February 29, 2004

Chapter 32



Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Two

(Read earlier chapters.)

Reuben was dressed in fresh clothes. He had been allowed to shower and shave. He knew he could use a haircut, but that would have to wait. After being cleaned up, he was subjected to a number of seemingly pointless medical examinations, and was then served a meal.

He sat across the table from Sergei, who was just finishing his food. The food was good, but Reuben had not been able to eat much. A few bites of borsht and some bread was all he could manage. He still felt full from the sandwich and abysmal coffee hours before. It would take a while to re-adjust to eating.

They were in a tiny, cramped room in a building Reuben assumed was some kind of KGB regional bureau office. The city was Rostov. Rostov na Donu, the Russians called it — Rostov on the Don — apparently distinguishing it from some other Rostov (on some other river) that Reuben knew nothing about. The flight had not been as long as the first one; the airplane was warmer and Reuben had slept. His head was beginning to clear.

The horror of Markku’s bizarre game was already a distant thing. As he had been trained to do long ago, Reuben put away the shock of the violence and even his intense hatred of Markku. He would not forget the latter; he would simply keep it for a more convenient time.

For now, his focus was on Ksenia.

On the way to the airstrip, he had asked one of the guards (as casually as he could manage it) what would become of the two women who survived the game. The guard didn’t answer, but whether that meant that he didn’t know, or that he wasn’t permitted to talk to Reuben, or that he couldn’t speak English, Reuben couldn‘t tell. Once on the plane, he had repeated the question to Sergei — in the midst of a series of questions that all addressed subjects he was curious about, but which were not nearly as important to him. Who did Sergei work for? Why had he been brought to Markku? Who was Hamilton? What would become of the other two women? And where exactly were they going?

Of all these questions, Sergei had provided an answer only to the final one. Which was how Reuben knew where he was.

He wasn’t surprised by Sergei’s non-responsiveness, nor by the fact that he had registered no recognition of him. Contrary to Reuben’s memory of how things were, the KGB still existed and Sergei was apparently still an active agent thereof. As such, he would have to be extremely cautious about what he said and did in front of his fellow agents. Reuben had followed suit up to this point, pretending not to know Sergei, either.

Sergei finished his — Lunch? Dinner? Breakfast? Reuben had lost all track of time — and pushed his plate away. He sat back and lit a cigarette, waving the pack at Reuben.

Reuben shook his head.

Sergei pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and studied it for a moment. He reached in his coat pocket and produced a pen.

“I have questions for you, Mr. Stone,” he said.

“Whatever,” said Reuben.

“Mother’s maiden name?”

Reuben looked at him for a long moment.

“You have got to be kidding,” he said.

Sergei didn’t look up.

“Please to provide answer.”

“Her name was Brissaud. Emmanuelle Brissaud. My father’s name was Julian Stone. They both died in an airplane accident in —”

“Please to provide only specific answer,” Sergei interrupted.

He continued with his questions. “When you were three, four years old you had nanny. What was — ”

“Greta.”

Sergei registered no reaction. He wrote down Reuben’s answer.

“This nanny had dog—”

“Alfie. He was a Scottish terrier.”

Sergei noted it.

“Am I going to be held here for long?” Reuben asked.

“We continue with questions,” Sergei replied. “Who was first girlfriend?”

It dawned on Reuben that these questions must have been compiled by — or with the help of — Michael Keyes. In fact, the third question suggested Betty’s involvement.

“Real or imagined?” he asked.

Sergei didn’t respond. He looked at Reuben expectantly, his pen resting on the paper.

The question apparently referred to Suzette, the girlfriend Reuben mentioned several times in his letters home his first year of boarding school. Reuben had never confided to anyone that there was no such person, that he had invented Suzette (along with several other friends) to keep Betty from worrying that he was lonely. But he had long suspected that Betty had seen through his ruse.

“Suzette,” he said after a moment.

He had begun to suspect the old man’s involvement as soon as he saw Sergei. Like Ksenia showing up in Markku’s game, it was just too big a coincidence.

“What was color of school uniform?”

“Green blazer, with the school crest in gold under the left lapel. Striped blue and green tie. White shirt. Black slacks. Black patent-leather shoes.”

Sergei took his time writing out the detailed answer.

“Describe wedding gift from Michael Keyes.”

The old man. That confirmed it.

“He and Betty gave us some very nice silver candlesticks. They were antiques, about this tall.” He held his hand about a foot and a half from the tabletop.

Sergei wrote down the answer. He put the pen back in his pocket and began to fold the sheet of paper.

“Is that all?” Reuben asked.

“Da. Is all. You wanted more?”

“Well, wait. There was another gift, but I don’t count it.”

Sergei retrieved the pen.

“What was other gift?”

“It was a check for a million dollars.”

Sergei hesitated before beginning to write. There was a gleam in his eye and the beginnings of a smile at the corners of his mouth. For an instant, he was the man with whom Reuben had bantered so frequently at the WorldConneX office in Moscow.

A check for a million bucks. Must be lucky, indeed.

“Why…ah, you didn’t ‘count’ gift? You didn’t consider this to be real gift? Why not?”

“I had already told Mr. Keyes that I wouldn’t accept any money.”

Sergei nodded

“So you did what? You burned it? Threw it away?”

Although Sergei’s demeanor had not changed from that of the businesslike interrogator, Reuben doubted that these follow-up questions were part of the script. He was just interested in knowing what happened to the money.

“I signed it back over to Mr. Keyes and enclosed it in a Christmas Card. So we were even — we had each given the other a million dollars.”

Sergei nodded. He made an addendum to the answer he had written before, then folded the paper once again. He stood up.

“Do you need toilet?” he asked.

Reuben thought about this. He shook his head.

“Good. Then you will wait here.” With that, Sergei turned and walked out the door.

Reuben leaned back in his chair. He didn’t mind. He was used to waiting.

___

The Rostov Airport was mostly quiet. Reuben stood outside a departure gate flanked by the same two agents who had accompanied Sergei when retrieving him from the compound in Georgia. Sergei had left them standing there an hour or so earlier.

The sun was setting behind the Ilyushin airliner on the tarmac, distinguishable from any plane of western manufacture by the odd clustering of its four engines — two on either side of the tail. Reuben couldn’t be sure which day it was that was ending. Had he started out this morning in prison, or was that yesterday? Or the day before that? He didn’t know.

Passengers had boarded the plane some time before. If Reuben read the notice board correctly, it was bound for Istanbul. But it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Not yet, at least.

Reuben couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be on the flight or not. He would be glad enough to put Russia behind him (even if it meant flying Aeroflot), but he couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning Ksenia. Especially considering the circumstances under which he had left her. Still, if the old man was able to get Reuben — a prisoner — out of the country, surely he would be able to do the same for her.

This line of reasoning raised the troubling question of why Ksenia wasn’t with the Keyes to begin with. How had Markku managed to abduct her? It was possible that the old man and Betty had left Russia, but then why hadn’t they taken Ksenia with them? Or maybe — and Reuben didn’t really like this possibility — the Keyes had never been in Russia at all. Maybe they didn’t even know who Ksenia was.

That didn’t jibe with Reuben’s memories, but then so little did.

Sergei reappeared, a large brown envelope in his hand.

He issued instructions to the two other agents in Russian. They turned and walked away without the slightest hesitation.

“Very well, then, Mr. Stone,” he said. He handed Reuben the packet.

Reuben opened the envelope. Inside was a passport from the Caribbean island of Dominica. The photo was Reuben’s; the name was not. The ticket to Istanbul was made out in the same name.

“So I’m going to Turkey,” Reuben said.

“Da. You will be met there. And you will receive further instructions.”

“Thank you for your help.”

Sergei took a long look at Reuben. His expression was hard and cold.

“Listen very carefully,” he said. “You are lucky man, Mr. Stone. Is not every prisoner who gets this kind of help in leaving Russia. Especially not when he is CIA agent.”

Reuben nodded.

“Is important, though, for lucky man that he does not…press his luck too much? Da? You know this expression?”

Reuben nodded again.

“Good. Then I tell you this: don’t press your luck, Mr. Stone. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what is your game. But if any harm comes to Mr. Keyes or his wife, I will find you. And you will be very sorry. Do you understand me?”

Reuben looked around. Apparently Sergei was now talking without fear of being overheard.

“Sergei, it’s me. It really is me.

Sergei shrugged.

“I was not who needed convincing.”

“No, but listen. Your wife is named Marina. Your daughter is Dzhena. And as for your son…you named him Yuri.”

Sergei shook his head, his expression completely blank.

“Ask me anything,” Reuben continued. “Or how about this — you went to Monte Carlo with a friend. He told you to always bet on red. When you bet with him, you won. When you bet without him, you lost.”

Sergei laughed bitterly.

“Why you say these things? You want me to think you know me? That will not help you.”

Reuben thought about that. The conclusion was unavoidable.

“It won’t help because you and I have never met. We don’t know each other.”

Sergei didn’t answer.

“Well, is that right?” Reuben pressed.

“You tell me,” said Sergei. “You should know if we have ever met.”

“That’s the whole trouble, Sergei. I remember that we met and that we know each other. But obviously you don’t. And the thing is, I can see how my mind could invent a false history for Russia. It doesn’t explain the visa I was carrying, but put that aside for now. What I can’t see, is how do I know anything about you?”

“Is time for you to go,” said Sergei. “Airplane is waiting.”

“So tell me, do I know anything about you? Or did my mind invent those details, too?”

Sergei put his hand on Reuben’s back and began moving him toward the gate.

“You took my fingerprints and a blood sample,” Reuben continued. “I guess it was to get my DNA. And those X-rays must have been so you could compare dental records. You must have a pretty good reason to suspect that I’m not who I say I am.”

Sergei said nothing.

“That’s why you asked me those questions. Asking about things only I should know.”

“Is time you go,” said Sergei, ushering Reuben towards the gate with more urgency.

“Wait,” Reuben said again. “Wait.

He planted his feet.

“Why doesn’t the old man believe that I’m Reuben Stone?”

An answer of sorts occurred to Reuben even as he asked the question.

Sergei shook his head.

“That question is not for me to answer.”

“Sergei, am I dead?”

“You must leave now.”

“Or are there somehow…two of me?”

Sergei shook his head, exasperated.

“Why do you talk nonsense? If you are dead, how are you here? If there are two, then one is real and one is not.”

“And I’m clearly not the real one.”

Sergei shrugged.

“Clearly you are, if you have been allowed to leave.”

“But you aren’t convinced.”

“No,” Sergei answered. “I am not.”

They had reached the gate agent, who eyed Reuben with bored impatience. The flight had been delayed long enough.

“I wish I had more time to talk to you,” Reuben said. “But listen, I need your help. One of the women that Markku was holding is named Ksenia Privalova. Can you help her somehow?”

Sergei was surprised by the request.

“What can I do?”

“Just, please, get her out of there. She’s of no importance to anybody. Not Markku. Not anybody. She doesn’t know anything. I guess she doesn’t even know who I am.”

Sergei looked puzzled. As before, with the story of the check, his curiosity got the better of him.

“If she is of no use to Markku, he will be rid of her already.”

“I think he probably let her go. But could you make sure? And make sure she got home all right? She lives in Moscow.”

“If you don’t know her, why do you care?”

“She doesn’t know me, but I know her. Just like I know you. Please help her.”

He started to turn towards the gate agent, and then looked back.

“The Sergei I know would help her,” he added.

Sergei looked skeptical. He shrugged again.

“I will look into it,” he said.

“Have a safe trip, Mr. Stone.”

Reuben smiled with gratitude and relief. Sergei would be able to do far more for her than he would have been able to do.

“It’s Reuben,” he said, shaking his head. He then turned to board the plane.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 33



Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Three

(Read earlier chapters.)

Reuben stood on the terrace looking over the sun-drenched expanse of blue. Lake Como was a mirror reflecting the perfect, cloudless sky. The stillness was interrupted with an occasional whisper of a breeze. Sailboats dotted the lake's surface. Sunbathers lined the beach. It was a perfect summer afternoon in northern Italy.

Reuben had been to this chateau once, several years before. It was one of the Keyes' smaller homes, just ten or so bedrooms. There was something jarring about the experience of being back with the Keyes, once again recuperating. But it was different this time.

It was definitely different.

On the table in front of him sat a copy of a manuscript. It was the document the old man had shown Reuben in the Dacha, turned to the page with the diagram Reuben had been looking at on the train before everything changed.

This page, this picture, was the key. Reuben was certain of that.

The effect should be easy enough to recreate. If Reuben stared at the diagram long enough, he would begin to feel — as he did that night on the train — that something was coming loose. Something that was supposed to be fixed in place could be moved. And he, Reuben, could move it.

He quickly looked away from the picture whenever this sensation arose, the feeling had become both familiar and terrifying. But he kept returning to it, drawn to the sensation that he sensed he must by all means avoid.

The glass door to the terrace slid open. Betty Keyes stepped through. She was dressed in shorts and a baggy shirt. Her sunglasses were perched on the brim of her straw hat, and she carried a canvas beach bag.

"I've been looking for you," she said.

"I've been here most of the day. It's hard to beat this view."

She took a moment to look over the lake herself.

"Yes, it is spectacular."

She seated herself across the table from Reuben and gestured at the manuscript.

"I see that you've decided not to follow my advice."

He smiled. Betty had told him the night before to leave the mystery alone for a while. The old man had left that day to meet someone in Paris who was supposed to have all the answers. Reuben wasn't holding his breath. In any case, it was an odd twist on recent events: the old man setting out in search of answers while Reuben remained behind.

Frankly, Reuben had had his share of odd twists. But the manuscript wouldn't let go of him.

"I can't help it, Betty. I've tried reading, going for a walk…it doesn't matter. I always seem to end up here, staring at this damn thing."

"Well you need to stop it," she said sternly. She reached across the table, flipped the manuscript closed, and set it in front of herself. "There. Does that help?"

He shrugged.

"Sure. For a minute."

She shook her head.

"What am I going to do with you, Reuben? First you spend all your time moping about that Russian girl. And then as soon as you learn that she's okay, you park yourself here with this moldy old book."

Reuben smiled. He realized that Betty was right. He had been with the Keyes for nearly two weeks. He had spent his first few days with them fretting over Ksenia's fate and making repeated requests that the old man get in touch with Sergei about her. When the news finally came, it was good — if a little baffling. Sergei reported that Ksenia was back home in Moscow with her brother, safe and sound. Just to be sure, Reuben requested that Sergei check on the name of the brother she had been reunited with.

Of course his name was Pavel. Did he go by the dimunitive, Pasha?

Reuben didn't bother to ask.

This added bit of weirdness was all the impetus Reuben needed to begin to think seriously about what it was that was happening to him. He asked the old man for a copy of the manuscript. Keyes was not sure at first what Reuben was talking about. But as his godson spelled out the details of the drawings and the mysterious language, a look of recognition slowly came over the old man's face. Of course, he could get a copy of that manuscript for Reuben. It would be no problem at all.

He seemed absolutely delighted that Reuben had ever even heard of the thing.

"I beg your pardon," Reuben said to Betty, drawing the manuscript back to his side of the table and re-opening it, "I do not mope."

She sighed and shook her head again.

"I was just about to take a walk along the shore. Will you join me?"

"Another walk? No thanks."

"Well, then, why don't we go to Milan this afternoon? We could do some shopping, maybe take in a movie."

Reuben shook his head.

"I wouldn't be any fun, Betty. Besides, you and I need to talk."

Her eyes grew just slightly wider.

"What is it?"

"Well," he said, flipping the manuscript closed once again "I have something I need to tell you. And then there's something I need you to tell me."

Betty picked up the manuscript and casually dropped it in her beach bag. She snapped the bag closed with a maternal finality.

"I'm all ears, Reuben."

"Okay. It has to do with the other…scenario. And with this one."

Reuben had settled on the term scenario to describe each of the sets of circumstances he had encountered: the circumstances he remembered represented one scenario; the dramatically different world around him represented another. The old man used a different term, but Reuben would have nothing to do with it.

"You know why I was on that train. I had gone to work for the old man. I was looking into the origins of the document, trying to find out what information it contains."

Betty nodded.

"The same thing Michael is doing now."

"Right. But has it occurred to you to wonder why I, of all people, would undertake a task like that? Does that really sound like something I would do?"

"No," she said. "Actually, I never would have believed it if you hadn't told me yourself."

"Exactly. Now let me tell you why I was doing it. You know about the document, right? Alchemy and all that? Eternal life?"

Betty laughed.

"Don't tell me that Michael finally wore you down? That you're starting to see the world as he does?"

"Well, I wasn't, not really. After what I've seen these past few months, I'm not so sure. But before that, no. When I started my trip, I had no real conviction that there was anything to this. Just a faint glimmer of hope that there might be."

"I see," said Betty. She set her hat on the table in front of her.

"So what would inspire you to go after such a long shot?" she asked.

"You did."

Betty blinked.

"Excuse me?"

"I did it for you, Betty. To try to save your life. In the other scenario, you were very sick. You don't…didn't?…have long to live."

She stared at him for a long moment.

"I see," she said again.

Neither of them spoke for a while.

"Thank you, my dear," Betty said at last. "I should have realized it would be something like that."

"So you can see why I can't exactly walk away from this project."

"I…no, Reuben. You can. You've accomplished what you set out to. I don't understand how or what it means. I have no memory of being ill. But look at me: I'm fine."

Reuben reached across the table and took hold of her hand.

"I can't tell you how happy that makes me, Betty. Three undeniably good things have happened to me in the past couple of months. The first was getting out of prison and coming here. The second was learning for sure that Ksenia is all right. And the third — and by far the most unexpected — was learning that you're okay."

He turned and looked out over the lake for a moment.

"But now I need you to tell me something. You and the old man have skirted around this since I got back, but I have to know. What happened to me, Betty?"

She studied her fingernails for a few seconds, then turned up to meet his gaze. Her eyes were darker, more vivid than he remembered from the Dacha. Her face had fewer lines. But there was pain here just as there had been there. A different kind of pain, clearly.

Grief.

And no small amount of fear.

"How did I die, Betty?"

She didn't blink or look away.

"Don't be ridiculous, Reuben. Here you sit. You obviously didn't die."

"But you remember that I did. Just as I remember that you were sick. And I think you remember more than just the fact of my death. I think you saw me dead. Right? There was a funeral. If you wanted to, you could tell me where I'm buried. You've seen my grave."

Betty reached down for her bag. She began rummaging through it, looking for something.

"I need you to level with me on this. And what happened to Charlotte? I know that's different, here, too. Did I go first? Or is she still alive? Has she remarried? Whatever it is, I want to know."

Betty produced a packet of tissues from her bag. She peeled one from the top, wadded it, and looked at it. She didn't dab her eyes; she wasn't crying. This was a stall tactic. Reuben tried to remember Betty ever doing anything to avoid an unpleasant discussion, but he couldn't think of a single example. Ever.

"Tell me what happened to Charlotte," she said. "What you remember."

Reuben sighed.

"All right," he said. "It was three years ago last week. She was driving home from Dillon. She had spent the weekend in the cabin. There was a thunderstorm. Low visibility, fog, wet road. And she was driving too fast."

Reuben paused, remembering his wife.

"She would do that, you know?"

Betty nodded.

"She lost control of her car on a steep downgrade. She jumped a guard rail and hit a rock wall doing almost eighty." His voice cracked as he spoke. "It killed her instantly."

"Reuben…" Betty started. She pulled another tissue from the packet and began to twist it into a little rope.

"Was there every any suggestion…did anyone ever say…" She shook her head.

He looked at her, puzzled.

"Say what?"

Betty cleared her throat.

"That her death was maybe not an accident?"

The words hit Reuben with physical force.

Had anyone ever said that?

Decidedly not.

No one had ever said it because Reuben wouldn't allow it. Wouldn't hear it.

Sure, he and Charlotte had had their problems. All couples have their problems. And Charlotte had had some trouble with depression, everybody knew this. Things had not been good between the two of them. Not for a long while. Charlotte was unhappy with where they lived, with Reuben's job, with so many things.

But they were turning the corner. Or they were just about to. Reuben had decided to leave the agency, and had already given his notice. They would move, go wherever she wanted. And she was talking about going back for treatment. There had been a time, a few years earlier, when medication had moved her depression to the background of their lives. It had only been for a short while, and it had been some time before.

But it had given Reuben hope, especially when Charlotte made mention of that period in their lives — as she did once in a while — and offered up some vague intention of going back in for treatment. She had never gotten around to going back, but Reuben knew that she would in time. She was bound to.

It would be the best thing for both of them.

At some level, Reuben knew that he had lied to himself about his wife's death. But then he had, by and large, lied to himself about her life, and about their life together. With her gone, it became easier, so much easier to remember how intelligent she was, and how beautiful. How happy they had been together: their whirlwind romance following a chance encounter at a party in DC; their marriage a few months later; the blissful first two years. There was no need to dwell on the rapid downward spiral that occurred after that. The fights, the terrible temper tantrums. Her bouts of rage and melancholy so severe that from time to time Reuben began to think that he was losing his own grip.

There was no need to dwell on any of that, and Reuben did not, except for the occasional regret that he had not done more to make her happy. While part of him knew that was impossible, there was another part that believed that — had he only cared more, had he only tried harder — she might have been happy.

But he wasn't focused on her happiness the weekend it happened. He was thinking of himself.

He was planning to have a talk with her that weekend. He would let her know that he was ending it; he was leaving. He had been down that road before, and had somehow never managed to broach the subject. Ironically, this time it was an argument that provided the pretext for avoiding the discussion. In the heat of the moment, he told Charlotte that she could just have the cabin to herself that weekend. Then he stormed out of their house.

When he returned a few hours later, she was already gone.

If things had been different — if he hadn't said whatever it was to make her so angry that fateful Friday afternoon — it would have been him, Reuben, behind the wheel on the way home.

And everything would have been different.

"It was an accident, Betty," Reuben said at last. "Charlotte and I had some problems, sure, but she loved life."

Betty nodded.

After a while she said, "I really don't know how to talk about any of this, Reuben"

She stood up and walked to the edge of the balcony. She looked out over the lake for a moment before turning back to face him.

"Maybe things really are different in that other…situation."

Betty wouldn't even use Reuben's word.

"After all, I'm not sick. And I've never been very sick, never once in my life."

"I know," said Reuben.

"I personally think these two different worlds or histories or whatever you want to call them are some kind of trick of the mind. One of us is right, and the other one is crazy."

"Or we're both crazy."

She smiled sadly.

"In any case, my darling, the fact is this: while you remember your wife as loving life and being incapable of killing herself, and dying in a terrible tragic accident, that is not what happened. At least not to the recollection of Michael or myself."

Reuben blinked.

"Or anyone else," Betty continued. "Charlotte killed herself, Reuben. She shot herself in your cabin in the mountains, two days before the accident that you remember."

No one said anything for a while.

Reuben remembered — he had never forgotten, of course — the gun that was found in the trunk of the wrecked car. The gun that he didn't even know his wife owned.

"I see," Reuben said at last.

"But why are you telling me this? I wanted to know how I died."

Reuben knew this was not true. He had specifically asked about Charlotte. He dreaded hearing any more. As bad as what Betty had told him was, he could sense that something worse was coming.

She walked back across the balcony. She sat down at the table, this time beside, not across from, Reuben.

"Charlotte turned the gun on herself after she shot and killed her husband."

A long way off, on a yacht making its brisk way across the lake, a bell rang. Reuben looked out and watched it for a while, watched as its prow cut a neat wake in the smooth blue water. The wake opened up behind the vessel, ever widening as it faded off to nothing.

"I'm sorry, Reuben."

Betty reached out to put her hand on his shoulder. He shrugged her away and continued to look at the lake.

"I'm glad I know the truth," he said at last, his voice trembling. "Things are different here. What happened here and what happened there…they're different."

But that was a lie. She had the gun. In Reuben's scenario, the world where she died in an automobile accident.

She had the gun.

She would have killed him. Charlotte, his beloved wife, the woman he was still in love with — wanted him dead. She hated him that much. That fight they had, the one without which, Reuben had believed he would have saved her life — that fight had in fact saved his life.

He turned and to look at Betty. Tears ran down her face.

"Of course they are," she said. "That's why you're here, Reuben."

"Just because it happened here…"

"It doesn't matter, Reuben, " she interrupted. "Look at you, alive. Alive. I saw you dead. I saw you buried."

It would be a long time before either of them spoke again.

"Betty, do you hate her?" Reuben asked at last.

She shook her head.

"No, dear. I don't. I did at first. But mostly I hate what she became. I hate the sickness that destroyed her."

Reuben nodded.

"That's good. Because I wouldn't want you to…"

He stopped himself. What was the point?

"I know that Charlotte, the real Charlotte, would never have hurt you," Betty continued.

Reuben wondered about that.

He had never had reason to doubt it before, and yet now here was Charlotte murdering him in one — to hell with it, why tiptoe around it; the old man was right — parallel universe and apparently intending to kill him in another. One Betty was sick and another one wasn't. It made sense to try to figure out who the real Betty was. But the real Charlotte? Wherever she showed up, she wanted to kill him.

So what difference did it make?

Reuben laughed bitterly. He knew that wasn't the right response, but the right response wouldn't come. Maybe there wasn't one.

She had the gun. She wanted to kill me.

What that meant was going to sink in. Someday. But he couldn't quite make it register.

Not today.

"Not right now," he said aloud.

Betty looked at him, puzzled.

"What do you mean?"

He shook his head.

"Betty, what if there are more of these scenarios? If there's one where you didn't get sick and one where I didn't die, do you think there might be one where Charlotte didn't die?"

She looked down at the table.

"I don't know, Reuben. I suppose there are as many possible delusions as there are human desires."

He took her hand.

"That's too easy. You know you aren't a delusion, don't you?"

"I suppose."

"And I know that I'm not one. As long as we trust each other…there must be more going on here than just delusions."

She shook her head.

"Your logic is terribly flawed. It's like the ontological argument for the existence of God."

Reuben smiled, in spite of himself..

"The what?"

"Well…never mind. Let's just say that you can't lift your feet off the ground by pulling your own bootstraps. And you can't prove that something is real just because two people believe it."

"Whatever.I don't doubt that it's hard to prove that God exists. But I'm right here. This is really me. Alive." He touched his forehead. "And I've lived through things that couldn't possibly have happened, not in this scenario."

Betty sat back in her chair. She looked dubious.

"Well, it's hard to argue with the fact that you're here. You are."

"Then let's just say for a moment that there really are different scenarios."

"All right," she said. "How many?"

How many.

Reuben considered this for a moment, and as he did the balcony began slowly to fall into a subtle spinning motion. He looked up. Or was it the lake and the sky somehow beginning to rotate around each other? It was the same feeling as before, the sensation that something had come loose. He looked straight ahead and blinked. It wasn't real, of course. Just some kind of sensory illusion. Maybe it was inner ear damage, the result of his head injury.

Reuben felt a twinge of queasiness. The spinning could make him nauseous if it kept up. He put his mind to the question again. The sensation of motion became more intense.

Reuben stood up. He put his hand on the table to steady himself. He shook his head for a moment to clear it. The spinning stopped.

"I don't know how many there are. And I don't care to think about it. It's a disturbing question."

"All right," said Betty. "It doesn't matter how many. Say they are real. Then what?"

"Well, then…everybody dies."

She gave him a quizzical look. That wasn't what Reuben meant to say, but he knew at once that it was the truth. If the different scenarios were real, then so was the shadow that Reuben had sensed that day back in the dacha. It didn't belong in the world, there were no scenarios that could or should include it. That's what he had sensed about it first, the idea that it came from someplace…deep. Someplace behind.

Reuben could feel the shadow's presence, could almost see it: the shadow fell both on this world and on the one he had left behind. Moreover, it fell on the stage where all the different scenarios were built. It fell on the ability of worlds to exist in the first place. For anything to exist. The shadow insisted that nothing should be allowed to exist, and that everything that did must somehow be stopped.

His stomach felt worse.

"That's not what I meant," he said, suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. "It's not that everybody dies. It's worse than that. It's having everybody…removed. Erased."

Betty put her hand on his.

"Reuben…?"

He looked in her eyes. The balcony began to rotate again. His head was pounding.

"I think they're made of memories somehow."

"What is made of memories?" she asked "Or who?"

"All of us. The scenarios. One set of memories is one scenario, a different set is another scenario. The things don't have to be there. The people don't. And the places, events, whatever…can all be different. It's just the memories that matter."

He slumped back down in his chair. He took in a slow, gulping breath. The nausea was easing.

"I don't understand, Reuben."

He reached out his hand and touched her cheek.

"I don't either," he said. "Things can be the same; things can be different. It's all memories. If I'm alive or dead. If Charlotte…" his voice trailed off.

"Maybe one is as good as another," he said after a moment.

He took her hand in his.

"Or not as good. As true."

"But what would happen?" he asked, knowing she couldn't answer. Not really sure what he meant by the question. "What happens if the memories get taken away?"

"Well…I'm not sure. But it looks to me as if they get replaced by other memories. Better memories, Reuben."

Reuben turned and looked at the lake again. He wanted to believe that, but he couldn't.

The spinning stopped again.

"I don't know," he said. "I hope so."

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Chapter 34



Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Four

(Read earlier chapters.)

The cobblestone streets of the inner city of Mantua were slick with the alternating mist and rain that had been constant since morning. The main gate to the Palazzo Ducale towered before the three of them, an impressive structure of brown stone with a row of v-shaped turrets at the top and bullet-shaped arches at the bottom. The gate looked like a small medieval castle in its own right. Or perhaps not so small. Drawing closer, Reuben realized that the arches were 15 feet or higher. He followed the old man and his associate — who had been introduced earlier that day as one Iskandar Ahmad from Indonesia — under the central arch, which led to the palace’s main entrance.

Reuben thought of his trip to the monastery with Betty. The gate looked sturdy enough, but overall the fortifications seemed flimsy compared to the massive walls at Zagorsk. He pointed the difference out to the old man.

“It’s true,” Keyes smiled, appraising the walls as they passed under the arch and into a manicured green courtyard. “Two different histories; two different approaches to warfare. The Russians had to defend themselves from the Mongol hoards thundering down on them from the steppes. Old Gonzaga, what did he have to worry about? A spat with the big cheese over in Verona? Some spillover from the war between Venice and the Ottomans?”

Reuben stepped back to get a better view of the palace's outer wall.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Keyes continued, “I’m sure this castle saw its share of bloodshed. But the Russians were up against a completely different kind of enemy.”

“Maybe not so different,” said Reuben. “I think I read that it was at this very castle that Attila the Hun agreed to terms of surrender.”

Ahmad slowed his pace as this exchange unfolded. He had been walking a few steps ahead. He was a distinguished-looking Malay man, impeccably dressed in his Armani suit. He was an inch or two taller than the old man and (Reuben estimated) twenty or so years younger.

“Forgive me, Reuben,” he said. “But that isn’t entirely accurate. What you are describing happened long before this castle was built. And it was a few miles from here, along the road that eventually leads to Rome. That’s where Attila was stopped.”

“Is that right?” said Reuben. He wasn’t surprised that he had his facts wrong. History had never really been his area.

“Yes,” Ahmad continued. “And he didn’t surrender. He simply met with a delegation of ambassadors and agreed not to sack Rome.”

“A delegation?” Keyes asked.

Ahmad nodded.

“That’s correct. Pope Leo among them.”

“And what, they just talked him out of it?”

Ahmad nodded again.

“Well, there’s your difference,” Keyes said, with a chuckle. “What do you think Genghis Khan would have done with that delegation?”

Ahmad seemed to think about this for a moment.

“Attila was a businessman. Of sorts. The delegation persuaded him that sacking Rome would destroy the economy, which would leave him with very little to plunder elsewhere in the Empire. Sacking Rome would have been like killing the queen in a beehive from which you still want to gather honey. But the Mongols cared nothing for plunder. They wanted only to destroy. Had they ever captured the Pope, I doubt they would have shown him any more respect than they did the Caliph of Baghdad.”

“Really?” said Reuben. “And what did they do to him?”

“They tied him in a sack and ran over him with their horses. Over and over and over.”

Keyes let out a low whistle.

“Yes,” said Ahmad. “But in any case, that was hundreds of years after the time of Attila. I think I must agree with you, Michael, that the city of Mantua never faced anything so dire as the Mongols.”

He led them on into the main building. The foyer was both a souvenir shop and the entrance to the palace museum. Several tables were laid out with books: some specifically about the palace’s collection, a few others about Venice or Milan or Lombardy in general. A tired-looking Italian woman sat behind the cash register. Behind her was a turnstile leading into the Palace.

Ahmad approached the counter and spoke to the woman in Italian. She reached under the counter and handed him three CD players with headphones. Reuben looked pointedly at Keyes.

Had the old man dragged him all the way down here just to show him the sights? He hadn’t been in the mood for much of anything the past few days. But a self-guided tour of an Italian castle would be close to the top of the list of things he wasn’t in the mood for.

Before Reuben could say anything, Ahmad handed the audio sets back to the woman, telling her something apparently intended to clarify their purpose there. The woman nodded gravely. She stepped gingerly around the turnstile and disappeared down the hall. She re-appeared a few minutes later with an old man in a shabby gray suit.

Keyes greeted the old fellow with a handshake and a hearty buon giorno. The elderly Italian gentleman seemed genuinely pleased to see Keyes. The two of them talked for a moment. Reuben smiled at this. The old man seemed to have connections and acquaintances everywhere.

“Reuben, Iskandar, this is my friend André,” Keyes said, turning to face them. “He’s going to show us what we came here to see.”

“Which is what?” asked Reuben.

Keyes beamed.

“The Camera degli Sposi,” he said.

“Si,” said André, “La Camera degli Sposi.” He gestured to one side of the turnstile.

Reuben didn’t move.

“Am I supposed to have some idea of what that means?” he asked.

“It means the ‘Room of the Newlyweds,” Ahmad explained.

