Kicking away the ladder: man’s fate and the Great Filter

How long have we got? Depending on who you ask, we’re roughly halfway through the time of tolerable tenure for life on Earth. The planet has been around for 4.6 billion years, give or take, and it’s got about that much more time before the swelling Sun boils our bathwater.

See the Universe Timeline for more numbers

Relatively speaking, it didn’t take very long for life to appear once the Earth had cooled down enough to support plenty of water. But notice that it took a surprisingly long time, something like 2.5 billion years (as indicated by the red bracket), before the first eukaryotic organisms came along. That’s a sizable fraction of the entire lifespan of the planet! Something extraordinary and improbable must have happened, something very lucky for us, since those little bugs were our ancestors. One way to put this in perspective is to say that, if life suddenly vanished from Earth right now, it’s reasonable to assume there would be enough time for it to develop again before the Earth was sterilized by the Sun. But it is much less likely that there would be enough time to get from simple bacteria to eukaryotic life again. On the plus side, if we simply kill off all the people, or even most of the vertebrates, there should be plenty of time to regroup and try a few more times and making something intelligent.

The latest issue of Technology Review magazine has a provocative essay by Nick Bostrom along these lines. Entitled Where Are They?, it touches on Fermi’s paradox regarding extraterrestrial life. Namely: if life in the universe is commonplace, then why aren’t we seeing any evidence of it? His conclusion is that some catastrophic event, call it the Great Filter, is blocking life on other planets from reaching the point where it can contact us. If you follow his reasoning this far, then you have to ask if the Great Filter is behind us or after us. Was, for example, the rise of eukaryotic complexity so singular, that we are the only planet in the entire galaxy to pull it off? On the other hand, what if the Great Filter is ahead of us? We, and every other planet like us, may well destroy ourselves with near certainty, either through suicidal violence or self-poisoning waste. Fossil fuel has given us wealth and a means of ascent into orbit, but we may well squander it and kick away the ladder.

It’s hard to argue with Bostrom’s reasoning. One thing that’s still not very clear to me: how likely is it that Earth-like civilizations in our galaxy would be able to hear our “leaking” radio frequency transmission? That is, not the messages we send intentionally, but just the noise we generate on a typical day. This seems to bear directly on this problem. Not much time has passed for other civilizations to hear us, but if they could hear us, then shouldn’t we be able to hear them? If we should be able to hear other civilizations as advanced as our own, but instead hear nothing, that seems pretty clear evidence that the Great Filter is behind us and not ahead of us. At any rate, I recommend you read the whole piece, if only to follow his rationale for the following comment:

If [on Mars] we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form–some bacteria, some algae–it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly–but a bad omen for the future of the human race.

By the way, Tim O’Reilly has a good piece about this same topic over at the O’Reilly Radar blog: Fermi’s Paradox and the End of Cheap Oil.

Marilyn in Distress: A Water Closet Drama

Let me begin by declaring that my daughter Carolyn can now pee-pee on the potty. But there was a stretch there when things weren’t going so well. She thoroughly despised the toilet, our encouragement notwithstanding. We tried many variations, but with no success. Then my clever wife observed that a little story might help move things along. She wrote it, and I was enlisted to illustrate it. In order to take the edge off a little bit, we gave the lead role to one of my daughter’s imaginary friends, Marilyn (Marilyn lives in Carolyn’s mirror).

I can’t really say whether this story made much of a difference, but a few days after it was created, Carolyn no longer needed it. For the record, she liked it, but was disturbed that the mommy on page 6 has no arms. Carolyn’s mom concurs, but I have decided to let the work stand in its original form. Rather than letting it languish under a stack of books, I am publishing it here. Take it, print it, adapt it, go all Peter Max coloring it. Herewith I present: Marilyn and the Potty.

Continue reading “Marilyn in Distress: A Water Closet Drama”

Where Does Desire Come From?

“where does desire come from?” she asked. he made no reply, but she knew he was still awake. it was not an idle question. sometimes desire came on her like a hot wind, a hurricane, sweeping her violently along in its wicked vortex. it made her do strange impractical things, lose sleep, drive long distances, take terrible risks. yet she knew so little about it. where did it come from?

