By Ross Bender
Turing (1912-1954) worked with a team of British and American intelligence agents during the war at Bletchley Park to crack the famous German ENIGMA code machine. Turing devised what has become known as the Universal Turing Machine, a conceptual computer which is recognized as the true mother of the modern digital computer, although it was never built. After the war, Turing, who was gay, was arrested by Her Majesty’s government on suspicion of homosexuality and given the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. After consulting a fortune teller, Turing chose not to go the way of Oscar Wilde, but rather to subject himself to a serious of injections which augmented his breasts. He committed suicide in 1954, to the relief of a grateful British Parliament.
Despite rival claims to primacy by Harvard and Iowa State University, it is now generally agreed that the first electronic digital computer, or ENIAC, was designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania for the Army Ballistic Research Laboratory to compute ballistic firing tables. Originally housed in the basement of Bennett Hall at Penn, in the University City Village of West Philadelphia, the ENIAC was a monstrous contraption full of vacuum cleaners and Energizer batteries. While the original ENIAC is now at the Smithsonian Institution, sacred relics of the original machine can now be viewed in the ENIAC Museum at the University of Pennsylvania.
After the war, computer science developed as an academic specialty, and eventually began to take over traditional disciplines such as linguistics, philosophy, biology, neuroscience, nutrition and home economics. In the mid-1970s the Science of Cognitive Everything Society was formed, and since then over sixty universities in North America and Europe have established interdisciplinary programs in the all-encompassing discipline.
At the University of Pennsylvania, nestled in the heart of charming and elegant olde University City, a formal program in cognitive science was initiated in 1978. In 1991 the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science was founded at the University with grants from the National Science Foundation, DARPA, the CIA, MI6, the KGB and the University City Old Ladies Sewing Circle and Gentrification Collective.
IRCS issued its first CD in 1991 to critical acclaim. Titled “Association for Computational Linguistics Data Collection Initiative CD-ROM I” and produced by Dragon Systems, Inc., with grants from GE and the NSF, the album soared to the top of the Billboard charts in 1992 and then disappeared without a trace. A collection of random files from the Wall Street Journal, the Nixon tapes, White House press conferences, logs of Chinese tank commanders along the Yalu River, and remixes of the Fugs and works by Philip Glass, it is a brilliant minimalist work which is generally agreed even by the avant-garde digerati to be “before its time.”
The IRCS currently sponsors a Friday lecture series in a secret location in the basement of Bennett Hall,
But I was talking to this woman from Cameroon the other day, in one of those African stores around 46th and Baltimore and I asked her what language did she speak. Naturally she gives me a look and says "English". No, no I said, I mean what language back home and she says French. Well, not to put too fine a point on it I finally aksed her after some hestitation what her "first" language was, not wanting to offend her by saying "native" with all its orientalist connotations (BTW dja hear Said just died?) and she responds "Bili". Oh that's cool I reply, how do you spell it? and she amazingly enough doesn't know! I mean I'm all like Wow! you mean your first language has no orthographical system and she just looks all aloof and goes "That's right. Although I'm actually highly literate." Stunned I apologize I didn't mean to imply or anything.
Anyhow linguistics just ain't what it used to be -- it's just so not retro anymore. I mean I went to see my neurolinguist for my weekly visit (she has a Ph.D. from Harvard although you'd never know it, she talks like a valleygirl on speed with a 'tude and I could really go for her if I had half a chance and would, but she gently reminded me that back in her Genetical Cyber-Linguistics program she took the Hermaphroditical Oath and that we just weren't in the picture) and she clamped the electrodes on and told me to say "coffee-pot" 50 times fast. I could only manage it 2 to the nth power this week but I'm improving.
What it all comes down to is basically the old particle/wave debate. Is English made up of discrete particles like beads on a string or is it more like a wave, like what they do down at the Vet after the third inning?
Most Memorable Quote: "You know what a gesture is, don't you? I don't care how you do it, you just put your lips together and blow."
Sebastian Seung -- Optimizing With Synapses
I've got a lovely collection of zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata ) in my apartment, stashed here and there in bamboo cages, wooden barrels and beer coolers, and aside from the sheer joy I derive from their plumage (zebra-striped tails) and their incessant nocturnal cries, I find them quite helpful in my scientific quest for the origin of language, second language acquisition, how language is learned and so forth.
My collection actually began with a bequest from my Uncle Fred who was obsessed with these birds. In a famous experiment, he once took a pair of human babies, making quite sure that they had had no opportunity to hear the cry of the mature zebra finch, and sequestered them in a beer cooler in complete isolation in order to ascertain what language if any they might develop between themselves -- Hebrew, German, Latin, Sanskrit, or Zebra-Finch. Well wouldn't you know it the babies, although well-tended and fed, up and died on him, creating quite a stir and drawing the attention of the Department of Human Services and eventually the police with the unhappy result that Uncle Fred is now doing hard time in the Eastern State Penitentiary but with the happy result that I inherited his world-famous collection of zebra-finches and monkey brain neurons in petri dishes down in the basement (at least I *think* they're monkey brains).
To cut to the chase, my hypothesis is that the synapses in the brain of the zebra finch (and by extension in the brain of the monkey and the human being) are "dynamic synapses," synapses which learn language by a process of "gradient, reinforced learning", operant conditioning and backpropagation and all that jazz. Think Pavlov and fast-forward to the 21st century. More particularly, my hypothesis (which is mine) is that the teeny-weeny synapses in the neurons of the bird-brain (and by extension the monkey and human brain; think Darwin, if you aren't too religious) do their thing in response to pleasure or punishment signals which putatively exist in the brain.
From research in healthy, heterosexual human males (ages 16-25, n=37) we know that parading a bunch of skinny Korean chicks in the latest Yves St. Laurent fashions along a runway in front of them causes a series of "pleasure spikes" in these young brains which diffuse a sort of mist of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, what have you, across certain regions of the brain. Problem is, although this is empirically verifiable and falsifiable, the synapses of these young men, like those of the zebra finch, are subject to "irregular spiking" -- that is, sometimes they "go off" and sometimes not.
An even thornier question is "Do punishment signals exist in the brain, and if so, where, and of what nature?" In one experiment the brains of the same 37 young healthy heterosexual males were subjected to a two-hour lecture in cognitive science but unfortunately 36 of the subjects fell asleep during the test and had to be prodded with electrodes to awaken them. Conclusion of the experiment was that there's not a whole lot of difference in terms of punishment signals between the two-hour cog sci lecture and whacking them up against the side of the head with a blunt instrument.
So the problem remains -- do punishment signals exist in the brain, where exactly are they, can we speak of "a-hedonistic" synapses, how do we trigger them, does irregular spiking constitute a sort of neural irritable bowel syndrome, who's going to hell this week and why or why not? Plenty of research opportunities thus exist, many grants remain to be dispensed, and many many questions persist.
