken, of roads not even imagined.

She kept the list with her, and kept it growing. Every time she came up with a new topic, she added it to the list, and she would sit in coffee shops and scroll through the pages and pages of notions that might be the key to the greatness she still longed for. One day she opened up her laptop and typed that one word, in all capital letters over and over again while her cappuccino grew cold and she began to feel a creeping desperation taking hold of her heart. GREATNESS … GREATNESS … GREATNESS. She sighed and shook her head, and found herself incapable of typing another letter. “Is this the end of it?” she wondered, “the end of my quest, the end of the line?”

It’s over-rated if you ask me,” said a man sitting at the next table.

Excuse me?” she turned to face him and formed an immediate impression. He was younger than her, perhaps by a few years, and dressed absurdly in a green flannel shirt, black dress suit pants, some kind of paisley red bandanna poorly tied around his neck, black leather slippers and white socks. He had dark skin, a thin mustache like Errol Flynn, the kind that went out of fashion in the 1940’s, and slicked back light brown hair. She had been asexual all her life so it didn’t even occur to her to consider if he was “attractive” or not. Her first thought was that he looked like an idiot.

Greatness,” he said. “I noticed you typing it there. It’s over-rated. Meaningless, really.”

Ha,” was all she could think of to retort. What was this guy talking about? Everybody knows what greatness means. It means being the best, standing out, getting the recognition you deserve for the excellence you’ve achieved through all your hard work, talent and exertion.

It’s like history,” he continued, “I mean the way history is taught, by the winners, you know. History books never tell you what really happened, they only tell you how things turned out from the point of view of someone who wanted to tell about it. Same thing with greatness. There’s nothing innate about it, nothing true, nothing real.”

That sounds like something that somebody who’s never done anything would say,” she said. He laughed.

But you’ve done things,” he said. “Fine things,” he added.

What do you know about it?” she said, turning away. This was not turning into a conversation she wanted to have. The man reminded her of her father. He was probably a dilettante, an opinion generating machine, a bloviater. She believed in doing, not talking. She would bet that all this guy ever did was get up in the morning and make lousy decisions about what to wear.

You’d be surprised,” he said.

I don’t like surprises,” she muttered, but looking back at her laptop and the word she’d scribbled over and over again made her feel uneasy, so she closed the lid and made tentative movements to put her things away as if she was going to get up and leave.

Twenty two thousand feet,” the man said. “What do you know about twenty two thousand feet?”

Short of cruising altitude for commercial aircraft,” she said, still not looking over at him, “but potentially ideal for targeting systems, depending on weather conditions and terrain, of course.”

How about for jumpers?” he asked.

Too high,” she said, “or too low.”

Exactly,” he said. “I’m only going to ask you one time, Commander. I’ve got these coordinates and from my calculations I see they’re at that altitude. I need someone to get me there and wait, but I don’t know if it can be done.”

What?”

I have the coordinates. Latitude, longitude, altitude, but it’s only math. I can show you on the map.”

Just tell me,” she said. “I don’t need a map,” but after he told her she opened her laptop again and double-checked her reasoning.

Unlikely,” she told him. “There will be nothing there.”

Maybe, maybe not,” he smiled, and Bethany registered a second first impression. There was more to this man than she’d thought. He might not have the world’s finest wardrobe sensibilities, but he definitely had something, and it was what she was missing, what she’d always been missing, what she always would be missing, and yet what could never not be missing. He possessed the unknown, and as she was soon to find out, he had it in bulk.

Dillon Sharif had all of it, in fact, if you could imagine being in possession of the unknown. The unknown is not nothing, nor is it immeasurable. There are equations in the field of statistics that can actually quantify it, at least in theory. For example if you take all of the known, perform the dot product of that set with itself, multiply to the power of its value, and then take one over its inverse log root, you will arrive at a reasonable approximation. Simple, really. Trivial. In plain English, you could say that whatever is, its inverse isn’t, and vice versa of course. If you define “whatever is” as its available information, then this is what Dillon materially possessed. Naturally, it follows that he also immaterially possessed its negation.

