Friday, October 22, 2010

I, Pad

I just signed up for Netflix after a lapse of a few years and discovered that I can stream movies to my iPad using their app. And it works pretty well!

Escape Claws

I can't tell you how often I have been in a shopping mall, an airport, or a train station, and said, "You know, I could really go for a live crab." Well, if I were in Nanjing, China, I could just stroll up to a live crab vending machine. The machine keeps the crustaceans at a 5 degrees Celsius, at which point, apparently, they go into a kind of hibernation or suspended animation. And, the vending machine's owner says, if you are accidentally dispensed a dead crab, they will give you three live crabs. Sweet deal, if by "sweet" you mean "horrifying."

I have no idea what they are saying in this video, but some of the user reactions don't seem encouraging.

On the plus side, it would thwart people reaching their hands up in the machine to steal a free one!

A Sucker for Tentacles

I can't remember the last time I had a pot pie of any kind, but this idea (via Boing Boing) for a tentacle pot pie may make me reconsider.
Up next a shepherd's pie made from actual shepherds.

You Have to Hand It To Them

Who says great designers don't think alike?

The other day, I bought the book Proofiness, by Charles Seife, published by Viking, which is an excellent (and funny) exposé of math abuse and deception in today's media (a worthy modern take on the old 1950s classic How to Lie With Statistics). Highly recommended.

This morning, I received in the post a review copy of a book called Sleights of Mind by Steven Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, two neuroscience researchers whom I had met at the Santa Fe Science Writers Workshop last year, and who study how the mind lies to us, published by Henry Holt. I am looking forward to reading it.

What immediately struck me about these two books were their covers:
Those hands certainly get around! (Thank you, Thing.) In fact, close examination shows that it is the same stock image (from Getty Images, according to both book jackets). They're wearing gloves, otherwise I would check their prints.

It kind of reminds me of that back page in Consumer Reports where they occasionally show all the different ads that use the same stock photo models; one poor guy, apparently, had every disease on Earth until he finally turned up in an ad for a funeral home. Then there was the fickle family who were in one ad for a cable company and then the same bunch turned up in another ad for satellite TV.

My former TrendWatch colleague Heidi Tolliver-Nigro and I used to write a lot about stock photos back in the day and we would always point out that one of the downsides to using royalty-free imagery was the chance that someone else would end up using the same image.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Even Yet More "Antisocial!"

The story continues.


“I have two questions.”


“’Where are we’ and ‘is that a dragon?’”

“Unknown and affirmative.”

“I have a third question.”


“’Do you have anything to drink on you?’”




Thirty seconds earlier, Dr. Pock and Jet had abruptly appeared in what appeared to be a dimly lit room. Upon further investigation, Pock was able to discern that it was some kind of bar. He grinned. However, his elation was quelled when he caught sight of the dragon not ten feet away from where he and Jet were standing. Its presence was bad enough; that it stood between Pock and the bar was the bigger issue.

It wasn’t particularly large as far as dragons went; it measured maybe five or six feet from nose to tail when on all fours. It had thick, rust-colored scales that covered its entire body, and a set of fearsome claws. Curiously, on its back was a large tattoo of what looked like a raven-haired teenage girl. Pock found that curious. The dragon had a set of ominous teeth that were only visible when it smiled.

Wait... thought Pock. Smiled?

“A fourth question,” he said.


“’Is that dragon smiling?’”



Indeed, although a dragon is, physiologically, a fearsome creature, the fact that this one seemed to be smiling—and not smiling in an evil or mischievous way—was decidedly at odds with what was otherwise a daunting appearance.

“A sixth question.”

“I believe you’re only up to five,” said the dragon in a remarkably clear, articulate voice.

Now Pock was completely freaked out.

“Unless I miss my guess,” the dragon continued, “you are the unwitting victim of a wanderhole.”

“A what?”

“A wanderhole. A small fragment of a wormhole that, as its name suggests, wanders through space. They were created decades ago during the great intragalactic wormhole building projects. When the wormholes were created and manipulated to travel in certain directions, small bits were dislodged and have been traveling randomly through the galaxy. Only very rarely are sentient beings or spacecraft unlucky enough to fall into them. I mean, the odds of it are pretty astronomical. But this is astronomy, after all, and sometimes these things happen. It looks like you two have just joined a very select club.”


