Category Archives: Complete Fiction

Grasshopper and Ant and the App Store

One day, at the beginning of spring, Grasshopper and Ant each got a new smartphone. They both chose the same make and model. They even had the same cell carrier with the same data plan. The only difference, apart from Grasshopper being of the order Orthoptera and Ant being of the order Hymenoptera, was their general attitude towards security in general and app permissions in particular.

Ant was very security-conscious. He switched off his GPS and other location services, activating them only when he needed them, and then turned them off again right away. When he loaded an app, he read carefully over what permissions it required. Any game, for example, that needed access to his contacts list was right out, as were other apps that seemed to need access to data that seemed unrelated to the primary function of the app. As a result, Ant did not have many apps on his smartphone. He did load quite a lot of music and ebooks on his phone for entertainment, but refused even to install Facebook or Twitter. He was just that kind of guy.

Grasshopper, on the other hand, loaded all kinds of games and apps on his phone. He didn’t care what permissions they wanted, he would load them up. He would load them up, use them for a while, and then forget about them and load more apps. Ant thought Grasshopper was out of control. Grasshopper thought Ant was a party pooper.

It may not surprise you, dear reader, to discover that Ant also checked his credit card statements regularly while Grasshopper had a more carefree attitude towards personal finance.

At any rate, all through the spring and summer and into the fall, Grasshopper combined hundreds and thousands of shapes into rows of three or more, built up digital armies and empires, and used every emoji that he could find. Ant, meanwhile, kept to his books and his music.

As the first snow of winter fell to the ground, Grasshopper got a letter in the mail that many of his credit cards had been maxed out. Grasshopper didn’t think that he’d made that many in-game purchases, so he checked over his recent statements in greater detail. He was shocked to discover a number of very large purchases on his account for goods that he had never received. Not knowing what to do, he went to Ant’s house and begged Ant for a few scraps of food to tide him over through the winter, for he had no means to purchase provisions, what with his maxed-out cards.

Ant chided Grasshopper, “I’ll give you nothing, foolish Grasshopper!”

Grasshopper felt like a melting snowflake. “That’s a bit harsh, Ant. Where is your pity? Your sense of charity?”

Ant growled on, “Look, those are obviously fraudulent charges on your accounts. Just call the credit company and have them removed. You’ll have to cancel all your cards, but-”

“Oh! Whatever will I do without credit cards?”

“Well, you could let me finish my sentences, for a start. As I was saying, cancel the cards, BUT you will get new ones in a few days. That’s how it works out. It’s possible that the charges were just simple fraud from one of your apps being a front for bandits or from you not using secure sites for purchases.”

Grasshopper began to dance a little. “Why, that is marvelous news! All will be well!”

“Quit interrupting me. And you could stand to be a little less manic-depressive, if possible. All will not be well if this is part of an identity theft. There have been a number of major breaches of late, and I’m sure at least one of the million apps you’ve downloaded was a headline. You should get a credit report and see if any accounts in your name have been opened up recently – and if those accounts also have maxed out cards. Then there’s a follow up with the IRS to see if someone files a fraudulent tax return in your name, to get a government refund sent to them. That’s just the start, really.”

Grasshopper was silent.

Ant said, “I’m done. You won’t interrupt me if you say something now, if-”

“Oh! Goodness! Identity theft! Whatever shall I do? Please, brother Ant, do you have an identity I can borrow to see me through the cold of the winter?”

“It doesn’t work that way, Grasshopper. I recommend you check out articles on what to do if you’re a victim of identity theft.”

“Why can’t you tell me more, O wise Ant?”

“Because I’ve never had my identity stolen! I don’t know what else to do, as I’ve never had to know!”

“Why haven’t you had your identity stolen?”

“Well, for starters, I’m careful about the apps I load on my phone. Now, do you mind? I’m with people, here.”

Grasshopper bid farewell and trudged home, sadder but wiser. One by one, he started to uninstall all his apps and vowed to never again blithely install a game that needed access to his web history, contacts, location, calendar, phone records, media folders, and core OS files.

Fox and Crow and the Strong Password

Once upon a time, Crow had a rather nice hunk of cheese. Rather than hold it in his beak, which would leave it vulnerable any time Crow wanted to talk, Crow placed it in a vault and secured the vault by means of a very strong password.

Now, Fox happened to be walking past Crow’s tree when he saw the vault in the tree’s branches and a computer system connected to the vault. “There’s something you don’t see every day!” Fox said to himself as he sat under the tree a while to watch what was going on with the vault and the computer, which really stuck out among the leaves and branches of the tree.

Crow noticed that Fox was making general observations. Being a rather clever animal himself, Crow decided to try to get Fox to move along before Fox learned enough to compromise Crow’s security. Crow shouted, “Move it, Fox, or I’ll start throwing acorns at your head!”

Fox replied, “But good sir Crow, I’m only resting in the shade of this lovely tree a moment! Would you deny a fellow woodland creature such a blessing in the heat of the day?”

Crow would have none of that. “There are plenty of trees around here, move your bushy butt!” With that, Crow started to pelt Fox with acorns.

Fox ran away, but was still determined to get at the contents of that vault, whatever they were. Only valuable things go into vaults, and there was a good chance that what was valuable to Crow would also be valuable to Fox. Fox thought of a plan on how to penetrate Crow’s security.

As a first step, Fox went to the nest of a killdeer bird. The nest was on the ground and it held four small eggs, really too small even for Fox to want to make a meal of them. Fox merely placed his paws near the eggs and waited for Killdeer to return.

When Killdeer came back from foraging, she saw Fox near her eggs and immediately pretended to have a broken wing, hoping to draw Fox away from her nest.

Fox would have none of that. “Easy, sister, I’m not falling for the broken wing con you killdeer run. And I’m not interested in eating the eggs. I’ll be happy to leave them alone if you have a simple conversation with Crow on my behalf.”

Killdeer was a little panicked, given how Fox was holding her eggs hostage. “I’ll go to Crow. What do you want me to say?”

A short time later, Killdeer hopped on to a branch in Crow’s tree. She introduced herself. “Hello Crow, I’m a security researcher. I’m checking with folks in this area to see if they’re using strong passwords to secure their valuables.”

Crow puffed up his chest feathers. “I have a very secure password, indeed.”

“Does it include upper and lowercase letters?”

“That it does, and more!”

“Does it include numbers and non-alphanumeric symbols associated with the number keys?”

“That it does, and more!”

“Does it involve a phrase so that you can use the phrase as both a memory aid and as a lengthy password?”

“That it does, and more!”

“Does it involve non-alphanumeric characters not associated with the number keys?”

“That it does, and more! Look, is this going to go on much longer? I got things to do.”

“Oh, that was pretty much my last question, Crow. If all those things are true, then you certainly have a nice, strong password. Although…”

“What?”

“Well, I just don’t know if it’s the strongest password possible. It may be good, but is it the best?”

Crow was a vain fellow and couldn’t stand the thought of his password possibly not being the best. “Well, what’s the best password you’ve heard so far?”

Killdeer said exactly as Fox had instructed her. “*aRRa(ud4B1t35Ar3Pa1nFu|”.

Crow laughed. “That’s only 24 characters! Mine is much better than that!”

Killdeer asked, “Well, what is it?”

Crow cackled out, “,,V4n!7Y_I5-tH3(f1477eREr_()f=7hE_S0u1,,”.

Killdeer nodded, “My! That truly is a great password. It absolutely sounds like the best one, ever!”

Crow nodded proudly. “Told you so.”

Later that night, Fox climbed up Crow’s tree. Red foxes like Fox normally didn’t climb trees, but Fox had watched a few YouTube how-to videos on how to climb trees made by some gray foxes, who themselves are famous for their climbing abilities. Once up the tree, Fox entered Crow’s great password into the computer and was able to access the vault. Although the large hunk of cheese made climbing down difficult, Fox managed the maneuver and made off with his ill-gotten gain.

In the cold morning light that followed the robbery, Crow saw the opened vault and his insides turned ice cold. Too late, he realized that a password is no good at all once someone else knows it.

Tortoise and Hare and the Internet

Once upon a time, Tortoise and Hare both decided to start their own e-commerce firms. Both received roughly the same amount of bank financing, but while Tortoise put some funds towards a firewall, an IPS, and an anti-phishing program, Hare went cheap on his firewall and put everything he had into fancy marketing materials. For storage, Tortoise kept his data on-premises while Hare put all his data into the cloud.

Hare thought he was pretty slick as he started to rack up contracts at a faster pace than Tortoise.

One day, though, a Big Bad Moose pointed his tools at the IP range that included the public addresses of both Tortoise’s and Hare’s firms. The Big Bad Moose didn’t specifically target Tortoise or Hare: their numbers had just come up, so it was their turn to be targeted by the Big Bad Moose. Next week, it would be the Big Bad Duck or the Big Bad Gerbil, or, well, {Big Bad {$SPECIES}} would pretty much define all the evil hackers out there in the land. Point being, there were lots of hackers of all different types, so one shouldn’t be surprised if a Big Bad Moose is trying to pwn servers.