His grandparents were Wilkins Sharif, the former Turkish-Egyptian prince, and his equally mad wife, the former Japanese-Maori punk rock duchess Kintara Soh. Together they had embarked on the improbable quest of total control over all the world’s data, beginning in the unlikeliest of places, a rain forest preserve on Madagascar, before branching out to Sri Lanka, then India, then China, Singapore and eventually the world. How they performed this achievement is one for the history books, books that would require their permission and cooperation to write, as everyone and everyone now required their permission and cooperation to access their own or any data whatsoever.

Their company, the AllDat Corporation, was born out of a world which had come to trust no one. Whether it was official government spying, or the infrastructure of total global surveillance, or social networks that knew everything about everyone, or telephone conglomerates that tracked and stored every person’s movements and utterances, it had all gone too far. Not only was there no privacy, there was no security of any sort. Credit cards had to be replaced as soon as they were issued. Deeds would come back to haunt people nearly instantaneously. Your computer and your cell phone and your streetlight and your refrigerator and your thermostat and your light bulbs and your watch and even your shoes were all connected all the time and reporting all the time about every little motion or condition detectable by humans or not. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nowhere even to not run and not hide. The people of the world struggled with the new situation of perpetual openness and ultimately refused to accept it. They demanded change, and when people demand change, two things generally happen; order and chaos, usually chaos first, followed by the other.

Wilkins Sharif had been thinking about the problem for years. As a corporate attorney he was well acquainted with the issues of liability and deniability. Anyone with access to anything could be held accountable for anything done with the stuff they had access to. The world was already litigious to the extreme, and it was only going to get worse. He figured there had to be a way out, a loophole, a legal nuance that could protect his clients. What it boiled down to was this: they had to both have and have not. It was his wife, also a lawyer, who hit upon the solution almost by accident. Oddly enough, it occurred to her one morning while she was sitting on the balcony at the crack of dawn, woken by the racket caused by the garbage trucks. Every Tuesday morning an army of those noisy machines descended on their neighborhood, each truck manned by only one person and armed with forklifts that would reach out and grab the garbage cans lining the streets, lifting them up and dumping their contents into the belly of the beast and then setting them down again. Why there were so many trucks remained a mystery to Kintara, but what happened to the garbage did not.

She ran down to her car and followed one of the trucks, tailing it patiently as it stopped and started, completed its run and made its way to the landfill and recycling center, where the different compartments housing the garbage were unloaded for further processing. She sat in her car and watched as the bits and clumps of trash were sorted and distributed, then re-sorted and re-distributed, until ultimately they were so scattered that the original set of trash from one person’s house could never, ever be re-collected. She raced home to tell her husband of her grand discovery.

Of course,” he said. “It’s garbage. Why would you ever want to put it back together again?”

But what if you did?” she asked, prodding him. Wilkins rocked back in his chair and puffed on his fat cigar. Eventually he began to understand what she was saying.

You would have to know somehow,” he said, “you’d have to tag each piece.”

Not just each piece,” she said.

Each piece of each piece!” he shouted, rising up from his chair and rushing to turn on his computer. They were not just lawyers, but also programmers, and he understood exactly what Kintara was on to. Computer programs create what they call “objects”, constructs which are merely convenient collections of information, of data, and they use these objects only as long as they need to. Once they are no longer in use, the objects become available for a process known as “garbage collection”. The system marks an object for collection, the object gets slated for destruction, and at some scheduled time its pieces will get scattered and turned into meaningless nothingness, opening up “space” in the computer’s memory which can be used for other information. Theoretically, Wilkins realized, a parallel garbage collection system could be engineered with the capability of recovering and reconstituting any given object.

AllDat Corporation would become the world’s data garbage man. A business would direct all of its data to AllDat. AllDat would process the data, shredding it to pieces which only AllDat could put back together again. It was Humpty Dumpty realized, a miracle of sorts, and one of the major selling points was that it would take everyone off the hook, everyone except for AllDat. Businesses could not be held liable for the data they had access to, because they no longer had direct access to any of the data. Anything they wanted they would have to ask AllDat for. One after another, businesses, and then governments, and then finally the entire world signed up, not least because the cost was nearly negligible. AllDat dealt in such volume that they could afford to charge almost nothing for their services, whether it was “storage” or “retrieval”. It was all a package deal for less than pennies per zetabyte.