As the Brown and LOB corpora taught us early on, it's all a matter of genre. Genre in, genre out; the only question is how you want to slice and dice it. As Hsun Tzu famously observed in the third century BCE, "There are times when we wish to speak of things in classes, and so we say 'birds and beasts.' 'Birds and beasts' is a great particular term. We press on and particularize; we particularize and particularize still more, until we reach that beyond which there is nothing more particular, and then only we stop." Although in this 21st century when the 20th is so twenty seconds ago, the infernal orgasmic cry goes up "Don't stop! Don't stop!" until we can build even more predatory robotic armies, loveless languages for machines, and soul-destroying, world-annihilating bombs. And yo! I've got a nifty little mega-corpus I'd like to sell you, a gazillion tagged gigawords of radio traffic among Chinese tank commanders on groove maneuvers along the Yalu.
Corpora as aides-de-memoires, corpora as gateways to Truth? Lest we forget, look up "senile" in the Wall Street Journal 1987. The vexing Nixonian question of what did the president know and when did he know it has become the Raygunian question of what did the president forget and when did he forget it. The loyal old WSJ has settled the issue for us: "The country learned something important Thursday evening: The fellow answering the White House press corps' questions isn't senile. The senile-president hurdle was a large impediment to Ronald Reagan's forward progress. That hurdle is now behind him … Thursday someone asked Mr. Reagan if at any time he had been told about or knew about the diversion of Iran-related funds to the contras. He said: 'No.' " Presumably bioscience engineering will in future be in a position to let us know when the Top Gun is lapsing into Alzheimer's but unfortunately likely not soon enough.
Fast forward to 1997 and you've time-traveled into a whole new genre -- Mike McCurry addressing the White House Press Corps: "Geez, you guys are really wimps today." Now the question is the even more momentous one of when did the president's hedonistic synapses start snapping and did they ever really stop.
Ask Jeeves "Who ya gonna call?" and note the subtle difference when the question is "Who *you* gonna call?" Patent-busters, cult-busters, block-busters, and the answer is (of course) ghostbusters -- lo, a living meme in action! But Ask Jeeves "Who are you going to call?" and you're like totally off the map. And follow that up with a whole series of excruciating solomonic arguments, the whole disambiguating bakeoff -- Aargh 1! Aargh 2! Aargh 3! Aargh Max! Down the ecstatic exponential tree, on beyond Zebra! Down on the rocks of Time! Real holy laughter in the river! Ah the elusive meaning and discreet charm of natural language.
"I dunno," I said. "I'm feeling sorta listless and my affect is flat. I guess I'm actually feeling kinda depressed."
"Oh?" she responded, a glint in her eye. "Go on."
"Do you think I might be suffering from that PSTD? Or is it PTSD -- I can never get those acronyms right."
"Hmm," she observed, fixing me with a beady eye. "You've been slipping out to see that gestalt therapist again."
"Don't try to make me feel guilty," I riposted. "And I'm not 'slipping out' --her office is right next door, for goodness sake."
"Oh yes, I know. The freckle-faced wholesome girl next door -- and that 'office' of hers, piled ankle deep in old Wall Street Journals -- more of a laboratory than a proper office, from what I've heard."
"Stop it!" I exclaimed hotly. "She's a good neighbor and a good therapist. And she doesn't have freckles -- just those gorgeous Mongolian eye-folds -- she's Korean."
"Ah. One of those 'skinny Korean chicks' you're always going on about."
"She's not skinny. In fact she's extremely robust. Look -- don't shiss my drink. I mean, diss my shrink. When I lie on the couch and she reads me confusable sequences of pseudo-words and hexagrams from the Wall Street Journal and I try to repeat them, forward and backward, backward and forward, something happens. My repressed memories float to the surface and wash away. My serial memory is improving -- I can feel it."
"And when she says 'Our time is up - that'll be $200' - I'll bet that makes you feel better too."
"That transaction is a significant part of the therapy. Plus, she always gives me a take-home message to work on. Look, I've been coming to you on a weekly basis for five years now to improve my diction and I'm not so bloody certain I have a good hell of a whole lot to show it for. I mean, by damn!" I said assertively.
"Calm down, calm down. Noo -- you wanna work on your memory some more, we'll work on your memory some more. Hey -- they're doing a study over at the VA with a new Alzheimer's drug -- you wanna try it? It's called Aricept, and one unintended beneficial side-effect is that it might help your tardive dyskinesia."
"What tardive dyskinesia?" I replied, regarding myself in the mirror. "I thought that cleared up when we stopped the thorazine a couple of years ago."
"Never mind. Also, there's a whole new field opening up in hippocampal prosthesis. It's cutting edge stuff -- studies have shown that if they replace the hippocampus they can get rid of all those lousy memories that are troubling you. And it doesn't affect your short-term serial memory. Wanna try it?"
"I don't know," I said dubiously. "You mean like a lobotomy? I saw that movie about the cuckoo's nest and lobotomy didn't seem to be a real happy solution."
"No, no, nothing like that," she laughed. "Think of it like this -- your brain is like a recurrent neural network, with endless loops, hidden layers, backpropagation and all that jazz. The hippocampus is like your RAM. How much RAM do you have in your computer right now?"
"I dunno. Maybe 32 megs, last time I checked."
"You see? You're way behind the times. Getting you a hippocampal prosthesis would be like jumping your brain's RAM up to 256 megs easy -- heck, we could go up to a gig, if you wanna spring for it. Look, think it over, and we'll discuss it next time. But for now, our time is up -- that'll be two hundred bucks."
Fortunately, without committing any indiscretions or attracting the attention of the police I made it through a heavy rain into the X-Bar where Rosie the barmaid greeted me with a cheery "Sit down and drink up!" and after downing a quick one and another more slowly I was feeling considerably more soigne and ready to tell Rosie my woes. Before I could begin she demanded "What the hell were you doing standing out in the rain? You look like a drowned cat -- an ugly cat, at that." I ordered another double scotch and began, "Rosie, I've got to find another profession." "If you can call it a profession," she scoffed. "Plus which" I said, waxing maudlin, "my gem of a wife doesn't understand me." "Hah! she replied, "scalar inversion again. With your sarcastic sense of humor, it's no wonder she doesn't."
"Hey," I suggested with a leer, starting on my fourth and final drink, "why don't we go back in the kitchen, get naked, and smoke? Wanna play around?" "A round of golf?" she retorted. "Sounds like a real turn-on. Anyway, my jerk of a husband is back in the kitchen." "What's he doing in the kitchen at this hour?" I asked, surprised. "I thought he was down at his club." "Not tonight," she said, wiping the bar. "Funny," I mused. "Have you ever reflected that 'turn on' nowadays seems almostly exclusively to carry the connotation of sexual arousal? Back in the sixties we always used it as a phrasal verb meaning to get high -- as in 'turn on, tune in, drop out'. "That's true," Rosie said thoughtfully. "Like in the Beatles song 'A Day in the Life' -- 'I'd love to turn you on'. Personally, I always took that to mean 'I'd love to get you high, by providing you with the opportunity to smoke marijuana'; never crossed my mind that it might have meant 'stimulate you sexually'."