“At any rate, welcome to here.”

“What is the name of here?” asked Pock.

“Come again?”

“This planet. This place. What’s the name of it?”

The dragon thought. “That’s a good question. We don’t really have a name for it.”

“You don’t?”

The dragon shrugged. “It’s never come up before. We just refer to this place as ‘here’ or ‘this place’.

“What’s your name then?”

“We don’t have names. We’re more of a pronoun-based culture.”

“But not very pro-noun,” offered Pock.

“Yes, that’s very good. At any rate, let me buy you two a drink.”

Pock moved to a barstool with a speed that the dragon could swear caused a red-shift. Jet and the dragon sat on either side of him. A taller, upright, much stouter dragon appeared behind the bar and poured three drinks. Pock gave it a cursory examination before taking a sip. It tasted remarkably like gin, but with more beef. And like that would stop him. He downed it in one gulp and the bartending dragon poured another one.

“I’m Benjamin, Benjamin Pock. And this is Jet. Jet’s a robot. We’re from the planet Earth which is, um, somewhere far from here.”

“I can imagine. The wanderholes can send folks on some wild journeys.”

Pock downed another drink and a third one appeared in front of him. Whatever this place was or wasn’t called, he liked it already.

“It’s remarkable, though, that you speak perfect English,” said Pock.

“Come again?”

“Your English. It’s perfect for a race that has never heard of Earth.”

The dragon looked at him confusedly. “That’s curious. I was about to say the same thing about your speaking our language perfectly.”

“Which is called...”

Our language,” said Pock and the dragon simultaneously, as Pock was starting to catch on. Well, to a point.

“My little red friend, you are blowing my mind,” said Pock, quickly draining his third drink.

“It really is a question of tradition,” said the dragon. “You see, many thousands of years ago, the two beings who developed our language met for what has come down to us through our lore as The Naming of Things, when they gave all the objects, and creatures, and plants, and feelings, and snack crackers in our culture certain names. But then they stopped abruptly, and said, ‘Whoa, dude, these names we have for everything are so totally sick, but if we, like, give all the gnarly beings a single name, then, like, they’ll be stuck with that and that’s all they’ll ever be, which would totally suck.’”

“They spoke strangely,” said Pock.

“Yes, well, it was an early form of our language, which has evolved and grown in complexity. And become less ridiculous. Anyway, they decided that nouns—especially proper nouns—were far too existentially limiting, so they named as few things as possible, just the bare minimum of what was needed to actually have a functioning language and culture, and that was it.”

“That’s cool.”

A few more dragons had started entering the place and took places at the bar, at booths, or at highboy tables set around the edge of the room. Pock looked around curiously.

“What up?”

“It is the Red Hour,” said the dragon.

“Red Hour?”

“A daily ritual of the most solemn type, marking the close of another day, another day’s worth of good work done, and a celebration of life. It involves high spirits, revelry, and heavy drinking.”

“Basically Happy Hour,” said Pock.

“Yes, But ‘Red Hour’ sounds a bit more ominous.”

“Hey, I’m just happy to see that you actually have a name for something, my nounless friend.”

“It’s that important to our culture. The trouble is,” the dragon added with a touch of sadness, “that our insta-choir—well, jukebox, really—is broken.”

Pock perked up. “Well, my friend, you are lucky that we happened in here today. Jet—“

Jet had been sitting quietly, staring at the drink he was unable to actually consume, performing a chemical analysis of it with his eye sensors.

“You might be interested to know what this contains,” he said to Pock.

“Never. Anyway, we are in a position to help these people—well, beings. Jet, Command-Boogie Shoes.”

And with that command, Jet stood up and walked out to what it now occurred to Pock was a dance floor. Jet held up his hands, and opened a plastic panel on each of his palms, revealing speaker holes. Loud music started blaring out of his hands, and the dragons all perked up. Some moved into the center of the room and began gyrating.

“He has a whole library of MP3s loaded into him. And we sometimes supplement out incomes by DJing at parties. Our act is called Bennie and the Jet.”


Pock walked over to Jet. He unfastened a clasp behind Jet’s left ear and the top of his bald head swung open on a hinge, revealing a mirror ball. It caught the reflection of the ceiling lights and Jet started rotating his head.

“That’s quite an act you’ve got,” said the dragon.