Wilkins wrote the program and together he and his wife built the business from nothing. Then they sat back and let it run. Garbage in, garbage out, they liked to say. What their customers did with the data they purchased was none of AllDat’s concern. They imposed no moral judgments, had no ethical qualms, and allowed no legalese to get between the world of people and their information, as long as the queries followed the documented and rather strict guidelines. Of course, most of the public didn’t quite comprehend those constraints, and those who did were powerless to change them. To the people of the world, AllDat was a global security blanket. They became the trusted guardians, the caretakers , the order that followed the chaos of way way too much information.

Their adopted grandson was the only other person in the world who was allowed to drive outside the lines, the only other one who literally had access to all of the world’s data all the time. He could write his own database queries and retrieve any pieces of anything at any time. Dillon was raised in a sort of data playground. From his earliest days he built data sets the way normal children built Legos. He took to the higher maths to such an extent that by the age of ten he’d done with differential equations and moved on to number theories so esoteric their club memberships numbered in the single digits. His methods of abstract reasoning made landfills look like perfect grids. He was long past numbers now. The math had sunk so deep into his brain it was all second nature. He didn’t need calculus to know how to determine nearest neighbors of any huge data set. He didn’t need vectors or n-dimensional reductive theories to figure out the least significant hash algorithm required to associate any filter with its desired output. All he needed was a handful of clues, a random collection of facts insignificant in and of themselves but related through the matrix of what he liked to call the ether, which to other people would appear to resemble nothing so much as sheer nonsense.

It was through the madness of his method that he first came to notoriety, when he published a video describing the absurd relationships required to correctly predict winning lottery numbers every time. This video, viewed by hundreds of millions within a few weeks, successfully demolished the entire lottery industry on the planet. Tens of millions won and won every time, but their winnings were scant, having to be divided up among them all, so it soon became pointless to even bother. Far from being vilified for this perfidy, however, Dillon started to become a sort of legend, trumpeted by the media as the world’s greatest big data detective. He was reclusive by nature, and hard to track down, but soon he became the recipient of all sorts of requests to solve seemingly unsolvable mysteries. Thousands poured in and at first he didn’t know what to do with them. Most were not worth his time, and many were straight out of the paranormal TV shows so popular at the time which ravenously cannibalized ramblings straight out of Charles Fort’s “The Book of the Damned”. Some cases, however, he did find intriguing, but he realized that he was going to need some help. For one thing, he was going to have to find a way to handle the volume. That was his top priority. For another, he hated driving and lacked a practical sense of direction. What I need now, he told himself, is a trusty assistant.

He made a list of all the talents he required for that role. Clearly the first thing was transportation and logistics, since he was going to need to travel to places in order to investigate with boots on the ground. The driver would ideally also be a pilot, since the cases could arise from anywhere. He was going to need someone loyal, intensely loyal in fact, someone as secretive and protective as himself. He was going to need someone strong, someone brave, even fearless and especially someone in need of something undefinable, someone who could handle ambiguity and never back down from any challenge. He thought about running an ad, but decided against it. Instead, he did some research. Plugging his query into the AllDat archives he came up with many names at first, but as he applied more and more filtering it became clear to him there could be only one. Bethany Rush, the woman he called the Commander for no other reason than it merely occurred to him to do so.

And you need to go there why?” she asked him that morning in the coffee shop.

Money is no concern,” he replied to a different question. “I’ll pay you a lot. Really a lot. You’ll have an unlimited budget for whatever we need, and we’re going to need several things to begin with. A fleet of cars, some planes, probably some other vehicles, I don’t know. I’ll need you nearby, so I bought a condo for you in the Towers, on the floor above mine. We’ll leave as soon as possible, Thursday morning at the latest. I’ll tell you why on the way. Oh, and my name is Dillon Sharif.”

You?” Bethany said. “You are Dillon Sharif?” She had heard of him, of course. Everybody had, and she thought she’d seen a photo, so why hadn’t she recognized him at once?

It’s that stupid outfit,” she blurted out.

I dress for the occasion,” he smiled. “In this case, the occasion was to get your attention. Come on, let’s go.”

He got up and waited for her to pack up her stuff and follow alone. He walked quickly and she, much shorter than him, had to work to keep up by his side. She made some quick calculations.

We’ll need something like a fighter jet,” she told him.

We can get that,” he said.

And clearance from several governments.”

Consider it cleared,” he said.

And equipment,” she said, “uniforms, parachutes …”

Parachutes?” he stopped her. “I don’t think so.”

You said something about jumping,” she said, “so I assumed …”

Oh, we won’t be jumping,” he said. “That was about the lobsters.”

Lobsters?”

The lobster rain, of course,” he told her. “I’ll need to do some measurements from the spot.”

At twenty two thousand feet above the plains of Patagonia?”

To begin with, yes,” he said, and that was how it began.

Bethany had a lot to do. Dillon wanted to leave no later than in two days time, though he wouldn’t provide any explanation for that. It didn’t matter. Bethany – or the Commander as she would soon even come to think of herself – had her marching orders and that was all she required. He didn’t tell her how to do her job, only where and when he needed to be, and anything else that might be needed. It was up to her to organize and plan and make sure it all happened. She found the plane. She procured the clearances. She made every arrangement and in the meantime inspected her new living quarters, the best part of which was an underground private garage equipped with every technology needed to support all available types of then-current fuel alternatives, from electric charging stations to gas pumps to algae tanks to fuel cell generators, even experimental fission chambers. She had received permission to buy any and all vehicles she might possibly want to use. She had arrived in chauffeur heaven.

When the Commander notified her boss that everything was in order, she selected an unpretentious beige gas-powered minivan for the trip to the airport. There they boarded a decommissioned F-22 fighter which to her felt like old times. Dillon was gratified to notice that Bethany performed precisely as he’d expected, seamlessly integrating herself into his working life as if it were pre-destined from all time. She left him in peace while navigating the journey south towards the pole. In the meantime he fussed over a pile of papers he’d laboriously printed out from the stack of messages he’d been receiving since the day the lottery video went viral. Of all the cases that had come pouring in he had selected precisely none to actually work on. Or rather, he was sifting through them all in order to find an intersection of as many as possible.

He knew the probabilities were high that a number of them had to be connected. The fundamentals of page rank theory guaranteed it. There were only so many people in the world. There were only so many occurrences of things, only so many of which would be deemed unusual by a subset of people, the very subset who would go around “deeming” things “unusual” in the first place. Among that subset were bound to be certain types, types who would notice the same general types of events. He considered these people to be his “constituency”. They were the ones who would become his most likely clients in the future, so he thought it a good idea to make a study of them and their tendencies. There were those who noticed irregularities, deviations from the norm, from every norm. These were the people who found it odd that a man who had breakfast at six in the morning every day, one day had breakfast at seven. What could be the reason? Then there were people who noticed the inverse, the norms, and puzzled over the obvious. They would wonder why certain hair styles became prevalent, why people spoke in dialects, why gentlemen preferred blonds.

There were the political types, the cultural types, the bird-watching types, whole conglomerations of people who asked the stupidest questions about the least interesting things, and it was on this latter group that Dillon decided to focus his attention. In order to narrow down the field he had to start somewhere. It was easy to pick this type out once he had it all down on paper in front of him. He scanned for occurrences of word patterns, using a mental calculus of Jaccard distances and base pair sequence algorithms to spot the more ridiculous sets. It was these he set aside, and once he’d sifted the stack down to forty five pages out of the original six hundred and seven (a potential reduction in the workload of only seven percent but still a beginning), he shuffled through them randomly, glancing here and there, seeking and picking out the word that bound them all together. The word was “jump” and it occurred in several different contexts.

Why did suicidal jumpers favor the Golden Gate Bridge among all bridges? Was it true the per capita incidence was statistically higher for that bridge than any other?

Why had there been a notable increase in the rate of failed parachute openings during the previous spring in North America?

Why was there always a dance craze centered around the word or concept of “jump” every thirteen to fifteen years in Central Europe and/or the Mediterranean region?

Why had the average leaping distance of South African Bone Frogs decreased more than forty percent in the past decade?

Why was it raining lobsters on the plains of Patagonia?

Dillon was certain there was a common link in all these queries, and the several others that either repeated the same questions or were slight variations on the same themes, such other bridges, other frogs, or the skin colors of certain jump rope champions. Were these people feeling especially nervous these days? Were they excited? Were they as a class comparable to the legendary canary? Why indeed was it raining lobsters in the plains of Patagonia? There are typically no such creatures within a thousand miles of the place. Of course there had long been tales of amphibian storms with explanations that had satisfied the lesser scientific minds of several generations. What made this case especially interesting was the math. If his calculations were correct, the lobsters were popping out of thin air at an exact altitude of twenty two thousand feet, and their distribution on the plains indicated their origin from a specific central location.

We’ll be arriving in a few minutes,” the Commander announced over the loudspeaker.

Dillon gazed out the window. It was early afternoon and there was not a cloud in the sky. Far below them the pampas spread in every direction, featureless, blank and desolate. Off to the west a distant mountain range rose, and he knew from the maps that the ocean was somewhere to the east, but far away and out of sight.

Instructions, sir?” Bethany asked.

Can we circle that spot?” Dillon asked. “Is that possible?”

Of course,” she replied. “How close do you need to be?”

Oh, anything within a half a mile, I think,” he said. “I don’t quite know for sure.”

Are you looking for anything in particular?” she asked.

You mean besides lobsters?”

Yes.”

No, just lobsters.”

The crustaceans had fallen a week earlier, and also a week before that, and exactly one week before that as well. Whether the pattern would end at three Thursdays in a row, or whether another Thursday would bring another incidence remained to be seen. The Commander’s timing was excellent, at least. It was nearly three o’clock, the very hour of the recent lobster rains. Dillon was patient, and made Bethany circle the area for another two hours, but they had no luck. No creatures of any sort emerged from the clear blue sky, and Dillon had to admit to himself that his one lone witness, who’d written from a mental hospital in Rosario, might not have been the most reliable informant. Nevertheless, he worked on the equation he’d been saving for this exact location, and when he was satisfied with the results, he gave further instructions to the Commander. They flew on to Buenos Aires where she arranged a comfortable accommodation for the night. Bethany slept soundly. Oddly, she felt like she had actually achieved something, although as far as she knew their mission had been a failure in every respect.

When met for breakfast in the morning, she expected further instructions, but instead she found Dillon strangely silent as he mulled over his steak and eggs. After she could contain it no longer, she decided to ask the one question that had occupying her mind ever since she’d met him.

What did you mean when you said that greatness is meaningless?”

Greatness can never be achieved,” he said. “It can only be given, bestowed like a title or a trophy or a gift. It is provided by others. One cannot attain it for oneself. You can do the most remarkable things but if it goes unrecognized it can never be great. Greatness is a seal of approval, a stamp, a mark. It can be applied to anything by anyone, and so it has no intrinsic meaning. Do you see that thing there, outside the window?” he pointed.

The tree?”

Right. The tree. The word “tree” has a meaning. There it is. You know it, I know it, we agree upon it. Is there anything called “great” that you and I would indisputably agree on as surely as we agree on the meaning of tree?”

But people can be the best at something. Isn’t that greatness?”

That’s just being the best at something. Haven’t you been the best at something many times? You know what that is like.”

It’s never good enough,” she muttered.

No,” he said. “You’re wrong. It’s always good enough, more than good enough. You just never gave yourself permission to be satisfied, to be done with it, to move on. But you can always be the best at everything you do as long as what you do is something that no one else can do.”

That sounds like you.” she said.

No,” he replied, “I’m just getting started, but I think I have figured out our little case at hand, though I don’t want to “jump” to conclusions.” He laughed and got up from the table.

Barrancabermeja,” he said. “and then home.”

Barrancabermeja? Colombia?”

Just for a couple of hours, and then home,” he said.

The Commander had the plane refueled and ready to go as quickly as she could, then they flew off to that small city in the Andean mountains. She followed him as he walked to the edge of the small airport’s grounds, where he peered over the edge of what seemed an improbable cliff at the end of the service road. The road had simply collapsed, and a hundred feet below they could see the remnants of abandoned cars and trucks, as well as bits of steel and concrete that formerly had been parts of sheds and other out buildings. On the other side of the narrow gorge, a forested mountain rose up high. Dillon pulled out his phone and recorded a brief video of the depths.

When did this happen?” Bethany asked.

A month ago,” he said, taking a step back. He scanned the long line of the jagged cliff which extended for a half a mile in either direction.

It was just an ordinary landslide,” he said. “No one saw or even heard it happening. When the workers came in the morning, they found it just like this.”

What do you think it means? Is it related to the jumpers?”

You never know.”

There’s nothing to worry about,” he remarked as they climbed back into the plane and they made ready to return to San Francisco, but he wasn’t referring to the puzzled expression on the Commander’s face. His comment was meant for that subset of worriers whose preoccupations had drawn his attention, the jumpers. He’d formed a clear diagnosis, one he felt he should have recognized immediately. Every one of the forty five people whose queries he had collected together was afflicted with the same condition, a chromosomal imbalance that led to an erratic activity in the amygdala on a fairly predictable schedule. When triggered, these people would become aware, on a subconscious level, of certain kinds of apparent irregularities in the normal course of events; statistical anomalies, meaningless deviations, insignificant differences. The condition could easily be cured with baby aspirin, cranberry juice, Hatha Yoga and/ Panamanian folk music in regular doses. As it turned out, more than two hundred thousand people around the globe were subject to the same previously undetected and undiagnosed affliction, thereafter known as PLS, or Patagonian Lobster Syndrome.

The proof was in the inbox. Within weeks the number of queries he received was indeed reduced by approximately seven percent. The volume was still overwhelming, though. He was going to have to find another way of dealing with it if he was truly going to pursue this vocation.

If we’d known you wanted to be a detective,” his grandmother chided him during their next weekly conference call, “We would have made you watch more television.”

I don’t know why you’re bothering, really,” his grandfather said, “Sounds like a bunch of cranks.”

There’s bound to be some of interest,” Kintara countered. “One in a million, maybe, but still, that one.”

That million,” Wilkins grumbled. “Who’s going to sort through ’em all.”

Yeah,” Dillon sighed, “that’s the biggest problem. And the false alarms. And the sheer fictions. What I don’t understand is how the wildest things go un-noticed. Like that landslide in Colombia I told you about, right?”

What about it?”

Way down at the bottom. I couldn’t be sure at first. It was hard to see, so I zoomed in on the footage. Sure enough, there they were. Brown as the mud, and slow as tar, but there they were.”

There what were?” asked Kintara after a long moment when her grandson stopped his narrative.

Lobsters,” he said. “Far from home and way off course.”

Now there’s a genuine outlier,” Wilkins chuckled.

There’s a needle in every haystack,” Dillon said.

One in a million,” his grandmother added. “but one in every million.”

And that’s why I’m doing it,” he said. “For the ones.”