That’s helpful, thought Reuben.

“I see,” he said. “But that doesn’t exactly tell me why…”

“Per favore,” André interrupted, once again motioning them towards the turnstile.

Ahmad, Keyes, and then Reuben mimicked the gift shop lady’s earlier maneuver, taking a sidestep around the turnstile and starting down the hall. Their guide led them on a seemingly rambling trek through the twisting stone corridors of the palace. The hallways were dark and musty, which Reuben knew was to be expected. But even so, he got the impression that they were taking the back route to wherever it was they were going.

He decided not to pick up his earlier line of questioning. The old man had awakened him early that morning, telling him that they had “work to do.” Keyes had driven them from the lake home to the train station (Betty was otherwise occupied) where they met Ahmad. From there, they had boarded the train to Mantua. Along the way, the old man had kept the conversation steered to neutral subjects. Who Ahmad was, and what their purpose was in coming to this place, would apparently be revealed in good time. Reuben found that he had little patience for the mystery.

The walk ended with a climb up some steep stairs. Reaching the top, André turned to face them

La Camera degli Sposi,” he said once again, his voice now hushed with reverence.

They entered a room with paintings on the walls and ceiling.

No, Reuben corrected himself. Not with paintings. With painting. The room itself was the canvas.

Keyes and Ahmad strolled to the center of the room. Reuben walked around the perimeter, taking in its strange beauty. The design was intriguing: an enclosed room painted to look like an open-air pavilion. The walls were decorated with soldiers and hounds and stately noblemen. Tradesmen conferred; children played. A family posed for a portrait, one member of which was an extremely disgruntled-looking dwarf wearing what must have been an uncomfortable dress. Behind them the town and countryside stretched off into the distance. Puffy clouds floated by in the sky overlooking it all.

Reuben joined the others in the center of the room. He looked up. The ceiling was a dome, in the center of which was painted another opening. It was a false oculus, the ancient Roman answer to the skylight. Cherubs, winged and diapered in the traditional style, were climbing in and out of the opening. There were girls standing around the edge of the oculus, looking down into the room. They were accompanied by an ominous black bird and a sly-looking fellow wearing a striped turban.

After a while, the old man cleared his throat.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

Reuben tried to formulate an answer. An appreciation of the skill that had created the room momentarily took the edge off his impatience. It was an oddity, that much was certain. Beautifully rendered. And not without a certain sense of humor, or at least whimsy. But he couldn’t imagine what it was that he was supposed to see in it.

“Magnificent,” said Ahmad.

Reuben realized that the question had not been directed at him.

“I have reproductions back home in Jakarta,” Ahmad continued, “but they can’t do it justice. Look at how he has — ”

Ahmad stopped abruptly. He turned to Reuben.

“Take all the time you wish. When you have finished, we will leave.”

“Finished what?” said Reuben, his patience once again beginning to wane.

Ahmad looked puzzled.

“When you have finished looking.”

Reuben blinked.

“Okay,” he said. “But is there anything in particular that I’m looking for?”

“Just look,” Ahmad said simply. “We can talk about it later.”

Reuben turned to Keyes for help. The old man simply shrugged, and returned to studying the room.

Reuben sighed. He continued to look.

___


The rain had stopped, but it was still too wet to sit outside. Reuben, Ahmad, and Keyes were seated at a cramped table in a café just across the city square from the entrance to the palace. There were only a few tables; the place was crowded and noisy.

Reuben drained his espresso in three quick sips; he was thinking about having another. The other men nursed theirs in a more dignified fashion.

Ahmad talked about his long fascination with the room they had just visited. He told them about Mantegna, the artist who had created it, as well as the Gonzagas, the family who long occupied the Palace. Keyes listened with keen interest, asking frequent questions. Reuben listened indifferently. They couldn’t come to the point too soon for him..

“But enough of all this local color,” Ahmad said at last. “Reuben, I would very much like your impressions.”

“Well,” he said, “I’m really not much of an authority on art…”

“All to the good,” said Ahmad. “Being an art connoisseur might only get in the way. I want you to tell me what it was that most struck you about the Camera.”

Reuben considered this.

“I’d say it was the way the artist merged the painting with the room. The way a curtain or a window frame would start out as real and continue as part of the painting. It reminded me of the guy who drew that picture of the hands drawing themselves.”

“Escher,” said Keyes.

Ahmad nodded, looking quite pleased.

“Excellent,” he said.

Reuben shared a puzzled glance with the old man.

“What,” he asked “did I get it right?”

“You did,” said Ahmad. “You did indeed.”

“So then maybe you’d care to tell me…what exactly did I get right? And what does it mean?”

He took an abortive sip from his now-empty cup.

“And what the hell am I doing here?” he added.

“Bear with me for a while, Reuben,” said Ahmad.

From his coat, he produced a deck of cards. He dealt four of them face up on the table in front of Reuben. These were not playing cards. Each was printed with a colorful and elaborate geometric pattern.

“This quality you described,” said Ahmad, “of one thing merging into another: is it present in any of these designs? And if so, in which one is it most present?”

Reuben looked at the cards. There were no pictures, just shapes and colors: a red cone here, a green cube there, a maze of lines and angles. He studied them for a while, then shook his head.

“No,” he said. “I don’t see that quality in any of these designs.”

Ahmad considered this. He started to gather up the cards. Then he stopped and looked at Reuben again.

“Are you sure about that?’ he asked, returning the two cards he had picked up to the table. “Look deep, Reuben. You’ve come a long way only to give up now.”

“I never said I was giving up. I just don’t see the point in any of this.”

“Please, Reuben.” Ahmad gestured at the cards. “Which one?”

He looked at the cards again. He stared at each one, trying to recapture the sensation he had had when looking at the diagram in Coffey’s book on the train, and a few days before on the terrace at the lake house.

Look deep.

He studied the background of each of the cards. The geometric designs sat in a field of black spattered with gold and silver to resemble the night sky. He changed his focus, trying to bring the background to the fore. As he did so, the black spaces between the “stars” began to emerge, defining lines and shapes of their own

Reuben picked up one of the cards and held it half an arm’s length away from his face. He fixed his gaze on the background as though it were a great distance away. The black spaces began to cohere into a shape of their own. It was a circle. No a, cylinder. It was a hole in a ceiling. Cubes and tetrahedrons, the shapes from the foreground, were climbing in and out of the opening. There were polygons standing around the edge of the circle, looking out at Reuben. They were accompanied by an ominous pyramid and a sly-looking sphere.

Reuben laughed. He turned to the old man.

“Do you see what this is?”

Keyes was frowning. He shook his head.

“It’s one of those holographic 3-D puzzles. You find the picture inside the picture. They’re scenes from the Camera. This is the oculus.”

He set the card down in front of the old man and picked up another one. He stared at it for a moment.

“This is…what? Several people. It’s the family portrait. See the dwarf?”

He set that card in front of Keyes and picked up the next.

“A guy on a horse. No, a guy standing next to a horse. And there are the dogs.”

He set it down and picked up the last one.

“It’s a landscape,” he announced after a moment. “See, there’s a hill with a wall running along in front.” He set the card down and turned to Ahmad. “That’s an interesting test you’ve got, there. How did I do?”

Ahmad cleared his throat.

“You have not responded to the test yet. You might be interested to know that these cards were designed more than 300 years ago. So while, yes, they are similar to the holographic puzzles you mentioned, they are not exactly the same thing. I’m afraid that it is no great accomplishment to see the patterns within the cards and to match them up with images from the Camera, although this ability has been taken for arcane knowledge in the past.”

“Really?” said Keyes, who was holding one of the cards in front of his face and squinting at it. “I can’t see a damn thing.”

“You have to let your field of vision go blurry,” said Reuben. “Look at the image on the card as though it were a great distance away.”

The old man continued looking at the card. A half a minute or so passed.

“Nothing,” he said, flipping the card back onto the table.

Ahmad took a sip from his coffee.

“In truth, the patterns are a bit more subtle than what you would see in holographic puzzle. And not everyone can find the pictures even in those.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” said Keyes. “I’ve never heard of holographic picture puzzles. But never mind. Reuben, answer the question. Which one of these cards is the most Escher-like?”

Reuben considered this. He reached in front of Keyes and picked up the first card he had looked at, the one that contained the image of the oculus. It was different from the others in the way it used elements from the foreground to complete the picture. On the other cards, the image simply emerged from the background with no reference to the geometric pattern that lay in front.

“This one, I suppose.”

Ahmad nodded. He picked up the remaining three cards and stacked them to one side. He took the card that Reuben was holding and placed it on the table in front of him. Then he thumbed through the deck and placed four more cards around it.

“They’re all the same,” said Reuben.

Ahmad smiled.

“In fact, they are not. Each card in the deck is unique. All I can tell you is that one of them holds the key. Which one?”

“What do you mean, holds the key?”

Ahmad shook his head. He had nothing more to say.

Reuben sighed. As before, he began to pick up each card from the table and look at it. It was true, each one was slightly different. Only the geometric pattern in front was the same. The background images were all different. One was the oculus from the Camera. Another was an ornate cross, studded with jewels represented by the shapes in the foreground. The third was a five-pointed star.

Reuben looked at that one for a moment. Could it be the key? It was hard to say, since he had no idea what that meant. He set the card down and picked up the next one. He frowned. The image appeared to be the oculus again. But there was something different about it. It wasn’t really the oculus; it was some other circular pattern. He blinked, and that image was gone, replaced by the star. Reuben held the card back at a little more distance from his face. He blinked again. Now the star and the circle had merged. This was a familiar shape.

Reuben stared hard at the image. Something was stuck, he thought. Something was not quite right. He rotated the card 180 degrees. That was better somehow. The image seemed right at this orientation. It could be loosed now. As he looked intently at the image, the now-familiar sensation washed over him. Slowly, gracefully, the pattern — which was of course the same as the one he had seen in the old man’s manuscript and repeated twice in Coffey’s document — began to rotate. It made three full turns before coming to a halt. Then, just as slowly and gracefully, the little café itself began to rotate.

Reuben closed his eyes and shook his head. The spinning subsided. He flipped the card down on the table in front of Ahmad.

“That’s the one,” he said.

Ahmad nodded.

“Indeed it is,” he said. He picked up all the cards and placed the deck back in his coat pocket.

“I apologize to both of you for this rather idiosyncratic exercise,” he said. “An organization such as mine depends on secrecy for its survival. We have been protecting a secret for a very long time. Over the years we’ve developed a number of practices required to keep it safe. One of these is the validation of an initiate.”

“So we’re initiates?” asked Reuben. “Looking to get validated?”

Ahmad smiled. “Initiates no longer,” he said. “And your validation is complete.”

He extended his hand.

“Reuben, it is my honor to welcome you to the Congrigatio in Ars Magica Magnae.”

Reuben declined the handshake. He sat back in his chair.

“Say what?” he finally managed.

“You have met the criteria. Both you and Mr. Keyes are invited to become brothers in our fraternity.”

“The Society of the Greater Magic,” said Keyes.

Ahmad nodded.

“Well,” Reuben said after a moment, taking hold of Ahmad’s hand. “I’ll be damned.”

He shook Ahmad’s hand and then sat back in his chair. He looked from Ahmad to Keyes, and back to Ahmad again.

“So it’s real?” he said.

“Yes, Reuben,” Ahmad answered. “You have found that which you set out looking for some time ago.”

Reuben laughed, although there was no humor in it. He shook his head and sighed.

“I’ll be damned,” he said again.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 35

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben drummed his fingers impatiently on the table.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “I look at some paintings, play a card game, and now you’re ready to share all your arcane knowledge with me? That’s all it took?”

Ahmad laughed.

“Did you want it to be more difficult than that?”

“To tell you the truth, I never expected to find you people at all. But you’re right. If I ever did find you, I didn’t expect you to be such…pushovers.

Ahmad laughed again, joined by Keyes.

“What’s so funny, old man?” Reuben asked, annoyed.

Keyes grew silent.

“Nothing, really,” he said, clearing his throat. “It’s just that I’ve known Iskandar here for — what, 18 years? And all this time he’s been supposedly helping me to track this group down.”

He turned to Ahmad.

“You’ve been lying to me for a long time.”

Ahmad looked down, seeming to study the tabletop for a moment.

“I apologize for that. The deception is regrettable, but it was necessary.”

“Well, excuse me,” said Reuben, “but how do we know you aren’t lying now?”

Ahmad shrugged.

“You can only accept my assurance that I am not.”

Keyes nodded at this.

“I do accept your assurance, Iskandar. And your apology. But Reuben’s got a point. This did all seem kind of easy. I mean, is this how everyone becomes a member?”

“No. This is just one of dozens of possible tests. This one is usually administered by showing the candidate pictures of the Camera. It was interesting that you mentioned Escher, Reuben. I have a different test that I can perform by asking you to examine some Escher prints. Had we been anywhere else, I probably would have done that. But I couldn’t resist making the trip. Not when we were so close to Mantua.”

“So there are dozens of possible tests, but you only have to take one?” asked Reuben

“Not at all. An initiate is usually subjected to dozens of tests over a period of months or years before being validated. Few are ever selected. I regret to say that Michael, here, was tested a number of years ago and he…did not pass.”

“Now hold on,” said Keyes. “what are you talking about? You never gave me any tests.”

Ahmad took a moment to choose his words.

“Apparently, you were never aware that you were being tested. Which, in the early stages, is how it is supposed to be.”

Keyes took a drink of his coffee and looked off into the distance, remembering. After a while, he smiled.

“I’ll be damned,” he said. “You smooth-talking son of a bitch. All those highly theoretical discussions we’ve had about art and mathematics. And here I just thought you were some kind of…intellectual.

Ahmad laughed again.

“I may yet be,” he said. “Many of our conversations were just what they seemed: two old friends passing the time together pleasantly. But some of them, early on, were not.”

“And I failed?” said Keyes.

“I’m afraid so.”

“I never even made it out of the first round, did I? Or I would have known that I was being tested.”

“Don’t take it badly. Most initiates fail. But none of that matters now. You have been accepted.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. You give me a bunch of tests and I fail. You give Reuben only one — a pretty damn easy one, it looked like — and now suddenly we’re both in?”

“There was nothing easy about what Reuben just did. But he did have an advantage. Most initiates have never seen the diagram before they take the test. I’m sure it was easier for Reuben to recognize it than it would be for one of them.”

Reuben nodded.

“Today’s test was to some extent a formality. As I said, we have certain practices that we have to maintain. One of our rules is that no initiate can be validated without passing at least one test. So I subjected Reuben to this one. But his admission to the society — as well as your own by way of association — was a forgone conclusion.”

“But why?” asked Reuben.

“We aren’t pushovers, Reuben. You secured your membership through your unique accomplishment.”

Reuben looked bewildered.

“Which is what?”

Ahmad took a long sip from his coffee.

“You traveled to this world from another.”

So there it was.

Reuben got up and went to the counter. He pointed to his cup and held up his index finger. Universal sign language for one coffee, please. Three young women sat at a table near the counter talking quietly and giggling. Reuben figured they were late teens, early twenties. There was something irritating about how perfectly Italian they were: their long hair, their angular faces, and their short leather skirts. No doubt they belonged to the three sleek black motor scooters parked out front. The whole tableau was right out of a perfume ad in one of those glossy women’s magazines.

Reuben noticed that the women would turn quickly away from him every time he looked their way.

And more giggling would ensue.

What was this, he wondered. Flirtation? Curiosity? Were they repulsed by the scar on his head?

“Hey girls,” he said.

One of them turned and looked directly at Reuben. Girlish mirth immediately gave way to fashion-model severity. She treated him to a look of deadly disdain.

You,” said Reuben. “Have you ever thought about hooking up with somebody from out of town? I mean like…way out of town?”

“Reuben…” said Keyes.

“Non parlo di inglesi,” the young woman said, and turned back to her friends.

The café owner handed Reuben his espresso with a scowl. Reuben winked at him as he handed over his cash.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just not myself. It looks like maybe somebody else is. Or rather was. If you see what I’m saying.”

The café owner handed him his change and turned around in disgust.

Reuben started back toward his seat, still smiling at the girls. On some unspoken cue, they got up and headed for the door.

Reuben sat back down.

“You need to watch what you’re saying, Reuben,” said Keyes.

“Oh? Why’s that? Iskandar, are you going to throw me out of the club if I don’t behave? Right after saying I could join?”

Ahmad looked concerned.

“I can see that this is all quite troubling for you, Reuben. And I don’t blame you for being troubled. But I’m afraid there’s a good deal more you need to know.”

“Troubling?” said Reuben. “This isn’t troubling. It’s just background noise. Unless you’re going to be able to tell me something really useful about what’s happening to me, it’s just noise. Let me tell you what’s troubling, Mr. Ahmad. What’s troubling is when you find out that you’re dead.”

He poured some milk into his coffee. Then he added a sugar cube. Then two more.

“What the hell,” he said, smiling. “But I take that back. What’s troubling is when you learn that maybe you’re dead, maybe you’re alive, but it really doesn’t matter. Because either way, your life is a lie.”

“Now, son,” Keyes protested, “I don’t think it’s fair to say —”

Reuben held up his hand, cutting him off.

“I have a question for you, Iskandar. I was talking to Mrs. Keyes about all this the other day. She brought up a good point. How many of these parallel worlds do you think there are?”

Ahmad shrugged.

“I’m not sure that I accept the idea of parallel worlds.”

Reuben’s tone of voice grew cold.

“But you just said that I went from one world to another.”

“Forgive the inconsistency, Reuben. Perhaps I was making an unnecessary technical distinction. In everyday speech, I often talk in terms of parallel universes. But few of us in the society actually subscribe to the idea of them. Personally, I believe there is only one universe. But there are many points of reference from within it. Those different points of reference are the reality behind the language of many worlds.”

Reuben thought about this. It seemed he had heard something like this before, but he couldn’t recall where.

“Let me see if I understand. So from one point of view, it might look like somebody’s alive. But from the other, it might look like they’re dead?”

Ahmad shook his head.

“No, it isn’t a matter of what things look like. As viewed from one point of reference, the individual actually would be alive. As viewed from another, he would be dead. From still another, he would never have been born in the first place.”

“So you’re saying that I’ve somehow shifted my point of reference.”

“That’s right.”

“I mean, really shifted it. I want to know how I did that. But first, I want to go back to my original question. How many of these different points of reference are there?”

Ahmad shrugged again.

“It may be an infinite number. Or it may be an unimaginably high number, but still finite. I don’t have those answers, Reuben. But I would like to put you in contact with someone who might.”

“Good,” said Reuben. “Perfect. Give me your phone, old man.”

Keyes looked puzzled, but he reached into his coat for his mobile phone. He handed it to Reuben.

“What’s the number?” he asked Ahmad, his fingers poised to dial. “Let’s get this guy on the phone right now. I want to know how many of these parallel universes there are. Excuse me, points of reference. I want to know how many I get shot in. Or from. Whatever the hell it is.”

“Reuben, please…” said Keyes.

“Well wouldn’t you?” Reuben demanded. “Maybe it’s all of them. Getting shot seems to be my thing. Maybe I’ve found an unimaginably high number — but still finite! — of ways to do it. From my particular point of reference, I got lucky. I was shot by a drunk and disoriented Russian.”

He tapped his forehead.

“Survivable. But other versions of me apparently didn’t do so well. They had to contend with someone who was surprisingly a much better shot. My wife.”

Keyes looked stricken.

“Reuben, I‘m sorry. I didn’t know you knew.”

“Betty told me,” Reuben said simply. He took another sip from his coffee.

They were all silent for a while.

“I’m also truly sorry, Reuben” said Ahmad. “What a bizarre set of circumstances. But I’m afraid we can’t call the individual I have in mind. It will have to be a face to face meeting.”

“Why?” asked Reuben. “Who is he, anyway?”

“My counterpart,” said Ahmad. “The leader of the Congrigatio in Ars Magica Minor.”

“The what?” asked Keyes. “The Lesser Magic? I never heard of that.”

Ahmad smiled.

“No. And you never would have, had you not been admitted to the society of the Greater Magic.”

“Wait. Shouldn’t it work the other way around?” asked Reuben.

“Well,” said Ahmad, “one would think so. But you’re missing some vital information. There is no Greater Magic. The organization you’ve just been admitted to is a sham. It’s a hoax. We exist only as a smoke screen.”

Reuben looked at Keyes. It’s about time, he thought. Finally, one of the con artists the old man associated with was admitting he was as phony.

“A smoke screen for what?” he asked.

“Obviously, to protect the one that’s not a hoax,” said Keyes. “The society of the Lesser Magic.”

“That’s right,” Ahmad agreed. “We call it Magic Minor, by the way.”

Reuben rolled his eyes.

“Well, I don’t have any trouble believing your group is a sham,” said Reuben. “your initiation test notwithstanding. By our own admission, you’ve been lying to Mr. Keyes all this time. But why should we believe that one of these groups is real when one of them is an admitted fraud?”

Ahmad smiled.

“You may believe whatever you like. But ask yourself this question: why are you being told this here, in this world? Why was there no mention of it in the other world? Mr. Keyes apparently knows both myself and Mr. Coffey in both worlds.”

“Coffey,” Reuben repeated. “David Coffey?” Reuben suddenly remembered where he had heard some of this talk about points of reference before. It was on his train ride to St. Petersburg/Leningrad.

“That’s right,” said Ahmad.

“He’s part of your group?”

“He is,” said Ahmad. “But he would never have admitted to being so. His job was to keep Mr. Keyes, here, from learning the truth about us.”

Keyes looked stunned for a moment. The he smiled at Ahmad.

“I didn’t realize that you and David knew each other,” he said.

“Of course you didn’t,” said Ahmad. “You thought he worked for you, after all. His job was to keep you busy. To distract you with shreds of evidence that seem promising, but lead nowhere. I had a duty to protect my society. It is difficult to dissuade a man of your persistence, Michael. But I can tell you very frankly that, had circumstances not changed, Mr. Coffey would still be hard at work keeping you off the trail.”

“And the change in circumstances was my return from the grave?” asked Reuben.

“Absolutely. A few weeks ago, Mr. Keyes approached Mr. Coffey with what he believed might be evidence of the work of the society of the Society of the Greater Magic. A man who had died some time before was suddenly alive again.”

Keyes nodded.

“It seemed like a long shot. Everything I had heard about the Society told me they were involved in alchemy, not necromancy, but I was grasping at straws. I needed an explanation.”

For the first time, it occurred to Reuben that his reappearance was more than just an occasion for Keyes’ to rejoice at the return of his lost godson. It was that, to be sure, but there was something else. For a man who had devoted many years of his life to the pursuit of subjects largely ignored or (when noticed) ridiculed by most of the rest of the world, the undeniable inexplicability of Reuben’s showing up alive in a Soviet prison would have to be a triumph of vindication for Keyes.

“So what convinced you people that the old man was on to something?” he asked.

“Once reviewed, the proof is very persuasive. You’ll forgive me, Reuben, if I tell you that the remains buried in Denver are a perfect genetic match.”

Reuben looked at Keyes.

“You dug me up?”

The old man grew pale again. He squirmed in his chair as he tried to formulate an answer.

“Never mind,” said Reuben, “you had to be sure it was me, didn’t you?”

“And it wasn’t just the DNA evidence,” Ahmad continued. “Identical dental records, fingerprints. Even if you had a secret identical twin, which there was no reason to believe, it would have been very difficult to pull off such a hoax.”

“So you figured out that I somehow got here from a different frame of reference?”

Ahmad nodded.

“But how did you figure that? I would think that you’d go more with the old man’s explanation, that somebody used your minor magic to bring me back from the dead.”

“Magic Minor,” said Ahmad, correcting Reuben’s word order. “First, while I am not a practitioner of the art, I know a bit about it. And I can say with some confidence that Magic Minor cannot be used to bring someone back from the dead. At least not in the way you’re thinking, resuscitating a corpse like Dr. Frankenstein. Besides, how could anyone believe that you had been brought back from the dead? Your body was still dead and buried. And is still dead and buried.”

Keyes winced.

“Forgive me, Michael.”

The old man nodded.

“It’s all right,’ he said, “Go on.”

“Well, in any event, it was clear to me that this was an instance of Magic Minor. The first bona fide case that I have ever encountered.”

Reuben put this together.

“So do people use Magic Minor to do what I did? To somehow move from one scenario to another?”

“Precisely,” said Ahmad. “That is precisely what Magic Minor is.”

He drained his coffee.

“And it is the only real magic that ever was. Or likely that ever will be.”

“But wait,” said Keyes. “What about alchemy and the philosopher’s stone and all that stuff?’’

“Serious pursuits, to be sure,” said Ahmad. “A few of the most advanced practitioners of the alchemical arts had a glimpse of Magic Minor.”

“Al Razi?” said Keyes.

“Among others. But for most it was only a glimpse. It was not nearly enough. So by and large they, and those who came after them, traveled down one pointless road after another in pursuit of riches and eternal life. Roads leading nowhere.”

He looked toward Keyes with a half smile. “But still of great use to us, of course.”

“How’s that?” said Reuben.

The old man smiled.

“That’s their smoke screen, son.”

Reuben considered this.

“So what about this mysterious document. Just a red herring? Another fake?”

“Not at all,” said Ahmad. “Or I suppose it depends on what you mean by a fake. It is the Book of the Greater Magic. If ever translated, it will be revealed that it is a treatise on alchemy. Just as many of its investigators already suspect. It purports a fantastical and widely inaccurate description of how the universe works, but not much more so than many other documents from the period. The eventual translators will be delighted at first by the secrets it promises to deliver. Yet ultimately disappointed to find that it is just another ancient book of mystical blather. A bit more confusing and frustrating than most, perhaps, but nothing more.”

“And the diagram?” said Reuben. “The one that was on the card. The one that’s also in the mosque in Turkey and the temple in Tibet?”

“A link to the truth, to be sure. Even the most fanciful treatises on alchemy have a few of those. There is a connection between that mandala and the practice of Magic Minor. What that connection is, I cannot tell you. I have not been initiated into the mysteries. ”

“But other than that one symbol, there’s nothing special about the manuscript?” asked Keyes.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. The manuscript has something in common with our friend, here.”

He set his cup down.

“It, too, came from another world.”

Reuben stared hard at Ahmad.

“Point of reference,” he said.

“Even so,” said Ahmad. “The book of the Greater Magic is the perfect decoy. It is a truly mysterious artifact: the arcane language; the esoteric illustrations. An entire sub discipline has grown up within the field of crypto-botany dedicated just to the study of its illustrations of plants.”

“And there’s no danger that someone will eventually figure out what the thing says?” asked Keyes.

“Why?” said Ahmad, smiling faintly. “Are your people getting close?”

The old man snorted.

“Probably not as close as they think.”

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. To decipher its meaning is to learn nothing. But there is something else about that manuscript, something known only to members of the society into which the two of you have just been admitted.”

“What’s that?” asked Reuben.

“The fact that it was once part of a set.”

“A set?” said Keyes. “Meaning that you had more red herrings you were prepared to throw in my path?”

“No, Michael,” said Ahmad. “Meaning that there is a second book, the Book of Magic Minor, which contains all the answers that you and Reuben have been looking for.”

“You have this book?” Reuben asked.

“No, my associate does.”

“The head of the Magic Minor group.”

“Yes.”

“And he can read it?”

“Well…” said Ahmad. It seemed there was something that he wanted to say, but then he thought better of it. “The book was translated long ago. By design, I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of how much of it is read and understood today. You’re going to have to talk to my associate about that.”

“And where do I find this associate?” asked Reuben.

Ahmad smiled.

“It’s a long way from here, I’m afraid.”

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 36

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben was an utter disappointment.

I know that sounds unkind, and I’m sorry about that. But he was. When I got the call from Ix telling me that someone was coming, someone who had, as we say, “made it through the door,” I knew (or I should say I thought I knew) who that individual was. I had been following this certain someone’s exploits here at home and out in the wider configuration space for some time, and I knew that sooner or later our paths would cross. So just when it looks like everything is coming together, and he should be on his way, who shows up?

This…tough guy.

Right out of one of those movies with the car chases and the explosions. A man of action. A man of few words. Strong and silent.

A right git, in other words. And a bloody American to boot.

Does that seem unfair? Unduly harsh?

You have to understand that the man I was expecting is a genius. A brilliant writer. Someone who can see clear to the heart of the profoundest of mysteries — mysteries that have stolen a good part of my life, secrets that fill me with such simultaneous fear and awe that I am usually able to deal with them only through a veneer of cynicism.

I had so many expectations, so many hopes for what this meeting would be.

I suppose I built it all up unrealistically in my mind. As a result, my first impression of Reuben was clouded by my thwarted desire to meet the man I had expected to meet. So yes, I was disappointed — utterly, utterly disappointed — when I first met Reuben.

But I adjusted.

Over time, I grew to regard him with a casual dislike, which would eventually mellow to an indifferent tolerance.

Besides, when I finally did meet my would-be soul-mate, the man with all the answers — or at least what was supposed to be a version of him — he turned out to be a disappointment of catastrophic proportions. An absolute wanker, that one.

When I met him, I felt deep regret that I had ever applied that term “wanker” to any other human being. I should have saved it for him, written in fine script on a yellowed parchment.

So this Reuben comes stumbling into the shop one fine Tuesday afternoon, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt like a typical American tourist moron and dripping sweat by the litre. He wasn’t bad looking. Not exactly Denzel Washington or anything (if you see the point of the comparison), but tall and quite thin. He was a little haggard in the face, and had a big messy patch on his head. It looked like it was perhaps a burn. He made no pretense of looking at anything in the shop — which I suppose is to his credit, in a sense — but he came straight to the counter and said:

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

Always the way to get immediately on my good side. Now why, pray tell, would I be able to speak English? But this is a business, and sweaty Americans are noted in these parts for their tendency to part with their money. Lots of it. So rather than telling him outright — or pointing out that this is, after all a former British colony and that I spent four years at university in Bristol — I decided to acquaint him with the fact that I most certainly do speak the language (better than he does, no doubt) by smiling and giving him my most courteous:

“How may I help you today, sir?”

He smiled back.

“Yes, well, I’d like to see Mr. Wong. Mr. Wong Yoke Yee.”

Brilliant.

Not that this was the first time this had ever happened. And at least he didn’t say “Mr. Yee.”

“May I ask why?”

He looked uncomfortable at this question. He turned and took a look around the shop to make sure no one else was there.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to discuss that directly with Mr. Wong. Please just tell him that Iskandar Ahmad sent me.”

So that was when it hit me. This was the bloke. Ix said somebody was coming, and I assumed I knew who it was. But I was wrong.

Ix.

How could you?

I needed a moment, but there was none to be had. And so it was right then that I decided that I hated Reuben Stone. As I mentioned, this was not to last, but it was good enough to set the tone for several things that happened next.

“So what can I do for you?” I asked.

He looked puzzled.

“No, you don’t understand. I need to speak with Mr. Wong.”

As icily as I could — which I have been assured is fairly icy — I said:

“We can dispense with the Mr. I’m Wong Yoke Yee. My friends call me Daphne.”

He looked appropriately startled and immediately apologetic.

“I’m an idiot,” he said, a point I would be slow to disagree with. He extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Daphne. I’m Reuben. Reuben Stone.”

“Mr. Stone,” I said, meeting his grasp with the briefest, coldest, deadest fish of a handshake I could manage. “Please call me Miss Wong.”

Git or no, it would be difficult for Reuben to miss my point. I said my friends call me Daphne. Dolt. Imbecile. American. He looked appropriately chastised.

Actually, for a moment he bore an uncanny resemblance to Modo — the beagle I had reared from a pup, whom I had put to sleep just a few weeks before. Old age. Modo would have the same look on his face whenever he tore up the flower garden or left a mess on the shop floor and I told him he was a bad dog. This resemblance may have softened me towards Reuben a bit. But only the tiniest bit.

“Ah, okay. Miss Wong. I don’t know if Iskandar told you I was coming?”

“He did.”

“And did he tell you that I’ve just been admitted to the…Congrigatio in Ars Magica Magnae.”

His use of the proper Latin name was halting, but the pronunciation was close enough.

“Of course.”

Actually, he never mentioned it in so many words, but he didn’t have to. Ix wouldn’t send somebody my way unless he had already cleared that hurdle.

Reuben nodded. He wanted me to say more. He wanted me to make this easy for him.

No chance.

“Right,” he said. “Well, did he tell you about my…unusual circumstances?”

I remembered, then, what Ix had said about this Reuben Stone. And I looked at him anew. This bloke had managed to do what few had ever done, even among the initiates. I considered the scar on his head and the scrawniness of his build, which didn’t seem to fit with his large frame. He had been through something.

I didn’t like him any better for it, but my curiosity was piqued.

“He told me,” I said, “but not in any detail.”

“Well, would you like to hear the whole thing?”

I sighed impatiently.

“Why not?”

I locked the front door to the shop, placing the Back Soon sign in the window. It had been a slow day for jade trinkets and fake antique Chinese woodwork anyway. I led him to the back, past the small gallery of real antiques — I hadn’t even bothered to turn the light on there — and into my office.

We sat down there, and Reuben gave me an abbreviated version of his story. Even the short version included a lot of sentimental glop about wanting to help his poor sick mother — or even more treacle than that: the woman who “was like a mother to him.” This is not to say that I’m unsympathetic on the subject of sick parents or stand-in parents or what have you, but I was more interested in getting to the bottom of how he came to be here. I would have thought that he was a member of a different context’s version of the Order, but that wasn’t the case. He had heard about the society of the greater magic in his context, but Ix was giving him and his Dad (godfather, stepfather, sugar daddy, whatever it was) the run-around. You can’t buy your way into our little bridge club, not even if you’re Michael Keyes.

What Reuben had done, he had done on his own. Apparently he pulled it off through some combination of having part of his head blown off, looking at one of the pretty pictures in the big book, and a bit of what the Americans call “dumb luck.”