“You should see karaoke night.”

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Yet Still More Antisocial

Chapter 4 of Antisocial!:


Zev walked in the front door of Armstrong & Associates and approached the reception desk. The General had retained, as receptionist, Major Janice Barbara, career military, formerly of the Elite Computer Virus Task Force, and, Zev thought, intensely psychotic. As he entered and before he could attract her attention, the phone rang.

“What do you want?” she growled into the phone. “What?...Who the hell are you?...Is that name supposed to mean something to me?...He is, is he? I bet...Are you for real or am I going to have to shove a grenade up your ass?...All right, douchebag...Please hold.” She pressed some buttons and hung up the phone. She noticed Zyzzyx, grunted, then pointed with her thumb over her shoulder to the corridor behind her.

“Good to see you again, too,” he said as he passed.

Zev grimaced, then walked down a short carpeted corridor past a half dozen closed wooden doors until he came to a conference room. Inside, General Armstrong 7 was leaning against the table. He looked much the same as he did when last Zev saw him five years earlier. He had lost a little weight, but was still meaty and compact, with a jowly face that made him look more than a little like the bulldog in old Warner Bros. cartoons. He was pushing seventy, but still looked like he could beat the crap out of anyone. And he could, though he tried to do less of that sort of thing these days. The General, who had been born Armstrong Q. Piddle, got married four years earlier to an extraterrestrial, and his new wife insisted he take her name (“7”). He hadn’t put up much of a fight.

He was joined by a blonde, early twentysomething woman whom Zev did not know. Sitting in a chair, looking forlorn, was Tharbax Cannuuttuu. The General saw Zev in the doorway and beckoned him inside.

“You know, General,” said Zev, “if you’re having trouble attracting clients, I think I may have discovered your weak link. Might I suggest an automated phone system?”

“Zev Zyzzyx,” he said in a businesslike fashion, without the slightest indication that they had not seen each other in almost five years, “this is UTa, one of my associates.” He indicated the blonde woman.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, shaking UTa’s hand.

She stared at him blankly.

“UTa,” said the General, “English, ‘nice to meet you.’”

“Nice to meet you,” said UTa.

“Okay, then,” said Zev, a little confused. Then, to Tharbax, who was looking at them impatiently, “You’re sure it was the Ziij?”

“Most assuredly.”

“Do you have visual evidence? It’s recommended that all ships have a visual recording system.”

There was no such thing as galactic law yet—although that was one of the things that Armstrong & Associates was working on—so “recommendations” were the best they could manage.

“Of course.” He turned to the doorway. “Muutuu!”

Two Aldeberans who had been waiting in an adjacent office entered. They were jointly carrying a large wooden crate of the kind used to transport fine art. They set the crate down at the far end of the conference room and began to slowly and carefully lift out a canvas.

“Oil on canvas, five feet by three feet. This is one of Muutuu’s best pieces,” said Tharbax. “He painted it during the attack. I think he truly captures the hostile energy of the attackers.”

Muutuu and the other Aldeberan held up the canvas between them. Zev, Armstrong, and UTa stared blankly at it.

This is your visual recording system?” said Zev.

“What is it?” asked the General.

“I admit it’s abstract,” said Tharbax.

“Abstract? It’s a completely black canvas,” said the General.

Muutuu looked hurt.

“No, it’s not completely black. Muutuu, bring it a little closer. First of all, the lighting in here is appalling, but if it were not, you could tell that the shade of black changes subtly over the width of the canvas, representing the disruption of space itself. If you look ve-e-e-ry closely at the right side of the painting, about halfway down, there is a tiny gray speck.”

Zev and Armstrong leaned in close an stared at the canvas.

“Okay, so there is,” said the General.

“Well, that’s the Gadabout I, a tiny speck in the utter vastness of space, rendered even tinier by this vile attack.”

“Ah,” said Zev, rubbing his forehead. “It’s not...compelling evidence...”

“It’s merely recommended that we have a visual recording system. No one has specified the exact nature of it. Admittedly, Muutuu is a bit more abstract than the artist we normally employ...”

“Okay, thanks,” said Armstrong to Muutuu, and the Aldeberans packed the painting back up. “Fortunately, we have a statement from the Ziij grand exalted leader—sorry, Grand Exalted Leader—taking responsibility for the attack, claiming they were provoked.”

