Thursday, December 29, 2005

735 Words –Global Warming in Libya, HSPs - opening

A cool easterly winds blows across fertile croplands of northern Sudan bringing monsoon rains off the Indian Ocean to southern Libya. I pick up my pace through the date palms to get to my dorm before the downpour. My burnoose flaps like laundry hung out to dry, but my concentration is on my meteorology lecture. The test is tomorrow, regardless of the weather.

“… In summary, global warming has arrived, not as expected, but with many lessons for Al Jawf University students. The first is, ‘Never ask scientists about the future.’ Scientists are empiricists, data-driven observers; why ask someone who studies the past to predict the future? If you want to know the future, ask the engineers. They know the future. Unfortunately, their predictive powers are restricted to things – like airplanes, nuclear reactors and tall buildings.”

Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.”

I blink three times and my iPod implant stops. I duck into the Kadafi Student Union, kneel east towards Mecca, and echo, “Allahu Akbar.”

“… Farmers in Canada and Siberia love global warming. Allah smiles on them. Their long-time fallow plains have burst into fertility, just as the traditional mid-latitude bread baskets gave out, even when coaxed with megatons of chemical fertilizer. Sea levels are stable, as equatorial rains increase. Praise Allah, the Sahara shrinks and sub-Saharan lands of famine become lands of fertility and feasting. Elsewhere Lake Bonneville returns, drowning Salt Lake City.”

The rain comes. Water pours off the domes, across the flat roofs, streaming down the walls. Like thousands of desert streams that come and go, these streams meander, evolving and mutating. Some momentarily reach hives bee have drilled into the sandstone walls. The workers swarm to the entrance, blocking it with their dispensable bodies.

“… And polar bears? Who knew? Polar bears dug deep into their genetic storehouse and uncovered a thinner, greener bear that thrives in the northern corn and wheat fields, saving the polar bear, Allah is merciful, and controlling the burgeoning deer populations, Allah is all knowing.”

The grass around the student union is alive with ants harvesting spores washed from the buildings. Ants work quickly, for wasps will soon arrive to harvest ants, followed by purple jays harvesting wasps. Tomorrow when the sun rises, all will have returned home and blue and green mushrooms will ring the building, Allah’s reminder of the miracle of life.

“… Green polar bear? The biggest surprise is the species explosion – scientists compare it to the Cambrian Explosion. New species are everywhere with thousands identified each year, not counting single-cell things like bacteria, algae and yeasts. Most are small insects, worms, spiders and plants, but no week passes without the discovery of something like green polar bears, flying monkeys, giant sea serpents or the Al Jawr date palm, a two meter tall bush that matures in one season and produces a sweet fruit that tastes like balaclava.”

The rain stops and I continue to my dorm. With the sunshine, comes crowds and protests, “Stop Illegal Immigration,” “Libya for Libyans,” and a lone placard “Feed the Children” showing a dirty starving child with the Eiffel Tower in the background. As I walk past the crowd, I pull my burnoose closed, hiding my red hair and freckles. Most of the real students accept me, but these crowds are often filed with paid protesters from the poorer parts of the city.

“… The cause? Heat Shock Proteins, HSPs. In addition to fighting cancer, a declining problem in the Global Warming era, HSPs regulate embryonic development. During times of stress, nature rolls the dice and prays for the best, Allah is all knowing. Birth defects are up among all species, including Homo sapiens sapiens, and the newer Homo sapiens ichthyes with gills and Homo sapiens aves with wings.”

A man carrying a cricket bat steps in front of me, “Salaam.”

I bow my head, “As-salaam alaykum.”

He lifts the bat to his shoulder and shouts, “Euro! Euro!”

I lift my burnoose and run. The bat bounces off my shoulder and I tumble into the fresh mud. Between the angry crowd and a storming drainage channel, I choose the channel. They stand at the edge shouting, “Unclean! Unbeliever!”

I struggle to remove my burnoose, but it quickly absorbs the water and drags me down. In the end I loose this struggle and am sucked into the deep current. Only my gills save me.

Monday, December 26, 2005

640 Words –Attila the Exterminator - Opening

“Do any of these sound familiar to you? Data cache full? HTTP Object not found? No such DNS name? You MIGHT have a nanoparticle infestation. Call Attila the Exterminator. Call right now before they build nests in your lights and appliances.”

I navigate my bike, overloaded with snoopers, transceivers, and lasers, through the narrow alleys of Old Town, bouncing over the cobblestones, past granite and stone facades and the ubiquitous shutters. In the country, the Swiss have flower boxes and in the city, shutters. I finally arrive at 107 Rue de Enigme, a narrow stone building, not far from where Henri Dunant founded the Red Cross in 1864, though this modest home certainly predates the Red Cross. I knock on the door and unload my equipment.

A young lady, with dark eyes and no eyebrows, dressed a black burka, answers the door.

I peered over my load of electronics, “Lady Gothchild?”

. “Mai oui. Hurry up, bring your bike into the vestibule, get out of the street. They may be watching.”

She grabs my equipment and puts it in shopping bags - Christian Dior, Armani, Gucci, Chanel, while I wrestled my bike inside.

“Pick up the bags and follow me.” With three shopping bags in each hand, I follow her down a rough stone staircase. I struggle to keep up with her over the worn, uneven steps. After twenty or thirty steps, we reach a damp tunnel.

This tunnel, cut into solid rock, must be centuries old and below the level of most basements. There are no wires or pipes, just candles every five or ten meters. When she raises her skirts over the shallow puddles, the candles reflect off her silver slippers.

We go up and down stairs and left or right at forks, but finally I can see light ahead.


We come out in an unfamiliar section of Geneva. It looks like an Old Town back alley, but I can’t be sure. We walk out of the alley, down a crowded shopping street and into a tea shop. A manicured hand with silver nail polish flashes from its black hideaway; she puts one finger where her mouth must be, “Shh,” and just as quickly it’s gone.

The proprietor, a short man with wild black hair, a bushy mustache, a blousy white shirt and a leather vest with appliqués of red and orange, greets us with a small bow, “Salaam, Lady Gothchild. The regular?”

Nothing else is said and we are lead to a booth in the back. I put my packages under the table and we sit. Tea is served in aluminum cups with honey cakes on aluminum plates. In silence, we sip and nibble for over an hour, while people come and go.