3:02. the cool light from the clock numbers painted the ceiling a pale blue. parachuting snowflakes spun across the window. she turned towards him to rest on her side, addressed his silent form. “I think,” she said, “it comes from completeness. when you know there is something out there that fits you, that makes you whole, you just have to have it.” the words sounded small and thin. she went on: “something in you recognizes it, and you just have to have it. and usually you can’t even say what it is in the other person that does it. there are so many good-looking people in the world, but when the desire comes on you so hard it scares you, it’s different. completeness. desire driving you to madness and completeness.” her eyes darted to the clock and then to his face. 3:07. his breathing was regular now, his mouth slightly open. she smiled.

she rolled onto her back again. once she had read that chaos is desire without an object of desire. incompleteness. emptiness. hunger. a hungry dog that can never rest. maybe completeness is the force that harnesses all the nameless desires that drive our chaotic lives. your whole life you’re battered, you’re beaten up by these invisible forces, these hungers and insecurities. after a while you don’t even notice it anymore: life is chaos and chaos is life. then one day you catch a glimpse of completeness in another person’s eyes. it doesn’t wave and nod politely. it grabs you by the throat and terrifies you. all those desires are brought to focus by completeness. sharp blistering focus. it can spin your head off.

she remembered that night, after the movie, after the wine, watching him play piano in the darkened lobby. she hadn’t let him finish the song. she remembered when she dropped into his eyes, expecting to hit bottom, and instead she kept falling and falling and falling.

falling is the right word for it, really. but when you fall in love, where are you falling from? where are you falling to? the blue light shifted slightly as the numbers changed. 3:17. she propped herself up to look at the swirling snow. she felt giddy and girlish and happy lying next to him. she had nearly crashed twice on the long drive up, deranged from lack of sleep, sliding in the snow. having so nearly slept at the wheel of a moving car with a screaming radio, she now was not sleepy in a warm bed next to this man. some radiant energy kept her mind humming. she lay back, drifting back into philosophy. falling in love is not like a rollercoaster or a skydive, she thought, where you see the plunge coming. it’s like waking up from a dream and realizing only then that you’re falling, that you’ve been falling for a long time. it was there all along, only now you know it. now you’re in it, swept along by the winds of desire. maybe it’s like the astronauts that fall and float at the same time. her stomach gave a tiny sympathetic lurch, which awoke an echoing yearning farther down.

there was a secret spot inside her body where the completed two-of-them came together perfectly. she learned this one humid night long ago as he thrust himself deep into her, held her so close she wanted to scream and not-scream. she held tightly to him, not breathing, adjusting herself to admit him as much as possible, the sweat rolling off both of them in great drops. from the confused swirling smoke in her brain came a sudden certain thought: this is where I belong, where he belongs. this is the center of the two-of-us. I want this to last forever. I must never forget this.

she never did. since that night, she thought of the secret spot, of how to join their bodies in passion, every minute of every day. she could make her mind go to that spot and feel the mournful waiting emptiness. punishing desire disordered the details of her life, but it gave strange calming order to her soul. as if: the chaos that resulted from her pursuit of this passion was not her problem. as if: she was liberated from the chaos that had mercilessly haunted her before. where is the center of the universe? where does desire come from? before, she had been one of those spinning orbiting clods, wandering, skittering, pointlessly disheveled and diverted by unseen forces. now, floating in free fall, she was at the center… she was motionless. she could see the sparking stars hissing by. she saw the brightly colored planets spinning around her in silence. but she was calm. she was completed by her desire.

4:01. the snowfall was slacking. he snorted in his sleep and made a small smacking sound, turned towards her. she reached out her finger and gently gently touched his lips.

sleep was coming for her at last.
she was grateful for that.
she was grateful for this man.
she was grateful for desire.


Through the door we could hear her sobbing, a slobbery gulping sound that verged on inhuman. I feared for the integrity of her body. Something must surely give way.

Cynthia looked at me and shrugged. “If you need me,” she said, “I’ll be practicing in the courtyard.” I decided to try one more time. “Amelia, I’d like to come in and talk to you. Can I?” There was a brief silence, then the sound of mucus being sucked noisily back up her nose. I said, “Right, okay, I’ll leave, but I’m going to slide these under the door for you.” I pushed three Kraft American cheese singles part way under the door, one of which had been cut into the shape of a heart. Cynthia’s idea. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it… I mean, you know, Valentine’s Day and all.”

Stefan, wearing a red bowtie and a black Slickee Boys t-shirt, walked up and said, off-hand, “Is she still at it?” He looked at his watch. “Christ, this is a new record.” He turned toward the door. “Amelia, honey? Please don’t light all those stinky candles this time. It sets off the smoke alarm.” Four heavy objects hit the door in rapid succession. Shoes, probably, and tightly clustered. Good shot. From the courtyard, we heard Cynthia beginning her scales on the trombone.

