Broadcast

Welcome to the Star Chamber, a place where much is arbitrary except for the fact that new, tasty content will appear on this page every Monday morning.

Newness is common enough on the web; scarcely a day goes by without hearing of yet another web-based company based on some good idea you had last month. This realization leads us to speculate that you can actually spawn a web company merely by thinking of a good idea for one. In other words, if you suddenly sit up and think “Aha! Web-based video cat-sitting!” some poor grad student in Cupertino will have to start talking to venture capitalists about it. The responsibility this brings is terrifying, particularly when you consider that one day your name will bubble up to the top of the list just as some bozo in Seattle eats a bad curry and dreams up web-based fortune cookies. Next thing you know you’ll be cold-calling Chinese restaurants with laptop in hand.

Our aim here at the Star Chamber is to bring you good old-fashioned, hand-crafted content, not fancy protocols or new products. This week we present a graphical meditation about the Star Chamber and a very short story that hearkens back to the Golden Age of Broadcasting.

Broadcast

In retrospect, no one could really say exactly when it had become widely accepted that life existed elsewhere in the universe. John McDonough remembered thinking the same thing about learning to juggle. “Am I juggling now?” he asked himself, after flinging three small bean bags back and forth several times before dropping them. “Am I juggling now?” he asked, two hours later when he could manage only twice as much. Eventually the question faded away, and sometime after that, it was just another fact: I can juggle.

Was it the Mars rocks that tipped the scales? Probably not. The third Mars lander? The Tau Ceti transmission? The only thing people could widely agree on was that it had been accepted as true for some time now. Of the 132 planet systems believed to host life, three were actually abuzz with detectable radio activity. Teams of engineers and linguists had worked feverishly to decipher the static of these unknown civilizations, and the first two had yielded very little of interest so far. But the implications were clear: not only was life abundant in the universe, but intelligent (or at least radio-transmitting) life was as well. It was almost a pity to discover that life was such a commonplace thing, even in earth’s own little neighborhood. Still, since (owing to the great distances involved) it would be another 350 years at least before anything like a conversation could begin, they had to be content with listening.

John McDonough was paid to listen. He was alone at his monitoring station puzzling over the static from the Gamma Cygni system when the “I Love Lucy” show suddenly snapped into view on his screen: Lucy was peeling a cream pie off Fred Mertz’s face while the studio audience howled with delight. TV transmissions had corrupted his signal before, and he began tracking down the source of the signal contamination in this order: practical joke, amplifier crosstalk, rogue satellite transmission.

Fifteen minutes later, he had concluded that he was indeed watching the “I Love Lucy” show beaming at him from the precise direction of Gamma Cygni, some 800 light years away, and he began to wonder just what was going on. When had this show first been broadcast from earth? What could explain its being reflected down this exact path? Within a half hour, three dozen people were swarming over the signal, unraveling it characteristics: power, signal-to-noise, amplifier distortions. And still no alternative explanation had been found — how could an old TV show have been broadcast from one planet 800 years before it was produced on another? Ultimately only one conclusion was possible, and John McDonough was the first to figure it out. He had had the longest time to think about it by now, and he had spent a lot of time as a kid watching “I Love Lucy.”

As he stared in dazed silence at the screen, it slowly dawned on him that he had never seen this particular show. Furthermore, it wasn’t very funny. And Lucy looked strangely short.

It was just as well that mankind had long since come to terms with the ubiquity of life in the universe. It was just as well people were at least somewhat prepared for this latest blow: not only were we not special, we were inevitable. The only solace was this: the screenwriting in Gamma Cygni was just a little bit worse. Perhaps the earth was the middle of the universe after all.