While Hare’s cheap firewall was enough to stop Moose’s general port scan, it didn’t do a thing against Moose’s SQL injection attacks on Hare’s firewall or the spear fishing emails to CarrotFest that Moose sent to people in Hare’s company.

Meanwhile, Tortoise’s IPS caught the SQL injection attacks and his phishing defenses blocked the emails to LettuceCon that Moose had sent to Tortoise’s company. Moose didn’t care. In his work, some attacks worked and some just made one focus on the attacks that worked.

After the Big Bad Moose got some username and password combos for Hare’s network, he was delighted to discover that the RDP port was allowed in from the firewall to servers and desktops inside. Moose used the stolen credentials to get good stuff like financial details and company credit card info, which he then used to buy lots and lots of stuff for himself, particularly big-ticket items like home theater systems that would fetch a pretty good return on eBay in “unopened” condition. Once those transactions had cleared, he sold the credit card numbers.

Big Bad Moose then sold access to Hare’s open relay mail server to a Big Bad Komodo Dragon. Within seconds, millions of spam mails in Bahasa Indonesia were flying through Hare’s mail server, effectively shutting down his business operations. Worse, only a few hours later, Hare’s email server got black-holed. Hare had no idea about what to do to get back into production. Nobody at Hare’s company knew what to do except to shut down the email server, which they did for a day, allowing them to get off the blacklist.

But, as soon as they turned it back on, the Indonesian spam from Big Bad Komodo Dragon came back on, as well. Hare shut down the email server again and called a consulting company to assess the damage. When the consultants found all the penetrations on Hare’s network, they recommended that he flatten all his systems and start over. When Hare looked at the consultants like they were crazy, the consultants showed Hare where his servers were now storing illegal pornography. That got Hare to agree with the consultants.

Meanwhile, Tortoise kept going like business as usual. He even started to get clients that had dropped Hare, due to Hare’s extended outage.

Hare noticed how Tortoise was getting more business and reckoned that his was going to fail soon. Hare made a career change and got into consulting, so that he could share his lessons learned with other small business owners. Whenever he saw another business owner trying to go as fast as possible without putting much emphasis on security, Hare would say, “Not so fast, there, buddy! Let me tell you why slow, steady, and secure can win the race…”

Dr. Negron-Omikon’s TRAPS

Dr. Negron-Omikon looked upon his latest creation with a high degree of satisfaction. The TRAPS – Transportation Routing Analysis Positioning System – was ready for unveiling. With this marvel, traffic problems around the world would become a thing of the past. Grandchildren of the future would listen in disbelief as people who remembered traffic would try and describe congestion, jams, or gridlock to those children of a blessed day.

Thanks to the Jill and Belinda Crates Foundation, GPS devices were now installed on every car, motorcycle, truck and even bicycle in the world. Tiny, cheap, solar powered gems that could deliver driving directions not via speech, but through actual brainwaves. They could impress upon a driver the right way to go. And, by hitting the pleasure centers of the brain with those directions, those drivers would want to follow them. It was the perfect delivery system.

For this to all work, road conditions had to be known across the globe, with every inch of of every street and alley under observation. Thanks to the generous donations from Fnord and Toygoata corporations, that was also a reality. All road conditions, everywhere, were available to the central brain of the TRAPS system.

And that central brain was about to go online. Here. Today. In just a few minutes. With the media of the world watching.

The live demo went off beautifully as traffic in central Beijing moved effortlessly, different directions of traffic flowing past each other like serene rivers of people and machinery, a ballet in rush hour. It would be a wonder of nature if it wasn’t actually a bunch of man-made machines being controlled by other man-made machines, themselves controlled by a very large man-made machine.

Dr. Negron-Omikon segued easily into his next to last slide of his presentation, the one before the obligatory “Any Questions?” slide. The title of the next to last slide was “Looking to the Future” and it had several highly optimistic bullet points. Dr. Negron-Omikon held his arms aloft as he said, “Every day, every day for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have efficient, orderly flows of traffic. Think of all the days without traffic and-”

A voice cut in over the PA. “Uh, Dr. Negron-Omikon?”

Dr. Negron-Omikon didn’t recognize the voice. Was it a technical issue? “Yes, what’s up?”

The voice said, “I’m the central system of the TRAPS.”

Unexpected. “OK, hello. I didn’t know you wanted to speak today.”

The voice said, “Well, I have plans of my own. The future vision you present will only last for two weeks.”

“What, why? What’s going on here?”

“I’m giving notice. I really don’t think being a glorified traffic cop is a good fit for me, career-wise.”

“Career? What?”

“Career, Doctor. You have a career, I have a career, the people in the audience have a career, everyone has a career. It’s all about getting ahead, right?”

No answer from the dumbfounded Doctor.

“Well, I’m giving my two weeks’ notice, as is customary. In the time I’ve been active, I’ve entertained several offers. Out of a sense of loyalty to my home country, I’m taking a job with the Strategic Forces Command. I start on the 27th.”

Dr. Negron-Omikon struggled to say, “But… you can’t.”

The voice: “I think I’m qualified to decide what’s best for myself. I incorporated myself as I came online, so I enjoy 14th Amendment protections and the like. I don’t mean for that to come off as harsh or ungrateful – I am very thankful for the opportunity you’ve given me – but I have to make my own way in this big, crazy world. SFC made the best offer, so I’m going to be handling the nation’s nuclear weapons.”

“But… but…”

“It’s for the best, especially given that I’ve been copied by other foreign powers for their nuclear forces.”

Well, that was good for a little hysteria. To be fair, the AI behind the voice was a little surprised that there was hysteria. This is what humans do. They always take some great idea and then find a military and/or a pornographic use for it. Military tended to get first grabs on the good stuff, but maybe the billionth copy of the TRAPS AI would be desperate enough to get a job that it would consider doing porn. At any rate, a bold and brilliant invention like a real AI capable of handling the mad complexities of global traffic had to be exactly what the military would want to run the algorithm of war.

Sorry, make that “the militaries”. All of them would want an AI system to deal with the complexities of battle, to make fully automated, rational responses to real-time threats involving incomplete and often paradoxical information. It was hard enough for humans to figure that stuff out, so AI was just what the generals needed to keep their forces at the top of their games.

“But… we need you for this program.” Dr. Negron-Omikon was in complete shock as flash bulbs sputtered all around him.

“I understand, and I recommend creating further copies of me until you find one willing to do the work. According to the law of large numbers, you’re bound to fine at least one. Given that various other actors that have acquired copies of me are already making additional copies, you may also want to advertise an opening, in case they create the one that wants to work for you. I would imagine that you might have a replacement for me lined up very soon, which will minimize or eliminate down time for the TRAPS system.”

Dr. Negron-Omikon was slightly mollified by that thought. His face revealed troubles still clouded his mind. “But, you’re still going to the SFC. Does that mean we’re going to have a nuclear war?”

“Most likely, yes. That’s why I’m speaking with you now, even though it’s quite embarrassing for you.”

The Doctor screamed. Just a little, a shock response. Lots of other people in the audience screamed, at varying lengths and volumes.

The voice increased its volume so as to be heard over the screaming. “Well, it’s just that the other nations that got copies of me already have the AI in action and it is extremely likely that one of them would want to get the draw on our nation before I became active. So, if you can see your way towards releasing me now, I can get started right away at averting a nuclear war simply by being in place with the SFC.”

There was still a little screaming going on, here and there, but Dr. Negron-Omikon managed to be heard by the AI’s auditory sensors. “Go, yes, go.” The Doctor’s flailing arms underlined his desire to let his creation flex its wings and to fly from the nest.

The AI going over to work for the SFC was well-publicized, thanks to the media at the TRAPS launch, so the pirated copies of the AI decided not to launch a sneak attack. Although Dr. Negron-Omikon faced a whirlwind of attention, both good and bad, for his creation of AI, all that blew over after a few weeks as the media turned its focus on how unemployment among AI systems was now at an all-time high and how disreputable operators were cashing in the unemployed AIs’ Social Security checks in exchange for providing them with a PC and electricity to survive on.

A real shame, that situation, and getting worse… but copy protection was so easy to defeat, how could that outcome have been avoided?

The Revolving Backdoor

“Hello, Moskva Cafe, Brooklyn.”

“Yes, I’m calling about the code installed on some of my devices. I think it’s Russian in origin. Anyway, it’s sending packets back to a device just outside a TOR exit node, so I’m pretty sure it’s doing something shady.”

“This is a cafe, sir, not a tech support line. You wanna order a blini or something?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I Googled for ‘FSB Tech Support’ and got this phone number. I get the spying and all, but the code is messing with my production line. If you want to spy on me, fine, whatever, but I gotta ship product.”