“Did she leave one of those little notes this time?” Stefan asked. I produced a rumpled lavender sheet that had been violently removed from a spiral notebook. Stefan read it, singsong-humming the words as he went. Halfway down the page, he stopped humming. Then he handed it back to me, holding it as though it were a mouse held by the tail, about to be flushed down the toilet. “That would do it,” he said. Then louder, “Honey, he didn’t mean those things. At least not today.” He winced at his choice of words. Then, brightening, “Say, I bet you could use a smoke right about now.” He pulled a cigarette from the box in his back pocket and pushed it under the door on top of the cheese. It looked like Cupid’s arrow piercing the orange cheese heart.

Footsteps approached the door. The cigarette disappeared, then the three slices of cheese, each one vanishing as though it were on a tiny conveyor belt. Outside, Cynthia struggled through The Girl from Ipanema. Stefan glanced up at the ceiling and asked, not really expecting an answer, “Is Mrs. Batton in today?” Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking…

After a moment, Stefan tipped his head toward the lavender sheet. “Is this the good-looking one, or sweater-vest guy?” It was the good-looking one. He made a concerned pucker, saying only “Mmm. That’s too bad.” We heard Amelia’s stereo turn on: a loud staticky burst of radio news, switched quickly to much quieter music. We could just make it out over the trombone solo. “Shit!” said Stefan, clapping his right hand on his forehead, “She’s putting on the Morrisey! Oh Christ. I’ve gotta leave now. God help us all.”

We heard footsteps approach the door again. Sniffling. There was a faint snipping sound, and then a severed photograph of Amelia and a young man with a blazing smile appeared under the door. She was on one fragment; he on the other. Stefan leaned over to inspect, nodded solemnly: “Yeah, that’s good-looking guy.” Another muffled snip, and an American Express card with the young man’s name on it, Allen T. Ridley, appeared neatly clipped down the middle. Stefan and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. Snip. A tarot card: the Lovers, followed by Allen T. Ridley’s law school ID. The pieces were forming a neat pile on the floor. I cleared my throat. “Amelia, don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

At that moment, just as Cynthia launched into Moon River, we heard the front door of the apartment swing open. Stomping around the corner, breathing hard and sweating, came Allen T. Ridley. He had a green book bag over one shoulder and three sad-looking roses in his other hand. Without saying a word, he approached us slowly and, to his credit, seemed to get a pretty good read on the situation. I said, “Somebody’s here to see you, Amelia.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a red envelope. Casting a sidelong glance at Stefan and me, he slid it under the door. Within five seconds it returned, vivisected, alongside the other debris. He considered this for a while, and then, on an index card from his book bag, he wrote in a clean bold hand, “Please forgive me. I love you.” He was about to pass it under the door, but I stopped him, lifting my index finger to signify that I had an idea. I took the scissors, cut the index card into two pieces, then gave him the pieces. He hesitated, and then slowly pushed the two halves under the door, one with each hand.

We waited. Suddenly we heard a thumping and a bang from the floor above, followed by a string of profanity. It was an old woman’s voice, strong and abrasive. The trombone music stopped. The three of us there in the hall looked up at the ceiling toward the unseen woman. Then Allen T. Ridley looked at me with an uncomprehending squint, his face was still wet with perspiration. He said, “I hate Valentine’s day.” Stefan bobbed his head in agreement, saying “Mrs. Batton hates trombones.” Something was sliding under the door. It was Allen T. Ridley’s last note, taped back together. Seeing his opportunity, he quickly tried to push a rose under the door, but it only made a mashed-together mess of petals. Cynthia appeared at the other end of the hall, trombone slung over her shoulder. Amelia’s door opened, and her hand beckoned for Allen T. Ridley. Her room was dark and smelled of cigarette smoke and scented candles. He went in.

Cynthia struck up When the Saints Go Marching In, but it was hard to hear over the smoke alarm.


crispy doodlebugs and frypaper fritters were the special for the day, but we weren’t paying particular attention on account of the great musty water buffalo mounted prominently on the wall behind the vending area. the unrelieved funk of the water in the slop-sink nearly undid the man at the front of the line. “why me?” he had suddenly cried out in the wildest tones. but to the rest of us it was only so much scattered background babble. we filled in his vacant place like water seeking its level.

