Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

See Androids Fighting.

Source: Wikipedia

Kino’s red eyes pulse gently. The effect is disquieting. It’s as though he’s really looking at me.

We’re in Athena’s workshop in a corner of warehouse in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, a space she shares with other “artisan engineers”. We’re surrounded by peg boards covered with tools and heavy tables with meters, oscilloscopes, cogs, wheels, and other spare parts. It’s like being in a combination of Frankenstein’s laboratory and a hobbyist’s garage.

She has her own carefully organized tool box with multiple trays of carefully labeled parts, as well as peg boards with a wide array of larger tools, and a safe where she keeps Kino. I’m surprised when she pulls a small screwdriver out of the red bandanna that holds back the thick, curly hair that frames her head like an enormous halo.

“It came with my first kit,” she says. “It’s my magic wand.” The metal end is still shiny but the plastic handle is worn and cracked. It still works, though, and she uses it to tighten screws in the back of Kino’s head.

Kino, of course, is Athena’s android. She dislikes the term “robot”, derived from the Czech for “forced labor”, and Kino’s humanoid body, she explains emphatically, make the term “android”, from the Greek for “man-like”, more accurate. It—Athena insists on gender-neutrality—stands three feet tall and is very much what you might expect an android to look like. More than anything else it resembles a stripped-down astronaut, all molded white plastic, with a slightly squashed helmet and, of course, those red eyes. Advances in battery power have allowed the removal of the bulky backpack from earlier models. The name comes from Robert Kinoshita, one of the original designers of Robbie The Robot, not the first robot in film but arguably the first robot film star. Kino’s only decoration is a decal on its torso of a red, snarling beast on two legs, the monster from Forbidden Planet, a movie that Athena’s father loved.

“I wanted to pay tribute to him,” she tells me. “This is not where he first wanted me to be but I think he’d be proud.”

Her father, who died when Athena was nine, expressed hopes she’d be a lawyer like him, or perhaps a college professor.

“He used to put me to sleep reading The Iliad and The Odyssey to me,” she says, then gives a short laugh and emphasizes each word. “Put. Me. To. Sleep.” When she took apart and rebuilt his lawnmower he changed tactics and started buying her robot kits, a practice her extended family continued. She excelled academically and would eventually go to MIT where, in spite of continuing to excel, it would still take her six years to graduate.

“I came home a lot. There weren’t a lot of girls in the engineering program, and most years none who looked like me, you know?”

I know and yet I don’t know, unable to really imagine the challenges of being an African American woman in engineering, a field where the pace of demographic change has been glacial. After school she went on to a successful career in robotics, advancing autonomous vehicles and the machines that would build them, and was even a founding partner of a robotics firm. All of which leads to the question that brought me here: why did she leave all that to build fighting androids on Coney Island?

Instead of answering me she says to Kino, “Bed time.” Kino’s head swivels around and it steps backward into its storage safe. Then she turns to me. “You like Hungarian food?”

While we’re waiting for the food to be delivered she carefully puts her tools away, saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place, that way there are no surprises.” Then she says, “I really didn’t leave my career. This is more like a sabbatical. I was all wrapped up in the business side of things and I wanted to get my hands dirty again. I wanted to build something again.”

There’s a knock at the door. She taps her phone and the door at the end of the warehouse slides open. A young man with straight black hair comes in carrying a canvas bag.

“Sawasdee,” he says.

“Good evening Adrien,” Athena replies. “You know where to set it down.” She then turns to me. “Adrien prefers the restaurant business but he helped with the coding of all the androids except Kino. I did that one myself even though programming is something I can do but it’s not the strongest item in my wheelhouse. Sometimes staring at a screen it gets to be like staring into The Matrix, you know?”

I think I do know: computer code is less of a language and more of a filter, a way of processing input and generating output.

As we tuck into our soup Athena continues her explanation of why she and a small band of followers Athena continues her explanation of why she and a small band of followers have embarked on this project.

