The leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a leap across the Rubicon into a new world of synthetic consciousness.
Artificial Intelligence is an old idea, visited often by philosophers over the centuries. To researchers, programmers, and self professed nerds, the ultimate achievement in the field of AI has always been to create a machine interface, intuitive and adaptable enough to provide human users with a natural experience. Technologically, we are witnessing breakthroughs at an unprecedented pace, but philosophically we are still grappling with the meaning of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.
Blame the science fiction genre if you think an artificial intelligence interface should mimic a human personality. Most of us have been primed on the finer points of AI by Hollywood; the HAL9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey“, C3P0 and various droids in the “Star Wars” franchise, or the synthetic human replicants in “Blade Runner“.
Real artificial intelligence is considerably less human. IBM’s Watson became a household name by dominating its human opponents on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011. Watson’s ability to quickly retrieve relevant information is an invaluable skill, but whether or not it qualifies as intelligent is up for debate. Intelligence, after all, is more than just matching well formed questions to existing factual answers.
In 2016, the AI team at Google’s DeepMind created an AI named AlphaGo to play the Chinese (and later, Japanese) board game, Go. Go is an abstract strategy game, unlike Jeopardy which is a question-and-answer game. Go requires players to invent their next move – while adhering to the rules of play. While Watson was programmed to quickly sift through data, AlphaGo was programmed to learn by doing. AlphaGo didn’t win its first, second, or millionth game – but it was able to remember every move it ever made in every game it ever played, building up a database of game-play scenarios that it continually refers back to; as they say, hindsight is 20/20. If you had instantaneous and flawless recall of everything you ever did, you’d be at the top of your game too.
AlphaGo has become virtually unbeatable at Go, but don’t ask it for directions to the nearest Starbucks. For that you need Siri. Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant adds a humanesque layer of functionality to Apple products with its voice recognition and verbose feedback. It can quickly retrieve information when asked in the form of question; “Hey Siri, where is the nearest Starbucks?”, or “Hey Siri, what is the largest prime number less than one million?”. In many ways, interacting with Siri is what it might have been like using an early development version of HAl9000, but something is missing. There is no ghost in this machine – it doesn’t feel alive.
We are measuring the quality of AI on a human scale. In fact we measure all intelligence on a human scale; we have no other point of reference. But human intelligence, curiosity, and consciousness are inextricably entwined.
Can an AI be programmed to be curious? Artificial intelligence has proven that it can retrieve answers and perform calculations – but can we program our AI to be creative enough to invent new questions? And if we do, will the AI ask questions that lead to its self-awareness? A sense of being? A will to live? Will the AI suffer the classic existential crisis and start searching for purpose in its existence?
To programmers, making the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a matter of syntax – more code. But to philosophers, the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity represents the great leap across the Rubicon into the new world of synthetic consciousness.
Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.
Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.
This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.
If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.
Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed. Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed. If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.
You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.
So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?
Well, first you need to know two things
- Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
- Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information
The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.
The blackness gave way to a momentary amber glow. Light slid fluidly through the interior of the car for only a few seconds, then evaporated back into the void. Wave after yellow wave poured in from the sodium streetlights passing overhead. Occasionally the glare of headlamps from an oncoming vehicle interrupted the seemingly unending ebb and flow – darkness to yellowness to darkness to yellowness, ad nauseam.
Anton popped another Skittle in his mouth and nodded his head to the rhythm of music from nineteen-eighty-something. The foam cushions of the decrepit headphones were tattered and crumbling. The scratchy, rotting polyurethane smelled of sweat and stale aftershave. It didn’t matter. Anton was enamored by the novelty of this odd gift his father had given him only moments before.
The narrow slice of the visible spectrum reduced the rainbow colored candies in his hand to shades of only yellow, gold, and something that nearly resembled bright brown. A brief burst of light illuminated the page of Robinson Crusoe on Anton’s lap just long enough to read another line. “Thus we never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries,”. Then blackness. Anton savored another candy and waited patiently for the next streetlight and the next line – “nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.”
From time to time he glanced up from the book, to catch a glimpse of his mother’s profile in the front passenger’s seat. Even in the faint glow of the dashboard lights, there was no mistaking her pained expression. Tonight she wore the furrowed brow and tight lips of apprehension and anxious exhaustion.
The music played and Anton watched as she gestured with her hands and spoke quickly, repeatedly and nervously brushing her dark brown hair away from her face. It clung to her cheeks, caught in the sheen of tears and rain. He had never seen his mother cry. It made him uneasy. He fidgeted in his seat, waiting for the next wash of yellow so he could return to his book.
His gaze was pulled straight ahead by the lights of an oncoming car just in time to see his father’s right fist smash down hard on the top of the dashboard. A pair of eyes glanced back at Anton in the rearview mirror. These were not the eyes of the man he knew; the gentle eyes of the benevolent philosopher-king, not the mischievous twinkling eyes of the devilish prankster, nor the soothing blue eyes of his friend and confidant. These were the eyes of an agitated and venomous stranger; bewildered, confused, frustrated, tormented, and lost.
The car continued to race along the highway in the dark rain as the conversation balanced precariously on the brink of violence. Yellow spilled once again into the back seat before sliding like quicksilver out of the rear window. Anton had just enough time to devour another line, “It is scarcely possible to imagine the consternation I was now in”. In the dark that followed, he was overcome by an odd sensation; as though his head was being pulled forward. He resisted at first, assuming it was the weight of fatigue. He was only eight years after all, and it was well past his usual bed time: very late at night – or perhaps early in the morning – it was impossible for a young boy to tell.