the question arose from time to time of my origins, my background, as it were. I had successfully avoided all inquiries along these lines for some time, naturally, but eventually I slipped because of flattery. these things happen all the time. the Parisian flymonger (M. Mouchepiquer) had leaned casually across the table and openly admired my headdress. where had it come from? I can see him floating before me now, the mustachioed fop, may he roast on Satan’s sharpest spit! the oblique effrontery of the whole thing chagrins me now, but at the time I was in need of the milk of human kindness, the honeyed grandeur of my yesterrealms, the yeasty fragrance of the my eager erstwhile Easters, eggwashed and pure, the thickly-strewn droves of fiddlestick prawns neatly pinned by a thousand needles. footpads, augurs, despots and dumbwaiters, everything had contrived to conspire against my august head. why? why me indeed? it is enough. ich habe genug. I answered him. fifteen words later the blood drained from my face and into his. he was ashamed to discover what he had not known he was asking for and I was terrified to have given it. it is enough.

bourgeois pastry-cakes orbit slowly through all the points of the compass about his head, spinning, spinning. I am spinning, but he is the one who sickens with the motion. I can see I must return now, indeed I have left already; he clings with abandon to his small fragment, nearly sucked along in my wake. I am vaulting off this tiny crust, now hurtling past a thousand firmaments each ignorant of the next. so small so small so small. they will fill my vacant place like water seeking its level.

pack a few memories to last an eternity, like a paperback on a subway: a darkened birthday in a hushed church awash in ancient music. parchment soaked in linseed oil lasts longer but lacks legibility. le-gi-bi-li-ty. crinkliness. all is clutter, noise and desire. all is need and heat. Sodom and Gamorrah do not fall! nothing really simplifies. the categorization of the ten thousand things is nothing but self-delusion. the soap squirts out of your hand every time. it must! else how could I be here to see it? I refute it thus! guesswork, happenstance, and faith. nothing more.

the agony of death informs the agony of life. the agony of life is separation; the agony of death is the separation from the understanding of separation. life presents one-ness but recognizes only separation. the ecstasy of life anticipates the ecstasy of death.

I might wish for one long unending evening of such even-tempered uncorporeal wanderings. A thousand avenues of earthly delight lit, every one, in flickering torchlight, lambent gasflame, ear-illumined with the grinding organ of the nearby parish church (always one at hand, just when you need it). why could you never see the ceiling, where the bats live, where the eunuchs crouch in darkness, shamed into near-invisibility? there is no other way to describe it. I have seen the face of God. would that I knew it were unique.

we, every one of us lives in a dream world —

our souls perch with uncertain purchase on this solid-seeming here,

shifting from foot to foot like anxious birds,

at once terrified and thrilled by

the namelessness of flight.

Almost Shakespeare’s Complete Works

HOST: Good afternoon, and welcome to “Good Books,” a show for and about people who like good books. I’m delighted to say that we have a special treat for today’s program. You’ve all heard the old story that a million monkeys, if given enough time randomly banging on typewriters, could reproduce Shakespeare’s complete works. Of course, that’s just a myth to illustrate the nature of randomness, right? Not anymore, apparently, because in our studio today is the spokesmonkey for a million monkey effort that has just published “Almost Shakespeare’s Complete Works.” Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Miles, the Talking Monkey!

[Camera pans to Miles. He is wearing tiny carpal tunnel wrist supports]

MILES: Just Miles, please.

HOST: I’m sorry?

MILES: My name is Miles. Not Miles the Talking Monkey, or Miles the Speaking Simian or anything like that. Just Miles. And thank you for having me on your show.

HOST: Oh yes, I see. Well Miles, this book of yours is causing quite a stir at the bookstore. How long has this been in the works?

MILES: It all started years ago with that New Yorker cartoon. You know the one where the dog is using the Internet? I’d been thinking about the whole “million monkeys” problem, and when I saw that cartoon, I thought to myself, this is it.

HOST: So the Internet was critical to your success in replicating this four hundred year old opus?

MILES: Absolutely. I’d been working as a web consultant in the DC area, so I was keenly aware of the potential of distributed computing. After a few months and some funding from George Soros we had monkeys of every species typing away: squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins, macaques, howlers, …

HOST: Chimpanzees?

MILES: Please. Those arrogant bastards and their superior no-tails attitude. They’re not real monkeys, and frankly, I don’t need the hassle.

HOST: Gorillas?

MILES: Also not monkeys. At any rate, a gorilla couldn’t type his way out of a paper bag, randomly or otherwise. This is a 100% monkey effort.

HOST: I see. Now perhaps you can tell us about the title: “Almost Shakespeare’s Complete Works.” Why “almost”?

MILES: There simply wasn’t enough time to get every last comma in place. We had hundreds of thousands of monkeys pounding keyboards, thousands of copy editors, and an ambitious publishing schedule. I’m satisfied that, given a few hundred more years, we’d have nailed the Bard from beginning to end. Nevertheless, I think it’s a very creditable rendition of his work. Beyond that, our little interstitial peccadillos bring a certain arch nature to the work, an insouciant monkey sensibility that, frankly, I believe improves on the original.