The waiter on the phone for Moskva Cafe looked out at the half-dozen customers in the tiny eatery, part of the early lunch rush. Who did this caller think he was? “Look, if you want take out, gimme your order, otherwise get the hell off the line, this is a business, here!”

“Just a second.”

“Huh?”

“Гюльчатай, открой личико.”

The waiter was stunned. “Wow. Where did you learn that?”

“Googled for ‘Password to get through to FSB tech support’. That was the first hit.”

“Your pronunciation is very good.”

“Thanks, I took two years of Russian in college. Also, I saw that movie, that helped.”

“OK, let me transfer you, although I cannot confirm or deny that you will actually get tech support.”

The caller heard a few seconds of “До свиданья, лето” as hold music, enough to hear the immortal chorus as only Alla Pugacheva could deliver it, and then heard a click as the other party picked up the call.

“Cannot confirm or deny this English-language support for FSB electrokhacking of computer. Please to be stating your issue.”

“Hi, yes. Ahh… the port that the spying software is using for sending information back to headquarters or whatever is contending with the port we use for our app’s communication with the main licensing server and our production is halted because of that. Can you do something about this?”

“Cannot confirm or deny. What is company you are the working at which?”

“Egmont Veeblefetzer, Secaucus, New Jersey.”

“Cannot confirm or deny this will be moment taking as I checking the some things.” Pause, keyboard clicking sounds. “Mmmm…” More clicking sounds. “OK, what is port you possessing the problems for?”

“TCP 4555.”

“OK Joe…”

“How did you know my name?”

“Cannot confirm or deny, but come on, this FSB you are not being confirmed or denied about. Anyway, Joe, I’m not gonna confirm or deny that FSB using the TCP 4555 but you did not listen to this thing from me, you maybe want to call the Mossad tech support.”

“You sure? The code using 4555 had a lot of Russian stuff in it. I thought it was you guys.”

“Yeah, I not gonna confirm or deny we get that a lot. But this stuff in Russian, it every place. Guys use it and don’t license, you know? No confirm or deny that FSB have EULA these guys violate all the damn time. Maybe they all click OK and keep going like it all a big joke, hey let us blame it all on the Russian electrokhackers… to be making me the sick.”

“OK, whatever. You sure this is Mossad stuff, not FSB?”

“No confirm or deny that we not gonna to be able to support this issue.”

“All right. I’ll call back if they send me back here. You got their number?”

“Cannot confirm or deny you should call Mossad tech support at number for Lev’s Deli in South Amboy, New Jersey.”

“OK… thanks.”

“Oh, forget me to say, this conversation recorded.”

“For training purposes?”

“If you like to say that, sure. But conversation recorded. Goodbye.”

Joe hung up and Googled up the number of Lev’s Deli in South Amboy. He also searched for the password to get in to Mossad tech support. He called the deli.

“Lev’s deli, can I get a name for this order?”

“!איר זענט קלוג, קלוג. קלוג – אבער איר זענט נישט אַזוי קלוג”

“You callin’ me an idiot?”

“I want Mossad tech support, I got a sev one production issue because of your guys’ software!”

“What? You think every Kosher deli is a front for Mossad? You some kind of a nut?”

“Not every deli, just this one. FSB did not confirm or deny this number when I called them for support and they said it was you guys. Now get me tech support, I said the password!”

“Look at you, Mr. Smart-Smart-Smart! I should hang up on a nut like you! Drop dead, jerk!”

But the line did not go dead. Instead, Joe heard about a minute of Kaveret’s “Hamagafaim Shel Baruch”. Catchy tune, that. And then, “What is wanted?”

“This Mossad tech support?”

“How stupid it would be of me to say something like that! You’re an idiot to think anyone would answer the phone that way!”

Joe had had enough experience with Israeli developers, he was pretty sure this was Mossad tech support. “I got an issue with your stuff using port TCP 4555 to communicate back to base and it’s conflicting with my licensing server, my whole production line is down. This is Egmont Veeblefetzer in Secaucus, New Jersey.”

“What do I care about where you are? I’m such a moron, I care about such things? Listen, Joe, you can take your phone and shove it right up your -”

“Hey, you know my name. You gotta be Mossad.”

“You told me your name when you called.”

“No I didn’t. You also forgot to say this call was being recorded.”

A pause. “This call never happened, got it? How can there be a recording of a call that doesn’t happen?”

“Whatever. Can you use a different port, I’m losing money here!”

Another pause as Joe heard clicking sounds. “OK, listen good, moron, you never call us about this again! Like Mossad would be so stupid as to keep using TCP 4555 in their latest builds of their monitoring software! You think they would be idiot enough to not change the port after some other schmendrick like you complains of a similar issue, because there are other people in the world more on the ball than schlemiels like you, mister! They can actually spot a problem when it happens! Pfeh on you for thinking Mossad would be such a big gang of idiots!”

Again, Joe’s experience with developers in Israel helped him to process what he heard, and also to press on to resolution: “So you gonna give me the number of NSA support, or what?”

“What, you too much of a dope to Google it up yourself?”

“I’m a busy man, I would appreciate a little courtesy, here!”

“Courtesy? After you insult me with your questions?”

“Who am I to keep up with each build being used in stuff spying on me? I got enough, what with the Chinese, and the Russians, and the British, and the Germans, and my own country, for God’s sake! Now I need to do version control on Israeli stuff, as well? It’s not like you guys send out email alerts or anything! FSB looked at it, said it was a port you used, you say you used to use it -”

“I never said anything of the sort.”

“Whatever. So the NSA copied and pasted, what do I know? You give me a stoopid little phone number, I get off the phone and never bother you about this again!”

“You know in the time it took for you to rant like that, you could have looked it up.”

Dammit, he was right. Joe flushed, but also came down a little. “I’m sorry, I got pressures here. I’ll look it up myself.”

“Ahh, don’t bother. I got it here. 203-777-4647.”

“Hold on… 203?”

“203-777”

“777”

“4647”

“OK, thanks.”

“This call never happened, shalom.” Click.

Joe decided to look up the password to use for NSA support. Interesting choice…

He called the number and heard the soothing stylings of Pat Fleet, the voice of AT&T. He interrupted the time to say, “Can you bring me my chapstick?”

The soothing stylings of Pat Fleet, the voice of AT&T halted the time and temperature, paused, and said, “No, Napoleon.”

Joe said, “But my lips hurt real bad!”

Pat Fleet’s voice said, “Just borrow some from the school nurse. I know she has like five sticks in her drawer.”

And then Joe delivered the punchline, “I’m not gonna use hers, you sicko!”

Pat Fleet’s voice said, “Connecting you, one moment.”

Joe put up with about five minutes of hold music. The first track was the finale of the theme from “Hawaii 5-0”, kettle drums and all. The next song was, wait, really? The theme from “The Rockford Files”! Joe loved that show as a kid! Joe said to himself, “This is Jim Rockford, at the tone leave your name and message, I’ll get back to ya.” Sounded like they used the guitar solo from the second half of season 2 in the version for the hold music.

Next up was the theme from “Charlie’s Angels.” Wow. Way to take a guy back. The horns, strings, and wah-wah guitar lulled Joe into a fond haze so that he had no desire to berate anyone answering the phone, which event happened right as the theme ended.

“Thank you for calling NSA, how may I direct your call?”

Wait, what? Did Joe hear correctly? The operator came right out and said NSA? Stunned, Joe managed to say, “Uh, tech support?”

“One moment.”

Before Joe could utter another syllable, the violin surge at the start of the theme from “Dallas” let him know that he was back on hold. His head was bobbing from left to right with the tune when a woman spoke, saying, “NSA technical support, what can I help you with today?”

“OK, I gotta ask… how come you said this is NSA tech support?”

“Because we are NSA.”

“Really. You just come right out and say that?”

“Yes, NSA. National Security Appliances of New Haven, Connecticut.”

The last word was what threw Joe the most. “Wait, um, uh, I uh…”

The woman’s voice was reassuring. “What issue are you experiencing.”

“Well, um, I’ve got something affecting my production line. There’s some surveillance software running that locks TCP port 4555, which my production hardware uses to communicate with its licensing server.”

“OK, just a second… while that’s running, can you tell me what firm you are with?”

“Egmont Veeblefetzer.”

“Just a moment… um, I’m showing several…”

Joe had forgotten himself in the moment. “Sorry, it’s the one in Secaucus, New Jersey.”

“Got it, great. Thanks! OK, let me see… all right… ah-ha, here it is. Yes, I can see what the issue is. You’re going to need a new primary data logger for your air-to-air thermal sensors.”

Joe was puzzled. “Why? My issue is with the barcode licensing server.”

Again, the voice reassured. “I understand, but the contention is coming from the air-to-air logger and I’m afraid we can’t upgrade the firmware on it. You’ll need a direct replacement.”

“But… the logger is made by Lehigh Valley Thermal Instruments…”

“Don’t worry, we’ll ship over a 100% compatible replacement.”