As his head nodded forward, Skittles rolled out of the package nestled next to him on the seat. He reached his hand down to stop them but his hand, too, was subject to this new force. Fully alert now, there was no question that something truly out of the ordinary was taking place. His stomach fluttered. Gravity itself was undergoing a re-calibration of sorts; shrugging off its familiar downwardness while simultaneously adopting an infinitely more powerful and utterly irresistible forwardness.
Everything in the car was falling – not down, but forward; falling away from him; falling into the growing maelstrom of sparkling glass fragments, water droplets, and wrinkling steel that had once been the windshield and the bonnet.
The moment raged with all the fury of a frustrated and frantic lightening bolt tethered to both the ground and the sky, unable to recoil or release; the terror exceeded every notion of sound and light, sustained until no distinction could be made between its flash and its roar. The car, his parents, the road, the rain, the anger, the violence, the music, the sweetness – all melded into a blindingly quiet nonsensical singularity. There was no choice but to succumb. There was no room for even an atom of consciousness amid the super-saturated chaos.
When gravity had once again regained its familiar downward pull, Anton awoke. He was lying on his back, frozen with panic, clutching bunches of damp sheets in his white-knuckled fists. Listening to the rain in the pitch black, he opened his eyes wide, wider, and wider still, wondering if he had gone blind in the crash. Long seconds passed until a comforting sensation worked its way in through the chrysalis of fear that had coalesced around him.
“Breathe.” Elena moved her warm hand in slow circles across his chest. It was a only a whisper. “Breathe.”
Anton’s fists eventually relaxed their grip on the sheets.
Anton exhaled as though he had just resurfaced from a deep dive. A car hissed along the wet road in front of the house. His wide eyes followed a narrow streak of light that had slipped in through the crack between the curtains and sped along two walls of the room, then disappeared in a corner. Lingering in that foggy somewhere-state between dream and reality, he was relieved that he had not gone blind after all. Elena’s hand moved from his chest to his head. Her fingers combed back his sweat-soaked hair.
“I used to love that song.”
Anton mumbled, barely intelligibly, in his gruff, pre-dawn baritone, “Radio Ga Ga?”
“Yeah – but with your Tom Waits voice instead of Freddy Mercury.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
She shifted, looking for a more comfortable position. “I’ve been awake all night.”
He rolled over to face her and placed his hand on her swollen belly. “How’s the baby?”
“Rowdy. Kicking and punching since midnight. I don’t know if I can stand another month of this.”
Anton felt a tiny push against his hand. “Was that a foot?”
“Maybe. Could be a knee. I think he wants me to roll over.” Elena slowly moved until she had her back to Anton.
She sighed – contented, confident, exhausted.
Anton sat up. He brushed the hair away from her face and kissed her. “I have to get up – clear my head. Go back to sleep.” He climbed out of the bed and felt around the floor with his foot in the pitch black for something to wear. Jeans. T-shirt. He got dressed, walked out of the room and made his way down the hall singing in his best Tom Waits voice, “All we hear is radio ga ga …
The waiting area was dim, quiet, and at least three degrees warmer than the rest of the hospital. An elderly maintenance man was working on the light fixture above the desk. He took little notice of Anton speaking to the receptionist.
She smiled and nodded. “Have a seat. Dr. Brynn won’t be long.”
Anton stood a moment longer, watching the maintenance man, before taking a seat.
A twenty-four hour news channel flickered silently on an old television wedged between two chairs in the corner of the room. A colossus of a man, sweating profusely, sat within arms reach of the television, clutching the remote control in one hand and a soda can in the other. In spite of his thunderous snoring, he appeared to be awake.
Anton tried to watch the muted television, hearing only the titan breathe, but was distracted by the soda can in the man’s gargantuan left hand. Every half-minute or so, the man would twitch and the soda can would droop a little more. Judging from the ring of condensation on the can, Anton awaited the imminent spill.
Anton cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”
He leaned to the left, dead center in the giant’s wide-eyed field of vision. “Hi.” He pointed at the remote control. “Do you mind if I …” Anton mimed changing channels with the thumb of his empty hand.
The soda can tilted another few degrees and fizzy brown liquid dribbled out, splattering on the floor.
Anton straightened up and looked back toward the receptionist’s desk. She was nowhere to be seen. The maintenance man had also left.
The deep, rhythmic, almost hypnotic snoring that had filled the room was suddenly shredded by an explosion of violent coughing. Reflexively the man reached up with his right hand to cover his mouth, still holding the remote control. When the eruption subsided, he frowned disgustedly at remote control and wiped it on the upholstered side of the waiting room seat, leaving a visible smear of phlegm behind.
Anton broke off all attempts to communicate further. He turned his attention to the pile of magazines on the table in the middle of the room. Glancing back at the trail of mucus on the chair, he pulled his hand up inside his sleeve and nudged through the stacks with the cuff of his jacket, careful not to touch any of them with his bare skin.
The most recent publication on the table was more than two years old. He performed a quick mental calculation to estimate the number of infectious hands that could have thumbed through the pages: Two-years, times two-hundred practice days per year, six hours per day, roughly four patients per hour … nine-thousand, six-hundred.
He sat back with his hands safely tucked into his jacket pockets and closed his eyes.
The receptionist returned. “Anton Novik?”
Anton stood up and followed her down a narrow hall to the last door on the left.
Dr. Brynn was tall, thin, pale, had short, cropped, graying hair and a gray goatee. His tortoise shell glasses, brown corduroys, and tweed jacket with leather elbow patches added a Freudesque air of eccentric wisdom. He held out his hand in a welcoming gesture. “It’s good to see you again Anton. You look well. How have you been?”
Anton hesitantly shook the doctor’s hand. “Not bad.”
“How is Elena? Getting close now, I suppose.”
“Eight months and counting. She’s only been off work for two weeks. It’s like she’s going through withdrawal now that I’m her only patient.”
Dr. Brynn nodded knowingly. “So you’re here under duress?”