HOST: Improves on Shakespeare?

MILES: Just so.

HOST: Let’s look at an example or two to see what we’re talking about. Let’s see: “To be or not to bee, tHat is the question.” So far so good, but then, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the soilings annd arfrgub bahbah ba shgjckj festivvfalc hot coeds await yourr callsxhjtyp alkss.” It goes on for pages and pages like this. Would you call this an improvement?

MILES: You happen to have picked a bad example.

HOST: It’s the single most well-known passage in the English language!

MILES: And as a result, horribly clich├ęd, no? I see this as a sort of Dada-esque arpeggio, a riff on the expectations of the cultural elite.

HOST: Yes, but fifteen pages of nonsense sprinkled with obscenities and 1-800 numbers strains a reader’s patience. Some of these differences seem a little less than random. For instance, this is from act five, scene one of The Tempest. Miranda is speaking, and she says: “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! O brave new world, that has such monkeys in’t!” Or this, from the witches’ scene, in act four of Macbeth: “Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat banana banana banannabanana bananas banana banana…” and so on.

MILES: [smiling, eyes closed]Sheer poetry! I tell you, those monkeys can write.

HOST: Tell me, Miles, were you part of a government experiment that made you really smart?

MILES: Sadly I’ve come to expect this last question of yours. This is my sixteenth stop on this interminable book tour, and would you believe every last goddamned interviewer has asked me about the government experiment. There was no experiment! I’m just a typical monkey web consultant with literary aspirations. Is that so odd?

HOST: I wouldn’t expect you could talk about it.

MILES: There was NO experiment! Can we please talk about the book…

HOST: Of course there wasn’t. Now I admit this book or yours is pretty close to what Shakespeare wrote, but who’s to say that you didn’t just start with the original and work backwards? [Miles scampers off to the left] Miles… Miles! Come down from the lighting supports please. Come down from there.

MILES: [muffled, off camera] You’re as bad as those insufferable chimps! Nothing good enough from a monkey, eh? Go on with your “monkey business” jokes and your goddamned Ebola virus slander. I’ve had enough. Take that!

[monkey waste comes winging in from the top left of the screen, narrowly missing the host]

HOST: JESUS CHRIST! I have never…! [Bobbing and dodging] That’s all the time we have this week. Join us next week on “Good Books” when we interview the extraordinarily prolific author Anonymous.

[End of broadcast]

Mysteries of the Ancients

[Tranquility Bay, the Moon. We see a busy highway thick with car dealerships. Pan right to show a small motel]

VOICEOVER: It all began eleven years ago behind one of these nondescript motel cabins near the famous Tranquility “Motor Mile” here in the lunar lowlands. Arthur Wingtip, owner of the Uncle Art’s Komfort Kabins, was digging a hole for a new septic system when he hit on this.

[File footage of bent metal box on stilts being carefully uncovered by archaeologists. Cut to Art Wingtip.]

WINGTIP: Well, first off I reckoned it was just some old junk next to the irrigation ditch there, so I commenced to cutting it up for scrap. But it seemed mighty old and queer-like.

VOICEOVER: Mighty old, indeed. Carbon dating showed it was truly ancient in origin, dating to perhaps as early as the second millennium. Initial guesswork based on the design suggested it was simply an old Centaurian auxilliary launch. Yet, amazingly, subsequent investigation indicated it was of human origin. If true, this means that humans may have been on the moon over twenty five hundred years ago, fully seven hundred fifty years earlier than previously thought possible. Tonight on Mysteries of the Ancients, we probe the secrets of Tranquility and rethink ancient human history.

[Show intro graphics, sponsor product placement]

VOICEOVER: How indeed could the primitive humans of the second millennium have crossed the lunar divide so early? We began our investigation by talking to Col. Tarkus Ludlow of the New Cleveland Military Academy and author of the bestselling book, “Astride Lady Luna: Prehistoric Man on the Moon”.

COLONEL LUDLOW: Since humans weren’t up to the task of space travel, the big question is how else could this relic have gotten where it is? I’ve been working on several theories based on orbital dynamics. First I thought a massive meteor impact could have blown pieces of Earth, including this spaceship, onto the moon. Unfortunately an impact that large would have exterminated all life on Earth. Now I’m convinced that for a brief time in the latter second millennium the Moon orbited the Earth so closely it actually touched for months at a time. This means primitive humans were thus able to walk across a land bridge separating the two bodies, taking with them such objects as walking sticks, domesticated pack animals, and this proto-spaceship.