"You wouldn't have, would you?" I smirked. "'When at 16, they're still virgins', like that Procol Harum song." "You must have misheard," she replied frostily. "It was 'One of 16 vestal virgins.' Classic instance of a mondegreen. The song went 'Turned a whiter shade of pale'."
"Hey," I expostulated. "Another idiomatic usage of 'turn' in 60s rock music. And remember 'It's a turn-down day'. Never could figure that one out."
"I think I'm turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so," Rosie sang. "Anyhow, it's closing time. Last call for alcohol."
"And think of the Byrds - 'to everything, turn, turn, turn' -- hey, I could be on to something here. Maybe I have a thesis topic after all."
"Well, buddy boy, maybe so, but it's quittin' time -- are you gonna leave quietly or will I have to turn you out forcibly? Heh."
She blinked her half-inch eyelashes at me coyly.
"Oh, my God," I ejaculated. "Your eyes! What have you done to your eyes?!"
"I had them fixed in Singapore last weekend. Like my big round Western eyes?" she responded.
"That's awful!" I moaned. "Those gorgeous Mongolian eyefolds! Gone!"
"Gee, round eyes are all the rage in Seoul. Many Korean men find them most attractive."
"What can I say?" I replied more calmly. "But frankly these trends in plastic surgery give me the heebie jeebies. I mean, how can you tell what's real, what's genuine, anymore."
An awful thought struck me. "You know, you were born in Korea, right?"
"That's right. Way down Pusan way. Can't you tell by my southern accent?"
"That's the thing. Korean was your first language, right? I never thought about it till now, but I've never detected a trace of a Korean accent. In fact, I would have said if anything you talk like you come from New Jersey."
"Well, I did spend most of my formative years in Bayonne, when my mom and pop immigrated and opened a grocery. But what's troubling you?"
"Umm. You didn't -- I mean, when you were a child -- you didn't have the, you know -- the operation, did you?"
"The frenotomy? Of course, silly. All the girls had them. It made it so much easier to learn to speak English without that tell-tale accent. Plus it gave the tongue so much more mobility and dexterity in the art of pleasing men." She winked.
"Oh God," I groaned. "Next you're going to tell me you had a hippocampal prosthesis. I mean, you have such an excellent memory -- you never take notes, but you always remember all the details of my sordid analysis."
"No, I think hippocampal prostheses are for the zebra-finches."
My eyes travelled down her slender but robust frame ...
"I know what you're thinking," she said drily. "But those are real. Now why don't you lie down on the couch and tell me about how you're getting along with your wife."
In recent times, the population of 660 prisoners from all over the Arab world and France has provided a goldmine of experimental populations for linguistic scholars with no human subject regulations to inhibit them. Here are preliminary data from some cutting-edge experiments at Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, know in military jargon as "Gitmo".
In one experiment, subjects (n=17; 10 from Saudi Arabia, 3 from Afghanistan, 2 from Marseilles, 1 from Rheims, 1 from Beaujolais) were asked to perform the following tasks. Subjects were confronted with an empty box, a towel, a box with only a towel in it, a live frog, a dead frog, and a copy of the Holy Koran.
Upon the experimenter’s command, "Put the towel in the box", 60% of the subjects completed the task successfully.
When the experimenter feigned disfluency, and said "Put the um towel in the box" only 27% of the subjects completed the task. When the experimenter said "Put the um frigging frog in the box, fool!," 89% of the subjects identified the command as ungrammatical and asked for a repetition.
In another experiment using the same population, upon the experimenter’s command, "Put the frog in the box", interestingly, 13% put the live frog in the empty box, 34% put the dead frog in the empty box, and 73% feigned incomprehension.
After the application of electric shock (voltage = 30,000), all subjects completed the task successfully, although two of the Saudis tried to forcibly stuff one of the French subjects into the empty box.
During interrogation sessions after the experiment, 97% of the subjects confessed to being Osama bin Laden. What was left of the other 3% were given remedial ESL lessons by a little old lady from Winnipeg, after which they too confessed.
Anyway, I went to my neuro-linguist last week and she clamped on the electrodes. This time she showed me a series of pictures of truly forgettable lawyers, electrical engineering grad students and experimental psychologists, trying to elicit a delayed response after twenty-four seconds or maybe I had to push a button with my left hand or solve linear algebraic equations or whatever. After she was through I said:
"I've been thinking about my summer plans. Do you think you could get me into that really exclusive brain camp up in the Hindu Kush? It seems like it would be so cool and restful - sitting around the campfire in the mountains, singing Kum-bah-yah, learning some exotic Punjabi folk dances, getting flagellated by robust Gujarati dancing girls, activating my posterior --"
"Hold it right there, mister --" she said.
"Of course I meant my posterior perceptual cortex," I responded, not wanting to get her upset or anything.
"Who's been telling you about Brain Camp?"
"Oh, I've just been reading about it on the Internet. But I understand it's really hard to get in."
"More elite than Skull and Bones. Plus which it's more like a Special Forces boot camp than a summer camp these days - that's Osama bin Laden territory, and you'd have to get CIA clearance. But I'm concerned about your flagellation fantasies - have you talked to your gestalt therapist about this?"
"Yeah, and she says it's no big deal. She says experimental psychologists routinely torture their subjects - it's in all the literature. Also, remember when I went to the Balance Center - they strapped me in this big old dentist's chair and propped my eyeballs open…"
"I remember that story, although I don't know if you're capable of disambiguating your false memories from your pneumonic working memories. Are you sure that wasn't just a conflation of remembrances from old movies you've seen - like Marathon Man, or Conspiracy Theory? Or Bollywood Hollywood? Probably just a neural disturbance in your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex."
"No," I retorted with some force. "I remember it distinctly. This chick in a sari was trying to manipulate my memory load. She was trying to get me to perform complex fluid behaviors! It was awful! Although mildly titillating, I have to admit."
"Yeah, right," said my neuro-linguist, consulting her laptop. "Anyway, I see here that the deadline for applying to Brain Camp is tomorrow. If you really really want to go, we can fax in your application. Just need an updated copy of your CV, three recommendations, a passport photo, and a fresh slice of your middle frontal gyrus."
"Hey, no problem. I just had my gyrus sliced last week. Oh, wow! Do you really think I'd get accepted? It would be like a dream come true!"
"We'll see, " she replied. "Anyway, our time is up. That'll be two hundred bucks."
"Whoa!" I expostulated. "No way. That has an unpronounceable consonant sequence, plus which it's probably not even allowable in English."