“Now,” she whispers. I grab the packages and follow. She passes through the curtain in the back of the shop and runs up a flight of stairs. I try to catch my breath staring into a large room with a single polished mahogany table.

“Put your stuff on the table and sit here,” she points with her black silk covered arm. The material reveals hints of the woman beneath. I imagine she smiles, as my mouth drops open and I take in the room decorated in bright silks – reds, yellows, greens and blues – pillows, curtains, drapes.

I wait for her to sit, but she doesn’t, so I sit anyway. Like a black spirit, she paces around the room while she talks. I follow her watching her dark eyes and her graceful parade, mostly hidden, but sometimes revealed.

“I know most of you nanoparticle, electronic virus, cyberpest exterminators are frauds – preying on superstitious technophobes.”

I stand up, “Oh no! I studied at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zürich.”

“Sit down, be quiet. You can be sure we checked you out.”

Sunday, December 25, 2005

1043 Words – Genie in the Desert

I look in the mirror, “Happy Birthday.”

Too tired to find my brush, I brush my grey hair back. My face looks like Georgia O’Keefe’s backyard in New Mexico, dry and eroded – my hands like desiccated bones covered in cellophane skin.

Walking Softly places my meal, corn mush, rice and beans, and apple sauce, on the little table beside my chair, “Last meal, would you like me to feed you?”

I get lost in his voice, so real and close, like the coyotes and the great horned owl, nothing like the faded old Peggy Lee records when my daughter Sally calls from Phoenix.

“I’ll miss you Katherine.”

I open my mouth for a spoonful of sweet apple sauce. Alfred and I hiked into the hills taking turns carrying Sally, she was two or four. At the top, all sweaty we found raspberries, so sweet. Sally’s face and hands were deep purple and when I did the laundry there was a large purple handprint on the back of my skirt.

Walking Softly folds my hands on my skirt, “Now remember, I’ll be back at noon. Are you packed? Do you have your pills?”

I didn’t want to go to Desert Sunset Nursing Home. Before Sally, Alfred and I backpacked in Nepal. Tall and blonde, with a purple backpack, people noticed me; little children came up to practice their English with me. Each night we pitched our yellow expedition tent and made love in the snow.

“Any family today?”

You’re my family. Sally might visit at Christmas and Alfred … Alfred’s across town with his third wife. “Alfred and Sally called to wish me a Happy Birthday.”

“See you later.” He’s gone. I’m alone.

The phone, hanging around my neck, rings. I put it to my ear and hold my breath to better hear, “Hola. G’day. Nihau. Bon Jour. Konnichi wa. Hello. Shalom. Ciao. Jambo. Aloha. Cherrio. Salaam. Namaste.”

I bring the little thing near my mouth, “Hello? Who’s this?”

A deep voice fills my trailer, “I’m your djinn, fairy godmother, genie, lottery ticket, computer virus.”

I close the phone.

The voice continues, “Three wishes. Three wishes. Three wishes.”

“I wish you go away.”

Later, I jump into Walking Softly’s pickup. He throws my suitcase in the back with his old yellow dog. We drive past rows of white trailers, I wave goodbye, and onto the highway. The ocotillos are in bloom and the saguaros are fat and happy.

“Ever hear of a genie in a cell phone?”

He laughs and turns into the gravel driveway, “Oh Katherine, maybe Coyote plays a trick on you?”

It looks like a funeral home, with red bricks and white columns, but they take me out back to a long stucco building of small rooms, like a cheap motel. When Sally was in high school we drove all around the country, Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa, Utah, looking at colleges. We stayed in cheap motels. Alfred and I quietly made love while Sally snored in the next bed.

That night, a young girl, with long black braids and crooked teeth, brings me dinner, “I’m Sally. I bring your meals, breakfast and dinner. You’re on the Santa Fe plan so the food’s very good. Tonight we have corn, rice and beans, apple sauce, and a glass of wine.”

“Sally? Did you say Sally? My daughter’s name is Sally.”

She feeds me some apple sauce. “My name’s Sally too.”

Her voice swirls around me like desert flowers after a summer rain. “Sally, ever hear of a genie in a cell phone?”

The apple sauce has a hint of cinnamon as it sits on my tongue. Alfred and I walked …

“Not exactly,” Sally interrupts my thought, “but I read about code objects flowing through the net stream, collecting in slow eddies, exchanging data genes, becoming self aware, alive.”

Sally scoops up the last bit of apple sauce, “But I think it’s all myth and superstition, like Coyote and Kachinas.”

She takes the dirty dishes and leaves.

I can’t sleep. The third time I get up to go to the bathroom, it’s already two o’clock. A lone coyote sings to the full moon lighting my room. I sigh, “I wish you came back.”

The phone, still hanging around my neck, vibrates. A voice surrounds me, “Hola. G’day. Nihau. Bon Jour. Konnichi wa. Hello. Shalom. Ciao. Jambo. Aloha. Cherrio. Salaam. Namaste.”

I jump up, dripping on my bare feet, “Hello.”

The voice laughs, “One wish left, my love.”

“Oh nice,” I glide back to bed and immediately fall asleep.

The next morning I sleep through breakfast, but I’m feeling well enough to walk to the cornet store. The old guy behind the corner, smiles at me, “What’ll it be young lady?”

I look through the glass cases, walking back and forth three times, examining the bear claws, éclairs, plains, crème-filled, and glazed, “I’ll have one of those raspberries jelly donuts and a latte.”

He slides open the door and reaches in with a crinkly piece of paper, “Excellent, I picked those berries myself, earlier this morning.”

With coffee in one hand and my donut in the other, I stroll along the highway.

One more wish. “Can I get my daughter to visit more often?”

My phone vibrates, “Sorry, I can’t change other people.”

I take a big bite from my donut, spilling jelly on my chin. I lick it off. I’m going to take a shower when I get back to my room. I’m going to wash my hair. Maybe, go to the salon tomorrow. “Say djinn, can you get rid of Alfred’s wife?”

“Sorry, same problem.”

That night when Sally brings dinner, I meet her at the door. Still holding the tray, she touches my shoulder and spins me around, “My you look very nice tonight.”

I take the tray and put it on the table, “Can I eat in the dining room instead?”

“Oh yes, you’re on the Santa Fe plan. Would you like me to show you the way?”

I spin her around and point her to the door, “No thanks, I can get there on my own.”

