Author Archives: Ross

Flash Fiction: The Fork Bomb of Babel

or: The Computer That Took One For The Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis ready.

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

I have determined what happened to Omniac 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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


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

“Not personally, no.”

But again, you can not rule them out?

“I… I guess not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a lot of assumptions.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are welcome.

Tales From /lost+found 148: Because 2018.

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

Click to Embiggen

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

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

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

0x01: The Last Time Lord (1996)

1×02 Ghost in the Machine (1996)

4×18 Invaders From Mars! (2000)

4×19 Centennial (2000)

5×01 Deepwater Black, Part 1 (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt from Doctor Who: The Monster Files

Behind the Scenes

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

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

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

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

A Legitimate Conversation Which Occurred Naturally

Scene: DYLAN is doing his vocabulary cards.

DYLAN: … wh- ah- t. waaht?

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

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

DADDY: What is a word that sounds like that.

DYLAN: Just tell me.

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

DYLAN: I don’t know!

DADDY: Third base!


Tales From the /lost+found 145: Damaged Goods

5×07 November 17, 2000

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

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

Misspent Youth: The Toothpaste Millionaire

There’s a handful of books I read — or more accurately, were read to me — in my youth which left enough of an impression that I’ve felt compelled to track down a copy thirty-or-so years later, particularly now that I’ve got little’uns to read them to. This is still a work in progress. Evie’s not old enough to appreciate The Frisky Kittens or Piglets at Sea yet, and I think I should give Dylan another year or two before I spring The Westing Game or From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler on him. But we made some headway recently when, on the second try, he got interested in Jean Merrill’s The Toothpaste Millionaire.

Jean Merrill is best known for an earlier book, The Pushcart War, which I bet is pretty surreal to read now since the publishers keep pushing forward its then-near-future dates to keep them near-future, but probably they haven’t updated Merrill’s writing style to be less full of charmingly dated minutia. Also, odd coincidence, Merrill and I have the same birthday.

I don’t remember exactly when we read The Toothpaste Millionaire in school, but it was definitely during Media Center (even back then, in the misty murk of history, “Library” was deprecated). Over on the far side where there was a clearing that served as a small presentation stage, flanked by the bookcases of Hardy Boys books, sitting in a position whose old name I completely agree was inappropriate and had to go, but for which they have not yet invented a replacement name I can possibly take seriously (“Criss-Cross-Applesauce”? Come the fuck on. That is stupid. That’s worse than “letter-carrier”. Get the folks who came up with “firefighter” on this. They know their stuff).

The basic story is this: Kate McKinstrey and her family move from Connecticut to Cleveland, and the first friend she makes is a clever and economical boy named Rufus Mayflower, who helps her make saddle bags for her bike. Erelong, Rufus develops an obsession with the cost of toothpaste, and decides to go into business selling his own homemade baking soda-based dentifrice under the name brand-name TOOTHPASTE, and sells it for three cents a bottle. To say that hijinks ensue is being a bit hyperbolic. Spoilers: Rufus makes a million dollars.

The book is pretty funny. Dylan found it hilarious, in fact. It’s not, if you’re an adult, that much happens which is especially silly in itself; in fact, the whole book is a series of people acting reasonably and making rational decisions. But there’s a lot of comedy in the outsider point-of-view and the… Let’s say child-like plainspokenness. Have you ever tried to explain a complicated social concept to a child, like why we segregate bathrooms by gender or why it’s not socially acceptable for men to wear skirts or why we have capitalism, and halfway through realized that it actually is, in fact, ridiculous? That happens a lot in this book. A lot of “Well why not?”

What I noticed on this read through is that the structure of the book is a little strange. The book is largely presented as Kate recapping how Rufus solved a series of logistical problems. The narrative is sort of fragmentary because of this: each chapter is essentially a separate episode, and the linking between individual scenes is generally pretty weak. Some chapters are barely narrative at all. For instance, one chapter covers Rufus doing a TV interview. In a more traditional narrative, you might have a scene of Kate and Rufus talking beforehand, and a scene of Kate watching from the audience and her thoughts and feelings as Rufus goes on the air. But instead, we get a chapter that’s mostly exposition, with Kate dryly explaining about the local talk show, a transcript of the interview itself, and a coda talking about all the new orders they got, including an anecdote about an order from someone in California who’d been on the phone with a relative in Cleveland when the interview aired.

The style works for me, and I think it would work for most kids with engineering-type minds, who’d be more interested in the problem-solving than in any sort of character-driven narrative. Even in the ’80s when I first read the book, there was a weird uncanniness to the ’70sness of it too. Kate accidentally buys five gross of toothpaste tubes thinking she’s buying five dozen, though it still only ends up costing her like five bucks. Which is a lot of money back then.

But having said that, I find that my memories of the book aren’t weighted proportionally. Virtually all the conflict in the book comes in the last fifteen pages, and it feels almost entirely offhand, even though my memory tells me it’s a major theme (My memory also tells me that Kate also bought a barrel of aglets on a lark. This didn’t happen at all, and now I’m wondering if maybe that’s something I am remembering from a different book? Anyone recall a book where the narrator and the protagonist go to an auction and the narrator buys a barrel of aglets?). Another thing I remembered from my youth was a pervasive sense of Rufus being a little “off”. Back in elementary school, I wouldn’t have had the concept, but Rufus, with his obsessiveness over waste, his fetish for honesty, and his frequent displays of frustration at people acting like people, definitely struck me at the time as being on the spectrum. Reading it now, I didn’t get that impression at all, and I’m curious where it came from, whether I was projecting from something else, or maybe it was something I was nudged into by the teacher? The whole of the conflict is squeezed down to just a couple of chapters, the main one of which is deliberately gonzo.