“Everything I was helping make was also putting people out of a job,” she says. “Automation is a growing field but it doesn’t always create as much as it takes away. We’re still adapting and some people are being left behind. And while I was thinking about that I was seeing what was going on in sports, all the injuries, even all the deaths. And I thought, here are these African American men injuring themselves for entertainment in almost every sport.” She snorts. “Except hockey and wrestling. I don’t want to put them out of a job either but I also said, why not let technology do what technology does and build something to take people out of harm’s way? Boxing forces two men to beat each other until one can’t get up. If people want the spectacle we can have that without the hurt.”

“But you’re setting up something you’ve made to be damaged or even destroyed,” I say. “What about that?”

Athena shrugs. “Pyrotechnics. People who make artistic fireworks put all that effort into something they know will get blown up. How different is that? Or this?” She plucks a dumpling from her soup with her chopsticks and holds out in front of her. “Why make food that looks good when all it really has to do is feed us?”

We talk a bit more about how machines, even though they’re supposed to create leisure time, seem instead to prompt us to spend time creating more machines. Then I change the subject slightly and ask if she’s concerned about the singularity, the hypothetical artificial intelligence that could exceed and even wipe out humanity. Athena shakes her head.

“It’s possible but we haven’t even started to reach that. Predictions that put that within a few decades, or even this century, are way off in my estimation, even at technology’s current pace. Look at Kino. Everything it does is programmed and predictable. Right now even if we could build even the equivalent of a human brain the space needed would be enormous, and you have to build a brain before you can build a better—.” Her watch dings and she looks at it. “All right. Let’s go fight some robots.”

The fight is held in a theater near Luna Park. From the outside the building doesn’t look like much, a smaller version of the warehouse we just left. A wooden cutout painted to look like a circus tent frames the door. Ahead of me Athena and Kino walk side by side. I expect to see them greeted by fanfare. Instead they step aside behind the bleachers. In the center of the theater a band is performing “Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs. It turns out the android fight is the lower half of a double feature. I settle into a seat to wait while Athena and Kino go to the back to get ready.

The fight does not go well.

Kino is, structurally, indistinguishable from its opponent, Gort, but still seems outmatched. At first the robots circle each other, hands up, not unlike real fighters, but it lasts too long and the audience gets restless. Then Gort throws a punch. Kino blocks it with a hand but is still thrown off balance and falls to the floor. Traditional-looking boxing ropes mark the ring but the floor is concrete, not canvas, and Kino crashes hard. Athena, in the corner, is unable to help, but the referee, a bald man with wire-framed glasses and a tie-dye Doctor Who t-shirt, steps in to put him upright again. Gort punches with his left fist. Kino steps aside but Gort, apparently having predicted this, hits with the right. Kino goes down again, this time cracking an arm. More parries and hits follow, with both Gort and Kino having to be lifted up, but Kino takes the worst of it. After several more blows and visible cracks and pieces of shattered plastic thrown to the floor Athena walks around the ring and talks to the young man on Gort’s side of the ring. Together they step into the ring and talk to the referee, then Athena turns to the crowd.

“Thank you, everyone. We hope you enjoyed the show.”

Later, outside the theater, Athena looks slightly dazed. To our left we can see a low yellow moon almost perfectly framed by Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel.

“Do you think you’ll try to reprogram him?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. That was hard to watch.”  She pats Kino’s head. “Come on, let’s go.”

As they walk away from me Kino reaches up and touches Athena’s arm. She stops and looks down at him, then takes his hand, like a mother and child, and they continue on.

Getting Deep.