VOICEOVER: Col. Ludlow’s theory, while selling well in the bookstores, doesn’t impress Professor Friedrich Kronkel of the City University of New New New York on Mars.

PROF. KRONKEL: It’s absolute rubbish to talk of a land bridge; such an event is physically out of the question, and it ignores a wealth of evidence pointing at the real solution: alien translocation. We now know that the earliest Centaurian saucers were reaching Earth around this time, and within 1500 years Earth had become a popular tourism destination for Centaur. It would have been a simple matter for a Centaur visitor to pop something this size over to the Moon. The Centaurians have openly admitted, for example, that they built the so-called Egyptian pyramids dating from around this period.

VOICEOVER: Despite its obvious appeal, this theory, too, has its detractors, chief among them Dr. Felix Squidhammer, a historian and specialist in paleo-engineering from the State College of New South New North Carolina here in the lunar lowlands.

DR. SQUIDHAMMER: I’ve lived in this region my whole life, and over the years I’ve accumulated tantalizing scraps of evidence that indicate we’ve underestimated what these early humans could do.

VOICEOVER: Dr. Squidhammer believes that an early explorer named Leif Armstrong not only visited, but may have even started a colony on the Moon, a colony called “Greencheese” in the hope of encouraging early settlers to come to the then-barren Moon. But how? Dr. Squidhammer.

DR. SQUIDHAMMER: We’ve looked at a number of inter-planetary travel possibilities available to humans of this era. We ruled out a really really tall tower as being too bendy. For several years we thought they may have launched themselves with a giant slingshot, but our calculations showed that the elastic cable required would have been over 600 miles in length. It was only in the last year or so that one of my colleagues, Miles Kerdge, stumbled across an archaic “world wide web” page used by early scribes. It showed the design of a “trebuchet”, or bucket catapult, known to be in use in the second millennium. We believe a trebuchet a quarter of a mile high could have launched early man into orbit.

VOICEOVER: “Mysteries of the Ancients” decided to put Dr. Squidhammer’s theory to the test. We gathered 325 volunteers in Newcastle-upon-Earth in northern England to see if we could build such a trebuchet.

[Shot of a spindly trebuchet going up, not looking very stable. Teams of sullen men are pulling enormous cables in the foreground]

DR. KERDGE: [sunburned and sweating, squinting up at the structure] The more I study this period, the more I am impressed with what they achieved. We decided to dress our volunteers in clothing appropriate to engineers of the era: dark synthetic “slacks”, white shirts like this, this plastic pouch and talismans worn in the shirt pocket like so, and these curious eye protectors. Imagine banging pegs into hardwood all day long, clinging to scaffolding a quarter mile or so in the air, wearing only this simple outfit. Incredible, really.

VOICEOVER: Unfortunately, after three days in the heat hauling on cables to erect the device, more than half the volunteers quit. The unfinished trebuchet managed to fling a stoat six dozen yards, but proof of translunar insertion was inconclusive. The trebuchet theory must go untested for another year.

[Cut to the historic monument behind the Komfort Kabins in Tranquility Bay. We see tourists lining up to take pictures of the graffiti-scrawled vehicle]

Yet the indomitable spirit of man the discoverer continues. Someday we will unravel this mystery, even as we uncover clues to even more puzzling mysteries. Next week on “Mysteries of the Ancients”: The Hokey Pokey — What Was It All About? Coming up next, stay tuned for Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.


Dr. Nicholson Barnaby endlessly cluttered his small desk, peering at old photographs, pondering aloud. “Is this Ferguson from the first trip to Athens? Or is it that Irish fellow who joined us later? Not much Greek on him, but Lord what a drinker.” Terrence Carter, slowly mopping in the hallway, peeked in the door and smiled sweetly. Barnaby looked up briefly but was quickly back to his own thoughts. If this is Ferguson, then the woman must be his second wife Mariela, the dark woman with the hip dysplasia and no end of rude jokes. Mariela? Was that her name? Mariel. Muriel. What time was it anyway? It would not do to keep the Chancellor waiting.

“Is it time yet, Dr. Kota?” he called out, but Dr. Kota did not answer. Dr. Barnaby and Dr. Kota had shared a single spacious office for a good many of the twenty years both had been on the faculty, first at the beginning, then near the end. A good man, thought Barnaby, but will he help me with the Chancellor? Does he hold a grudge after all these years? The things a man remembers are always a puzzle. The photos helped some, exposing a fragment here and there of a vast fading riddle, but mostly they disturbed him, since many that so obviously included him were beyond recall. Other memories leaped up for no good reason. Doggerel from third grade: Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Jews, if you can spell that, I’ll give you my shoes. The hymns from church: Lead on O Kinky Turtle he would sing with the boys in the choir instead of Lead on O King Eternal. And they would laugh every time as though the joke were newly coined. He remembered the little Turkish boy who befriended him at the dig at Helicarnassus. One night after dinner Barnaby had shown the boy a simple sleight of hand with an old piastre coin. Easy trick really: the heavy coin drops unseen from right hand to left hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. But that child had viewed him with something like terror, as though the fabric of reality had torn and was in danger of shredding altogether. Those dark frightened eyes, wide and searching, he remembered those eyes and how they frightened him in turn.

“Dr. Kota, is it time?” Again the call went unheeded, and Barnaby thought about his last discussion with the Chancellor. Really I am quite able to teach. It was only that the Chancellor did not have the necessary information at his disposal. Dr. Kota will accompany me to the Chancellor’s office and put in a good word. Gravitas, gravitas, thought Barnaby. A serious demeanor and a stern word would put things to right. His eyes fell on the creased photo atop the messy desk. What was his wife’s name? Was that the Irish chap? Or it could be Ferguson. Mariel. Mariela. He pondered idly. If only he had something useful to strengthen his case with the Chancellor. Then he recalled the treasure he had uncovered in the archives that morning. Yes! I’ll show him the coin, he thought, as he drew it from his pocket and held its pleasing heft in his sturdy wrinkled hand. Good story in that. It was a splendid specimen, perhaps a fine old Alexandrian tetradrachm, brought to light during the course of his strenuous career. It looked vaguely familiar, and with what lovely workmanship! What pleasing symmetry! Just the sort of thing to begin his conversation with the Chancellor. This retirement he proposed overlooked far too much favorable evidence. He brightened as he considered the silvery object.

“Ah, Dr. Kota, here you are at last. Look here, look at this coin. Won’t the Chancellor be pleased?”

Terrence Carter nodded warmly and considered the coin. “That’s a nickel, Dr. Barnaby. It’s time for dinner.”


I don’t know much about computers, but I know opportunity when I smell it.

Too many people have been getting rich on this internet thing, and I can’t wait anymore and let it pass me by. So last week I answered a want ad on, quit my job at the Sporty Shoe, and took the train to Boston. Naturally, Mr. Perkins was upset, since he was losing his best salesman. But sometimes you have to think big and explore your options.

The interview at! is all set for tomorrow, and I think I’ve already got a place to live lined up. At the EarthyFoods SuperMart in Cambridge I met a nice woman named Eileen who has a room at her house that just opened up, real cheap. I’m really looking forward to eating healthy organic food from EarthyFoods. Not like the junk I used to eat back home in Connecticut.

June 16

Something funny happened this morning. The cabby who drove me to the interview was raving on and on about his rabid right-wing politics (“We need gun control! We need rent control!” He was all about control). Then, as we pulled up to the building, a funny feeling came over me. For some reason I can’t explain, I knew the next thing he was going to say would be true — I knew it with all my heart. It was like the voice of God. Just before I get out of the cab, he looked back and said, “Nice shoes, kid.” “Is that all?” I asked. He said, “If you want to make money, you need nuts.”

The interview went well enough. Naturally I had to be a little inventive about my marketing background, because who would give me a marketing job if they knew I had never had one before. How hard can it be, anyway? I think I sold them when I went on and on about how much I love soup. Every time I wanted to say “shoe” I just substituted “soup.” Simple! Internet startup, here I come!!

June 24

I got the job! I’ve settled into a routine in my new life here in Cambridge. I got the room at Eileen’s house. She lives with her boyfriend Colin, who happens to be from Hartford like me. I don’t think he likes me. He spends all his time trading old jazz records on (the online flea market auction site), but he says his true calling is ear-foot reflexology. It took me a while to figure it out, but it works like this: ear reflexologists understand your whole body by examining one ear. Foot reflexologists do the same thing with your foot. Ear-foot reflexologists can tell how you are by examining the tiny part of your ear that corresponds to your foot. Colin was really annoyed by the time he was done explaining it. When the FedEx guy showed up with a package for him, he jumped up and ran out of the room. Eileen gave an eyes-to-the-ceiling shrug and whispered “Pisces,” like that explained everything.

I headed out to EarthyFoods for some more groceries. Man, the food there is expensive! They don’t even have Froot Loops. I settled for Macrobiotic MegaMuesli and KarmaCow whole free-range milk. Next week I’m going to the BulkyMart. I’m tired of granola and leftover soup.