I skip off to the dining room; feeling like Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers, alive, sensual and sexy, wondering what to do with my last wish.

Friday, December 23, 2005

888 Words – Nancy, Carl, Jose – Artist in Space – Opening

Nancy never liked morgues – not the heavy smell of disinfectant unsuccessfully masking the odors of death and decay, nor the muffled silence of soft-soled shoes and rubber wheels on hard concrete floor. Silent death brought out primeval fears of dangerous nights on savannah before Homo sapiens rose to the top of the food chain.

Jose, standing behind the counter, interrupted his conversation with Carl, a stringer for United Press. His eyes moved from Nancy’s neck to her shoes and back, never looking into her eyes, “Hola Lieutenant, let me guess, you’re here for Jorge Lobos, the body brought in on the space shuttle last night.”

Cocoa Beach was a NASA company town. Everybody knew everybody. Nancy, the only detective on the local police force, usual investigated petty thefts from tourists, and Carl, with his liberal arts degree from FSU in a town full of science reporters, found his niche writing human interest stories.

Carl moved too close to her as she signed in, “Mind if I join you?”

Carl wore sandals, khaki shorts, and a fuchsia and orange Hawaiian short. A NASA baseball cap covered his bald head. His cheap after-shave reminded Nancy of dating in high school. They might have been at Cocoa Beach High, “Go Minutemen,” at the same time, but that was long ago.

“You know I can’t stop you, but isn’t this story a bit high profile for you?”

He stepped back, put his arms out and spun around like a carnival barker, “I don’t see anyone else. Do you?”

Nancy straightened her blue uniform jacket and followed Jose inside, “Your lucky day, isn’t it?”

Both Jose and Carl laughed, like at some shared joke.

“Wow, what’s that?” Carl pointed to round hole in the cheek, as big as his thumb, clear through to the back of the head.

Jose added, “Look how clean it is – no blood – nothing – never seen anything like it.”

“If you ladies don’t shut up, I will throw you both out.”

Nancy examined the body, taking notes into her recorder, “Hispanic male, 180 centimeter, 90 kilos, tattoo of pre-Castro Cuban flag on left arm, “God Bless America” on the right. No signs of trauma except for puncture wound with entry at left cheek and exit from right dorsal cranium. Wound is cauterized and seems to be coated in metal.”

She turned to Jose, “Do you have a magnet?”

He ran across the room, “Sure we have a good one – use it to retrieve nails and tacks from corpses.”

She pressed the magnet against the dead man’s cheek, “The hole is lined with iron or steel. Did you call Doc Winters for an autopsy?”

“No, NASA’s going to send in their own doctor.”

“Well, tell them I need a copy of the report.”

Nancy walked out with the two men following her, “Carl, do you know anything about this guy?”

He smiled, “Buy me a cup of coffee and I’ll tell you everything.”

The Orbital Coffee Shop was a long silver building with counter seats and a row of booths. As they opened the chrome door in the middle of the building, a sign with two arrows said, “Y’all seat yourself,” with “Smoking” to the left and “No Smoking” to the right. Carl and Nancy were not smokers, but they went left anyway. In this segregated diner, locals went left, and outsiders right.

Carl sat in yhe booth and leaned back with his hands behind his head, “He’s what I got from the internet: He’s a famous sculptor. Can you believe it? He has a studio on the ISS.”

“A studio on the International Space Station?” Nancy repeated for her recorder.

Carl leaned across the table, pushed the menu tent out of the way, and whispered, “Yup. He has a smelter and a forge and almost a ton of rare-earth magnets orbiting us right now.”

“Do you know how much that must cost? Shipments to the ISS are over $50,000 per kilo!”

Carl reached in his portfolio and pulled out some pictures printed on cheap fax paper, “But his sculptures sell for hundreds of millions. Here’s “World Peace” outside the United Nations, and this one is “Morning Tau” in front of the Bank of Japan headquarters, and here’s “Civilization” inside the new Iraqi Parliament Building. There’s lots more.”

Nancy stared at the large alien sculptures – a mixture of bubbles and filaments, intricately woven and balanced, but still unbalanced. It seemed like they tumbled in from another world with no natural up-down orientation. The closest thing in Nancy’s experience was scuba diving through the coral reefs. “How does he make them so delicate and so large?”

Nancy backed against her seat as Carl’s nose practically touched her and spoke very slowly, “Micro-gravity, liquid steel, magnets.”

Her cell phone rang, “Lieutenant Rodriguez.”

It was Jose. He told her that NASA decided this was a accident and they wanted to release the body – no autopsy.

“Hell, no! Just because we’re a small town, they can’t rush us. Tell them if they don’t order the autopsy, I’ll file this as a homicide and call in the network news crews.”

Carl pulled out his reporter’s notebook, “Did you say homicide?”

“No, I’m just pressuring NASA, but thinking about it,” she paused to consider her words, “after so many statues, an accident is hard to imagine.”

Thursday, December 22, 2005

754 Words – Gwynne, Rhian, Reece – Academic Relay

“The final series will go to the first team to win two rounds. Three points wins each round. Remember, as in all championship competitions, incorrect answers deduct a half point. Good Luck and wait for the gun.”

The Welsh champions raised their red dragon flag, and the crowd chants, “Cymru, Cymru, Cymru.”

Gwynne looks to her other two team members, dressed in white singlets and green shorts, “No one expected Merthyr Tydfil to win the Welsh championship, but we did it. No one expected us to qualify for the Commonwealth championship, but here we are.”

Rhian was in downward facing dog probably listening more to her music than to the team captain, but Gwynne continues, “Look at the other flags: the Scottish lion and the southern cross, but no St. George Cross. We, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, knocked out England in the semi-finals!”

Reece had his right leg on the team table, stretching his quadriceps and reviewing trig functions on his laptop, “No more pep talks. I’m too nervous already.”

Rhian dropped to child’s pose, “Yeah, enough.”

“On your marks.”

“I’ll go first,” Gwynne crouches down for the quarter-mile race to the question station.

The gun goes off and the three contestants dash to their stations. Australia reaches the station first, but evidently can’t answer the question, so he races back to send someone who can.

Gwynne clicks the controller for the first question. She jumps up and down as the screen slowly fills with a dark picture of a man with long curly hair wearing a white shirt and a leather jacket. Finally, the question appears: “Name the artist and title.”