Spending the night in a cave was fun.
I went in with my Scout troop. Spoiler alert: I also came out with my Scout troop. Well, most of them, anyway. We might have lost one or two. We were touring Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee. Part of the fun was that we left home after school on a Friday afternoon in the fall so we arrived after dark and had to make our way up the trail to the cave entrance with our flashlights out and our sleeping bags on our backs. The cave rangers, a group of guys in olive drab, heavy boots, and bright yellow hard hats, led us down a stairwell and into the main entrance room, a high-ceilinged area that was brightly lit and had a canteen area and restrooms at one end and at the other stretched away into darkness. We were told to leave our bags there but to choose a spot carefully because it was where we’d be sleeping. I picked a spot away from the main group. I wanted to get the full cave experience and if I rolled over to one side I could look into the abyss. I didn’t think about how that might affect my sleep. In fact we were then taken on the spelunking tour at what seemed like very late at night. In fact it was probably not later than six or seven, but I realized time has no meaning in a cave. There is no day or night underground. There is only the passage of time, a passage that, for most caves, is measured in slow, steady drops that build hanging stalactites, the rising cones of stalagmites, and that wear away the stone to reveal crystals of quartz or gypsum. In one massive room we were told that where we were sitting had once been the ceiling, that it had collapsed approximately ten-thousand years earlier, and I hoped it wasn’t due for another makeover, but that’s another story.
After we had been through the “wild” part of the cave, where the only light we had was our flashlights, where we had to crawl through tight spaces, and where we went through the infamous Bubblegum Alley, a stretch where the mud nearly sucked the shoes off our feet, we were brought back to the main room. Everyone settled into their sleeping spots. All the lights except the ones just overhead were turned off so that we were in a warm pool surrounded by darkness. One of the rangers, a tall skinny guy who stood out because he was the only one without a beard, came and stood among us.
“I’m going to tell y’all why you don’t go spelunking alone,” he said. Shouldn’t this have been covered before the tour? I thought. “I’m going to tell y’all about a Scout like you who was at the back of the line and decided to go explore a side tunnel. His name was Kevin. He thought he could find his way back, but if you’ve done spelunking you know the way back never looks like the way in. There are turns and tunnels that you didn’t see that open up. Not all these caves have been mapped either, and we don’t know how far they go. Search parties were sent out but Kevin was to deep, and he kept moving. If you get lost in this cave,” and he looked hard at all of us, “you stay in one spot. It’ll make it easier for us to find you.” He walked among us, continuing to talk. Kevin drank water from pools he found and ate the cottony fungi that grew on the walls. It tasted terrible but it was all he could find. Then he started to catch small cave fish, and he caught bats and would drink their blood. Kevin managed to survive a year, then two years. His clothes were shredded on the rocks and he went naked. One night he found his way into the main room. As the ranger told us this I thought about Gollum, and stories of subterranean humans, and wondered if those creatures were inspired by real events. None of us asked how the ranger knew all this in such detail.
“It was late at night and Kevin walked among the sleeping campers,” the ranger went on. “He knelt down next to a boy and touched him. The boy woke up and screamed. All the lights were turned on and Kevin saw his own body for the first time in a long time. His skin had become translucent, his organs visible and pulsing. He ran and disappeared before anyone could grab him.” The ranger crouched and started tracing the dirt with his finger. “No one knows if Kevin is still out there. People think they see him sometimes on the tours, and rangers report finding footprints in the farthest ranges of the cave. We don’t know if he’d hurt anyone but where he touched the boy he left a mark, a white mark, right on the boy’s jugular vein, where the blood flows, like the blood of bats that he drank to survive.”
The ranger stood up. “Well, good night kids!”
All the lights were turned off and we were left in total darkness. There is no moon, there are no stars in a cave, only a ceiling of stone.
I was bleary-eyed at breakfast the next morning. After picking up a pack of cereal and a carton of milk I sat down at one of the long tables across from the ranger who’d told us the story. I looked over and noticed he was wearing a name tag.
Kevin.

Life In The Sublurbs.

Book Blurbs Written About Blurb, My New Novel Written Entirely In The Form Of Book Blurbs:

“Stunning!”

-The New York Herald

“Incredible!”

-The Boston Spectator

“Thrill-seeking!”

-The Tuscon Citizen

“I couldn’t put it down!”

-Stilton Blue, The Seattle Scene

“Surprising!”

-The Leavenworth Leader

“Staggering!”

-The Breckenridge Post-Dispatch

“You’ll wonder where it’s going!”

-The Steamboat Springs Chronicle

“Leaves you wanting something!”

-The Ketchum Banner

“A novel idea for a book!”

-The Bismark Telegraph

“The novelty quickly wears thin!”

-The Sturgis Herald

“An unusual premise that keeps you turning the pages, hoping it will eventually develop into something!”