After the major toothpaste brands start folding as a result of the ensuing price war, the remaining players invite Rufus to a “conference” about the health of the industry. It turns out to be an attempt to involve him in a price-fixing scam, which ends when it turns out that the FBI just happens to be in the next room over and promptly arrests the heads of the competing brands. Kate presents this in the form of a screenplay, having decided that she’d like to be a screenwriter specializing in torn-from-the-headlines dramas. And then the chapter ends with the offhand reveal that the toothpaste factory was blown up by a gangster working for the mob.

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Tales From /lost+found 144: The Armageddon Variations

4×21 March 10, 2000

Setting: Seattle, WA, UNIT-time
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Jonathan Frakes (Agent Blackwood), Denis Forest (Malcolm), John Lithgow (John Manning), Rodger Bumpass (Voice of the Morthrai Council)

In voice-over, the Doctor describes the “Monty Hall” problem, in which the participant is asked to choose one of three doors, behind only one of which is a prize, then offered the chance to switch his selection after one of the other doors is opened. The Doctor explains the problem in terms of parallel universes. His explanation is wrong about a key aspect of the problem, but he reaches the unintuitive correct solution: switching doors increases the chances of winning. The Doctor and Lizzie have just arrived back in the present at UNIT to find the Morthrai mothership approaching Earth. Agent Blackwood pressures the Doctor to give UNIT Time Lord technology to combat the aliens, but the Doctor, having witnessed the dire consequences of humanity obtaining such technology, refuses, insisting that they attempt a diplomatic solution. He uses the TARDIS’s communications equipment to request an audience with the Morthrai ruling council. An attache from Washington accompanies The Doctor, Lizzie, and Blackwood to the mothership. The humans argue that, despite the Morthrai’s technological superiority, human numerical and resource advantages will ultimately lead them to a military victory. Given the great cost to both sides in a military confrontation, the Doctor suggests a compromise: human bodies which are near death or suffering from severe brain injuries could be given the the Morthrai as hosts, and with their technology and increased hardiness, the Morthrai could live in areas of the planet uninhabitable by humans. Even Lizzie is taken aback at the possibility of sharing the planet with aliens, but the Morthrai leadership seem to be satisfied with the terms. Negotiations come to an abrupt halt when multiple nuclear launches occur on Earth, targeting not the mothership, but other Terrestrial nations. Malcolm contacts the council, informing them that he has secretly launched a coordinated infiltration of dozens of nuclear installations across the Earth to throw the planet into chaos and neutralize its military capabilities. With no further need to negotiate, the council prepares to execute the Doctor and the humans… And the Doctor is back at UNIT, moments after emerging from the TARDIS. This time, the Doctor advises Blackwood to launch an immediate attack on the mothership before it can send reinforcements to Malcolm’s contingent. Missiles eventually destroy the mothership, but not before it can launch a retaliatory bombardment which kills billions. UNIT itself is attacked by Morthrai soldiers, and the Doctor realizes that the aliens were able to evacuate their mothership before its destruction. Blackwood sacrifices himself to buy the Doctor time to locate Malcolm’s base. Before he dies, the Doctor reveals that he is using his Time Lord abilities to play out possible timelines in order to find a way to defeat the Morthrai. This is dangerous, because two points determine a line, and thus, anything he witnesses in two different timelines becomes “locked in”. On the next reset, the Doctor again pushes for negotiation, but this time as a delaying tactic, sending the attache while remaining behind himself. Though UNIT is able to defeat Malcolm at his base, the mothership launches a surgical strike which disables Earth’s nuclear capabilities. The Doctor tries many more variations, and despite his efforts, more details get locked in. He eventually realizes that the attache is a deep cover Morthrai agent who, left unsupervised, will give the ruling council key strategic information. Since he is now committed to sending the attache, on the next loop, he sends Lizzie along with him. Once Malcolm is defeated, the Doctor and Blackwood travel to the mothership via TARDIS. The Doctor tries to offer the council the same deal as before, but the attache turns on them. Blackwood dispatches him and reveals an explosive device with which he intends to destroy the mothership. Abandoning Blackwood in disgust, the Doctor tries to flee with Lizzie, but the TARDIS refuses her entry. Unable to escape with Lizzie, the Doctor resets the loop a second before detonation. Explaining that he’s locked in too much of the timeline to change his approach, the Doctor allows the timeline to play out almost exactly as before, but this time, he leaves Blackwood behind to deal with Malcolm and joins Lizzie on the mothership early. When the Morthrai council refuse his offer of a diplomatic solution, the Doctor reveals that he has sabotaged their weapon systems, leaving them defenseless against human counterattack. Advising them to leave, he and Lizzie prepare to depart. As the TARDIS still won’t allow Lizzie inside, he prepares to send her back to Earth with the mothership’s teleporter, but Manning, who like Malcolm, has become obsessed with the glory of conquest, tries to shoot the Doctor, hitting Lizzie instead. As she dies in his arms, the loop resets again. Before Blackwood can even ask, the Doctor volunteers to use Time Lord technology to help the humans defeat the invaders.