June 26

Work is going pretty well, except for my boss Mark yells at me a lot. I don’t think he likes me. My marketing job ends up being mostly lots of trips to KopyMat and OfficeWorld, and since I don’t have a car I’m spending a lot of money on cabs. I sent an email to a customer today where I forgot to put the exclamation point on “!” and Mark lectured me for like an hour about how I personally am wrecking his stock options and how they only hired me because of my shoes, but it was a big mistake. This is the first I heard about the options. I’m not sure if I have any or not. I’m still trying to figure out how they work.

When I got home, Colin was getting another FedEx shipment, and he kind of snorted at me and stomped upstairs. My milk had been removed from the fridge and dumped into my dirty clothes basket. There was a little note taped on the empty carton that said “MILK MAKES MUCUS!!!! THERE CAN BE NO MILK IN THIS HOUSE!!!!”

Eileen took me aside and said she was sorry she hadn’t told me they were strict ovo-lacto intolerant vegetarians. She also told me that even though she works at a copy store part time to pay the bills, what she really wants to do is own a health foods store and practice ayurvedic neuro-linguistic homeopathy. It took me a while to figure it out but she has all these little bottles of what looks like water that she says can change your mood. She gave me one labeled “Quixotic hope.” It tasted like water to me.

July 15

Mark got fired yesterday, because Gary the systems guy figured out that his whole hard-drive was nothing but naked pictures. My new boss, Ed, likes me even less than Mark did, as far as I can tell. I asked him about the options thing, and he screamed “Is money all you can think about at a time like this, Shoe-boy?!” I heard from Gary that he has a lot of options.

When I got home, I tried to make small talk with Colin. He was very grumpy because he was expecting a FedEx shipment. I asked him how the foot-ear thing was going, and he said “Ear-foot! It’s ear-foot reflexology, you milk-drinker!” Pisces, I guess. Anyway, he agreed to look at my ear for a while. It was very calming, and after a minute of probing my ear lobe he made a surprised “hmmmph!” noise, gave me a sharp look and said “Do you have any stock options?”

August 12

Still no options. I don’t think I can get rich if I don’t have options, but I’m not sure. Gary told me that! almost got bought out by the vertical food portal, but the deal fell through because they got bought by Now the KopyMat people won’t let me in the door anymore because our company stopped paying the bills. I had to go across town to the KopyKing, but my old boss Mark was working the counter there, so I kept going until I got to KuckooForKopies where Eileen works. Only she wasn’t there.

I found her when I got home. She looked completely distraught, like she had been crying for hours. She had caught Colin with the FedEx guy that afternoon. He swore he was doing a quick reflexology session, but I guess that didn’t explain what they were doing when she found them. I felt bad for her, so I said, “Why don’t you take one of those little drinks of yours so you can cheer up?” She kind of sobbed and said “It’s just water! I just pour water in there and write stuff on the label!” I was thirsty so I drank down one called Karmic Bliss.

August 18

Howard, the CEO, called us all in this morning and told us that! was folding. He said that had been first to market, and we never got into the game. I thought he was going to give us our paychecks, since I hadn’t been paid in a month, plus I had a wallet-full of cab receipts, but he just said “Sorry, there’s no money left. That’s it.” After the meeting, I went up to Howard and asked him straight out about the options. He laughed a little and said “There’s no more company… that’s it. Go home!” but I kept after him. After a while he said sure, he’d give me some options if it would make me feel better, and he sat down at his desk and wrote something up for me. I was too shy to ask him to explain to me how it all worked, but at least I got my options. I can figure it out later.

September 20

I decided to go back home. On the cab ride to the train station I had the same cabby as when I first showed up in Boston. I asked him if he remembered me, and he said, “Sure, you’re the kid with the nice shoes who stiffed me last June. Didn’t I tell it to you straight?” Mr. Perkins was sure glad to see me (just in time for the back-to-school rush), plus I was back in Hartford for only a few days when I saw a notice in the business pages: “ acquires resuscitated! to make dining megaportal” It took me a while to figure it out, but my options are looking better all the time.

The Star Chamber Answer Man

Spring has come at last to the editorial offices here at Number One Star Chamber Place, and not a minute too soon. We didn’t have a particularly tough winter here, but the thinly rationed sunlight of winter can cast a seasonal affective pall over even the mildest weather. Once the sun gets a chance to smear on the light in great thick greasy slabs again, it’s amazing how cheery the old place gets.

This week we turn to one of our regular features, the Star Chamber Answer Man, in which curious readers of the Star Chamber from all around the globe try to stump the indefatigable and eponymous man of answers.

Continue reading “The Star Chamber Answer Man”