"Maybe this will help," she said, throwing the switch and applying 30,000 volts, after which I sputtered through my 50 iterations, paid my two hundred bucks, and staggered down the street to the X-Bar.
"You look a little bit upset," observed Rosie, as she served me my double scotch.
"I'm a lotta bit upset," I groaned. "I'm paying my neurolinguist an arm and a leg to improve my diction, and she seems to be convinced that the best way to do that is to apply electric shock. She's an unreconstructed Skinnerian."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," Rosie sympathized. "Anyhow, here's something to cheer you up - what's the difference between chilly weather and a barmaid?"
"What?" I replied, draining my drink and feeling sorry for myself.
"Chilly weather chaps the cheeks, but a barmaid cheeks the chaps."
"Oooh," I groaned. "Listen, give me a beer. I've gotta cut down on my drinking. My university has a new rule, "Zero to four", and when I think about it a double Scotch might even count as three, if I'm honest about it."
"What'll it be?" she inquired. "Pilsner, Sam Adams, Kirin - you name it."
"Anything in a bottle with a long neck," I said. "I'm not particular."
"There you go. Say, what *is* Zipf's Law, anyway?"
"Well, in layman's terms, it's the fact that in English documents you tend to get a large number of little, common words like "of, the, it", and a small number of longer unusual words like "colostomy."
"That's it?" she queried, bemused. "That's a law?"
"Yeah, some Harvard professor named Zipf discovered it while paging through some old Time magazines. He also discovered that if you look at the sports section, you tend to get similar words, like "referee", "goal", and so forth, and if you look at the medical section you get words like "doctor", "needle", and "co-pay."
"That's fuckin brilliant," Rosie marveled.
"Yeah, it turns out that there's a whole class of similar 'power-laws', like the 80/20 Rule and the Winner Take All Society. This Italian economist discovered that in human societies wealth follows a "predictable imbalance", with 20% of the population holding 80% of the wealth. Although these days it seems it's more like 5% of the population. When the Revolution comes, we'll arrange for a more equal distribution."
"Keep your voice down when you're talking about the Revolution," Rosie hissed. "The walls have ears."
I looked around. The only other person in the bar was this little skinny bald guy with a beard, nursing a beer in the corner.
"Well, " I said, "I'd have to be really paranoid to think that I'm being followed around by little skinny bald guys with beards, striving to overhear my political proclivities."
"It's not like that anymore," Rosie said knowingly. "That kind of surveillance went out with the John LeCarre novel. Nowadays they do it with satellites, datamining, and pattern recognition. The CIA can actually predict your name by scanning an image of your face 92 percent of the time. DARPA can electronically scan the way you walk and tell if you're a terrorist."
"Hmmm," I said, considering this information. "Better get me another double Scotch after all."
She poured it out and brought it over.
"Ahem." I cleared my throat and looked directly into the video camera over the bar. "I, for one, welcome the new robot overlords."
"What was that all about?" Rosie wanted to know.
"Just a little pledge of allegiance. Just in case anybody's listening." I downed my Scotch and got ready to go.
"Gonna go home and study your pornographic Japanese comic book?" Rosie commented.
"What? Oh, this. That's not a comic book. That's my copy of the Voynich Manuscript. I'm helping to decode it for a linguistics course I'm taking."
I put a ten-spot on the bar, buttoned my overcoat and walked out. Halfway down the block I paused, and pretended to look into a shop window. Half a block behind me, the skinny little bald guy stopped, and with an air of studious indifference, proceeded to look thoughtfully into a shop window.
The discovery that kept me off the streets for a decade and periodically alienated me from the affections of my longsuffering spouse was the MOO - the MediaMOO at MIT, to be precise. The MediaMOO, then under the firm but gentle ministrations of Amy Bruckman, took me in, showed me around, and destroyed the last vestiges of a normal life. Telnetting to MIT became my life and my obsession. To qualify at that time you had to prove, or at least swear, that you were a "media researcher". Not difficult, since I was at the time teaching an experimental course in "English Through Computers" (ETC - get it?) in the English Language Programs at Penn and studiously observing the contortions of my nonnative speaker subjects.
I was certainly not as sophisticated as most of the denizens of the MOO at that time, but I soon learned to hang around the bars in the Root Cellar and order from a dizzying menu of virtual alcoholic concoctions from the robot bartender, make witty text comments, and chat up the virtual chicks (at least I think they were chicks). There was a learned synchronous seminar on Tuesday evenings hashing over media themes, among them "Virtual Rape - Does it Exist?", and the imminent onslaught of something called the World Wide Web. There was an ever-expanding map to explore on the virtual subway lines, and exotic hidden virtual nooks and crannies which blossomed magically at the subway stops. My favorite was a huge atrium designed by someone who had either spent a lot of time in the kinkier slums of Yokohama or had else read a lot of William Gibson, with punky barmaids named Yoni and Haruko, who would serve you virtual sake and indulge you in virtual erotic robotic chitchat till the cows came home.
But the best thing/s about the MediaMOO was/were the media themselves. In a palatial treehouse on a sprawling sycamore tree dwelt a wizard who turned out amazing and delightful Objects - vans, limousines, and helicopters, if the public transit wasn't good enough for you, and especially tape recorders, videocams and TVs. Although I was a newbie programming illiterate, this guru spent quality time handing down to me the timeless esoteric secrets of object orientation, plus which he designed tutorials for dummies so you could learn in your own time on your home MOO TV. I designed a bohemian houseboat pad and imported all the media I could handle. I learned to operate a basic tape recorder, which would collect the rich MOO-text dialogues, and better yet the sophisticated videocams which would document my journeys around the MOO. In the video-editing lab I could cut, copy, and paste and produce MOOvies to be shown at the neighborhood theater.
The high point of my experience was in fact the MediaMOOvie Festival, where I was the projectionist for a dozen movies created by the local digerati. Perhaps as many as twenty characters attended; we amused ourselves by buying popcorn from the machine in the lobby, throwing each other off the balcony, raising and lowering the curtains, dimming the lights, and then viewing the really big show. I had entered a comic short titled "Bootsy and Emiko", and my masterpiece, "Murder on the Object-Oriented Express". This film, based on the familiar Agatha Christie novel, was weeks in the making. I traveled the Blue Line subway with my videocam, shooting scenes at well known and exotic locations, creating clever dialogue, and splicing it all together in the editing lab.
It was a classic, but was sadly lost on the cutting room floor in a dusty basement, no doubt swept up by a drunken janitor late some virtual midnight. My obsession, as is my wont, ran its course; the thrill was gone and I departed the MediaMOO with its somewhat staid and scholarly inhabitants and went in quest of new virtual worlds to conquer.