Anton touched the tip of his nose with his index finger, then pointed at the doctor. “Something like that.”
“She seemed quite concerned when she called me last week, Anton.”
“Really? What did she say?”
“No matter. Tell me what’s going on. Really. How are you doing?”
Anton rolled his eyes and peered around the examining room as if looking for answers on the stark, white walls. “Well, if you ask Elena, I drink too much, I exercise too little, and I stay up too late.”
Dr. Brynn opened a file folder on the desk and took a pen from his pocket. “I’m not asking Elena. I’m asking you.”
Anton took a minute to consider where best to start, searching the bare walls again for answers. “Well, she’s right, in some ways, I suppose. I haven’t been sleeping well. When I wake up I’m confused.”
Dr. Brynn nodded. “That’s normal. It’s called sleep inertia. Everybody wakes up at a different rate, but it can take a few minutes for the brain to become fully conscious.”
Anton squinted, shaking his head slightly from side to side. “I know what you mean, but no, this is different. I have these vivid dreams that just …” He paused, still searching the white walls for the right words, “… they just turn me inside out. I’m almost afraid to fall asleep.”
Anton shook his head. “Not frightening. No. Upsetting. Really intense. Like bad memories that I just can’t let go of.”
“Are they? Memories, I mean?”
Anton leaned back and ran his hand through his hair. He took a deep breath then looked Dr. Brynn square in the eyes. “That’s part of the problem. I don’t know. They feel like memories, but I can’t be sure. Sometimes, during the day, I remember things but I don’t know if I am remembering a dream or something real. Other times I dream about people and places and I’m not sure if they really exist. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure if I’m awake or still asleep and dreaming. It makes reality a bit fuzzy.”
Dr. Brynn was writing furiously on the notepad in the file folder. “That would be confusing. When did this begin?”
Anton stared blankly at Dr. Brynn for a moment. He looked down at the floor, then around the room. He closed his eyes briefly, then shook his head with an uncomfortable sort of nervous laugh and a pained expression. “That’s the other part of the problem; I don’t really know when it started. It sort of feels like I’ve always been this way.”
Dr. Brynn changed tack. “Elena told me but I’ve forgotten … what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a data analyst. Statistics bureau.”
Dr. Brynn wrote a few more lines on the notepad in the folder. “Ah yes, now that you mention it, I remember Elena mentioning that. A numbers man.”
Anton’s tone changed. “Forgive me, Dr. Brynn. I realize you and my wife both work in the same hospital, but I didn’t know you were so close. You seem to know quite a bit about her and I.”
Dr. Brynn closed Anton’s file folder on his desk, pushed his chair back, and stood defensively. “Well, Anton … for the last few years we’ve eaten in the same cafeteria, ridden the same elevators, waited in the same lines for the same bad coffee, attended the same meetings and conferences, and in case you’ve forgotten, I live across the street from you.”
Anton felt the warm brush strokes of embarrassment moistening his brow. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t implying …”
“I know. It’s quite all right. You’re under a lot of stress, Anton – you’re not yourself. Lack of sleep will often cause paranoia. Take some time off. Spend a few weeks with Elena before the baby arrives. How long have you been married?”
“Almost two years. Our second anniversary might be spent in the delivery room.”
From his jacket pocket, Dr. Brynn produced a small, plain, white prescription bottle. “I want you to take one of these each day for the next while.”
Anton took the bottle and examined it. There was no information on the label other than a string of digits and a pattern that resembled a bar code. He opened it and shook a few of the round orange pills into his hand. “Skittles.”
Dr. Brynn looked confused. “Skittles?”
“Yeah, you know, the chewy, fruit flavored candy in the crunchy shell.”
Dr. Brynn frowned and shook his head. “No. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a … a skittle.”
Anton awkwardly dropped the orange pills back in the bottle and snapped the cap closed. “Right. Not Skittles. One a day. Got it.”
Elena woke shortly after 3am. Anton’s side of the bed was still made. She walked down the hallway into the dim light of the living room. Anton was holding a copy of Kafka’s The Trial in one hand and a bottle of pinot noir in the other. On the coffee table in front of him, the handle of a knife protruded from a block of cheese on a plate like an axe that had been thrust into the stump of downed tree. He held the bottle upside down and watched the last few drops fall into his wine glass.
Elena sat down next to him on the sofa. “A book? I expected to hear the clicking of computer keys, not the turning of pages.”
He put down the bottle and read from the book with an imperceptible slur that only Elena would have noticed, “You don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.”
Elena lied back and tucked her feet under Anton’s leg to warm her toes. “Depressing view.”
“Ah – a beauty and a scholar. Yes … The lie made into the rule of the world.”
Elena leaned over and picked up the glass of wine. “They sound like somebody’s final words.”
The book fell out of Anton’s hand and he fumbled to catch it. He looked wide-eyed at Elena with disbelief.
“Did you memorize the whole book?”
Elena took a sip of wine.
Anton reached for the glass in her hand. “I’m sorry, love, but you’ll have to wait a few more weeks. Even longer if you’re breastfeeding, I think.”
She held the glass high, out of Anton’s reach.
He smiled sympathetically at her. “Okay. I know, I know. I have to cut back. I swear I won’t have another drop until we can both enjoy a glass together – to celebrate, okay? I Promise.”
Elena fixed a cold stare into Anton’s eyes and guzzled the entire glass of red wine.
“Hey, come on now. That wasn’t very smart.” He reached out to touch Elena’s belly but jerked his hand back as though he had received an electric shock. He stammered, “W… uh … where? … what? …” His eyes flashed around the room.
Elena looked puzzled. “Are you okay?”
Anton was frantic. “Elena, where’s the baby? What happened? Did … Did something happen?”
“Was that your first bottle?”