He hadn’t walked through the door. He had stumbled through.

It was a fascinating story. It would make a wonderful movie. Really. But from where I sat, Reuben now looked even less likely to be what I was looking for than I had taken him for at first. He was most probably a one-off arrangement. What had happened to him was a fluke. This left with a problem: what to do with him?

So I asked him.

“Why are you here? What do you want?”

He thought about this for a moment.

“I almost didn’t come,” he said. “I’ve been having trouble deciding whether I believe in any of this or not. But I want to understand what’s happened to me. And if there really is something to all this, then I need to know whether I can somehow use it to help Betty.”

“How would you do that?”

“I don’t know.”

I thought about it.

“Well, there might be ways of doing it. If you knew what she had, maybe you could find a context where it’s been cured and bring the cure back to her. Or just find a really advanced context — where they can cure everything — and go back and get her and bring her there.”

“That all sounds pretty easy.”

“It isn’t. You have a lot to learn. But it looks like you could learn it.”

“So…what do I do? How do I start?”

“I’m afraid it isn’t as simple as that. First I have to decide whether you’re an acceptable candidate. Assuming that you are, you have to go through a period of training. That could take quite a while.”

“How long?”

“Well, we have a fellow in Chile who started the training under my dad. He was 24 years old when he started. He’ll turn 50 this year.”

Reuben looked puzzled.

“And he’s still at it? When will he finish?”

“Probably never. He doesn’t have it in him; most people don’t. But some people just don’t know when to quit. However. Seeing as you’ve already displayed a certain…innate skill, it might not take very long with you.”

“Meaning what?”

“A year, maybe two, and you would possibly be able to find your way back home. Or it could take another five or six years to find this hypothetical cure.”

“But by then…”

I didn’t press him on what he thought would almost certainly have happened by then. He was apparently under the impression that time passes at the same rate across all contexts. Six years was disappointment enough. No need to compound it by a factor of a few hundred. Or then thousand. Or worse.

“And there’s another problem. Worthy as your cause is, I’m not sure that our rules would allow you to pursue it.”

That one seemed to stick him a little. As well it might.

“Why not?”

“There are two schools of thought on Magic Minor. One is that we were never really meant to have access to it. That’s it’s some kind of colossal cosmic mistake. The other is that we were meant to have it, but only in the performance of a specific task. A big task.”

“What task?”

“I can’t really go into that with you now. But it’s a serious situation, to say the very least. In any case, the theory goes that magic minor has fallen into our laps as its intended remedy.”

“Intended? By whom?”

“Unknown. But pay attention to the options: either we shouldn’t use it at all or we should use it just in the service of this one task. And I’m sorry, but helping Betty is not the task.”

Now we both had disappointments to deal with. And while I may be something of a callous bitch, I’m not quite so far gone that I couldn’t see that his disappointment was the greater of the two. By some considerable measure.

“Still, I might be willing to push through an exception in your case.”

He looked up, hope returning for a moment. I had to crush it.

“I mean to get you home. Not to help your friend.”

He sat there for a long time. Looking at the floor. Then he looked up and said something that surprised me.

“I guess I understand.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know anything about your cosmic mistake. But I can see how this is looked at as something that we aren’t supposed to have. Or that we’re supposed to use carefully. What’s to stop you from using this power to make yourselves rich or powerful? There must be scenarios — or I guess contexts is the word?”

I shrugged.

“It’s my word.”

“Right. Anyway, if there are contexts that contain cures for diseases, there are contexts that contain other things.”

He seemed to ponder this.

“Technology,” he continued. “Wealth. Weapons. You could rule the world.”

I nodded.

“Or go find one worth ruling and rule it.”

I’ll give Reuben this. It seeped in with him faster than it did for most. Probably a result of already having made the trip. It wasn’t surprising that he took the Yank alpha-male “rule the world” scenario and ran with it. But where he went next did surprise me a little.

“Or just find a perfect world that you already rule and go there. There must be one where you’ve recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. You step in and take your own place.”

I nodded again.

“Why not? It might be hard to find one exactly like that, but it’s out there. Of course, you might want to find out what those mysterious circumstances were before you make the leap. Or you might get disappeared yourself.”

“So is every possible…context out there somewhere?”

“Nobody knows the answer to that. There are some that we can see and get to. There are others that we can see and not get to. Apparently there are some that we can get to but not see — that would appear to be what you did.”

“Wait a minute. Are you saying that you can look into these other contexts? See what’s going on there?”

I sighed. Maybe not quite as bright as I had thought.

“How would you have gone looking for that cure? Or a world to conquer? Trial and error?”

He thought about this for a while, putting it all together. He started rubbing that discolored part of his head. It looked like he was in pain. He put his hand on my desk, as though he needed to steady himself or something.

Then I became aware of the ripple. First it was just this low crackling hum. Then it surged, taking on a sharpness: a definition.

“Hey, take it easy,” I said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

He looked up. He was in pain. He didn’t say anything.

I felt the ripple again, more distinct this time.

“Reuben. Listen to me. You have to let go right now. I understand what you’re experiencing. It’s a new way of thinking for you, one you haven’t had for very long.”

He wasn’t looking at me any more. He was staring off into the middle distance. Sweat was streaming down his face. Not that that was anything new.

This time the ripple hit me heard, and I had to take hold the desk myself. I felt dizzy. I thought I was going to vomit.

Brilliant. Right there on my beautiful antique desk.

“Reuben,” I said. “Listen to me, you silly fuckwit. You have to stop now or you’re going to wake up tomorrow in another Russian prison. Or worse.”

No response.

“I’m letting go, Reuben.”

I said it, but I wasn’t actually sure if I could. I had never felt a ripple quite like this one before. One that makes you sick at your stomach.

“You’re going alone. I won’t be there to help you.”

The ripple hit again. Viciously. It was a grasping, tearing thing. The shop, my office, my desk — all began to slip away. He was taking me. Against my will.

Somehow I managed to stand up. I took hold of his plastic tumbler of water and threw it in his face.

“Reuben! You have to! Stop this! Now!”

I flung the tumbler at him but it missed.

My office was fading to a grayed out version of itself. We were on the verge. I was real, but it wasn’t. Or almost wasn’t. Once we left, we could end up anywhere. I wouldn’t be able to get us back. And he…well, who knew what he could do?

“All right, god damn it! I’ll do what you want! We’ll help Betty! You’ve got it! You win! Just STOP NOW!!”

The ripple stopped. The lights came back on. It took me a moment to catch my breath. He sat there stoically, as though nothing had happened. Then he pulled out a handkerchief and began dabbing at the water I had thrown at him. After a moment, he reached down and picked up the tumbler and set it back on my desk.

“Sorry,” he said with utter calm. Then he just stared at me.

This was a pickle. Now what should I do?

My impulse was to kick him the hell out of my shop. Ix or no Ix. The fact that I’d just promised to help his sick friend didn’t even register. I was under duress. I would have said anything.

No, what made it a pickle was not what I had said. It was what he had done. That ripple.

That ripple.

My God, I had never experienced anything like that in my life. This git had no idea what he was doing and he was still better at agitating the waveform than anyone I’d ever seen. Maybe, I thought, we should start shooting all our initiate candidates in the head.

An idea that appealed to me on more than one level, believe you me.

So what to do with him? I had to be realistic. As I’ve said, Reuben was not who I was expecting. I had good reason to expect someone else. But here he was.

And time was growing short.

“You’re sorry,” I said. “That’s good. Now you listen to me. I want to be very clear about what I have to say. If you ever do that again, I will kill you. Do you understand me? That isn’t just an expression with me. I don’t use those kinds of expressions. When I tell someone that I’ll see them later, I mean that I’ll see them later. When I tell someone they’ll be sorry, I mean that they’ll be sorry. And when I say that I’m going to kill you, I mean…”

“That you’re going to kill me,” he said defiantly. “I got it.”

I was expecting him to be a little more apologetic, but he really bristled when the subject of killing him came up. I would have thought that a tough guy would take this sort of thing with a bit more aplomb. Later I learned why he took it so personally. Even under the circumstances, threatening to kill Reuben was something of a faux pas.

A certain nasty incident with the former Mrs. Stone, don’t you know.

But it served to even the score between us. Now he hated me, too.

“Good,” I said. “I’m glad we’re clear. You’re a military man, aren’t you?”

He shook his head.

“Really? But you’ve served somehow. Somewhere.”

“CIA.”

Another surprise.

“Well…good enough, I guess. That means you understand about following orders.”

“Yes.”

“And you understand about a chain of command.”

“Yes.”

“Good. Well then get this straight. There’s the chain of command, and then there’s me. I’m the anchor at the end of the chain. Do you follow me?”

“I think so.”

“Well let’s be sure. You’re a recruit in the Marine Corps. What do they call them in the movies? A…grunt. And I’m the head Marine. The Minister of Defense.”

He blinked.

“No, that’s not right. What do you call it? Never mind. I’m the President. That’s it, I’m the President of the United States. And you’re a grunt Marine. Clear?”

He nodded sullenly.

Clear?”

He glared at me.

“Clear,” he croaked.

“You will address me as Miss Wong.”

He half-smiled.

Clear, Miss Wong.”

“Wipe that idiotic smirk off your face.”

He did, replacing it with an expression of sheer hatred. That was all right; I could live with hatred. I wondered whether I wasn’t laying it all on a little thick. But I would need to for what was to come next.

“Here’s how it’s going to work. Your training will begin tomorrow evening. I’m going to give you a copy of the little book, which you will have read by the following day. We’ll meet here at six tomorrow and then every day at the same time.”

“Yes, Miss Wong.”

And then I had this idea.

It came to me all at once: the convergence of several seemingly unrelated strands. It was a good idea, but a not a particularly nice idea, if you can see the distinction. But there it was — I could get this wanker’s help with the Situation, punish him for not being who he was supposed to be, and finally put into action a plan I had been nursing along for twenty years or so. All at once.

It was perfect.

“But before we start, you have to do something. To prove to me that you’re serious.”

I took a sheet of paper from my notepad and jotted the number down on it. I was surprised to realize that I knew it by heart. I handed it to him.

“I have a bank account in Switzerland. Between now and six tomorrow evening, you will have made a deposit into this account.”

He took the sheet of paper and looked at the number.

“Yes, Miss Wong,” he said.

When I didn’t say anything he asked:

“How much, Miss Wong?”

I smiled at him.

“One million dollars, US.”

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 37

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben looked at the piece of paper with the account number on it, then looked back at me.

“You have got to be kidding,” he said.

I stared at him in silence.

“Miss Wong,” he added.

I sat back in my chair, preparing myself for the exchange. A bit of resistance is to be expected in these circumstances, after all.

“When I say something, I mean it. You don’t want to muck about with this. I believe in second chances, but you’re already on yours.”

Reuben exhaled. He wadded the paper up and tossed it onto my desk. He was still bristling with the charge of disrupting the waveform. I could see that he was shaken by the experience — as much as I had been, or even more — but he wasn’t letting on. Or at least he was trying not to. Chalk it up to the aforementioned Yank Alpha Male Tough Guy mindset.

“You said you would help Betty.”

I made no reply.

“Miss Wong.”

There. That was more like it.

“After you complete your training, you’re going to have a job to do. It’s related to the problem we discussed earlier. When we have finished that, we’ll see what we can do about your friend.”

Reuben considered this.

“Maybe I don’t need any training. What did I just do? You said I was on the verge of changing worlds again. If I can already do it, why do I need your help?”

I smiled at him.

“Well, by all means, be my guest. And good luck finding your way back home.”

I offered him my hand.

“We’ll just say goodbye, then, Reuben. We shan’t see each other again.”

He stared at my hand. He did not take it.

“While I’m wishing you luck, good luck staying out of places that look exactly like home, but that have a poison atmosphere which kills you instantly on contact. And good luck avoiding the machine worlds where nano-bugs tag you as a contaminant and reduce you to dust in a matter of seconds. Or worlds where you’re organically compatible, but where time is drastically slowed. So you can step in and step right out again — only to find that a million years have passed in the world you’re trying to get back to.”

I could see that I was getting to him, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up yet.

“I did all right on my own the first time.”

My laughter in response to that preposterous statement was quite genuine.

“Forgive me, Reuben,” I said, catching my breath. “I think that you and I may have incompatible ideas about what it means when one says that one has done all right.

“So are they really different worlds, or are they just different points of reference on the same world?”

Ah, cleverly switching to the subject that truly interested him. And giving me the chance to move in for the kill.

“You will address me as Miss Wong. And if you want your first lesson, you’re going to have to pay the course fee.”

He shook his head.

“Miss Wong, you want me to pay you a million dollars just for the privilege of helping you solve your problem?”

I nodded.

“That and the privilege of getting back to where you came from. If possible. Plus the privilege of attempting to find a cure for your friend.”

“If possible.”

I nodded again.

“Precisely.”

“Well that’s crazy. Where am I supposed to get that kind of money?”

“Reuben, I know who you are. And I know who Betty is. A million dollars shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Michael Keyes probably has that much in the form of loose change under his sofa cushions. And if he doesn’t, we’ll see how quickly he can auction off one of those lovely boats or rail coaches.”

Reuben stared at me, disbelievingly.

“This is extortion,” he said.

Such an ugly word. I couldn’t help but have a pang of guilt — a slight one — but it passed.

“I hardly think so. Ix…Mr. Ahmad told me about the test you were subjected to in being initiated into the Society. I’m not satisfied that it was adequate. I need an additional show of good faith.”

“So you’re saying this is some kind of deposit or something? You’ll give the money back?”

“Absolutely not. I will do with the money as I see fit.”

Reuben shook his head. I could sense his growing sense of frustration. He decided to play the only card he had.

“So what does Ahmad think of this test of good faith?’

I shrugged.

“I’m not terribly interested in what he thinks. He can think whatever he likes. I hope you aren’t toying with the idea of running off and having a whinge with him about your mistreatment at my hands. Remember what I told you. There’s the chain, and then there’s me. He’ll be happy to go along with whatever I say. No questions asked.”

This was rather a gross exaggeration, I’m afraid. Of course, Iskandar would ultimately go along with anything I said. What choice did he have? But he wouldn’t be happy about it, and it certainly wouldn’t be the promised “no questions asked” scenario.

The man could be awfully straight laced at times.

Dear, dear Ix. It occurred to me that I still loved him, even after all these years.

“And that’s what you want from me. No questions asked.”

“Yes.”

“A million dollars, and I’m not supposed to ask any questions.”

I bit my lower lip and studied him for a moment.

“Well. We aren’t quite as idealistic as we like to make out, now, are we? At first it’s all this talk about how you would do anything, anything to help your friend. Quite sweet and touching, really. But when it comes down to brass tacks…that’s different. Suddenly it’s a matter of price. Isn’t it?”

I picked up the wadded paper and threw it back at him.

“No one else is going to be able to help you, Reuben. Only we can. Only I can.”

Reuben held the paper for a moment, deciding whether to throw it back at me. His hands were trembling — ever so subtly, but then I have a good eye for that sort of thing. Trembling with rage. He despised me, in part (I think) because he recognized the truth of what I had said. He really had been hung up on the price. And indeed, there was no place else he could turn for help. He began to unwad the paper. He smoothed it out as best he could, then folded it and put it in his pocket.

“All right,” he said, looking up at me. He kept his voice steady. “I’ll see what I can do. Miss Wong.

“Good,” I said. “You may go now, Reuben. I’ll see you tomorrow at six. And be assured that I will have checked my account balance.”

He stood up and started for the door.

“Ah, Miss Wong?” he said, turning back to face me.

“What is it?”

He rubbed that damaged spot on his head. I couldn’t help but feel a moment’s concern about his condition. He didn’t look entirely well, the poor man.

“A million in a day is kind of a tall order. Do you think we can make it Thursday?”

I smiled my most agreeable smile.

“Why, of course, Reuben. Of course. Thursday it is.”

He turned back around and left.

I sighed contentedly. It was a nice feeling, doing him a good turn.

 

 

 

I, Altheus, servant of Jaloor of (undecipherable), do here set forth the text of the Small Book in the Latin tongue, that it may be studied and understood by those who in (several words undecipherable) wisdom of my master and his people. Who writes these words is but a servant and student of the wise stranger. I am in all ways unfit to carry out this task, but there is no other. Jaloor the Wise will not deign to cast his thoughts in the tongues of this world; to do so would be an irreverence. All the tongues of man are such, even the Latin tongue, (though it, as the greatest of the tongues of earth, is also closest to the common tongue of my master’s home) that they are unworthy vessels of the great truths known to my master, old wineskins that would surely rupture were they to be filled with the New Wine of higher knowledge. Better that I, as impudent eavesdropper on a heavenly chorus, should dare to mimic the songs of angels on a warped and decaying wooden flute than compound my crime by imploring one of the celestial singers to do the same.

The courses of the heavens are (three lines undecipherable) we who breathe upon the Earth before these mysteries. And so do I, Altheus, add my own small warning to those terrible words with which this book begins. The disciple therefore who will in humility read that he may know, and know that he may grow wise, and grow wise that he may grow in goodness, shall thus prosper and transmute the baseness of ignorance to the gold of right knowledge and piety. But to the reader of the other kind — the thief, the glutton, the wanton, the one who seeks to own and hoard, the bloodthirsty, the slothful, the treacherous, the irreverent, the blasphemer — to him I say only, beware.

I, who have seen the glory of the sunlit day in a kingdom of peace and serenity that surpasses all human desire, who have drunk from the sweet springs of that land, eaten of its richness, and fallen to my knees like a drunken man at the sight of the glory and splendor of its starlit sky — I, Altheus of Milan, have seen also the dark place, have heard the cries of anguish, have seen despair and agony wash across the land as though a dam on some vile river of obscenity had burst, rendering of all a waste and a horror. These things have I seen, and I know the fate of one who would twist that which has been given for (several words undecipherable). And so I, Altheus, do say, to the one who would read from the Small Book, the book of mysteries — look deep and know your own heart.

 

Thus begins, with turgid prose, a not-so-thinly veiled threat, and — let’s be thankful — quite a few lines lost to the ravages of time, the Magnum Opus of our order.

The Big Book of Cosmic Secrets.

Or to be accurate, perhaps we should make that the little book.

How to Win Friends, Influence People, and Basically Just Bloody Well Run Amok with the Entire Space-Time Continuum.

The Book of Magic Minor.

Not, mind you, that there really is any continuum of space and time. A continuum we may have — though it's probably more accurate, and would certainly be more in keeping with our long-winded friend Altheus’ linguistic milieu, to speak in terms of continua, plural — but both space and time are less real than the edge of the flat earth that mariners used to fear sailing over, less real even than the dragons and other intimidating beasts these same sailors believed were waiting for them over the edge.

Now, if you will only indulge my lingering over the tangential, however briefly. It has always struck me that those sea serpents were manifestly superfluous: if one goes sailing off the edge of the earth, it seems to me that the fall should pretty well do the job.

Should it not?

How much more dead will one be if a dragon decides to make a Christmas Lunch of one’s shattered remains?

Wasn't life short enough for the ancient mariner, what with water, water being everywhere, but not a drop to drink? The albatross and the Sea Hag, signs and portents of every kind, scurvy, unsafe working conditions, no medical or disability insurance, no real job benefits of any kind that we would recognize — and yes, granted, the fear that your captain might, quite unintentionally, stray from his course and send you and your other sailor chums plummeting off the face of the earth — weren’t these sufficient inducements to dread?

Did they have to compound it all with mythical dragons?

Sadly, one can engage in this kind of thinking only before digging deeply into Jaloor’s little book, when one still thinks it makes sense to reject the idea of sea serpents lying in wait off the edge of the flat earth on the grounds of their manifest superfluity, or on even the seemingly more rational grounds that they are a lot of mythical nonsense. Reading the book changes that perspective.

It is only when one has read the book, let it sink in a bit, and perhaps even tried mastering a few of the techniques described therein, that one understands. And what one comes to understand is this: as needlessly intimidating, as superfluous, and as utterly mythical as those dragons may have looked before, they are real.

They are as real as anything ever has been or ever will be. Time and space, meanwhile (along with any “continuum” thereof), deservedly ensconced as the serious stock in trade of serious scientists, not to mention the very bedrock of non-chemical-induced reality are — prepare yourself — not only superfluous, not only mythical, they are outright fantasies. They are among the very few things about which one can say, with confidence, "there's no such thing."

But, you might well object to the previous (seemingly absurd) statement, what difference does that make? If you have, as I do, a smattering of scientific knowledge, you might point out that these concepts are only convenient mathematical abstractions anyway. So it’s no great loss to say they don’t exist. Moreover, if you have something of a philosophical bent, and are pre-disposed to Eastern modes of thought, you might be cheerfully predisposed to questioning the existence of everything. In which case, you might object to the dragons’ being permitted continued existence, while approving wholeheartedly that the application filed on behalf of time and space has been denied.

But let’s leave theory behind and look at the matter from a wholly practical point of view. It isn't as though we were doing anything with time and space, anyway. I for one have never done much with them. Oh, I mean to say — of course —I use them like everyone else. I take up space: more than I should, according to my always-concerned mother. I look at my watch. I live by the clock. I observe time marching on and healing all wounds and even flying on those all-too-rare occasions when I get to have a little fun.

In any case, it makes no difference whether I believe in time and space or have any use for them. My feelings towards time and space don’t matter, any more than the illusions of the sun rising and setting matter, any more than it matters that the earth appears to be flat.

The sun doesn't, the earth isn't, and time and space do not exist.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself..


I am writing this introduction to my special English Edition of the Book of Magic Minor with an audience of one in mind.

You know who you are.

If you're reading this, it means that you and I have probably already met, and I have probably already told you to your face a good portion of the background information you are about to read. Which means, foremost, that I really must have had my nerve — going on about how superfluous those dragons were, when it would appear that superfluity is my own personal stock in trade.

But there are reasons why I need to put all of this to paper, the most significant of these drawing from my repeated use of the word “probably,” above. I believe I'm going to meet you, and I believe I'm going to tell you all this, but I don't really know. It isn’t as though I can see the future.

Which is, when you come to think of it, a tremendously unfair situation.

Unfair, I say — because although time may not exist, the future does. It is every bit as real as the present and the past.

I realize how preposterous that sounds.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: the present is supposed to be the really real point on the timeline; the past is much less real because it's already over. But it really was real at some point, and so we give it partial credit. The future, on the other hand, is supposed to be the really unreal part of time. It hasn't happened yet, and maybe never will.

Now this does pre-suppose a Free Will model of how the universe operates. If you're the retro type, and you favor more of a Predestination model, then you might be perfectly cozy-comfy viewing the past and the future as equally real. But even if they’re each as real as the other, they still wouldn’t quite measure up to the present. It’s the one piece of time that is somehow "switched on" or "lit up" or something.

The Predestination view is the closer of the two to reality. The past and present are equally real. But the business about the present being more real because it’s lit up is wrong. It isn’t really lit up, we just think it is. As far as the central tenet of Predestination — the notion that all outcomes are foreordained, and that we really have no choice about anything — I have no answers. Maybe it’s true; maybe not.

In any case, although I plan to meet you, I don’t have any real knowledge as to how or when or whether that will take place. If I don’t ever meet you, I don’t have a back-up plan for how this document gets to you.

But I’m sure I’ll think of something.

So without further ado, some background:

This book, along with the book of the Greater Magic, was carried into our context by the aforementioned Jaloor in the early 14th century.

Jaloor showed up in northern Italy apparently having come from nowhere. He was oddly dressed and spoke a language that no one could understand. Fortunately, he had a substantial amount of gold on his person which he was able to parlay into a comfortable lifestyle.

We know nothing about where Jaloor came from, why he came here, or why he never went back. Speculation about his context is interesting but pointless. What is important for us to note is that our secret knowledge came to us from a different context. That doesn’t mean that we never would have come up with it ourselves, or that no one here ever has. But if they have, they’ve managed to keep the secret as well as we have. It also raises questions as to how widely known and practiced Magic Minor is out in the wider configuration space. Based on my personal observations, it isn’t practiced any too widely. Of course, I don’t claim to have observed anything like a representative sample of the total set of contexts within the waveform.

Altheus was a scholar, a member of an order devoted to the study of Alchemy. He spent a lot of time with Jaloor. He was the first person who was able to communicate with him. As is clear from Altheus’ prologue, he learned Jaloor’s language. Jaloor could never be bothered to learn any of our languages.

Jaloor was probably insane. At any rate, he thought the big book was as valid as the little book. There is some speculation that he was the author of both, or perhaps of just the big one. It’s more likely that he just copied the documents, or carried existing copies with him.

Altheus translated both books into Latin. And he founded two mystical orders to preserve and protect the secrets of each. It’s unclear whether he really bought into the major/minor dichotomy. We know that he could practice Magic Minor, but it is believed by many that he took his inability to practice the Greater Magic as a personal failing, and not a problem with the discipline itself. Or he might have recognized the big book as drivel from the outset. This is of no particular importance, except that it raises the question of whether the Society of the Greater Magic was always a sham organization subordinate to our own, or whether it gained that status over time as it became increasingly clear where the true power lay.

Jaloor’s original documents have been preserved by their respective orders. The Society of the Greater Magic operates under slightly different rules from ours concerning making copies of the sacred documents. We have in our possession only three documents: Jaloor’s original, Altheus’ translation into Latin, and now my translation into English.

The Society of the Greater Magic has operated in relative secrecy for more than 600 years. It has been a modestly influential group, with a few of its ideas working their way into mystical and esoteric movements around the world. Its membership has included a few names of note: mostly writers, artists, musicians.

The so-called Voynich Manuscript is a bootleg copy of the big book produced by a renegade member of the Society in the 17th century.

Our order, the Society of Magic Minor, has meanwhile operated in something approaching absolute secrecy. Our charter is primarily one of protecting the secret of Magic Minor and making sure that it is never used.

Clarification: our charter is to make sure that Magic Minor is used only under the proper circumstances. But since we’ve never had a perfectly clear idea as to what those circumstances might be, our de facto position has been as stated in the previous list item.

However, some circumstances have arisen which require investigation, if not outright involvement, on the part of our order.

Our Society is currently understaffed. We have two dozen members, and only three practitioners. Of the three, one is 87 years old and has cancer. Another is currently in hospital, being treated for severe psychotic episodes. And the third does not possess the skills required to master the entire craft. We need someone who can travel from one context to another. That’s where you come in.

Daphne’s notes ended there. The final note was handwritten, and had obviously been added just for Reuben’s sake.

He set the book down on the bed. While he knew that he was not the man Daphne was writing to — with the exception of that final note — it was hard to shake the sense that this was all aimed at him. Not just the words in the notebook — all of it: everything.

He stood up and stretched. His body ached with exhaustion. He wondered how much of the book he would be able to wade through before falling asleep. It was now more than 24 hours since his meeting with Daphne. He had spent a little of that time since then working on the financial arrangements, and the rest of it sleeping.

Maybe it was jet lag. Maybe it was some kind of hangover from the experience he had had. Anyway, he had slept, and was only now beginning to read the book that Daphne had given him.

He walked over to the window and drew back the curtain. The lights of the city were garish. Kuala Lumpur was not what he expected. Not that he had really had any specific expectations. But he never would have anticipated the skyscrapers or the new cars dashing along the wide elevated highways.

It was certainly a far cry from Moscow.

Reuben remembered the night he saw the fireworks. There was a straight line through time and space — or through whatever the hell, he corrected, thinking of what he had just read — that led from his standing before that window in a different city and a different world and his standing before this one now.

He thought of Betty and the old man. Not the couple he had left behind in Italy, but the originals. What did they make of his disappearance? Did Betty blame her husband for it? Did Sergei assume that it was the handiwork of Kolkhi?

He thought of Ksenia. What had his disappearance meant to her? Just another tragedy, a single line entry in a lifetime catalog of woes.

It’s a pity, she had said.

He had probably made a mistake allowing himself to get involved with her. Or maybe the mistake had been not getting involved sooner, and leaving her so quickly. What was he running away from? She was beautiful. She had strength and courage. He enjoyed being with her: she made him laugh. And they had shared passion and tenderness in their one night together. That one amazing night. There was something sharp and painful in its memory. No, not in the memory itself. In the realization that he had run away so quickly and deliberately afterwards.

Would he ever make it back to her? Hard to say.

Would she be waiting for him if he did? Probably.

Did he deserve that? No way.

If he did make it back, it would probably be years from now.

Or maybe Betty, this world’s Betty, was right. Maybe there was no need for him to try to go back. It was funny. The Betty he had left behind didn’t want him to leave. The one he had met here didn’t want him to return to where he had come from. Leaving would be hard on her, and on the old man. But then, at least he had been able to —

A knock at the door interrupted his reverie. Reuben opened the door slightly. It was a stranger, an older man, wearing a black suit and holding a very secure-looking briefcase.

“Mr. Stone,” the man said. It wasn’t a question.

“The name’s Kirkpatrick. Michael Keyes sent me.”

Reuben opened the door the rest of the way. The man entered and made his way over to the table. He set the case down and, after entering what appeared to be an elaborate combination, flipped the top open.

“Bearer bonds,” he said, removing the documents from the Kirkpatrick. “Thirteen of them. Fifty thousand dollars each.”

Reuben took the documents and leafed through them. He hadn’t seen them since he locked them away in a safe deposit box in a bank on Grand Cayman some ten years before. He wasn’t surprised to learn that the old man had recovered them upon his death, but he was surprised that he hadn’t liquidated them.

For some reason, all of Reuben’s assets had been carefully preserved. It was almost as though Michael Keyes had expected Reuben’s return. But that wasn’t it, not really.

He had simply been at a loss as to what to do with his godson’s money.

“This appears to be in order, Mr. Kirkpatrick. Thanks for your prompt delivery.”

Kirkpatrick nodded.

“The balance has been wired to the Swiss account per your request.”

He handed Reuben a slip of paper.

“Here are instructions for how to reprogram the briefcase combination. Are you planning on putting it in the hotel safe?”

Reuben thought about this.

“Well, I wasn’t. Not really.”

Kirkpatrick nodded.

“Good,” he said. “It’s probably better that you don’t. It’s safe with you.”

“I see. So I take it that you’ll be around?”

Kirkpatrick nodded again.

“Myself and several others. Until you’ve handed the money off.”

Reuben sighed.

“Mr. Kirkpatrick, I really don’t think I need any protection.”

Kirkpatrick seemed to think about this for a moment.

“Mr. Keyes thinks differently, sir.”

“All right,” Reuben said resignedly. He pocketed the instructions. “Thanks again.”

Kirkpatrick left.

Reuben sat back down on the bed, the documents still in hand. It occurred to him that, although the money was (in a sense) his, he had finally taken a million dollars from the old man.

Sergei would be fascinated.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 38

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben Stone was once again seated across from me at my desk. From the top drawer I produced the transaction record, which I had received by fax earlier that day. I set it on the table in front of him.

“Why,” I asked him, “can you not follow simple instructions?”

He picked up the bank statement, briefly looked it over, and then set it back down.

“I’m sorry Miss Wong, but this is the best I could do.”

“It’s not nearly good enough. This isn’t even half.”

“That’s true,” he said, setting his briefcase on my desk. He fiddled with a mechanism on the front for a moment and then opened it. As the lid was swinging open, I had a momentary image of neat little bundles of cash such as you see in the movies, but that was not the reality. The case contained a stack of odd-looking documents. They might have been title deeds to parcels of swampland or diplomas from some disreputable school.

I thumbed through them for a moment.

“What exactly are these things?”

“They’re bearer bonds, Miss Wong. Every bit as good as cash, and much easier to carry around.”

“I don’t see how anything could be “every bit as good” as cash. Furthermore, I didn’t ask for cash. I asked for a wire transfer. It’s a simple procedure. I’m baffled as to why you would have so much trouble with it. Did Mr. Keyes have a bad day at the race track?”

Reuben closed the case and put it back down on the floor. These “bearer bonds” were apparently mine to keep.

“I wouldn’t know. I don’t keep up with his finances. He assisted me in the delivery of these funds, but this is not his money.”

I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Then who?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Not you, Reuben.”

He thought about this.

“Well, not…exactly me.”

“Ah, I see. Your former self. Reuben, do you realize that you may be the first man in history ever to rob his own grave?”

He smiled at that, a little.

“I prefer to think of it as an inter-context loan. In any event, the same funds are available back on the world I left behind for any other hapless Reuben who comes along needing help.”

“That doesn’t seem likely.”

“Neither was my coming here.”

I set the documents down on the desk.

“Well, this is all very interesting. And I suppose you are to be commended for wanting to make your own way in this world rather than running back to Daddy —”

“He’s not my father.”

“Merely a figure of speech. And you will refrain from interrupting me again. Now, what was I saying? Ah, yes. It is in some sense commendable that you prefer making your own way in the world. Even if it isn’t exactly your own way. But close enough.”

I picked the bonds back up and waved them at him.

“These, however, are not close enough. I gave very specific instructions, and this is not what I asked for.”

“I apologize for the that, Miss Wong. If you’ll count them, you’ll see that the bonds total $650,000. When you add that to the $400,000 I had wired to your account, you come out $50,000 ahead. I thought it only right that I throw a little something in to make up for the inconvenience.”

I leafed through the bonds, counting them carefully. He was telling the truth. How could I tell him that I had been prepared to settle for the $400,000 — after subjecting him to the appropriate level of harassment, of course. I thought he was driving a hard bargain, and I was prepared to go along. I would have made him squirm a little first, but only for a while. It only goes to show how poorly cut out I am for this sort of thing.

Silly me, I would have been pleased with the just the wire transfer, delighted with it plus enough in cash — or rather, bonds — to make up the difference. And then Mr. Wonderful comes along with the full million plus a gratuity?

It was almost enough to make me feel guilty.

Almost.

“Very well, then. The first lesson can commence.”

I placed the bonds in my desk drawer. Reuben eyed me carefully as I did it.