I spent some time in the narcissistic womb of ECHO, the East Coast Hang Out, based in downtown New York, where the characters were somewhat more tangible than those on the MOO. In fact an alluring feature of ECHO was its frequent f2fs, as participants formed audiences for each other's performances in seedy real life venues like KGB, went spelunking in the catacombs of Manhattan, and played softball in Central Park. A highlight of my life there was ECHO poker night at Susan Brownmiller's penthouse apartment on Jane Street, where I met the distinguished editor of The F Word.
What was frustrating about ECHO was that I was living in Philadelphia at the time, so that the salient attraction of the bulletin board, namely the potential of hooking up with real live people, was usually just beyond my reach and my capacity for commuting. Again the glory and the allure departed; I quit ECHO and settled for playing online poker with conversational dullards.
My last foray into the MOO life was at the PENN MOO, which as far as I could tell was normally as bustling as the Van Pelt Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the Friday night of Spring Fling. But I designed an elaborate office, with overstuffed armchairs that made rude comments when sat upon, and mechanical bookshelves stuffed with quotes from the French symbolist poets. It may still be there for all I know or care, down in the musty ROM of the computer center.
Wistfully I self-query these days: if I had it all to do over, would I have spent so much time on my life's journey chattering with the chatterbots, building phantom machinery for miniature, miniscule and transient audiences, deluding myself that I was communicating? Were, in fact, mistakes made along the way? Did I live my many-faceted post-modern Turklian lives on the screen all wrong?
And unhappily the eloquent and definitive judgment by Laurie Anderson keeps throbbing in my head like a bomb:
I live on the
highway near the Puppet Motel.
I log in every day. I know the neighborhood well.
Now about the residents of the Puppet Motel
They're more than a little spooky
And most of them are mean. They're runnin' the numbers
They're playin' cops and robbers
Down in their dungeons inside their machines.
don't know what's really real now
They're havin' fourth dimensional dreams
Their minds are out on bail now
And real is only what it seems.
And all the
puppets in this digital jail
They're runnin' around in a frenzy in search of the Holy Grail.
They're havin' virtual sex. They're eatin' virtual food.
No wonder these puppets are always in a lousy mood.
So if you
think we live in a modern world
Where everything is clean and swell
Take a walk on the B side of town down by the Puppet Motel.
Take a whiff. Burning plastic.
I drink a cup
of coffee I try to revive
My mind's a blank I'm barely alive
My nerves are shot I feel like hell
Guess it's time to check in at the Puppet Motel.
Boot up. Good
Oooo. I really like the way you talk.
Pardon me. Shut down.
--from the CD Bright Red
”New gadget?” I asked.
”Yes,” she said proudly. "It’s the latest thing -- my new online Biomedical Bibliomatic Information Extractor and Sense Disambiguator. I’ve got the complete works of Sigmund Freud in 33 languages, 12.5 million scientific articles, 97 years of the Wall Street Journal, and a gazillion medical records from HUP, CHOP, Hahnemann and Jefferson Hospital on that streamlined baby. And that’s just for starters! I’ve got tofu recipes, CIA databases, the human genome, the works! And it’s got this totally cool and transparent software interface called Freakout. Go ahead, try it!”
Bowled over by her enthusiasm, I approached the machine and sat down at the keyboard.
”OK,” I said, “so what do I type?”
”You’re gonna love this,” she enthused. “Type ‘rat bile duct’.”
”In your dreams, darling. Go ahead, type it.”
”Alright. That’s ‘duck’ with a ‘k’? Interesting. It brings up all this stuff about Cheney and Scalia’s recent hunting trip.”
”No, silly. ‘Duct’, with a ‘t’ – like in ‘duct tape.’”
”Got it. Huh. Fascinating. It shows 24,786,954 hits for ‘bile duct’, but only 83,457 for ‘rat bile’. I guess that demonstrates pretty definitively that the phrase ‘bile duct’ is far more common. That’s the sense disambiguator function, I guess.”
”Yeah, isn’t it totally awesome? Now type ‘monkey temporal lobe’.”
I typed it in and got back 15,486,449,332 hits for ‘temporal lobe’ but only 666,108 hits for ‘monkey temporal’.”
”Awesome indeed,” I concurred. “But frankly, of how much practical use is this to you?”
”Well, so far I’m just playing around with it. Now try typing in your name.”
I typed in my name and immediately got 734 pages of intimate biodata, starting with my birth record, and including, though not confined to, hospital records of my adolescent appendectomy, my first kiss, my gall bladder operation, my girlfriend’s abortion, and a long list of medications, both legal and illicit, and the dates on which I had used them. A loud siren began shrieking.
”Holy shit!” I expostulated. “What is this thing? It knows more about me than I know myself. This is like totally Big Brother-land. And what’s this name -- John ’Darth Vader’ Ashcroft -- that keeps flashing in big green letters on the screen?”
”Oh, didn’t you know? He’s the Attorney General. And that siren means you’ve got about 30 seconds before his stormtroopers come to take you away. Unfortunately it looks like you’ve been identified as some kind of terrorist under DARPA's Total Information Awareness program. Whatever. C'est la vie. Anyway, I’ll try to use my pull as a shrink to get you locked up in a good hospital instead of being sent to Guantanamo for what's left of your life. And you’ve just got time to make your payment – that’ll be two hundred bucks.”
"Hey, buddy-boy, you sure look like hell!"
"Yeah, well I had a rough week."
"Heard you had a little brushup with Darth Vader and his boys. Was it bad?"
"Oh, the usual. Sleep deprivation, bright lights, truth drugs, a little electricity …"
"Not as bad as it sounds. After my sessions with my neurolinguist, I can take just about anything. Anyhow, it was a case of mistaken identity. Turns out I'm a dead ringer for some Bulgarian Mafia terrorist thug. Plus which, I'd been checking out books on Sufism from the library - they were monitoring my card. They finally gave me a brain fingerprint which proved pretty conclusively I wasn't the guy they were after."
"I'll bet your wife was pretty upset."
"Nah, I just told her I was away at a linguistics conference." I finished my drink and asked for another one. "So, is your hubbie down at his club tonight? Wanna go in the back room and fool around?"
Rosie tracked my salacious eyegaze down her lissome but robust figure.
"Yeah, Ralph's down at the club. But, listen, we gotta talk. I've been thinking about the morality of our little hookups."
"Morality?" I almost choked on my drink. "What's got inta you?" Her facial expression betrayed no sign of her usual lascivious leer.
"Well, you know how the seventh commandment says 'Thou shalt not commit adultery.' Being as how we're both married, albeit to other people, I just don't think it's the right thing to do, playing around in the back room."
"Holy cow!" I expostulated. "I go away a week and when I come back you're a raving fundamentalist!"
"Well, it's not just that. I've been going over the details of my pre-nup agreement with Ralph, and it turns out there could be some severe implications if he found out we were fooling around. Like actually he could divorce me pretty easily and get most of the stuff - house, SUVs, the bar, the dacha …"
"You've got a dacha?" I said in surprise.