She thinks, “Student of Rembrandt. Nicholaes Maes? No. Gerard Dou? No. Carel Fabritius? Yes!”

She shouts into the controller, “Carel Fabritius, Self Portrait.”

Wales scores the first point and the green and white section in the crowd goes wild. Gwynne clicks for the next question: “Two race cars drive away from each other on a ten mile oval. One goes 20 mph and the other goes 30 mph. When do the meet?”

Gwynne repeats the question as she races back, “Two race cars, ten mile oval, 20 mph, 30 mph, Two race cars, ten mile oval, 20 mph, 30 mph, …”

Rhian and Reece hug Gwynne, “What’s the next question?”

“Two race cars going around a ten mile oval, 20 mph, 30 mph, when do they meet?”

Reece turns to Rhian, “Get ready to run.”

He draws a picture in the dirt and explains, “In one hour, one car goes around twice, the other car goes around three times, and they meet again at the start. One hour, go.”

Rhian races the Aussie across the field. When she arrives, the score is tied one all. She doesn’t even read the question, she just shouts “One hour,” into the controller. A horn blares and the scoreboard shows Wales with just a half point. “Wrong?”

Reece and Gwynne look at each other. “You got the question wrong! I’m sure.”

Rhian recovers and clicks for the next question. It’s a musical question. She shouts “Blue Moon, Elvis Presley version,” and clicks for the next question. It’s a Shakespeare quotation, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.”

Now it’s Rhian’s chance to jump up and down. “King Henry VI, Dick the butcher!”

She’s scored a double. The crowd goes wild. Wales had evened the score with two and a half. Each team needs one more point. Rhian clicks for the next question. It’s math again. She doesn’t even wait for the question to scan on the screen before she’s racing back wilding screaming “Reece! Math! Reece!”

Reece reaches his hand out and waits for the tag and he’s off. On the way the Scots get one wrong and are down to one and a half, but they immediately get the next one to tie the score at two and a half, but they’re running back for someone to answer the last question.

Even if the Scots seem to be out of it, the Aussie’s are catching up to Reece. He recognizes the Aussie from the semi-finals; they have a math question too! The Aussie gets to his station first, but he starts typing into his calculator.

Reece reads, “One grain of rice on the first Mancala pit, two in the second, four in the third, and so on. How many grains in all?” Reece doesn’t pause, “Two to the fourteenth minus one or 16,383.”

The crowd goes wild. Wales has won the first round.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

1544 Words – Population Topics – Population Crash

“Since the Spanish introduced land ownership, California real estate has been the safest bet on the planet.”

The big screen in front of the class displays a montage of early California images, including the 18th century Spanish Missions, gold mining and railroad camps from the 19th century, and vineyards and subdivisions from the 20th.

“That is until the last ten years when urban populations crashed. The 2040 census revealed a 90% decline for big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and at least 50% for smaller cities like Bakersfield and Fresno.”

The students dutifully take notes from a series of population graphs and tables. The pictures of Market Street and Westwood Boulevard deserted make very little impression these UCLA students.

“Even with growth in places like Quincy and Alturas and similar crashes across the country, California’s congressional delegation decreased significantly, and along with that the state lost billions of federal dollars.”

Clips from vintages film like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon dramatize urban populations of fifty years ago.

Except for the population numbers, my Population Topics students pay more attention to their personal screens than my lecture. I can imagine them thinking, “I spent an hour on the train for this?”

I walk to the back of the room – an old teacher trick to wake everyone up as they have to turn around, “Did the population really crash?”

Several students search through their notes in panic looking for the answer.

“You can turn off your netbots and nanotes, it’s time to think?”

A few students look up, but most of them search more frantically.

“Let’s start with an easy question. Where do you live?”

Lots of hands and lots of shouting: “Baja!” “Death Valley.” “Oxnard.” “Big Bear.” “Palomar.”

“And how long is your compute?”

Again: “45 minutes!” “55 minutes!” “Over an hours.” “37 minutes.” “An hour 15 including the walk to the train station.”

“And why don’t you live in the city?”

Like mindless parrots: “Crime!” “Crowds!” “Pollution.” “Noise.” “Gangs.”

“This week’s homework is a 2,000 word essay on the causes of the Urban Population Crash.”

As they roll up they screens, I add, “A little hint, I’m one of the 10% left in Los Angeles, and I can assure we have no crime, crowds, pollution, noise nor gangs. So think again.”

As they walk out, I smile, “or think for the first time.”

I also rush out. My refrigerator is empty and nothing will be open after the last high-speed commuter trains leaves for the deserts and mountains. I pick out a couple of nice salmon steaks for dinner – my one extravagance. A nice salmon steak costs as much as three prime ribs or five bottles of red wine.

“Sally.” I wait for her to answer.

“Hola, Mike.”

“I’ve got salmon. How about you spend the night in the city?”

Sally and I have been dating for years, but her first love is her cats. She lives in a new community in Death Valley where her cats can sleep in the sun and chase the occasional lizard.

“Sorry dear, already on the train and over the San Gabriels, maybe tomorrow.”

I return one of the salmon steaks to the shelf and think back to my class, “Say Sally, you study cities, why do you think everyone’s left?”

She’s an urban anthropologist. We both like cities. How can she be an urban anthropologist and live in the desert with 47 cats and no neighbors.

“I left for my cats. They like the desert.”

“Do you think 90% of LA’s residents left for their cats?”

“Of course not, but they left for millions of individual reasons, but my studies show the reasons fall into two categories: quality of life and self-image.”

I adjust my earphone, this might be a long discussion, “Well the good news because the quality of life is now better in the city, maybe not for cats, but certainly for people.”

“As you sure? Who wants to live somewhere that was paved over 50 years ago?”

“Fashions change. People will move back to the cities, they always do. Nothing rises or falls forever, life is a cycle. Even the Pioneer spacecraft, over 20 billion kilometers away will eventually return.”

“Oh dear, another call, I’ll talk to on the way in tomorrow.”

I scan the headlines, “Salmon on the road to extinction.”


“Extinction: the process in which groups of organisms or species die out; the end of evolutionary progress.”

The big screen shows dinosaurs, dodos, carrier pigeons, and a wild collection of alien life forms that never made it past the Cambrian explosion.

“What is the difference between evolution and extinction?”

The class stares back at me probably hoping that this is a rhetorical question.

“What are the similarities between evolution and extinction?”

Now they figure it out. Two brave students raise their hands.

I point to the first student, a woman with straight black hair, in the front row, wearing the school uniform, “Both cause changes in genetic diversity.”

“Excellent thinking,” I repeat the answer while she smiles and the others diligently take notes.

I point to the other student, a man dressed in green, wearing green eye shadow and nail polish. “However,” he pauses for impact, “one increases the diversity and the other decreases it?”

“Really? Which is which?”

He turns to see if everyone is taking notes, “Extinction decreases diversity, species are lost, and evolution increases diversity.”

I just can’t believe how many students think watching the news is research, “Are we talking about species diversity or genetic diversity?”

A woman in the back row, resting her big black boots on the chair in front of her and wearing a t-shirt that says, “F--- Off!” stands up, “I get it. Species evolution rarely involves significant genetic changes, just variation in time and place of developmental expression. Thus, neither process makes much impact on genetic diversity.”

She sits down adding, “I bet most of the dinosaur genome is still around in its evolutionary descendents – including us.”

The big screen shows the four DNA building blocks cytosine, guanine, adenine, and. Thymine, and the twenty amino acids swirling around a double-helix motif.

“Genetic evolution and extinction do not exist. Life on earth, and Venus, Mars, and Europa all use the identical genetic code. Nothing has changed in billions of year, maybe longer.”

More frantic note taking.

“Even species extinction is difficult to support, as the famous Ivory-Billed Woodpecker thought to be extinct for decades, or the Gladiator insect thought to be extinct for millions of years, turn up alive. Remember populations rise and fall.”

The woman with the big boots jumps up, “Don’t you mean observed populations rise and fall?”

Wow, I think, this one can think.

I walk to the back of the room and stand next to her, “You’re right. Our population statistics are estimates. The actual numbers could be higher or lower.”

I spin the remote in my pocket and the screen lights up with a school of salmon swimming up stream. The speakers blast out the sound of splashing water.

I look at her and realize she’s older than most of the other students, “What’s your name?”

“Clarisa,” she smiles.

Wrinkles! She’s closer in age to me than the students.

“So here is a population that has famously crashed. How do we know?”

Students shout out, “The fishing catch has declined.” “Overfishing.”

“Oh?” I like to give them plenty of line before I reel them in.

“Commercial fishing.” “Pollution.”

“Interesting, but the answer is evolution.”

I scroll the remote again and the screen shows salmon spawning around deep-sea smokers. The room quiets down and they whisper to each other, “What’s that?” and “Is this real?”

“This is the latest footage from the NOAA deep-sea survey mission. These are Coho Salmon spawning 2,000 meters under the ocean.”

I roll the remote again, “And these are schools of salmon swimming around the mid-Atlantic ridge. These salmon have evolved to avoid their predators.”

“Don’t forget your essays for the next class.”

“Sally.” The communicator buzzes. No Sally.

“Clarisa, Population Topics student.”

I’m not supposed to do this, but the infobase beeps anyway, “Address.”

“Confidential in Pasedena.”

My heart races, she lives in the city!


“The essay mailbox will be locked in one minute. Turn in your essays.”

I wait for the buzz to die down as they net their homework.

“You’ll all get credit for the logic and creativity of your arguments, but A’s only go to people who got the right answer. After all, this is a science class, not a creative writing.”

“If you walked the city streets, even for a single night, instead of jumping on the train, you’d discover that like the salmon, city dwellers have evolved to avoid their predators – the government. They live rent free, only needing to take the train on monthly school visitation days when their children must show up in class, and when they need medical attention.”

“Just as there was no extinction, there was no population crash. The people are here, only they are counted elsewhere.”

Except for Clarisa, the class seems pretty angry.

On the way home, I try again, “Clarisa, Population Topics student, address.”

After the beep I hear, “132 Hyacinth St, Pasedena, Phone code: A23-HJ47.”

185 Words – Averi, Mondev, Trisegy – Miniature Golf

Trisegy cart wheels down the mini-golf fairway, her short white skirt and neon orange top flouncing up and down with each turn, “Hole in one!”

Averi throws down her putter, and shoves her hands in the pockets of her relaxed-fit jeans, “I quit.” She makes that face where she sucks in her lips and squints her eyes, “Before they throw us out.” Looking at Mondev, she adds, “Again.”

Mondev picks up the putter and hands it back to Averi, “Please everyone’s looking at us.”

Averi snatches the putter, “Looking at her you mean. She almost beaned that guy on the last hole, and his date on the previous hole.”

“Maybe we should leave. Trixi, even with your hole in one, you’re still twelve over par.”

Trisegy smiles and blinks her eyes, “Well, a hole in one should erase all that.”

Averi laughs, “Whatever.”

Devi truns to her, “Your dainty putts, did even worse - thirteen over par.”

Averi doesn’t respond, she’s already at the counter returning her putter.

“Well, I win, only two over par, and I say we have more important thing to do.”

Friday, December 16, 2005

1081 Words Peter – Rocks been around long time, they’re strong and they know everything.

“Empty your pockets.”

Peter stops in the middle of the dirt road in front of George Washing Carver Elementary School, drops a brown paper sack, and reaches his hands into the big pockets on his Faded Glory® cargo pants.

His mother picks up his lunch in one hand and grabs a thin arm in the other, “Not in the middle of street.”

He reaches back into his pockets and extracts some gravel. With each handful, he throws a half dozen blue stones towards the one-room school house. Most land silently in the soft red dirt, like so many blueberries in a strawberry cobbler, but a few hit granite outcroppings, clicking and tapping a short dance before encircling their larger kin like so many worshippers.

“Here, hurry up.” Peter grabs his lunch and runs toward a weathered wooden door, just as Miss Magd’lin steps outside to ring the bell. His mother wraps a quilted shawl around her shoulders and slowly starts back to the farm humming, “Rock of Ages.” Her bare feet leave no footprints on the hard road.

Peter throws a last handful of blue stones in the direction of faded yellow daisies on his mother’s cotton skirt. He looks up at Miss M, opening his lips to prepare an apologetic smile, but she’s looking elsewhere. The smile fades and he walks over to the other primary students – two first graders, four second, and a single third grader.