“You’ll probably want to put those someplace more safe.”

“That’s my concern. I take it that you’ve finished reading the book?”

“To tell you the truth, I got about three-quarters of the way through it before I fell asleep. I’ve been awfully tired lately.”

I nodded.

“That’s not unusual. Disrupting the waveform is hard work, particularly for those who haven’t been properly trained. That is no excuse for not completing your assignment, however.”

“Sorry, Miss Wong.”

“Don’t let it happen again.”

“I won’t.”

“So, what questions do you have on the first three quarters of the book?”

Reuben looked at the desk and rubbed that spot on his head for a moment.

“I’m not even sure I know how to formulate the questions. I understood very little of what I read. He keeps talking about the Spiral. And the fundament. And that whole business about playing that game. Mancala. I’m sorry, I just wasn’t following any of it.”

“Well, let’s start with some basics. It will probably not come as good news to you that we have, over the years, replaced many of Jaloor’s terms — or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say Altheus’s terms, since he was translating concepts from Jaloor’s language to Latin — with more up-to-date nomenclature. The Spiral is now called the Waveform. The fundament we now call the Configuration Space. The bit about the game requires a somewhat lengthy explanation. And a demonstration. But first tell me what you understood.”

Reuben sighed.

“Okay. He started out talking about the…seeds?

“That’s correct. The game can be played with seeds. It can also be played with stones or seashells, or just about anything that’s small and abundant. It could also be played with coins, but — this is very important, Reuben — in the Society, we never play games with coins. That’s something you’ll want to keep in mind. If you want to be one of us, there will be no games with coins. No penny-pitching. No slot machines. Nothing.”

Reuben looked truly perplexed, as well he might be. There was no particular reason for me to take this digression into an obscure area of society law. But I have a gift for digression. I consider it a talent.

“Why not?” he asked after a moment.

“Because there are those who play games with coins, and we are not them.”

The look of understanding and recognition that came over him was so pronounced that it would have been comical, were it not obvious that this revelation was associated with some painful memory.

“You think you have some idea what it is that I’m talking about, Reuben?”

He nodded.

“Yes. I’ve met them. The people who play games with coins. I met one in Soviet Georgia. And maybe another one before that, in Russia. Who are they?”

He reconsidered his question as soon as he asked it.

What are they?”

That Reuben would make such a distinction indicated that he might, in fact, have had some experience with the Shedders. But I didn’t see how that was possible. He was here, after all.

And alive.

“We’ll talk about them later. We should continue with the lesson. What, exactly, did Jaloor say about the seeds?”

Reuben wouldn’t give up.

“Miss Wong, I think I should tell you something. There was a part of my story that I left out the other day. And it might be important. Before I went to Italy, I was in — ”

I slapped the table with the palm of my hand. Not too forcefully; just loud enough to get his attention and shut him up. I’ve always believed that a gift for digression is well accompanied by an irrational insistence on getting back to the subject at hand.

“I said that we would talk about it later. Now what does Jaloor say about the seeds?”

Reuben let out a sigh of exasperation. He then looked down for a moment, trying to remember what he had read.

“He said that it was more important to consider them, at first, than it was the bowls that contained them. He said something to like this…you can lay out a line of seeds or you can make a shape out of them. Or you can lay out a whole bunch of seeds and it will contain lots of different lines and shapes.”

I nodded.

“You’re on the right track. Let me show you.”

I wheeled my chair back a bit, and reached under my desk to pick up the game. It was beautifully carved from wood in the shape of an ornate, two-headed dragon. Two rows of rounded depressions, each a perfect little bowl, ran down the dragon’s back. Each row had seven bowls, and each bowl contained seven smooth and perfectly polished stones. I set the game on the desktop and took hold of several small stones.

Reuben looked intrigued.

“So this is the game? Mancala?”

I nodded.

“In this country, we call it congkak. This particular game is from Indonesia, where they call it congklak, with an L. It was a gift from Ix. Mr. Ahmad, I mean. He always insists that the Indonesian version of the game is superior to the Malaysian, although I was never able to ascertain any difference. But, in any event, it is the same as the Arab game that Al Razi’s followers played.”

“But Jaloor wasn’t one of Al Razi’s followers. Altheus was. How did Jaloor know anything about Mancala?”

Once in a while, Reuben would say something truly intelligent. Such moments put me in the precarious position of having to reevaluate his status as a know-nothing alpha male Yank git. And I was already a bit softened towards him in light of his Boy-Scout-like performance in delivering the entire requested amount.

Fortunately, such moments were rare. And they tended to pass quickly.

“That is a puzzle, isn’t it? Apparently, Jaloor’s world had a game sufficiently similar to Mancala that Altheus was able to make the leap. Perhaps it’s not as big a coincidence as it seems. It’s only to be expected, after all, that alchemist types from different contexts would share certain interests. In any case, no one has ever come up with a more satisfying translation than Mancala.”

“You mean to say that there are still some people who can read the book in Jaloor’s language?”

“Yes. The language has been lost and rediscovered several times through the years. As long as we have a copy of the original and Altheus’s Latin translation, we have a way back to Jaloor’s language. But we are digressing once again. Here is what the book says. If you have some seeds — or stones — you can lay them out in a vertical line if you wish, like this.”

I lined up three stones in front of him on the desk.

“Or you can make a horizontal line, like this.”

I picked up the same three stones and rearranged them perpendicular to their original configuration.

“With me so far?”

Reuben nodded.

I picked up a few more of the stones.

“Or if you wish, you can set the stones in more elaborate patterns. We can make a triangle…”

I lined the stones into triangular pattern.

“…or a circle…”

I straightened out the side of the circle

“…or a square. These are all good arrangements of the stones. We might call them valid configurations of the stones.”

“Okay, I can see that much.”

I grabbed several handfuls of stones from the game trays and set them out on the table.

“But what if we want to create not just one or two possible configurations of the stones, but all of the possible configurations?”

“Well, you’d need a lot more of them.”

“Precisely.”

I arranged the stones into five rows of six.

“Now, Reuben. Find a straight line.”

He traced his finger along one of the rows of stones.

“And a line perpendicular to that?”

He traced one of the columns.

“Now show me a triangle.”

Reuben traced a triangle with his finger.

“And a square? And a circle?”

He easily found both shapes embedded within the grid of stones.

“So I ask you this, Reuben: is there a circle in the stones?”

He nodded.

“I just showed you.”

“Yes. It was there when you showed it to me. Is it there now?”

Reuben took a moment to consider this.

“If I read the book correctly, then the answer is that the circle exists, but it doesn’t have…occasion.

I tried not to sigh impatiently and roll my eyes. Perhaps not as hard as I could have, but I did try.

Occurrence, Reuben. Not occasion. Occurrence.”

“Right,” he said, reaching out and moving one of the stones in closer to the others. “It doesn’t have occurrence.”

“And did it have occurrence before?”

“Yes.”

“When did it have occurrence?”

“When I was…drawing it with my finger.”

I nodded.

“You seem to understand what you read fairly well. What else did Jaloor say?”

“He said that, if you wanted to, you could find letters in the seeds. He talked about tracing the name MILANO. I suppose we could do the same thing with the name of any place.”

Once again he poised his finger over the stones.

“Here’s M,” he said, tracing the letter. “And now A. And L. A again. C. Then another C. And A once more. MALACCA. So it looks like your town is in there, too.”

I nodded.

“That reminds me. Are you still in that hotel in KL?”

He seemed startled by the question.

“Ah, no. I checked out this morning. It was going to take too much time, driving down here and back every day.”

“And do you have a place to stay down here?”

“Not yet.”

“I see. All right, then. Go on, Reuben.”

He shook his head, trying to get back on the subject.

“Then he talked about time. He said that time is like finding a poem, a sonnet, in the seeds. If I were to spell out the words Shall I compare to thee to a summer’s day, each of the words would have occurrence while I was spelling it out. And the length of the poem — it’s duration in time — would also have occurrence.”

“So does time exist?”

Reuben closed his eyes, trying to remember what he had read.

“No. Yes. Well, sometimes it has occurrence, so it must have existence. Right?

“It would seem that way. Or perhaps its occurrence is an optical illusion. In any case, unlike the shapes and the letters that make up the sonnet, if time exists it does so only when it has occurrence.”

“So you don’t know whether time exists?”

I shook my head.

“Not really. But I think it’s easier to assume that it does, since trying to think about the alternatives gives one rather a headache.”

He sighed.

“I get those a lot. Anyway, this is where the book gets kind of tricky. Jaloor says that if I hold two fingers over the seeds and trace out the sonnet, there will really be two sonnets. And if I have enough seeds and I run my whole hand over them — pointed down like this, I guess — there will be five sonnets.”

“And if your hand had a thousand fingers?”

“I’d be some kind of incredible freak. But if I had enough seeds, I could trace out a thousand sonnets.”

“And they would all be identical?”

“No. Each would be slightly different because of the different shapes and angles of my fingers. And the placement of the seeds.”

“Do you understand now, Reuben?”

He cleared his throat.

“I guess the waveform has a lot of fingers. And somehow I’ve jumped from a poem being spelled out by one finger to a poem being spelled out by another.”

I began gathering up the stones and putting them back in their bowls.

“So you do understand, after all.”

“But one thing I don’t get. What are the seeds? The stones, I mean.”

He watched me for a moment as I finished with the stones and put the game back under the table.

“Don’t you have any idea?”

He nodded.

“Maybe. Somehow I got this idea that everything is made of memories. Is that what the stones are…collections of memories?”

Once again, Reuben surprised me by understanding things that I wouldn’t have credited him with being able to grasp.

“Yes, Reuben. The configuration space is filled with collections of memories. The waveform passes through those memories, giving them occurrence. The order in which it moves from memory to memory is what we call time.”

We were both silent for a moment.

“And yes. The waveform has many, many fingers.”

Reuben rubbed his head for a while. He seemed disinclined to ask the questions he needed to ask next.

“How can they be memories?” he said at last. “Who is remembering them? God?”

I shrugged.

“Perhaps they’re only memories after the fact. It’s possible that everything we call existence is simply the process of potential memories becoming actual memories.”

“Okay. Fine. How are they collected, Miss Wong? I mean…how much is in each collection of memories?”

“I think you sense the answer to your own question, Reuben. Let me just tell you that motion, like time, is an illusion generated by the pattern drawn out by the waveform.”

“So each one of those rocks on the table was a snapshot? A freeze-frame?”

I nodded.

“And time is like some animated film where we move from one frame to the next?”

“That’s correct.”

There was another long pause before Reuben asked his final question. By the time it came out, it was no longer a question at all.

“ You’re saying that each one of these stones is a freeze-frame of an entire universe.”

I nodded again.

“If you’re going to be one of us, Reuben, you need to learn the correct terminology. Each of the stones is an instance of the universe. Each instance of the universe is complete and unchanging.”

“And the waveform…”

“It touches an instance of the universe. One after the other. For the briefest of moments, the waveform gives the collection of memories occurrence. And then it returns that instance of the universe to its former state.”

“It’s former state?” he repeated.

“Stillness, Reuben. It returns it to the Stillness.”

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 39

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben’s phone was ringing when he returned to his room. He dropped his bag, made his way across the room, and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?” he said, a little winded.

“Hello, Mr. Stone.”

He recognized Sergei’s voice.

“I am calling on behalf of Michael Keyes.”

Reuben plopped down in a wicker chair and reached for the air conditioner’s remote control.

“Hi, Sergei. It’s great to hear your voice.”

An awkward silence followed.

“As I said, I make this call on behalf of Mr. Keyes. You have requested phone number. I have number for you.”

“Thanks. What’s the number?”

He fumbled for a pen and a notepad on the nightstand.

“Before I tell you, may I ask you two questions?”

“Shoot.”

“Shoot what?”

“Nothing. I just meant go ahead and ask your questions.”

“Yes. First, you are in Malaysia. Why?”

Sergei’s voice was equal parts curiosity and suspicion.

“How did you know that?”

“Mr. Keyes gives number to dial. I check country code. Either you are in Malaysia or call is being routed through Malaysia. Why you go there?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential business.”

Sergei sighed.

“Then please to answer second question. Why you want phone number of woman you have never met. Have only seen once?”

“How do you know I’ve never met Ksenia?”

“I ask. She says that she has never met you, and I believe her.”

“Well, that’s true. She’s never met me, but I’ve met her. It’s just like us. You don’t know me, Sergei, but I know you.”

“It is trick.”

“Fine. It’s a trick. May I have the number?’

“But why you want to speak to this woman?”

“I want to say goodbye to her.”

Another long silence followed.

“But this makes no sense. You have not seen her in months. She does not know you at all. She knows nothing about you. Why you wish to say goodbye to her?”

Reuben found that his patience was coming to an end.

“Because I’m insane. What do you care? May I have the number?”

“May I offer you some advice, Mr. Stone?”

“Would it kill you to call me Reuben?”

“No. Would not kill me. Would not make any sense, but would not kill me. I can comply. May I offer you some advice, Reuben?”

“What’s your advice?”

“Do not call her. Leave her alone.”

Reuben tapped the pen against the nightstand, puzzled.

“Why?” he said after a moment.

“International call will draw attention to her. She does not need this attention.”

Of course.

Ksenia was not in the Russia where Reuben had lived and worked. At least, this Ksenia wasn’t. She was in a highly paranoid and reactionary Soviet Union. Even something as simple as receiving a telephone call from another country could make her life complicated.

Reuben dropped the pen and paper.

“I see,” he said. “I understand.”

He knew that calling her was nothing more than an act of self-indulgence, anyway. And it would have meant nothing to her.

“Well, in that case, Sergei, can you do me a favor?”

“What favor?”

“Just please look in on her from time to time. Make sure she’s okay.”

“I could do this, but I don’t see point in it.”

“I would be very grateful if you would.”

“I do not promise. However, if time permits, I will look in on her.”

That was as good as an iron-clad guarantee. For what it was worth, this stranger who looked exactly like someone Reuben cared about would be looked in on. From time to time, anyway.

“Thank you.”

Another uncomfortable pause ensued. Reuben broke it.

“So how’s your wife, anyway?”

“She is okay.”

“And Dzhena? Has she started at university yet?”

“She begins next term.”

Reuben was about to ask where she was going to attend, when a different question occurred to him.

“That’s good. And what about Yuri, how is he?”

“Yuri is fine.”

Reuben coughed. In light of everything he had learned over the past three weeks -- and all that he had experienced in the months leading up that -- he knew that a small difference such as this shouldn’t take him by surprise. But it did, anway.

“I’m really glad to hear that, Sergei. I can’t tell you how glad. How old is he, anyway?”

“Mr. Stone, I have spent more time on this call than is wise. I do not have time to make chit-chat with you.”

“I understand.”

“We have agreed, then, that you do not need telephone number because you will not be placing call?”

“That’s right.”

“Very well. Goodbye then, Mr. Stone.”

Reuben hung up the phone. He realized that he was still smiling. There was something that he wanted to say to Sergei, something about realizing how lucky he was, how grateful he should be for what he had.

He laughed at the thought of it.

“Right,” he said out loud, to no one. “Then he would have known for sure that I’m insane.”

On an impulse, Reuben picked the receiver back up and dialed an international access code. When he heard the familiar tone, he dialed the number he now realized he knew by heart.

“Keyes,” the old man answered curtly.

“Hey. It’s me.”

“Reuben! I was just wondering about you. You’ve been keeping awfully quiet lately.”

“Been busy. Besides, why should I bother calling when you have people watching me all the time?”

“Now, son, that isn’t exactly fair. I needed to make sure that the money arrived safely and that it didn’t bring any undue risk your way. Besides, Kirkpatrick and his crew left more than a week ago.”

“Right. And you haven’t sent anyone in their place?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that little Italian guy who always seems to be lurking in the corners. He thinks he’s doing a pretty good job of staying out of sight. Actually, he is doing a pretty good job of it, but come on…an Italian? If he isn’t working for you, then I need to start worrying that he might be working for someone else.”

Keyes cleared his throat.

“Well…it’s all right. Put your mind at ease. He works for me.”

“Right. And how many locals? Is it two or three?”

A heartbeat or two passed.

“It’s three.”

“The kid who works in Daphne’s shop?”

“Wai Hoong. Yes. He’s one of them.”

“Okay. Then there’s the guy who runs the bar across the street.”

“Yes. He’s the other.”

“What do you mean the other. You just said that there are three.”

Another pause.

“Did I?”

“Don’t play games with me, old man. Who is it?”

“Well, the third is a little different.”

“Different how?”

“Betty worries about you, son. You really should try to talk to her more often.”

Reuben felt a twinge of guilt.

“I know I should. I’ll make a point of calling her later tonight. Or you can put her on after we’ve finished, if she’s around.”

“No. She’s down at the lake. I’m joining her for lunch.”

“Anyway, what does Betty have to do with this?”

“Well, she wanted a firsthand account of how you’re doing.”

“So I’ll call and give her one.”

“No, Reuben. I mean she wanted to hear from someone who has seen how you’re doing firsthand.”

“Right, so you let her talk to Wai Hoong?”

“No.”

“Well, you couldn’t have let her talk to the guy from the bar. What would he know about how I’m doing? He hasn’t seen that much of me.”

“No. Not him.”

“Well, then I don’t understand who --”

Reuben stopped in mid-sentence.

“Old man, are you telling me that your third spy is Daphne?”

“It’s not about spies, Reuben. How many times do I have to say that?”

Reuben was momentarily speechless.

“It was just, as I said,” Keyes continued, “something that I did for Betty. Something to make her feel better about things.”

“But, old man. Sir. You weren’t supposed to tell Betty anything about Daphne. This whole project is supposed to be confidential.”

“I didn’t realize you took it so seriously.”

“Well…maybe I take it more seriously than I did. Besides, I thought you took it seriously, anway.”

“It’s all right. She doesn’t know Daphne’s name. She doesn’t even know what country you’re in. I haven’t told anyone that. Well, except for Kirkpatrick and his men. And Santori. Oh, and I guess I gave it away when I gave Serge your phone number, but that was at your request. How did that go, by the way?”

“It went fine. Sergei persuaded me not to call her.”

“I imagine that’s for the best.”

“Yeah, well never mind all that. I’m still trying to understand what it is that you’ve done. Do you mean that you spoke to Daphne and reported back to Betty?”

“Yes. Partly.”

“Partly? What was the other part?”

“Betty insisted, son. You know how she gets.”

“So you’re telling me that you allowed Betty to speak to Daphne directly? Do you have any idea what a chance you were taking?”

“I was careful. Obviously, I set the whole thing up with Daphne in advance.”

“I can’t believe she went along with it.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t picture her as the comforting type.”

“Now, Reuben. Don’t judge her too harshly. She told me that she has to be a little rough on you to make the training stick. Don’t confuse the role she’s playing with the actual person. She’s really a very sweet girl.”

A gurgling, coughing sound emerged from Reuben’s throat.

“Anyway,” Keyes continued, “you know me. Master negotiator. Ladies man.”

“Wait a second.”

Something didn’t sit right, there. Negotiator.

Negotiator?

“Old man, don’t tell me that you paid her to talk to you and Betty.”

Keyes’ silence told Reuben everything he needed to know.

“I can’t believe it. I didn’t think this thing could get any more ridiculous. How much did you pay her?”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Tell me.”

“Reuben, what does money matter to me -- to both Betty and myself -- in the face of our concern for your welfare?”

“How much?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything.”

“How. Much. Did you. Pay Her?”

“She assures me that it’s all going to the support of the Society.”

“How much?”

“Well, she asked for fifty, but I ended up giving her seventy-five.”

Reuben stood up. Feeling dizzy, he steadied himself.

“I -- I assume we’re talking in terms of thousands of dollars, here?”

“Um, yes.”

The line was silent for a long while.

“All right,” Reuben said at last. “Okay.”

He sat back down.

“Okay. I mean, look, I’m touched that you and Betty are so concerned that you would go to such lengths. And you’re absolutely right to say that you don’t owe me any explanations. You don’t. It’s your money. But will you please do me one favor?”

“What’s that?”

“Promise me that you won’t give her any more money. Seventy-five grand ought to be enough to buy a person a lifetime supply of Reuben updates.”

“All right. I promise.”

“Anyway, I was calling to let you know that we’re getting ready to start.”

“By that you mean that you’re leaving?”

“Yes, but we’re coming back. At least, that’s the plan. We’re just taking a test run. To see if I’m really capable of doing what’s being asked of me.”

“Reuben, are you sure about this?”

“Yes. Old man, there’s more at stake here than either of us realized. It isn’t about you and Betty and myself. It’s not even about my getting back, even though I still hope I will.”

“So what exactly is it about, son?”

“Everything. Everybody. It’s…kind of hard to explain.”

“Try me.”

“Well…what if I told you that I have to go save the universe?”

The old man chuckled.

“I think I’d have a pretty hard time believing it. Think about that, son: I would have a hard time believing it.”

Reuben laughed.

“I don’t blame you. I have a hard time believing it myself. And I don’t understand it.”

“I know you’re going to do what you’re going to do. You’re just like your Dad. Nothing I have to say is going to matter much. Just try to find your way back, son.”

“I’ll do my best. Can you have Betty call me later?”

“Sure.”

“You know, I think I have some advice for you. When this is all over.”

“Yeah?”

“Hire her. There’s got to be a place for Daphne somewhere in one of your operations.”

“Funny. I was just thinking the same thing.”

__

The knock at the door came just as Reuben stepped out of the shower. He threw on a robe and went to answer it.

The bellman was a Malay kid, not more than 20. He wore a ridiculously ornate uniform with a small black nametag: Faisal.

“Great,” said Reuben. “Here. It’s just these two suitcases and this box.”

The kid nodded and quickly loaded his luggage trolley. He turned to Reuben and handed him a claim ticket.

“Your luggage, sir. When will you re-claim?”

“I actually have no idea. My travel plans are a little confused right now. Hold on.”

Reuben stepped over to the nightstand and found his wallet. He put the claim ticket in and removed a fifty Ringgit note.

“Here,” he said, handing the money to the bellman. “Take good care of them while I’m away.”

The kid smiled with embarrassment.

“Sir, this one…cannot, lah.”

“I know you can’t take tips, Faisal. This isn’t a tip. I need you to look after those bags for me. All right?”

The kid nodded.

“Thank you, sir.”

Reuben closed the door after him and strode across the room to the balcony. He slid open the glass door and stepped outside. Although sunset was approaching, the heat and humidity were not diminished. The balcony was nice -- more wicker furniture and lots of bougainvillea -- but Reuben rarely used it. It was just too hot.

He looked out for a moment, admiring the odd mix of architectural styles that made up the small city: Chinese shop houses stood amid British and Dutch colonial structures. Several times before he had looked for remnants of the Portuguese occupation, but had never seen any -- other than the ruins of a fortress which sat at the top of the hill overlooking the city.

Clouds were gathering in the distance; rain would not be unwelcome.

The near silence was shattered when the call to prayer began at the magnificent mosque just across the river from Reuben’s hotel. With so many mosques in town, Reuben could never understand why the imams felt they needed to use such powerful loudspeakers. Were they trying to reach potential worshippers in Sumatra?

He went back into his room and closed the door behind him.

The clothes he was to change into were neatly folded on the bed. He had packed everything else away, with the exception of a few valuables that he had left at Daphne’s. It really didn’t make any sense. If he was going to be gone for so long that he needed to check out of his room and store his belongings, shouldn’t he pack something to wear?

When asked for an explanation, Daphne had demurred -- as she so often did.

Reuben began to get dressed. He would know soon enough, after all. He regretted that he hadn’t thought of calling the Keyes sooner. He wouldn’t be there to take Betty’s call.

Reuben finished dressing, and was just about to walk out the door when the phone rang for the second time. He walked back to the nightstand and picked it up.

“Hi, Betty,” he said.

“Mr. Stone, ah? This is Kai Ling at the front desk. You are checking out this afternoon, is it?”

“Ah, yes. In fact I’ve already settled up.”

“Yes sir. Mr. Stone, may we have a return date to put on your luggage?”

“I don’t know the return date.”

“Oh, I see, sir. But unfortunately, I cannot put the luggage into storage with a return date, lah. Can you estimate?”

Not really, he thought.

“Let’s call it a month.”

“Yes sir. One month. Thank you, Mr. Stone.”

“Sure. Oh, can you do me a favor? I’m expecting a call later from a Mrs. Keyes. Betty Keyes. Will you give her a message for me?”

Reuben waited, listening as the clerk got a pen and paper and began writing down the details.

“A message from…Mr. Stone to…Mrs. Keyes. Yes, sir. Go ahead.”

“Tell her I’m sorry I missed her, but I’ll be back in touch with her as soon as I return. So she shouldn’t worry.”

“…and…not…to…worry. Is that all, then, Mr. Stone?”

“I guess that’s it.”

“Would you like for me to tell your friend that you will be returning in one month’s time?”

Reuben rolled his eyes.

“Why not?” he said.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Chapter 40

Part IV

Chapter Forty

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Malacca lay quiet in the light of the setting sun. Behind Reuben stood one of the town’s most famous structures, a vivid red church in the middle of the central square. Malacca was a small town that packed a lot of history. Rows of shop houses lined the narrow street that led down to the Melaka river, where floated a replica of a Portuguese sailing ship — a floating museum. Reuben watched as the ship rocked in the gentle breeze. The heat of the afternoon was giving way the relative cool of evening: the temperature couldn’t have been more than 85. Over the weeks, his blood had thinned sufficiently that he could think of this as being “cool.”

He was dressed, per instructions, in slacks with a dress shirt and tie. A coat, he had been told, would not be necessary.

Wong Yoke Yee stepped out of the front door of her shop house, about a fourth of the way down the street. She saw Reuben standing in the square and started towards him. She was wearing a cheongsam, red and black with a dragon motif. Reuben had never seen her wear anything but western dress. He would have expected tight-fitting clothing to accentuate her weight, but it turned out the opposite was true. She had never looked more trim. Her hair was also combed differently than he had seen it before, swept back dramatically.

“Miss Wong,” he said as she approached. “You look great.”

She treated him to a cold stare.

“I believe I’ve already explained my policy on personal remarks?”

Although things had loosened up quite a bit between them over the three weeks, there were still moments like this. She would grill him relentlessly about his past — his experiences, his relationships — but she would not allow any discussion of her personal life. Reuben didn’t really care. He was mildly interested in learning how she of all people had come to be leader of the Society of Magic Minor. And he had a passing curiosity as to what was going on, or had gone on, between Daphne and Iskandar.

But that was it.

“They are unwelcome,” he recited. “And they will not be tolerated.”

“Correct.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know the policy applied to compliments.”

“It applies to any irrelevant, impertinent, half-formed comment which might be lurking in the recesses of whatever it is you have that passes for a brain. No matter how desperately they may try to escape, will you please keep them under control? Whether we’re in the shop or not. Please.”

Reuben nodded.

“Yes, Miss Wong.”

“Good. I appreciate your punctuality, Reuben. Are you ready to begin?”

“I think so. Would it be too impertinent if I asked why we’re dressed this way?”

“Our mode of dress is appropriate to our destination. That’s all you need to know.”

“How about this question, then — how long will we be gone? My hotel isn’t expecting me back for a month, but I don’t even have a single change of clothes.”

She stamped her foot with exasperation.

“Did I tell you that we would be gone for a month?”

“No, Miss Wong.”

“So where did the month come from?”

“I made it up.”

“Reuben, I never gave you a specific return date. The correct answer, if asked, would have therefore been a non-specific answer. Surely you can see that?”

Reuben shrugged.

“If you say so, Miss Wong.”

“Don’t be insubordinate with me. As far as your question goes, you wouldn’t even be asking it if you had paid more attention in class. Now, I believe we should get started. I’m starving.”

“Ah, right,” said Reuben. “Actually, I was just thinking about hitting one of the stalls before we leave. I was going to the Mamak man for a murtabak, but the lady next to him does a pretty good kway teow. If you’re interested. Or there’s the Nyonya place across the street.”

She looked at him curiously, her manner seeming to soften a little in spite of herself.

“I didn’t realize you ate at the stalls, Reuben.”

“Sure. Breakfast and dinner almost every day. And lunch on the days when you kick me out.”

She nodded thoughtfully. Reuben’s eating at the stalls seemed to hold some significance for her. He couldn’t imagine why. It had no particular significance to him — he just liked spicy food.

“Well, thank you but no. We will be dining when we reach our destination.”

“Okay.”

“All right, then. Let’s begin.”

She turned and faced the street from which she had approached.

“Reuben, do you see the mast of the ship?”

“Yes, Miss Wong.”

“We’re going to put a tall building almost precisely where the mast is. It will actually stand a bit back from the river, and be much taller. But it will be right there. Parallel with the line of the mast, and centered on it.”

“Yes, Miss Wong,”

“All right, Reuben. Give me a controlled ripple. Disrupt the waveform.”

Reuben closed his eyes and took a deep breath. As he had been trained to do, he pictured himself standing in the center of the mandala, an enormous blowup of the design he had seen in the manuscript Michael Keyes showed him. He now knew that the design was an elaborate compass, and that it was one of many tools used by members of the Society to find their way across the configuration space. He pictured the lines of the mandala as luminescent and superimposed over the landscape before him. The ship’s mast would be north. He started with the mandala positioned slightly off-center. As soon as he began — in his mind — to rotate the shape so that it’s northern point aligned with the ship’s mast, he was struck by the now-familiar disorienting lurch. As always, this was accompanied by a spinning sensation and a slight throbbing in his head.

But the pain, the disorientation, and the sensation of motion were now all under his control.

“Okay, Miss Wong. Coordinates, please.”

“How’s your grip?”

Reuben tested his grip. It seemed secure. If he wanted, he could quickly move the mandala to any of its possible configurations.

“My grip is secure. Coordinates, please.”

“Very well. Take us south by southeast with an incline of six.”

Eyes still closed, Reuben spun the mandala around him so that the central marker which had been north was now behind him and to his right. South by southeast. The next step was more difficult. He changed the incline of the mandala, tilting the disk of light so that it now intersected the ship’s mast about halfway up. An incline of 6 meant a 60 degree angle. A down incline would have been more difficult to manage, requiring him to tilt the mandala down into the ground and yet still see it.

“All right,” he said after a moment. “I think I have it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ve got it.”

“Very well, Reuben. Let’s move ahead three steps.”

Reuben opened his eyes. The street lay before him as it had before, ending at the river. The ship was right where it should be. The world looked different, however. Less real. Grayer. Concentrating, Reuben pictured the mandala oriented precisely as he had seen it with his eyes closed.

He took hold of Daphne’s hand. He took a step forward.

A number of things happened at once. Several of the shop houses grew taller and wider, subsuming others that surrounded them. The street grew wider. The vehicles traveling on it changed. They were different models, now, and different colors. But the cars and trucks were indistinct to Reuben. His eyes were fixed straight ahead, right where the ship’s mast had been, but no longer was.

With the second step, the air changed. A hot blast of wind caught them in the face. The buildings were much taller now, the street much wider. A new building stood before them at the end of the street, slightly in front of where the ship had been. But this was not the building Daphne described. It was low and flat and gray.

Reuben took the third step. They were now on a busy street in a major city. It could have been Kuala Lumpur. It could have been Manhattan, but for the tropical heat and humidity. The shop houses were far fewer, and they now towered above them. Skyscrapers. One of them stood at the end of the street, running parallel to where the ship’s mast had been.

Reuben turned to Daphne.

“Is this is it?” he asked. He realized that he was winded. Taking these few steps was an effort, just as she had told him it would be.

“Let go,” she said.

He let go of her hand.

“No, Reuben. Your grip. Let go, now.”

It took him a moment. He sometimes had difficulty with this. It was easy enough to agitate the waveform, to get a grip on it and create a ripple within it. But it was harder, much harder to stop. He now knew that on the train to St. Petersburg, only his blackout had forced him to let go. There was a very real danger in keeping the waveform agitated — he might take a step or two in the wrong direction and land them both in a hostile environment. Or a deadly one. Or one just like the one they had left, only from which there was no way out.

Only Daphne could see where they were going, and only she could avoid all these potential traps.

Reuben closed his eyes again. He pictured the lights that made up the sides of the mandala flickering out. Then he pictured the dark lines left behind as dissolving into nothingness. He held his breath for a moment, then exhaled deeply.

He opened his eyes. The spinning had stopped. The throbbing had faded. And the world had its colors back.

“There,” he said.

He took a long look around. It wasn’t just the street they were on that had changed. The city had grown immensely, spreading out in all directions. The shop houses were gone, as was the central square where the church had stood.

“Wow,” he said. “Where are we?”

“We are in Malacca, three steps down the street from where we started.”

Reuben nodded.

“Maybe I didn’t phrase that question right.”

“Maybe not. Try again.”

“What happened? Why is this Malacca so different from the one we left behind?”

Daphne looked down to the end of the street and back, apparently considering the question.

“Because it is. Histories diverge. The more different they are, the more different they become. After a while, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one change and associate it as the cause of any one difference.”

Two passersby approached, a couple dressed in traditional Malay clothing. The woman’s kebaya was bright and cheerful, with a purple and scarlet floral design. The man’s baju malayu looked like very fancy green pajamas; the plaid sampin he wore over his trousers reminded Reuben of a Scottish kilt. It seemed at first that the couple took no notice of them, but as they drew closer it became apparent that they were deliberately avoiding looking at Reuben and Daphne.

Just as they passed, the man muttered something under his breath. Daphne responded loudly, and in some detail. The couple hastened their pace as they continued up the street.

“That didn’t sound like Bahasa,” said Reuben.

Daphne looked startled that he could make such a distinction.

“It was Baba Malay, which technically is a dialect of Bahasa. But here, what the Nyonyas speak is closer to Hokkien than it is to the Malay language.”

“So they were Nyonyas? Chinese? But the way there were dressed…”

“…is how the Nyonyas dress, here. Histories diverge. Besides, their clothes weren’t terribly different from the kinds of things my grandparents wore.”