-Emmental Dickinson, The Bay Times (Omaha, NE)

“Not really a novel!”

-The Ontario Olympiad

“Like no other novel I’ve ever read!”

-Caerphilly Wells, The North Platte Telegraph

“I can’t believe this is a book!”

-Brie Rogers, The Davenport Mirror

“Why would someone do this?”

-The Duluth Star

“About three-hundred pages!”

-Bloodstone Publishing

“About three-hundred and forty grams!”

-Fynbo Shreeve, scientist

“I couldn’t pick it up!”

-Allen Walker, The Catchall

“Just keeps going!”

-Terry Cheshire, The Whitehorse Observer

“Completely messes with your head, and not in a good way!”

-Feta Hampton, The Telluride Post

“The most entertaining drivel I’ve read this year!”

-Red Windsor, The Winnipeg Inquirer

“We only publish reviews of academic non-fiction in the field of biology!”

-Nature

“I keep it next to the toilet!”

—S. Clemens, author of The American Claimant

“Floats well!”

-Boaters Digest

“Responsible for an outbreak of diphtheria!”

-Tiverton Tribune

“Reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake, and by that I mean completely unreadable and people will only refer to it to sound pretentious!”

-The Ely Telegraph

“Makes you look at aardvarks in an entirely new way!”

-Annapolis Reader

“Opened up a trans-dimensional portal that I fell into and now can’t escape! Please send help!”

-Terry Weiss, The Marfa Bugler

“You might want to read it!”

-The Dorset Times-Picayune

“Potential best-seller.”

-Poughkeepsie Plain Tribune

Coming next year: the sequel, Disblurbing The Peace.

Aesop’s Prequels.

The Fox Tries Some Grapes

The Stag offered the Fox a bunch of grapes.

“Hey, I’m really full and don’t want these. You want some?”

“No thanks,” said the Fox. “I really don’t like grapes.”

“Come on!” snorted the Stag. “What do you mean you don’t like grapes? Everybody likes grapes.”

“Well I don’t,” said the Fox. “So clearly not everybody likes grapes.”

The Stag threw the grapes down. “Look, I was just trying to be nice. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. You say you don’t like grapes, fine, don’t eat the damn grapes then.”

“Fine!” yelled the Fox. He bit off a few grapes and chewed them up. His mouth puckered at how sour they were but he forced himself to smile anyway.

“Good, aren’t they?” said the Stag.

The Fox nodded, suppressing the urge to spit chewed up grapes in the Stag’s face.

Moral: Sometimes you just have to eat the grapes.

The Grasshopper & The Ant

The Grasshopper was a hard worker who diligently prepared for the future. From morning to night the Grasshopper collected food and cleaned house. One day, carrying home a heavy parcel, the Grasshopper bumped into the Ant who dropped its load of seeds wrapped in a leaf.

“I’m sorry,” said the Grasshopper, putting down her own parcel and helping the Ant gather the seeds.

“I don’t have time for this,” muttered the Ant.

The Grasshopper placed more seeds on the Ant’s leaf.

“It must have been hard work collecting these. Why don’t you take a minute to rest?”

“No time to rest,” said the Ant, collecting the rest of the seeds. “We have a saying: If you rest it’s the death of the nest.”

The Grasshopper held up a seed. “You really should take a break once in a while.”

“No breaks,” said the Ant, snatching the seed and wrapping it up with the others in the leaf. “We’re born, we work, we die.”

After the Ant left the Grasshopper sat and thought for a long time. Finally she stood up.

“I’m never going to be like that.” She turned toward home. “And I really need a drink.”

Moral: What are you busting your ass for if you’re not going to enjoy life once in a while?

The Tortoise & Friends.

The Hedgehog looked to the Rat who looked to the Goose who looked to the Tortoise.

“So,” said the Hedgehog, “we’re all agreed. We’re sick of his bragging, we’re sick of hearing about how fast he is, and we’ve got to take him down. We just need to decide who’s going to run the race.”

The animals all looked at each other.

“Well,” said the Rat, “there’s only one of us who hasn’t raced the Hare and lost.”

“Fine,” said the Tortoise. “I’ll do it. I just have one question. Who’s gonna slip him the sleeping pill?”