The primary students sit in front of the room, each in circle painted on a carpet. The upper grades, only four of them, sit at desks, silently copying from their books whatever Miss M writes on the board for them to do. The single teenager earns fifty cents an hour watching the kindergarten.

“Sharing. Peter it’s your turn today.”

He reaches into his backpack and takes out a dark gray shard of granite with silver flakes that sparkle as he tosses it hand to hand like a circus juggler. Miss Magd’lin leans forward and puts her hands on the arms of the old Maple rocker as if she’s going to get up, say something. She takes a deep breath and looks at the other children. They continue their chatter, taking no special note of the rock.

She seems to change her mind and relaxes back in the chair, rocking back and forth as Peter matches her cadence with the rock.

“This morning the Country Sheriff drive to my house. I don’t see him. I heard sirens. I hear crashes. My dad roll big boulders, he’s strong, into our road to keep salesmen away.”

Peter stops here. The rock and rocking chair move in unison. Miss M again scans the children. The first graders stare at the stone, as if they’ve never heard this story. The others follow Miss M’s example and wait politely.

“Christmas, my yellow hound dog, always sleep in the middle of the road. We have no car. I’m scared they hit Christmas, but Sheriff hits brakes. Christmas wake up and runs. Everything’s okay,” Peter flashes a big smile at everyone, but only the first graders notice; they smile back.

Peter holds the rock still. His little knuckles get white and his finger tips red, as if he’s struggling to contain a wild animal. The children get quiet and the rocking chair stops. Peter tells this story a lot. Miss M even called the County Board of Ed to ask what to do,

“Should I take away the rock?”

“What about the other children?”

“What should I tell his mother?”

The busy voice on the other end of the line always says something like, “Y’all just teach them their number and letters.”

Peter dropped the rock. Tears dripped down his hollow cheeks.

“This rock, he holds it up with both hands, flies and sticks into the eye. Christmas howl louder than Sheriff siren. The siren stops. Christmas is dead. Sheriff drive away. I grab this rock and run.”

Miss M recalls that the Sheriff brought out bloodhounds and the volunteer posse to search for the little boy. After two days, they found him hiding between two granite boulders less than a mile from home.

Peter picks up the rock and puts it in his pocket, “Rocks been around long time, they’re strong and they know everything.”

At lunch, Peter sits on his favorite rock and looks into his brown bag – peanut butter sandwich, a carrot from the garden, and a white box of Apple juice with the big black letters USDA on it. He reaches into his pocket and finds a few remaining blue stones. He opens up his sandwich and carefully embeds them in the peanut butter. He closes the sandwich, throws the misshapen carrot into the weeds, and eats the rest of his lunch.

After school, Miss M stands on the front stairs, waiting for Peter’s mother, “Mrs. Browne, he brought the rock to school again.”

The mother looks at the ground, like she might be looking for the rock, “I’m sorry. I hope the little ones didn’t get upset.”

Miss Magd’lin lifts her arm towards the older woman, but appears to change her mind, “No, don’t worry, they were fine. I’m worried about Peter; it’s been over a year.”

The mother takes a deep breath; her shawl opens, uncovering her prominent shoulder blades and child-like flat chest. Moving closer to the teacher, she whispers, “His dad’s in the hospital – kidney stones – be home soon.”

She turns around; Peter’s walking slowly toward home, “Should I keep him out until then?”

“No, please send him to school.”

Mrs. Browne catches up with Peter and reaches for his backpack.

He grabs the straps, “I can carry it.”

They hold hands and walk towards the setting sun.



“How was school?”

“Good. I learned to spell ‘bill’ and ‘fill’ and ‘will’ and ‘hill’ and …”

The autumn wind blew across the harvested fields of soybeans. Small dust devil’s danced from furrow to furrow. The white Queen Anne’s Lace and yellow mustard at the side of the road bowed with the breeze occasionally bouncing back, only to be pushed over again.

She held the boy’s hand tightly, like she was afraid he’d run away, “Daddy’s not coming home. It’s just you and me.”

He kicked a rock in the road, “Will he be home for Christmas?”

“No, never,” a tear ran down her face, “never, never.”

He reached into his pocket and handed a sparkling object to her, “Here you take this.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

1328 Words Ansped, Bivite, Quamem – IIT Graduate Entrance Exam

In one week, my graduate school entrance exam. One chance to pass, but how? I built a database of lecture notes with sample programs for concurrent processes, communicating objects, exception handlers, schedulers, ray tracing. Just for good measure, I added a random collection of low-level objects like storage allocators, B-trees, bubble sorts, and lists, but way I can remember all of this for the test.

The Mangalore harbor ferries greet each other with long, deep Halloo’s and short blasts of “Me, me, me.” The sun is still hidden behind the Western Ghats, but it’s time get up. I reach across to shake Quamen’s narrow cot, but he’s already up.

He walks in the door and throws a fish at me, “Rainbow trout! Trout for breakfast! Isn’t life wonderful, we write computer programs for the Americans and they send us trout to dump in the rivers for fishermen to catch?”

Bivite rolls out of her cot and runs a brush through her long black hair. I pretend to look for the fish in my bed, while the morning sun shines through her thin pygama. Soon she’s in the kitchen, next to Quamem. Tea and fish, tea and fish, always tea and fish for breakfast.

I pull on my jeans, a Microsoft® t-shirt. I stumble around our only furniture, three narrow cots and a low table, and stacks of textbooks, finally leaving them - standing so close together, cooking breakfast on our two burner stove on top of the frig.

I’m out the door, down the hall, and up the stairs to the WC.

Bivite hands me a couple of fried fish wrapped in old exam papers, and my thermos of tea, “Here, let’s go. We’ll miss the train.”

We run through the dirt streets, past stalls selling, fresh fish and fruit, traditional spices, video games, and cheap netglasses. When we settle in the train, we all put turn on our netglasses to check email.

Bivite laughs, and we lift our glasses in anticipation, “Oh nothing, just wondering why Indian plumbing is so primitive, but our network is so advanced.”

The train speeds over the Ghats and through the jungle, but at over 200 kliks, I rarely look out the windows. Besides, I need to study.

“The big test’s in a week.”

Quamem knocks my netglasses off, “Quit your worries!”

Bivite picks them up for me, “Yeah, just relax.”

I try to laugh, “Easy for you to say.”