Reuben considered this. He had read a little about the Baba Nyonya, the descendants of early Chinese settlers who could be found throughout the Straits of Malacca. Over the centuries, they had developed their own distinct culture, blending their native Chinese traditions, cuisine, and style of dress with those of the Malays with whom they intermarried.

Apparently they had blended them differently here. That was interesting, as was Daphne’s reference to her grandparents. It hadn’t occurred to him that Daphne was, herself, of Nyonya descent.

But of course, learning that sort of detail would have probably required some personal comments along the way.

“Anyway, what did the guy say to you?”

“Something about ‘foreigners.’ I couldn’t quite make it out.”

“And what did you say to him?”

Daphne looked away.

“It doesn’t bear repeating.”

“Miss Wong, I’m touched. You said something in my defense?”

She looked back at Reuben, puzzled.

“Why would you think that? He insulted me. This Malacca is bigger than Singapore, and a very proud city. They are used to seeing all sorts, but they don’t take kindly to mainland Chinese. Which, based on my apparel, he assumed that I am. It has to do with some old, old grudges.”

“But I thought you said we were dressed appropriately for our destination.”

“I did. What does that tell you?”

“That this isn’t our destination.”

Daphne almost smiled.

“We are making this trip in small stages. You did all right for your first actual go. I’ve seen much worse, I can tell you. But your incline was a bit off. Work on that.”

Reuben looked down for a moment, considering this.

“So if my incline was off, does that mean that I didn’t get us to the right place?”

Daphne shook her head.

“It doesn’t exactly mean that. But this isn’t exactly the right place, either. It’s probably better that you don’t think in those terms.”

“But…the building is there.

The half-smile disappeared. She glared at him.

“Reuben, try to imagine what it would have been like if you had had someone explaining all this to you in great detail over the past few weeks.”

Reuben blinked. He felt slightly helpless, as always, in the face of Daphne’s mounting temper.

“Oh, wait a moment. Hang on. I remember. Someone did explain all this to you. It was me.”

Reuben looked down the street, trying to remember what Daphne had told him on this subject.

“I guess…there’s more than one configuration that has a building right there?”

She nodded violently.

“Well, that sounds like a safe assumption, Reuben. Inasmuch as a few hundred thousand trillion is, indeed, more than one.

Reuben cleared his throat.

“Okay,” he said. “Take it easy. I remember, now. We aren’t going for a particular configuration. We’re just trying to end up somewhere in the middle of a cluster of configurations.”

And?

“And if my incline was off, I put us somewhere else in the cluster, or in a closely related cluster.”

And so?

Daphne’s face glowed red with a harsh defiance. She was practically spitting the questions at him. But Reuben was no longer intimidated; it was all coming back.

“And so you’ll have to make some corrections in our course over the next few steps to get us to our destination.”

Daphne’s rage began to subside.

“That’s correct,” she said.

“So I’ll have to do my best to keep my incline true. That will get us there quicker and make your job easier.”

She let out a bitter laugh.

“The one thing my job will never be is easy.

She turned and took a long look down the street, apparently trying to identify something.

“Now, Reuben we’re going to put a black bench just a bit to the left of where that taxi stand is. Do you see it?”

The stand was twenty yards or so in front of them. A lavender car with a rectangular blue light on top had just pulled in, apparently hoping to get a fare from the two of them.

“A black bench?” he repeated.

“Yes. Wrought iron.”

Reuben looked at her.

“Really? Portuguese?”

She nodded.

“How about that,” he said. “I guess histories really do diverge.”

He looked up at the buildings towering over them.

“I bet everything is about to get smaller again,” he said.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 41

Part IV

Chapter Forty-One

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben let go, and color came back to the world.

“That’s done it,” I said. “We have arrived.”

He sighed with relief. He was visibly winded and trembling just ever so slightly. A few stops earlier, his head was pounding so hard that it had become difficult for him to walk, even a few steps at a time. We had stopped and rested for a while. He also complained that he was feeling queasy, which I gathered had to do with his spending too much time in the ripple.

At this point in his training, Reuben wasn’t ready for such an elaborate excursion into the configuration space. But then, I don’t know of anyone who has ever been truly “ready” for the things we do in the Congrigatio in Ars Magica Minor. Even so, I had never before asked for so much from such an inexperienced pupil.

Mind you, I won’t accept full responsibility for that set of circumstances. Although I maintained my position of absolute and unassailable authority throughout Reuben’s training, there was something about the man’s eagerness — urgency, really — that was infectious. I, who had never been in a hurry to do anything in my life, found myself caught up in this headlong rush to advance to the next step, and then to the next. At first, when my protégé was interested solely in finding the means to cure his sickly mother figure and get back into the arms of his little Soviet trollop, he was more than pushy enough. But after we had a chat or two about the Guides and the Shedders — one of whom he had, in fact, encountered (against all probability) — not to mention the growing shadow on the configuration space and the coming dawn, the man became positively obsessed.

And, inasmuch as I knew that something needed to be done about these things, and did have a plan — or at least an intention, a very strong intention — to do something about all that eventually…well, I thought it prudent to let his ambition drive us on. He was an American after all.

That’s supposed to be what they’re best at.

Reuben looked out over the river. It was understandable that he would fix has gaze there. Muddy, brown, stagnant, and uninspiring as the Melaka river might be, it was the only element of the landscape that remained reasonably unchanged in all the permutations of the city through which we had passed. Over the past hour or two — it was hard even for me to be sure about time; poor Reuben would by then have been utterly disoriented — he had agitated the waveform dozens of times. Together, we had taken hundreds of steps through hundreds of variations on the city. Now we stood, at last, before Michel’s place, which fronted the river. For me, it was a comfortable and reassuring sight. For Reuben, it was no doubt just another architectural oddity: two stories high with a balcony at every window, each enclosed by a semicircular grille of lacey black ironwork. There was a patio on the roof, and another one on the ground floor facing the river.

I sighed with contentment. An evening at Michel’s would be just the thing. But I realized that my companion didn’t share my blissful state of mind

“Are you all right?” I asked him.

He looked thoughtful, as though this was a question that required careful analysis before answering.

“I could use a drink.”

Ah, that was the spirit. For a moment, my feelings for Mr. Stone bordered on something similar to sentiments heading in the general direction of a state of mind that was not altogether unlike pride.

But, as I said, only for a moment.

“I imagine you could. Well, we’ve come to the right place for it. Let’s go in.”

The restaurant was dark, and a bit cooler. A young Maitre d’ whom I did not recognize stood just inside, impeccably dressed in a black tuxedo. Perhaps we were there a bit early to catch Rodolfo, or perhaps the old gent had the night off. The young man looked up from his reservations as we approached.

“Bonsoir, Madame. Monsieur.”

“Bonsoir,” I responded.

The Maitre d’ poised his pen next to the reservation list.

“Les noms, s’il vous plait?”

Out of respect both for my traveling companion and the French language, I decided to proceed in English.

“Madame Wong and…associate. We don’t have a reservation, I’m afraid. But I am an old friend of Monsieur LeClaire. Would you please tell him that we’re here?”

The transition from French to English brought about a parallel shift in manners on the part of the Maitre d’. He moved swiftly and seamlessly from obsequious helpfulness to annoyed impatience. His eyes no longer met mine. And his speech took on a curtness that screamed “You’re wasting my time!” with every syllable.

“I am sorry, Madame, but Monsieur LeClaire is not here at the moment. We are not expecting him for another hour or so.”

I smiled ever so sweetly.

“He’ll want to know that I have arrived. Would you be so good as to call him and let him know?”

The young man nearly gasped at this suggestion. Call Monsieur? On ze…how do you say…téléfone? Quel idée! The very idea. It was an outrage.

Still, he managed to compose himself and frame a response.

“I am sorry, Madame, but that is out of the question. Monsieur has made it very clear that he is not to be disturbed while at home under any circumstances.”

“I see,” I said.

The game was rather tiresome, but it needed playing out.

“When you call him, you will want to mention that it is a matter of urgent business. Club business.”

The Maitre d’ nodded. His next response, while as resolute as those that had come before, lacked the sauce with which the previous two replies had been served. And I noticed that his eyes had found their way back to mine.

“I’m afraid that is impossible. Perhaps Madame and Monsieur would care to have a drink while they wait? Or take a stroll on the riverfront and come back at a later time?”

I sniffed loudly and stared at his bow tie for a few seconds.

“What is your name, please?”

“I am Renee.”

“Well allow me to explain a few things to you, Renee. We do not wish to take a stroll as we have just had one. A rather exhausting stroll, I might add. We would like very much to have a drink without any further delay. So would you be so kind as to seat us and to call Monsieur LeClaire and tell him that we are here. And when you call him, please tell him that les jeux ne sont pas faits.

The young man nodded and made a note in his reservation book. He clapped his hands twice and a waitress appeared from the wings. She was a tall Chinese girl (or to be more accurate, a girl of little better than average height standing atop some excessively vertical heels.) She wore a dress not too unlike my own, although a bit more tart-ish. The slit on the side went practically up to her armpits.

But the effect was wasted. Poor Reuben was still so shaken from his travels that he couldn’t be bothered to drool.

“Vivian, this is Madame Wong,” said the Maitre d’. “She is a friend of Monsieur LeClaire. Please see that she and her friend are well taken care of.”

The waitress nodded.

The young man turned to face me. He was now a wide-eyed puppy-dog.

“Madame, I will be telephoning Monsieur with your message. I am certain that you will hear from him very soon.”

Merci, Renee” I said demurely.

We were seated on the second floor, a table on a private balcony overlooking the river. Reuben surprised me by ordering chilled vodka. I would have taken him for a beer drinker or, at best, a connoisseur of bourbon. I  ordered a proper whisky and glasses of water for both of us.

“So what was that all about?” he asked as Vivian walked away.

“What do you mean?”

Les jeux ne sont pas faits? Unless I’m mistaken, that means that the game is off. What game?

Once again, Reuben surprised me. On one level, I knew that there was nothing the least bit surprising about an educated man with a background in intelligence work who could speak a smattering of French. But I always found  myself expecting so little of Reuben, against all common sense.

It must have been his accent.

“It’s a password,” I explained. “Under normal circumstances, Michel can be accessed by close acquaintances by saying that they are here on ‘club business.’ But sometimes that isn’t enough. When he really doesn’t want to be bothered, he tells the staff not to contact him, not even on club business. Under those circumstances, there is yet another password for what you might think of as the inner circle. And that password is les jeux ne sont pas faits.

“But why that phrase?”

“I don’t honestly know. I think it has something to do with a novel by Sartre. Or do they even have Sartre, here? Or it may be a phrase they use in casinos. But whatever it is, I’m sure it’s terribly witty in that smirking Gallic way.”

When the drinks arrived, Reuben reached for his liquor first. He tilted the glass towards me in a perfunctory toast and then drained it. Then he did the same with his water.

Encore, Vivian,” he said. “S’il vous plait.

The waitress, who was still standing there — she had hardly had the chance to go anywhere else — nodded, and turned to fetch another round. I lifted my glass and returned Reuben’s gesture.

“Cheers,” I said. “To a successful navigation.”

“I’ll drink to that…in just a minute.”

I took a civilized, though certainly not dainty, sip of the whisky.

“So, how are you feeling?” I asked.

“A lot better. I think I just needed a few minutes.”

“Did you find that it was getting easier or harder as the journey progressed?”

He thought about this.

“I guess that getting and keeping my grip became easier. I just got so tired. And my head was really bothering me.”

I took another sip.

“You’re the first person I’ve met whose gift derives from an injury. That could account for why it’s so much stronger than normal, and why it has so much attendant pain. That may prove always to be the case, I’m afraid.”

Reuben thought about this for a moment.

“Do you mean to say that it doesn’t usually hurt?”

Apparently it had never occurred to him that the experience was different for each individual. But then, why would it?

“No. Not physically. Some are made dizzy by it; a very few get seasick. For most, it is just a little unsettling. On the other hand, there are those who claim to derive considerable sensual pleasure from the experience.”

“No kidding?”

Just then, Vivian returned — remarkably quick, that girl — with more water and a small flask of chilled vodka.

Reuben clearly was feeling better. He now took full notice of our efficient table service staff member and her nicely fitting, if a bit too well ventilated, attire. To his credit, he wasn’t overly obvious with his admiration. He didn’t drool or even gawk. Perhaps his government training was of some use, after all.

He watched her as she poured him a second round. She glanced at my glass to be sure that I was still proceeding at a stately pace, then  slinked away into the darkness. His eyes followed her all the way.

“Quite an aficionado, aren’t you, Reuben?”

“You mean the vodka? To tell you the truth, I’m surprised I can drink the stuff at all. After Russia. But some things just kind of stick with you, I guess.”

He took a sip.

“I didn’t mean the vodka. I meant the cocktail waitress.”

Reuben looked surprised. He shook his head.

“No. It’s not like that. Or…well, maybe she reminds me of somebody.”

I should have known. Such a straight arrow — incapable even of enjoying a little eye candy on its own terms. It’s as I’ve always said: you can take the boy scout out of his limited view of the multiverse, but you can’t take the limited view of the multiverse out of the boy scout. I was not, at the time, prepared to consider the possibility that a certain depth of feeling might lie behind Reuben’s obsessive behavior. It was just so much easier  — not to mention more satisfying — to write him off as a twit.

A deft change of subject was in order. Reuben supplied it.

“So how do you know this Michel guy?”

“We’re colleagues. We hold the same position.”

“You mean — he’s also the head of the Society?”

I nodded.

Reuben took another drink. A troubling thought was dawning on him.

“So…how many…?”

He couldn’t quite formulate the question.

“How many?” I repeated. “You tell me.”

He sighed.

“A very large number. But not necessarily infinite.”

“That’s right.”

“But I thought you said that people…like us, people who do what we do…are rare.”

I took a longish sip from my whisky.

“We are. Compared to everybody else. But one idea that you need to get a handle on, Reuben, is that just because something is rare, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t trillions and trillions of them.”

“So you’ve been here a few times. I gather that it doesn’t work the other way? Michel doesn’t come to you?”

“That’s correct.”

“You…and others…come here. This is some kind of meeting place for practitioners of  Magic Minor.”

It was probably just the drink, but at moments like this I couldn’t help but feel a certain warmth towards Reuben. If one could say nothing else in his favor, it at least had to be conceded that he was a fast learner.

“But I wonder…” he continued. “The Society isn’t always headquartered in Malacca, is it?”

“Not always.”

“Let me see if I have the story straight. After Altheus died, the leadership of the Society moved around Europe for a couple hundred years. It ended up in the hands of this young Portuguese trader who was an officer on one of the early expeditions to Asia. He settled in Malacca, married a local, and the leadership stayed with him and his family until the Dutch moved in. Then it somehow got handed off to a Chinese family, where it remains to this day.”

“That’s more or less correct. Don Fernando’s heir decided to return to Portugal, and he was more cautious than his illustrious ancestor. He feared that a shipwreck might be the end of the Society of Magic Minor. So he turned everything over to a friend. A wealthy merchant.”

“Your great-great-grandfather?”

“No. The leadership has changed hands a few times since then. When there is no heir apparent, the leader finds an individual of suitable character to whom to pass the reins. That’s something I’ll probably have to do eventually.”

I regretted saying it as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Damned whisky. I had broken my own rule about personal comments and opened myself wide for some loathsome, misguided curiosity or (worse yet) sympathy. There is much that I can endure in this life, up to and including my mother’s endless harangues about my unmarried state. But discussion of these matters with one Mr. Reuben Stone? It would be difficult to imagine a more vomit-inducing scenario.

Fortunately, whether he was taking the high road or he was simply too blur to pick up the thread of what I said, Reuben left that matter alone.

“But this Malacca has a different history. What’s with all the French-speaking?”

I was relieved.

I finished off the demon drink, resolving never to touch it again. Then I looked up. Where was that sluggard, Vivian? Precisely how long was one expected to wait for a refill in this place?

“In this context it was the French, not the Dutch, who supplanted the Portuguese. In Michel’s world, French Indo-China was — is, actually— a much bigger place than it was where I’m from. Or where you’re from. This is a very fortunate world, in some respects. Only one world war. And no Cold War.”

Reuben poured himself another vodka while demonstrating that he had a good ear for conditional praise:

“What’s the downside?”

“Well, here we are in the nineties and the French Colonials are still around. Be a pet, Reuben — when Michel arrives, don’t let on that I consider that to be a downside.

He laughed.

“Your secret is safe with me, Miss Wong. Besides, if we had stopped off in one of those variations where Malacca is just another Malay town, I bet we would have met some folks who would be distressed to learn that there are so many versions of Malacca where the Chinese are still around.”

I nodded.

“Or around at all. In my context, and yours, and the one we are currently in, a 15th century Emperor sent one of his own daughters to the Sultan of Melaka to be his bride. She was accompanied by 500 serving girls, who were the beginning of the Chinese population of the city. But in some contexts, it never happened.”

Just then the recalcitrant Vivian reappeared, with a flask similar to the one that she had left for Reuben. It was filled with a brownish liquid, some of which she poured into my glass. I was beginning to think better of the poor girl.

Doing her best, no doubt. I offered her a kindly smile as I raised my glass.

Plus, Reuben paid her no mind at all, this time. Not that his attention (or lack thereof) meant anything to me — it patently did not — but there is such a thing as good form, after all. He was too much enthralled with the romance of diverging histories.

“I’ll tell you what interested the me most,” he said. “we passed through several mostly Chinese and all-Chinese versions of the city on our way here, but one really stood out. Do you know the one I mean? It was kind of primitive. Very rough, in fact.”

“Yes, I know that one. I didn’t intend for us to stop there at all. It’s usually a step-through, but I was correcting for some of your inaccuracies.”

He let pass the critique of his form.

“I noticed you wasted no time in moving us on.”

“Yes. It would not do to hang around there too long.”

“Too bad. But I think I saw enough to form a theory.”

A theory? It was just too precious. I decided to forego the derisive laughter in favor of another tiny sip.

“What theory is that?”

“Well, based on just a quick glimpse of the townsfolk…and their buildings…and their clothes…I think they were Mongols.”

At that moment I experienced a very mild version of what the Americans, in their vulgarity, refer to as a “spit take.” Reuben had hit the nail on the head.

“Don’t laugh,” he said. “It’s just a theory. Histories diverge, right? What if the Khans hadn’t just sort of run out of gas. What if they had pushed on into western Europe and India…and even down here? And if they had hung on to their empire, not just let it sort of fade into the background of wherever they were?”

My choices were to confirm Reuben’s theory or lie and tell him he was wrong. I didn’t much care for either.

“Well, like I said,” he continued. “It’s just a theory. You know who I wish was here? Iskandar. He knows a lot about this kind of stuff.”

“He does, indeed, Reuben. But you have to remember that…Mr. Ahmad is not an initiate in our order. We can never discuss with him what we see in the configuration space.”

He looked surprised.

“Really?”

I shook my head solemnly.

“Absolutely not. Under no circumstances.”

Reuben took a sip from his glass, apparently distressed by what I had told him.

“So…I see,” he said after a while. “Then I guess that’s why you and he never got together?”

I shook my head again.

“No, no. Not because of that. It was ostensibly about religion. He worships Allah, where I bow down only before the altar of the almighty Daphne. But it was really about — ”

I finally stopped, but it was too late. Far too late.

He sat there, smiling. Nodding sympathetically.

It occurred to me at long last that I could continue to dislike Reuben as much as I wanted, but I was going to have to stop underestimating him.

I was just about to say something devastatingly sarcastic that would have set everything aright when, out of nowhere, Michel appeared.

“Mon Dieu, Daphne! I could not believe it was really you!”

I rose about half way from my chair  so he could give me a peck on each cheek. He then turned and looked at Reuben.

“But who is this?” he asked

That was going to take some explaining.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Chapter 42

Part IV

Chapter 42

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Michel LeClaire poured some more wine. He was a thin and wiry man, gray at the temples. Reuben had pegged the Frenchman for 50 when he arrived, but now, several hours and even more glasses of wine later, he seemed older.

LeClaire placed the bottle in the ice bucket bottoms up. Empty. It had been their third. Probably not a great idea after all that vodka, Reuben thought. Especially since Daphne was apparently planning that they would be walking back to Malacca -- the one they had come from -- after dinner.

"So that is all there is to tell," said LeClaire, "The time is very near. It draws close."

He lifted his glass in a quasi-toast.

“To the Stillness, mes amis. It is all that ever was, and all that shall be.”

Reuben didn't touch his glass. He had the walk back to Daphne’s world to consider, and he could see no advantage in trading one kind of headache for another. Michel’s story was a long one. It had not been easy, listening to it. But Reuben felt better knowing the truth, even if it had laid waste the festive evening.

Good food, better wine, and -- to top it off -- the end of the world.

Daphne, apparently stunned by what she had heard, looked at Michel with great sadness. Her eyes glistened with tears. Reuben couldn’t decide what was more surprising -- that she was capable of tears or that she wasn’t hiding them.

He wondered how she, of all people, could not know what Michel had told them.

"Isn’t there something that we’re supposed to do?" she asked.

Michel shrugged.

"That was our final delusion, cheri. I'm afraid there is nothing to be done. Your friend has arrived too late. If there ever was a possibility of doing something to help, it has passed.”

Reuben shook his head.

“I don’t get it. You people have known about this for a long time. And have been looking to do something about it. How could it suddenly be too late?”

Michel took a long sip from his wine.

“The changes are coming much more quickly now. For hundreds of years there was so little change. What we saw happening was so gradual. But it was the eye of the storm. Now we have the full maelstrom. And there is nothing we can do about it.”

“I don’t understand,” said Reuben.

“There are a good many things about which that could be said, I’m sure. But the point is simply this. It was commendable of you to come. But now you should go. There is nothing for you to do. The opportunity is lost.”

“I won’t accept that.”

Michel arched an eyebrow.

“Ah, indeed? Well, this must be the dogged Americanism that one hears so much about. You are demonstrating your ‘can-do’ spirit, n’est-ce pas?

Michel produced a pack of cigarettes from his dinner jacket. He offered the pack to Daphne, who waved it away. Hen then offered it to Reuben, who ignored it.

“No,” Reuben said. “I’m just not ready to walk away based only on talk.”

Michel lit his cigarette, nodding.

“I see,” he said, puffing smoke directly into Reuben’s face. “Well, what then would satisfy?”

“Show me.”

“You don’t understand what you are asking. You are not prepared to face it.”

He took another long draw from his cigarette.

“Monsieur LeClaire, I would request that you not blow smoke in my face again. It’s considered quite rude where I’m from.”

After a time longer than Reuben would have credited Michel for being able to hold his breath, the Frenchman exhaled. The smoke went down and away at a safe angle.

“You’ll want to be careful,” Michel said after a moment, “that you don’t confuse the customs of your home with the laws of the universe.”

“Let’s just chalk it up to my dogged Americanism. Now if what you’re telling us is true, I’m going to have to face the circumstances you described sooner or later. Prepared or not. We all are.”

Michel nodded.

“That’s true. But I don’t see that any good can come from facing it before we have to.”

He turned to Daphne.

“What say you, cheri? Can you accept what I have told you and return home, or must you, too, be convinced?”

Daphne took a sip of her wine.

“Reuben, I’m sure Michel knows what he’s talking about. There’s very little chance that he’s going to be wrong about any of this.”

She took another sip.

“But on the other hand,” she continued. “Michel…I’m afraid that I’m with Reuben. We haven’t come all this way only to give up without having a look.”

“But the risk…”

“As Reuben said, the risk is a moot point. It’s only a matter of time.”

Michel shrugged.

“Since you insist, I will show you. But I cannot be held responsible.”

“For what?” Reuben asked.

“For what happens to you.”

Reuben looked to Daphne, who nodded.

“We’re responsible for what happens to us,” she said. “We prefer it that way.”

---

It was morning.

Reuben stood in front of LeClaire’s, impatiently waiting for the others. He had managed to down a little coffee, but buttered croissants didn’t appeal to him after the excessive libations the previous evening. He had slept fitfully on a tiny cot in a room behind the kitchen. He was sure that Daphne had fared better, as she had been invited to sleep at Michel’s house.

A sleek, blue sports car approached. Reuben wasn’t familiar with the make or model. The car parked at the curb in front of the restaurant. Daphne and Michel emerged from it.

“Good morning, Reuben,” said LeClaire. “Did you benefit from rest, or are you still insisting on this exercise in futility?”

“I’m still insisting,” said Reuben. “What about you, Miss Wong?”

“Enough with the goddamn small talk,” said Daphne. “Let’s get going.”

The first ten or so steps back up the street were not too different from what Reuben had experienced on the journey there. The traveling arrangements were somewhat changed, however, with three of them making the trip. Daphne stood in the middle, holding an arm of each of the two men. Michel gave coordinates. Reuben disrupted the waveform.

It was in the vicinity of the tenth step that Reuben noticed the first anomaly. The red church, which featured prominently in so many variations of the city, appeared once again in the center of the town square. But it was different this time, much taller and broader than it had been in any other instance. With the next step, it grew even taller. It’s color changed, too, darkening to a garish purple.

But it wasn’t just the church that was changing. It seemed that the palette with which the entire landscape had been painted was being modified. The sky took on a brackish yellow hue. The surrounding buildings, which Reuben remembered from his walk the previous evening as being mostly white and gray, were now green and turquoise and, occasionally, vivid orange. The vehicles on the street assumed bulky and unlikely shapes, their wheels somehow not quite as round as they should be.

After another step, the church became even wider and impossibly tall. Reuben craned his neck back to find the top of it. It was the tallest building he had ever seen.

The other buildings began to recede in the wake of the growing church. They became smaller and fewer with each step.

A flock of oddly fishlike birds flew past.

Across the street, a little man was setting up a food stall in preparation for the morning’s trade. He was slicing what appeared to be an enormous turnip. Purple, gray, and green loaves of some unwholesome-looking material hung from a string above his head. There was something unsettling about the man’s appearance. His dimensions were wrong, somehow -- his hands too small, his head too big.

“It’s his hair,” Daphne, her voice trembling with disgust.

Reuben looked at the man’s hair. He couldn’t make out anything that unusual about it. It was dark and thinning, apparently held in place with some gel or ointment. Even so, it was flowing gently with the morning breeze.

Reuben watched for a moment longer before it occurred to him -- there was no breeze. The man’s hair was not moving in a single discernible direction. What he had taken for oiled clumps of hair were in fact individual strands, far thicker than they should be, and writhing.

Snakelike.

Reuben coughed. The air suddenly felt unbearably hot and oppressive. He fought back the impulse to gag. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a moment.

“I fear that it only gets worse from here, my friends,” said Michel. “Shall we not go back?”

Reuben cleared his throat.

“We’ll go on. Just give me a minute. I may have to throw up.”

“You are ill?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I overdid it a little last night.”

“We’ll stop here for a moment,” said Daphne, disentangling herself from the two men. “Come over here, Reuben. Into the shade.”

“I’ll be all right.”

“Does your head hurt?”

Reuben nodded. He joined her in the shade of a tree, which somehow had too many branches, and fuzzy leaves that were long and white.

“What is this place?” Reuben asked.

“It is a world that has occurrence,” said Michel, “just as the world you came from has.”

“But it wasn’t supposed to?”

The Frenchman shrugged.

“That isn’t for us to say. There are many occurring worlds which have higher degrees of improbability than this one. Much higher. But even a few months ago, one would have had to walk for hours and hours before reaching one. Now it takes only a few steps.”

Reuben nodded.

“So the middle of the waveform is supposed to be where the most probable worlds are, and the edges are supposed to be less probable?”

“More or less,” said Daphne. “The waveform runs through the most probable region in the configuration space. Think of improbability as being altitude: sea level is highly likely, 100 feet above is less likely, 10,000 feet above is much less likely. The waveform has always been a river of occurrence running through a valley of probability in the configuration space.”

“So what’s happening now? The river is running uphill?”

Michel nodded.

“Even so. It is scaling the hills of improbability, giving occurrence to a good many things which otherwise never would have been.”

Reuben rubbed his head.

“So it isn’t really the end of the world, now, is it? There is no shadow. Everybody isn’t going to die. Things are just going to get weird.”

Michel looked up and seemed to study the sky for a moment. Then he turned and looked up and down the street.

“We shouldn’t remain here. Reuben, are you well enough to walk on?”

“Actually, I could use a drink of water.” He looked towards the food stall. “Do you suppose it would be safe?”

Michel sighed with disdain.

“Water from that place? To drink? I think not. In any event, we have no money to give him that he would accept. And I doubt we could make him understand anything we said.”

As though sensing that he was being talked about, the man at the food stall looked up. His eyes were too big or too black or…something. Reuben couldn’t figure out what the problem was. But there was something uncanny, even grotesque about the little man.

He stared at them for a long moment, apparently as puzzled by them as they were by him. Then he started back on his turnip.

“I’m sorry we didn’t think to bring any water, Reuben,” said Daphne. “But I think Michel is right. We should get out of here.”

Reuben nodded.

“I’ll be fine.”

They returned to the sidewalk and resumed their journey.

On the next step, the church grew again. Another step and it became taller still, its violet walls now brightening to a kind of neon pink. The top of the building was now completely out of sight.

“It’s impossible,” said Reuben.

Michel shook his head.

“No, my friend. Not impossible. Just highly improbable.”

“Or at least it used to be,” said Daphne.

Michel smiled.

“Even so, cheri.

Reuben looked across the street. The stall and the little man were gone. The street was empty. The rest of the city had all but disappeared. A barren landscape emerged from behind what few structures remained. He turned around. There was now nothing blocking his view of the river where it emptied into the Straits of Malacca. The river was black, the seawater an unsettling mix of gray and yellow.

“We dare not go on from here,” said Michel.

Reuben felt his impatience rising.

“Wrong,” he said. “We dare.”

“It grows very dangerous, Reuben.”

“Yeah, well I don’t see it. There’s no one here to hurt us. What’s going to happen…are we going to start getting strange ourselves?”

“There is no one here because I have deliberately guided us in the direction of emptiness. We would not survive for long in a heavily populated version of this city. But now I am uncertain even of the composition of the air. We could be poisoned. We may be breathing poison now.”

Daphne took a deep breath.

“The river stinks. What else is new? We’re moving on.”

LeClaire sighed and muttered something in French.

They walked on. Two steps later, the last vestiges of the town of Malacca (other than the distended tower the church had grown into) disappeared. Only the street they were on remained, now nothing more than a slightly flattened plain. The land was barren, a desert -- no trees or grass -- just a few prickly weeds. The church was now a perfect cylinder, milky white in color. It stretched into the sky, but it no longer seemed to go on forever.

It went up 2,000 feet or so and then stopped.

And then, about another 500 feet higher, it started up again.

Reuben traced the church’s ascent. The pattern continued on as far as he could see -- dashes of tower punctuated by dots of open sky.

“It’s an optical illusion, right?” he said after a moment. “Or the product of some kind of advanced anti-gravitation technology?”

Non,” Michel answered. “Pas de tout.

“Well, then why doesn’t it just come crashing down?”

“Because this configuration is incomplete,” said Daphne.

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Reuben protested. “What’s missing? Gravity? We’re still standing here, aren’t we?”

“Yes we are, fortunately. And the air still clings to the ground, or we would be suffocating. This configuration has gravity. What it lacks is coherence.”

“So this is all just a…random configuration?”

Michel shook his head.

“Not random. All configurations have some imperfections. All have a few incoherencies. But these are usually found buried deep in the laws that govern the universes they occupy. In my world, and in yours, the incoherencies are never visible on a macro scale.”

“But here they are.”

Michel nodded curtly at the tower.

Oui. Voila.

“So this is a universe that used to be like ours. Or at least, more like ours. Its anomalies were subtle. Only now the waveform passes through this unlikely configuration. And it’s still moving further in that direction?”

Michel nodded.

“There was a time, I believe, when a configuration such as this would never have been removed from the Stillness. And yet here it is. Or should I say here we are, in it.”

“So it’s like you said last night. The waveform is off course somehow.”

“Yes.”

“And the other world…the one we needed to go to.”

“Is no longer accessible to us.”

“Has it also gone…incoherent?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps not. But you would have to pass through incoherence much greater than this, much greater than you could hope to survive, in order to get there.”

“I see. So we’re finished.”

Michel nodded.

“And everything that exists is going to be plunged into chaos. That’s the shadow that I keep sensing.”

“Not exactly,” said Michel. “The shadow that you have sensed is the outer bound of the configuration space. The waveform is passing through these incoherent configurations on a collision course with that outer bound.”

“But I don’t see how a collision can be imminent. If we’re this close to the boundary, weren’t we certain to hit it sooner or later, anyway?”

“Remember what I told you, Reuben,“ said Daphne. “The waveform is a spiral. It has approached the edge of the configuration space many times. But it has always curved away from it.”

“But not now.”

“No. We’re talking in geometric approximations, but think of it this way -- we’ve lost our arc.”

“So the spiral has become a straight line?”

Michel shrugged.

“As Daphne says, we are speaking very imprecisely. But that is the gist, yes.”

“And what happens when it hits the boundary?”

Daphne shook her head.

“Nobody really knows. Not for sure. But the best guess is no more waveform.

“The configuration space will be thrown into perfect and irretrievable stillness,” said Michel.

“I see,” said Reuben. “I get it now.”

He looked back up at the impossible tower, rising sporadically to seeming infinity.

“Everybody dies,” he said.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

New Harvard Stem Cell Research Center

This is proving to be a big weekend for stem cell news. The Boston Globe is reporting this morning that Harvard University will be announcing this April the launch of a new center for the production and study of human embryonic stem cells.
Though not housed in a central building, the initiative will be large, even by Harvard standards, with a fund-raising goal of about $100 million, according to the scientists involved...