“Elena. Where is the baby? We need to get you both to the hospital.”
Elena sat up straight. “What are you talking about? What baby?”
Anton read her face. There was no humor in her eyes, no levity in her lips.
Panicked, he ran to the bedroom and turned on the lights. He pulled back the covers to examine the sheets, feeling around in the bed like a blind man. He ran back out into the hallway. “Elena! Where did you … ?”
He sprinted down the hall to the bathroom, slid open the shower door and peered at the clean, dry, tiled floor of the stall. He squeezed his head with his hand like a crab covering a rock, then repeatedly smacked his forehead with his open palm. “Think. Think. Think”
The thinking produced a thought that turned his blood to slush. He stood frozen in place. For a moment the smallest of movements demanded a strength of will beyond his means. Then, with superhuman effort, Anton turned slowly and looked down at the closed lid of the toilet.
He listened without breathing. He closed his eyes and searched the air for any sound; a whimper, a breath, any hint that would put the baby anywhere other than in the toilet. The air was still except for the thunder of his own heart smashing its way through his rib cage.
He knelt down. Slowly and reluctantly he lifted the seat, readying himself for whatever was about to confront him. With his eyes still closed, he reached into the bowl and swirled his hand around. The water was clean and clear. He collapsed into a crumpled heap on the cold tile floor, gasping for air.
His fear and confusion was rapidly transforming into frustration and anger. After only a few seconds of recovery he opened his eyes and sprang to his feet, darting out of the bathroom, back down the hallway to the living room.
Elena sat on the sofa, strangely calm, bordering on annoyed, listening to the crystal tones produced as she tapped her wedding band against the side of the empty wine glass. “Are you ill?”
Anton grabbed her by the arm and yanked her up to her feet. She struggled instinctively as he forcefully pulled up the front of her nightgown and roughly palpated her lower abdomen. Panic had set in.
She shoved him away. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She grabbed the knife from the block of cheese on the coffee table and pointed it at her husband. “Stay the hell away from me.”
Anton was becoming catatonic. He stumbled towards Elena with his trembling hands slowly rising, reaching out to touch her face, imploring her to offer up some explanation. Meaning only to push Anton away again, Elena accidentally shoved the knife between his ribs, deep into his chest. He stumbled backwards and sat clumsily on the edge of the coffee table for a moment. His strength spilling out through the gash in his chest. Speechless, he eased back at first onto his elbows, then flat onto his back.
Finally, lying supine on the table, Anton looked up into Elena’s horrified face looming over him and moaned, “Like a dog.”
It rained the entire day of the service. Old men feeling older stood with bent backs beneath black umbrellas, listening to the priest read passages from the dog-eared pages of a brown, leather-bound bible. Each of their faces was as different as all their days past, yet made same by their patient stoicism; the suit of armor worn to shield them from the crippling absurdity of their brief existence. Stone faced masks concealed the wide-eyed astonishment and drop-jawed despair at realization that time accelerates exponentially with every passing year.
Elena quietly watched the slowly shrinking rectangle of white sky reflected in the polished lacquer lid of the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. “It’s really for us, isn’t it?”
Anton leaned toward her. “What?”
“Walnut and bronze. Hand stitched silk. Padded with eider down. Stupid, isn’t it?”
“Not if it’s what he wanted.”
“No. It was for me. To make me feel better.”
She squeezed Anton’s hand and looked up into the white beyond the rim of her black umbrella. “There’s something to be said for the Tibetans.”
Anton looked up at the white sky while the priest, to his left, continued to recite scripture.
Elena tipped the umbrella back and closed her eyes, letting the light rain fall on her face. “The family wears white.”
Anton smoothed his pants legs with his hands. “But I look good in black.”
“And the Buddhist monks feed the dead to the vultures. It’s a sort of transformation. As your body is consumed by the birds your spirit supposedly takes flight. That’s what I want.”
Anton shuddered. “You want me to take your body to Tibet so you can be dismembered and fed to the vultures?”
Elena nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”
“You’re not Buddhist.”
Elena glanced over at the priest. “The vultures don’t care.”
The priest exhausted his funerary repertoire ending with the signum crucis – a reflex born of a profound devotion to habitual practices.
As Elena and Anton walked back to the waiting limousine, Anton sensed he was being watched. He opened the door and held the umbrella over Elena as she took her seat in the back of the car. Anton looked back at a solitary figure standing by the graveside. Without knowing why, he waved to the stranger in the distance.
In the car, Elena took a compact mirror from purse and examined her eyes, dabbing at their edges with a tissue. “Who did you wave to?”
Anton shook his head. “I thought I recognized him, but maybe not.”
* * *
Elena examined the items on the antique oak desktop in her father’s study. She gently held each of them with the reverence of a pilgrim seeking the divine among religious relics: a Montblanc fountain pen and drafting pencil, a pair of tortoise shell spectacles, a pad of linen writing paper, a rotary telephone, a crystal decanter of eighteen year old single malt Scotch whisky.
Slowly working her way around the room, as though viewing a museum exhibit, she gently ran her fingers down the sleeve of a tweed jacket that hung on the stand beside the fireplace. She leaned closer, breathing in the lingering traces of Russian Leather from the collar. The scent transported her simultaneously to a dozen different places and times. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled and she closed her eyes, giving in to the flood of memories.
Anton silently approached from behind and put his arms gently around her waist.
She leaned her head back, resting it on his shoulder. “I don’t want to miss him. He doesn’t deserve it. Son of a bitch.”
Anton combed her hair back with his fingers and kissed her temple.
“I remember coming in here when I was four years old. I climbed on his lap, right there, behind that desk. I wanted to talk to him about something, I don’t remember what, but when I said ‘Daddy’ he cut me off. He told me I was too old call him that. From then I had to call him Peter. Who does that?”