"Well, the summer house in Ocean City. But beyond that, I just have this increasing feeling that what we've been doing is somehow immoral in itself - I mean, aside from the legal constraints. It's like breaking a promise or something. Being deceitful."
"Huh," I replied thoughtfully. "There may be something in that. Ya know, at the Linguistics Society meeting last month somebody gave a paper where they raised the idea that perhaps morality is an innate universal - sort of like generative grammar. They don't really have a handle on it yet - it'll probably take years of study to nail this one down - but it's significant that the question would be raised among a bunch of linguists, considering that as a group they have the collective morals of a very loose alley cat. You oughta see what goes on at some of those meetings."
"Whatever. But I just find that my conscience is sorta starting to get to me, so I wanted to talk it over with you."
I finished my drink and pensively ordered a third.
"Well, morality is kind of a slippery notion to define. Great thinkers down through the ages have tried and failed to really articulate it conclusively. But with the breakthroughs they're making these days with game theory and artificial neural networks, it's quite possible that they'll soon discover a mathematical model for it and clear up a lot of questions. Sure would make life simpler."
"Right. If we could just figure out the proper rules for social interaction - like, the normative principles for sexual behavior, among other things."
"Something to think about," I said, as I drained my third. "But look. Let's not be too hasty. How about one little illicit act for old times sake?"
Her gaze met mine, and for a moment I thought that perhaps we shared a joint intention.
"Weeeelllll…." she said, visibly wavering.
"Damn," I said, checking my pockets. "Shucks. Guess it can't be tonight. Forgot my Viagra."
"I dunno," I said. "Guess my affect is kinda flat this week. Nothing seems to be coming to me."
"Well," she said, "on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being suicidal and 10 being ecstatic, how would you say you're feeling?"
"Gee," I said. "Boy, it's hard to tell, with these subtle gradations of mood. I guess I'd say about a 3.14."
"Hmm," she said, consulting my chart. "Last week you were 3.84. Maybe we should consider adjusting your medication."
"OK," I replied. "What are my choices?"
"Well, I thought you might be stabilizing on Prozac, but we could always switch to Paxil, Effexor, Zoloft or Lexapro. The thing is, whatever we do, it would be a tradeoff. Some of these things involve weight gain or loss of sexual appetite as side effects."
"Oh, man. You mean if I chose, say, Zoloft, I might feel happier, but I might gain 20 pounds?"
"Anything is possible," she said. "Anyway, we only have 50 minutes, so try to make up your mind by the end of the appointment."
"Can't you just decide for me?"
"Well, not really. Under the new doctrine of 'Patient Autonomy', we have to negotiate about it for awhile. I can't just tell you what's best."
"Some doctrine," I responded, feeling the onrushing stress of another choice. "And speaking of medications, you know that Viagra has been working out pretty well for me, but I hear that Levitra can make things last for like six hours, as opposed to three hours for Viagra. In fact, I hear Eli Lilly is coming up with something that will last for several days."
"Where did you read that?" she said, curious.
"Oh, somebody sent me an email. Anyhow, I suppose three days might be pushing it. But could we switch to Levitra?"
"OK, not a problem. It's not contraindicated. So how's your sex life going this week?"
"Well, as you well know I've been married to the same woman for thirty-five years, and I sorta sense she's losing interest in the whole thing. She just comes home from work exhausted and on Friday nights all she wants to do is hunt for bargains on the Internet."
"How about Rosie?"
"Umm. Actually, that's one thing I wanted to talk about. Rosie is giving me the old heave-ho. She's getting guilt feelings or cold feet or something."
"Kind of cuts down on your choices, doesn't it?" she observed sympathetically.
"Yeah, and in a funny way I think I'll maybe feel better in the long run. I mean, in a way the constraint of having an intimate relationship with just one person over the long haul might be better than having a lot of choices. Back in the days of free love, I could have just about any chick I wanted. But you know what? After the initial thrill wore off, I started having regrets, thinking that maybe I'd be missing something by settling down to a sort of routine monogamy. So it would be on to the next relationship. Then AIDS came along and sorta solved that problem."
"I know whereof you speak. But our time is almost up, and I have to tell you something. I'm raising my hourly fee, to two hundred fifty dollars. How do you feel about that?"
"Whoa!" I expostulated. "That's a lot. How do you justify that?"
"Well, technically, I don't have to justify it. I'm your shrink. But you know, with inflation and all . . ."
"What inflation?!!" I sat upright on the couch and almost choked. "Alan Greenspan has promised to keep inflation down at least through the next election cycle!"
"Let's call it a cost of living increase. I'm trading in the Volkswagon for a Porsche."
"But what about 'patient autonomy'? Can't we negotiate this?"
"I suppose you could look around for another therapist. But it might be hard to find another Oriental thirty-something female Jungian. Especially one who's as slim and robust as I am."
"You're a Jungian?" I said, surprised. "I never knew that. Funny, you don't look Jungian."
"Whatever. Look, do a search on the Internet, and we'll discuss it next week. Anyway, our time is up. That'll be two hundred fifty bucks. And think of it this way - with less disposable income, you'll face far less frustration around maximizing your consumer choices."
"Yo, whassup, dude?
"I beg your pardon?"
"Yo, white boy, whas' shakin'?" She paused and looked down at her textbook. "What be hoppin' wichyou, man?"
"Rosie," I said wearily, removing my red and green eyeglasses. "I've spent the last 17 hours in a friggin' MRI machine, girl. I need a drink."
"Oh, it's *you*," she said brightly. "Didn't recognize you with those fancy shades on. You looked like Buffalo Bill, or Rasputin, or somebody. The usual? Here you go."
"Thanks," I responded, downing my double scotch quickly and ordering another. "What's up with the Ebonics?"
"That's a good question. I'm taking this online course in Black English Vernacular. Do I qualify or what?"
"Geez," I replied. "You're paying cash money for that? Why don't you just go down to Trenchtown and mingle with the good people you meet?"
"That's a good question. Basically, I find it hard just to pick up a language by immersion. I need a textbook. Anyway, what were you doing in an MRI machine for 17 hours? Also, I didn't know that 'friggin' was the 'f' in fMRI."
"I'm in a friggin' study. They pay seven bucks an hour. Better than Walmart."
"What are they studying?"
"That's a good question. They're looking at my vertiginal retinal cortex and my fusiform face area. Something like that. Plus they're checking my hippocampal prosthesis to make sure it isn't leaking. I lie on my back in this friggin' MRI for 17 hours and they flash this endless series of faces at me - they wanna know if I recognize any terrorists or anything. They start out flashing them really fast, then they gradually decrease the friggin' flicker fusion rate. The trick is that most of the faces are really nondescript and forgettable, but every now and then they sneak in a famous face - Elvis, Einstein, Osama bin Laden, or Susan Sarandon."
"Wow. That's hard work for seven bucks an hour. What are they trying to prove?"