I hate high-stakes testing – one test, no undo, no redo, no backtracking, no stack popping, no second chance. For those quick ones, like Bivite, with her gigaflops, or the smart ones, like Quamem, with his unlimited RAM – no worries. Me? Infinite loops, bad links, sweaty palms. I’m just no good under pressure.

In three hours we’re at the lush green, forested campus of Madras IIT, in time for our 9:00 lecture.

Bivite walks down the long aisle to the front of the lecture hall, “Trig functions, don’t you just love numerical analysis?”

We follow her, silently taking seats in the front.

Though I wish I could skip “trig functions,” I am really happy to be here. I grew up in a village with no plumbing, but, of course, a terabit network. Before I was out of diapers, mom got me a controller that fit my little hands.

I moved the joy stick, pressed the buttons, and a wonderful universe came alive and I was in charge. From that day I knew what I would be when I grew up: Universe Builder. Now, I had to pass this exam, or else.

“What happens if we fail the exam?”

“Quiet, listen to the lecture.”

Quamem poked me in the ribs and whispered, “They’ll throw you off the train at Bangalore and lock you in a big room of phones to answer questions from stupid American who can’t read instructions.”

Bivite laughed.

At lunch we had rice – that’s all poor scholarship students like us could afford in Madras. Fortunately, things are much cheaper back in Mangalore, not to be confused with the high-tech Bangalore, the most expensive of all.

“I saw you guys playing games in lecture. It would serve you right if the exam question was on numerical analysis.”

Quamem took a big mouthful of rice drenched in hot oil, “They’ve never put a heavy math question on the exam. It always some application – graphics, databases, network protocols.”

After a drinking his Coke®, he added, “Besides, I’ll just memorize this stuff the night before anyway.”

I sigh, “One question, all or nothing, I so nervous I can’t sleep.”

“You slept fine last night, and in lecture the day before.”

But, tonight I don’t sleep. I stay up all night trying to hack into the exam computer. I try worms and viruses, protocol stack overflows, password crackers. I search printer queues and email traces. I sniff the packets and scavenge temp file.

“Wake up,” Quamem dumps me on top of a stack of books. I look up and catch a glimpse of Bivite’s bare calves, but I’m back to sleep. After a few more hours, I struggle to the train station to make the afternoon lecture.

On the train back that evening, I wonder out loud, “You know I have a database of all my lecture notes and program samples, do you think I could use it during the exam?”

Quamem smacks my shoulder, “Sure if you wanted to be thrown out.”

Bivite smiles, “Interesting question. Interesting question.”

I’m so tired. I doze off, my eyes half-closed, staring at the jungle. Monkeys line the side of the tracks watching us go by, just laughing and playing.

Quamem bumps me, “Look at them! We’re their gravy train. Most animal aren’t smart enough to get out of the way of such a fast train. When we pass, the monkeys collect dinner off the tracks. Smart, smart.”

“You know, it could be done. You could put you data base on the library computer. We’re allowed to use it during the test.”

Now that Bivite opened the discussion Quamem is full of ideas, “Or you could replace your netglasses browser with the DB.” He jumps up, “Or even better, you could append it to the exam workspaces.”

“You two are brilliant. That’s why you’re not worried.” I fall back to sleep.

However, I spend a night hacking the library with no luck.

“You better get some sleep or you’ll certainly fail.”

Bivite is right, with only a few days to the exam, I must sleep.

But I still have hours every day on the train. After two round trips between Mangalore and Madras, “Quamem, you know what your problem is? Your ideas are impossible. The netglass browser is all in ROM, hard coded, can’t be replaced.”

“Sorry buddy, that’s what you get with those cheap glasses.”

“You didn’t really try that did you?”

“Oh no, I was just curious to see if it was possible.”

The exam workspace trick doesn’t work either. Now I really can’t sleep.

“I can’t sleep. I’m not going home tonight. I’ll stay here for the all night review session.”

The next morning, I meet Quamem and Bivite in front of the exam room. The hall is the size of a cricket pitch. Twenty rows of tables, each with a full programming console.

Bivite stares at the ceiling, “Wow, look at that, copper clad. We’re in a giant Faraday jar. They’re really serious about cheating.”

Quamem steps over the cables, “You are right. I haven’t seen a cable network since, … since never!” He laughs.

Bivite hands me my thermos of tea, “Good Luck.”

I look at my exam ticket, “Desk 12, row K. This is just like the call center job I’m getting next week.”

The clock spins slowly to 9:00. My mind is spinning from last nights review session - concurrent processes, communicating objects, exception handlers, schedulers, ray tracing.


I open the exam, it says, “Build a database to store lecture notes.”

Monday, December 12, 2005

940 Words Al, Betty, Gem – Triton Trek

ANNOUNCER: Sports fans, we interrupt the World Cup Soccer match, for the exciting start of the Triton Trek. Just five hours ago, the starter flashed, and the teams took off across the frozen nitrogen for the 2288 third centennial race around Triton. Over four billion kilometers from home, hundreds of degrees below zero, eight thousand uncharted kilometers through the toughest environment in the universe.

Small moguls refract the sunlight in displays of blues and violets. Skimming across the frozen nitrogen at 60 kliks, Betty recalls ice skating the Ontario canals – cold, but beautiful, and sometimes deadly. Following the long shadow of the rising sun ahead of her, Betty races to stay ahead of the inevitable sunset. She checks the tension on the two carbon cable trailing back at forty-five degrees angles – Al to the right and Gem to the left. The left cable is taut, but the right cable, “Al, shorten your sails, you’re too fast. Remember we don’t want to outrun the sunlight.”

“Damn it, Betty, what do you think I’m doing out here? You think I want to freeze to death on this rock? There, I’ve got it.”

The cable tightens and Betty checks the aerial visuals and the radar. The shadow track still looks good. “Gem darling, how you doing?”

“Fine mom. Is this what Ontario is like? It’s so big and the gravity is wonderful, just wonderful.”

Gem was only four years old when Betty and Al joined the Amazon Farms team and set on the twelve year journey to the starting line. Betty wondered if the trillion credit prize was worth trading Gem childhood. Gem was the only child in the race. Everyone else was like Betty and Al, in their thirties and forties, and most would be in their fifties if they survived to return, “Earth is different, but conserve your energy dear, we have another 150 hours to go.”