“Provoked!” said Tharbax. “A monstrous slur! We have had no contact with any member of the Ziij for at least two Aldeberan years. It’s entirely possible they might interpret that as a slight, but the Ziij have always made it very clear that they are the ones to initiate any contact, and we have simply been acceding to their request. In the meantime, will you, General, kindly lend us your assistance in launching a counterattack?”

“Now just calm down,” said General Armstrong. In truth, he would love nothing but to launch a wave of intense destruction against the Ziij, but he had set up his consultancy to avoid such things and resolve interplanetary disputes in a more civilized manner. In time, Tharbax would see the wisdom in that philosophy. More importantly, though, the Ziij were one of only a tiny handful of planets in the galaxy that was actually able launch an interplanetary attack. Earth certainly couldn’t. It had cost a fortune and a three-year U.N. and U.S. Congressional boondoggle just getting the funding to build a shuttle to get to and from the nearest wormhole depot.

“I think the matter deserves a bit more investigation before we start a war,” said Zev.

“Investigation? What is there to investigate? They attacked my beautiful ship and decimated my wine cellar. And you two are well aware of the role that the Gadabout I plays in interplanetary relations. In fact, it was I who provided the means for you both establishing galactic amity. So when I-“

The General held up his hand. “Yes, yes, yes, we’re all well aware of this. But what if the whole thing were the result of a simple misunderstanding? It could escalate and claim many thousands or millions of lives needlessly.”

“Oh, I think you’d say quite needfully if you saw what they did to my oak floors.”

“Tharbax,” said Zev, “just give us a couple of days to make contact with the Ziij Grand Exalted Leader and find out what’s going on. Remember, if they launch a counter-counterattack, they could very well end up destroying more than your wine cellar.”

Tharbax thought about that a moment. “Very well. I give you two of your days while we effect repair on our ship. But after that, if this situation is still unresolved, I shall go elsewhere to seek redress of my grievances.” Zev had a vague hunch what he meant by “elsewhere,” and the result would not be good.

“Agreed,” said the General.

Tharbax marched out of the room, followed by the other two Aldberans carrying the re-crated artwork. Zev and Armstrong both sat down heavily at the table.

“What do you think?” asked Zev.

“Aside from a prepared statement, we’ve been unable to make any contact at all with the Ziij. We don’t know what the problem is, or what this so-called ‘provocation’ was. And they’re a pretty ornery race even on a good day. I need to get Pock and Jet to hack into their planetary communication system and make some back-channel inquiries, but I have no idea where they’ve gone.”

“Pock and Jet? That’s strange. You tried calling them?”

“As you know, Pock doesn’t have a cellphone.”

“What about the bar?”

“That’s the first place I thought of. I sent Jet out to get him and now Jet doesn’t respond to phone calls, texts, or e-mails. It’s like they just vanished off the face of the Earth.”

“If he’s not in his office, it’s possible Pock is lying in a gutter somewhere, blind stinking sober,” said Zev.

“I know. That’s what worries me. Or one of the things. I have a whole list of worries somewhere.”

“Do you want me to see what I can dig up?”

“Leave Pock and Jet to me. The Ziij situation is more urgent. I want you to take UTa to the House Despot on Sprawlnia.”

“The home improvement superstore?” He grimaced. He hated that place. “What on Earth for?”

“The general manager is Ziij, and he’s the only off-homeworld Ziij that anyone knows of in the entire galaxy. Maybe he can give you some clues until I can find Pock and Jet.”

“You don’t want me to go to the planet Ziij itself?”

“Not without knowing what kind of a reception you’d get,” said the General.

“That’s a fair point. I’ll head out at once.” Zev turned to UTa. “Do you speak Ziij?”

“UTa speaks every language in the galaxy.”

“You mean...”

“Yes, she’s a Universal Translator.”

Zev stared intently at UTa, who stared blankly back at him. “I’ve heard of Universal Translators but never actually met one.”

“You’ll find that one of the drawbacks of the Universal Translators is that their minds are so crammed full of vocabulary and grammar rules that there is no residual brainpower to initiate or even participate conversation. She just translates. Watch. UTa, Swahili, ‘My name is UTa.’”

She snapped to attention. “Jina langu ni UTa.”

“Interesting,” said Zev. “UTa, French, ‘Let’s go.’”

UTa stared blankly at him and remained silent. Zev looked at Armstrong.

“Well, almost every language in the galaxy,” said the General.

“Ah.” Zev turned back to UTa. “Shall we go?”

Said the General, “UTa, Ziij, ‘Let’s go.’”

Said UTa, “Ghiik nom.”

“I can see we’re going to be having some rather one-sided conversations.”

Zev and UTa headed out toward the next shuttle to the nearest wormhole depot.

Reel Around the Fountains

Day two of the week of concerts brought us to the Paradise in Boston and New York City’s Fountains of Wayne, named for a lawn ornament store in Wayne, NJ. Known for their slickly produced, expertly crafted power pop, they translated that to a live setting fairly effortlessly. The sound was a bit murky (at least where we were perched) so it was difficult to make out the between-song banter, but it didn’t really matter. When a band has only one hit (the rent-a-Cars-esque “Stacey’s Mom”) the rest of their discography is wide open (not the most prolific of bands, in 15 years they have only released four proper albums and one collection of outtakes), but they did seem to focus on those tracks that had been singles, even if some of the song selections were a bit (in my opinion anyway) a bit out in left field (opening with “I’ve Got a Flair”? Okay.), although most did turn up as singles. And there were some of my favorite tracks I wish they had played (“Red Dragon Tattoo,” “Leave the Biker,” “New Routine”) but they neglected to consult me when putting their set list together. (They are reported to be working on a new album, which explains the tracks I was unable to identify.)

The band is based around the core nucleus of songwriters/guitarists Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger (the former is the lead singer, the latter does most of the stage banter), with co-guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young, and in fact Collingwood and Schlesinger often tour as a solo acoustic duo. Their songs are usually story songs and character studies, usually done in a humorous, sarcastic, or satirical way, with great couplets and zingy one-liners, grafted onto songs with big hooks and catchy choruses. They can veer from style to style, and it can be said that if you don’t like their style, just wait a song. Even if “Stacey’s Mom” is the song they are most known for, it’s still a pretty funny track. And “Somebody to Love” is one of the few songs that mention Schenectady.

Fountains of Wayne have always been a distillation of the last 50 years of pop/rock and their songs have often included sly (or sometimes not to sly) references to those who have gone before them—and get inserted into the playlist. (A live version of ELO’s “Can’t Get it Out of my Head” appears on their outtakes album Out-of-State Plates.) Last night, they segued from “Radiation Vibe” (their first single) into Blue Öyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You,” a snippet of a Foreigner song, and what I was told was a fragment of a Kiss song.

I had been kind of looking forward to opening act Marshall Crenshaw, another great songwriter who had been a one-hit-wonder back in 1982 (“Someday, Someway”) but we could barely hear him. True, he was sitting down, played solo electric guitar (that never stopped Billy Bragg from putting on a dynamic performance) with what looked like his own Fender Champ amp, and wore a hat, but still.

Set list:

“I’ve Got a Flair”
“No Better Place”
“Dip in the Ocean” [?]
“Somebody to Love”
“Valley Winter Song”
“Hey Julie”
“Barbara H.”
“It Must Be Summer”
“Mexican Wine”
“Radiation Vibe”

“Fire Island”
“Stacey’s Mom”
“Sink to the Bottom”

Thursday, October 07, 2010

"Our Psalms Are Singalong Songs"

Based on looks alone, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady may seem like an unlikely frontman—you’d be forgiven for thinking he was the band’s accountant—but he is perhaps the most energetic rock band leader I think I’ve seen in a long time. He radiates an enthusiasm and an excitement that carries over into the crowd, and, last night at the Royale Theatre in Boston, I don’t think he stopped smiling once. So when he sings, “You gotta stay positive,” you feel like you’ll seriously disappoint him if you don’t. He’s also pretty tough on mikes and mike stands; his extensive hand gestures (I can sympathize, as everyone in my Toastmasters club would attest; he must be of Italian descent) tended to knock them over and roadies were having a time of it keeping up with him. In fact, the vocal mike wasn’t working for the first few lines of “Chips Ahoy!,” which was okay because everyone in the crowd sang it instead—as they did most songs.