"Harvard has the resources, Harvard has the breadth, and, frankly, Harvard has the responsibility to be taking up the slack that the government is leaving," said Dr. George Q. Daley, who is involved in planning the initiative and is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital in Boston.
U.S. Scientists are accustomed to being on the cutting edge of scientific research. It is really not surprising that there is a growing backlash against the Bush administration's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 11:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sneaking It In

Reason at longevity meme points to news about the Council on Bioethics.

Late Friday (the time at which Presidents do things that they don't want covered too closely in the news) the President fired Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. William May from the President's Council on Bioethics. These individuals had voiced opinions in favor of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
The new members of the panel are Dr. Benjamin Carson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a pediatric neurologist; Peter Lawler, a government professor at Berry College in George; and Diana Schaub, a political scientist at Loyola College of Maryland.
These replacements are known to be against stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Schaub has called the practice "slavery plus abortion."

This is profoundly disappointing. I'm particularly discouraged by the firing of Dr. May. Dr. May is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and is known as an outspoken Christian bioethicist. As a Christian, Dr. May could have voiced to Bush the viewpoint that embryonic stem cell research is compatible with the Christian faith.

Blogger Chris Mooney writes,
We now know how President Bush responds to highly publicized charges that he's stacking scientific advisory panels: He gives his critics the finger and stacks another one.
I don't think this is about giving critics "the finger." A smart politician never does anything that will energize the opposition without some benefit to his own agenda. Bush's move is a response to recent actions by New Jersey. In January New Jersey passed a stem cell law that outlaws reproductive cloning and promotes embryonic stem cell research.
When New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey signed a stem cell bill this week [January 8, 2004], the state became only the second in the United States—after California—to pass legislation specifically outlawing reproductive cloning and promoting human embryonic stem cell research. Scientists around the state hailed the law as a big step forward for their work.
Presumably Bush would be in favor of outlawing reproductive cloning. New Jersey is now one of the few states to have a law that prohibits this. But then New Jersey chose last Tuesday to fund stem cell research after Bush very publicly defunded it.
"Today [February 24], I propose to go where no other state has gone—to invest state funds in your courage and the hopes of so many families—with the creation of a new research institute, the New Jersey Institute for Stem Cell Research," said [Governor] McGreevey in his budget address.
When making policy on matters as important as stem cell research it's crucial for the President to hear all viewpoints - unless he's already made up his mind. That's the problem here. Bush has made up his mind and isn't interested in hearing opposing views anymore. He wants justification for the policy he's decided on. He wants to be able to say to Congress "This bill I'm sponsoring is supported 100% by my Council on Bioethics."

We are getting a glimpse of what Bush intends to do in his second term regarding therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research. It's no longer sufficient that the research is not federally funded. Now that individual states are showing a willingness to pick up this slack, he is preparing to outlaw it nationally. Why else would he care so much about the composition of the Council on Bioethics?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 07:00 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 27, 2004

W.W.I.A.D?

Arnold Kling has published the top 10 answers given in a poll of university presidents asked what books they believe “every undergraduate university student should read and study in order to engage in the intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties of the 21st century." Here’s the list:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Odyssey
  3. The Republic
  4. Democracy in America
  5. The Iliad
  6. Hamlet
  7. The Koran
  8. The Wealth of Nations
  9. The Prince
  10. The Federalist Papers

Kling is disturbed by the vintage of these books, and he notes rather dourly that the university presidents have apparently failed to sanitize the canon of its over-reliance on “dead white males.” He also points out that the top ten list is void of books on science and technology, and that there are few books on the longer list of about 70 that were written since 1950.

I have a couple of preliminary comments on this list:

1. The presidents were asked to give a list of books, not topics of study. Science, technology, and current events would no doubt have had a much stronger showing had the presidents been asked to name topics, rather than books. As one of the commenters over on Randall Parker’s blog pointed out, science and technology are topics that need not rely so heavily upon a defined canon:

It may be that university professors were considering works that really ought to be read in the original. Science and mathematics benefit from an approach that can treat the latest theories and arguments, as well as providing a grounding in the history of the doctrines. An up to date textbook is better for that than actually reading Darwin's writings.

The Iliad, on the other hand, is not improved by being made into a textbook. It ought to be read in the original Greek, but failing that, in an accurate translation—I like the Fitzgerald myself. Many of these other works are of the same type—literary masterpieces that everyone ought to actually read. They can't be substituted with excerpts or textbooks, whereas Darwin not only can, but [is] thereby improved upon.

The canon of science is important for understanding the history of science, but perhaps less important for understanding science itself.

2. They were asked to provide a list of books they recommend, not books that are actually read. For my part, when my daughter starts college in a few years, I will be delighted to learn that she is being required to read any of the books named on the list (absent some anti-Western smear job in which the books are required so that the student scan learn how wrong they are or, in the case of the Koran, how much better it is.) The presidents may be recommending them, but I doubt that these titles are making it on to the required reading lists at many universities.

That being said, I think Kling is right in concluding that the list is deficient. If we want to truly prepare young people for life in the 21st century, those books alone are not going to cut it. Kling proposes his own reading list.

  1. The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker

  2. The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil

  3. The Transparent Society, by David Brin

  4. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

  5. Eastward to Tartary, by Robert Kaplan

Excellent selections. If some of the titles look familiar, they should. The Transparent Society has been mentioned in many of our recent discussions on The Speculist, and hardly a week goes by that we don’t make a reference to The Age of Spiritual Machines.

As Stephen has been pointing out in his recent entries on rapid change, today there is simply more to know than there has been at any previous point in human history. As has always been the case, the path to usefulness in society — that is, to having a career — involves picking out a subset of knowledge in which to specialize. Nobody can know everything about everything; however, the notion of a “liberal” education came from the idea that there was a core of highly generalized knowledge that a productive and responsible citizen of a free society should have.

So we have to be specialists, but we should also be generalists. Unfortunately, the idea of a liberal education has fallen by the wayside. There are abundant examples of stories of academicians who specialize in the humanities or social sciences, where they appear to get by just fine, and yet who have staggeringly under-developed or erroneous knowledge of science and mathematics. Here’s one of my favorites.

The equal and opposite stereotype is that of the soulless technocrat who can’t be bothered by the kind of “mushy thinking” that a typical philosophical or aesthetic discussion would entail. There are no measurements to be taken, no numbers to be recorded, so such a conversation is a pointless waste of time. We were given a very mild nod toward this kind of thinking in a recent comment from one of our readers, responding to the proposition that qualitative as well as quantitative differences can be identified between two information processing systems:

Well, the word "information" must be a term of art then. You're using it to mean "words and ideas and stuff" (a lay definition), while those of us who study information flow in complex systems use it to capture the Shannon information measure of a system, which describes the system's state.

If you'd like to propose a reasonable and mutually agreeable replacement word, which describes the very limited and special form of information processing you're talking about, I'm game. Give me something you can measure, and we can have this entertaining discussion like adults.

Would it help this reader in his work to know that the “lay” definition of information is what the word has meant for hundreds of years, that its Latin and Greek roots have to do with the idea of in-formed, that is to say, changed from within by the acquisition of “words and ideas and stuff?” Probably not. He can capture the Shannon information measure of system with or without knowing any of that.

On the other hand, would such background knowledge help him to have discussions on other (albeit closely related) subjects with people outside his discipline? Clearly it might, if only by freeing him from the insistence that his discipline’s (rather recent) co-opting of the term represents its only possible valid use. The broader our knowledge, the greater our ability to see an issue from a variety of perspectives.

With that in mind, let’s turn away from negative stereotypes. It would be helpful to find an example of someone whose knowledge was balanced between the old and the new, between the humanistic and the scientific.

Someone like Isaac Asimov.

Here’s a guy who wrote more than 300 books, and who was as interested in Shakespeare as he was in Physics, as interested in Biology as he was in the Bible. He had his own special interests, of course. His doctorate was in biochemistry. (He also specialized in robotic ethics and future history, but that’s a different story — or rather set of stories.) His annotated edition of Swift's Gulliver's Travels is one of my all-time favorite books.

I remember reading one of his books on astronomy, years ago, and being struck by a side passage in which he pointed out how silly and redundant it is to talk about “the Milky Way galaxy.” (Galaxy, it turns out, is Greek for milky way.) Always looking ahead, he was very much aware that knowledge is rooted in the past. Would he have approved of the university presidents’ list of books? Definitely. In fact, he wrote commentaries on several of them. Would he have liked Kling’s list of books? Without question. And it’s a shame that he’s not still around to write on some of those topics.

Here in the 21st century, the old questions are still with us. What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is truth? As difficult as these questions have always been to grapple with, rapid technological change promises to put a new spin on each of them. The “free citizen” would do well to be familiar both with traditional approaches to these questions and with the science and technology that promise to turn them on their heads.

Anyhow, that’s what Isaac would do.

Posted by Phil at 02:26 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

February 26, 2004

Help Out a Friend in Need

As you probably know, this site doesn't have a tip jar. I don't have a philosophical problem with tip jars, I've just never bothered to put one up. I figure I'd be depressed by how little action it got.

But if you're inclined to throw a few quarters my way, please think about lending a hand to the man who made this site possible. Dean Esmay posted the first entry ever published on this site, and was the subject of the first entry I ever published. Without Dean, this blog would be a very different place. He didn't have to help me. He didn't know me from Adam.

He just thought that bloggers stuck on Blogspot would be a lot better off moving to Movable Type. So he singlehandedly moved a bunch of us over. Just to help out.

Well now Dean is facing some pretty serious troubles. If you enjoy reading the Speculist, please think about helping out the guy who made it possible.

Thanks.

Posted by Phil at 08:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Modzelewski Employment Watch Day 17

Glenn has all the details.

Posted by Phil at 08:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Fog

Bill Tozier commented on my "Everyday Singularity" post:
Stephen Gordon: "Since Internet use became widespread about ten years ago, our ability to predict the future impact of any new development began to fail."

Bill Tozier: I'm not sure, but I think this may be giving too much credit to humanity's current and past ability to "predict the future impact"
Bill is mostly right.

Humans do have a long history of being surprised by technological developments – sometimes not even recognizing the importance of a development that is right in front of them.

We may be able to predict "Probable Development A" and "Probable Development B," but its harder to predict the synthesis of A and B into "Unknown Development C." And how will "Surprise Development D" affect A, B, and C?

These unknowns snowball so that forecasting becomes impossible beyond a certain time horizon. 100 years ago people had developments like A, B, C, and D. They had almost as much difficulty forecasting their A, B, C, and D as we have forecasting ours today. The difference is that their developments took place over many decades. Our surprises are coming more and more often as we move toward the Singularity.

In the past some expected the opposite to occur. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov predicted that as our ability to calculate improved, our ability to forecast would improve into an exact science he called "psychohistory."

The opposite has occurred. Asimov envisioned a single huge computer doing all the world's calculations. In such a world it might be possible for the single computer operator to make accurate long-term forecasts because technological developments would take place at a slower pace.

But the wide distribution of ever-increasing computer power and the arrival of the Internet has shortened the time horizon for new developments.

Here is how Bill is partly wrong. In the past it was possible for a well-educated and informed individual to keep track of a larger percentage of contemporary scientific work than it is today (even with the advent of the Internet). Today too much work is being performed in parallel for any one person to keep up with it all.

Not only are the developments coming faster - which gives us less time to ponder where the next generation of developments are going, but the amount of work that is being done keeps us from knowing even all of what has already been developed. We are in the fog.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:56 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Connect the Geeky Dots

My web reading varies a lot from day to day, but two items I never miss are Ray Kurzweil's Accelerating Intelligence News and Paul Hsieh's GeekPress. While both resources are invaluable to a Speculist, and often cover overlapping news stories, I imagine that they are produced quite differently.

I picture Kurzweil as a kind of Bond villian, commandeering some vast army of automated data-gathering agents. He's got bots, spiders, and other artificially intelligent, ravenously hungry web-crawlers working 24/7 to fill the maw of KurzweilAI.net with much-needed news of emerging technologies.

Contrast that with Pauh Hsieh — the hapless everyman (everygeek?) who has taken on the job alone. I picture him hammering away at Google into the wee hours of the morning, long after Diana has given up on him and gone to bed. He's a single-combat warrior in the fight to bring us the offbeat technology and tech-related news we so desperately need.

Kudos to both of them, of course.

One thing I find particularly interesting about GeekPress is the way Paul develops little themes within his four or five daily items. Consider this juxtapostion of headlines:

Physicists have been able to resolve events separated by as little as 10^-16 seconds, i.e. 100 attoseconds. This is on the order of the time it takes the electron in a hydrogen atom to orbit the proton.

Geek wristwatches galore...

Coincidence? I think not. The theme there is time — geeky approaches to time.

Today's entries were unique in that this was one of two identifiable themes. Look at these two stories:

Shat-Lessons: Handy on-line guide on how to speak and act like William Shatner. (Via Dave Barry.)

"Sending e-mail can be a struggle if your name has a 4-letter word"

Clearly, we are left to wonder whether William Shatner has trouble sending e-mail, or whether the mail filters miss the obscure past-tense form of the S-word.

Thought-provoking? Maybe a little.

Dangerous? Definitely.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Paul Hsieh: sleep-deprived genius.

Posted by Phil at 09:38 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

ITF #127

In the Future...

...you'll need to water your computer. .


Futurist: M104 member Karl Hallowell

Posted by Phil at 08:54 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 25, 2004

The Everyday Singularity

KurzweilAI has this definition of the technological Singularity -
Defined by Vernor Vinge as the postulated point or short period in our future when our self-guided evolutionary development accelerates enormously (powered by nanotechnology, neuroscience, AI, and perhaps uploading) so that nothing beyond that time can reliably be conceived. The Singularity is a common matter of discussion in transhumanist circles. There is no concise definition, but usually the Singularity is meant as a future time when societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we cannot even imagine what will happen from our present perspective, and when humanity will become posthumanity. Another definition is the singular time when technological development will be at its fastest.
The singularity is that point in the future at which our ability to forecast today fails us completely. This will not be a sudden failure, but an increasing failure as we approach the singularity. We are already in the fog.

Since Internet use became widespread about ten years ago, our ability to predict the future impact of any new development began to fail. Napster, Kazaa, Google, Voice Over IP – few could predict these things or their impact in 1992. Flexibility has become the most important trait in business. Since we can't know what's going to happen next, we'd better be quick and nimble when it does.

No one has any experience knowing what twenty years of wide-spread Internet use will do. No one can say what will happen when all scientific researchers have, in effect, a supercomputer on their desktop.

And so we have highly intelligent well-educated people making wildly divergent forecasts from other highly intelligent well-educated people – and this is for the next ten years.

Kurzweil and others have explained that the singularity will occur when greater than human intelligence becomes a reality. But aren't we as a practical matter in some ways smarter because we have the Internet than we were ten years ago without it? Our ability to process information is the same, but our ability to access information and communicate it to others has vastly improved.

It's hard to catch yourself in the process of having a thought because so much processing is occurring in parallel – most of which is below the threshold of consciousness. Now it's hard to catch the direction of society for the same reason. So many things are happening in parallel that it is impossible to predict how possible development A will impact possible development B and so on.

We are in the "knee of the curve." Our best bet is to get educated, stay current, and be flexible.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:24 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Keep Abreast

...of goings-on around the blogosphere. M104 member Joanie is hosting a very special edition of the Carnival of the Vanities. The Spec has two entries, one from me and one from Stephen. Check it out.

It lifts and separates.

Nice work, Joanie!

Posted by Phil at 07:03 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

February 24, 2004

The 100-Year Secret

Reader Perry pointed me to this NY Times article about Dr. Nir Barzilai, the Director of the Institute for Aging Research at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Barzilai is taking a close look at some 300 Ashkenazi Jews who have made it to an avergae age of 100. Barzilai wants to know what their secret is.

I wondered why people born at the beginning of the last century who are still alive are relatively healthy. I wondered what they had in their genes that was special. When they were born, the average life expectancy was 40. What made it possible for them to live more than twice the average? These days, so many scientists look for the genes for specific diseases. I wanted to go the opposite way, look for genes that helped people live healthier and longer lives.

Barzilai explains why it's important to use a homogenous population when doing such a study — it makes the effective genes easier to isolate. He also gives the lie to the story of the long-lived Georgians who achieve the century mark by eating yogurt:

We think that claim may be inaccurate. There may be a history of people there exaggerating their longevity because Stalin, who was Georgian, wanted it known that Georgians were long-lived. Under Communism, people were exaggerating their age, bringing in their grandparents' identity cards when dealing with officials.

Shoulda known!

It's a fascinating interview. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 06:32 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

(Really) Virtual Sex

The big breakthroughs so rarely come from where we expect them. If an AI chatbot were going to pass the Turing Test, I would expect it to be Alice or McGonz or our good friend Ramona.

Not some porn-site sex-chat program:

But the best candidate for passing the Turing test is the Natachata program that conducts smutty conversations via text messages.

Regular users of pornographic SMS chat may be shocked to find out that they are swapping dirty talk with machines rather than young women and men.

But it's a fair bet that they are because the Natachata chatbot, written by former rocket scientist Simon Luttrell, is so widely used by porn chat merchants.

Hmm...our most cutting-edge technology meets the oldest profession. Actually, I've heard that porn sites were the first web businesses to make money. Maybe it shouldn't be suprising that the sex business provides the first money-making application of a Turing-capable (near-Turing-capable?) artificial intelligence.

The author of the BBC piece finds one aspect of this story disturbing:

Some users work out it is a machine, he said, and never come back. But, worryingly, some like the fact that it is a machine.

"There is about 5% who realise it is a computer and use it even more because of that," said Mr Luttrell.

The folks who like they fact that they're dealing with a machine may be cyber-fetishists, as the author apparently fears. But I think it's more likely that they're married men whose conscience troubles them less about their online recreational activities when there's not another human being involved. In The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil depicts a future in which virtual sex with a real partner is considered sex, while virtual sex with a virtual partner is considered harmless fantasy.

Since the two experiences might be completely indistinguishable, this ethical position is going to require a certain amount of rationalization and hair-splitting. If former President Clinton is still alive, he'll probably write a bestseller on the subject. In any case, these porn customers who have stated a preference for virtual sex-chat partners may well be the pioneers of this soon-to-arrive alien ethical landscape.

We shall see.


via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 10:25 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 23, 2004

The Treatment

Mother and son sat in the geriatric waiting room of the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. The room was large, it could easily accommodate fifty people, but today they were alone in the room. They had been told that the room is used less and less now that most Treatments have been co-opted by the clinics. But they needed to be here in this hospital. Only here could they have their loved-one declared incompetent so that he could be Treated without his consent. Only here in this advanced ICU would there be any chance for someone in his state of decline surviving long enough to receive the Treatment.

And it seemed fitting that "Doc" receive Treatment here where he had practiced medicine for so many years.

They sat quietly as they waited. They had convinced each other that it was the right decision, but it hadn't been easy. For years Doc had lectured against taking what he called "radical steps" when, as he said, "his time came."

"Other people can do that," he had said looking at his son, and then to his wife, "I don't judge anyone for doing it. Not anymore. But you should respect my wishes on this – for me, no Treatment."

Doc's wife, Sharon, remembered that conversation and shook her head involuntarily.

"What?" asked Frank.

"I was just remembering how adamant your father was that we not do this."

Frank looked at his mother. Just three years before she had joined a clinic and had gotten in shape. Once she had trouble walking up a flight of stairs, but last month she ran the Boston marathon. So many had participated in the event over the last few years that organizers were thinking of making the race longer. Sharon had said she wanted to run the famous race before it was "stretched."

"Do you suppose Dad really thinks he's being noble?" Frank asked. It was a conversation that they'd had before. They loved him, but they had a hard time understanding why a doctor would refuse standard medical care.

"A false sense of nobility, or maybe guilt. Whatever, it doesn't matter. If he did things wrong in the past, I don't see how suicide by neglect would make up for that now."

Frank added, "You know they are talking about making it illegal."

"What's that?" Sharon asked, "Suicide by neglect?"

"Yeah."

"That's kind of personal, isn't it?" she paused thinking, "It's personal but I understand. People are important. And not just for themselves, but everybody else around them."

They fell quiet again. They knew it wouldn't be long now and they were both nervous. What would they say to him if he survived? What would he say to them?

The door to the room opened and a man who looked about twenty walked in. He was wearing a hospital gown and was walking with a guarded gait. That walk, a passing relic of worn out joints and bones, sparked recognition in Sharon.

"Doc! You made it!" Sharon exclaimed. She and Frank both jumped up and embraced the patient.

Dr. Leon Kass looked at his wife and son, "No Treatment I said. No life extension of any kind. You people have trouble following instructions."

Frank looked over and saw a stricken look on his mother's face. Frank spoke up, "Dad we couldn't let you go. We…"

Doc broke into a slow smile. "Heaven can wait Son. Someday I'll get over this betrayal – it appears I've got the time."

Frank blinked. He was genuinely surprised. "When can you leave?" asked Sharon.

"They're filling out the release forms now. I'll be out of here in a couple of hours." Doc said.

Sharon laughed, "Who's up for a marathon?"

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:28 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A Fisking Too Vigorous

Greyhawk over at the Mudville Gazette is fisking the daylights out of one of my favorite organizations, the Global Business Network. His point, which is true as far as it goes, is that the scenarios developed by GBN shouldn't be taken as accurate predictions of the future. The truth is that GBN has never presented its scenarios as predictions.

To operate in an uncertain world, people need to be able to reperceive—to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so they could see the world more clearly. The purpose of scenarios is to help yourself change your view of reality—to match it up more closely with reality as it is, and reality as it is going to be.

The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.

(From The Art of the Long View. Emphasis in original.)

The scenarios are thinking execrcises. In order to "question assumptions" and get a better grip on "reality as it is," GBN usually develops a set of highly divergent scenarios. That means that the global warming doomsday scenario that the Observer article referenced was part of a set. If GBN was true to form, they did anywhere from two to four additional scenarios (not referenced), at least one of which would probably have described a future in which little or no climatological change occurs.

The author of the original article may or may not have known about the existence of additional scenarios. But had he done his homework, he would have learned enough about GBN to know that they aren't in the business of peddling doomsday predictions. Greyhawk, for all of his "the truth is out there" advice, might have done the same. Unfortunately, he took The Oberver/Guardian's word for it that these were predictions, so he researched the GBN site to collect a few nuggets that he could use to discredit Schwartz and company.

The scenario-planning technique that GBN uses is far from perfect, although it has had some remarkable successes in the past. I've been lucky enough to meet Peter Schwartz and attend one of his talks. His political opinions may be a little too "Berkeley" for my tastes, too — although actually, his group's headquarters are in Emeryville, an industrial enclave to the south of the People's Republic, which is home to hippy outfits like Siebel Systems — but by and large, politics is beside the point. GBN doesn't have a political axe to grind, at least not in the traditional sense. They would like to bring about a change in the way political discourse occurs, particularly where the future is concerned. In this instance, I think Schwartz and company would prefer that the author of the Observer piece, rather than zeroing in on one set of easily sensationalized possibilities that fall perfectly in line with his own biases, find out about the other scenarios, opening himself and his readers to multiple possible futures. Likewise, they would probably consider it helpful for Greyhawk, rather than jumping to the conclusion that GBN is an "enemy" who needs to be made to look ridiculous, consider some of the other work that they've done (not just the Oprah and War Games and Mother Earth News stuff.) Who knows? He might find that his own certainty about the future is as poorly justified as that of his opponents, and that he still might have a few things to learn...even from a group heaquartered near Berkeley.

UPDATE: Via Instapundit, Tim Blair reports just how wrong the Observer got it, inlcuding an explanatory quote from Schwartz himself:

This is very much in the spirit of thinking the unthinkable. The report that we put together for the Pentagon is an extreme scenario, in the sense that most climatologists would say that this is low probability, in the sense of it happening soon, and as pervasively. But it is the Pentagon's job to think about many cases, [including?] the worst-case scenario.

Posted by Phil at 09:05 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 21, 2004

February 20, 2004

A Disagreement Among Friends

Reason from the Longevity Meme and I have a back and forth exchange (starting in the comments to this post) over his assertion that:
"… the cost of delay in regenerative medicine is pretty much 55 million lives a year…

Nothing the Bush administration is doing is causing as much damage as their medical policies. These policies have already doomed many more people than Stalin and Hitler put together."
Reason is doing important work raising awareness of life extension over at the Longevity Meme. And if you don't regularly read his Fight Aging blog, you should. But I felt the need to respond to his comment:
Comparing purposeful genocide under Stalin and Hitler with potential deaths many years from now seems just a tad heavy-handed.
Reason:
Heavy handed is all relative: it comes back to the point of whether preventing research is morally equivalent to preventing a sick man from buying an available cure.
Reason further elaborated in a blog post entitled, "The True Cost of Delay."
There's a tendency for people to throw large numbers of casualties out of the window as impossible to talk about. 250 million deaths cannot be discussed, they say. This is a terrible part of human nature, because those consequences are very real - you can't just magic them out of existence them because they are hard to talk about or discuss. Heavy handed or not, I am deliberately setting forth the position that Leon Kass, the Bioethics Council, President Bush and his administration, in their deliberate, successful attempts to block progress towards regenerative medicine, will have as their legacy more death and suffering than was caused by all the wars and dictators of the 20th century.
When I suggested that Reason was being "heavy-handed" with his Bush/Stalin/Hitler lives-lost comparison, I was not suggesting that he was factually incorrect.

Like Reason I'm beginning to believe that life extension will happen. It's just a matter of solving some complicated problems. Since I believe that it will happen I must admit that anything that actually delays necessary research will cost lives. Here's Reason's math on how many lives.

From the point of view of those dying (which could be most of us alive today), it matters little if the policies that bring about death are motivated by good or evil. I look at Bush and naturally like the guy. Others see him and seethe. But its really irrelevant to this debate how others see the current administration or the purity of administration motives.

So my question is: what can be accomplished by the Bush/Stalin/Hitler lives-lost comparison?

Whenever Hitler or the Nazis were brought up in Usenet discussions, it triggered Godwin's Law:
This states that if one participant in a discussion calls another a Nazi or compares them to Hitler, the thread has degenerated into personal abuse and there is no possibility of further rational discussion, the thread is therefore dead and no one should post any more messages in it. If anyone ignores this and does continue posting, they should not be replied to.
Useful debate ends when you compare your opponent to Nazis. The discussion becomes a flame war. This can be worse than not speaking at all.

Beyond the problem of ending civil discourse, I don't think that Bush's policies have thwarted science all that much. Life extension is bigger than a single government (as South Korea showed us). Embryo stem cell research is only one small part of the picture. Life extension will arrive bit by bit. Scientists who aren't even thinking about life extension will help solve the problem. If embryo stem cell research really is needed, it will be performed overseas or by private funding here in the U.S.

Luddites may still have an important role to play as our society navigates the singularity. Ultimately these people are on the wrong side of history. But if they have any success slowing progress, this may allow time for the rest of us to debate how these changes should be implemented.

During these debates it will be counter-productive to compare our opponents to Nazis.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:57 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Reuben Is Back

For those who haven't been following Stillness, let me introduce you to Reuben Stone. Reuben is a former CIA agent, a man of action, and a realist. In Part 1, his world got rocked first by meeting the lovely Ksenia, and then by being forced to play a very nasty game. Reuben has a soft side, which was called into play in sending him on his current quest. He has only just begun to open himself up to the possibility that the world might be a little more mysterious than he originally thought.

That's definitely a step in the right direction, but nothing could possibly prepare him for the challenges he is about to face.

Still not reading Stillness? Well, what the heck are you waiting for? Reuben is back!


Stillness

by Philip Bowermaster

Part I

Chapter 1, in which Reuben sees lights.

Chapter 2, in which Sergei gives advice.

Chapter 3, in which Ksenia looks at cars.

Chapter 4, in which Reuben falls.

Chapter 5, in which Reuben contends.

Chapter 6, in which Reuben recovers.

Chapter 7, in which Sergei explains some things.

Chapter 8, in which Betty explains the rest.

Chapter 9, in which Father Alexy saves the day.

Chapter 10, in which the old man speaks.

Chapter 11, in which Reuben obliges.

Part II

Chapter 12, in which Emmett goes to work.

Chapter 13, in which Frank has some news.

Chapter 14, in which Peggy opens a box.

Chapter 15, in which Emmett becomes confused.

Chapter 16, in which Rick spells things out.

Chapter 17, in which two strangers arrive.

Part III

Chapter 18, in which Celia meets Corey.

Chapter 19, in which Grace wins a game.

Chapter 20, in which Celia remembers.

Chapter 21, in which Corey wishes.

Chapter 22, in which Todd hugs back.

Chapter 23, in which an argument is settled.

Chapter 24, in which Estelle calls for help.

Chapter 25, in which Grace gets an idea.

Chapter 26, in which Corey awakens.

Part IV

Chapter 27, in which Reuben goes forth.

Posted by Phil at 09:29 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Time Was They Would Have Called This a "Planet"

Largest Solar System body spotted since Pluto

The largest object to be discovered in the Solar System since Pluto was found in 1930 was spotted by a sky survey on Tuesday.

News of the hulking object leaked out on Thursday before the researchers at Caltech could pin down the giant's size and orbit.

The new object, which has been given the oh-so-poetic name 2004 DW, is 1650 kilometres in diameter. Contrast that with Pluto's 2320 kilometres, and its moon Charon's diameter of 1270. The next-biggest Kuiper Belt object after 2004 DW (unless we're now counting Pluto itself as a "Kuiper Belt object — could the ninth planet have fallen so low? — I note that the New Scientist article never once uses the P word in reference to Pluto) is the much-better named Quaoar, with a diameter of 1250 kilometres.

Posted by Phil at 09:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Generalismo Francisco Franco Still Dead

And death continues to suck. A newly expanded version of the Speculist's all-time most-read entry (not counting the interviews) is running over on The Longevity Meme.

Posted by Phil at 08:36 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 19, 2004

Brain Cells

Turns out that our brains have stem cells in them that can be used to grow new brain our nerve cells. FuturePundit has the scoop:

This particular discovery is also part of a larger pattern of discovery in which new sources of adult stem cells are being found in different parts of the body. It seems likely that many more sources of adult stem cells are still waiting to be discovered.

Very cool. And check out the interesting exchange (in the comments section) between Randall Parker and our good friend Reason.

Posted by Phil at 04:44 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Filtered Out

Via GeekPress, here's a unsurprising development: spam filters are filtering out lots of legitimate e-mail:

At this point there are no accurate data on lost personal e-mail. But data from permission-based e-mailers, who keep careful tabs on lost messages, indicate the situation is widespread.

The problem of dropped e-mails is compounded because, as many consumers are discovering, there are no simple fixes. Many different criteria for dealing with spam are used across the thousands of e-mail systems on the Internet, making it difficult for legitimate e-mailers to adjust their behavior. For instance, some spam blockers will notify senders that their messages didn't get through; others won't. This means there often is no way to know whether messages aren't arriving, unless the intended recipient complains.

There is a tiny upside to this. If someone stops answering your e-mail, you no longer have to worry about whether they're ignoring you or you've pissed them off somehow. Maybe you've just been filtered out!

Posted by Phil at 11:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Black Hole

I know these pictures have been posted all over the web, but I hope you don't mind one more link. Plus, there's a movie. Check it out!

One thing that I wonder about is what the time frame was for this event. Presumably, the captured star was caught in the grasp of the black hole for a long time: tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. But what is the elapsed time in the movie? How long did it take for the star to complete those last two inward spiraling orbits and break up?

When I was a teenager, black holes were a hot "new" theory. It's only been in the past few years that we have had direct observational evidence of their existence, although a good deal has become available in a short time. Our rapid growth of knowledge in this and other areas is evidence that we, too, may be spiraling in towards some ultimate, mysterious destination.

Posted by Phil at 08:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #126

In the Future...

...further impressive research will reveal that women quite like chocolate, flowers.


politically incorrect futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 06:52 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nanobooks

Check out these two nanobooks (html format):

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 18, 2004

Strange Days

Some time ago, encryption software guru Phil Zimmerman turned Andy Warhol's most famous dictat on its head by pronouncing that, in the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of privacy.

Here's proof.

So is the Internet a Good Thing, because it brings justice to a man wrongly separated from his son for so many years? Or is it a Bad Thing, because it provides a means of stumbling upon ugly personal and family history? Imagine what this kid must have felt when he saw that picture of himself and read that word: "abducted." That's a painful thing to have to learn about your mother, and a devastating way of learning it.

Superficially (without knowing many important facts), I'm glad that the mother has been brought to justice, and happy for the father and son that they will be reunited. But I'm also very sorry for the kid.

Strange days, indeed.

Posted by Phil at 09:15 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Imagine This

A vast crystal, the size of the moon, lying at the heart of a dying star.

You can't make this stuff up.

Posted by Phil at 09:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Voyages to Nowhere

Here's an interesting history of space initiatives conceptualized, planned, promoted and (almost always) abandoned.


via Glenn Reynolds

Posted by Phil at 08:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Why Avoiding It Won't Work

Ray Kurzweil explains why the Bush administration's close-your-eyes-and-maybe-it-will-go-away approach to emerging technologies and accelerating change simply won't work:

The calls for broad relinquishment of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and AI research because of future dangers "are effective because they paint a picture of future dangers as if they were released on today's unprepared world," Kurzweil said. "The reality is that the sophistication and power of our defensive technologies and knowledge will grow along with the dangers.

"The surest way to prevent the development of the defensive technologies would be to relinquish the pursuit of knowledge in broad areas. Abandonment of broad areas of technology will only push them underground, where development would continue unimpeded by ethics and regulation. In such a situation, it would be the less-stable, less-responsible practitioners (e.g., terrorists) who would have all the expertise.

"We will need to place society's highest priority during the 21st century on continuing to advance the defensive technologies and to keep them one or more steps ahead of destructive misuse. In this way, we can realize the profound promise of these accelerating technologies, while managing the peril."