Moral: Fill in your own answer here.

Seeing Stars.

Stargazing is as much a part of a fun summer evening as running around in dewy grass barefoot, catching lightning bugs, and seeing how many bottle rockets tied together will still fly and how many will just fall over and explode on the ground. Here are some fun facts about prominent stars in summer constellations.

Sirius in the constellation Canis Major is the brightest star in the night sky. For the ancient Egyptians the rising of Sirius marked the beginning of the flooding of the Nile, and for the ancient Greeks it marked the beginning of the “dog days” of summer.

Mizar and Alcor are two stars that form the handle of the Big Dipper. Mizar is the brighter of the two and the stars are so close together that in ancient times being able to differentiate them was used as an eye test by insomniac ophthalmologists.

Capella in the constellation Auriga is so bright it can often be seen at night.

Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor is, because its location appears almost fixed, is sometimes called the “north star” and also the “pole star” when it worked with Milton Berle.

Pollux and Castor are the two primary star in the constellation Gemini and have recently filed for separation.

Spica in the constellation Virgo is a binary star. Its primary star is a blue giant while the secondary one wishes you’d notice it’s been on a diet.

Regulus in the constellation Leo is made entirely out of jellybeans.

Vega in the constellation Lyra enjoys sushi, long walks on the beach, and books about endocrinology.

Altair in the constellation Aquila is really sorry about the incident with the chafing dish but you shouldn’t bring it up unless you want to hear a twenty minute bit about why it’s called a “chafing dish” that’s really not as funny as Altair seems to think it is.

Sabik is part of a binary star system in the constellation Ophiuchus and is an extremely good boy.

Algol in the constellation Perseus is rarely visible because it keeps setting off the motion-activated light on your neighbor’s porch before it realizes it has the wrong house.

Arcturus in the constellation Boötes wishes you’d stop asking about the oregano.

Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus is a red giant and once shot a man in Memphis just to watch him die.

Antares in the constellation Scorpius wants to know what you’re looking at. You wanna make something of it? Well? Do you?

Deneb in the constellation Cygnus denies ever meeting Lando Calrissian.

Jupiter is not a star but a planet that in the western part of the northern hemisphere can be seen rising in the southwest each evening because it’s drunk.

Another Way.

There are two ways to respond to rejection: try again or give up. Or find another way. There are some famous books that were rejected dozens of times before finally being published, countless others that we’ll never know about because their authors gave up, and then there are those who found another way, publishing on their own. Well, this story has been rejected multiple times, and while I could keep trying I think instead I’m going to take the other way.