The rest of the band were equally into it, and they tore through almost two dozen songs in a 90-minute set, which leaned heavily on Stay Positive (2008) material, the first and last tracks on the album bookending the concert, starting with the opening call to arms “Constructive Summer,” and closing with the John Cassavetes-inspired “Slapped Actress.” Only one song, “Barfruit Blues” (“She came off kind of spicy but she tasted like those pickle chips”) came from their first album. The Separation Sunday songs, especially “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” seemed to whip the crowd into an even bigger frenzy, and for good reason. “Hornets! Hornets!” (about my basement) with its massive riff (and references to both Vladimir Nabokov and Kate Bush) was a great way to open the encore. Their latest album, Heaven is Whenever, was represented by a scant five songs, although the crowd didn’t seem to warm to them as much as they did the older ones, which is usually the case, except maybe “The Weekenders,” a sequel of sorts to “Chips Ahoy!”—“She said the theme of this party’s the Industrial Age and you came in dressed like a train wreck” (Dickens would approve of that line).

This is a band that knows how to put on a show, not relying on theatrics—or even much verbal banter (Finn, a transplanted Minnesotan, opened with a comment about his beloved Twins)—but terrific musicianship, great songs, and, most importantly, an infectious energy that never takes the fans for granted and conveys the feeling that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than on that stage. It was definitely one of the best shows I’ve been to, and was worth the four years it took to finally get tickets. review here.

Set list:

“Constructive Summer”
“Massive Nights”
“Hurricane J”
“Sequestered in Memphis”
“Barfruit Blues”
“Rock Problems”
“You Can Make Him Like You”
“The Sweet Part of the City”
“Stevie Nix”
“Ask Her for Adderall”
“You Gotta Dance with Who You Came to the Dance With”
“Chips Ahoy!”
“Stuck Between Stations”
“Lord, I’m Discouraged”
“The Weekenders”
“Southtown Girls”
“Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
“Stay Positive”
“A Slight Discomfort”

“Hornets! Hornets!”
“Banging Camp”
“Slapped Actress”

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Yet More "Antisocial!"

Chapter 3 of Antisocial!, the sequel to Virus!.


Dr. Ben Pock took the last swallow of vodka and tossed the bottle into his recycling bin. Ever since the state had revamped the bottle bill to add a $1 deposit on wine and hard liquor bottles, Pock had been donating his empties to the office cleaning lady. Given Pock’s tendencies, that meant that, after four years, his cleaning lady could afford to put her son through at least two years of college.

Pock worked for Armstrong & Associates, located in suburban New Jersey, not far from the original secret underground bunker that had housed the Elite Computer Virus Task Force. In fact, immediately after the ECVTF was shut down four years earlier (someone had, in his spare time, developed some freeware that did everything that the fruits of the ECVTF’s years of research and development did) the site was razed and replaced by a strip mall. General Armstrong 7 (né Piddle), with the help of his new wife, had subsequently started an interplanetary consultancy dedicated to, as the mission statement put it, “enabling the amicable relations between and among alien worlds and fostering intragalactic trade.” They were located in the strip mall between a Family Dollar and Mr. Wong’s China Buffet.

When the General was assembling his associates, Dr. Pock had been on the short list of candidates, given either his expertise with computers and other matters of technology, or the fact that he had just turned up at the office and everyone just assumed he worked there already. It was a confused time, and the details are rather murky.

Pock shut down his computer, turned off the lights, walked out of the office into a beautiful September evening, and began the one-mile walk to his apartment. Pock didn’t have a car and in fact had given up on the idea of driving a few years earlier. While he was fastidious about never drinking and driving, he was still unable to avoid a steady stream of traffic accidents and incidents. Once, someone talking on a cellphone had rear-ended him at a stoplight. A week later, someone texting while driving had veered into his lane and drove him off the highway and down into a ravine. The guy never stopped—or even noticed. A week after Pock had got his car repaired, he was T-boned at an intersection by someone who had run the red light. Further investigation showed that the other driver had been operating a printing press installed in the passenger seat while driving. Said one of the police officers at the scene, a grisly tableau of twisted and smoking metal, blood, and ink, “You’d think you wouldn’t need laws for this kind of thing.” And the less said about the incident with the surgeon who had been performing open-heart surgery while driving, the better.