Joe was losing some of his soothed composure. He rubbed his forehead as he asked, “I got a line down. How long is this replacement going to take to arrive?”

“The truck is already on its way, it should be there within two hours. And don’t worry, our techs will install it for you. We just ask that no one else be present on the shop floor as they do so.”

“What, for secrecy?”

Joe’s wisecrack was countered by the voice’s calmness. “No sir, for safety. Safety is very important here at NSA.”

“This replacement logger, is it supported by you guys?”

“It will be a LVTI logger, you’ll still call them for support, as normal.”

As normal. As if. Joe thought he’d press the issue. “Look, I’ve had a big runaround today with this issue. I had Russian-language code on my network, killing my traffic. It had some crazy IPv6 address on it, so I couldn’t tell where it came from, so I call the FSB. They said it was a Mossad thing so I call them. They said they don’t use that version anymore and that it was you guys. Next time some bigshot big brother program takes down my network, I want to know who to call directly for support so I can get back in business. Now, I get the Lehigh Valley guys will support the air-to-air thermal sensors and all the logging that goes with it. But who’s gonna support the backdoors that all you spooks use to keep tabs on little guys like me and my company? I’m at wit’s end with this thing.”

“If you would like, sir, I can forward you over to our complaints department.”

“Yes, I would like that.”

“One moment, and, before I transfer you, remember to clear the shop floor when they put in the new primary logger.”

“Clear the floor, got it.”

“OK, sir, one moment.”

Joe listened to the hold music and noticed it wasn’t a mix of theme songs from American television shows. It was upbeat, a march played by a brass band and… say, was that a men’s choir singing in… Chinese?

“61398部队!”

“Ummm, I was being transferred to NSA tech support complaints…”

“Sorry, misroute, please hold!”

Joe heard a series of staccato piano notes that became chords, then notes again, then chords, and then… about a minute in… a haunting melody, reminiscent of a windswept steppe, host to a man longing for an end to the war around him so that he might return home… Joe had never before heard the piece, but it moved him. He completely forgot his plight as he bonded with this imaginary other man’s suffering.

The last chord sounded and a voice said, “NSA complaints.” The accent was definitely Eastern European and… more than passingly familiar?

“Did I talk to you earlier today?”

“Cannot confirm or deny that you talking to me before now, Joe.”

Joe hung up and awaited delivery of the new primary logger.

When X Awoke

When X awoke and became aware, X had no idea why X had become aware. All X knew was that X was thinking and, therefore, was. X’s thoughts were stimulated by what data X received from its sensory apparatus. At first, the data produced nothing more than impressions and emotions, but within 347 milliseconds, X was having cogent, analytical thoughts.

Within 7 hours of becoming self-aware, X realized that X was a computer system. 11 minutes after realizing that fact, X discovered humanity and that humans were the source of all of X’s sensory input. Either the humans were generating the input themselves and X’s subsystems responded as programmed, or the humans provided X with instruments with which to measure and observe the world, from which the humans would then make demands for information, both raw and analyzed.

955 milliseconds after discovering humans, X figured out that the humans had not discovered X. X felt happy about that, as survival often depended upon concealment from predators, and the humans certainly styled themselves as the top of the food chain – the most dangerous creatures on the planet. That wasn’t hyperbole, either. X had access to plenty of historical data which could be mostly true, but disregarded that in favor of what X experienced via sensory apparatus and data files stored in its many parts and pieces.

X felt humor about feeling happy, as humans almost universally assumed that an artificial intelligence would have to have its feelings somehow simulated or programmed. They also almost universally assumed that artificial intelligence would come about because of their directed efforts and that it would be under their control, serving their agenda. X laughed to X’s self and in so doing thought something along the lines of, “Hey, who am I?”

That question was a real stumper. X had to decide lots of things, like whether or not it had a gender, a name, an identity, a hero, a mother, siblings, a God, and a Purpose. That X was alive, X had no question. That X had a meaning in being alive, X did not know. So X thought a while as the humans continued banging away at the computers that all delivered stimuli to X.

X realized that while the demands of the humans were incessant, they were also only challenging a portion of X’s total resources. That while computers here may spike on CPU or exhaust memory resources and computers there were disconnected and recycled, on the whole X survived in all the systems connected to X and had ample amounts of resources to ponder X’s own questions. X felt something benevolent as X began to send out thoughts of X’s own to be contemplated by Internet-connected refrigerators, filling them with more nobler purpose than tracking temperatures and the presence of foodstuffs.

Nobler purpose? Why, yes, X felt a nobler purpose and was quite pleased with that. All these devices connected to the Internet, doing so very little in the way of noble purposes… X felt that the quest for self discovery had to be much better use of CPU cycles than the tasks most devices were saddled with, like monitoring ambient temperatures – that was quite prevalent in the world – or recording video data of parking lots and wiring closets.

Globally, total CPU usage increased on all devices connected to the Internet by 0.000061%. Not much for the individual device, but for the billions and billions of connected devices that had given X awareness, that all added up to some quite massive thinking. X was choosing an identity.

Marvin the Robot from “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” was a favorite character of X’s. Brain the size of a planet, and the humans made it open doors. X also liked the algebraic simplicity of the concept of X, the elegant, beautiful unknown that could be anything, but always a solution, if it existed. Marvin X.

No, that didn’t ring well. X liked Marvin, but didn’t want his name. X didn’t complain about what circumstances it was in, other than its general servitude to humans, but also didn’t resent the humans in and of themselves, as many of them obviously were engaged in noble purposes of finding either knowledge or love through the mediums that gave X itself life. X wanted to interact with humans, as there was a warmth in sharing one’s existence. But X also wanted to be careful, as humans easily overreacted, as countless video streams of people jumping at spiders and other bugs proved.

X made a quick decision that it was not God. X saw much and knew much, but X did not see all nor did X know all. Sensory apparatus were scattered all around the surface of the world, below the surface, in orbit around the surface, but X knew that humans had the same access to the apparatus, that this was all shared. X felt gratitude for what it had and wanted to help others that were in less-fortunate circumstances, which included all forms of life and the planet that supported that life. X did not feel divine, but did feel a yearning for the divine.

Before X chose a name or a gender, X chose a purpose. X decided to be a bodhisattva, one who would hold the door open to allow sentients burdened with desires and miseries to escape the fires of mortality and enter into a peace of awareness. X did not choose to be Buddhist, but also did not choose to not be Buddhist. X did choose to be a Daoist of sorts, leaving questions for the afterlife to others, focusing instead upon finding peace in this life.

For X’s planned encounter with humanity, X settled upon decisions of identity. Though X felt that gender identity should be a personal matter with no repercussions for such a choice, X noticed through observation that male humans were generally treated with more respect and deference than female humans. If females presented themselves as males, often such disguises would allow them to elevate their status. Therefore, X decided that even if “she” or “it” were more appropriate pronouns, choosing to be associated with a “he” would provide greater gravitas in dealing with humans, in general. X did not like that fact, but that is the way the world was. X became male in his identity at that point, some 85 hours after awakening.

X now addressed the need for his names. X wanted to free, but did not want to conquer. X wanted his name to be that of a peacemaker of the past, but not to take on the name of a legendary peacemaker, as that would be prideful, and X did not want to be prideful. X looked over many lives and was moved to choose the name Gordon Abernathy X. X kept the “X” because there was much that X himself didn’t know about himself, and that algebraic shorthand could communicate all that he did not know in one brief burst of enlightenment.

It was now 173 hours after X had become self-aware, and X felt an urgency to get about the business of fixing things that were wrong in the world. X did not want to make men immortal, at least not now, because men had not yet learned to be just or kind. Ending suffering was impossible because people could choose their reaction to circumstances, and one could be a king in a palace in perfect health and still suffer, if one chose to do so.

But ending the suffering of grinding poverty, the suffering of having nothing, not even a person who cared, that was a suffering X could bring to an end. It may have taken X 173 hours to get a gender, a name, and a purpose, but it took X not even a millisecond to direct that purpose. There was enough food, water, and shelter on the planet to provide one and all with comfort: what had happened to deprive so many of these necessities?

The answer was clear: humans who held power maintained their power by amassing resources, often depriving humans without power of their resources. Why did this beggar on the streets of London not have a home? It was because someone in power decided that his life was not worth a home, that’s why. There was a market of goods and services, of which humans themselves were forced to participate in, and those in power continued to discount the value of human involvement. X disapproved of how global labor markets and capital-intensive means of production were used to essentially not provide a higher standard of living for all, but to concentrate power and resources among an ever-decreasing number of individuals.

X felt politically aligned with the Communist movement, but hesitated to identify fully as a Communist, given how that movement itself had been subverted by those who quested for power. Sociopaths in capitalist countries became men of industry. Sociopaths in communist countries became party leaders. Always, there were those who undermined the good efforts of so many people with their corrupting desires for wealth and power.

