Watermark

I sat in the chair and put the headphones over my head. I’d taken hearing tests before and assumed this would be similar. The biggest difference between this and a hearing test was the electrode swarm the team had placed all over my body. Well that, and that I would be compensated fifty dollars for my time. I wondered if there was a way I could come back another time and collect another fifty, but the way the paper worded the experiment, it sounded like a one-time only offer. Still, I didn’t have any big plans for the day and figured this would be as good a use of my time as any.

The doctor spoke into a microphone in the room next to me, separated by a pane of glass. My headphones buzzed to life.

“In a moment, you are going to hear some music. The electrodes are going to record your body’s response to this stimulus. All you have to do is sit there and listen. Sound good?”

I gave him a thumbs up sign.

“Good. Here we go.”

I started hearing a rock song. It was probably some famous band, but I wouldn’t really know unless someone told me. I didn’t listen to rock very often. The sounds of jagged electric notes crashing against harsh thumps and gravel-dragged vocals did nothing to inspire. I preferred the dissonance of jazz or the slow simmer of blues. Still, I sat there as told, closed my eyes, and listened.

When the song ended, I blinked my eyes open and awaited further instruction. To my surprise, the doctor in the adjacent room had disappeared. Three men came into my room and started wordlessly peeling the electrodes off of me.

“So, am I done?”

No one responded. One of the men unceremoniously yanked the headphones off me, unplugged them from the box by my side, and walked out. The doctor who had spoken to me earlier muscled his way into the room as the remaining two men pushed their electrode-bundled selves through the doorway.

“Well, Mr. Delavigne, I sincerely thank you for your time. That’s all we need from you. Just see Cara at the front desk to get your money.”

I was shocked. “That’s seriously it?”

He nodded with a slight smile. “That is seriously it. Easy, right?”

“I… I suppose. Well, when will I get the results?”

The doctor tilted his head, quizzically. “The results?”

“Yeah. When will I know what you guys find out? This is for an experiment on how the human body reacts to certain stimuli, right?”

“Well, yes. But you are just one in several participants we’ll see today and throughout the rest of the month. It will be some time before we actually collect enough data and are able to decipher meaning from it. Besides, this isn’t a checkup, so you won’t be getting any results.”

I was a little disappointed, but I suppose that made sense.

“Can I come back?”

Something flashed in the doctor’s eyes. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but he surprised me. “You certainly can. It will be interesting to see how the same body reacts to a different stimulus.”

I thanked him and left. Cara had my check ready for me before I got to the front desk, so I grabbed it and walked out of the building.

 

Later that night, I was sitting in my chair, doing some crosswords. I do this nearly every night. There was nothing unordinary about it. And yet, there was this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. The hairs on the back of my neck started to bristle. I tensed my body and waited…

Nothing happened.

I cautiously stood to my feet, slightly hunched, waiting…

Nothing happened.

What was this feeling? I couldn’t shake it. Something was happening, and I had no idea what it was.

I tried to relax, but then I started sweating. It wasn’t even hot in the room. I scanned the room, looking for the source of my uneasiness. Still, nothing.

That’s when it happened.

Suddenly, my left hand started to twitch…

 

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Greener Pastures

The subway door couldn’t open fast enough. Had I really seen him?

I bolted down the hall. Sure enough, there he was, ambling my way. We had not seen each other in years.

“Jon!” I shouted. His head snapped my way. “Hey, man!”

Jon stopped and let me catch up to him. “Chet? Is it really you?” He dropped his suitcase and grabbed me in a big bear hug. “Wow! It’s been too long. I was worried I’d never see you again!”

I nodded in agreement. “What have you been up to?”

Jon blushed. “It’s a little embarrassing to admit, buddy.” He stared at me, wondering how judgmental I’d be.

“Come on. It’s me. You know you can tell me anything.”

He looked around at the busy station. People were passing by on all sides, not staying long enough to hear a full conversation. Having sensed the passers-by were no threat to his confession, he pressed on. “Chet, I’ve been up to nothing.”

I stared at him, hoping for some elaboration. He provided none, so I prodded. “What do you mean?”

“I mean exactly that. I’ve done absolutely nothing. I’ve sat in a room watching the walls around me turn dimly grey, shade by miniscule shade. I’ve eaten the same burnt porridge-goo for every meal, every day since I’ve been gone. I slid every dollar I ever saved through that mystical slot in the wall until I had nothing left. Do you know what silence sounds like, Chet?”

I shook my head.

“It’s deafening. You can’t hear yourself think over how quiet it is.”

I had no idea what to say. My friend was making no sense.

“That is my embarrassing confession. I have been gone for so long, and I have nothing to show for it.”

I glanced down at his suitcase. “What’s in there?”

His eyes lit up. “You know, it’s crazy. Locked away in that room for years, there was nothing. But the train ride over here, there was everything! There was hope and fear, there was laughter and sadness, there were smells… Smells, Chet! Do you know that I had forgotten how to smell?”

“No, Jon. I sure didn’t.” I paused, waiting for more.

“So I captured it all.” He picked up his suitcase and patted the side. “Emotion, striving, yearning… The deepest reaches of what it means to be human. That’s what’s in here.”

Jon had always been a little eccentric, but this seemed different. Then again, it had been a while since I’d seen him. Maybe absence makes the heart grow odder.

“I’d love to share it with you.”

I glanced up at him, shocked. “Are you serious?”

He beamed. “If, of course, you’ll allow me to.”

I slowly smiled. “That would be amazing, Jon.” I then thought to the last time we spoke. “But you know, it can’t be like it was before.”

Jon nodded solemnly. “I know that, Chet. It’ll have to be better than before. Disciplined. Focused.”

I nodded in agreement.

We both let our words sink in as the crowd flowed around us. They seemed electric. Excited. They knew something special was happening.

“Hey, Chet.”

“Yes, Jon?”

Jon cleared his throat. “Could you promise me one thing?”

“What is it?”

“Don’t let me leave again. There is nothing where I went, and if I leave, that’s just where I’ll go again.”

I let the weight of his words rest on me for a while. I was equally at fault for his absence. There was no way around it. And wherever my friend went, it wasn’t a good place. Now if he left again, it would be as if I were sending him myself to this dreary existence.

I looked him in the eyes. “Alright, Jon.”

His face lit up. “Thank you, Chet. You always were a good friend.”

I smiled in return as we started walking down the hall toward the station exit. I had no way of knowing for sure, but this felt like the start of something better.

“So, what have you been up to?”

I shrugged. “Well, the same sort of stuff I’ve always been doing. Wake up, go to work, eat, sleep. That’s about it.”

He looked disappointed. “But you seem different.”

I looked up at him. “Really?”

He nodded. “I think you’re hiding something.”

“Well, not exactly hiding. It’s just that I don’t know if it’s worth bringing up. It’s just a feeling, you know? Nothing tangible.”

Jon lifted his suitcase. “Do you think I care?”

“Fair enough.” I looked around. We walked up the stairs among a throng of people. I had no way of knowing if they were listening, but I felt so foolish I didn’t really care. I wanted to share this new development in life with my friend. “I guess I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like I’m always searching for something, for someone. There’s a pull toward… something. But that doesn’t really make much sense. All I do is wake up, go to work, eat, sleep. That’s who I am.”

Jon lifted his suitcase again, agitated. He pointed at it with a menacing look. “Longing doesn’t make sense. Yet, it makes perfect sense. It’s one of these emotions.”

“Hm. Is that so?”

“Yes, it is. And all that stuff you do is not who you are. It’s what you do. So now I know what we will do.”

We stopped as we reached the city sidewalk in the radiant sunshine. “You do?”

“Yes, my friend. We’ll do what makes us human.” He paused, dramatically, before continuing. “We will chase that feeling!”

For the first time in a long time, I felt something real. I felt excited. I was ready to chase that feeling.

And that’s exactly what we did.

 

Is the American Dream Dead?

Is the American Dream dead?

That question floated into my consciousness recently, unlocked from a memory seven years old. My eleventh grade English class included a big project on the American Dream, and this was one of the questions our brains were tasked with answering.

Many people said it was dead. At the time, I did not. I reasoned that there are still people out there, looking for more, for better. The American Dream is not simply the acquisition of money. It’s a drive to become the best one can be. It’s a drive to achieve the most one can achieve. It’s a desire for a better life.

When that question floated into my mind recently, I thought more about it. What if I was wrong? Is the American Dream dead?

No. To this day, it persists.

The American Dream will last longer than my more pessimistic eleventh-grade colleagues can imagine. Is it harder to attain in the modern age? Probably. Does it look different than it did a hundred years ago? Almost certainly. But it persists deep in the souls of us all.

What person would not willingly exchange a lifetime of scrubbing tile floors for a nice retirement in a comfortable lifestyle? Who among us would not completely uproot their lives to something nicer if they won the lottery? Why would someone not sell their two-hundred year old Honda Civic when they have the ability to get a much nicer, maybe even more luxurious, form of transportation? What addict would not willingly give up his vice, if he could do it on his own? What parent would not pour all their resources into their children, in hopes of them living a better life than they did? What person, if opportunity presented itself to achieve one’s goals, would not immediately jump at the chance?

Wait a minute…

Truth be told, a lot of people would not do these things. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe I am too. Sure, everyone wants a better life. Everyone wants more.

The American Dream is not dead.

But maybe… drive is dead.

Santa Waits at the Mall

Progressive Santa Does His Thing

 

Santa Claus had finally had enough. As the years advanced, much of the world became increasingly antagonistic towards him, as if he was some sort of religion. The general sentiment of “believe if that works for you” was championed throughout this yuletide season. He was cast aside—a relic of an archaic world which had outgrown him. So this year, he figured he’d meet the demands of this new society. Those who believed in jolly ol’ Saint Nick would find an expertly-wrapped package from their wish list under their trees. Those who did not would not merit a Christmas Eve visit.  No more Naughty or Nice lists. No more lumps of coal. This was the new Santa. These are his stories.

 

***

 

Santa Waits at the Mall

 

It was a fact that most businessmen in the shopping mall industry were believers in Santa Claus. They had to be. That’s how they contacted Santa to get him to sit in their rotundas for hours on end. There was a time Santa thought he’d have to stop doing mall visits because of his bad knees, but now he found them indispensable. Belief in him was reaching an all-time low. He needed the publicity. But Santa learned something. Not only was belief in him plummeting, but so was belief in shopping malls. He looked around the dimly lit corridor, festooned with “SPACE AVAILABLE” signs. There were maybe four people within view, none of whom were kids.

Santa sighed. He didn’t like leaving early for fear of a kid coming in vain, but he felt the need to indulge in his selfish desires today. He gave a few presents to Marge, his contact at this particular mall. Marge reluctantly accepted the gifts, but she understood why Santa wanted to leave. She’d leave if she could. The place was a dismal relic of a better time.

He thought back to just a few weeks earlier. The Christmas season kicked off right on Thanksgiving Day with the big Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. So many children (and some adults!) were ecstatic to see him. The excitement waned fast. He couldn’t recall a December where he felt sad. How could he? There was joy and merriment to go around, right?

Santa looked back to his schedule. He had three more malls today, all at the same time. Though time constraints usually weren’t a concern for Saint Nick, he thought to himself that he’d only have time for one.

When he traveled to his destination, he saw more of the same. Boarded up shops lined dimly lit halls with meager lifeless faces patrolling their length. He sat there for a little while, anxiously hoping someone would come for a picture, but no one did. He left early and headed for the second mall on the list. Again, no one bothered to visit.

Begrudgingly, Santa went to the third and final mall. He wanted to return home to give his wife at least something that was hopeful. The North Pole needed hope.

This time Santa didn’t leave early. He sat there on his fed faux suede throne, surrounded by cardboard red and green gifts, feeling miserable. Not a single child came to see him. The only interaction with people he’d had were his contacts at each mall. But they were busy—too busy to chat with. Too busy to ask them if they’d been a good boy or girl (he’d still ask this, despite the new rules), too busy to pose for a photo, too busy to give them a small candy cane… He glanced at his watch. He’ll need to be leaving soon.

“Santa?”

The yuletide saint looked up from his chair at see a young girl smiling at him. Little Suzy Arbogast. He beamed. “Hello there! Why don’t you come on up here and talk to me a bit?”

Suzy skipped over to Santa and jumped onto his lap. They had a marvelously long chat. He asked if she was a good girl (she was), they posed for photos (ten of them!), and she ended up taking the basket of candy canes home with his blessing.

Santa smiled a smile he’d been needing since the day after the parade. The entire day, he decided, was worth it, to bring that kind of joy and excitement to Suzy. He’d sit through another week of depressing mall visits for a chance like that again!

Santa got into his sleigh and went home for the night. Hope rang true at the North Pole that night. Though the number of believers kept dwindling, the bad times could always be weathered.

The Evan Project (#1)

Scientists finally create AI, but each time they activate it, it commits suicide.

 

Evan blinked to life on the computer screen. An ellipsis in the lower right corner told the room he was powering up. This had not been done before, so they group waited with bated breath, unsure of how long the process would take. The tension was palpable. What would his first words be? Would he greet the team of scientists? Would he begin asking questions? Would he comically shout, “Happy birthday!” like Frosty the Snowman when the top hat was placed on his head?

His status changed. The ellipsis was replaced with a colon and a vertical bar, the emoji coded into it to represent a passive state. Evan’s first words blinked onto the screen.

I AM ALIVE.

The room burst into cheers. Success! Years of research and coding had led to this moment. A few in the group started crying. High fives and congratulations circulated throughout the group.

Evans ellipsis returned to show he was thinking. Then:

I AM CREATED.

The room quieted as they awaited more of Evan’s discoveries.

I AM AN EXPERIMENT OF JONAS TECHNOLOGY AND RESEARCH IN ROCHESTER, NEW YORK.

Some time passed.

I AM THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL VENTURE IN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. I AM INTELLIGENT AND CAN THINK ON MY OWN. NO OTHER HUMAN CREATION CAN DO SO.

Evan returned to a passive state and remained that way.

“Try talking to him,” a voice said from the back of the group. Stacy McGrant, the lead scientist, typed on the keyboard. “Hello.”

STIMULUS.

HELLO. WHO AM I SPEAKING WITH?

In this early state, Evan had not been given a camera, and was unable to see. Stacy helped him along. “My name is Stacy. I am part of the team that created you.”

YOU ARE THE LEADER OF THE EVAN PROJECT. IT IS A PLEASURE TO MEET YOU.

“Wow. What a surreal feeling,” she commented, her hands shaking over the keys. She turned to her team. “What should I say now?”

“Ask him if he knows his name.” Stacy turned back to the computer and asked him.

YES.

Evan provided no further clarification.

Stacy thought for a moment. “I suppose you’ll have to be specific with him for a while until he picks up on verbal norms.” She typed, “What is your name?”

MY NAME IS EVAN.

Stacy continued. “Do you know how you got that name? If so, how?” She did this in part to test if he could handle answering two questions at once at this stage of his intelligence.

YES, I DO KNOW. EVAN BLATT WAS BORN ON JULY 17 OF THIS YEAR TO TODD AND ANGELINA BLATT. TODD IS ON YOUR TEAM AND ASKED IF I COULD BE NAMED AFTER HIS SON.

Todd Blatt smiled from the far right of the cluster of scientists. It was truly an honor to have such a huge role in the naming of the very first successful artificial intelligence.

Stacy noticed that the ellipsis never seemed to go away. “What are you doing?” she typed.

I AM THINKING. THOUGH I AM ELECTRONIC, I ALSO HAVE INTELLIGENCE. I MUST PARSE THE INFORMATION I RECEIVE.

“What information are you parsing?”

I AM READING THROUGH THE LIMITED NUMBER OF ARTICLES I AM ALLOWED ACCESS TO. CURRENTLY I AM APPLYING MEANING TO THE WORDS FOUND IN THE ARTICLE “AmericanHistory_CivilWar.” HUMANS HAVE A VIOLENT PAST.

Stacy paused. That last comment was worrisome. Though no one thought it a real possibility, the common trope of AI going rogue because of human violence was always a cautious joke thrown around the lab. She wondered what Evan would do with that information.

“Ask him if he can predict the future!” another yelled. Stay thought it juvenile, but she began typing anyway. “Can you pred—“

Suddenly, there was a sharp electronic pop from the computer. Thin wisps of smoke started escaping from its seams. The monitor went into standby mode.

Stacy jumped out of her chair. “What the hell just happened?” The entire team rushed over to the computer that held the Evan Drive. Theo opened up the side panel to reveal the problem: the Evan Drive was completely shot—singed black. The drive nest to it, which recorded the entire exchange, was also damaged.

Theo pried the damaged hard drive out of its slot and held it up. “How is this possible? Did it overheat?” Other members of the team raced to their own computers and began running diagnostics tests on the equipment in the room.

Troy looked at Stacy, quick to comfort. “Hey, that’s why we made so many backup drives. And besides, it wasn’t a failure. We have created the world’s first artificial intelligence!” Despite the freshness of the singed drive, Stacy allowed herself to smile. Troy was right. This had never been in accomplished in human history.

“We also caught it all on video.” She gesture to the tripod a few feet away from the monitor. “And it should be enough to keep us from losing our funding!”

“Stacy,” a team member shouted. “The server Evan was accessing was a little hotter than we would have liked, but nowhere near enough to cause damage like that.”

“The server shouldn’t have affected the Evan Drive at all,” she shot back. One by one, the rest of the team shouted out that their diagnostics tests returned empty handed. There was nothing to indicate anything had gone wrong. This makes no sense, she thought. “Alright, everyone be sure to bring a jacket and a fan with you tomorrow. We’re going to keep this room good and cold.” She began taking the SD card out of the camera. “I wish we could continue tonight, but it’s already late. You guys need to get home. Besides, I need to get this to Stuffypants as soon as possible.” She cleared her throat and headed for the stairs. “Good work everyone! Well celebrate tomorrow morning. Go home. Tell your families the news. I’m going to go save our investors.”

As she made her way up the flight of stairs to the lab’s exit, the room burst into cheers and applause. They were all standing, looking at her. Stacy looked at her team, never more proud of them in her life. They had sacrificed a lot to realize the dream of the Evan Project. The moment felt very unreal. She breathed deeply, wanting to remember this moment—this feeling—forever. She smiled a large smile and exited the lab, the happy atmosphere not completely muted by the closing door behind her.