Years ago I put together a collection of horror and sci-fi short stories I’d written around 2010 – 2012. This was shortly before I took a stab at my first novel Pareidolia, and served as a literary canary in a coal mine; I had next to no idea what the creative writing process was like.Continue reading
I had also published a single deleted chapter when the book came out, but today I added four more. Click here to read these never before seen chapters, as well as other fun bonus material.
I stupidly forgot to link each chapter to the next, so you always had to go back to the TOC to keep reading. No more. Now there are go-to-next-chapter links at the bottom of each chapter post.
I just finished reading Infinite Jest for the third time, and this time I took notes. It helped. Keeping the dozen-plus storylines straight in the mist of the rhetorical glitter bombs Wallace throws in your face borders on the Herculean, which I get is on purpose, but I noticed (and more importantly retained) what felt like a good quarter of the story that I missed the last two times around.
I read the first several miniature chapters of George Saunder’s Lincoln In The Bardo with some misgivings. I knew and loved Saunders from Tenth of December and was accustomed to his style, but the overbearing nature of epistolary literature has always rubbed me the wrong way. And this was a whole novel of that? Very hard to grab onto, yet the reviews glowed and gushed. So I pushed on.
I considered myself a science fiction writer all the way through my first novel, Pareidolia. With portals, time travel, impossible rooms, and recovered alien artifacts, there’s no way it could be anything else.
I figured I ought to have a glancing familiarity with my genre, so I assigned myself a long reading list, starting with Frankenstein and ending with the hottest new sci-fi novel of the moment. It didn’t go well.
I started reading Robert Bolaño’s formidable novel 2666 last month, and I’m sure it’ll take me another month to get through it. I don’t read nearly as much as I should, which sometimes makes long novels a pain in the ass to get through. But not this novel. I’m savoring every minute of it.
So you’ve read every word of my self-published sci-fi novel Pareidolia, and you just can’t bring yourself to admit that the journey is over.
Never you fear! Below are some sweet Pareidolia bonus features to keep the freaky vibes flowing.
Taking place just before the final version of the book begins, this deleted chapter finds Zeke fumbling his way towards Kenneth Holcomb’s secretive inner circle by way of a college SETI student group. (SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a real thing.) The connections Zeke makes in this group eventually lead him to attend an out-of-town astrophysics conference where he befriends some members of Holcomb’s inner circle who agree to take him in as one of their own. Some of these characters are mentioned by name in the book’s current opening chapter, at the “birthday party”.
We also get a rundown of the Pareidolia mythology with respect to the “real” (as far as this book is concerned) mid-century UFO happenings in upstate New York from which the government used the Roswell fiasco to distract unwanted public attention. This mythology is brought to us by a character named Trevor, a member of the SETI student group, who comes and goes in a single chapter. The details of this 1950s Niagara Falls altercation are later referenced in Roland’s anonymous interview with a schmaltzy cable TV show about the hidden truths about UFOs “they” don’t want you to know about.
Deleted for brevity.
Finding Holcomb’s books proved more difficult than Zeke imagined. He scoured one local bookstore without luck, then two, then three. One clerk offered to look in the store computer system, but no titles were found under his name. It was in the midst of a fourth unsuccessful try at a particularly earthy local bookseller when Zeke closed his eyes and actually smacked his forehead: UPenn had like twelve libraries.
The problem was which one: certainly the biomed library was out, his regular haunt. Would history make sense? Where did one go to look for manifestos by alien-obsessed, anti-government whistleblowers from the ‘70s? A terse and ancient-looking woman at the Math / Physics / Astronomy Library (he honestly couldn’t think of where else to start) held up a knotty finger as she perused the inter-library database at the front desk computer. After a long pause she harrumphed and muttered, “Kenneth Holcomb, author. Two titles. Annenberg Library. Both checked in.”
“Which one is that?”
“Annenberg. Which school is that?”
“Communication. Walnut St.”
The library at the Annenberg School For Communication had a section dedicated to what it called media activism, a smallish hodgepodge of books, films, and music with subjects ranging from protests to animal rights to recycling. Zeke thumbed past a few titles with the word they in them, as in, things they don’t want you to know about. The worst of the theys were, as far as he could tell, corporate multinationals, the American Medical Association, and (Zeke had to look twice) music teachers.
So, OK. The atmosphere in media activism was thick with controversy. That was a good thing, right? Because he was looking for an Area 51 nut? Minutes later he found Holcomb’s books on the bottom level of a very rickety bookshelf, two thin volumes with the unbearably long titles Celestial Propaganda: Using Alien Mythology To Control Public Opinion In The Age Of Television, and World War X: How Recovered Alien Technology Is Benefiting The Wealthy And Hastening Our Demise.
He pulled the titles and checked the dates: 1972 and 1975, respectively. Both looked like reasonably short reads. He could probably knock one out just standing there in the overly-lit room. Yes, but what if they were dense? In his coursework he’d come across some “short” publications on subjects like gluconeogenesis and phospholipids that required weeks of study to comprehend. He checked out both titles, hoping to Christ that doing so wouldn’t come back to haunt him as he ascended into of graduate and post-graduate life. What, those? No! That was part of an elaborate joke. For a friend’s birthday. You understand.
He inhaled the first book that night, the one on celestial propaganda, in the common dorm area as not to bother an irritably sleepy Chen. It was dense, in spite of its short length, but not physics textbook dense. Most of it involved otherworldly scare tactics to frighten and distract the American television viewing public in the teeth of politically unpopular circumstances, with a sizeable portion dedicated to the changing power of mythology in post-WWII life, e.g. flying saucers over Washington. Zeke felt like he’d run a marathon by the time he finished, and indeed he’d read all 200 plus pages in under two hours, the whole time unable to shake the feeling he’d stumbled into an unknown room in a childhood home. He always felt certain that humanity wasn’t alone in the cosmos, but he never considered that the hunger for this knowledge, so humble and earnest, could be forged into a political weapon. And of course Holcomb didn’t just speculate or generalize—he took pains to point out specific instances to support his claims, most notably during the worst years of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And it made for strange bedfellows, the most explosively hilarious example being Gerald Ford’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and the two biggest Hollywood producers at the time, in the heady years leading up to the release of what became the most mind-bendingly popular alien abduction film of the 1970s.
Zeke read the second book, the one on recovered alien technology benefiting the rich, over breakfast the next day in the cafeteria. He became so engrossed in it he completely forgot to study for a bioinformatics quiz that afternoon, which he bombed. This second title was more of a slog, focusing on (of all things) the technical history of the transistor. He wasn’t quite as transported by this book, but he was fascinated by Holcomb’s clever way of pulling the reader into a world he thought he already knew, and then utilizing unexpected forms of deduction and persuasion to paint larger and stranger pictures than one might expect to find. Holcomb left the final conclusions up to the reader, some of which struck Zeke as a little on the fantastical side, but by the end of each book Zeke had trouble ignoring the feeling that some of the bells Holcomb rang echoed longer and louder than others.
It was the first week of December. Finals were nigh, and there was only one more SETI student group meeting left in the year. Zeke was determined to go, in spite of looming exams, papers, and a stab at what looked like an impossible but badly needed extra credit opportunity.
He returned to the health administration building on a particularly cold and snowy evening, this time making the bulk of the journey by bus. On tap was a panel discussion between the SETI and computer science student groups, on the question of using some of the CS department servers to process modest slices of the immense amounts of SETI data in the shadow of almost certain defunding by Congress.
“In the end it will come down to private funding. I just don’t see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania supporting this,” Lucy said at the beginning of the meeting, radiant in a tight red printed T-shirt and grey jeans. Zeke was interested in the topic—truly—but again found it difficult to focus on anything other than identifying the band on Lucy’s shirt. Who was she listening to? Was the band ironically cool?
Thus the bulk of the meeting was lost on Zeke, a sea of technical details having next to nothing to do with the actual processing of SETI data and more about the politics of combining the respective powers of the two student groups, and finally settling on a small percentage of computing time that the CS department could be convinced to donate for a cause the dean reportedly regarded as a waste of precious resources. (Zeke’s favorite Lucy moment of the evening: “Doesn’t matter. We’ve heard the word ‘no’ so many times, we’ve built up an immunity.”)
Were they going to Mickey’s again? They were. There was much mingling in the hallway outside the classroom (they were again relegated to the same haunted basement lab), busier this time with the presence of CS student group representatives. Was Lucy going to join them for a few drinks? Yeah, actually—she probably was. Zeke jealously listened in on a conversation between her and another male member of the SETI group he had yet to meet. “See you guys there,” she said, as she tossed her leather jacket over her shoulder and vanished down a dark hallway.
Zeke found himself hoping for both outcomes at once: no, she wasn’t really going, allowing him to skip the whole Mickey’s experience for a second time; and yes, she was going, giving him a chance to engage her in casual conversation. Oh, God—what would he talk to her about? SETI talk was too obvious. But what else was there? The rock band on her shirt? Sure—then Zeke would just incriminate himself for staring at her perfectly shaped…
“Let’s do this!”
Jim slapped his back, just like last time. And he was wearing the fucking red hoodie again. Wait, was his name really Jim? Had Zeke forgotten already? This was going to be unendurable.
And indeed the first ten minutes at Mickey’s were painful almost beyond belief. Zeke listened, frozen, while others chatted away, easily chiding each other and themselves in the mock self-deprecation of the erudite that Zeke had both grown accustomed to and hated. Either he’d misheard her, or something had waylaid Lucy. Zeke tried not to imagine a muscle-bound ex-boyfriend ringing her cell phone for a night of no-strings sex.
They were tucked in a booth this time, Zeke all the way up against the wall, trapped. No Lucy, no token cute geek girls, not even a well-endowed female wait staff to bring them beers and wings. (But also, mercifully, no adjunct professor with perfect teeth.)
A nearly nondescript guy with white-blond hair and a Sears catalog face introduced himself from across the booth. Marcus. Another undergrad student, in psych. First time at the SETI group. How had he found it? Friend of a friend. He appeared to be having an easier time of it, laughing along with jokes and asking casual questions Zeke wished he’d thought of.
He nodded across the table at Zeke. “So what’d I miss last time?”
“Last time what?”
“At the last meeting. What did you guys talk about?”
“Oh. Uh, we had a guest speaker give a talk on Kenneth Holcomb.”
His face lit up. “Yeah? Awesome!”
“You know him?”
“Yeah, of course! He’s a legend in the field. Or, well—something between a legend and a ghost.”
Was Zeke the only space nerd who’d never heard of this guy?
“First time for me. Had to go look him up.”
The guy sitting next to Marcus chimed in. He was a jittery dude with a shaved head, a pierced nose, and a tiny white scarf. “Oh, God. You’re kidding, right?” He stared a hole in Zeke, as unbelieving as if he’d just said he’d never heard of Area 51. The jittery dude’s voice was at once effeminate and powerful: he knew how unconventional he came across, yet he didn’t care. “Well, then thank GodI’m here! I’m Trevor, by the way. Charmed.” He flashed a giant smile at the two of them, but mostly at Marcus. “Yeah, I can’t believe I missed last month’s meeting. I was stuck grading papers until three in the goddamn morning. I’m a Kenneth Holcomb freak.” The word “freak” was cartoonishly elongated and accompanied by a dramatic eye roll. “So you’ve actually never heard of him?”
Zeke stopped himself from giving into his first instinct, which was to shrivel in his seat. Instead he maintained his poise and said simply, “Nope. Never.”
“He’s a hack,” someone chortled from the far side of the booth. Others laughed, even Trevor.
“I just read a couple of his books,” Zeke offered. “I guess he was a conspiracy theorist, right? Worked for the military back in the ‘60s, believed the government was hiding recovered alien technology…”
Marcus nodded to Zeke. “Which ones did you read?”
Trevor turned around in his seat to face Marcus, now fully engaged. “You have got to read Night Wolves, his latest? Outstanding.” He held his palms level with the table and let them fly apart at the word “outstanding”, as in, that settles it. No question.
Zeke blinked. “Wait, his latest? He’s still writing?”
“Of course. He never stopped, sweetie.”
“Hmm.” Marcus waggled his eyebrows across the table at Zeke and turned back to Trevor. “So what are you studying?”
“Psych. Grad student. Nearly suicidal.” Even the way he sucked down his drink through a tiny straw was flamboyant. He finished it off and held it over his head without taking his eyes off of Marcus. He tapped the glass with a ring, making rapid little ding-ding noises like someone was about to propose a miniature toast. Within seconds it was whisked away by a waiter. “What about you?”
“Psych here too. Also a grad student. Not suicidal—yet.”
Trevor raised a sharp eyebrow. “Jesus. Good luck.” Trevor pointed an eyebrow in Zeke’s direction. “And what about you, honey?”
“Biochem. First year of grad school. Suicidal since birth.” Zeke shriveled at the joke’s lameness as it exited his mouth, but somehow it got more than a few laughs.
Marcus looked at Trevor. “What was the name of his new book, again?”
Trevor smiled and somehow held up his hand just in time for the waiter to hand him a fresh drink from behind. (Was there a mirror somewhere? Were gays magic?) The drink was candy apple red and had a slice of pineapple on the rim. He had to shout his next words over the unexpectedly loud ‘80s rock anthem that had just started blaring over the speakers.
“Ever heard of something called ‘Project Flange’?”
Marcus looked up at the ceiling. “Rings a bell.” Zeke remembered the name from one of the Holcomb books, but couldn’t remember which one, or what it meant. “Oh my God, you guys.” Trevor took a deep breath and looked down, as if he was preparing to deliver a soliloquy in a play. Some of the guys on the other side of the booth were trickling away as he did this, something about a birthday party. A beat later Trevor lifted his head and threw Zeke a dramatic stare from across the table.
“So. You already know Kenneth Holcomb worked as a physicist at this company called Pickering Slate back in the ‘60s. They were a contracting company with the U.S. military. Still are, I think. Anyway, he worked on big scary wartime aircraft and stuff. Came across something too juicy to keep to himself. Stole a buttload of documents and disappeared sometime around 1970. This you probably know. Here’s what you don’t: Flange was a super secret DOD project unofficially launched sometime around the spring of ‘68 but probably existed before that in some other form going as far back as maybe the 1950s. Pickering Slate was part of this effort.
“Well.” Trevor threw back the rest of his drink. “Some recently declassified Army documents confirm the presence of at least three on-site private contractors at Fort Walker, Texas in the spring of ‘68. Flange (I think that’s an acronym, I don’t know what it stands for) is mentioned exactly once in a declassified but heavily redacted Pentagon communiqué from around the same time, firmly establishing the long-suspected connection between Flange and a top secret Air Force project with the code name ‘M’, which in turn is mentioned in other heavily redacted military letters and reports, most of which are of little interest except for one: a report drafted in February or March of 1964.” Trevor wrinkled his nose. “‘64? Or maybe ‘65. Anyway, doesn’t matter. This report described a newly revived project, originally established in the early ‘50s at Dalton Air Force Base in California and abandoned in a few years later, also under the elusive name of ‘M’. This particular document—along with one or two of the documents mentioned before—exists, original and un-redacted, within Holcomb’s cache. And you won’t believe the moon-sized misdirection the American people have been fed, Holcomb’s been trying to say, that’s hiding in these documents.”
Marcus waggled his fingers and made a sarcastic little oo sound. Trevor rolled his eyes and soldiered on, switching his focus to Zeke across the table.
“So why is Flange a big deal. OK. So the Area 51 lore that everyone knows by heart is complete bullshit. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you two that. Turns out there probably wasn’t anything going on at that air base other than good, old-fashioned wartime research and development. The Roswell business in ‘47 was a happy accident; every administration since Truman’s (but especially Kennedy’s and Johnson’s) was happy to play along because it gave the government safe cover to invent some truly sinister fucking war machinery while the hippies and eggheads went applesauce over the panty sniff of a hint that alien life not only existed but gave two fucks about us, so this war stuff is just like temporary. The more people cared about this meant the less people cared about the shitshows in Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, efforts that required some serious fuck-you hardware.”
More of the SETI group drifted away. Eventually it was just the three of them in the booth, Zeke and Marcus watching Trevor all but act out his monologue as he delivered it.
“The Area 51 knot was paradoxical by design; loosen a bit here, and it tightens over there. Uncover a document here, something gets reclassified over there. And if the military is good at one thing, it’s obfuscation. But at some point they just started having fun with it, right? This just makes people go even more applesauce, mostly because they think it proves their conspiracy theories true.
“It’s not a bad call, actually. It’s healthy to mistrust one’s government, and anyway, things like the Manhattan Project are the exception to prove all rules: conspiracies do happen, but so do fake ones. (Good God, such fake ones.) So what you’ve got is a perfect storm of military bureaucrats who refuse to give up a remarkably reliable tool of misdirection and a population of lunatics who refuse not to believe in little green men. It’s a Chinese finger fuck trap, what are those, those toys you stick both your index fingers in and suddenly you can’t get out. It’s the act of pulling out your fingers that allows the trap to work. What we have here is a perpetual finger fuck motion machine.
“Anyway, sorry. (I get lost in my own hype sometimes.) Back to Flange. You see, not only is the public’s belief in the Area 51 lore good for business in the military industrial fuckscape, but if something really dangerous did ever come around, if anything really alien did land in some podunk asshole farmer’s back yard outside of Gary, Indiana, the government would be able to store it and examine it and keep it out of the public eye with impunity, as long as it kept it anywhere, you know, in the world”—Trevor’s right hand went up with a flourish—“other than Area 51.”
He tried to slam what was left of an already-empty drink and pushed it aside, elbows on the table, eyebrows up. “Only it wasn’t Gary, Indiana where it happened. In 1950 a barber in Wheatfield, NY, a guy named Neil something-or-another—Shipley, Shipman? Doesn’t matter, you can look it up—this guy killed his entire family by tying them to chairs in his garage and forcing them to eat nothing but huge amounts of laundry soap over a period of several days, ostensibly to protect them from the radiation of the oncoming nuclear holocaust: he had convinced himself that they were standing on the precipice of a post-apocalyptic hellscape (not as divorced from reality as you might think in 1950), at least according to his wife’s mother and her best friend, both of whom were interviewed by the police just weeks before the murders, the interviews being due to Neil’s sudden strange behavior and utter disregard for conventional clothing and personal hygiene. The man went looney tunes, right? But why?”
Marcus and Zeke exchanged another skeptical look. Trevor noticed it, but didn’t let it slow him down.
“I’ll tell you why. Enter the devices. Investigators found them in the back of Shipman’s garage in an old-fashioned chest (like one of those treasure chests with the pirates and the gold), called in the Feds thinking they were some kind of specialized hand grenades with possible uses for domestic terrorism, and there the paper trail goes cold. The murders are public knowledge, not classified. You can read about them in the Niagara Falls Gazette on microfiche in just about any library in upstate New York, or maybe even on the World Wide Web now, too. It might seem like a stretch to connect Flange, a top-secret military operation in the middle-of-fucking-nowhere west Texas in the 1960s to a bizarre murder-suicide in upstate New York a decade earlier, but here’s why it’s not: there’s a photograph.”
Trevor’s drink was replaced again, but he didn’t notice. He reduced his voice to a breathless whisper of delicious gossip, possible now that a quiet ballad had replaced the rock anthem on the speakers. “A photojournalist covering the murders for the Gazette snapped two or three dozen pictures of the inside and outside of the Shipley house after the bodies were carted away, I mean the crime scenes, pictures which mostly went unpublished. Investigators were still combing through the property when the photographer wandered into the garage. The investigators must have assumed he was gathering evidence for the police, and not a reporter (because how stupid could they be), when snap went his camera as the chest was forced open and there they were, all three of them, the devices, looking back up at the three men, this moment frozen in history, forever changing the course of human civilization, and of course none of them knew it at the time. And eventually they did figure out the photographer wasn’t supposed to be there because his camera and film were confiscated and later released after all negatives were destroyed except for two. The Gazette got one, which it used for the article: a harmless shot of the house’s exterior from the front walk. The Feds got the other: a not-so-harmless shot of the suspected explosive devices in the old-fashioned chest in the back of the garage. That’s the naughty one, the one connecting the Shipland case with Project Flange. The connecting photo. It doesn’t exist in any book or magazine or newspaper anywhere in the world because it’s classified all to fuck, and was only printed once for internal use in the FBI, and then only once more for the military, and then never again. Guess who has a copy.”
Trevor nodded and smirked, indicating that he had reached a stopping point.
“Well… Holcomb, right? But so how do you…”
Zeke picked up where Marcus left off. “You mean you had all that shit memorized?”
Trevor swirled his freshly delivered cocktail. “It’s not the first time I’ve given that speech.”
“I guess not.”
“Shit, I could probably write a book if I put my mind to it.”
Marcus looked up from his hands. “How do you, um… how do you know all that stuff, I guess?”
Trevor’s eyes danced across the ceiling. He waited for a busboy to collect dirty dishes before leaning in for another conspiratorial whisper, but said nothing.
They parted ways outside of Mickey’s, Trevor going one way, Zeke and Marcus the other. Zeke briefly considered calling a cab for Trevor, but in the end he was able to hold his liquor much better than Zeke would have guessed. And he surprised Zeke with his height when they stood to leave, towering over the other two men by a good four inches. “Yes, I’m very statuesque,” he said, twirling around to show off his tall slender frame and (probably) the fact that he wasn’t too drunk to see himself home.
It had stopped snowing while they were inside, leaving a blanket of white powder halfway up their calves. Marcus was parked just a few blocks away and Zeke’s dorm was more or less in the same direction, so they walked off together. They didn’t bother waiting for Trevor to be out of earshot before deconstructing him. Zeke went first, although it was a lazy stab.
Marcus laughed and started to form a sentence, but a combination of catcalls and high-pitched shouting from across the street cut off him off: drunk jocks, four of them, each barely able to keep the other from toppling over. One was bent over and slapping his bare ass with a gloved hand. Zeke was able to make out the words “glory hole”, “fabulous”, and “honey” in overlapping epithets.
Marcus stopped dead in his tracks, turned to face the scene, and threw his arms wide open. “Are you fucking kidding me with this?”
Zeke pulled him back just as he was about to cross the street. The offending party didn’t engage, they just kept hooting and falling over themselves, crippled by their own gurgling laughter. With a shudder Zeke realized they were heading in Trevor’s direction, albeit very slowly. Zeke looked over his shoulder and saw that Trevor was almost completely gone, speeding away on those long legs of his.
Zeke exhaled in relief, then turned to Marcus. “Just leave it alone. C’mon. They’re just letting off some steam.” Marcus reluctantly allowed himself to be pulled away.
“Fuck. God, that shit pisses me off.”
“I know, I know. Just… fuck ‘em. Right?”
Marcus gave a heavy sigh, shaking his head as they resumed their trudge through the by now almost foot-deep snow. Then, after the hooting voices dissipated, said “I have a cousin who’s gay. Our age. Nice guy. Just came out.”
“Yeah.” Then, looking back, “Christ, you’d think it was still the ‘70s with that shit.”
Zeke was desperate for a change of conversation, and with a rush remembered that they still had to break down Trevor’s insane monologue about Kenneth Holcomb. He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped just before the first word was out. It seemed in poor taste somehow, to trash talk a man who was almost the victim of hate speech. They walked the rest of the distance to Marcus’ car in silence.
This is an excerpt from Balero’s journal that had for quite a long time served as the book’s opener (it was one of the very first sections I wrote). It was later moved to near the end of the book in the form of a physical journal entry that Marcus stumbles upon while holed up at Willow’s extravagant condo around the time Balero demonstrates his newfound powers to Zeke by forcing Leah’s father to materialize from the past and then vanish again.
The 2nd and 3rd sections of this intro (“urge loop” is an anagram of prologue — I was quite obsessed with anagrams while writing this book) serve as background pieces to get the reader comfortable with the world they are about to enter.
Deleted for brevity and — let’s face it — comprehensibility.
November 6, 2001
You say potato, I say Lois Birnbaum Finds A Severed Finger In Her Salad, a short novel in three parts by Hawaiian noirist Martin Flinchjaw involving a severed finger, two Russian mafia thugs, several wardrobe changes, a bank heist, an elevator chase scene, three air conditioning repairmen, and a widowed stenographer from Corpus Christi who just wants to have a nice salad and get through the rest of her day before a documentary crew catches up with her and ruins everything forever.
Michael Jackson died filming a Pepsi commercial on January 27th, 1984. The last performance of his life was in front of a staged audience at the absolute peak of his fame. Last night I dreamt he lived well into his forties and spent his days aimlessly wandering the train yards of New Jersey, claiming to hear the voice of God. One day he happened upon a group of homeless men who were bound for a nearby shelter where free food and clothing were being administered by the Sisters Of Perpetual Motion, a performance art group and ironic charity arm of Shell Oil and Home Equity Loans. The homeless men got their food and clothes and boarded a yacht bound for Frankenscience, a mobile outdoor music festival on a military aircraft carrier just off the coast of Atlantic City where Psycho Nazi Girlfriend was about to open for Web of Sodom, a comically grotesque death metal band from Aberdeen, South Dakota. WOS’s sophomore release failed to live up to the promise of their maiden voyage HMS Petit Four, which somehow tore up the charts in Brazil the year before. Psycho Nazi Girlfriend was a scrappy grindcore outfit made up of four vegan lesbians from Brooklyn who didn’t believe in recording any of their performances and refused to take music of any form seriously. They all wore identical pink and purple Tony the Tiger T-shirts because the concert was sponsored by Frosted Flakes, and they found this too disarmingly nostalgic to resist. The Kellogg’s marketing team promised the board of directors that, in spite of its bitter taste, this was exactly the kind of winky sideways swagger that was going to be the next big thing in public relations.
I wanted to blame this dream on Flinchjaw’s confusing magnum opus, which I had finished just moments before falling asleep this morning, but I’m utterly convinced that it contains the truth of what happened. My brain was trying to tell me something it had processed and spit back out, tagged with a red IMPORTANT flag but not clear as to why. The truth I still can’t quite admit to myself must be so painful that I had to wrap it deep within a layered fruit salad of cosmic mystery, or a symbol within a symbol, which is Michael Jackson’s wasted, horrifying life in some parallel universe where things unfolded just a little bit differently than our own. And the point of departure between that timeline and ours is where God reached down from the heavens and said “never mind, actually” before taking off in a spaceship for another universe somewhere else and starting all over again. Only the people in that universe didn’t die right away—they were forced to watch as their world fell apart a little bit at a time, watching their children and grandchildren float away into a vacuum of pointlessness. But you and I and everyone else in this universe were spared that awful fate. I know this, because only in a just world would Michael Jackson be allowed to die between Thriller and whatever would have come next, which, there’s no way he could top that. I mean, come on. It’s fucking Thriller, by all accounts the best album ever recorded. It is the number one selling record in the history of music. It has sold more copies than the next two best sellers combined. The first letter of the first word of each song lyric, when spelled backwards, something-something-something, then some witches in a spaceship, and I can’t remember the rest. (You know how dreams are.) In our universe Michael Jackson died in 1984 and his glory lives on in death, un-haunted by disappointment, frozen in greatness. And so I’m pretty sure everything is going to be OK. But almost it wasn’t, I guess is the point of the dream. I guess there’s no way of knowing really how close we came to that timeline, or if it was just a fevered dream inspired by the strangest novel ever, and nothing to do with reality.
Flinchjaw had a thing or two to say about the unknown, even if it was said to a relatively small audience. He said humans fear the unknown the way we fear our own future, a cascading n-dimensional matrix of near-infinite possibilities that short-circuit our tiny brains after like ten seconds of thinking about it. This terror outweighs even our confusions about the Reason Things Are, like thunderstorms and luck, burdens traditionally assigned to gods. There are no such analogs for the prism of the unknown, Flinchjaw explains (via subtext, of course), leaving us utterly and terrifyingly on our own. Instead of turning to gods, we turn against each other.
Which brings us to what happened last year. Marcus was a smart guy, in spite of his UFO shit. I mean, whatever. I guess there are worse things to obsess over. He’d never give Flinchjaw a try because exactly 100% of his free time was dedicated to crawling as far up this Holcomb guy’s ass as possible. I looked him up once out of curiosity, and whatever. The man’s a washed up ex-military hack trying to pay for his retirement by whipping up conspiracy tropes from a half a century ago. Actually, I kind of respected the guy for this. I raise my glass to you, oh UFO conspiracy theorist, for getting paid to fleece the American public by selling us a story we’ve already bought and swallowed a thousand times over. America deserves modern intellectuals like you.
Flinchjaw was right about something else, too. Humanity, as obsessed with itself as it is, doesn’t know itself for shit. This was the thinly-veiled theme behind the book’s untitled fourth chapter: know thyself or bust. Which is misleading, since are we supposed to know ourselves as individuals, or as a species? Because we do some pretty dumb shit as a species in deep spite of the presence of more than a few truly levelheaded cats. On this point of distinction Flinchjaw is not clear, probably purposefully so. In a way he’s hinting that it’s not possible for us to know ourselves, that we are the products of an impossible-to-comprehend universe. This interpretation makes sense when seen in the light of his thinly veiled allusions to Camus and Kierkegaard, although I usually prefer a more lighthearted approach to the absurd ala the brothers Marx and Warner.
I remember even thinking this stuff out loud and sort of not, back in what now is the past, I want to say 1.7 years ago. A not yet dead Marcus stopped reacting to my odes and fell even deeper into his world of techno-animatronic renderings of dragons and wizards, not realizing that he was kind of making my point for me, that we attempt to extrapolate out into the impossible and the bizarre just as lazy grad students lose themselves in the impossibly endless worlds of fantasy video games. It’s a form of “relaxation”, but of course we’re obsessed with it; we try to explore every one of the million-trillion possible pre-programmed permutations of our lives in an effort to make sense of the senselessness that surrounds us every day all day until we die. I insisted on confronting this absurdity head-on; Marcus preferred to lose himself in beer and weed. (Well, OK—I liked beer and weed too.)
There was a love between us, but it was a dirty love, the kind that exists between most men. When we were in the tenth grade he riddled me with endless teases and insults over my proclaimed adoration of Flinchjaw, but I didn’t care. Something about his work vibrated on my frequency, and I made no apologies for this. Still don’t. I did however make the mistake of sharing my love of Flinchjaw’s first novel with Marcus around the time we both entered high school. He made cracks about delusional self-help mafias, self-absorbed philosophy grad student dropouts, and rich divorcées with too much time and ennui on their hands. It was so much better, he went on, to read books with purpose and meaning, books about politics or culture or science, not “leftover nonsense from the Dadaists, who clearly lost.” Grow up, in essence, was what he was telling the then fifteen year-old me. I think he even used the word “potential”, or something unpleasantly akin to it.
But I didn’t mind. I loved the guy. Wouldn’t have traded situations for all the whatever. The only reason I wanted to go back to community college—pray you never have to use that phrase to describe your life, “go back to community college”—was to lock down my associate’s degree in math and get my own place and some fucking privacy for the first time in my life. I knew a guy who did the same thing a couple years ago, and now he’s thirty and making six figures doing actuarials for a big financial firm in Boston. I don’t really care where my career goes, honestly. I’m like my cat, Professor Waffles—I have a laughably low threshold of happiness and contentment, and I feel exactly no pressure to race any rats. The biggest adventure of my teen years was taking Marcus to my dealer’s house in Wynnewood, dropping acid, then taking a city bus to go sit in the Basilica for hours where we watched the spirits swirl around the inside of the dome before going to a midnight screening of Undead Nurses at the Trocadero. That morning I went home, announced to my mother that I had the flu, and stayed in bed for two days, during which time I wrote the outline to a backwards novella and tried to imagine what a four-dimensional sphere looked like. So yeah. I couldn’t care less about six-figure salaries or fancy cars, but I love the idea of getting out from under my parents’ fucking thumbs. I guess I was hoping there’d be a middle ground somewhere. My real talent, being able to see clearly into the true nature of things, would never land me a job, of course other than shift supervisor at Discount Video.
Going back to school was financially tricky. All but the last dregs of my allotted education money set aside by my parents had been used up the last time I spent two-thirds of a year at winner-city community college while simultaneously renting a one-bedroom I had absolutely no business renting, forcing me to apply for financial aid, a paltry mix of loans and scholarships that only covered a little over 60% of college financial life. Rent suddenly became a problem. Two sulking phone calls later it became clear that my parents were threatening to drop kick me into the new millennium and see if I could fly. I got a second job at a print shop, which solved the rent problem. My father freed up a little of my grandfather’s inheritance at my aunt’s insistence, which solved the drug problem (and by that, I mean the drug money problem). Marcus invited me to be his roommate, and that brings us up to last year. Him saving princesses in a digital world, me destroying bowls of weed and waxing philosophical about anything that has the misfortune of capturing my fancy. And so that was our life. Imperfectly, implausibly, deliciously, wonderfully, horribly good. That was our last summer together. But I’m not whatever. I had exactly no illusions that something so perfect could last.
Teenage ‘Digital Einstein’ May Have Cracked Million Dollar Math Problem
By Clarissa Atwood
The Capital Times
December 18, 1998
Vamsi Paruchuri loves Carl Sagan. His favorite movie is Contact, and last month his parents gave him the Cosmos VHS box set for his eighteenth birthday. He was looking forward to enjoying it over winter break, but fate may have different plans. One of his recent homework assignments, if proven correct, may change the course of history.
Vamsi, a senior at James Madison Memorial High School, raised some academic red flags when he turned in a project for his computer science class last month.
“I had my students pair up and demonstrate their final project at the end of the fall term.” Terrence Fikes runs the high school’s math and computer science departments, and teaches Introduction to Object Oriented Programming.
“Frankly for an introductory class, it’s a bit more complex than some students are prepared for. Academic dishonesty is not unheard of.”
Now a staunch supporter of his star pupil’s talent, Mr. Fikes admits that it took him a while to consider Vamsi’s work as anything other than plagiarism. “Vamsi, well, you could say he went far beyond what we expected. More than anyone could have expected, really.”
Before taking any disciplinary action, Mr. Fikes invited Vamsi and his lab partner to meet with the principal to defend their submission. “Vamsi was able to defend and explain his work to the finest detail. Soon he was discussing ideas and concepts that college seniors wrestle with, and then eventually he was even talking over my head. I started to think, well, maybe the kid’s on to something.”
Something, indeed. If his work stands to scrutiny, Vamsi may have just solved a famously vexing thirty year-old math riddle known as the P vs NP Problem. In a nutshell, it states that no one knows for sure if relatively simple mathematical problems are theoretically connected to other, far more complex ones.