Anton tightened his embrace. He could feel her rib cage tense as she struggled to keep from crying.
“I used to come in here and watch him work. I’d sit right here on the edge of the hearth with my own little notepad and a pencil, pretending to be just like him. Sometimes I’d come in when he wasn’t here and sit behind his desk. I’d look through all these books – diagrams, equations, schematics. I tried to make sense of them. I’d stare at them for hours, until my eyes and my head ached, but I could never make any sense of them. I knew I’d never be like him. He knew it too.” Her chest heaved and her voice cracked. “No one would ever be like him.”
Anton slid his hands down onto the sides of Elena’s belly, waiting to feel a kick from inside. “I don’t think your father and I ever exchanged a full sentence.”
“He didn’t speak to anyone. He would drew his diagrams and wrote his equations. Even when he sat next to you at the dinner table, he was miles away, searching – always searching.” Elena broke away from Anton’s arms. She returned to the desk and sat in her father’s leather chair beneath the window in the fading afternoon light.
Anton knew she had more to say, but knew he couldn’t coax it out of her. Elena would let him know when she was ready. He watched while she opened and closed the top desk drawer. She removed the cap from the fountain pen and signed her name on the top sheet of the linen note paper. She clicked on the architect’s lamp.
That was Anton’s cue. “You said he was searching. What did you mean?”
The lamp gave a warm glow to the room. Elena stared into the shadows. “For meaning. For answers. The classic existential dilemma.”
Anton sat in a green, leather, wingback chair next to the fireplace, facing the desk. “I think, deep down, we all search for meaning – even if most of us never acknowledge it.”
“Peter was obsessed. It defined him. He was a true polymath; a renaissance man with a god complex. Medicine, mathematics, physics, philosophy – it was all his.”
“Husband and father, too. How did he keep it all together?”
Elena laughed quietly, but bitterly. “With Planck-like precision.”
Anton had no idea what that meant. Not wanting to seem ignorant, he just nodded his usual nod.
“I spent thirty-three years trying to earn his love but I never got it. For thirty-three years I just wanted to be his daughter but to him I was just a B-student. He didn’t feel love like others feel it. Or if he did, he never showed it. That part of him was broken. I loved him. And I hated him.”
“He must have loved your mother.”
“Like you and I love a hand or a foot, I suppose. A utilitarian sort of love.”
Elena used her sleeve to dry her cheeks. She reached forward and tapped her fingernails on the bottle of Scotch. “I’d kill for a glass right now.”
Anton’s brow furrowed and his eyes scanned the bookshelves behind the desk. “You haven’t been reading Kafka, have you?”
“Kafka? No. Why?”
The receptionist lead Anton down the corridor to a small, quiet room. The walls were soothing yellow and the room was softly lit by a single lamp on the bedside table. A pair of blue hospital pajamas were folded neatly on a short table at the foot of a single bed.
The receptionist held a remote control. “You can use this to choose from different nature sounds. Some patients find it helps them sleep.” She pressed a button and the room was instantly filled with the sound of light rain and frogs chirping in the distance. “Go through them, see what you like – crickets in a field, surf at the beach. Personally, my favorite is the hum of the air conditioner. I’m a city girl. Turn that on and I’ll sleep like a baby. Everyone is different.” She set the remote on the bedside table next to a glass of water.
Anton smiled at her. “Silence works best for me, but thank you.”
“Okay. Dr. Brynn will be by in a few minutes to help you get into your pajamas.”
Anton laughed. “I think I’ll manage.”
She paused as she left the room. “No. These pajamas are a little different than what you’re probably used to. Have a seat. The doctor will be right in.”
Anton watched her leave, then stepped around to the foot of the bed. For the most part, they seemed like ordinary hospital pajamas; cotton top and bottoms, pale blue with a darker blue pinstripe, lingering traces of chlorine bleach. He picked them up for a closer look. The top had a stretchy, tight fitting hood, lined with what looked like a mesh made of thousands of small purple beads.
Dr. Brynn came into the room. “Good to see you again Anton.”
Anton hastily put the pajamas back on the table. Doctor Brynn gently closed the door. “How have you been? Any change since we last spoke?”
Anton shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“I see. You’re still experiencing the confusion? The strange memories?”
“Well, we’re going to try and get to the bottom of it – figure out what’s going on inside that head of yours. By the way, before we get started, I have to apologize. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be at Peter’s funeral. I was out of the country. I hope you will pass along my condolences to Elena.”
Anton flashed a half-hearted smile. “Yes. Of course.”
Dr. Brynn picked up the pajamas from the table. “He and I worked together many years ago. In fact, Peter developed the technology in this hood. It’s surprisingly comfortable. You should have no trouble sleeping while you wear it.”
“Come sweet slumber, enshroud me in thy purple cloak.”
“Art of Noise? Max Headroom? Never mind. Go on. What does it do, exactly?”
Dr. Brynn stroked his goatee and looked over the top of his glasses at Anton. “You know that Peter’s genius spanned every discipline imaginable; medicine, mathematics, psychology, and most notably physics – quantum field theory in particular.
“You see, at the very smallest distances, in the very shortest spans of time, things don’t happen as we expect them to. The laws of the universe, as we have come to know them, don’t apply to the infinitesimally small. In the gaps that exists between atoms, between quarks and leptons, in the tiniest fractions of space where measurement becomes nearly impossible, logic begins to fall apart.
“Peter uncovered a phenomenon. At the finest end of the quantum scale the trusted principal of cause-and-effect is shredded. Effect can occur after cause, as we would expect, but it can also occur before its cause, or both. Cause-and-effect is the rule that makes our universe run – if that fundamental rule breaks down, what happens to us?”