Prejudices

“If you feed them they’ll just keep coming back!” the man next door yelled.
“Ignore him,” muttered Linda. Carl ignored her and the man next door and threw another handful of bagel pieces to the seagulls hovering around the deck. Then he grabbed another and started ripping it up. They were the bagels they’d bought at the Sea’N’Sand when they arrived on the island, some national brand that turned out to be too light and bready.
“I don’t want to sound prejudiced,” Ruth had said that morning when they tried one, “but the goyim just can’t make a good bagel.”
The phrase struck Linda as odd; the only other time she’d heard Ruth use it was earlier on this same trip. They’d flown to Mobile and met their daughter Annabel at the airport, and this was their first chance to meet Carl whom she’d been dating for six months. In the car they rented to drive to the island he entertained them with his original Broadway cast recordings of Wicked, Fun Home, and Ethel Merman in Gypsy.
“I don’t mean to sound prejudiced,” Ruth said when they’d stopped and Carl insisted on pumping and paying for the gas, “but are you sure he’s not gay?”
“Oh yeah,” said Annabel and gave a throaty laugh.
“Really?” Ruth pressed. “So, tell us, does he–”
“That’s enough!” shouted Linda and Ruth and Annabel giggled quietly the rest of the trip until they passed a restaurant with oyster shells piled in its parking lot. Carl said, “I’m really looking forward to some fresh oysters” and Ruth and Annabel exploded with laughter.
There were at least a dozen seagulls hovering over their deck now. Linda could see their white-rimmed eyes and the red tips of their beaks. Most had black heads but one near her had a mottled gray head. Linda wouldn’t have guessed birds could hover and yet here they were, their bodies almost motionless while their wings beat the air.
The man next door turned and went back into his house. Linda had watched him and a woman she assumed was his wife, a frail-looking figure who wore a headscarf and spent hours stretched out on the beach chair on their deck. It was late April and yet Linda watched him drape three or four blankets over her. She’d never seen him before; in fact she couldn’t remember having any neighbors before. She and Ruth had first come to the island a decade earlier for their honeymoon, and came back to the same beach house, a tan-colored three-bedroom place decorated with classical frescoes inside called “Dun Roman”, for a week every year for their anniversary. Ruth had fallen in love with the place immediately; Linda wasn’t so sure. It was always windy on the beach, and at first she didn’t like seeing the gas drilling rigs out in the bay, but now they were like old friends, and she looked forward to nightfall when their amber lights glowed.
After the bagels were gone Linda dragged the garbage can across the sand up to the road for the next morning’s pickup. It was still early evening, or late afternoon, but the sun was setting, the sky was starting to turn pink and orange. She stopped to look at it and saw the man next doorwith his garbage can. She gave him a polite smile.
“Ahoy!” he said then walked over to her. He was bald with a cottony fringe of hair around his ears and wore glasses over his pale blue eyes. “Sorry I yelled earlier. These days I’m just a little too conscious of seagull poop.” He put out his hand. “I’m Michael Jackson. Not the Michael Jackson, though.”
His handshake was gentle. Linda smiled. “You’re not the craft beer and microbrew writer then?”
His eyes widened and he grinned. “Most people don’t make that connection. So, neighbor, you’re here with family?”
“Yes, my daughter Annabel, her boyfriend Carl, and my wife Ruth.” She was used to varying shades of hostility, especially in Alabama, when she said “my wife”, especially from older people, but he only smiled.
“Good, good. First time?”
“No, we’ve come here every April for ten years now, for our anniversary.”
“Congratulations!” he beamed. “My wife and I always come here in the fall but six months from now, well, not sure where things will be.” Then abruptly he checked his watch. “Well, it was nice meeting you, but it’s my wife’s cocktail hour and I have to tend to her.” He gave a quick salute and strode back to his house.
Inside Ruth asked, “So what’s the guy next door like?”
“I don’t want to sound prejudiced,” said Linda, and went to the kitchen to make a Bloody Mary.

 

 

 

The Beach Rules.

In order to enjoy the beach safely and responsibly please observe the following rules:

  1. Pets are allowed on the beach but please pick up after them.
  2. Children are allowed on the beach but please pick up after them.
  3. This is a public beach. Please dress appropriately. Yes, we’re talking to you. Really, those shoes with that shirt? Did you get dressed in the dark this morning or what?
  4. If caught in an undertow swim parallel to the beach until you are out of the current and can swim back safely.
  5. If caught in an overtow dive as deep as you can and swim parallel to the beach, if you remember where it is. This is a great chance to see how long you can hold your breath!
  6. If your car is towed call 251-555-3219.
  7. Don’t build a fire unless you’ve been in a horrific plane crash or fallen off a cruise and found yourself stranded alone on the beach. If that’s the case as soon as you start making a fire someone’s bound to show up and tell you you’re doing it wrong. Get a lift home from them.
  8. Feed the seagulls at your own risk. Every year dozens of tourists are carried away by flocks of seagulls.
  9. Do not linger under the palm trees. It makes the coconuts skittish.
  10. Solicitation is prohibited. So is selling anything. If someone approaches you and tries to interest you in a timeshare or beach property tell them you’re Canadian.
  11. There are lifeguards on duty but they can only run in slow motion. If you’re drowning try and prolong it as long as you can.
  12. If you find a lamp on the beach and rub it and a genie doesn’t come out take it home and try plugging it in.
  13. Do not get high on the beach. You might fall off.
  14. Do not taunt the seahorses. They may look cute, especially the babies, but the adults are very protective and, at up to six feet long and three-hundred pounds, can inflict a nasty bite.
  15. Do not drink the water.

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