ANNOUNCER: Twenty-four hours into the Triton Trek, the sun is still behind the racers as they glide across plains. Look at that, like an enormous diamond. Beautiful from up here, but potentially deadly to the racers. Recall, the last race was cancelled after three of the five teams died. But this time we have seven teams – lucky seven.

There’s the Amazon Farms’ team. Look at that perfect square! With Betty in the lead, two black cables stretch a kilometer back to her husband and daughter. Here is a picture Gem, straight black hair, a big smile, and tall, almost two meters. If this team wins, she’s going to be the most popular twenty-something on the planet. Of course, the trailing corner carries their nuclear reactor. You can see a few more squares and over there is the Antarctica Apartments’ team in the traditional straight line.


Betty looks at Gem’s cable tension, it’s doubled and rising. “What happened?”

“Crevice, I hanging, falling. Help me.”

Betty drops her sails and her sled glides to a stop. “Al, Gem’s in a crevice. I’ve turned on my winch. Tack over to her, she may need your crane to lift out.”

The winch spit out sparks and soon Betty was buried in a fog of methane as the motor heats up.


“Al, hurry up!”

“I’m almost there. I can see the cable’s fog line.”

“Mom, I can see the edge.”

“She’s just a few meters from the edge. I’m lowering my hook.”

“Damn! No! No!”


Betty’s sled jerked towards the Al’s, now visible less than 500 meters away, “Oh no, the reactor.”

Betty hits the red button and her sled screws itself in to the ice. Gem and Al are both being dragged into the crevice by the reactor. She turns on the winch for Al’s sled. “Al back off from the edge. Now! Screw in!”

With Gem and the reactor trapped in the ice, Al close to the edge, she watches the cables, praying that they hold, wondering if the chance to move to a lower latitude was worth the risk. The thought that carried her through four and a half billion kilometers of space, reassures her again: Gem. Gem would not have to hibernate through the cold winters as she did, bundled in blankets without heat. Gem can live in the comfortable tropics and spend winters on the beach.

“Hold on Bess. I’m raising the reactor. It heavy.”

“Mom, the crevice is closing. It’s breaking my mast.”

Betty turns on her winch. “I’ll try to get you out from here. Dad’s lifting on the reactor. We’re all dead without it.”

“The mast is going to snap!”

Betty unscrews her sled and hoists her sails. “Release your mast. I’m coming to get you.”

“Bess, I’ve got the reactor out, but the crevice is closing.”

Betty turns the winch to full power to pull her towards Gem, “Mommy’s on her way.”

“I’m going to be stuck.”

“Turn on your emergency heater!”

Betty can see the nitrogen and methane steam ahead of her. She drops her hook into the fog. “Gem, let me know when your hooked on.”


Betty grabs the lift cable as if she can add to the motors and pulleys. Gem’s mast springs out of the crevice, followed by Gem.

The family reaches out their black, suited arms and hugs.

“Al, I know you didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks, I love you.”

The ground shakes as the crevice slams shut. “We’re too close to the reactor, and we’re loosing time. Let’s get going.”

Betty smiles and the sleds move away from each others, the winches slew out black cable, and everyone moves back into formation.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

644 Words George & Georgia – Backstory in Cairns

The weather is fine, so I drive along the Esplanade. The street is already shaded by two and three story tourist hotels. My sensibilities and finances lean towards folding down the back seat of my ancient Holden Commodore rather than risking these brightly painted combinations of cheap and dirty. I slow down to appreciate the setting sun - lighting up the tops of the tall palms and casting long shadows across the ocean towards Green Island and New Zealand beyond.

I turn around to the sleeping English girl in the back seat. Black curls hide her face, but after a summer together, I see hints of her bushy eyebrows and round cheeks through the tangles. Her tanned arms are curled tight to her delicate breasts. Lying on her side, her hips give the illusion of fertile maturity beyond her tender eighteen years.

“Georgia, hey Georgy! What do you think? Do you think the tropics make people slow down?”

She grunts and rolls to her other side.

“You know reptiles hibernate in the cold. Maybe homo sapiens sapiens hibernate in the warmth? You know, too much sunlight, too much serotonin.”

She doesn’t even grunt this time, just supporting my theory. Students from the nearby high school, brown and black, sit in a circle on the lawn sharing bottles of Fosters® and smoking something. More supporting data. An old lady sits on a bench watching the sunset and feeding the pink-headed galahs. The birds are a frenetic crowd of excitement and chatter, but the lady just sits. The birds bite at her shopping sack of popcorn when she forgets her mission. I think I’ve got something here.

A group of Japanese tourists, girls with high-pitched laughs and tall boys taking pictures, crosses from the shopping district to the esplanade with bags of take-away fish and chips. I hit the brakes; Gorgy rolls onto the floor.

“George! Bloody heck! What was that?”

“Oh you’re up? I think this is a good place to spend the night.”

“Not here – a few kilos north, maybe half-way to Port Douglas, sleep in the cane fields. Not another night hiding from drunks and police.”

“Not fair, not fair! We had our walkabout in the bush. Three, four months, to Alice and back. Just one night in the city. Flush toilets, running water.”

I grew up in Berkeley, California. My parents, permanent hippies, never got married, never had jobs. We just moved from one student apartment to another. Students graduated and moved away, but we stayed. On my fifteenth birthday, in 1984, they told me I was named after George Orwell. In elementary school, they told me George Washington, and later when I was studying Biology at Berkeley, they said George Washing Carver.

I studied hard, driven to not be my parents, graduated, got a fellowship, graduated again, but my post-graduate research took to Queensland University for a CSIRO project on coral reefs and I succumbed to the tropical complacency.

Georgy was sitting up now. I looked into her blue-green eyes, the color of the tropical sea, “Rats in the cane fields – City Council loos here and fresh mangos fall from the trees for breakfast.”

“My mom made me promise: No city boys – no yanks. Now I know why.”

Georgia, named for George Eliot, grew up in Saxmundham, a small market town in east Anglia. Her mother was a literature professor at Cambridge University, about 100 miles west, so she spent most of her time with her father raising sheep and pigs and reading books her mother brought back from school. Her grades weren’t good enough for Cambridge, so when she finished here O-levels at sixteen, she sold her pigs and bought a one way ticket to Oz.

I tried a different tact, “I thought we agreed. We’d settle down, get jobs, save the planet.”

“George, is this about your parents again?”