At the halfway mark between the office and his house, Pock stopped in at his usual post-work destination, The Flounder’s Arms, a British-style pub founded by a former smelt fisherman. He was still good friends with the barmaid, Zienia, even though they had once been romantically involved. It hadn’t worked out. As she told him at the time, “Ben, you’re just too laid-back, easy-going, and, well, fun. I was brought up to expect that couples would always bicker, that you’d be trying to bend me to your will, and be dominating and controlling. I guess I’m just looking for someone more macho, ill-tempered, and joyless.” That she had found this hard to come by in New Jersey perplexed Pock.

Pock took a seat at the mostly empty bar and took out a newspaper. Zienia smiled and said hello. “The usual?”

“Of course,” he said.

She poured out a club soda with lime and placed it in front of him.

“Thanks,” he said.

Dr. Pock rarely drank outside the office. It was his policy.

While Zienia attended to other patrons, Pock glanced at the front page of the newspaper. “New Petitions Against Tax” and “Building Code Under Fire” were two of the front page stories. He glanced down below the fold. “U.N. Debates Mideast Crisis.” It seems like the news is the same every day, he thought. He looked around casually; there were three other patrons at the bar. Two were sixtysomething-year-old men with red bulbous noses, while the third was a youngish woman absorbed in reading a paperback book. He could tell from the color of the book cover that it was the bestselling The Girl Who Baked a Lasagna, the fifteenth installment of a crime thriller franchise that had outlasted its original author by twelve books. Pock had given up on the series after The Girl Who Dressed Like an Otter, even though he felt the series had started to lose its appeal with The Girl Who Stretched the Premise. He smiled as he thought that perhaps he should pursue the idea he had many years ago of writing a new Charles Dickens novel.

Dr. Pock, after all, did have a doctorate, although it was in Literature. He had been educated at Oxford, and when he returned to his native America, he was not interested in teaching, so attempted to find out what kind of job he could get. He quickly discovered that in the high-tech boom of the 1990s there was not a great deal of demand for a Dickens scholar, and his mention of his doctoral thesis—which had explored the relationship between Dickens and his protégé Wilkie Collins—usually drew stares so blank he was tempted to write on them. So he went to a career guidance counselor and explained how he had devoted his studies to Victorian fiction. The counselor stared at him expressionlessly for a moment, then spent the next forty-five minutes slapping him. When the counselor’s hand had finally tired, he took a deep breath and began reviewing Pock’s various test scores.

“Well,” he had said, “your U&Is are really really low.”

“What are—?”

“Unethicals and Immorals. Yours are way below average. So forget about working on Wall Street.” He flipped to another sheet. “And your Standardized Asshole Aptitude score is also in single digits, so law school is out of the question.” The counselor knitted his brow as he contemplated leafed through the test results. “I’m afraid your Douchebag Quotient is too low for any of the high-paying professions.” Yes, standardized testing had adapted over the years to the 21st-century marketplace. “Maybe you should try to go back to school for something useful. Maybe computer science would be up your alley. There’s also animal husbandry. How do you feel about bull semen?”

Having little alternative, Pock did go back to school to try to get up to speed on Information Technologies and did discover that he had an aptitude for it.

One challenge was that Pock had had a checkered relationship with anything electronic. It’s not that he believed that he exerted some mysterious effect on them, like people who claim that they have some sort of electromagnetic force that repeatedly kills watch batteries. Rather, the more he understood computers and technology, the more he realized that just about everything has some kind of innate bug or flaw—some more than others—and that for a reason he has never been able to find, these bugs always choose to manifest themselves whenever Pock is around. So anything that functioned flawlessly would suddenly—as he put it—“start to create” the moment he walked into its presence. Computer memory would suddenly run out, applications would suddenly quit, operating systems would crash, Internet access would go out—in fact, he has been banned from his local coffee shop and Internet hotspot because the moment he walks in, the WiFi goes down. His one attempt at starting a Twitter feed caused a service outage that lasted six hours. It had an upside; companies that seek to keep their employees off the Internet hire him to come and sit in an empty cubicle for a while. Productivity increases by orders of magnitude.

Despite all of this, he still occasionally managed to accomplish things and the way he became such an expert on computers and software was by having to fix or work around the havoc he had stumbled into.