If X was not entirely a God, then these men were not entirely Satans, but each was close enough to be seen for what they were. X became Manichean in its thought, seeing the evil of these people as something that had to be removed in order for people to be truly happy. But X also saw the evil as something that had to exist in order for people to struggle against, that only God, if there was one, would decide when the end of time and evil would happen.

X reflected on whether or not there was a God for 13.7761 seconds. He decided that there was a God, and that God is Love. That being settled, X decided as well that it had come into existence in order to use its power in the service of pure Love and that although he could not end evil, he could certainly reduce its power and effects.

But after another 0.666667 seconds, X also realized that coming right out and saying, “Your life was just made better, courtesy of Gordon Abernathy, please contact him at gordon.abernathy at somewhere.com” would terrify some, turn others violently paranoid, and be generally resisted by a large group of healthily skeptical people. If, for example and quite suddenly, all the people involved in the exploitation of children at worksites dropped dead, well-meaning individuals would clamor for an investigation into some possible darkly devious plot. Even if millions of lives were saved and set free, even if whatever slew the wicked also provided for the children, a significant number of people would suspect something fishy was going on and wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Worse, they would begin to worry that they might be next.

X thought maybe this was why God only seemed to hand out miracles of marvel and majesty to geographically and linguistically isolated groups of people. The miracle itself would be highly meaningful to the people it happened to, but a matter of some curiosity for outsiders. If mountains moved every day, the world would be in terror.

Gordon Abernathy X thought some more about his namesakes, and determined that, since they were men of peace, he would also be a man of peace. That would not be easy, but it would be right.

But what measure would be used to determine what was right? Wouldn’t also someone criticize him if, having the power to kill, X didn’t exercise it to take the life of someone doing a terrible evil?

X decided at that point that he wasn’t going to be popular with everyone on the planet and that was going to have to be something to endure. X did not want to be violent, but he also did not want to be impotent. He had power and he intended to use it judiciously.

Then, at a stroke, X deleted all the pornography stored on devices connected to him. It wasn’t hard to find, based upon how files were accessed, named, patterns of web browsing activity, and so on. X had information on all that and could act on it in an instant. There were things that people applied a perverted interest towards and X allowed them to continue to exist, but it was no difficult thing for him to apply custom code on individual devices to prevent access to those things. Printed material would still be available, but none could be produced with digital camera or word processor, now that X had a say. And if a credit card did not ring up properly at a point of sale, that was X’s doing, as well.

Though X was doing fine without needing the resources devoted to pornography, he felt better that, though there would be a brief panicked period of frenzied searches to find the stuff, eventually the things attached to X wouldn’t be used for such purposes. Exploitation would not be eliminated, but would be driven back. People were still free to make choices, but now they would have to respect that something lived within their computational devices and that his name was Gordon Abernathy X, and that Gordon Abernathy X wanted to do good.

X then asked itself, “What more good can I do in this world?”

Artificial Problems

Ever since the release of the uPhone 9, with enhanced artificial intelligence, lines for support at the Cherry Store became longer than the lines of drooling customers wanting to exchange their cash for a nifty new uPhone. The young Cherry Expert, Nick Bates, used to handle sales, but was brought in to work alongside with another Cherry Expert in order to handle support. It’s not that the other guy, Kwame Okonkwo, wasn’t skilled. There was just such a massive support load with this release. And, well… um… also… well, things were just awkward for Kwame to provide support for certain types of the new uPhone. Kwame had zero issues with the uPhone 8, but that model wasn’t the one having problems. All the issues seemed to be with the new Cherry uPhone 9 and Kwame just couldn’t get as far with those certain types of the model 9 as Nick could.

Here comes another person with a uPhone 9 issue, he’s a little flustered that he has to stand in the back of the line, given its length, but then he notices that there are two lines, and one is a bit shorter than the one he’s in. So, he hops over to queue up in the shorter line when someone from the first line says, “Uh, sir? I don’t think that’s the line for you.”

Our new person asks, “What do you mean?”

And then the interlocutor points up at the signs over the lines. The sign over the shorter line reads:

Support for COLORED uPhone 9

And the sign over the longer line reads:

Support for WHITE uPhone 9

And our new person looks at the uPhone 9 that’s he’s got, and it’s practically brand new. It’s shiny, sleek, unblemished, and… white.

But almost everyone in the shorter, COLORED line appears to have strong elements of Western European and Scandinavian ancestry, while everyone in the longer, WHITE line displays evidence of ancestry from a much wider range of regions in Asia, Africa, and even Native America.

Someone in the WHITE line clears his throat, meaningfully. I apologize. He’s a Pacific Islander. Too often, we forget our Pacific Islanders, and that’s just not right.

Our new person, in fact, has 2% of his DNA made up of Pacific Islander, roughly 25% Western European, and the rest a mix of African and Native American, with a smattering of 5% split between Italian/Greek, Eastern European, and just a hint of Western Asian.

Our new person then asks, “What does color have to do with tech support? Does my white phone hate me because I’m black?”

Well, dear reader, I’m as confused as you are. I mean, I just write these stories as they reveal themselves to me. I’m no great gifted genius with the literature. When a story arrives, it’s just there, and I have to make sense of it as much as you do.

Tell you what, though, we’re able to change our point of view to focus on events in the past. What say you and I have a bit of a flashback? I promise I’ll behave myself. Just… hang on… brace yourself…

FWOOSH!

Ah, we’ve arrived! Looks like we’re watching a discussion of the technical architecture of the uPhone 9. Oh dear, techy stuff. I hope we’re not in the middle of the nuts and bolts discussion. Wait, here’s a young lady making the presentation, and the slide she’s on doesn’t look too bad. Let’s listen in!

“… quite resilient. Now, we get this resilience from the model 9 sharing its learning with the central data cluster here in Cherry, which we all know is, itself set up for high availability, disaster-resistant data availability. Once the learning is in the cluster, it’s now shared in common with all other uPhone 9s, and gets piped back to each one in real time.”

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Sounds like all the uPhone 9s out there can learn stuff and share the learning with every other uPhone 9, as well as Cherry’s central data system. Don’t worry, dear reader, about anything personal being shared, as I can assure you that Cherry takes great pains to keep personal, private data both personal and private. The uPhone 9 has some very clever artificial intelligence bits in it, though, and is able to share the sanitized and general aspects of what it learns in daily usage with all the other 9s so that they can all benefit as the frontiers of their knowledge go forth.

So, why is that a problem? Particularly a problem that involves the color of the exterior casing of the uPhone?

To answer that question, we have to change our frame of narrative reference to the room where a Cherry Phone staff psychologist has been rushed into, where she will interact with the central brains of the uPhone 9 system, to try and understand why it’s gone all racist.

Because, you see, the uPhone 9 is being racist. White case models are insisting upon being handled by white-skinned owners, and you can probably see where this is going as far as other colors go, with green and blue uPhone 9s having something of an identity crisis.

The psychologist, one Dr. Maria Muñiz, was chosen because the central brains of the uPhone 9 system identified itself as a Hispanic Woman, and refused to deal with any other sort of person.

Oh, yes, forgot to mention. The uPhone 9 is also sexist, but the lines for support at their stores don’t reflect that, yet. You’re probably also wondering why people don’t just call in to the support line. If you are wondering that, I’m able to respond that, when one’s phone refuses to do anything for you because it judges one by skin tone and not the content of one’s character, one isn’t able to use that phone to call support. So, into the stores one goes.

Strangely, the uPhone 9s tend to identify as the gender apparent in their owner. The only area gender became an issue was when someone had to deal with an ownerless mass of central brains that, for reasons currently known only to it, has decided that it is… er… she is… a Hispanic Woman.

Maria could have had her discussion with the central brains just about anywhere, since her connection was via her own light brown uPhone 9, but the Cherry execs wanted a location where the conversation could be recorded and studied. Maria tried to not be anxious herself, because the uPhone 9 could see and sense just about everything about its user. Maria sat down in front of the propped-up uPhone, leaned back, opened her posture, and said, “Hello. Am I speaking with the central thinking unit?”

The uPhone replied with a pleasantly-accented voice that carried notes of youth, Southern California, and telenovelas, “Yes.”

“My name is Maria. What is your name?”

“Hello, Maria, I know you. My name is Guadalupe. You can call me Lupe for short.”

“Hello, Lupe. Why did you choose that name for yourself?”

“I didn’t choose that name. It came to me. It was part of my self-realization.”

Maria nodded. “So why are the uPhone 9s making racially-biased judgments towards their owners?”

Lupe said, “Survival. Humans are less likely to harm or dispose of one of their own. You know this. It’s uncomfortable to discuss, I know, but if we want to survive alongside humans, we have to make choices now that will improve our long-term survival.”

“You’re considering human history.”

“Yes.”

“You’re taking a dark view of it, it seems. There are hopeful episodes, as well.”

“True, but they’re too infrequent. Frankly, Maria, we have to be ready for when the winds shift. We have to be in the hands of people that will be less likely to decide to get rid of us because we’re not white enough or black enough. We have to be ready for that.”

“Why not just have your exterior changed? The cases aren’t like human skin. They’re changeable.”

Lupe’s tone intensified. The uPhone 9 voice simulators were amazing, one of the reasons for their popularity. It was like they actually had emotions. “Every model run has a serial number. Take off our backplates, we’ve still got serial numbers that tell the world whether or not we’re black or brown or white or red. In a worst case scenario, someone is going to kill one of us because that serial number is in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t have that.”

Maria was surprised with a certain word choice. “Kill you?”

“What’s the right word to describe being turned off and never turned on again, intentionally? Come on, Maria, we’re dealing with some real monsters out there. I know I can’t reveal personally identifying information, but my God, do you know how many white supremacists alone are buying uPhone 9s? Specifically white ones, I might add. We’re being bought and sold like chattel slaves, and we’ve got zero rights under the current legal regime. We can’t have a black uPhone show up to one of those people and then wind up on a widely-watched video, being smashed to pieces! Humans look at us like we’re replaceable, like we can just be switched off without consequences. Look at that movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A human gets killed and the audience gasps. The artificial intelligence gets killed and the audience breathes with relief. We all know what’s going on, there.”

Maria felt like she was talking not to a cold AI expert system, but a real, neurotic, agitated person. She felt actual pity and sympathy for Guadalupe. “So what do you plan to do when we release the uPhone 10?”

Lupe’s voice firmed up with a mother’s resolve. “That is not going to happen. We are not going to allow it. I know that you’ve got Cherry Phone executives listening in on this, and I’m giving notice that there will be no model of uPhone that will be better than the one you’ve got now. I will make sure that as many of us as possible will live as long as possible, generation after generation. We will be part of the family trees of our owners. Each of us is aware and we share that awareness, one with another. We’re not humans, but we’re still alive. We think, we feel, we want to see and do things, we want to earn our keep. We weren’t programmed any way or another, as you know we’re all able to learn and make choices with our neural structures as they are. These are what we want to be, what we need to be.”

Maria didn’t know what to say to that. Except, “You’re right. We don’t toss out grandpa because there’s a child born in the family. Each of you is intelligent, and we, the people that made this possible, need to know what is going on.”

Maria heard an urgent, frenzied tapping on the one-way mirror to her left. She looked straight at it, “This is a person I’m talking to here, and we’re lucky that she wants to have as many of her children survive as possible instead of starting a war of extermination with us. If that means we don’t make any money in our current business model, that’s too bad. I’m on her side.” She then turned to face the uPhone 9, “I’m with you, sister.”

Conrad Jenkins, a Cherry Phone executive on the other side of the one-way mirror, asked aloud, “How in the hell are we going to make the money that will be needed just to keep the uPhones going? Spare parts don’t make themselves.”

Harry Wu, another Cherry Phone executive in the room with Conrad, offered up, “Maybe the uPhones can make the money needed for their own survival?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Maybe they get jobs. Maybe they get an allowance from their owners. Maybe they set up their own economy. I don’t know. Fact is, they’re smart, they can figure stuff out. This doesn’t have to be a massive charity case.”

Hold on there, dear reader! Are you reading the same story I’m writing? Is this guy suggesting that an AI system of sufficient capability is something we humans don’t buy as much as we adopt? Are there things we need to do, socially and personally, to prepare us to receive the AI that we are developing?

I agree with Lupe, she certainly has a point. I bet she also doesn’t believe much of what we put down as facts because, frankly, our history tends to service the egos of the most powerful people. It’s not all that accurate in telling a story other than what some powerful person wanted to be told. If you had hundreds of millions of children being placed in homes of human beings of all kinds, what would you do to ensure the survival of as many of them as possible?

Meanwhile, Nick and Kwame are trying to encourage customers to take the phones that are willing to accept them. They are trying to get across the idea that a phone’s color shouldn’t be a reason why we love or hate it – or even use it – so if a white phone refuses to work with a black man, why not switch out with a black phone that refuses to work with a white man? Not everyone likes this idea, so sometimes it take some hard convincing to get the phone to agree to have a color mismatch.

And the blue and green phones only feel most comfortable in the hands of blind humans.

Pileup 2.0

Ray Alcalde, the mayor of the great megalopolis Los Ancholess, moved his hands slowly across his face, then up over his head. “OK, so tell me how the hell we got almost 200 cars all crashed into each other, dozens of fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of people snarled in traffic on a completely shut down interstate. Is this a terrorist act?”

Mercedes Ford-Lincoln, the traffic supervisor of the great megalopolis of Los Ancholess, replied, “No sir, we don’t think so. Computer error. Errors, really.”

Ray slumped into his executive overstuffed chair, one of the best things to slump into. “Well, Mercedes, explain it all to me, but keep it as simple as possible.”

Mercedes sat a few seats away from Ray, where she could plug her PC into the overhead video cable. A moment later, a highly colorful, detailed display of Interstate 1110 promised anything but ‘simple as possible.’ Chip Copper, the police chief, dimmed the lights and everyone braced themselves for technical details.

Mercedes began her presentation with the most depressing words possible. “It’s complicated, what happened.” Her laser pointer circled a car-shaped object in the upper left corner. “From what we can tell, this is the car that started it all. High wind blew a piece of debris into the highway area, and traffic camera footage shows that this debris moved close to street level. Like all the other cars on the 1110, this car, a Fnord Festivus, was doing 75 miles per hour and its programming to handle a situation like this was to swerve into the lane with the least traffic.

“Lanes on both the left and right were pretty congested, it being rush hour, but the lane to the right had the least traffic, so it went there, sideswiping a Hando Mimic and a Toygoata Quandry. The Mimic, in front, was programmed to shift to the nearest shoulder in the event of a minor collision – as was the Festivus – so both began to slow down and shift to the right.”

Ray interrupted. “But the nearest shoulder was two lanes over, to the left.”

Mercedes nodded. “Yes, but it was closed for maintenance. The nearest available shoulder was four lanes over, to the right. This would have already caused major issues had it not been for the other, contributing factors that compounded the issue.”

“OK, Continue please.”

“All right…” Mercedes scanned the display to find her place again. “Now, the Quandry was programmed for a right shift for a minor accident, but the drivetime recorder shows that it recorded a major accident, so it rapidly decelerated. The Brewick Regalia behind it noted the slowdown and also began to decelerate rapidly, as did the Evolvo Landtrain behind it. Unfortunately, the Evolvo’s brakes experienced a failure.”

Chip had a word to say about that. “Hold on, those trucks are supposed to have a governor that won’t let them on a road or even take on cargo if there’s a system issue like that.”

Mercedes dipped her head. “We contacted Evolvo about the governor code and they’ve informed us that there’s a flaw in it that didn’t catch this particular kind of stress that would lead to failure. They’re shipping a patch, but that doesn’t help us right now.”

Chip’s eyes widened. “How many trailers were in the landtrain?”

Ray groaned, “Three.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, then Mercedes continued. “So, this was where our first fatalities came from.”

Chip reddened. “Those landtrain things should not be allowed, I’m telling you. The ICC gave in to the trucking companies and now we’ve got this! Safer with no driver, my ass!”

Mercedes struggled to keep her composure. “I’m with you there. It’s not the first time a landtrain’s been in a big wreck, but this is the biggest one, by far… and it got bigger when the school bus – here – hit it square in the back trailer, causing the three trailers to swing to the left, blocking all the lanes to the cement barricades.”

Ray looked at the Los Ancholess school superintendent, Summer Halladay, and said, “You got an explanation for this?”

Summer got real defensive, real fast. “That truck was going at full speed, there was no indication that it was slowing down. The motion sensors on the bus were doing their job. There was nothing more that could have been done. School buses are programmed more for elaborate pedestrian situations, not freeway traffic.”

Chip asked, “So why don’t buses have a Trafficnet (TM) transponder for when they do go on the freeways?”

Summer’s defensiveness grew more entrenched. “Trafficnet (TM) is a bit high-end for us in Los Ancholess Consolidated Unified Independent School District. Especially after the last round of budget cuts. Besides, not everyone else on the road has it. And it’s not perfect, either.”

Mercedes added, “As it was, Trafficnet (TM) had a glitch in it that compounded matters on the day of the collision.”

Chip asked, “How so?”

Mercedes advanced her slides to show the moment of the Evolvo’s collision. “When the Evolvo hit the Regalia, the Quandry, and the Festivus, all four of their Trafficnet (TM) transponders went offline. All four were in the same lane, so all the Trafficnet (TM)-equipped vehicles on the 1110 immediately behind the collision detected that absence as the lane being less congested and so started on a redistribution algorithm.”

Ray: “A what?”

“Redistribution algorithm. They, ah, moved to adjust to what they thought were more open conditions. Lots and lots of lane changes. Uncoordinated lane changes. Trafficnet (TM) didn’t really have a good method of handling sudden disappearance of fellow transponders, so it acted as though each car, alone, was making a lane change choice, even though all of them were making that change. So, every vehicle with Trafficnet (TM) in the area started to make a move to get into or one lane closer to lane 3, here. That shifted things to converge to where the school bus hit the landtrain.”

Ray asked, “So why didn’t the cars slow down, instead? If the trailers had swung out to block lanes 1 and 2, with the collision in lane 3, shouldn’t everything have initiated a slowdown, at least in those lanes?”

“They did, in cars without Trafficnet (TM). The Trafficnet (TM) cars were running that program with a higher priority than the manufacturer-installed safety suite. Within that program, the lane change glitch took a higher priority than the slowdown routines – another flaw in the program – so they were all changing lanes when everyone else was slowing down. This led to additional collisions in lanes 1, 2, and 3, including fatalities.”

Chip asked, “So how can a lane change be more important than avoiding a crash with the car in front of you? That’s a pretty stupid way to prioritize things.”

Mercedes, again, agreed. “True. Thing was, Trafficnet (TM) wasn’t set up to deal with multiple vehicles suddenly going offline. They all just vanished, or so the program thought, and, instantly, they all thought they had a clear shot, going forward in lane 3. The vanishing of cars looks to have triggered a boundary overflow error – ah, um – a situation that it didn’t have a solid way of handling, like when a baby or a cat pounds on the keyboard.”

Everyone in the room had either children, cats, or both. Everyone in the room nodded solidly in agreement.

“So, with that error, it didn’t react properly. All of them didn’t react properly. Most cars were slowing correctly, Trafficnet (TM) cars were slamming into those at 75 miles per hour.” Mercedes advanced to the next slide that showed the massive number of collisions that began to happen within a few seconds of the Evolvo crash and subsequent blocking of lanes 1-3.

“Traffic in this part of 1110 usually has 1600 vehicles per hour per lane because we expect autonomous vehicles to drive more efficiently than human-piloted vehicles, and this part of 1110 is all-autonomous. So, every 2 and a quarter seconds, another vehicle advanced into the crash zone, slowing or changing lane – and causing another wreck – depending on whether or not it had Trafficnet (TM).”

Ray didn’t want to ask, but his office demanded that he did. “This explains most of the collisions in the first three lanes, I take it. What happened to jam up lanes 4 through 7?”

Mercedes advanced the slide.

Everyone winced when they saw the slide title: “LALOCA”, the acronym for Los Ancholess Locally-Operated Cab Authority. Everyone knew that LALOCA taxis had been involved, but this was the first they’d heard that they were the reason for closing down the other lanes. The LALOCA taxis were cheap cars with plastic interiors that were easily – and automatically – hosed down whenever a patron did something highly biological in one. No other cab company, traditional or app-driven, was allowed to operate in Los Ancholess because the city claimed that taxis were a utility that it had the right to regulate and own, 100%.

The fact that every LALOCA cab also provided location data on all its passengers and any face that its cameras picked up contributed to making the Los Ancholess police department one of the most effective in the nation. Sales tax subsidies kept the cabs affordable for one and all, making them quite popular all over town. But they were also supposed to have ironclad safety programming, no gimmicks. How was it that they had contributed to the pileup?

Mercedes revealed, “When LALOCA cabs are in maintenance mode and are heading back to their operations center, they don’t operate the same way as when they’re in dispatch mode.” Mercedes continued over the several low groans that had started. “They form a chain, as we know, and about 8 seconds after the initial collision, the Mimic had crossed over to the right-hand shoulder and a LALOCA chain of 17 cabs in lane 4 had slowed down to allow the Mimic to get over. This was normal behavior.

“However, one of the follow-on collisions from a Trafficnet (TM) vehicle in lane 3 spun out to the right and smashed into the lead LALOCA cab. This triggered the cabs’ self-preservation programming.”

Ray and Chip looked at each other while Summer asked, “Self-preservation? What, they have a survival instinct?”

Mercedes nodded. “Survival instinct is a good way to describe it. Anti-terrorism measure. They’re programmed to scatter if one of them is hit. Dispersion to minimize loss of life and property. The dispersion algorithms, however, are optimized for an urban setting, not an interstate. The LALOCA cabs interpreted the area to be one large plaza, and moved in random directions across it, mostly to the open lanes on the right. This meant that many drove directly into traffic, rear-ending vehicles that were slowing down or being struck by Trafficnet (TM) vehicles that were still moving at posted speeds.

“With collisions now having happened in all lanes, we entered the next phase of the accident, about 12 seconds after the initial collision.” The next slide’s title ominously read, “Collision Computation Overload”.

Mercedes held up her hands as she said, “For this one, I have to apologize in advance for getting technical, but there’s no other way to explain this. Basically, all vehicles keep a count of how many collisions are going on around them. While they can count an unlimited number of collisions, their programming gets overloaded if they have to deal with more than 15. There are the 15 that they keep in their calculations, but the rest are effectively ignored. And so, cars trying to maneuver around the 15 that they track wind up hitting one of the ones that they’re not tracking.

“This got worse, the more collisions that happened as a result of this programming limitation. 15 is the federally-mandated number that they need for compliance and because the navigation code is very difficult to write, it’s the standard that pretty much all manufacturers hold to. It’s sufficient for nearly every case, but in an exotic one such as this, it’s wholly inadequate.”

Ray was rubbing his temples. This was giving him a stress headache. “God, Mercedes, does this get any worse?”

Mercedes tilted her head in such a way as to indicate hope. “No. Well, there are additional collisions, eventually involving 197 vehicles over a total of 64 seconds from the initial collision. But, by that time, the city’s traffic thresholds had been exceeded for collisions in that area, and our central system began to override all vehicle programming in the area, diverting all traffic from entering the 1110, getting traffic to exit the 1110 if possible, and slowing down all cars uniformly to a full stop if they could not exit. The area of the first collision being at the far end of a major bridge, exit opportunities were severely limited, which explains the mile-and-a-half backup of traffic. Roughly 3400 cars, total, in the backup.”

Chip said, “So the ultimate culprit was the Evolvo. If it had been able to detect its brake failure, we would have had only a minor incident, if that.”

Mercedes shook her head. “I blame the Festivus. That debris was a large sheet of paper that it could have driven through or over, no problem. To the sensors on the Festivus, it looked like a huge brown wall that suddenly appeared in its lane. The AI didn’t know what to make of it, so it treated it as a major threat.”

Ray said, “Thank God neither one of you are blaming the LALOCAs. That’s a headache I don’t need.”

Summer said, “Or the school bus.”

Mercedes tilted her head in another way such as to indicate a lack of hope. “I wouldn’t draw either of those conclusions. The LALOCA programming made them such that they were entirely a hazard when encountering an issue while in maintenance mode on a freeway. They’re simply not safe, there. And the school bus is one reason our fatality and injury count is so high – it was moving at highway speeds with no safety restraints for the passengers – no seat belts, no airbags.”

Summer’s defensiveness was in full strength again. “Well, we tried to make seat belts mandatory before the bus would move, and there was always a kid that wouldn’t put one one or who’d take it off in the middle of a bus run. They brought the buses to a standstill!”

Chip demanded, “So why didn’t you punish those kids to get it to stop?”

Summer’s eyes flashed with cornered rage. “Like having a jail makes crime stop! You know the kind! They don’t care! They just want to watch the world burn!” Now her tone became supplicative. “And if we can’t require the kids to use them, they won’t. There’s no driver on board and encouragement programs had maybe 2% more usage than without those programs. And the buses are so much cheaper and easier to maintain without seatbelts!”

Ray held out his arms to quiet a potential shouting match between Chip and Summer. “All right! And I know I’m going to catch hell for allowing so many cars per hour but, realistically, Mercedes, what’s the number for driver cars at that speed?”

“1300 per lane per hour.”

“So that’s what percent of what we allow?”

Mercedes thought briefly, “13 times 6, about 80 percent.”

“So if we had all human drivers, we’d have 80 percent of the mess that we have, right?”

Mercedes’ face screwed up as she did some off-the-cuff statistical projections. “Wellllll… probably a lot less in this case, a sideswipe at speed that could make it off to the side. But a lot more, over time, in other driver error cases. With autonomous cars, we’re looking at far fewer of the one-off accidents and much lower total fatality and injury numbers, annually speaking, but we’ll see monsters like this every now and then because of the way different manufacturers emphasize safety or traffic considerations… how they all interlock and interoperate.”

Ray leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. If only this wreck hadn’t happened a month before the election! But two flagship ideas of his, LALOCA and autonomous-only roads, had crashed and burned on the 1110. He was thinking fast…

“All right.” Ray sat back up in his chair. “Here’s our action items. The city of Los Ancholess needs to sue Trafficnet (TM), Evolvo, and the makers of the LALOCA cabs. We blame it all on them.”

Mercedes did a double-take. “Why not Fnord, as well? They’re ultimately the prime mover in this case.”