If it turns out that they are connected, mathematicians could use simple problems to solve extremely complex ones in a hurry, squeezing hundreds or even millions of years of computing time into days and weeks. Experts in the field suspect that the two are not the same, and Vamsi agrees. Either way, there are huge repercussions in fields such as game theory, cryptography, and artificial intelligence.
“It’s sort of like the question of life on other worlds, to borrow a quote from Arthur C. Clark.”
Professor Logan Simmons teaches numerical analysis and applied linear algebra for the Illinois State University Mathematics Department. He has reviewed Vamsi’s work, and he agrees with Mr. Fikes that computer whiz could be on to something.
“Either intelligent life exists outside of Earth or it does not. Either P and NP are the same, or they are not. Both possibilities are hugely important to the fields of mathematics, logic, and computer science. Anyone who definitively answers this question will secure a place in scientific history. Anyone who definitively answers this question will be on the cover of every popular scientific magazine in the world, probably Time and Newsweek, too.”
If fame isn’t enough of a draw, there’s always fortune. This spring the Clay Mathematics Institute is set to unveil their Millennium Prize Problems, a list of math puzzlers that is likely to include heavyweights such as the Poincaré Conjecture and the Riemann Hypothesis. If the P vs NP Problem makes it onto this list, as Professor Simmons and others believe it will, Vamsi could be eligible for the prize which is rumored to be a cool one million dollars.
“That’s a lot of money,” laughs Vamsi over a chai tea latte at a coffee shop just down the street from his house. “I wasn’t thinking about money when I wrote the paper. Honestly, I’m not sure what I was thinking. The answers just seemed to build on top of one another, and before I knew it, I was up to almost fifty pages. It just kept pouring out of me.”
Vamsi spent the last few days of the fall term holed up in a nearby college library, pulling graduate-level textbooks off the shelf and polishing up his paper.
“I knew the material well enough to get a running start, but the pieces really started to click into place by the time I read a book on finite automata and Turing machines. I had trouble concentrating on anything else for nearly a month. I started getting stress headaches and nosebleeds. I even had a bladder infection at one point. I think my friends really started to worry about me! I wasn’t surprised when Mr. Fikes hauled me in to his office.”
His teacher was able to rule out academic dishonesty after feeding portions of Vamsi’s paper into a computer program that uses the Internet to snoop for plagiarism (none was found). Nonetheless, some of his colleagues express skepticism.
John Polgreen, professor of theoretical computer science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, suggested that while “interesting to read”, Vamsi’s approach was “probably too clever by half,” and will “not stand to scrutiny.”
Mr. Fikes does not share this skepticism.
“I believe the approach he took was so unique, so out of left field, that serious academics will have difficulty accepting it. It’s an utterly fresh take.”
Vamsi may get the chance to have his ideas taken seriously, if Mr. Fikes has anything to say about it.
“It needs to be rewritten from the ground up in a formal fashion, and some wrinkles need to be ironed out, but all the elements of a serious academic paper are there. He’s done a really, truly remarkable job at demonstrating his proof in a methodical, logically consistent way.”
If all goes according to plan, Vamsi will be submitting a revised copy of his paper to the Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery this summer, where it will be considered for publication. Mr. Fikes is currently helping Vamsi find a well-established co-author in the field to lend credibility to his submission.
“This will be huge for Vamsi. This will change the course of his entire life, no matter what happens.” Vamsi’s mother Amala couldn’t be happier with her son’s unexpected academic celebrity.
“They call him the ‘Digital Einstein’. I love that!”
Mrs. Paruchuri fully supports her son’s new academic trajectory. “He’s going to spend half of his time on this new version of his paper during the spring term. His high school principal has agreed to extend us every courtesy. We’re so proud and so full of gratitude!”
One slight drawback to this happy news is that Vamsi won’t get much of a break this winter. “I was really looking forward to watching some episodes of Cosmos,” he said thoughtfully over his tea. “I’ll have to find a way to do both.”
April 6, 2000
ForceField Media Relations
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Gail Amundson
Awareness Publications is proud to present the 2000 Awareness Expo, a celebration of New Age celebrities and events in Philadelphia, PA (June 23-25, 2000)
Philadelphia, PA (ForceField Media) April 3, 2000
Philadelphia, PA (April 2000) – Spirit Circle newspaper, in conjunction with Glass Candle Booksellers, presents the 2000 Awareness Expo at the downtown Philadelphia Convention Center over the weekend of June 23, 2000.
Local craftspeople, authors, healers, and psychics will set up booths and tables in an open auditorium, and two separate halls will be used for speaking engagements and live demonstrations throughout the weekend.
Highlights include the following events:
* Q & A with New York Times Bestselling author Beverly Masters
* Directed group meditation with Lilly Halvorson
* Talk by author Ford Van Zorn on multidimensional beings
* Live demonstration and Q & A with spirit medium Leah Schaudt
* Creating Your Own Reality with noted author and psychic Peace Flame
Full weekend passes are $50, and daily passes are $30. Passes will be available at the door, or you may purchase them ahead of time at The Glass Candle Booksellers (229 Market St, Philadelphia, PA 19147 | (221) 982-7877.
Come and be One with the Great Spirit at the dawn of the new millennium!
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