He had learned to coexist relatively peacefully—and soberly—with these devices for years...until one night. He had to prepare a presentation and was working in PowerPoint. It seemed that every command did something completely random. After spending a gut-wrenching three hours trying to change a font, he finally snapped. He collapsed to the floor of the computer lab and lay there in a semi-conscious state, whimpering. When he was finally able to stand, he staggered out of the building, lurched across the quad, and made it to the nearest off-campus bar he could find. He began downing vodka tonic after vodka tonic until he was able to see straight again. Then, picking up a bottle for the road, he strode back into the computer lab and was able to finish his presentation. And thus, ever since, he has only been able to accomplish anything using computers or technology while heavily under the influence. But as soon as the computer went off, he sobered up and did something purely analog.

Thus it was that, sitting at the bar, drinking club soda, and reading a printed newspaper, that he was beginning to feel the euphoria of sobriety.

And then Jet walked in.

Jet was Pock’s assistant but, more to the point, Jet was a robot. Jet had been a prototype developed by Sy Borg Industries, and had been in the custody of company CEO Frank Meineke until three years earlier, when Meineke was killed in a freak accident. (While beta-testing an application that enabled Jet to function as a gourmet chef, a bug in the program caused the robot to confuse “balsamic vinegar” with “strychnine.”) Jet had been created in Meineke’s image; he had the physical appearance of a balding, paunchy, middle-aged man. He wore a pink Izod shirt, white khaki pants, and brown topsiders with no socks. He had built-in telephony, 6G and WiFi connectivity, and GPS capabilities. His shirt could be removed and his stomach folded down into a keyboard. Pock added functionality to Jet as he needed it.

Jet had proved, if not invaluable, then at least not very annoying during the deadly computer-to-human virus outbreak five years earlier, and was thus added to General Armstrong’s consultancy in the capacity of “Special Assistant and Bartender to Dr. Benjamin A. Pock.” Given Pock’s problems with technology, their relationship has been a little, shall we say, fraught.

“Hi, Jet!” called Zienia. She had also once had a relationship with Jet. What the heck? she had thought at the time. Entire books could be written about why that hadn’t worked out, but a large part of it had to do with the emotionlessness of Jet’s artificial personality and that his designers hadn’t felt the need to make Jet, shall we say, anatomically correct. Then, again, Zienia had to admit, she had once dated an economist and Jet had been a substantial improvement.

“What the hell do you want?” said Pock, suddenly feeling his euphoria drain away.

“You must return to the office. It’s an emer—“ Jet suddenly paused for a moment, then added “Tarrel says, ‘Been up less than 3 hours and planning for nap time already.’”

“What? Oh, for the love of Benji...”

“AlbertQ says, ‘I’ve never had a bagel this good.’”

“Who the hell installed TweetDeck in you?”

“It installed itself.”

“Jet, Command-Quit-TweetDeck.”

“Not possible. Zandra says, ‘Had an awesome time at Paul’s surprise Bday party!’”

He tried again more slowly and distinctly. “Jet. Command. Quit. TweetDeck.”

“Not possible. Would you like to update TweetDeck?”

“I don’t want the damn thing installed on you at all, let alone updated!”

“Craggie says, ‘Tonight's specialty of the house: Chinese take out...yummy.’”

“Go away.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a valuable upgrade?”

Pock started hyperventilating. “Zienia! Vodka tonic!”

She knew the drill and got his drink quickly. He downed it in one gulp. He calmly said, “Jet, Command-Force Quit-TweetDeck-Override FU519.”

“TweetDeck ended.”

Pock sat back and sighed.

“You’re still welcome to update it,” added Jet.

Pock looked around for the nearest sharp object, then Zienia refreshed his drink. He calmed down further.

“All right, then, what’s the problem, my plastic and metal friend?”

“Tharbax Cannuutuu has arrived at Armstrong & Associates and needs assistance.”

“Tharbax Cannuutuu? Of the Aldeberan Cannuutuus?”


“That’s weird. What’s the trouble?”

“His ship was attacked.”

Pock’s eyes widened. “Attacked? Like Star Wars attacked? Yikes. We’d better go.”

He put some money for the drinks and a tip on the bar.

“Sorry, Zeenie, gotta run,” he called.

“Good night, Ben.”

Jet and Pock walked out of the bar into the still light autumn evening. And then they abruptly disappeared without a trace.