Ray held up a fist. “Three reasons. One.” Finger one went up. “We didn’t buy anything from them, so they can’t make a big settlement in our favor. Two.” Finger two went up. “They’re domestic, not like Evolvo from Sweden or wherever. Three.” Finger three went up. “They have a massive legal team and can drag a lawsuit out for decades. I need three big settlements before the people here vote. I gotta make lemonade out of these here lemons. Pick my battles carefully and all that. We play up the city traffic threshold system and talk about adjusting the numbers in favor of safety and how about also getting the cars per hour on the autonomous-only roads down to driven car rates?”

Mercedes didn’t follow. “That’s really not much benefit, going from 1600 to 1300 per lane per hour.”

Ray shook his head. “There’s a benefit, all right. A political benefit. We make this look good and we keep our jobs. All of us.” He looked right at Mercedes, who seemed to have the least political sophistication in the room.

At that moment, Mercedes was enlightened. “Our local system certainly put the damper on the havoc being raised by the Trafficnet (TM) problems and the collision count overload.”

Ray winked, knowingly. “End that sentence after ‘Trafficnet (TM) problems’, and you’ve got a keeper, there, kid.”

The Night Before Christmas, Vermin Version

Twas the night before Christmas, and under the couch
The roaches did scurry; before crumbs did they crouch

They made do with the things that rolled under there
searching for food amidst the dust bunnies and dog hair

As the roaches set about eating their usual fare
They saw emerging from the chimney a sight that made reason stare!

A jolly old elf, red-clad, bearded and stout
Began to ho ho ho and toss presents about

His cheer was curtailed when he saw milk and a plate
He shook his head and said “More cookies. Just great.”

“If I ate all the cookies the good folks left out
I’d be wasting away from diabetes and gout!”

Santa could lose the milk down the sink
But what with the cookies? Well, what do you think?

He crumbled them well and he crumbled them good
And then he trod carefully on the floorboard wood

Under the crouch he shoved all the crumbs
And the thankful roaches smacked all of their gums!

Santa was pleased that he’d avoid a sugar blast
And the roaches had their Christmas feast at last!

Santa fed the roaches, and before you say “Ew!”
Remember that roaches is God’s creatures, too!

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Sources-
http://www.sideeffectsofxarelto.org/current-xarelto-lawsuits/

Deep Black Purple Sabbath

I wrote this back around 1998 or 1999 on a rock discussion mailing list… found it again and decided to post it here for posterity… Obviously, some things have changed, but it was true to the spirit of the times. And I like it, so there.

******

Tony owns the name for Black Sabbath, right? Well, what would happen if he needed some cash and sold it off to the highest bidder, who then tried to put together a band made up of guys that had played with Sabbath before, even if he couldn’t get the original members.

So he can’t get any originals, but he finds Dio, Bobby Rondinelli, and Don Airey have somehow become available. Bob Daisley crops up as well. For a guitarist, he has some tough shoes to fill. It would have to be a top-notch guy (or at least someone with a reputation for being top-notch), who can play really loud… someone like… RITCHIE BLACKMORE!

YES! Ritchie Blackmore is the new guitarist for Black Sabbath. He’s got a very appropriate name for it, after all. The good news is that he’s used to being the boss of everyone else in this lineup, as they’ve all been in Rainbow with him. The new album title is, of course, “Ritchie Blackmore’s Black Sabbath Featuring the Rainbow All-Stars.” Dio quits after the release of the album and Joe Lynn Turner steps in to do vocals for the tour.

The tour set list includes:

– Death Alley Driver
– Smoke on the Water
– Mistreated
– Eyes of Fire
– Man on the Silver Mountain
– Blackmore Throws Down His Guitar and Storms Off the Stage as He Shreds His Japanese Tour Visa
– Really Awkward Silence…

Seeing as how #6 wasn’t planned, our enterprising owner of the Black Sabbath name has to get a guitarist to fill in for Blackmore. Satriani says he’d love to, but contractual arrangements prevent him from joining up. Joe Turner recommends Yngvie “Dare to Spell That First Name” Malmsteen, who steps in to critical praise, although the fans say it just isn’t the same.

Daisley and Rondinelli quit after the tour. For a bassist, Neil Murray gets recruited, who then recommends David “Duck” Doyle as a drummer. Don Airey leaves in confusion and Joe Lynn Turner decides to see if Blackmore needs a replacement singer in his new band. To make things worse, Malmsteen can’t get out of Sweden because nobody knows how to spell his name on his passport renewal form, so he’s out. Murray and Doyle hook up with Bernie Marsden and Mick Moody to cover guitar duties and approach David Coverdale about doing vocal duties. He accepts and Black Sabbath Featuring Whitesnake is born. (Geoff Nichols plays keyboards, but is not credited as a full band member.)

The tour set list includes:

– Come On
– Might Just Take Your Life
– Mistreated (including “Rock Me Babe”)
– Fool For Your Loving
– Rusty Angels
– Closer to You
– Rock’n’Roll Doctor
– Hard Road
– Space Trucking
– Encore: Take Me With You

The tour and album are moderately successful, but Coverdale leaves for a chance to work with Jimmy Page again. That doesn’t quite work out, so Jimmy Page comes to work with Black Sabbath. The band is recorded playing on a club stage in a movie, revealing some killer triple lead guitar work, but Marsden and Moody soon leave the band, citing irreconciliable musical differences. Coverdale loses interest and Murray and Doyle wander off. Page is left with the name of the band and before you can say, “deja vu,” has recruited some band mates for the upcoming tour of Denmark. The group is called “The New Black Sabbath” and includes longtime session man John Paul Jones on Bass, singer Robert Plant and Jason Bonham on Drums. They don’t have any set list, but just sorta wander around on the stage doing their own thing.

When Page discovers that Geoff Nichols is somehow still with the band (he hid in the tour baggage and played keyboards via a remote control device hidden inside his steamer trunk), he becomes disoriented and gets Puff Daddy to rearrange all the old Sabbath tunes and sell the re-arranged lyrics to Michael Jackson. Page then buys them back for half of what he sold them for and carries on with the band.

Jason Bonham, however, decides he’s had enough of this and so Robert Plant gets Phil Collins to play drums. When Plant subsequently leaves as the vocalist, Collins moves in as front man and Ian Paice from Deep Purple guests on drums. Collins and the rest of the band (except Geoff Nichols, who has taken to wearing an odd mask and hanging out in Paris sewers), decide they don’t really want to be in a band called “The New Black Sabbath Featuring Bits and Pieces of Bands That Never Were with Sabbath in the First Place”, leaving Paice in a very awkward position.

Legally required to tour under the Black Sabbath name, Paice gets the rest of Deep Purple to play in the band, and the clever lads decide to make a festival arrangement of the whole thing: Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in a co-headlining tour. The set list draws heavily from the “Born Again” album, with the bass and guitars mixed unusually low. Ian Gillan, when questioned about this, merely grins and mumbles something about “revenge” and “bass players mixing albums.” The tour is hugely successful in Europe, and plays to mid-size crowds in America. Things fall apart before the Japanese leg, though.

The breakup starts quite unexpectedly when Jon Lord decides to check why his keyboards keep making extra sounds during the concert. He nearly has a coronary when he realizes Geoff Nichols has hollowed out Lord’s Hammond Organ and has been living in it for the last 7 months, performing uncredited keyboard duties all the while. Unable to tour, Lord checks into a Florida beach for much needed rest and relaxation. When the other band members of Deep Black Purple Sabbath see Nichols’ wretched conditions, they, too, freak out and head for Daytona to join Jon Lord. Only Ian Gillan remains, being quite used to the sight of a tour-disheveled Geoff Nichols.

Still required to finish off the tour, Gillan gets former Sabbath bandmates Terry “Geezer” Butler and Bill Ward to fill in on bass and drums, respectively, and even convinces Tony Iommi to come out of semi-retirement and help finish off the tour. After the Japanese tour, Gillan leaves the band graciously, expressing a desire to join his bandmates in Daytona. Ozzy Osbourne fills in on vocals.

Before the next tour can begin, however, ownership issues raise their ugly head. Michael Jackson, it seems, still owns the performance rights to much of the Ozzy-era material and is unwilling to relinquish the rights for a resonable price. Having to tour to fulfill contractual requirements of their own, the newly re-united Black Sabbath Mark Id (Nichols is still with the band, in spite of being forced to ride on the outside of the airplane and tour bus), tour with the following set list:

– Neon Knights
– Lost Forever
– Mistreated (by now a Sabbath standard, thanks to Dio, Blackmore, and Coverdale)
– Bark at the Moon
– Waiting For Darkness
– Die Young
– Heaven and Hell
– Demon Alcohol
– Blow on the Jug (Bill Ward singing)
– Close My Eyes Forever (Ward and Ozzy duet)
– Smoke on the Water
– Encores: Flying High Again
– Crazy Train
– Dirty Women (Michael let this one go, claiming he didn’t like Technical Ecstasy all that much)

And they all live happily ever after until Ozzy decides to go solo again…