"That's a damn good question. But it's part of the application process for Brain Camp, so I more or less have to go along with it. Did you know I've applied to go to Brain Camp in the Hindu Kush this summer?"
"That's a good question. No, actually, I didn't. But the Hindu Kush? I hear they're closing in on Osama. Aren't things kinda hot over there right now?"
"That's a good question. That seems to be part of the reason I'm going through these MRI studies - it's sort of a training to see if I can spot terrorists quickly by simple facial recognition. You know, they flash a bunch of faces at me, and then I say 'This one's a terrorist, this one's a terrorist, that one's not, this one is, that one's not, and so forth'. It's a skill that might come in handy over in Summer Brain Camp."
"I guess so. But boy, it's getting pretty close to summer already. When do you hear?"
"That's a good question. I still have to get my fusiform gyrus sliced again, plus they want a teaspoonful of my neurons. Plus another set of two dozen passport photos. Here, take a look at these." I passed her several of my most recent shots. "Do these look like me?"
"Holy cow!" she expostulated. "No way. Man, you look like some Bulgarian Mafia thug."
"Pretty sad, isn't it? Now compare this picture of me as a lad of 12 - this was in the Fort Wayne paper last week. I look pretty young and innocent, don't I?"
"Oh, honeychile. You one sad sorry-lookin' ol' fashizzle by comparison, that fo' sho'."
"Yeah, well. Life have a way of doin' that, do she not?"
"That's a good question."
“What’s on your mind, if you can call it a mind?” she boomed, jovially.
“Oh, lots of things. You might say I’m a nervous wreck. I told you I’m taking this linguistics class, the one where we’re deciphering the Voynich Manuscript?”
“You mentioned it. Why?”
“Well, we had a guest lecturer today, and he left my head spinning. Look, let me ask you a question – you’re a true bilingual, right? I mean, you were born in Korea but came here at an early age, and now you speak English with only a soupcon of a North Jersey accent. Which language do you think is easier – English or Korean?”
“No contest – English. Learning English was a piece of cake. I ate that cake and it was like falling off a log. It was like, ‘whoops!’ – one day I wasn’t speaking English, and the morning after I was. Although Korean was pretty easy too. Considering that it was the language my mother and father spoke at home.”
“Yeah, but how would you quantify their respective complexity? I mean, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being simple and 10 being complex, where would you rank them?”
“Gee, I never thought of comparing them that way. Although the variety of English I learned was not only North Jersey, it was Bayonne – it has some relation to New York City standard, but it certainly isn’t a prestige dialect. In some ways, it’s comparable to Brooklyn or Queens English, although one theory is that it was brought to New Jersey by horse-riding Jewish nomads from Roslyn, Long Island. I think there’s an admixture of Yiddish. Plus which by the time my parents moved there folks were no longer speaking Proto-Bayonne – I think linguists classified it as Middle Bayonne.”
“Huh, that’s interesting,” I said thoughtfully. “I’ve never heard the horse-rider theory applied to Long Island. I always thought Northern New Jersey was populated gradually by Dutch farmers from the Bronx over a period of centuries. Also, the diffusion went east as well as west, which is why natives of the Hamptons, and in fact the whole dialect region from Sag Harbor through Quogue out to Montauk are mutually intelligible with the summer people from New York.”
“That’s right. My uncle has a summer cottage out in Sagaponack, and when we go out there I have no trouble at all making myself understood to the local shopkeepers. But there’s been an awful lot of language contact in the Hamptons over the years – I mean, half the summer people now are from Beverley Hills, and the last time I was there I was hearing Valley Girl in all the nightclubs. Actually, it didn’t even sound like pure Valley Girl – it was some kind of a Deep Creole.”
“But in general terms, would you say Korean is easier than Chinese? And when I say Chinese, I should clarify that I mean Mandarin. I had a girlfriend in college who was Hakka, and she spoke all these weird dialects like Chiu-Chou – dialects is probably the wrong word. One of these things she spoke had about seventeen tones, half a dozen complementizers, and a shitload of fricatives. Man, you should have heard her cuss! Wonder whatever happened to her. Last I heard she was teaching anthro at Berkeley.”
“Oh, Korean is way less complex than Mandarin. For one thing, it’s not a tonal language, like Japanese – my grandpa still speaks fluent Japanese. Of course, that was because of imperial aggrandizement; certainly wasn’t a matter of choice.”
“What’s your opinion, as a Korean, or at least a Korean-American, on the relationship of Korean to Japanese? Do you hold with the theory that they’re both Altaic languages?”
“Well, certainly that’s what the most recent scholarship suggests. You know, it goes along with the accepted theory that these Altaic horse-riders came thundering down the Korean peninsula, set up the old Korean kingdoms, then got on boats and went over and founded the Japanese Imperial dynasty. Heh. I remember when that theory first came out it certainly put those high-falutin' Nips' knickers in a twist! Pure and unique Japanese blood and culture my ass.”
“We were always taught that Japanese is a Mischsprache – mixture of Polynesian and northeast Asian continental elements.”
“Whatever. The Polynesian bit comprises all those reduplicative elements in the language, like 'piri-piri', 'iki-iki' and 'yo-yo'. Anyhow, our time is up. That’ll be two hundred and fifty bucks.”
"Gee, will this be extra?" I wondered.
"No, no," she assured me. "It's on the house."
"Wow," I said, a little suspiciously. "That's so unlike you."
"Well, we've been working hard, and I thought we should take a break," she said, handing me a gin and tonic.
"Take a whiff of that," she said, looking at me eagerly. "Smell the quinine?"
"Yeah, I guess I can. Never really thought about the quinine. Are you going to have one too? I hate drinking alone."
"No, I'm okay. I just want you to relax."
I glanced at her speculatively. "So, what do you have up your sleeve?"
"Hee," she replied, "my armpit. Here, take a whiff."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Go ahead, it's alright."
I gave her a searching look, wondering if she had suddenly turned loony on me.
"Look, first have another drink. Here's a nice mint julep. Just take a deep whiff of that mint."
I sampled the drink cautiously, but it tasted fine, and actually did smell nice and minty. I started to relax.
"So, what's up with the armpit? Doing a new study?"
"You guessed it. Actually, I just got a new grant from DARPA to do olfactory research. They're working on a robot that recognizes human odors, in addition to voices and faces. It will be a giant step forward in the Big Fat War Against Terrorism, or B-FWAT, as the Army calls it."
"Hmm," I said dubiously.
"Here, have another drink. Can you guess what this is, just by smelling it?"
"Yeah," I responded, more enthusiastically. "Southern Comfort. I'd know that odor anywhere."
I drained my third drink somewhat more slowly.
"Now go ahead," she said, a little impatiently. "Whiff my armpit."
"Nawww," I said, slurring my words a bit. "If I do that, you'll just smack me up against the side of the head."