More good information on the Extropy Institute's Vital Progress Summit can be found here.

Posted by Phil at 08:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 17, 2004

Would Reclassifying Aging As A Disease Help?

This is my second post on the January 22, 2004 International Logevity Center debate, "Is Aging a Disease?"

Dr. Moody started out by making an important distinction between aging and senescence. Aging is simply a marking of time. Senescence is the deterioration that happens to all of us over time (and sometimes at different rates). There was little debate that the process of senescence is an unpleasant and undesirable biological process. And neither of the participants spoke as though it would be a bad thing if senescence were cured. The debate really centered on whether classifying senescence as a disease would be good policy.

Dr. Moody argued that reclassifying senescence as a disease would encourage money to be spent to cure it.
The only way Americans spend money on anything is if it is a disease. That’s the NIH legacy. That’s the politics of American health care. You show up at Congress and say, “Well, aging is kind of a natural thing, but it would be fun to know more about it. And that would be kind of a helpful thing for science.” They are not going to give you anything!
Obstetrics was offered as a counter-example. Neither pregnancy nor child-birth is considered a disease, but they are medicalized – you are treated by doctors for pregnancy and child birth. You could be treated for senescence without classifying it as a disease.

The participates also debated how this redefinition would affect those currently selling anti-aging treatments – much of which they agreed is pseudo-scientific junk.
MOODY: It would help them, because they would say, “We’ve been saying it’s a disease all along. Now Congress and the FDA have agreed with us. “Thank God they’re finally enlightened,” to use Arthur’s phrase.

CAPLAN: It would put them out of business, because they’d finally have people chase them down saying, “You’ve been on the side peddling all this stuff in the name of some mumbo jumbo. Now, prove what you are doing before you can go out there and make a claim to get after this. You show us the safety. You show us the efficacy. And real physicians, real scientists are now on the case, basically saying, “What’s the evidence? Are you in the journals? Where’s your peer review?”
I'm inclined to agree with Dr. Caplan on this. I'm not as happy about it as he is though. There is much money wasted on snake oil, but sometimes things just have to be tried. Both Dr. Moody and Dr. Caplan believe that it would be much better to have lengthy clinical trials on every anti-aging therapy before they are tried with people. Both of these men are professional scientists and it's not surprising that this is their bias.

Some current treatments seem to provide some benefit with very little risk. If reclassifying aging as a disease means that manufacturers will no longer be able to mention anti-aging when selling something like anti-oxidants, it may affect their sales. This may, in turn, affect availability. I'm not sure this is 100% a good thing.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:30 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Running Out of Time


[ Welcome InstaPundit readers. Please feel free to have a sniff around. In addition to the entries linked below, there's more on nanotechnology here and here. Also, if you're interested in topics such as therapeutic cloning or understanding the human lifespan, you might want to check out the Longevity Meme's now blog, Fight Aging! ]


Reader Alan C. comments on the appropriateness of our Modzelewski Employment Watch (also here) with this quip:

Give the man a break. He found us $3.7 BILLION dollars.

Well, even giving him sole credit for this achievement — which is highly dubious — by his own words, Modzelewski wants to make sure that none of this money goes to the support of what he calls delusional fantasies.

Meanwhile, consider this report from Chris Phoenix, currently attending an IEEE Conference on Nanoscale Devices & System Integration in Miami:

So, when the "Nanhattan Project" finally gets started, it will have absolutely no problem finding not only dozens of nanoscale techniques, but people willing and able to combine them. These are not world-class researchers—they're grad students and postdocs. Well, maybe these days the grad students are the world-class researchers. No wonder the dinosaurs are scared.

And well they should be. I'm wondering if unemployment is the real danger, or whether we should re-title our series, making it the Modzelewski Relevancy Watch.

Chris Phoenix concludes:

Could we have diamondoid molecular manufacturing in five years? There's no doubt in my mind that we could. If we really tried, we might have it in three. Of course, that doesn't mean we will—but the important technologies are mature enough to be portable, so if we don't, someone else will... soon.

We're rapidly running out of time to prepare.

Five years away is a reasonable time frame to start thinking about business applications. The Nano Business Alliance in general, and Modzelewski in particular, are running out of time to get their thinking straight on this issue.

They can turn it around pretty quickly if they want to. Or they can stay true to form and have Modzelewski issue a statement declaring that the IEEE is nothing but a bunch of Star Trek fans and pot-smokers.


UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds reports on more delusional reporting about self-replicating nanosystems or some such nonsense.

Posted by Phil at 06:03 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

February 16, 2004

Shouldn't These Be on Venus?

Missed this the other day. Check out these unusual Martian craters, just in time to be a couple of days late for Valentine's Day.


via Martian Soil

Posted by Phil at 02:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Why Do We Live So Long?

The January 22, 2004 "Is Aging a Disease?" debate (the webcast and transcript are here) covered so much ground that I could write a dozen posts discussing points made by both sides. I doubt I'll get around to that (the next Sage Crossroads debate is this Thursday at 10:00 a.m.). But I thought I'd discuss a point raised by Dr. Moody regarding why we live as long as we do.

Some people have said that aging and death are nature's way of clearing the way for the next generation. Dr. Moody argued that this view is not scientific. It appears that evolution within our environmental niche has much to do with our life span, but through omission - not commission. Evolution is simply "unconcerned" with what happens to us after a certain age.

The wonder is that we don't die sooner. If we lived only to age 45 we'd still have plenty of time to reproduce and nurture our offspring. Generally an animal's body size is a good predictor of life span. The bigger the animal, the longer the life. Humans, however, live a life far longer than our body size would suggest. Few animals of any size live longer.

Dr. Moody mentioned one explanation for why we live longer: "The Grandmother" hypothesis. This hypothesis states that there was evolutionary pressure to design us to live beyond 45 so that we could help nurture the second generation into its reproductive years.

I think there is something to this hypothesis. Human children are uniquely defenseless in the wild. If Dad is miles away hunting and Mom is out of earshot gathering, Mammaw and Pappaw are quite valuable. Aunts and Uncles are better employed having kids of their own. And by having babysitters Junior has a better chance of surviving to pass on genes that, incidentally, favor longevity.

Additionally, the human mind is much more complex than that of any other animal. It takes many years for the mind to mature. It is physically possible for humans to have children years before they are emotionally and mentally mature. This creates further pressure for grandparents to be around to help with the second generation.

Whatever evolutionary pressure there may have been favoring grandparents, that pressure is less for great grandparents. Dr. Moody's point was that senescence is the product of evolutionary neglect (a lack of pressure to live longer), not part of some grand design to clear the way for future generations. Generally a child is not placed at risk by a great-grandparent's death, but there is no benefit conferred to the child by the death either.

If the only reason that we don't live longer is nature's neglect, there is no particular reason why we shouldn't, if we choose, solve the problem ourselves.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:56 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

If There Wasn't a War On

...and if I were a little more of a single-issue kind of guy, this fact alone might put me in the Kerry camp this November:

Many people, like President Bush, want to stop all human cloning, even for research, because of a moral objection to destroying embryos and a fear that maverick fertility doctors might adopt researchers' tricks to create babies. A bill that would ban all cloning has bogged down in Congress, and a similar ban has faltered in the United Nations. That's because other folks--including Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee for president--want to permit research cloning while forbidding baby making.

Read the whole article, which once again — true to form — spends more time on reproductive cloning than therapeutic cloning, even though the Korean researchers were specifically working on the latter and are opposed to the former.

As I said, there's a war on and we have to keep our eyes on the prize. But I resent the fact that four more years of Bush means four years of getting further behind in an area that is so central to human progress.

Posted by Phil at 10:46 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

February 15, 2004

DNA: Less Junk Than Was Thought?

We have discovered a "book" written in an unfamiliar language. We have nothing in common culturally with the authors. In fact, the authors aren't even human. Except for occasional "periods" and start-reading-here "marks," there is no punctuation. There are no breaks betweenthewords.

But because this book is so important teams of interpreters have been pouring over the "book" for years. The interpreters have discovered that the authors were linguistic pack-rats - "cutting" and "pasting" as needed, and often failing to delete unused passages. So, much of the "book" has been found to be gibberish - especially those parts between a "period" and a start-reading-here mark. But other parts have been thought to be meaningless too.

Most of the interpreters have been studying the book in isolation - they've never actually used the language practically. And so it's not surprising to learn that we've been underestimating the amount of useful information in the "book."

Scientists studying the Drosophila melanogaster fly genome have found approximately 2,600 additional genes than were previously known by combining in silico (raw computer data) with "wet biology" (practical use of the language).

One problem with the old method was that scientists were looking for genes that coded for proteins that were already known (and perhaps are common to many species). This new method leads to the discovery of new genes, AND new proteins.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:39 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 14, 2004

Nanotechnology and Aging

Some interesting perspectives:

I'm convinced that in the real world, the development of benefits to slow, stop, prevent, or reverse aging hinges on our success in surviving the earlier stages of nanotechnology.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 10:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Future Roundup 02/14/04

Here's all the In the Future... predictions for about the past month or so. Many thanks to futurist Robert Hinkley for helping us to look ahead.

In the Future...

...tax men will be even more keen-eyed and vigilant.

...the arms race will quickly escalate to the next step: the pop-up blocker blocker blocker.

...pop-up, pop-under and interstitial web ads will get even more annoying and eat more of your bandwidth.

...we'll be okay with the fact that search engines are better at enforcing justice than they are at nurturing romance.

...all public lavatories will be certified 100% explosion-proof.

...we'll have to revisit all those spells, charms, and folk remedies involving bat wings (and other parts) to see if there's anything to them.

...performers in pay-per-view reality webcasts will be appropriately credited and compensated for their work.


Well, that does it for now. If you have a prediction you'd like to share, send it to speculis-at-speculist-dot-com. (Be sure to include the URL of a news story that corroborates your prognostication.)

And until next time, we'll see you in the future.

Posted by Phil at 10:33 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 13, 2004

Nano Grows More Life-Like

The other day it was bacteria generating nanospheres. Now we have nanotechnologists taking their cue from plants, using photosynthesis as the inspiration behind new nano-assembly methods

Nanotechnologists have recently succeeded in their attempts to build molecular systems based on highly efficient versions of the molecular "machine" that plants use to turn sunlight into energy. Such molecular-assembly machines could be used in many applications, including sensors and other electronic devices.

This breakthrough might also have something to say about our recent discussion of the difficulties surrounding using hydrogen as an energy source.

Working with researchers at the University of New Mexico's Center for Microengineered Materials, Sandia scientist John Shelnutt has created convoluted platinum structures that might be used to split hydrogen atoms from water molecules, leading to a light-driven source of hydrogen.

Cool!


Via Kurzweil AI

Posted by Phil at 10:34 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Modzelewski Employment Watch DAY 3

Eric Drexler himself has something to say on the subject:

These false denials of real opportunities and dangers, coupled with a questionable PR strategy, make the nanotech industry increasingly vulnerable to a public backlash.

Emphasis added.

Posted by Phil at 10:24 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #125

In the Future...

...performers in pay-per-view reality webcasts will be appropriately credited and compensated for their work.

Posted by Phil at 09:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More on Human Cloning

...over on Fight Aging! Check it out.

Posted by Phil at 09:23 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 12, 2004

The Ethics of Cloning

While science progresses exponentially, ethics is advancing at the same rate it always has – the rate at which society can absorb the implications of change and accept, reject, or accommodate it. Ethics is always controlled by the story a society would like to tell about itself. Every society wants to be able to think of itself as just and righteous. The extent to which there is an agreed ethos is the extent to which there is societal agreement as to what constitutes justice and righteousness.

All ethics are not equal. If a society thinks it is ethical to perform genital mutilations on girls to keep them chaste, then they are wrong. Why? This is oppression. Oppression is both subjectively and objectively inferior to freedom. The individual is denied the right to pursue happiness, and society is denied the fruits of that pursuit.

The United States is uniquely blessed ethically. The founding fathers created a system of government that is both remarkably stable and remarkably capable of continued perfection – the never ending pragmatic search for a more perfect union.

Improvement is sometimes an excruciatingly slow process. Our founders agreed that "all men are created equal." But it was the second half of the 20th Century before "men" was practically expanded to include all people - men and women of all races.

We can't be this slow anymore. We no longer have the luxury of centuries, decades, or even years to work through ethically challenging changes. The current case-in-point is therapeutic cloning and stem cell medicine.

South Korea has made a remarkable step forward. These researchers were able to clone an adult woman, grow that clone into a blastocyst (a clump of undifferentiated cells), and then harvest an immortal stem cell line. This stem cell line will be useful for further research into stem cell therapy generally and invaluable in the treatment of the woman who was cloned in particular.

This should have happened in the United States. I don't mean this as sour grapes. I'm glad that South Korea was able to make such an important contribution. But the U.S. was far ahead in this field before our President, faced with this ethical challenge, choose to punt.

I'm a fan of the President (as a visit to my political blog would show). But in this instance he made the wrong decision. It's hard for me to fault someone for erring on the side of respect for life. But it was still an error.

I'm in agreement with Phil's reasoning on this subject. The issue could not be more important – respect for human life. On one hand we have reason to believe that this research could prolong life and cure disease, on the other we are concerned that we might be creating life simply to harvest what we need and throw the rest away – the very definition of exploitation.

Human embryos should never be created frivolously. Congress might pass a law that, for example, legislatively prohibits developing a cloned human embryo past one month. But what I'm suggesting can't be micromanaged by the government.

The scientific community must recognize that while an embryo at this early stage is less than human, it is more than fish bait. When a research group proposes to create an embryo it should be mandatory to seek guidance from an ethics board. The ethics board should ask, "Is the research proposed substantially likely to appreciably advance science?" In a few years they might also ask, "Is this method necessary to obtain a stem cell line to treat a particular patient?"

Research must continue, but scientists should tread lightly and seek alternatives to embryo creation/destruction when possible.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:29 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

My Little Bud Grows Up

The Longevity Meme reports on a remarkable achievement by researchers in Korea:

The Next Step in Therapeutic Cloning (Thursday February 12 2004)
As reported by Wired (and in numerous other places), Korean researchers have accomplished the next successful step in therapeutic cloning and stem cell medicine: reliably extracting stem cells from cloned human embryos. As the Wired article says, "a Korean woman now has a set of cells that could one day replace any damaged or diseased cell in her body with little worry of rejection, if researchers can get stem cells to work therapeutically." The scientists have even managed to create a new stem cell line from this work, which is very good news, given the limited number of lines currently available. A New York Times article provides a good introduction to the medical significance of this advance.

Leon Kass, the Luddite General of the United States, was quick to comment:

'The age of human cloning has apparently arrived: today, cloned blastocysts for research, tomorrow cloned blastocysts for babymaking,' he wrote in an e-mail message. 'In my opinion, and that of the majority of the Council, the only way to prevent this from happening here is for Congress to enact a comprehensive ban or moratorium on all human cloning.'

You know, I'm not really for or against reproductive cloning. There are rational arguments as to why it's an okay idea, and rational arguments as to why it would cause problems. But this superstituous dread with which Kass approaches the subject is truly astounding to me. He is apparently not upset that a blastocyst was killed (not in this quote, anyway). If that were what bothered him, at least his position would be consistent with the Catholics:

Richard M. Doerflinger, deputy director for pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, 'This is a move toward creating new human lives solely to destroy them in research.' He termed cloning 'the ultimate way of treating life as an object, as an instrument to an end.'

I can see the logic of that, even if I don't agree with it. The Catholics define humanity all the way down to the freshly fertilized zygote. A blastocyst is therefore "human" and it's wrong to use a "human" for research, not to mention killing it. Agree with it or disagree with it, at least that's a coherent position.

Contrast it with Kass' position. His great fear is that someday somebody is going to create one of these blastocysts and not kill it. And yet I bet he would describe himself as being "pro-life."

Go figure.

The general public is desperately misinformed on a lot of topics, but I think there are two that we really need to help straighten them out on:

  1. Cloning

    It isn't magic. It isn't playing God. It isn't new.

    Nature creates human clones all the time in the form of identical twins. Reproductive cloning would be nothing more than producing a late-arriving identical twin. Not the same person. The camera doesn't steal your soul, and neither will a clone. As I said, there are social reasons why this might not be a good idea, but can we please for the love of God get the idea that there is something uncanny or "spooky" about cloning out of our heads? There isn't.

  2. The Human Developmental Cycle

    Look, phylogeny may not recapitulate ontogeny, but people who believe that it does are at least on the right track. If you believe that, while forming in Mommy's tummy, you were first a tadpole and then a salamander and then a shrew and then a monkey and then, finally, Mommy's Little Angel, you're wrong. But you are right to believe that at some point you became a human being, and that prior to that point, "you" were not.

    Even the Catholics believe this. As has been pointed out in the abortion debate, Catholics must believe that the egg, prior to fertilization, is not human, or else fertile women would have to attend a funeral every month. Human beings grow out of something that may be living human tissue, but that is not in and of itself a human being. That being the case, it's just a question of where you draw the line.

The Catholics draw the line at fertilization, and that isn't just arbitrary. At fertilization, you initiate a process that will (or at least could) result in a human being. But that doesn't mean it's the only place where the line can be drawn, or even the best place. Life Extension advocate Reason draws the line thusly:

On that note, it has to be said that I object to authors describing a small clump of cells as a "human clone." In my book, a human is someone you can converse with, who can think, feel pain, and suffer the effects of Alzheimer's or heart disease. An embryo has none of those characteristics. It is a pathology in modern society that there are so many people who are willing to kill or condemn millions to suffer and die rather than allow the use of small pieces of artificially created tissue to cure disease and save lives.

I agree with Reason that a mass of undifferentiated stem cells is not a human being. It doesn't have a head or a heart or a nervous system. Those things start to kick in around week five, and take recognizable shape somewhere around week eight. According to the NY Times article, the stem cells were harvested from a four-week-old blastocyst.

If we, as a society, can define humanity as starting somewhere after the fourth week of embryonic development, we open up the possibility of tremendous medical advances. This needn't be a new front in the abortion war. Most people, even conservatives, even staunch abortion opponents, take something other than the official Catholic position anyway. Or else why would there be an attempt to put a specific ban on partial-birth abortions? Most people recognize that killing a near-to-full-term baby is different from terminating a pregnancy at three or four weeks. Otherwise, the move to ban partial-birth abortions makes no logical sense.

A few years from now, it may be possible to create an embryonic clone of myself. (Biology dictates that women are easier to clone than men, so it will be a while before I can do it.) Let's consider that embryo at four weeks. If I put it in the right environment, that blastocyst might grow into my identical twin brother. It isn't my twin brother now. It's just some growing tissue taken from my body and an egg I borrowed from somebody else. It would be an amazing little bud of life, similar to (genetically identical to) the amazing little bud of life that eventually grew into me. But we have a different developmental path for this bud. Rather than growing it into a separate human being, we're going to grow it back into me.

We aren't going to kill it; the whole idea is to produce a viable collection of ongoing cells. We will remove that part of it that makes it want to grow into a different person (satisfying Leon Kass to a certain extent, by the way) and otherwise, we will allow it to go on living indefinitely. If I am injured or get sick, part of this collection of cells will be reintroduced into the organism from which it came — that would be me — to help it recover. As I age, more of the cells might be introduced to help counteract the effects; still others might be put on a new developmental path towards being a finished "part": a heart or a set of lungs or a new pair of eyes.

Each time one of these procedures was done, this living human tissue would grow into a human being. Why would anyone insist that it has to grow into a different human being? Says who? My twin brother can't demand that he has a right to exist. I never have to create a clone in the first place. And if I do create one, I assert that I have the right (before it grows into a separate and distinct human being) to decide that it will be me, rather than him, when it grows up.

Posted by Phil at 09:43 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 11, 2004

Bacterial Nanotechnology

Here's a fascinating development, as found on KurzweilAI:

Pulickel Ajayan, professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer, and geobiologist Ronald Oremland reported that three different kinds of common bacteria “grow” the element selenium in the form of uniform nanospheres. The nanoscopic balls exhibit vastly different properties than selenium that is found as a trace mineral in topsoil.

The research could lead to the production of nanospheres, nanowires, nanorods, and other nanostructures with precise atomic arrangements for smaller, faster semiconductors and other electronic devices.

Well, this is rather awkward.

Do you suppose someone could have a talk with those bacteria and explain to them that the level of precision they're achieving is not possible?

Posted by Phil at 11:39 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

On the Third Hand

The new Carnival of the Vanities is up. Check it out!

Posted by Phil at 10:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Modzelewski Employment Watch DAY 1

Here's the latest email to Glenn Reynolds from Modzelewski, Executive Director of the NanoBusiness Alliance:
The industry is not hiding from any real problems by ignoring your delusional fantasies and rantings, any more than one truly ignores a wino's claims on skid row that bugs are crawling under his skin. The very really issues of nano-health and environmental issues as explored by "real" research in the Washington Post is a matter entirely unrelated to your nutty diatribes. It's a matter the industry does take seriously and has been addressing for some time with research, discussion and taskforces. Because matters such of this are so grave and serious, we avoid mixing in the comic relief of the writings of Eric Drexler and yourself the subject.

I must say I pity the tax payers of Tennessee that pay your salary as well as your students who will enter the job market with a head full of rocks (or perhaps molecular manufactured nanorobots) after listening to you.

Keep up the weird fight. Lord knows I do get a laugh from it,

m.

F. Mark Modzelewski, Executive Director
NanoBusiness Alliance
New York, NY
www.nanobusiness.org
This was the third such email by Modzelewski to Dr. Reynolds (the second publicly published). It's this sort of intemperate and insulting language from Modzelewski that's got Phil fired up for an email campaign.

I agree. This guy should spend less energy on ad hominem attacks than debating "the very really issues." Anybody want to take bets on how long he keeps his job?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:23 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 10, 2004

Comparing Apples to Apollos

Assaying Space Policy’s Coin of the Realm (Part 1)


            “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.” – Attrib. to Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (b.1896 d. 1969 House of Representatives 1933 - 1951, Senate 1951 - 1969)


[Author’s Note: If the variable-quality punditry of the blogosphere constitutes, in the immortal words of James Lileks, “free ice cream”, then the vast volume of primary and secondary research sources must constitute complementary cake, or for the francophones gateau gratis. It is to this resource that I owe a debt of gratitude for assisting in compiling the following that goes beyond the capability of mere citation and hyperlinking to properly acknowledge. My thanks to all who have laid the groundwork.]


            [Dateline: The secret lair of the intellectual guerilla known as El Jefe Grande, 8 February, 2004]

            The distinctly minimalist approach that the Speculist and members of the FastForward Posse M104 have taken to addressing the recently-proposed National Space Policy is a conscious matter of editorial policy. Simply put, if the issue is to be taken seriously, it deserves careful, deliberate consideration of all facets (including, but not exclusively limited to, its political dimensions both internal and geopolitical). As enthusiasts of all things futuristic, we believe that the eventual expansion of human activities and terrestrial biology into the cosmos is a positive and eventually inevitable development. We also tend to believe that, given humanitiy’s recently-acquired awareness of the hazards that may befall any given single celestial body, such an expansion is better undertaken sooner rather than later and to the greatest extent possible given the capabilities at hand.


            Having established our position regarding the fundamental question of whether travel to and colonization of other celestial bodies is a desirable goal, I’d like to present some information that may assist us and other interested parties to evaluate the options currently available in an objective and historically-grounded manner.


            Among several other problems attendant to evaluating the currently elaborated National Space Policy is a certain lack of adequate historical perspective surrounding the debate. Much of the program presented seems to be a reaccomplishment of feats already performed and, that said, there is a tendency to wish to compare the plan on offer to the previous one in an effort to establish the degree of realism on the part of the parties and organizations making the proposal.


            Unfortunately, such a large effort is very difficult to pin a firm price tag on. The Apollo program took place over a span of thirteen years and ended over three decades ago. What information is available regarding its expenditures is cast in the economic vernacular of that period and so provides little real basis of comparison against today’s plans unless subjected to a certain amount of adjustment to contemporary referents. In the discussion that follows I will try to make such adjustments and point those interested to both the available historical data sources and to source information about the current National Space Policy in the hope that such effort may at least contribute to serious consideration of our collective goals and progress in what I feel is the single most historically significant activity of modern humanity.


            Apollo by the Numbers, a NASA publication from 2000, has a table detailing annual expenditures on Apollo line-items in thousands of current-year dollars. The totals are as follows (for the sake of clarity I’ve converted implied thousands to literal ones.):


            1960: $100,000

            1961: $1,000,000

            1962: $160,000,000

            1963: $617,164,000

            1964: $2,272,952,000

            1965: $2,614,619,000

            1966: $2,967,385,000

            1967: $2,916,200,000

            1968: $2,556,000,000

            1969: $2,025,000,000

            1970: $1,686,145,000

            1971: $913,669,000

            1972: $601,200,000

            1973: $76,700,000


            Program Total: $19,408,134,000


            Nearly nineteen and a half billion dollars over thirteen years.


            This, however, only tells part of the story. As anyone knows who has had opportunity to make purchases over an extended period of time, a dollar just doesn’t buy what it used to. This is the short, colloquial definition of inflation. One, commonly utilized if not exclusively accurate, measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index. This measure of inflation tracks the changes in prices of a relatively consistent “market basket” of items supposedly typical of regular purchases made by urban consumers and uses those changes as an indicator of the general rate of price changes throughout the economy. The primary advantages of utilizing CPI to correct prices from one period to be more consistent with current prices is the length of time that this approach has been used (CPI data are available for the period from 1913 to present) and the fact that the U.S. Government publishes CPI data quarterly, meaning that the information is readily available. The CPI can be thought of as a correction factor for changing past prices to values from another era, either one also in the past (What would a Model T’s equivalent cost have purchased during the Nixon administration?) or brining them up to date for comparison to current prices. (Those interested in the intricacies of applying CPI data may indicate their interest in the comments. If interest is sufficient, I’ll write up the gory details for a later Speculist University piece.)


            Corrected for inflation, the numbers become (In 2003 current dollars):


            1960: $622,000

            1961: $6,154,000

            1962: $974,834,000

            1963: $3,711,052,000

            1964: $13,491,070,000

            1965: $15,272,695,000

            1966: $16,851,816,000

            1967: $16,065,293,000

            1968: $13,514,483,000

            1969: $10,152,589,000

            1970: $7,996,152,000

            1971: $4,150,990,000

            1972: $2,646,431,000

            1973: $317,856,000


            Program Total: $105,152,035,000


            This figure, hereinafter referred to as “1 Apollo (2003$)”, forms the jumping-off point for the analysis to follow.


            The subject of ‘progress’ is addressed frequently in this blog in various forms. One form of which that also bears on the comparison of the Apollo program to the proposed National Space Policy is the growth of the economy in the intervening thirty years. Not only can the United States economy produce more ‘stuff’ (Note the use of highly-technical economic terminology. – Auth.) than it did in ‘73, that ‘stuff’ is, itself, of higher quality, greater utility, less expensive, or some combination of the three. Since the ‘market basket’ used to calculate CPI is held relatively constant in order to make it more applicable across a longer period it does a poor job of reflecting this sort of progress. Fortunately for our analysis there is a measure that has been collected over the relevant period that does take such advance inherently into account. Gross Domestic Product, simplistically defined, is a measure of all of the ‘stuff’ (Okay, material goods and services. – Auth.) produced within the national economy over the period of a year. For the years in question (Current Year $):


            1960: $526,400,000,000

            1961: $544,700,000,000

            1962: $585,600,000,000

            1963: $617,700,000,000

            1964: $663,600,000,000

            1965: $719,100,000,000

            1966: $787,800,000,000

            1967: $832,600,000,000

            1968: $910,000,000,000

            1969: $984,600,000,000

            1970: $1,038,500,000,000

            1971: $1,127,100,000,000

            1972: $1,238,300,000,000

            1973: $1,382,700,000,000


            By comparing the (Current Year $) NASA Apollo spending to GDP for the years in question we can begin to get a feeling for the level of national effort involved in placing a dozen men on the moon for a total stay (in person-hours) of 24 days 23 hours 09 minutes 36.8 seconds, and “returning them safely to the Earth” . Expressed as a percentage of GDP the Apollo program looks like this:


            1960: 0.00002%

            1961: 0.00018%

            1962: 0.02732%

            1963: 0.09991%

            1964: 0.34252%

            1965: 0.36360%

            1966: 0.37667%

            1967: 0.35025%

            1968: 0.28088%

            1969: 0.20567%

            1970: 0.16236%

            1971: 0.08106%

            1972: 0.04855%

            1973: 0.00555%


            Finally, at least for the first part of this piece, we should address the issue of the Apollo program’s impact on NASA’s contemporary budgets to begin the process of allaying the fears that some have expressed that the current National Space Policy will prove the undoing of those things that NASA is doing to fund things that it might do. NASA’s budgets for the period were (Current Year $):


            1960: $523,575,000

            1961: $964,000,000

            1962: $1,671,750,000

            1963:  $3,674,115,000

            1964: $3,974,979,000

            1965: $4,270,695,000

            1966: $4,511,644,000

            1967: $4,175,100,000

            1968: $3,970,000,000

            1969: $3,193,559,000

            1970: $3,113,765,000

            1971: $2,555,000,000

            1972: $2,517,700,000

            1973: $2,509,900,000


Apollo’s portion:


            1960: 0.02%

            1961: 0.10%

            1962: 9.57%

            1963: 16.80%

            1964: 57.18%

            1965: 61.22%

            1966: 65.77%

            1967: 69.85%

            1968: 64.38%

            1969: 63.41%

            1970: 54.15%

            1971: 35.76%

            1972: 23.88%

            1973: 3.06%


            At this point, I’ll allow the audience to digest the information I’ve presented to this point. In my next entry on this topic I’ll use this background to illuminate some more detailed aspects of the proposed National Space Policy and, using the comparison, attempt to draw some conclusions about the feasability and desirability of the programs outlined in it.

 

Posted by Michael S. Sargent at 08:44 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The Search For Intelligent Life

NASA is seeking public comment on the Moon/Mars project. Go unload your ideas on them.

Click here to go comment to NASA.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 07:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Meanwhile, Here in the Matrix...

Work with me on this:

Ironically, the most significant consequence of the view that the natural world is computational may be the death of the notion that technology is applied science. If both the physical universe and the biological world are best understood in terms of information and computation - concepts that arise from the artificial world of technology - it no longer makes sense to think that technology results from an application of science. Indeed, if computation is the basis of all nature, then science is just applied technology.

If that's the case, then science becomes less purely contemplative and more purposeful, and as fraught with social and political goals as technology is. Scientific theories are more properly viewed not as discoveries but as human constructions. It's already happening in physics: Philosopher of science Andrew Pickering suggests that the quark, which in its unbound state has not - and some say cannot - be observed, should be regarded as a scientific invention rather than an actual particle. In the future, we may come to see the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) as a consequence of information theory and not the other way around.

I know from my discussion with John Smart (check it out; this is an expanded version of the interview, which I have yet to update on this site) that virtually all physical systems that follow an evolutionary/developmental path can be described as computational systems which encode increasing complexity. So, for example, the universe produces stars, which collapse and produce second generation stars, which produce planets rich in organic-friendly elements, which produce life, which produces human beings, who create computers, etc.

But...I strain my brain as I try to formulate the question...where does the encoding take place? A good portion of my personal complexity is encoded in my DNA, so I can see that. And the complexity of the universe that creates stars and then more stars and then Earth is encoded in the laws of physics (I think) so I guess I can see that, too. So the second law is a consequence of Information Theory. I don't have a problem with that.

I guess my question isn't really where does the encoding take place, but rather, who is doing it? If Quarks should be viewed as an invention rather than a discovery, who the heck invented them? Or by an "invention," do we simply mean the product of an advanced information-encoding/information-processing system?

If that's the case, then I think it makes just as much sense to say that quarks were discovered as to say they were invented. Is somebody running the Matrix? Or is it just running itself?


via KurzweilAI

Posted by Phil at 09:25 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Take Off, Eh

The Canadians are planning a Mars mission of their very own. Okay, this first one is unmanned, but it's only a matter of time before they send some poor hoser up there. I hope they pack him plenty of back bacon and Elsinore beer.

Posted by Phil at 08:36 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Going the Way of the Slide Rule

My answer to this question is, "I certainly hope so. Let it die, die, die, die die!"

I suffer from a condition known as "mixed dominance." Nobody has ever heard of it, but it's easy to explain. You''ve heard of people who are ambidextrous? Well mixed dominance is the opposite. That's right, I can't use either one very well. The clinical name for this is "all thumbs."

Not only is my handwriting illegible, but it is physically painful for me to write with a pen. First my wrist cramps, then my arm, then my entire back begins to hurt.

We should keep handwriting around as an art form, but that's it. Nobody should need it in order to communicate.


Disclaimer: This rant has been brought to you by The Speculist. The opinions expressed are those of right-thinking creatures everywhere. Minor side effects are no more serious than those caused by a sugar-pill placebo. Void where prohibited.

Posted by Phil at 07:48 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Refined Dichotomies

So you're for freedom and opposed to oppression? Big whoop, so is everybody else (or at least they all talk that way.) In carrying out political discourse in the 21st century, we're going to have to find some new ways to slice the rhetorical pie.

Liberal vs. Conservative
Left vs. Right
Labor vs. Management
The People vs. The Man
The Haves vs. The Have-Nots

Question: What do all of the political dichotomies listed above have in common?

Answer: They all have their origins in the 19th or 20th centuries (or earlier).

Better Answer: They are all widely exploited by the media and the political parties to keep public discourse within an established and comfortable set of boundaries.

Even Better Answer: They are all of rapidly diminishing relevancy and will soon fade to a sort of vestigial, background-noise kind of existence or (with any luck at all) go extinct altogether.