Anton looked at Dr. Brynn with raised eyebrows. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Your father-in-law was able to demonstrate that under certain conditions, events can have both happened and not happened. He proved that an event doesn’t always require a cause. Peter proved Newton wrong; Not every action has an equal and opposite reaction – not in quantum terms. Peter proved that some actions have no reaction, and some actions are purely spontaneous. In layman’s terms, quantum objects can exist simultaneously in multiple places, or even more strangely, can both exist and not exist. Uncertainty is ubiquitous. Imagine Hamlet’s conundrum on the the quantum stage: To be, or not to be … or to both be, and not, simultaneously.”
Anton rubbed his forehead. “That would make for a very long and confusing play.”
Dr. Brynn nodded. “Yes. Infinitely long – but not if there is an audience. When a quantum event is observed, by the audience, so to speak, the very act of observing removes the uncertainty. That is to say, an event that has been observed has obviously happened – so it can no longer have not-happened. Do you understand what that means? Observation cements the past in place – like protecting a computer file against accidental deletion or change. Our universe uses observation as a sort of write-protect, making the past permanent.
“Now, remove the observer – close the curtain on the quantum stage. To the audience, anything can be happening behind the curtain. They are uncertain of what has happened, is happening, or will happen, as long as the curtain remains closed. The past, not having been made permanent by observation, remains an open book of blank pages. Likewise, the unobserved future is infinitely variable. And what do you think lies between an uncertain past and an uncertain future?”
Anton nodded slowly. “An uncertain present.”
Dr. Brynn clapped his hands. “Exactly.”
Anton tilted his head from side to side, stretching his neck. “So, is that what’s happening to me? I’m the victim of an uncertain present?”
Anton sighed. “I know I’m stating the obvious here, but I’m slightly bigger than a quark or a lepton.”
Dr. Brynn picked up the pajamas and opened the hood. “Take off your shirt and put this on.”
Anton unbuttoned his shirt.
“Peter always felt that medical science’s understanding of the brain was just too simple to fully explain what makes us who we are. He believed that a person, a being, a consciousness, had to be more than just a series of chemical reactions in a brain. He wasn’t satisfied to think that his entire existence was contained in that gelatinous blob between his ears. He was convinced that there is something more to it. The hood with its network of sensors woven into it will be taking measurements while you sleep.”
Anton put on the pajama top. Dr. Brynn adjusted some straps and precisely positioned the hood on Anton’s head.
“If your brain is damaged or destroyed, Anton, what happens to you?”
Anton raised his eyebrows. “I die.”
“Right. If the brain dies, Anton dies. So, it would seem that consciousness is a function of the brain. Yes?”
“Yes. That makes sense.”
The doctor connected an umbilical of wires to the hood. He opened a closet door. He connected the other end of the umbilical to a rack of electronic equipment in the closet. “We live in a technologically enlightened age, Anton. Right now, today, we have the means to use your DNA to grow an exact copy of your brain from stem cells in a lab. Imagine, a perfect duplicate of your brain – a spare brain in a jar, waiting, just in case you should ever need it. From time to time, we would connect you to the spare and update all of your fresh memories. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Lie back.”
Anton lied with his head on the pillow. “You don’t have a brain in a jar at the back of that closet do you?”
Dr. Brynn laughed. “No. This is just hypothetical.”
The rack of equipment was coming to life, emitting seemingly random beeps and tones in time with rows of blinking lights. “Perfect.” Dr. Brynn closed the closed door. “If you fell victim to a brain wasting disease or a traumatic head injury, we could replace that damaged organ in your head, with the spare. The new brain, identical to the old brain, would be completely intact with all your memories and personality traits, quirks and all. Your friends and family would never have to grieve your loss. Aside from a scar hidden in your hair, nobody would ever know that you had a new brain. It’s a wonderful prospect isn’t it?”
Anton turned to respond. “I’m not so sure …”
The doctor came around and sat on the edge of the bed. “But … how could Anton, the consciousness that we call Anton, exist in two brains simultaneously? The spare brain is identical to the original, right down to the arrangement of the axons and dendrites – every single synapse is the same. But if you have two identical brains, and consciousness is a function of the brain, then there must be two consciousnesses. How can Anton have two consciousnesses; two selfs?”
Anton’s mouth hung open and he seemed to stop breathing for a moment.
“Your mind, that is to say, your identity, your soul, your spirit, that divine spark of Anton-ness that you experience as your self is only a function of that lump of tissue we call the brain; the self is a product of biochemical processes, like the bio-luminescent light emitted from a firefly’s abdomen; just waves of energy.”
Anton closed his eyes. “That’s humbling.”
Dr. Brynn stood. “Light and consciousness; there’s very little difference in the end. If you were a lamp and I replaced your burnt out bulb, would you be the same lamp? I mean, you would still illuminate the room, wouldn’t you? If Elena was unaware that I replaced your bulb, or brain as it were, she would carry on loving her old Anton, never knowing that you were not really the original Anton. If we could indefinitely continue replacing your bulb, we would achieve immortality. Yes?”
“Please try to lie still … Where was I?”
“Right. We could all be immortal. But …” Dr. Brynn scratched his head and roughed his slicked back hair. An air of frustration seeped into the tone of his voice. “But, we must give consideration to the original Anton. We have only considered how others experience the transition from one Anton to the next – they remain unaware. What about the self? What about Anton? Even though the new brain is identical, the original Anton is gone – annihilated and replaced. The new Anton continues where the old Anton left off, equipped with a completely up-to-day set of memories, so that even the new Anton is unaware that he is not the original. But the original Anton, you, the self, has experienced obliteration.”
Anton suddenly sat up. “But why? Why are the two consciousnesses different if the two brains are the same?”