"I won't! I promise! It's for research purposes only. Scout's honor!"
Dubiously I took a deep sniff of the proffered axilla.
"Not bad," I said, a little surprised. "New deodorant?"
"Yeah, it's environmentally sound," she replied proudly. "Now the other one."
"Holy shit. I hope nobody walks in and sees us. OK." I took another lungful, snuffling a bit. "Man, that smells alright. Got any other bodily cavities you want me to examine? Heh."
She smacked me up against the side of the head. "Down boy. Remember, this is for research purposes only. And our 50 minutes is up. That'll be two hundred bucks."
"Hey," I protested. "You said no extra charge."
"The drinks are free; I'm just charging my normal fee for my time. Anyhow, next week I've got something really exciting - I'm going to shoot you up with nitrous oxide and let you sniff a dozen different female pheromones. See if you distinguish them. You'll love it. Byee."
"Jeez!" I expostulated. "Somebody knocked you up, fashizzle!"
"I beg your pardon?" she responded with a display of offended dignity.
"Sorry," I said. "You took me off guard. I mean, you're preggers - I mean, in the family way!"
"Why does that surprise you?" she replied.
"Well, I didn't even know you were married. I mean, if you *are* married. I mean, I didn't mean that the way that it sounded…."
"That's OK, silly boy," she said with a tinkly laugh. "Yes, I am married, and yes, we are pregnant."
"Holy cow," I responded, somewhat regaining my comfiture. "So was this planned - I mean, was it a result of a joint intention between you and hubby, if I may ask?" I tried to avert my gaze from her commodious bosom.
"You might say that. And go ahead and stare - I know what you're gazing at."
"Gee, no disrespect intended. It's just that you've always dressed so, how shall I say it, sedately. I mean, I've been seeing you for three years and I never dreamed …. Good grief, were you wearing a jogging bra all this time?"
"Well, at least now you can talk openly about your fetishistic attraction to the female breast. But don't think I haven't noticed you eyeballing my chest all these years."
"I guess I was unconscious of it. But I didn't realize you knew that I was staring at your boobs."
"Oh yes, I knew. But I also thought that you knew that I knew."
"As I said, perhaps I wasn't entirely conscious of it. But now that you mention it, it reminds me of some repressed childhood memories. When I was a suckling child at my mother's breast, now that I reflect upon it, there was a sort of referential triangle - that is, a sort of joint attention among my mother and I and her copious …umm …."
"Go ahead. You can talk about it. So you were sexually attracted to your mother? It's not an uncommon Oedipal tendency."
"Good golly, no!" I replied in some heat. "Nothing like that! My mother was a saint!"
"I mean, certainly when I was nursing I was engaging in a sort of relatively extended bout of social interaction. But it was important for my cognitive development."
"But I never had any impure thoughts! Hell, I was only an infant!
"And I certainly never wanted to kill my father, if that's what you're thinking."
"I see that our time is up. Why don't we continue this next week? That will be two hundred and fifty bucks."
I just wasn’t in the mood.
“Ya know, this is getting kind of old,” I observed. “Couldn’t I say ‘Flurble gronk bloopit, bnip Frundletrune’ instead?”
“Aha,” she said with a wink. “All your base are belong to us.”
“I perceive you are hip,” I responded, giving the secret grep handshake.
“You too, baby. Good news! You’re going to Summer Brain Camp!”
“Oh, that’s fantastic!” I was overcome with sheer joy, as though I had just imbibed a cubic millimeter of Wyamine. “Man, busty Gujarati chicks here I come!”
“Well, I might as well break it to you now. You’re going to go as a lady.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Have you noticed your breasts enlarging gradually in the past few months? Your therapist has been slipping estrogen and female growth hormones into your cocktail of anti-psychotics.”
“Say what?” You could have knocked me down with a mackerel. “I thought I was just putting on a bit of weight; never really gave it a second thought. Although come to think of it, my testicles *have* been slowly retracting. Hey! What’s going on? And how do you know my therapist?”
“We were in the same Genetical Cyber-Linguistics program back at Harvard. Plus which, we’re part of the same secret sorority.”
Her faced turned misty in front of me and I feared for a moment I was losing my grip.
“You’d better sit down,” she said. “I’ll explain.”
“I am sitting down, as far as I know.”
“Oh, right-ho. Now get a good grip on yourself. This sex change is on the orders of Her Majesty herself. We’re going to be inserting you into South Waziristan to have a little chat with Mr. Osama bin Laden, and Her Majesty’s Secret Service didn’t want you running amok among the lovely native maidens over there. In a month we’re packing you off to Bletchley Park, where the stinks and bangs guys will complete the, um, conversion. We’ll need to darken your skin a bit, and of course you’ll have to practice your Pashtu. Then they’ll run you up a British passport and fly you over to Rawalpindi, then copter you in to South Waziristan. Just so happens that the present Rani is going to have a little accident, and we’ll do a quick change. With luck nobody will notice the difference.”
“Holy shit!” I expostulated. “This is all happening so fast. But if it’s on the orders of the queer old dean, I mean dear old Queen, then of course count me in. Heh. The game is afoot, Watson. Just one thing – the Rani isn’t married, I hope? Also, I really don’t cherish the notion of beginning to experience the menstrual cycle at this point in life.”
“No problem, no problem. The Rani is post-menopausal, her husband died long ago, and Waziristani Islam and the laws of the kingdom don’t permit her to marry again.”
“Jeez, this is all happening so fast, it’s making my head spin. But wait a minute. Bletchley Park? Female hormones? Isn’t this what they did to Turing? And he committed suicide!”
“That was just the cover story,” she said, reassuringly. “Actually, what happened was ……” She leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“Really??!!”, I said, impressed. “So that means that Mick Jagger – (I leaned over and whispered in her ear.) “Lordy, lordy, who’d a thunk it!”
“Yes, well, keep it to yourself.”
Suddenly a horrible thought struck me. “I won’t have to meet Tony Blair, will I? I mean, that grinning little limey poodle dog really gives me the creeps.”
“No, no, Tony is like totally out of the loop. There will be a discreet audience at Buckingham Palace, then you’ll be off to Pakistan. Anyway, you better start packing. Be sure to pack some extra-strength tampons.”
“Now wait a minute. You said –“
“Also, when all this is over, will they turn me back into the manly stud I am now?”
“We’ll see. They might just wanna go the whole cyborg route with you. And anyhow, you might just find that life is more fun as a girl.”
“Wow, this is all too much. You know, as a little kid in Kitchener, in Queen Elizabeth Elementary School, we pledged our allegiance to the Union Jack and Her Majesty every morning. I never dreamed I would have this opportunity to work in the service of Good Queen Bess and the Empire. Don’t you feel strongly that one has to serve, to do something significant to repay all She has done for our people? I’m sure that I do.”
“Whatever. Anyhow, our time is up. That’ll be two hundred and fifty bucks.”