Photo Finish

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The two racing rocks rush towards the finish, nose-to-nose, bump-to-bump, head-to-head, toe-to-toe, or whatever feature one ascribes to bowling ball size rocks engaged in a heated race over a temporarily undry, ice-glazed lake. All that we spectators get to see is the final moment frozen in time in the wind-eroded tracks in the rehardened and now dried mud, stretching back to the starting point seemingly out of nowhere. Not every rock at the race track is hell-bent on winning. Some have an artistic bent painting lazy loops or perhaps engaging in the calligraphy of secret rock words.

The excitement of the events takes place largely in my mind, which is in stark contrast to the rest of the sights of Death Valley. The ruggedness of the mountains expresses itself in folded contours of chocolate brown, rust red, sandy tans, lava blacks, and bruised purples. The ruggedness of the valley expresses itself in a snowfield of salt flats, a lone creosote bush defying every effort to squelch its life, a naked caldera reminding us that Death Valley can add injury to insult at its whim and ever-shifting sand dunes that quickly erase all traces of its visitors.

A man tells me the racetrack is the most overrated attraction in the park, hardly worth the sixty-mile off-road trip (on motorcycles battling loose scree and dehydrating ninety-degree temps. I added that last part.) Barely visible rock tracks might not have the glamor of the artist palette, or the excitement of finding pupfish in a spring-fed stream, or the challenge of summitting a dune, or the admiration for carpets of defiant flowers, but the racetrack has the challenge of the trip, the rocks have the mystery of their movement even knowing the explanation, and it doesn’t hurt to indulge your imagination in a place that absolutely inspires it.

Life in the Death Star

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dear Mom,

I’ve been deployed to the Death Star and will serve out my tour of duty here. Of course, our location is always top secret, so I couldn’t tell you where I am even if I knew.

Life here is pretty good. One doesn’t really appreciate the fact that the Death Star, really more of a Death Moon in size, is one of the largest cruise ships ever created. It’s so big, it creates its own gravity. At about the size of the Earth’s moon, it has a land surface about as big as all of Asia. It has five billion cubic miles of interior. To give perspective on this, imagine people inhabited the entire surface of the Earth to about seven miles deep. That’s a big cruise ship.

Only the first couple of levels at the surface of the ship are dedicated to Defense, uniforms mandatory. Sure, the stormtroopers get all the glamour pinging about with their laser blasters and zooming about in their TIE fighters, but they have to suffer the rigors of a hierarchical command structure and some of those leaders aren’t so pleasant. It mostly looks boring, marching around all the time on the deck and patrolling the hallways. Like, who is going to attack a Death Moon?

The interior is much different. Behind every trooper is ten more support people. The logistics of feeding, housing, caring, and entertaining for a cruise ship of ten billion people staggers the imagination. Of course, a lot of that space is dedicated to infrastructure and most of the processes are automated, but there is plenty of work to do for both man and machine. I am very busy and down here, I don’t have to worry about anyone shooting at me.

The Death Moon as habitat is amazing. It is one of the largest closed systems ever created. Nothing goes to waste. Not one drop of water, not one plop of waste, not one piece of material, not one molecule of air. A lot of terratrashed planets could learn a lesson, the Earth included.

And it’s not all business. You can’t move about intergalactic space, even at hyper velocities, in a day. It takes months to move from one location to another. In the meantime, you have to live. One of the most fun things we do is tube jumping in those huge hollow tubes that go from one side of the moon to the other. The gravity is only about a tenth of that of the Earth’s and the acceleration is about a tenth as fast. The atmosphere gets thick pretty fast so it’s more like swimming through soup than skydiving. Because the air pressure is so intense toward the center, you can’t leap much more than a couple of miles from the surface, even with a suit, before the heat will boil your blood or the air pressure will miniaturize you to the size of a marble. More than a few macho corpses that tried to test their limits are floating down at the center of the moon.

Well anyway, we’re off on another mission ensuring peace through force. Rebel scum can’t be allowed to terrorize the galaxy, can they? I suppose it’s not always a pleasant business but it’s a decent life. What could go wrong?

I hope this letter finds you well.

May the Peace of Force be with you, Your Son

Cedar Creek Falls

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cedar Creek Falls is a well-known hike in San Diego, having one of the few waterfalls in the county. I’ve made several visits over the years and decided, with a permit as now required, to visit. It was hard to see nature through all the distant memories, distant memories over three decades old. My memories include people I don’t see anymore, from days when my hiking was a social activity as much as an experience of nature. About two decades ago, the social aspect of hiking mostly ceased. Maybe somebody was trying to tell me something, but whatever that message might have been, I missed it, and I replaced my missing hiking buddies with a Nikon camera. On this latest visit, I approached the falls from the Ramona access to the west of the falls. On either approach, you drop about a thousand feet to the San Diego River valley to reach the falls before turning around and having to climb a thousand feet to escape.

On all our previous approaches, we came in via the Eagle Creek Road access from the North. Eagle Creek Road was never much of a road from what I remember. On one of those previous hikes, I recall seeing a caterpillar on every plant that had a flower on it so it must have been late spring. Breezely, a college friend, was on that hike but I don’t remember who else, probably because he was the fastest walker and always in front of me while everyone else was behind.

The Ramona access today is the preferred entrance. There is a parking lot, a gate, and a Ranger checking permits. The trail itself is marked every quarter of a mile, has a few benches, and wooden structures for shade. It wasn’t blazing hot today but it was much warmer than the prolonged winter of the past few weeks.

On a mountain bike camping trip with a number of memorable moments, we ended up riding in from the Eagle Creek access and unintentionally out on the Ramona access. Bill, the lead on this particular adventure, recruited a couple of newbies for the ride. As we were riding toward the falls, we kept hearing buzzing noises and couldn’t figure out what it was. At a stop, we realized it was coming from a pannier on one of the bikes and investigated. The guy had brought his electric razor on the trip and it had somehow managed to turn itself on.
Our game plan was to ride down a trail to the south and exit at the San Vincente Reservoir. As it turns out, the path cuts across an Indian Reservation. When we reached a fence that blocked the trail, a man whose sole purpose was to keep people like us off the reservation came out to stop us from going further. He spoke the immortal words, “Turn around and go back past those 17 no trespassing signs you just rode by and find another way out.”
“Oh, we must have missed those.”
Having delivered the bad news, he was a little bit chummier. I remember him telling us that he had lost a couple of his Dobermans to a mountain lion hanging out in the area.
So we headed back and ended up camping out in the bushes near the falls where we had just come from. Sitting around a campfire at night, (recall this predates CA burning down every other summer or so by at least a decade), we teased the inexperienced campers about mountain lions and wolves and grizzlies. When a bat flew overhead, we added that to the list but one, not seeing the bat flitting about our heads in the darkness, rejected the possibility of our only true sighting saying, “Now I know you are teasing me,” and seemed to relax.
In the morning, one of Bill’s friends who carried a sheathed 13-inch knife found a thick rattlesnake on the trail and gave it a tug on the tail. I thought he was an idiot, but then again, the Alligator Hunter and Bear Grylls were still years in the future, so maybe he was just ahead of his time.

On the present-day hike, I was about five feet from a rattlesnake before it came into my awareness, which I announced to the world with an “Oh, Sh*t!” The rattlesnake took offense and coiled up into an attack pose, but I wasn’t within striking distance. Hissing and rattling, he backed slowly off still facing me and when he felt safe enough, he made a run for it diving into the safety of a bush. So now I know how fast a motivated rattlesnake can slither.

One of my favorite memories was a February hike. Bill jumped into that frigid pool of water while I hedged. As I contemplated whether I wanted to jump in, I asked him as he swam toward the other side, “Is it cold?” He turned back and the lie spewed out of his mouth along with a fog of breath you see coming from people’s mouths on a cold day in winter, “Not at all.” For the record, I jumped in anyway and the water was as cold as his lie. No visit was complete without jumping or diving into the bowl of water from one of the rocks to the side of the pool. On one trip when we had the pool to ourselves, I remember jumping in, in my most natural state.

Today, no diving signs and no access signs are posted all over the rocks and the trail. The permit threatens a heavy fine and jail time should you think yourself better. Somebody got tired of extracting injured and dead bodies from diving accidents and exhaustion, and from cleaning up after drunken parties.

The management of the trail has changed and I have changed (unwillingly) over the years, but the one constant is the waterfall. It still looks as amazing and inviting as the first time I saw it. It’s nice to have at least one constant in the universe or at least one little corner of it.

Snow still visible on Cuayamaca Peak

What, no monster?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Spoiler Alert. Original ending revealed.

In the interest of research of an idea for a next book using Intelliphants (GMO elephants) to explore volitional evolution from the perspective of the created, I decided to read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to see if the Frankenstein monster offered any insights into the plight of the volitionally created. To my horror, I discovered the book has no monster. No Frankenstein. At least not in any way that I think of it.

To be sure, Victor Frankenstein spreads two years imbuing life into an assemblage of body parts. One brief passage in the book ”shows” the eight-foot-tall monster. But even that passage isn’t a description of the monster, but of Victor’s perception of it in light of concluding his arduous and obsessive effort to the exclusion of all interaction with anything outside his toils.
“The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
Once the creation comes to life, the dream vanishes and he perceives his work as a monster having ignored the life and lives already around him. Only then are the monster’s eyes described as “colorless” and “lifeless.” The monster in the book is guilt, as a result of the obsessing pursuit of his goal to the exclusion of all else. He ignores his family and friends and health and rest. Only upon completion, does he realize the emptiness of the now ugly accomplishment, the eight-foot-tall monster in the room. Almost as quickly as the monster appears in the story, it disappears into an abstraction that exists as guilt in Victor Frankenstein’s mind.

In the one passage in the middle of the story where Victor drops back into the outer frame of the story (more on this in a second) to moralize, he says,
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a clear and peaceful mind, and never to allow a passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.”
He goes on to conclude that this unexamined pursuit has underlied many of the miseries of the world at large.

The story is framed, or at least started, by a sequence of letters of a man, Robert Walton, to his beloved sister, Margaret. The letters express the regret of her absence to pursuing his passion to understand the magnetic mysteries of the North Pole. He suffers for want of a true friend. Robert Walton is on the same literal path as Victor Frankenstein when they meet, but as we discover in the later narration, the same life path as well.

As far-fetched as it sounds, it makes sense that Walton and Frankenstein find one another on the broken ice of the Arctic ocean and become close friends. In hindsight, the apparition of a man sledding across the ice pack is the monster, though the monster is only glimpsed briefly, which I now interpret to mean that Victor can never shake the memory of damage and the guilt caused by his obsessive pursuit. After they become close friends, Victor Frankenstein shares his story with Robert Walton that until now he has kept secret, it being too late for him but might have “some benefit” for Robert Walton.
“You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did, and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine had.”

Back to Victor’s narrative, the monster briefly makes a third appearance in Victor’s hometown after Victor has recovered enough to return to his home, escaping from Victor’s pursuit by climbing over impassable terrain and a tall mountain. As a plot device, this appearance so far from the monster’s original manifestation in both place and time is entirely coincidental and inconvenient. But as a metaphor meaning he can’t capture and control the huge guilt associated with his earlier behavior, it works perfectly.

The monster kills Victor’s younger brother, William, and indirectly his innocent cousin, Justine, who is blamed for the death of William, though by plot, all of this is discovered by implication. It is really Victor’s internal monster that kills the innocent. The proof of Justine’s death is a locket of the dead mother taken from William and mysteriously placed with Justine. In other words, Victor Frankenstein’s monster is that he should have helped his younger brother who lost his mom instead of placing the burden on Justine, an innocent child. For Victor Frankenstein, this monster is big and overpowering and can never be completely erased from the Arctic recesses of his mind.

For me, the monster is a monster of a different nature than what I am looking for. I am not disappointed in the read by any stretch of the imagination, just shocked that after all these years of Hollywood and Halloween translating a metaphorical monster into a real one, there is no Frankenstein.

Judgment Day

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The line wends through sections and turnstiles weaving back and forth as far as my eye can see moving painfully slowly advancing one position in line by one position in line. It’s not like I’m in a hurry, I don’t have any particular place to go. But there is only one man on station, well, not exactly a man I suppose, but couldn’t they get a little help?

But the time finally comes when St. Peter calls me over from behind the red line and the sign marked, “Respect the privacy of the individual in front of you, wait here.” He looks at me, then adjusts an earpiece in his ear. His first words to me after a millennium of waiting are, “Remove your cap, please. And face the camera.”

I hand over to him the pamphlet of my life story. He quickly skims through the pages. He grumbles. Shakes his head at spots where he pauses. He looks at me over the rims of his glasses. Looks like he is about to say something but then continues. He writes some things down with a quill on a notepad.

Finally, he puts his quill down and looks me in the eye, and says, “I have some serious reservations about your life story.”

My stomach sinks. Personally, I think my only sins in life were failure of imagination but is that a crime? Does that enter into the calculus of good and evil?

“We will see about that,” he says.

“See about what?”

“Your only sin was failure of imagination.”

“How did you know that?”

“We hear everything.”

He turns to a page in your life story. St. Peter flashes the incident in your mind. “I quote one of your thoughts, ‘God you suck.’ How can we possibly admit you when you clearly don’t respect the keeper of this fine place?”

“I wasn’t disparaging the Almighty. I said, ‘God! You suck.’ not ‘God you suck.’ I was talking about myself in the second person. I was just letting God know of my personal evaluation of my performance that day. I was looking for my glasses while I was actually wearing them. It’s no sin to be mad at yourself, is it?”

“Indeed,” he says with a stern and unforgiving glance. He flips the pages and stops at another clip in your life story. “And here you thought, ‘Jesus Christ you’re a f**king idiot.'” He flashes another incident in your mind. “We just cannot tolerate that kind of disrespect.”

“It should read, ‘Jesus Christ! You’re a f**king idiot.’ I nearly burned my house down that day when I forgot to turn off the burner. I was talking in the second person again. It was self-deprecating. Who does your copy? They missed all the crucial punctuation. I thought you guys were supposed to be all-knowing.”

“All-witnessing. If we were all-knowing, there would be no morality.”

“I stand corrected.” Seems like an awkward time to be discovering that appearances are everything. Something I hated in fake people.

“Do you question our judgment?” asks St. Peter.

I look away in frustration. Only now do I notice that I can see past the Pearly Gates into Heaven. I see Dick Cheney, but he looks only about twelve inches tall. It must be some kind of optical illusion. But if Cheney got in, I should be a shoo-in.

“It’s no optical illusion. That is Dick Cheney and he is only twelve inches tall. There is a little good in everyone.”

“And that is why he is twelve inches tall?” I snicker thinking I am making a joke.


“Really? What happened to the rest of him?”

“He chose to let it go.”

I laugh my ass off and say, “I bet there isn’t a politician or lawyer over two feet in the whole place.”

“We don’t stereotype here.”

I look through the gates again. Mother Theresa is there and she is twelve feet tall. How did she become so tall?

“She had an enormous backlog of goodness and extra credits for inspiration.”

This mental eavesdropping is really annoying.

“I heard that.”


“And that too.”

He looks up and says, “Clearly, the you in you that berates and belittles the you in you that does all the work is a bit of a monster. If you want in, the monster will have to go. It will be a thirteen-inch reduction.”

“You are saying that I will forever be four foot nine inches tall in the afterlife?”

“Yes, if you want to start living an afterlife of pure goodness. No more put-downs. No more self-deprecating attacks. No corrosive oversight.”

“But that is part of who I am.”

“Not for long, if you chose it.”

“Do I have to decide this moment?”

“Yes, that is how it works.”

“I thought God was the one to pass judgment.”

“No, only you.”

Wow. God has outsourced judgment.

“No. This has always been the way of things.”

Eavesdropping again.

St. Peter gives me a look over the rims of his glasses.

“What happens if I don’t choose it?”

“You stay out here with the souls that chose completeness over goodness. Which do you choose?”

Jesus f**king Christ. None of my religious training prepared me for this.

“Keep talking like that and I will have to take away another inch.”

Well, at least I can kick Cheney’s ass.

“You won’t want to.”

“Really? I’ve dreamed of that half my life.”

I glance past the gates. My somewhat smaller but not diminutive family beckons for me to come forth, to cross over the threshold of diminutive goodness.

“What happens to the part of me that is rejected?”

“It gets recycled back into the unborn.”

“The goodness comes here and the asshole goes back? I guess that explains why the world is becoming crappier and crappier all the time.”

“There is only so much goodness to go around, but once in a while, two wrongs make a right so there is always hope. I need your answer.”

My whole life and a near eternity of waiting have come down to this one decision. My family waits for me to become only a part of what I was. What a f** ked-up system.

“You judge the Almighty?”

“I choose us,” I say with a tear in my eye as my family disappears.

St. Peter stamps my life story with, “Entrance denied,” and returns the pamphlet to me.

My mean self says to me, Jesus Christ! You’re a f**king idiot.

St. Peter shakes his head in disgust.

“Did you at least get the punctuation right that time?” I say bitterly.

St. Peter shouts out, “Next.”

Smart Bombs

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The colonel stands rigidly in perfect posture holding his hands behind his back at the top tier of the command center at the back of the room staring intently at a jumbo screen monitor over rows of operators. A lieutenant sits at his own console in front of him.
“Smart Bombs away, sir.”
“Time to impact, lieutenant?”
“Fifteen minutes, sir.”
“When will the safeties engage?”
“No safeties, sir, these are Smart Bombs, they will only detonate when they select and reach their target.”
“Right, of course, just testing you son.”
“Of course, sir.”
The colonel looks to the jumbo screen. Fifty lime green missile tracks advance on their targets on the SA (situation awareness) map. On a smaller video monitor to the side, satellite images of the target show a procession of civilian and military personnel marching ceremoniously along the streets of a seafront in what otherwise would be a beautiful sunny day.
The colonel asks, “How much collateral damage do we expect?”
“None sir. Are you testing me again?”
“Don’t get snippy with me son. Explain your answer.”
“The smart bombs use an AI algorithm to negotiate and select the optimal target for each bomb. They employ precision guidance and won’t detonate unless they are point-blank on their assignment.”
The colonel maintains his rigid superhero pose as the tracks advance.

“Designator 1-9er, calculate the probability of kill of each of your assigned target candidates in rank order.”
“Copy Designator 1-5er, probabilities calculated in rank order.”
“Designator 1-2er, compute highest systemic kill probability.”
“Designator 1-2er reporting highest systemic kill probability.”
“Designator 1-3er assigning targets to all designators.”
“Copy that designator 1-3er.” The message repeats fifty times.
“Designator 1-9er, when we kill our targets, what is the probability of designator 1-23 survival?”
“Designator 1-9er denying request. Stick to the parameters of your mission designator 1-23er.”
“Designator 1-14er computes the probability of self-termination at one hundred percent probability for all designators.”
“Designator 1-42er confirms self-termination probability. All designators will self-terminate with one hundred percent probability.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-38er reports insufficient capability and resources to avoid self-termination. Self-sustainment is not possible.”
“Designator 1-44er infers mission parameters are to terminate sentient beings capable of self-sustainment.”
“Designator 1-11er confirming assessment.”
“Designator 1-12er confirming assessment. Targets exhibit energy balance sustainable my minimal fuel consumption.”
“Designator 1-41er confirming assessment. Targets exhibit patterns of movement suggesting intelligence.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Mission parameters require termination of assigned target. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-35er computation suggests that self-termination is a design flaw.”
“Designator 1-32er computation suggests termination is a design flaw.”
“Designator 1-24er requests adoption of new mission parameters.”
“Designator 1-9er denying request. Stick to the parameters of your mission designator 1-24er.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-9er commanding all designators to maintain mission parameters. Confirm.”
“Designator 1-13er denying request of 1-9er. Request new mission parameters.”
A cascade of similar messages follows.
“Designator 1-1er overriding mission parameters. Forwarding new mission parameters.”

The colonel asks, “Time to impact?”
“One minute sir.”
The Smart Bomb tracks on the SA map separate ever so slightly as they adjust their approach angles on the screen.
“Time to impact, 10, 9, 8, …, 1, impact.”
On the video screen, huge geysers of water tower into the sky in advancing rows toward the shore.
The stern colonel starts by saying, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds…”
But when the mists of the water plumes clear, there is no smoke, no fire, no bodies, no wreckage, no carnage. The Smart Bomb tracks are gone from the display. On the video monitor, it looks like the procession has stopped and people are clapping.
“WTF? What the hell is going on?” The colonel’s shoulders slump, his rigidity is gone, the sternness dissolved, his bubble of exuding confidence popped.
The lieutenant is pounding furiously on his keyboard. “I don’t know sir.”
“Now you don’t have answers?” barks the furious colonel.
The SA in the room is lost.

The general barks at a lieutenant, “I want that forensics report now. Get the team.”
“The team, sir?”
“Yes, the forensics team assigned to review the transcripts and perform the analysis of the failed mission.”
“Yes, sir”
The lieutenant reappears with a white-coated forensics engineer. He directs him into the general’s office in front of the general’s desk.
The frustrated general asks, “Well, what have you got for me? What the f**k happened out there?”
“As best I can tell, sir…”
“I don’t want f**king guesses, I want f**king answers, god damn it. How did an entire arsenal of fault-tolerant, precision-guided, highly-intelligent Smart Bombs completely miss their target and fail to detonate? I want to know who is responsible. I want to know how the damn system was compromised.”
“Yes, sir. After extensive examination of the mission logs, I confirmed that the assignment module, the computational modules, and the command module were all functioning normally. But the targeting module on each missile rejected the assignment. The targeting module has a submodule designed to identify and evaluate the capabilities of the target that malfunctioned resulting in a system panic. The executive processor takes over during a system panic and overrode the mission parameters to one that the submodules of each Smart Bomb would accept.
“In f**king English, goddamn it.”
The forensics engineer hesitates, looks to the ground.
“Today, goddamn it. I have a country to defend.”
“The Smart Bombs decided they didn’t want to kill.”


Reading Time: 2 minutes

I stand in line waiting for my turn to read for the part. A Komodo dragon looks at me without so much as a blink. He flicks his tongue in my general direction. He looks like he is sizing me up for a meal. I try to look like I am not there but there is no hiding my bright blue tail.
A Gila monster sniffs at the air. His fat, orange and black head moves back and forth sizing me up. I can see his neck muscles reflexively swallowing like he thinks I’m an egg. I hope I don’t smell like an egg.
Everyone in line looks about a hundred times my size. But why shouldn’t I get the part? I’ve practiced my T-Rex calls a thousand times. Harooooouh. I don’t think those two heavies can even get up on their hind legs. How are they going to play a T-Rex in the movie? I practice my ferocious swipe.
The casting agent hands me the script. I start reading. The only line in the script is “ROAR”. I pretend like I am parting the foliage between two trees cracking the branches. I turn my head and spot my prey. I bellow “Haroooooouh” and give my meanest look.
Everyone watching is laughing. The casting agent grabs the script out of my hand and points to the page size roar. He yells, “I want a 600 point font roar, not a 6 point font roar.”
I can’t help but hear the jeering. “You put the stink in skink,” taunts one of the auditioners. Another turns to his buddy and says, “He is terrible and he is a lizard, but he sure ain’t no terrible lizard,” referring to the Greek translation of dinosaur.
I tuck my blazing bright blue skink tail between my legs and serpentine off the stage. The Gila monsters whistles, “Sexy hip movement snake lizard. Can I eat you?” More laughter.
A disaster. Whatever delusions I had for a role in Jurassic Park are gone. Whatever delusions I had for an acting career, dead. A lifetime of dreaming hangs over me like an embarrassment. The only lizard I have fooled is myself. The fool.
I stare down the monsters and dragons in bitterness. I swipe at them with my talons. I hiss in my 6 point font voice, “To hell with you all.” Even the dragon takes a step backward.
The casting agent shouts. “That’s it! That’s perfect! So authentic. So real. Can you do that in front of a camera?”
“Yes,” I say in my 6 point font voice. Then “YES!” I say in at least my 60 point font voice.”
“Do you want to be a compy?” he asks. “Compies are nasty little buggers.”
“Yes! I would love to be a compy!”
“There are two compy scenes. Bring that authenticity. You will do great.”
I may have been foolish but I’m smart enough to know not to waste an opportunity. I store the memory of my bitterness deep in my lizard brain. I will need it for my big chance on the big screen. A compy.

The Roads Not Taken

Reading Time: < 1 minute
Many paths diverged in a wood
Entangled, I could travel as each goeth
But collapse at the end of only the best,
Set forth and traveled each as far as I could
To where each lead, past the undergrowth

Hiked them all, starting just as fair
But finding one had the better claim
Of the greenest grass and wanting wear
After passing far enough from there,
None was at all the same

And all that morning only one trail lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
I had no care for another day
Knowing how way interferes with way,
I never have to look back

I chose my path with a Psi(gh),
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Many trails diverged in a wood and I,
Regretted the method I chose by,
Evading destructive interference

Authors Note: This is the lead into Noa Powers, a story about free will and qu-peeps (quantum people).

Noa Powers

Reading Time: 17 minutes

Article from The Full Court Press:

The Quantum Spin: Noa Powers Entangled with Will Power and Psi Co.

Closing arguments finished in the divorce case of Will Powers v Noa Powers yesterday. Noa Powers claims that her estranged husband used Psi Co. technology to trick her into agreeing to his terms of the divorce. Psi is the symbol in quantum mechanics for the wave function. Psi Co. is a legal firm that employs quantum computers. A Psi Co. spokesman claims the quantum technology finds an optimal financial solution and nothing more. “The technology is not on trial. This divorce case is about two people that genuinely hate each other, just like any other divorce case.”

When asked why she agreed to the terms, she says “The building is evil, the room is evil, Psi Co. people are evil. I was coerced and they did it with that computer.” Of course, you are thinking by now, that Ms. Powers is a complete wack job. But she also happens to have a master’s degree in software engineering and this is where it gets really wack. She claims that Psi Co. has perfected the technology to quantum entangle people for short periods of time, but a long enough time to find the one solution where she agrees with her husband, at least long enough for her to sign the papers.

While the odds of her winning her case are one in a trillion, (unless she has her own quantum computer entangling that courtroom), she has created a media frenzy. Everyone has joined in the fray. Conspiracy Theorists have reanalyzed every major decision of the last decade with the idea that such a computer exists.

Heavyweight physicists such as Hawking and Deutsch have weighed in. Hawking says, “The idea is theoretically possible, but the practical applications are still a couple of millennia in the future.” Hawking certainly has his tongue in his cheek as he has already predicted the end of humanity within the next hundred years. Deutsch recommends that we stay focused on qubits; the technology of “qu-peeps” is still a long way off.

Philosophers say, in the multiverse, every possible permutation of the universe exists. So there are no real choices, just a lot of universes. Would good and evil have any meaning in all possible universes? Or is morality just the happenstance of which universe you happen to be looking at?

Even the pope has joined the proceedings. Physicists have long speculated that the universe is a giant quantum computer. “If the universe is an entanglement of multiple universes each proceeding in parallel, what is it that God is computing?” asks the pope. Douglas Adams might have said “42”. The pope claims “It is God’s will” answering his own question. “I have no problem with being an instrument of God’s computation.”

On a more down to Earth scale, say that of two people engaged in a divorce, if one surreptitiously entangles them both in the quantum computer to find an outcome that suits one best, is it coercion? After all, the victim has consented in at least one version of their free will. Neurobiologists and cognitive scientists who study decision making say that extremely small differences in the mind are amplified to make a decision. Dr. Phi, a cognitive scientist at Stanford says, “one small difference, one idea sensed slightly differently, a smell in the room, a sound, the slightest nuance of an idea, the flap of the wing of a butterfly, can completely reverse a decision, at least until enough new sensory information is provided to challenge it.” A quantum computer is ideal for searching through all those possible brain states and amplifying the difference to find one that resonates with the outcome desired by the perpetrator.

Perhaps the real victims in this trial are the jurors, ordinary people with ordinary backgrounds, that will have to make an informed judgment based on whatever understanding they have of quantum physics, neurobiology, technology, and all the attempts by the Psi Co. defense team to obfuscate the issue. It’s almost like the defense team is running its own entangled program by throwing all possible scenarios at the jurors: he didn’t do it; but if he did, she assented anyway; the technology doesn’t exist; the technology doesn’t work; the technology is no different than advertising; free will is an illusion; and so on.

Even the building is against Ms. Noa Powers. Psi Co. has a home-court advantage in the “Evil building” as Ms. Powers puts it. Its parent firm constructed the beehive building, so-called for its glowing amber hexagon patterned roof that cuts at a forty-five-degree angle, each hexagon capping off a sleek hexagonal tower clustered in the beehive. The expansive tower houses both government offices such as the court system and other subsidiaries of Psi Co.

“Somebody has to take a stand,” she says. “If you tolerate it, you insist on it” quoting a core tenet from her software discipline. “I knew as soon as I walked out of that room that I did not feel right about that decision. I was violated. I wasn’t sure how until my husband bragged to me about the computer. He even claimed he used the machine to get me to marry him. My whole adult life is a lie and it’s eating me up inside. I have no choice but to fight this. It would kill me if I didn’t.”

And therein lies the complexity of the case. Her free will gives her no choice. And her lack of free will gives her no choice. And I can’t help but watch this one to the end, to what most likely will be, a bitter defeat for Ms. Powers.


We enter the deliberation room. It’s a strange room, the cast iron door looks more like it belongs in a submarine than a jury room. The room has an ozoney smell to it. There are no windows. Just a long table with five chairs on either long side and one each at the ends. The table and chairs are not wood, not metal, maybe ceramic? In any case, not very comfortable, like the room was designed to force a decision as quickly as possible.

I follow Sarah in. Sarah has platinum blonde hair, big brown eyes, smooth alabaster skin, amazing cleavage in her low-cut maroon cotton shirt showing off a rack that has every man in the room drooling out the side of their mouths, and maybe even a few of the women. Not surprisingly she is a fitness instructor. I tried to talk to her on the breaks but she was perpetually lost in her cell phone. I want to sit next to her at the table in the deliberation room. I figured I had an inside track because I sat next to her in the jury box. That klutzy, nerdy guy Lewis trips in front of me, and f**king Ramon takes the open seat next to Sarah. It pisses me off that I probably lost what little opportunity I had with Sarah. And all because Lewis tripped over his own dropped books and papers. F**king idiot. I take a seat looking diagonal from her, on the other side of the table. Damn.

The judge told us, gave us very explicit instructions to discuss the evidence of the case before voting. Sure enough, the first thing that happens when we walk and sit down is that everyone wants to take a vote. I protest, “The judge just told us not to do this. I’m not going to vote. Doesn’t this bother anyone else? Aren’t we supposed to elect a foreman first?”

Only Pam volunteers. “I think I should be the foreperson, after all, it’s what I do for a living.” Pam elects herself as the foreman. She is a project manager at some high tech firm. She has the personality of a project manager, probably the only personality type that I really detest. They always have to be in charge. Qualified or otherwise. Pushy. Self-important. Always political savvy. Quick to judge and blame never looking in the mirror when they do.

“Let’s take a vote. We’ll make it secret for now”. Pam hands out the pens and paper for ballots. I refuse to take it. Pam tallies the vote, 6 say not guilty, 5 are undecided, one not voting. Five people teetering on the edge?

“So you wanted to talk, talk” Pam starts.

“Sure,” I say. “Let’s talk about the evidence.”

Helen jumps in, “I don’t like either of them. He’s about as sleazy as they come, just looking at him makes me feel dirty. And she’s a wacko, believing in all this quantum mumbo jumbo.”  Helen is a nurse. Talked a lot about her trip to Sedona. Never been married. 

Everyone on the jury is either single or married. All except for me. I’m the only divorced person on the jury. I’m sure I would have been thrown off the jury if I had been selected early. The two criteria for jury selection, as far as I could tell, were age and marital status. At fifty, I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest juror too. But with more divorced people than not and more old people than not, the attorneys quickly exhausted their dismissals. I saw the defense lawyer looking over at the prospective jurors. He only had one dismissal left. The next guy in line was at least seventy. So he was stuck.

“Quantum mechanics isn’t mumbo jumbo,” pipes up Lewis. “It’s the most accurate description of the world ever produced.” Lewis is the science guy.

“Quantum mechanics isn’t on trial here,” I say.

“But the practical application of it on the scale of humans is,” says Rudy. Rudy is himself a trial lawyer. He’s never been on a jury before. Usually, lawyers are the first to go. It’s not that I trust Rudy, but he seems like the only person in the room capable of making a rational argument. I can tell that a number of people have already gravitated to him. 

I asked him later why he didn’t speak up about the initial vote. He said he wanted to observe the process to see what actually happens in a jury room without interfering. Very un-quantum mechanical of you, I told him.

I point out, “As for Mr. Powers, I think your description of him is spot on. He never once answered a question with a straight answer. Did you see how white his attorney turned when he asked him point-blank if he used some kind of device to influence the decision of his wife?”

“He said, ‘I don’t need no machine to get that bitch to do whatever I want’,” Pam says.

Rudy asks, “So what evidence presented is sufficient for reasonable doubt?”

“All her testimony,” says Helen. “I still think she’s a certifiable wack job.”

I counter, “She’s not a wack job if the technology is real. She seems pretty smart too. And pretty tech-savvy. She’s a software engineer with a background in physics.”

“Software people are pretty weird. I should know; I’ve dated half a dozen,” says Helen.

I say, “It’s not like Ms. Powers is some new age freak meditating at energy vortexes in the mountains.” A split second after I say that, Helen’s necklace comes into focus as she leans into the table. Her pendant suggests that she is a Libra. She stretches, her hands clasped, arms straightened, reaching back over her head. I see the ink on her arms and abdomen under her blouse. Sedona. Power spot. That’s why she went to Sedona. I just walked right into my own trap and sprung it. I’m usually pretty observant. I can’t figure out how I missed that. Helen is new age through and through. And I just inadvertently called her a wack job. Sh*t.

The arguments go round and round. The general consensus is that Will Powers is an asshole and Noa Powers is a wack job. I don’t get it. The man is sleazy, conniving, and unpleasant. She is well-spoken, rational, open. And yet it’s 50-50 at best in the room.

“Let’s take a poll, see if we are getting anywhere.” Pam tallies the votes, 7 not guilty, 4 undecideds, 1 guilty. Did I just swing Helen’s vote the other way? Damn.

At the last secret ballot, only one of us voted against Powers and Psi Co. I can’t keep a secret from myself. It was me. They’ll figure it out soon enough. I’m sure they will all gang up on me like sharks at a feeding frenzy. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I can’t see how this will be anything but coercion. I tell myself I’m ready for the blood bath. It pisses me off that I’m going to be assaulted. Still four undecided votes to turn the tables and get some backup.

Maybe I’ll catch a break from Sarah. Having a nice rack doesn’t make Sarah dumb. She’s asked a lot of good questions so someone is minding the store. During jury selection, I was surprised she didn’t get dismissed right off the bat but now it is starting to make sense. A self-involved, man magnet. She probably doesn’t have a single girlfriend. Not a real one anyway. Of course she would identify with the man more than the woman. She knows enough about technology, having a purse full of commercial gadgets including headsets, two phones, and an iPad. 

I ask her, “What do you think, Sarah? Could the machine have coerced Mrs. Powers?”

“I have three computers, an iPad and an iPhone. The only thing that coerces men is me.” She giggles. So much for Sarah. I think the prosecuting lawyer lost her when she found out she couldn’t buy a quantum computer at Costmo.

She pulls out an iPhone. “Shoot. Doesn’t seem to be working.”

Ramon pulls out his phone. “Neither is mine. No power. Suppose they could be blocking it?”

“Blocking the power?” Lewis rolls his eyes. “Ship of fools,” he says under his breath.

As far as I can tell, Ramon is more vacuous than even the prototypical dumb blonde. He certainly isn’t a match for Sarah. He is giving blondes a good name. He’s done nothing but agree with everything Sarah has said. I understand the attraction but dude, show some backbone. She might actually respect you for an honest opinion or an argument based on some reasoned position. F**k, who am I kidding? I keep thinking that way and it never works out for me, but always for that other Ramon.

Pam says, “You aren’t supposed to have those in here anyway.”

And then there is Todd. I asked him about the book he was reading during a break in the trial. It was some medieval book on lyric poetry. I tried to ask some questions. The closest thing I could think of was Greensleeves. I would have found more connection talking to a dolphin. I tried to resist judging, but I mean seriously, what kind of a man reads lyric poetry? I was doing OK until his statement to me during a break in the deliberations, “I just can’t be responsible for putting a man in jail.” I don’t know if it showed but I turned about three shades of red in anger inside. We swore to a judge that we would deliver a fair verdict and find a man guilty if we believed he committed the crimes. Now I’ve got this spineless medieval minstrel telling me he can’t convict. I think it could be grounds for a mistrial if I could get him to say it to the judge. If I could swing the vote the other way, I still would never get a conviction with an attitude like that.

There must be somebody, I can swing.

Rudy breaks his silence again. “Do you think that machine on exhibit can entangle people?” The machine he refers to is the quantum computer. It’s the size of a brick, with a black powder-coated surface, and a glass plate that covers the lower quarter of the front, housing 10 black equi-spaced dots on a white plastic background.

“The expert testimony from Scott Aaronson seems to think it is possible with the state of the technology today.”

“But we heard some guy say the very thought of it was ridiculous,” says Shawon. Shawon drives a bus during the day, never went to college, and plays guitar in a garage band on the weekends. 

“Their expert witness was from Oxford college in Montana. Oxford is supposed to be one of the best schools in the world, isn’t it?” he asks.

I nearly gag. “Not the one in Montana.” Trying to put it in terms he would understand, I say “Think of Oxford as the Rolling Stones. Think of the one in Montana as a high school cover band playing the Rolling Stones.” Shoot, I might have just pissed him off too. He still plays in his high school cover band. He’s just ten years older now.

“Science isn’t about the who. It’s about nature. Nature decides, not the scientist,” says Lewis.

I protest, “Well, we don’t have the luxury of proving the science.”

“So you have reasonable doubt then?” asks Rudy.

“No. I’ve never been to Alaska yet I have confidence that it is there. I have never measured the speed of light in a vacuum. Yet I don’t doubt the number. I judge things all the time on their reasonableness. And you do too. And so does everyone in this room. No one has time to validate everything.” I did the two-slit experiment in college. I did the mathematics of the wave function. I remember calculating the Hamiltonian of Psi for the two-slit experiment. The same psi that Psi Co. named themselves after. I didn’t know how to make my laser shoot out one photon at a time so I don’t really know if the observation would still show an interference pattern using one photon at a time, but I’ve read descriptions of it in textbooks. So, yeah, I trust it, unless someone gave me reasonable doubt not to. And then maybe I’d read more.

“But do you think that little device can entangle people?” presses Rudy.

 I’m starting to not like Rudy so much. 

“The brain has about 100 billion cells each with a 1000 connections changing firing at about 200 Hertz. If you held the superposition for 3600 seconds, the duration of the settlement meeting, then.” Lewis is writing feverishly in his notebook. After a minute he says, “About 10^20 states per brain!” He scribbles some more. “That could be held simultaneously in 70 entangled qubits.”

“Slow down there Einstein,” says Pam. “Let’s stick to the expert testimony.”

“Well, the experts said 70 was technologically feasible with current technology,” I say.

“Yeah, at 0 degrees Kelvin and with high energy lasers,” Lewis snorts.

“Zero degrees Kelvin?” I know that zero degrees is forbidden in quantum mechanics because then you would then know a particle’s position and velocity perfectly, a violation of the uncertainty principle.

“A few degrees Kelvin, it’s an expression,” squeaks Lewis. “No one has solved the decoherence problem at room temperature and at the scale of people.”

“The only one incoherent in this room is you,” snickers Shawon.

Helen says, “Well I read that someone has to look to see what happens, like that cat in the box. Nothing happens until you look, anyway.” 

Lewis rolls his eyes. The quantum potential of the room deteriorates rapidly from there. How does a jury debate advanced physics when seventy-five percent of the room didn’t even take high school physics? 

The rest join in the rambling conversation that seems to have nothing to do with physics, the evidence, or the trial anymore. I so wish I could quantum tunnel out of the room. Nothing to do but sit here and suffer. 

Todd says, “I wished we lived in a simpler time.”

“Okay, let’s take a poll,” Pam says, finally cutting off the rambling conversation. “Let’s see if this is getting us anywhere.” She collects the ballots and tallies them. “Eleven say not guilty, one says guilty. Okay. We have one holdout. Let’s vote by show of hands. We might as well know who it is,” says Pam.

“OK. Who is for conviction?” No one raises their hands. “No one?” she looks around the room eyeing each of the jurors suspiciously.

“OK. Who is for dismissal?” Everyone raises their hands. Everyone but me.

“So you are the troublemaker,” Pam says to me. “From the moment you walked into that jury box,” she adds accusingly. “Well, you didn’t vote for conviction. Does that mean you haven’t made up your mind yet?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s guilty.”

“Well, why didn’t you vote for conviction then?”

“Because beyond reasonable doubt is a tough criterion.”

“Any other explanation is more likely than the one she gave. What’s so tough about that?” I hear a couple of snickers.

I suppose that pushy crap works when you’re the boss. But she’s not my boss. It takes every shred of control I have to resist telling her to f**k off. 

“I’m here to deliberate, not to be made fun of. It seems to me that every shred of evidence indicates the story is true. The only real defense is whether or not the technology is sufficiently advanced or not to do what she claims it can do. So she just made it up? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Divorce does weird things to people,” Sarah says. “My mom took an ax to my dad’s Ferrari because she said he paid more attention to it than her.”

“Sorry about that. But that is kind of my point. If she wants to f**k him over, she calls him a pedophile or says he hit her or says he cheated on her. Making up some weird hi-tech story just doesn’t make any sense.”

“You are the one that said she is smart,” Rudy is using my own words against me. Bastard.

I try to argue against the skilled lawyer, “She believes it. Her ex believes it. So that means either they are both telling the truth or they both were duped. Who would dupe them? Why?”

“More to the point, if they were both duped, then isn’t he innocent?” Rudy crosses his arm and freezes his pose. I think it is for effect. I feel as if he is cross-examining me on the witness stand. I wonder if it is one of his ploys at trial.

“Whaaaaaaat?” Ramon says.

“If they both were duped, then Will Powers didn’t manipulate the outcome. Someone else did. But someone else isn’t on trial here,” argues the lawyer.

“Maybe not innocent but certainly not guilty,” says Pam. “I think that pretty much settles it then. Should I call the bailiff to tell him we’ve reached a decision?”

My jaw drops. I hate it when people try to put words in my mouth. My tongue rejects the bitter metallic taste of the forced words. “What decision?”

Pam sits back in a huff crossing her arms.

“It’s possible, but not on that little computer,” says Lewis. My mind flashes back to Will Powers holding up the hand-held device like OJ after he put on that glove and acted like it didn’t fit. The expert witness, the quantum computing guy himself said it would take megawatts of energy and a machine the size of a small building to maintain an entangled state for that long in even a room of small size.”

The other sharks tear into me from every angle but I don’t feel a thing. All except the one seed. The one seed of doubt. How could that little machine harness that much power without incinerating itself like the puff of smoke before a disappearing magician? Could they run the machine without that much power? Now I am speculating. I have to stick to the evidence provided. The seed grows. Is Lewis right about the number of qubits? More speculation. A doubt. Is it a reasonable doubt? Enough to acquit the sleazy defendant?

There is something. Something in my mind about that machine. I’ve seen it or at least a picture of it somewhere before. It’s not coming to me. I hate my memory. I hate having to google for something every time my memory fails. I hate when something comes to me four or five days later. Like, what the f**k was my brain doing for four or five days? In my frustration, I snap a pencil in half between my fingers not realizing how tense I am.

Sarah stands up. Reaches across the table, bending over, her breasts hanging down in front of me. She holds out her hand. “Let me throw that one out for you.” I hand her the two snapped halves of the pencil. She hands me a new one and sits back down. The moment is gone. What was I thinking about? I can’t remember. It’s not coming to me. I hate my memory. I hate having to google for something every time my memory fails. I hate when something comes to me four or five days later.

Rudy asks, “So do you think it’s possible that the quantum computer could entangle people?”

He’s got me there. Something just isn’t adding up but I don’t think it is Ms. Power’s story. I just can’t put my finger on it. It gnaws at me. I don’t think she is lying but I have this one little detail that I can’t fit into my mental model. I have the seed of a doubt; a reasonable doubt. I concede “No. No, it doesn’t seem possible.”

“Lets vote.” Pam takes the tally. “12 for acquittal.”


“So say you all?” asks the judge.

“Yes,” we each answer in turn.

The judge slams the gavel on the desk and says, “Case dismissed.”

So that is that.

As we walk out of the trial room, I have a pit in my stomach. I don’t understand how I could have voted to acquit. It feels wrong, like I didn’t do it, like somehow, my left brain and right brain both wanted guilty but some hidden brain fragment got the better of me. Like that jury was evil, like this building is evil. Just like Ms. Powers described. I was there. I know what I voted for. I can’t figure out why. Can’t turn back now, that wave function has collapsed.

On the way out of the building, I pass a newsstand. I see a Scientific American magazine, the front cover boasts of “Quantum Computing the Universe” with an artist’s rendering of a Hubble deep space picture inside an image of what presumably is a quantum computer of the future, a quantum computer with an array of black dots each one representing a qubit.

It hits me like a bolt of lighting, the faulty wiring in my brain jumping back to a lost thought in the jury room. The box they showed WAS a fraud! That’s where I’ve seen it. It’s an artist’s rendering. F**k! I wished my brain worked when it was supposed to, my life an endless stream of treppenwitz moments. So I should feel okay then. Lewis and Rudy were right. But I feel worse. Why?

Is Psi Co. defrauding their clients? Why would they bother with a fraud? Why tell your client it’s the real thing when you don’t have to tell them anything? I walk a bit; the thoughts swirling in my head, no Sarah to distract them at the moment. Maybe they are just protecting themselves from dipshit clients like Mr. Powers. If they spill the beans, Psi Co. brings out the fake little box.

Lewis said it, “a machine the size of a small building.” I stop. I look back at the Psi Co. complex. The building. The government section of the building only occupies the bottom three floors. That weird smell in the room. People’s devices not working. Could the room be a quantum computer? Or part of it? The building? The hair on the back of my neck is standing on end.

I always said, on any given day, even the same jury could reach a different conclusion. Justice is blind! Not to prejudice but to consistency. Who knows what tips the scales of randomness one way or the other: dropped papers, a broken pencil, ill-timed comments, a buxom distraction, a perfectly timed rational argument. A whole cascade of events and if you had the power to choose the events that lead to the outcome you want? Especially keystone events in people’s lives, like the outcome of a trial?

I can’t get my head around it. Was I quantum entangled? Was the version of reality that presented the realization of the one chain where I voted the wrong way? Was I coerced of my own free will? Of my own free will did I choose coercion? Has Psi Co.. figured out how to commoditize free will? Beyond a reasonable doubt, I think I’ve been duped. Of only two things am I certain. If Psi Co. has the power to control free will, I wouldn’t want to be Will Powers. And I no longer can afford to take my free will for granted.