“Exactly. Why? Even if the two brains are identical right down to the physical arrangement of every single molecule and the orbit of every electron, it’s the quantum characteristics of the two brains that makes them different. The quarks, muons, taus, and leptons have an infinite number of possible states. As long as they remain un-observed, the two will have infinite variability – they will be different.
“Peter theorized that the true progenitor of consciousness is the impossibly complex and infinitely variable quantum character of the brain’s sub-atomic physicality. The biochemistry of the brain only determines our mood or state of mind at any given moment. Our consciousness is rooted in the quantum state, not in the classical, four-dimensional, Newtonian state.”
Anton leaned forward, but suddenly stopped with a jerk when he reached the end of his tether. “But if you destroy the brain, its all over. If, as you suggest, our consciousness resides in some ethereal quantum state, wouldn’t we remain conscious even if the brain ceased to exist?”
Dr. Brynn put a hand on Anton’s shoulder and guided him carefully back down onto the pillow.
“Observation creates permanence. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Peter and I both suspected that there was something different about the subatomic particles that make up the atoms and molecules in your brain’s fifty-billion neurons. That was the focus of his research when he died. His suspicion was that the subatomic particles of the brain’s matter are more prone to phenomena like quantum entanglement. The hood on your pajamas creates a field which allows us to monitor the subatomic activity in your brain.
Dr. Brynn poured Anton a glass of water and placed a yellow pill on the bedside table. “This is just to help you sleep.”
“Sleep? How do expect me to sleep after all that. My mind is tied in knots.”
“Take the pill. You’ll sleep. I’ll be back in a few minutes to check on you.”
Minutes passed and Dr. Brynn had still not returned. The sleep aid was taking effect and Anton could barely keep his eyes open. He lied back on the bed, his thoughts twirled in dizzying randomness until, finally, only blackness remained.
Anton found it difficult to move, barely able to open his eyes. The room was a distorted blur. Electronic beeping noises emanated from somewhere in the room, but even the sounds seemed out of focus. As the effects of the yellow pill gradually wore off he became curiously aware that there were far more wires attached to his body than he had been expecting. He lifted his head to look around, but he was stopped short by the searing pain in his chest. He immediately dropped his head back onto the pillow and his curious awareness escalated into a sense of confused panic.
Dr. Brynn came into the room. “You gave us quite a scare.” He sat down on the side of the bed and shone a penlight into Anton’s eyes. “Good … good.”
Anton tried to speak, but the pain in his chest barely allowed enough breath for a whisper. “What did you do to me?”
Dr. Brynn nodded reassuringly. “You’ll be fine, Anton.”
Anton tried to raise his head again. His face contorted and he vocalized the exact sound of sandpaper sliding over the strings of a violin.
Dr. Brynn consoled him. “Stay calm, Anton. You’ve been through a lot. You are healing very well, but you’ve got a way to go yet.”
Anton repeated, pleading. “What did you do?”
“I don’t imagine you remember much right now, but it will all come back to you in time.”
Anton closed his eyes for a minute, then he whispered, “Water … please.”
Dr. Brynn supported Anton’s head and gave him a sip of water. “Not too much.”
Anton lied back. “What happened?”
Dr. Brynn stood up and flipped through Anton’s chart. “Like I was saying, I know you’re confused. The air bag on the drivers side didn’t deploy. Fractured sternum. Collapsed lung. Internal bleeding. Concussion. Lacerations. You were in quite a state. The first responders thought you were dead – the ER doctor on duty even called it – but a nurse found a pulse. We didn’t give up on you.”
Anton gingerly touched his chest. “No. No, No. I was here for tests. Not an accident.”
“Yes, we ran a lot of tests after the accident. And I can say now, you’re going to be fine.” Dr. Brynn stood up and gave Anton’s foot a friendly squeeze as he walked past the end of the bed. “I’ll check on you again later this afternoon. I can’t promise, but you should be able to go home in a few more days.”
The doctor walked out into the corridor and Anton slipped back into oblivion.
Elena was sitting in a chair, reading in the wash of sunlight by the window when Anton came round again. He watched her for some time, turning page after page. She had looked at him several times, but at that angle the bandages obscured his eyes and it was impossible to tell if he was awake or asleep. Finally he gathered the strength to breathe out a “Hi.”
She looked at him again, unsure if it was an attempt at communication or just a transient in his respiration. He lifted his fingers and made a waving gesture.
She moved from the chair to his bedside. “Hey stranger. I haven’t seen you around in a while. Where have you been?”
Anton managed a smile.
“Want some water?” She bent the straw and held it to his lips.
He cautiously cleared his throat. “What happened?”
Elena set the polystyrene cup of water on the bedside table. “What do you remember?”
He hesitated in thought. “In thy purple cloak… I ate the yellow skittle… My brain in a jar.”
Elena shook her head. “That’s the worst haiku I’ve ever heard.”
Anton wanted to laugh but was held back by the pain.
“You don’t remember the car accident?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, ‘what do you mean?’?”
Elena gently kissed his lips, barely making contact. “You need to rest. Give it time. It will sort itself out.” She walked toward the door.
“Hey.” Anton struggled to sit up. “Wait …”
She stopped and turned, looking back at Anton.
His voice cracked. “You’re not real. I’m only dreaming.”
Elena was at a loss for words. She blinked heavily.
Anton pointed at her with a trembling hand. “You’re not pregnant.”
Elena tilted her head and looked at Anton sympathetically. “I was. Two years ago… he’s at daycare.”
Dr. Brynn interrupted, stepping into the room from the corridor with a clipboard in his hand. “Elena. Can I see you for a moment.” He nodded to Anton and left again.
She looked back at Aton, “Rest”, and followed Dr. Brynn.