Another possible answer would be that they all seem to be variations on a theme. And it’s a good theme. The premise behind all of the political Celebrity Death Matches listed above is that people should not be exploited for the benefit of others (or for any reason). Where people are suffering such exploitation, they should be liberated and the exploiters brought to justice.

Who could possibly disagree with that?

Nobody. That’s why it’s such a powerful theme, and why it’s hung in there so long. In the U.S., the idea is fundamental. Foundational, even. Our nation originates with the cry of “No Taxation without Representation” and a model of the world that looks something like this:

Colonists vs. British Taskmasters

We were born looking at the world this way, and we grew up still seeing things in those terms:

Free States vs. Slave States

We had to play the theme out in order to become the nation that were meant to be. In the 20th century, we played a variation of the same theme in two world wars and the cold war:

Freedom vs. Oppression

Interestingly, although we were the first country to adopt the theme wholesale, others began picking up on it over the years. Where in the U.S. it was born in partnership with free markets, in Europe it was quickly coupled with a vision of state-sponsored liberation of the masses.

That’s where it gets interesting. In World War II, we fought with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in a war that we saw as being consistent with our overall 20th century theme of Freedom vs. Oppression. After winning that war together, we engaged in a 50-year struggle with the Soviets which we viewed as being consistent with the same theme. Amazingly, the Soviets also described their struggle with us as being consistent with that theme.

Contrast that with our war with the Nazis. The Nazis never claimed that they were fighting for freedom and against oppression (although they did use the “oppression” of German ethnic minorities as a pretext for rolling their tanks into one or two countries.) They were all about Strength vs. Weakness, Purity vs. Corruption, or - to turn one of our original dichotomies on its ear - The Man vs. The People.

After World War II, Freedom vs. Oppression became everybody’s theme. In this country, Republicans calling for an end to the capital gains tax and Democrats fighting any restrictions on abortion outside of what’s spelled out in Roe vs. Wade will both hale back to the language of Freedom vs. Oppression in making their case. In the world at large, both sides of the dispute over the current war use this theme as justification for their actions. President Bush will tell you that he invaded Iraq to protect the world from the oppression of terrorists armed with WMD and to liberate the Iraqis from the oppressive Baathist regime. President Chirac will tell you that he was opposed to the oppressive U.S. incursion on another sovereign state. The Canadian government, in setting up separate Shariah courts for use by their Muslim citizens, will no doubt describe this as a great triumph of freedom over oppression. Likewise, opponents to the establishment of such courts will do so on precisely the same grounds.

All of this simply goes to show that the language of Freedom vs. Oppression is no longer a reliable or useful political gauge. When opposing forces consistently use the same theme to justify their actions, it’s time we thought about getting ourselves a new theme. Since everyone at least claims to be for freedom and opposed to oppression, I think it’s time we got a lot clearer about the kinds of freedom we’re looking for.

In defining some of those, I’ve come up with three possible themes that might replace Freedom vs. Oppression in the new century.

 

Individual Rights vs. Group Rights

Again, there’s no point in getting in an argument over whether group rights exist. Let’s just say they do, and they’re really important. Individual rights, however, are more important and must always take precedence. This is where, in my view, the United Nations has utterly failed in its mission. The U. N. began with a charter declaring universal human rights, but it has somehow ended up in the business of legitimizing every possible form of oppression and deprivation of basic freedoms. They have done this through the recognition of a peculiar group right called “sovereignty,” which somehow makes the evil perpetuated upon a group of people by their ruling class not only untouchable, but generally unmentionable.

Group rights, even the sacred concept of sovereignty, have to take the backseat to individual rights. This, by the way, is the moral argument for the invasion of Iraq. And it’s why Canada should think twice before empowering Shariah courts.

 

Freedom via Freedom vs. Freedom via Control

This is a restatement of the classical libertarian position - You want to liberate me? Fine. Don’t enact a four-step Liberation Plan or establish a Department of Liberation. Just leave me the hell alone. - with an important distinction. “Freedom via Control” may sound oxymoronic (or even Orwellian) but it’s something this country’s - and the world’s - body politic believes in firmly. Repeatedly telling them that there’s no such thing and that is they, not we, who are the oppressors is pointless.

So let’s concede that they are as much for freedom as we are. We just don’t care for their flavor of it.

 

Freedom Through Change vs. Freedom From Change

This is the big one, as far as I’m concerned. The major national and global struggles of the coming decades will be defined in precisely these terms. And once again, it’s not a question of whether there is a right not to change. There is. Anyone uncomfortable living in a world with electricity, or antibiotics, or reality TV shows has the right to live without them. I can do without one of them, myself, and I’m not talking about antibiotics.

The Amish have the right to be Amish. But nobody has the right to make me Amish. (See the item on “Individual Rights,” above.)

Consider the case of Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder who evolved from extremist environmental activism to a more moderate “sustainable development” approach, and from there to outright advocacy for biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering. Moore came to see that progress in these areas could do more to achieve the goals of sustainable development - increased crop yields, reduction in the use of pesticides, improved health in local populations - than anything the traditional activists were advocating. According to Moore, the mainstream of the sustainable development movement is violently opposed to any use of biotechnology on grounds that are largely (if not wholly) irrational.

Those activists would no doubt describe Moore as an agent of oppression in their struggle for freedom. But he doesn’t see it that way. He wants to achieve the goals of cleaning up the environment and improving health in the third world using tools that can truly empower us to do so. Patrick Moore is an agent of freedom through change.

The struggle between those who want to prevent change and those who want to achieve greater freedom by pursuing it will grow more intense in the years to come. And it will hit closer and closer to home.

As Virginia Postrel writes in her introduction to The Future and Its Enemies:

How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.

The stasists whom Postrel decries are advocates of Freedom via Control and Freedom from Change. Just as much of the political turmoil in the world today can be defined as taking place between those who prefer freedom for individuals and those who want it for groups, in coming years we will see increasing conflict over these other two dichotomies of freedom. On the Fight Aging! weblog, pseudonymous life-extension advocate Reason lays out the 2004 presidential election in precisely those terms:

Stem cell research and regenerative medicine offer the best near term hope for therapies and interventions that will greatly increase healthy lifespan. These branches of medicine offer the possibility of near term cures for a long litany of the worst diseases and age-related conditions:

- Parkinson's
- Alzheimer's
- Cancer
- Osteoporosis
- Paralysis
- Serious injury
- Nerve damage
- Blindness
- Deafness
- Heart disease
- Diabetes

All of these named conditions have been cured in animal models, in early human trials, or in laboratory tests. Commercial therapies would be only years away in some cases, such as for heart disease. All this wonderful research is estimated …to be five years behind schedule due to the actions of the Bush administration, its appointees and paid bioethicists.

So there you have it, the real issue of this Presidential election in a nutshell. Is better health, curing the incurable and a longer, healthier life important to you? Then look carefully at your options when you vote, and, as I do, wish that you lived in a world in which scientists didn’t need to beg permission from uncaring bureaucrats to develop a cure for cancer.

In his conduct of the current war, President Bush has proven himself a champion of the old theme of Freedom vs. Oppression and of the newly proposed one of Individual Rights vs. Group Rights. Unlike Reason, in choosing whom I vote for this year, I will definitely take that into consideration. But I hope no one dismisses Reason’s point as belonging to some kind of longevity fringe. The issue of Freedom Through Change vs. Freedom From Change may not be determinative in this year’s election, but it will be eventually. Technology is opening up so many new possibilities so fast that the question of whether we will be allowed to realize those possibilities will not be able to avoid the center of national debate for long.

Addressing the subject of new technologies that may enhance human intellectual (and other) abilities, Glenn Reynolds wrote:

Would I like to be smarter? Yes, and I'd be willing to do it via a chip in my brain, or a direct computer interface... And I'd certainly like to be immune to cancer, or AIDS, or aging. But these ideas threaten some people, who feel that our physical and intellectual limitations are what make us human.

I don't know whether I believe this. Which limitations, exactly? Would humanity no longer be human if AIDS ceased to exist? What about Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Was Einstein less human? If not, then why would humanity be less human if everyone were that smart? It may be true, as Dirty Harry said, that "A man's got to know his limitations." But does that mean that a man is his limitations? Some people think so, but I'm not so sure. Others think that overcoming limitations is what's central to being human. I have to say that find that approach more persuasive.

If overcoming limitations is, indeed, central to being human - and I’m convinced that it is, as I wrote a while back in this piece about overcoming the greatest limitation of them all - then the advocates of Freedom Through Change have human nature and virtually all of human history on our side. It’s a tremendous advantage, but considering the tenacity and ruthlessness of those who want to control, restrict, or simply prevent change if they can, it’s an advantage we’re going to need.

Posted by Phil at 06:16 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 09, 2004

X Prize Latest

I haven't written much about the X Prize lately, so I thought I'd give an update. There are now 27 teams in the hunt for the prize

Many of the teams vying for the "X Prize" already have conducted test launches, with one of the two U.S. teams propelling a suborbital spacecraft to 68,000 feet, or about 13 miles.

The contest calls for launching a manned craft to 62.5 miles --100 Km, ed. --above the Earth, which is generally considered the edge of space, twice within two weeks. The craft must be able to carry three people.

I'm really looking forward to hearing that someone has won this thing. Even the "losers" are going to make some important contributions.

Posted by Phil at 08:59 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Blogrollage

Posse member Kathy Hanson has caught the disease. Everybody be sure to drop by and say hello.

Posted by Phil at 07:56 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Write All About It

The Everlasting Phelps suggests that it's time to start an e-mail campaign against Mark Modzelewski and his nasty comments about anyone whose vision of nanotechnology is more expansive than his own as well as his personal attacks on Glenn Reynolds. I think this is an excellent idea, and I intent to to send a message to all of the companies listed.

I hope others will do the same.


via Responsible Nanotechnology

Posted by Phil at 07:45 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Hydrogen, Hydrogen Everywhere!

…but not a drop to burn.

Here on earth hydrogen is found most commonly bound up with oxygen within water molecules. Currently the best method for extracting hydrogen from water molecules is by way of electrolysis – which is expensive. It's the "net energy expenditure" problem Phil mentioned in "Energy Punditry 101." By comparison to fossil fuels that are (for now) readily available, it's just too costly:
Researchers have investigated using electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen but today it costs ten times as much as natural gas, and is three times as expensive as gasoline.
It has long been known that plants chemically split water with much greater efficiency than electrolysis as part of the photosynthesis process. The obstacle to finding out how this occurs has been our inability to study the process as it occurs.

Just four days ago the journal Science published a report from researches at Imperial College London that begins to explain how plants do it:
[T]he splitting of water occurs at a catalytic centre that consists of four manganese atoms… three of the manganese atoms, a calcium atom and four oxygen atoms form a cube like structure, which brings stability to the catalytic centre. The forth and most reactive manganese atom is attached to one of the oxygen atoms of the cube. Together this arrangement gives strong hints about the water-splitting chemistry. "Our structure also reveals the position of key amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which provide a details of how cofactors are recruited into the reaction centre."
The researches used X-ray crystallography to study this activity at one hundred millionth of a centimeter.

So when I hear pronouncements that "the age of oil is ending" I tend to yawn. The "age of stone" has ended too, and it wasn't for lack of rocks.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 02:53 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Energy Punditry 101

I have two possible reactions to this:

The age of oil is ending[.] The supply will soon begin to decline, precipitating a global crisis. Even if we substitute coal and natural gas for some of the oil, we will start to run out of fossil fuels by the end of the century. ''And by the time we have burned up all that fuel,'' he writes, ''we may well have rendered the planet unfit for human life. Even if human life does go on, civilization as we know it will not survive.

The first reaction is to ask whether I haven't heard this before? About thirty years ago? I remember being taught in grade school (as well as junior high) that we were going to run out of oil by about...well, now, if my memory serves.

On the other hand, I must acknowledge that predictions of the exhaustion of a finite, non-renewable energy resource — assuming we keep using it. — must inevitably come true. Yes, we will run out of oil someday. But are the time frames given above correct? Beats me.

Let's say they are correct. What, then, are we going to to do about it?

We might finally learn to harness nuclear fusion, the energy that powers the sun, or to develop better nuclear reactors, or to improve the efficiency of the power grid. But those advances will require a ''massive, focused commitment to scientific and technological research. That is a commitment we have not yet made.'' Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and scouring the energy resources of national lands across the West might help the constituents of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Vice President Dick Cheney's friends in the energy industry, but it won't solve the problem.

Hmmm...sticky. But wait a minute. What about hydrogen? Isn't it supposed to be part of the solution to our energy woes?

President Bush has pointed to hydrogen as the ultimate answer to our need for transportation fuels, but Goodstein correctly points out that hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is a fuel produced by using energy. We can use coal to produce it, or solar power, or something else, but it is only a way of converting energy into a form that can be used in vehicles; it doesn't do anything to ease the transition away from oil.

Okay, hold it. How's that again? Something is bothering me about that logic. I think I'll take a shot at being an energy pundit:

Gasoline is not a source of energy. It is a fuel produced by using energy.

Right? You have to pump it out of the ground. You have to refine it. You have to truck it to my local Shell station. That all takes energy, ladies and gentlemen. The way I see it, anything you can burn so's you can plug in the blender and whip up a banana daiqiri is both a fuel and an energy source. (In fact, silly me, I would be inclined to think of those two terms as being pretty much synonymous.) The real problem with hydrogen, if I understand it correctly, is that we haven't yet found efficient ways to extract or store it. And I'm not saying that those problems are easy to solve, or that we're going to solve them any time soon. But if the issue is net energy expenditure, let's talk in terms of net energy expenditure.

And don't tell me that hydrogen isn't an energy source. Talk to the hand.

Better yet, talk to the sun.

Speaking of the sun, check out this piece in The Economist on the future of thermonuclear fusion which indicates that wrong-headedness abounds on all sides of discussions about energy.

Although visionaries have long been lured to the idea of fusion because the fuel, being a constituent of water, is unlikely ever to run out, the economics of the process are dubious.

Sceptics (including this newspaper) have pointed out that workable fusion power has seemed perpetually 30 years away since the first experiments were done in the 1950s. Even if the 30-year horizon were actually true on this occasion, the discount rate over three decades, and the opportunity cost of all those billions, would probably make it uneconomic. Nor is the world in obvious need of another way to generate electricity. [Emphasis added.]

Well, there you have it folks. Anything that's been difficult or expensive to do for the past 30 years is destined to remain so forever. If the history of technological development has taught us anything, it's that these kinds of problems can't be solved. Luckily, it turns out that that whole running-out-of-oil scenario is not "obvious," so I guess there's just nothing to worry about.

Well, what do you know? Energy punditry is easy!

That does it. I'm setting up a consulting business.


Linked articles via KurzweilAI.net and GeekPress, respectively.

Posted by Phil at 10:31 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 08, 2004

Robots Taking Our Jobs

Check out these two very interesting entries on Robot Nation Evidence describing how everybody from sailors to hotel desk clerks will soon be losing their jobs to robots. As I've pointed out before, gas station attendants were the first to go, and supermarket check-out clerks are fading fast. But being in middle management in the corporate world, I still fell pretty safe. I think it will be a while before robots can make excuses, pass the blame, and and suck up as effectively as...um...some of the people I've read about do.

Posted by Phil at 01:19 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Oops!

Looks like the drilling operation on Mars has taken an unexpected turn.

via Martian Soil

Posted by Phil at 08:52 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

M104 Roll Call

Attention all FastForward Posse members:

I switched computers at Christmas time and somehow managed to lose my Posse mailing list. If you are a member of the group formerly known as the FastForward Posse (or would like to be) please drop me an e-mail.

phil-at-speculist-dot-com

I've got some big Posse...I mean M104 plans for the coming months, so please drop me a line. I have most of your e-mail addresses anyway, but this is a lot easier.

Thanks

Posted by Phil at 07:55 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #124

In the Future...

...we'll have to revisit all those spells, charms, and folk remedies involving bat wings (and other parts) to see if there's anything to them.

Posted by Phil at 07:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Do You Feel Lucky?

I'm traveling at full highway speed toward a red light. Some have are already stopped ahead of me at the light. Others in front of me are slowing drastically. But I'm still about a quarter of a mile out. I haven't started slowing down yet, but I see that I'll need to start slowing soon. And the fact that I'll have to stop is hardly questioned.

But now I see that the cross traffic is beginning to stop for their signal light. My light is still red, but now I have reason to hope. There is no guarantee that the light will turn green before I have to stop, but I feel confident that the people driving behind me will not have to stop. I realize that if I get too close to the intersection I will have to stop even if the light turns green before I get there. So I let off the accelerator to slow my approach to the intersection.

This is where we are today with radical life extension.

I watched Aubrey de Grey's debate with Dr. Sprott for the first time today.

The problems that Dr. de Grey proposes to solve (to end and reverse aging by way of radical life extension) are the most complex and difficult that humans have ever attempted. He doesn't deny this. But I was struck by the confidence he has that these problems will be solved by 2030.

He framed the debate nicely. He described the seven problems that he feels need to be solved and described generally how these problems can be solved and what is being done to solve the problems even today. He challenged his opponent to give a concrete reason why any of these seven problems are in the short run unsolvable. Or, in the alternative, he challenged his opponent to offer another problem (other than the seven) that must be solved.

Dr. Dick Sprott didn't take him up on this challenge. Dr. Sprott argued semantics - senescence is not a disease. Honestly, who cares? Whatever you call it, it's undesirable.

Dr. Sprott tried to show inconsistency in Dr. de Grey's position by bringing up a paper that de Grey had signed off on. De Grey was able to quickly explain that he signed off because he was in agreement as to the characterization of our current ability to extend life (which is nil), not because he agreed that these problems are insoluble for all time.

Surely Dr. Sprott's position - that we won't overcome aging in the next few years - could have been better argued.

I do agree with Dr. Sprott that there is some danger in discussing radical life extension - snake oil salesmen and a disillusioned public when science doesn't deliver. Snake oil has always been with us. Many will use the statements of people like de Grey to give credibility to their quackery. Before radical life extension becomes a reality many, and probably myself included, will buy some snake oil. But I say that as long as the snake oil is not harmful, a placebo is not a terrible thing.

A little snake oil waste is a small price to pay for the mobilization of the scientific community. This appears to be Dr. de Grey's motive for coming forward with these startling predictions at this time - to mobilize the scientific community (and perhaps all of western civ).

Dr. Sprott seemed to believe that his position is the mature, adult position. That acceptance of the inevitability of death is ennobling. Certainly this fatalism has been a useful adaptation for the generations that have gone before. The first line of the "Serenity Prayer" is:
"God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I Cannot change…"
Live and love what life you have. Don't give thought or worry to things that are beyond your control. This has been useful wisdom because it put the focus back on doing things that could be productive. But here's the next line of the "Serenity Prayer."
"Courage to change the things I can."
Clearly Dr. de Grey is a courageous man. He is risking his reputation to bring about change. The big question is whether this is something that can be changed or is this folly? The last line of the prayer is:
"And Wisdom to know the difference…"
Which brings us to Pascal's Wager. Pascal (the famous mathematician who had a computer language named after him) argued that to believe in God is a good bet because if God exists, you'll go to heaven and avoid hell. If you don't believe in God [and there is a God], you might lose all this. If God does not exist, you'll have nothing to lose. So it's a smarter bet to believe in God than not to.

Aubrey de Grey is making a wager. If he's right then he will be recognized as one of history's greatest visionaries. By mobilizing science he will be credited for saving countless lives. Even if it takes 100 years to accomplish radical life extension (rather than de Grey's predicted 26 years), he will probably be thought of as "a man ahead of his time."

If, on the other hand, de Grey is completely wrong and radical life extension proves to be impossible for all time, then what has been lost? Mobilizing science even to chase an illusory goal will lead to progress. Other discoveries will be made. Life will be improved and life expectancy (within current limits) will be increased. He will thought of as the Percival Lovell of genetics - a man with eccentric and silly notions who nevertheless made great contributions to science.

Dr. de Grey has made a good bet. Can I get in on that action?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:51 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 06, 2004

Required Reading

Stephen's piece on Hanging Around, below, is especially interesting when read along side Reason's new essay on Bootstrapping to Radical Life Extension.

While you're over at Fight Aging!, don't miss out on my new "director's cut" of Death Sucks.

It isn't too early to start thinking about those mid-term grades, folks.

Speculist University Shield.JPG

Posted by Phil at 11:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #123

In the Future...

...all public lavatories will be certified 100% explosion-proof.


Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley, who has added the following motto to the title of his website:

"Delivering Farragos of Lazy-Minded Tripe: Whatever the Weather"

That's the spirit, Rob!

Posted by Phil at 10:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Hanging Around

Last October I read Ray Kurzweil's "Essay for E-School News."
"Human life expectancy is another one of those exponential trends. Every year during the 18th and 19th centuries, we added a few days to the human life expectancy. Now, we are at the intersection of biology and information science. Today, we are adding about 120 days every year to the human life expectancy. With the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution, within 10 years, we will be adding more than a year to the human life expectancy every year. So if we can hang in there for another 10 years, we may actually get to experience the full measure of the profound century ahead."
Many people think this is nonsense - that most of the strides we've made in increasing life expectancy has been by decreasing infant mortality. If in the past you survived infancy you had a shot of living to be as old as we can live today. Ben Franklin lived into his 80's.

But being an optimist, this article inspired me to develop an Excel spreadsheet that predicts life expectancy and the years a person has left as time goes by. What makes this exercise different from normal actuarial chart is that this spreadsheet shows the difference between chronological age and apparent (or biological) age. When life extension technology becomes a reality, the difference between our chronological age and our biological age will increase over time. This spreadsheet also predicts a person's present chance of living to see a particular year.

This project is extremely speculative - perhaps to the point of fantasy. But my hope is that it will serve a purpose like Drake's formula (the formula for calculating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations) to provide a framework for our speculation. And what's the name of this blog again?

Click here for the spreadsheet and here for the instructions.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:50 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 05, 2004

Surf & Turf

If you've been popping fish oil capsules trying to up your Omega-3 fatty acid intake, you'll be happy to learn that a team from Harvard Medical School has figured out how to genetically alter mammals so that they produce Omega-3.
The researchers inserted a gene from a nematode worm into mice which enables the mammals to make the omega-3 fatty acids. If the same feat can be achieved in farm animals, meat, milk and eggs could all be directly enriched with the oils.
Via Kurzweil AI.
Coming soon to your supermarket: Omega-3 enriched mice.

Seriously this could be a big deal. For optimal heart health the Omega-3 to Omega-6 dietary ratio should be about 1:3. The average American ratio is 1:10.

UPDATE: Calfuturist writes:
[Quoting Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California] "Instead of eating fish, you could eat a hamburger and still have the beneficial effects of eating fish," she says.

It may also be safer. Many fish that contain significant amounts of omega-3 are contaminated with toxins such as mercury and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, because of polluted water.
Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:30 PM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Captain Jean-Luc Buzzkill

I find this to be much more disappointing and disturbing than Viggo Mortensen's wrong-headed, anti-American whining.

Actor Patrick Stewart - better known as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" - says he thinks humans have no business traveling in space.

Et tu, Picard? Et tu?

I've just written a lengthy piece which will run here or elsewhere in the next day or so (stay tuned) which reisterates my view that the real political struggle of the 21st century will be between those who seek Freedom Through Change and those who seek "Freedom" Through Control and Freedom From Change. I guess now we know which side Patrick Stewart is on.

I would try to think of something clever and biting to say, but fortunately Lileks has taken care of that:

And Patrick Stewart has now become T. J. Hooker. I know him not.

Damn straight.

Go, Picard. Get thee hence.

Posted by Phil at 02:20 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 04, 2004

Meanwhile, In Japan...

...the phone company is doing 3-D nanofabrication via electron beam lithography. With this process, NTT is going to be able to manufacture electronic components of 10 nanometers or so in length.

Yep, that's pretty small.


via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 01:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

While We're Counting

The Carnival of the Vanities #72, is up. I've read it over, and what can I say? It's about as cromulent as it gets.

Posted by Phil at 09:40 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Official Headgear

I’ve decided that M104, the Sombrero Nebula (details), will henceforth be the official headgear of the FastForward Posse. In fact, I wonder how the gang would feel about changing our name from FastForward Posse to M104? Sounds kinda mean and secret-agenty, doesn’t it?

Image courtesy of the Hubble. Just one more reason we should keep the thing.

Posted by Phil at 06:53 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

February 03, 2004

New Blog

Reason, who publishes the Longevity Meme, has launched a new blog devoted to the subject of life extension called Fight Aging! Check out the interesting entries on the Methuselah Mouse Prize and Bioethics. I've been asked to be a contributor, which I'm very much looking foward to doing. I'll let you all know when my first entry goes up.

Meanwhile, do stop by.

Posted by Phil at 10:03 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Seven Questions with Stephen Gordon

New Posse member Stephen Gordon has provided his answers to our Seven Questions About the Future. His answers were so interesting and thought-provoking, I thought I should put them up here where more of you will see them.

  1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

    The Chinese supposedly have an ancient curse: "may you live in interesting times."

    http://hawk.fab2.albany.edu/sidebar/sidebar.htm

    Perhaps we've been cursed, perhaps blessed, but there is no end to avenues to pursue today if you are intellectually engaged. Do you have an interest in politics? Word is that there's an election this year. Are you a hawk or a dove? Either way, you'll want to keep up-to-date on the war. Science? It's impossible to keep up. Do you want to find a date but you're only interested in Jewish cowboys who have a passion for lawn darts? Kiss.com probably has five to choose from. Traveling, shopping, working and playing have all been changed by one development – The Internet.

    When I graduated college in 1991 few of my class outside of the computer department had ever heard of the Internet. When I told a college student last year that I first logged onto the Internet two years after graduation she looked at me with a certain amount of pity. For her, college IS the Internet - instant access to knowledge 24/7.

    The rise of blogging makes our relationship with information even more intimate. Blogging allows instant reporting/analysis of the news. Memes can rise, become either conventional wisdom or be discredited before print editions can even run.

    So, absolutely, the neatest thing about living "in the future" today is the communication/information revolution brought about in the last ten years by mainstream adaptation of the Internet.

  2. What's the biggest disappointment?

    When I was about seven years old I had an uncle tell me that by the time I got to college there'd probably be learning machines that would zap knowledge straight into my brain. That idea sent shivers of uber-cool down my spine. And I still want to be able to dial the operator and tell him that I need to be able to speak Japanese and ZAP! Matrix-style I'm ready to go.

    Alas, we don't have that yet. I would guess that this sort of technology is singularity-related (it will either a close cause or product of the singularity). So for now, the Internet will have to do.


  3. Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

    I must start by saying that I doubt the premise of the question. Not, necessarily because I doubt that I will live that long (I have a long-shot of living 66 years more even with today's technology), but because if I manage to stay alive another 34 years I will probably live to be much older than 100. Such is the nature of exponential advances in all fields of knowledge – including geriatric medicine.

    So I'll let that be my answer to your question. By my 100th birthday senescence will be optional (and I'm guessing a not very popular option). This will be a huge civilization-shaking change. Objectively death is the loss of a unique individual that cannot be replaced and the loss of a huge body of knowledge. Subjectively death is even more catastrophic. And the process of getting there is no joy ride either.

    Whether this will be the biggest difference is, by definition, impossible to forecast if you believe as I that the singularity will occur within the next 66 years.


  4. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

    USAToday published an editorial by the head of the National Cancer Institute saying that its realistic goal to eliminate suffering and death by cancer by the year 2015.

    Here's the address:

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2004-01-21-cancer_x.htm

    Over 500,000 Americans die each year from cancer. A cure will happen. But faster, please.


  5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

    A year and a half ago

    http://www.nature.com/nsu/020708/020708-17.html

    a team of scientist demonstrated that viruses can be assembled from scratch with chemicals readily available through mail order. Worse, "the gene sequences for ebola, influenza, smallpox, HIV and many other viruses are publicly available on the Internet."

    A nuclear bomb requires facilities that are huge and, therefore, difficult to fund and hard to hide. A virus-based WMD program could be put together in a trailer house.

    My answer is not to outlaw this research but to push it forward faster. Preserving life is always more difficult than destroying it, but the same researchers that showed us that virus construction is possible may be able to help us defend against a man-made viral attack.


  6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

    Nanotech is a very exciting field (or group of fields). And of all the possible nanotech developments that are within our near-term grasp "peptide nanotubes that kill bacteria by punching holes in the bacteria's membrane" excites me the most.

    http://www.techcentralstation.com/122303C.html

    We are losing the antibiotic arms race against bacteria. There are already bacterial strains for which the only treatment is to excise the infected tissue. It is only a matter of time before some highly contagious air-borne bacteria that is resistant to all antibiotics strikes us down by the millions… Unless some development like this one intervenes.

    If this develops I think it will be very difficult for bacteria to evolve resistance to it. All bacteria require the protection of their cell encasement. I can't imagine a mutation that would provide a defense to a battering ram that breaches that protection.


  7. Why is it that in the year 2004 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

    While we've made remarkable strides in small scale technology – circuitry, the human genome, nanotech, it seems like we've lost ground with the big macho stuff. We haven't been to the moon in 30 years; we can't buy tickets to fly supersonic anymore.

    While we're discovering inner space and creating cyberspace, we've done so little with outer space. Maybe this is a necessary retreat – a pause to let technology catch up with our aspirations. But I'm inclined to believe rather that its a lack of aspiration.

    One piece of evidence that it's the latter: we've never tested artificial gravity. I'm not talking about exotic tech here. I'm talking about the kind created by spinning. This would require no technology that we don't presently have. Heck, take two Apollo era capsules, tether them together and spin away. Each capsule would then have gravity of sorts. We know we are going to need to do this to go to Mars. Astronauts can't take zero G for a year and a half before exerting themselves on Mars.

    So why hasn't this been tested? Because NASA hasn't had the courage or the vision to do it.

Posted by Phil at 09:45 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Countries I've Visited

Here I thought I was really worldly, but it turns out that the 14 counties I've been to in my life make up only 14% of the countries in the world. Time to dust off the old passport, I reckon.


create your own visited country map or write about it on the open travel guide

Hat tip: Bigwig

Posted by Phil at 09:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nanoblogosphere

Howard Lovy gets the credit for introducing this term to the blogger lexicon. (Or should that be "the blame?")

Anyhow, Howard has a good round-up of nanoblogosphere reaction to the Mark Modzelewski flap last week. Actually, it's a good round-up with one glaring omission, but nobody's perfect.

Posted by Phil at 09:10 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 02, 2004

Thinking Machines

Maybe closer than we think.

Maybe already here:

What Thaler has created is essentially "Thomas Edison in a box," said Rusty Miller, a government contractor at General Dynamics and one of Thaler's chief cheerleaders.

"His first patent was for a Device for the Autonomous Generation of Useful Information," the official name of the Creativity Machine, Miller said. "His second patent was for the Self-Training Neural Network Object. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One. Think about that. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One!"

As I'm sure many of you would agree, that's pretty cool.

Supporters say the technology is the best simulation of what goes on in human brains, and the first truly thinking machine.

But look how quickly the luddite/buzzkill view is to surface:

Others say it is something far more sinister - the beginning of "Terminator" technology, in which self-aware machines could take over the world.

I don't get the impression that anything Thayer is doing is quite ready to take over the world just yet. At leat not the world world. But the popular music world had better look out.

In one weekend, a Creativity Machine learned a sampling of some of Thaler's favorite Top 10 hits from the past three decades and then wrote 11,000 new songs. Some are good, Thaler said. Miller confesses to being haunted by one of the melodies in a minor key. Other offerings are the musical equivalent of a painting of dogs playing poker, Thaler said.

That sounds like a description of 90% of what's on the radio now. On the more serious side, the Creativity Machine has designed toothbrushes, robots, and processes for synthesizing diamonds. It still sounds like it's a long way from world domination. But, who knows, maybe it could be of assistance in addressing some big national challenges.


via Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends

Posted by Phil at 08:32 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

ITF #122

In the Future...

...we'll be okay with the fact that search engines are better at enforcing justice than they are at nurturing romance.


via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 06:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 01, 2004

Remembering Columbia

As I type this, I'm watching the SuperBowl pre-game show. They opened it with a tribute to the Columbia astronauts. I'm reminded that (as Rand Simberg pointed out last week) the anniversaries of the Apollo I, Challenger, and Columbia tragedies all occur in close succession. Today is the anniversary of Columbia.

Nothing like a national holiday — if SuperBowl Sunday isn't an American national holiday, then we don't have any — to remind us of our fallen heroes.

On Space.com, Jim Lovell writes that this is not just a day to remember, but to look ahead:

The STS-107 crew embodied a calling that is deeply rooted in the human soul -- the desire to climb to the top of the mountain, to travel beyond the horizon, and to comprehend and appreciate the whole of our universe. As we reflect on their achievements and their courage, we must honor their dedication and their humanity, and begin once again to look forward, onward and upward.

President Kennedy referred to the Apollo Program as "Mankind's greatest adventure." As an astronaut who made those journeys, I'd like to think he was correct. But as I look at the limitless vistas ahead, I have to believe that the greatest adventures are yet to come. We must continue the journey which has only just begun.

Meanwhile, Rand has a round-up of his coverage of Columbia.

Posted by Phil at 04:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nanotech vs. Cancer II

So many developments, it's hard to keep up with them all...

Inhaled Nanoparticles Could Treat Lung Cancer

Tiny particles that can be delivered through an asthma-style inhaler have destroyed lung cancer cells in a lab dish and will soon be tested in animals.

Developed by researchers from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, the drug delivery system uses "nanoparticle cluster bombs" to treat cancerous lung cells.

"Based on what we've been able to do so far, we have practical hopes that a new lung delivery platform for lung cancer can be established," says researchers Raimar Loebenberg.

Once again, the big advantage of the "cluster bombs" delivered by the inhaler is that they target cancer cells and leave healthy cells alone. I hope the folks in the chemo therapy business are paying attention.

Posted by Phil at 04:16 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack