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the mancunian candidate

August 28th, 2004

stairsgarage.JPG it took over a minute for me to realize we’d come to the surface and into some sort of parking structure. dazed, i followed samuel through the wide, shallow puddles of natural light. the light had been the give-away. this space didn’t feel or smell outdoors. it was only the light and i moved toward it.

two pots of tea, a rack of toast, and a soft boiled egg later i was a new animal. no longer a timid, little reptile, i now counted myself among the primates. though not quite human, of course, next to this highly polished specimen, samuel.

he hadn’t said a word about anything other than breakfast since we’d left the cold room, now it seemed like the dining portion of my adventure would soon be coming to a close. his energy’s shifting, i noticed, knowing how new agey that sounded in this setting. he was getting a bit twitchy, so i decided to seed the cloud.

“so, what’s on your mind, anyway? i’m positive i’ve done nothing intentionally remiss, so how can i be a help to you lot, whoever you are?”

“is bruce massie really your cousin?” he asked, motioning for the check to someone i couldn’t see.

“once removed, yes, of course. and i really had no idea what our little game might look like to someone else….you, for instance. same with that silly gamebot…just games that spooked the spooks…..”

“sounds like that movie “WarGames.”

“man, i loved that movie….’shall we play a game?’…the story, the teen romance, the moral, all great, but i really, really hated that they expected us to believe you could war-dial using an acoustic modem…….”

samuel wasn’t responding, so i put down my half of the conversation and took a drink of water. after a time, he spoke.

“okay, say i believe that none of your card buddies had a clue where they were, which seems to be the case. and also about your gamebot. i understand you were in the facility as part of luddie’s team, helping out with sandstone, the project you know as professor singh’s file conversions and translations.”

“yup, that’s right, that’s what they kept me here for and then they didn’t need me for hours. and i was supposed to be at Apachecon, and that made me impatient. so i strayed from the straights and narrows of outrageous fortune right into a card game and now seem to have ended up in another fine mess.”

i’d finished my tea ages ago, but i picked up the teacup, swirled it around gently, and turned it over in my saucer.

“are you reading your tea leaves?” he smiles and once again it is disarming.

“i’m looking for any insight i can get, samuel. i honestly have no idea why i’ve been carted off, kept, and questioned, and i think i’ve been a darn good sport….i’m on the clock, after all, and i figure we’re all on the same team….but now i’m wondering.”

“well, here’s the problem.” he opened his briefcase and pulled out a thick stack of paper, a print-out on old-fashioned autofeed, perforated paper, which he put on the table between us.

“wow, i didn’t know any one still used that stuff, impressive.” i said of the paper.

“these are logs for the past two weeks of your home computer as well as the two boxes at the co-lo in fremont, california.” he turned the stack around for me to read.

“you’ll notice, about twenty pages in, we found of particular interest, a little daemon process called imperial.msg. would you mind explaining that?”

i open the report, look down rows and across columns, trying to take it all in calmly and quickly, to see just what they’d “logged”. this is yet another kind of literacy our schools don’t teach, reading machine generated reports.

i smile at the wanderings of my mind, even in moments like these, and keep skimming through the print-out in silence, not exactly surprised by the complete transparency of my electronic life, but stunned, and sort of in awe of this brave, new universe around me. after a time i regain powers of speech.

“i understand your interest in imperial.msg and the traffic it might conceal, but that’s not what it’s there for, and not what it’s used for, at least not by me. it’s basically just an arty network monitor that cycles through a set of diagnostics, generates and sends reports…all the dummy content, odd as it may seem to you, is……….well, art, or something like that…a game of sorts…you know.”

he looks at me, then at his watch. he’d paid the bill before taking the logs out of his briefcase, so we were free to leave. i wait for a cue, but he just looks at me skeptically, or is that disdain?”

“look, samuel, do you know the kafka short story An Imperial Message?”

“yes, i like kafka quite a bit, actually.” i’m surprised to hear him answer.

“and i’m fairly sure i’ve read that, a very short story indeed, right, only a paragraph, but i can’t recall it, other than a line or two. why? what’s the relation between that story and your daemon?”

it’s a surreal question and i laugh. kafka is always a cut-up at interrogations.

“sorry, i promise i’ll answer the question, i mean no disrespect, laughing, it’s just a reflex…sorry….but first, tell me what line of imperial message you remember?” do you remember this?:

“No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man.”

samuel smiles, “this is all very edifying, jennifer, but would you get to the question at hand?”

“that’s got to be one of my all-time favorite lines, that, and the one right after it, the last line of the story, anyway, okay, you’re a patient guy, i’m a chatty cathy, but knowing the story is actually relevant to understanding the daemon that you’re asking about.”

i pause to make sure he understands i’m serious, then continue.

“because, as you’ll recall, in the story the emperor, from his deathbed has sent a message to you the humble subject, and the tireless messenger struggles through an infinite series of walls, crowds, and obstacles, striving to bring you this message that never arrives…so that’s what imperial.msg is designed to mimic, the endless circuit of this message through the network…that’s the arty part, but as far as functionality goes, it’s pretty basic stuff.”

“but you see the dangers, you understand our concerns, right?” he leans in to say this as if to keep others from overhearing, but there’s no one else about.

“i do and i’m very sorry for any misunderstandings. even though i only do contract stuff for luddie’s group now and again, i have some family history here, i hope you understand i would never deliberately do anything to compromise country or company.”

“this is precisely what i’m trying to ascertain, your mum’s uncle taught here, right? an australian physicist knighted for his work with oppenheimer on the bomb, i believe. but luddie says you told him it’s your dad’s work that got you involved, so i’m a bit unclear, even after doing my homework.”

“where are you from?” i ask boldly.

i’d been wondering since he’d introduced himself where on earth to place his accent. it was so many different things at once, and yet it’s own thing entirely. he’d said “mum” just now and that was, finally, a major clue. i just had to ask.

“what?” he sounded surprised.

“where are you from? where were you born and bred?

“why do you ask?”

“because i’ve been trying to place your accent for about three hours now, and it’s defied me, and you just said ‘mum’ and i wanted to know…”

“please…” i continue in a mock plaintive voice. “it’s less awful for me if i feel there’s an exchange of information taking place here. otherwise, you know, i feel so used.” perhaps flirtatious joking would get him to talk.

“what are your guesses so far?” he asks. it seems to be working.

“well, at first i thought american, east-coast, but then i thought ah, clearly some kind of british accent i’ve not heard before, or maybe a south african who’s worked closely with americans for a long time, but every now and again, i hear something vaguely yiddish, like when you said ‘oppenheimer’ just then, so i can’t place it, i’m stumped.”

“wow, that’s damn good actually.” he laughs, takes a long, slow breath, and relents with a shy smile.

“i was born and raised here in england, in manchester, actually. my mother’s israeli, my dad’s american, both german jews, and i’ve lived in the states since i was 12, so you covered all the bases, actually, and i’m quite impressed.” he seemed genuine.

“so do I win anything?”

“no, because you gave up. you might have presented exactly those observations in a far more assertive light.”

“meanie.” i grumble, making a frowny face.

“tell you what, let’s walk and talk.” he pushed back from the table.

“i’ll have someone contact luddie, let him know how to reach you when and if he needs. you’re still on the clock and you and i, we’re just having a friendly chat, where you’ll fill me in and we’ll get you back to london as soon as possible. how does that sound?”

i watched as he stood, put on his well-made raincoat, and put the papers back in the briefcase.

“that sounds peachy” i said. and it did.

i relish few things better than a morning walk and the streets of this medieval city were as fine a place as any for such undertaking.

mouse events and other tiny trajedies

August 14th, 2004

“did you really think this would fool, anyone?” the man was clearly talking to me but, just awakened, i had no idea what “this” was.

he held out an eight-by-ten glossy which i took and held under the table lamp.


“hey, it’s my desktop back home in california.” i tried to sound as gee-whiz american as i could.

“yes, well, in that case, perhaps you wouldn’t mind explaining why it’s set up to look like you’re there active, working, sending email, and playing games, when you’ve been over here in england the last ten days?”

“yeah, sure” i say, but i want a moment to clear my eyes and size up the people in the room. i would’ve killed for a cup of tea, but that was proably out of the question.

“you’re going to laugh when you understand, it’s all because of that game, that’s not subterfuge, that’s what it’s set up for, that’s what the spoofing is for!”

“and those open relays, are they part of a game, too?” it was mr. killjoy back from the undead.

“hello again,” i say brightly, “no, you’re right, they’re not part of the game, though they do help me there, but i’m happy to close ’em up toute suite, if that’s what you’d like.” i pray to god this move, this deferential nod, is seen as sincere rather than sarcastic.

“what we’d like,” said the man who had handed me the picture, “is an accounting of all spoofed activity originating from this machine since october 19.”

“okay, well, for itemized details i’d have to look at logs, but here’s the big picture and it’s pretty simple.” i’m scared and can hear it in my voice. they won’t hear it, i reassure myself. they don’t know what i’m like when not being questioned in a freezing, windowless room by a cadre of preppy-looking spooks. or is it spooky-looking preps? fear only exacerbates the interior monologue of quips.

“i play this game online and as you play you gain experience and move up in levels, accumulating skills and other valuable items and powers. if i don’t login for two weeks, it’ll cost me. i’ll not only fall behind, i’ll become vulnerable to more extreme challenges. so this is what i set up when i’m away…”

i hear the air conditioners. i hear the two women at workstations in the back of the room. i hear my heart between uneven breaths. but from mr. killjoy and the not-so-grand inquisitor, i hear nothing for quite some time.

.cyberlotusfour.jpg the silence is restful. in it i see my position more clearly. i see other cards to play.

i see, for the first time, two people seated behind me, one of whom gets up, walks around, and extends his hand to me.

“i’m samuel. how long have you been playing MMOGs?”

“awhile” i answer tersely. this guy seems very smooth.

“then, i’m sure you’re aware it’s against camelot rules to script your crafting like that.”

“true, but it’s hardly uncommon, and hardly warrants a federal investigation.”

he smiles and this turns out to be as disarming as the voice. just what i need, more excitement, another vulnerability, sheesh.

“by itself, no, of course not, but in conjunction with the security breech and trespassing you facilitated last night, i’d say it merits looking into, wouldn’t you?”

“security breech and trespassing? oh man, you’re talking about the card game, aren’t you? ”

“afraid so.” he looked genuinely concerned. but perhaps it was just my wistful, wishful thinking.

“well, now you see, it really is all a fuss over games.” i blurt as the blood rushes to my face.

what are they being so uptight about? they’re not being very friendly and i’m not even a trespasser. i was required to be here. apprehended at the train station.

“Your poker crew included four foreign nationals—three high-energy physicists and an  intelligence consultant—none of whom had the clearances to be where you brought them.”

“really?” god, that did sound bad. i’d had no idea.

“well, from my point of view, it was my cousin, who teaches here, and his research buddies, who probably are all physicists, but honestly, it never came up…and given that i’m a foreigner here, i’ll admit it never crossed my mind, i mean, in this context, i have no idea what foreign means, you know…”

“he’s actually my mother’s cousin, which technically would make him my cousin once removed, just to show that i’m being totally open with you…and yes, i did sneak them all in…and yes, i understand that it looks bad, but it was only because i’d been told not to leave the complex, as i assume you know, and only for a card game.” i paused for air and tacked a little.

“i’m no trespasser, … i’m a guest worker, an invited guest who hasn’t said a peep about any so-called expectation of privacy on my home computer, or anything like that, but i’m beginning to get antsy…i mean, do i need a lawyer? it sounds like i’m being accused of something?”

“your mother’s cousin?” samuel said distractedly, clearly thinking of something else as he spoke. did he believe at least some of what i’d said?

it seemed so because after a moment he gestured and walked toward the door.

“let’s talk about this over breakfast, you seem like you could use a cup of tea.”

straights and narrows

August 7th, 2004

tawdry as it sounds, they found me in the break room playing cards. bruce, jeffries, and their mates from the lab had a weekly game. when they heard i wasn’t free to leave the complex, but wasn’t at the moment occupied, and was in fact extremely bored waiting my turn to do my bit, they offered to bring the game round as a diversion. apparently, bruce had talked me up as quite a card shark. ha.
we’d been playing more than a few hours when in they came as if we should’ve heard the trumpets announce them. three men, all very serious.

as a reflex, i was about to make a wisecrack when the small, reptilian part of my brain broke through with a message: “fear, look, listen, don’t move.”

“they need to talk to her.” one of them said.

“Who?” protested jeffries. “She’s already talked to everyone, haven’t you dear?” he turned my way but kept his eye on mr. killjoy.

“The Americans” he said flatly, then added sarcastically, “The G-men.”

“Yes, quite, she spoke at length with the US Government gentlemen this afternoon,” jefferies countered. “Now, if you please this is a hand we’re all rather interested in playing out, as you can see.” he nodded to the table.

“These are a different lot,” mr. killjoy returned flatly. i couldn’t tell if he looked at the table first, but he took a beat and seemed to scan the room on his inhale, as though he were sampling the energy field around each of us. sniffing for bombs.

when he got to me i punked out even though i had a decent hand. i stood up, got my cardigan off the chair back, put it on, pulled my hair out from under it, and placed my cards face down on the table.

“might as well quit while i’m ahead, kids.” i scooped my chips up and handed them to bruce. “take care of these for me, will you cousin,” i hear myself saying in a far away voice as the room does a deep spin and tilt maneuver. i have not fainted, but i can not feel my feet as we move for what seems like hours through halls and corridors, alternately underlit and over-lit. up and down stairs and elevators and into yet another windowless room.

maybe they’re going to show an in-flight movie i joke (to myself or out loud, i’m not sure), as someone nudges me into a plush chair in a darkened, over-airconditioned space. the air is frigid and coffee-scented. together with the hum of central cooling it puts me in mind of a long, jet flight. after the meal and coffee, but before the movie, i think, dozing off in what really was an extremely comfortable chair.

everything that is the case

August 6th, 2004

this day that had begun like any other, with a simple and traditional ontology of states and events, was turning in to quite a circus.
luddie in tow, i’d met simon at the eagle. luddie insisted on calling it “the watson and crick pub” and on speaking very loudly despite that we were the lone patrons of a small, quiet, space. after a few pints, he began calling it “the dna pub” and interspersed this pithy observation with the phrase “wattle and daub,” of which he was evidently fond.

simon and i talked around him until, about ninety minutes later, the others arrived. by then it was clear luddie had won and i would not only have to go back to work, but would physically have to assist my captor in taking me in.

“it’s a thing better done sooner, rather than later,” i remember saying as i excused myself from the table, pulling luddie to his feet after me. jump cut and i’m here at this screen, in a windowless room, listening to and looking at this waveform, hour upon hour, a three second loop.

“Is it English,” the smiley guy from the company poked his head in the door walking by.
“we don’t even know if it’s language, sir, but we’ll keep you posted,” answers luddie.

please go away i think as pleasantly as i can.

the work is tedious and painstaking. searching for patterns blind in a gobi desert of data sand. what is the granular structure of the message? is it lexical, graphical, musical, numeric?

“about the only thing we do know,” i joked, “is that it ain’t chemical.” i was thinking of the Bain’s Chemical Telegraph exhibit i’d seen last week at the london museum of science. but no one else knew that and no one else laughed. i laughed for them, thinking it’s always good to know you’ve ruled out something. little by little at first, then all at once, that’s how mysteries are revealed, don’t you know.
there it was, the wisconsin influence, “doncha know,” noticing it made me laugh again and this time, eric shot me a look and narrowed his eyes purposefully.
“what’s so funny?”
“this is,” i answer quietly as i launch in to the story of how i’d unwittingly lost a whole day last week on one floor of the science museum. telegraphy, telephony, computing, it was all there on parade. my friend and i spent the day making up and trying to break each other’s codes, using everything from cell phone text messaging to cafeteria forks.
“i never thought i’d have more fun with signal and character encoding than that,” i finished.
“you talk too much.”
“you asked and this is what i find funny. more fun with character encoding you can not have,” i got up to get myself a cup of tea as i spoke and that was my mistake.
in the logical space where event is defined as a change of state or location, i ought to have finished my statement, then moved. by moving as i spoke i’d made my statement an event. i talked too much. i moved too much. but at least i lived my own generative grammar, thank you. in state and event schemas where extra semantic detail is forced back into the verb, where it belongs.

newton’s window

August 3rd, 2004

i stared at it for quite a long time and couldn’t decide if i ought regard it a shrine or a relic.
he believed in witches, my ludic dark side whispers, so do i the other i replies.
straight before me in that cross building joining the cathedral-sized chapel and fortified archway, right there behind those center windows, is the room where Isaac Newton made his optics experiments, right about this time of day.

what light, i marvel. what utterly perfect light in which to view this holy place of science. it is thrice blessed for it brings out the green of grass, as much as the blue of sky, and purple of hair.

“shrine, yes shrine,” i decided as i walked around the green at Kings College, Cambridge. “shrine on you crazy diamond, hehe indeed.” i’d seen a lot of holy places that day. great uncle harrie’s classroom, the oldest college at Cambridge, the murky river Cam, the Cavendish where Rutherford discovered corpuscles, particles that later came to be recognized as electrons. yes indeed, i was high on science and it was definitely time to hit the pub and put a lid on it.

just then, out of the corner of my eye, i saw Luddie Balmer coming towards me. here; in the wide, open plane of rationality; in the pure light of science; there was absolutely no place to hide. so, i smiled and got to work on a lie. naturally, he would have something that needed my full and immediate attention. just as naturally, i would not attend to any of it until my own and earlier plan for a pint had been executed in full.

“Ludwig, my dear man, how are you?” i say as jovially as I can.

“don’t pretend you’re happy to see me. i know you thought you were done for the week. i know you have an eight o’clock train.”

“all that can be changed. of course i’m happy to see you.” lie one.

“i’m just headed to meet some folks for a drink. interesting and important folks, you must come along.” lie two.

“let’s just say it took an hour or two longer to find me than it did, huh? you caught me at the station, alright?” lie three, and arguably the worst since it solicited another to join me in deception.

let the games begin, i thought, as we walked amicably together toward the pub. fasten your togas party people, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.