Recommended: The Choices, by Michael Graeme

The myth of the eternal return is one of those bottomless founts for speculative fiction. What if you could do it all over again? What would you do this time? If only this instead of that had happened. If only you could get a second chance. It’s fertile ground, often trod, but like clay can be shaped anew in the hands of every one who picks it up and plays with it. Michael Graeme has a nice take on it here in this story. There is no reincarnation, no continuous replay of the same day a la Groundhog Day, but one’s entire life, as it is, rewound and replayed over and over again seemingly for eternity, each time allowing for all the paths not taken to be taken, for each one to lead out into its own ending, and yet to have to start all over again no matter what the outcome. The narrator has done this so many times that he has narrowed down the critical juncture of his life to one night in one hotel bar and the set of possible alternatives presented to him there. He has come to believe that the cycle can only be broken when the one “correct” choice has been made, when the real and true destiny is selected and followed through to the end. We cannot know if he is right about that, and the ending leaves us suspecting that there is no end, there is no right choice, there are only “the choices”. If, as the expression goes these days, “it is what it is”, then these choices “are what they are”, and each of us are limited to a certain set. It may be a large set – the imagination boggles at all the possible twistings and turnings of fate that can occur at any instant – but a finite set nonetheless. We are here and now, in this time and place, and nowhere else, and as no one else. In the final analysis, wherever you go, there you are. Michael Graeme tells this story as clearly, as calmly and as compellingly as he always does, taking you down another road well worth traveling.

Recommendations from 8 Days of Ether Books Flash Fiction

Now, I have not read all of the stories in the Ether Books ‘8 Days’ Flash Fiction competition – there are a lot! – but here I am going to talk about those that I did read and gladly recommend. You need the EtherBooks app in your phone or tablet to read them, but the link above works on the web to at least see the titles and their descriptions. It’s difficult to discuss fictions of 500 words or less without giving everything away, but I’ll give it a try.

They Really Do Look Like Ants by Natalie Bowers (in the TRAGEDY section) is practically an entire Sci-Fi thriller in only 500 words. I liked how the meat of the story snuck up on me, and then the last line really wowed me.

The People Indoors by Suzanne Conboy-Hill (in the RISK section) takes the concept of “I dare you” to a whole new (and higher) level.

Bein a Family ‘Cordin to Miss Charmian by Lindsay Fisher (in the FAMILY section) tells a sorry story in its own vibrant idiom.

The Future-Teller by Shravya Gunipudi (in the HATS section) makes an ordinary shopping expedition anything but when the choices you make offer such different paths going forward.

Conversations with Lego by Karla Mouncey-Jaggers (in the FAMILY section) makes a dad take notice – that toy you hear could be coming from inside the house!

0 Out of 10 by Liz Hedgecock (in the FAMILY section) is a stream of barely-consciousness in which when mom says A WORD you really take notice!

What’s He Up To? by Lee Williamson (in the ADVENTURE section) impressed me, even though the wife in the story never was.

When? by Susan O’Reilly (in the TIME section) made me want to notice everything I never do. What a small fraction of reality our brains let us process! Or at least mine …

 

 

 

 

 

EtherBooks 8 Days of Flash Fiction

The Ether Books 8 Days of Flash Fiction “competition” was quite fun. I only wish I had discovered it before the 3rd day. As it was, I could only submit 6 stories (as you had only 24 hours for each one). The stories can be found on the Ether Books app (and on their website, here), as well as on this blog over the past week! I don’t expect to see many downloads from the Ether Boosks app but that’s not important to me. I do recommend the app, though, It’s a different kind of ereader, specializing in short fictions for mobile devices only, for quick reads while waiting in line or wherever. I’ve found a number of good ones, including a couple by one of my favorite writers, Rowena Wiseman.

My own pieces in the contest include:

Stoplight – a story about chronic fatigue – in fact, this was originally a song I wrote for my band (which, yes, was called Bobby and the Bedouins)

When you wake up, you’ll be someone else, who am I this time?

    Got no memory, got no face, gone without a trace.

   Where have I been? What have I done?

   Saw it coming, didn’t see it come.

   Stoplight

Twins – a sketchy character sketch based somewhat on somebody that I used to know

The Sultan – likewise more or less a person I knew around the same time and place

The Hobbits – One day at a certain tech company I turned over a rock and look what I found! The IT trolls!

The Pre-Bereaver – Now this is someone I just made up. The illustration, if you follow the link, is a sample of one of my many thousands of “nickelheads”. I used to spend a great deal of time in school classrooms outlining nickels on sheets of paper, and then filling in faces and giving them names. This guy was “Nigel”. It’s a tradition I’ve been proud to hand down to my son!

Survivor – There’s always a time and place for the Survivor, especially the One whose toilet is a pot of gold