Anton lay back and closed his eyes, mumbling to himself as he drifted back to sleep. “Two years. It can’t be. Two years …”
The boy held tightly onto the rubberized handle of the spoon. Anton watched as he repeatedly plunged the blunt utensil into a small tub of chocolate pudding on the edge of the table. Brown goo oozed out between the tiny fingers of the boy’s clenched fist. Before each mouthful he spoke in a whisper, “Fo’ me”, then offered every other spoonful to Anton, “an fo’ you.”
Anton silently refused with a deadpan face and a subtle shake of his head. This stoic response fueled the toddler’s determination. He scooped up the last spoonful of pudding and held it out, touching Anton’s tightly pursed lips. “You hafa eat, Daddy.”
Anton stood up and wiped the pudding from his lip with the back of his hand as Elena walked into the dining room. Anton looked away, avoiding her eyes, and left without a word. In the living room he could hear their cheery conversation from the kitchen.
“Come on cutie. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“I like tocka poon.”
“Chocolate pudding is yummy, isn’t it?”
“Mmm. Mummy like tocka poon?”
“Yes, I like chocolate pudding.”
“Daddy na like tocka poon?”
“He does. But I don’t think Daddy is feeling well, sweetie.”
The boy’s tone took on an air of concern. “Daddy tick?”
“No, sweetie. Daddy’s not sick. He’s just tired.”
“Yes sweetheart. And a little sad too.”
Anton squeezed his hand over his mouth to stifle a sob, then quickly and quietly slipped out through the door. He walked to the end of the driveway, hoping the fresh air would help him regain his composure. He stopped at the sidewalk and looked back at the house.
Dr. Brynn silently walked up and stood beside Anton. “Trying to pick a new paint color?”
“Jeezus! Where did you come from?”
Dr. Brynn pointed back over his shoulder. “I just got home and saw you standing here. I thought I’d come over to see how you were doing. I hope you don’t mind.”
Anton tried to appear as though he was not on the brink of complete emotional collapse. “I’m good. Chest still aches, but it’s getting better.”
Dr. Brynn looked over the top of his tortoiseshell glasses at Anton. “How’s your memory? Are things coming back to you?”
Anton answered with a shrug, then opened up. “Not much. Little flashes now and then, but not enough to make any sense of.”
The doctor stroked his goatee. “Hmm. It’s been a few weeks now since you woke up. You’ve been home for what, ten days? Why don’t you come back to the office tomorrow for follow up – better to be safe. I’ll tell my receptionist to clear some time for you.”
Anton’s gut rebelled at the thought of returning to the clinic. “Oh, you don’t have to do that for me. I’ll be okay. Like you said, it’ll just take time. Thanks anyway.”
“Nonsense. Two o’clock tomorrow. I insist.”
“No really, it’s okay … “
“Nothing invasive. We’ll just chat.” Dr. Brynn smiled reassuringly and patted Anton on the back before starting across the street. “Two o’clock. Don’t make me come looking for you.”
Anton looked back over his shoulder and gave a small, parting wave. He took a deep breath and walked back down the driveway to the house.
Elena was still in the kitchen when Anton entered. The screen door closed with a bang behind him.
“Shhhh. I just put the baby down for a nap.”
Anton looked around the kitchen. “Do you remember when we bought this house?”
“I feel like I’ve always lived here. I don’t remember ever living in any other house. When did we move here?”
“You grew up here. This was your parents’ house.”
Anton looked straight through Elena. His eyes wandered around the room. “I don’t remember much about them. I don’t remember much about anything.”
Elena approached, standing toe to toe with him. “Anton, you were pretty banged up. You were in a coma. You were pronounced dead. Give it time. There are bound to be some lasting effects. We’ll work through this … together.”
Anton’s stoic expression was betrayed by a tear, which he promptly smeared with the side of his hand. “I remember you were pregnant. I remember having bad dreams and not sleeping well. I remember going to see Dr. Brynn. I remember he gave me some pills.”
Elena put her hand on his chest. She could feel his heart pounding. “You remember the accident?”
Anton shook his head. “No. Not the accident you and Dr. Brynn keep referring to. I remember an accident, but I was just a boy. I remember my parents fighting in the car. It was raining. I was reading Robinson Crusoe and eating Skittles. That’s the only accident I remember. It’s as if everyone else is confused. There was no other accident.”
Elena wiped a tear from his other cheek. “You remember waking up in the Hospital?”
Anton rolled his eyes. “I remember going to see Dr. Brynn for some tests. We had this crazy conversation about some kind of quantum theory of his and having two brains. I put on some special pajamas so he could monitor my brain activity. He gave me a pill to help me sleep. Then I woke up in the hospital, like this.”
Elena patted his shoulders patronizingly. “There. See. It’s coming back. It’s all making sense now.”
Whether or not you’re pleased with the outcome of the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, you have to be concerned with the low voter turnout. Only 53.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot. This has politicians and pundits scratching their heads. Don Mills, chairman and CEO of the market research firm Corporate Research Associates summed it up in a CBC interview: “It’s very difficult to understand,” Mills said. “Honestly, I don’t get it.”
Mills also tweeted, “Is it time to institute mandatory voting based on declining voter turnout in Nova Scotia? I am beginning to think so.”
Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt and eighteen other populous countries now have mandatory voting. Considering the sociopolitical climates and economic status of the countries on this list, it’s more than fair to say that forcing citizens to vote does not produce balanced governance.
In fact, one might argue that obliging citizens to vote is counter to the very notion of democracy.
There will always be a segment of the population who just don’t care about governance. Apathy, however doesn’t account for the abysmal voter turnout in Nova Scotia’s 2017 election. There is a growing sense of despair among many Nova Scotians; a sense that the political flavour of the government makes no real difference at the end of the day. Since 1758, the people of Nova Scotia have chosen one political party after another – mainly Liberal and Conservative.
Historically the Liberals have stayed in power until they anger the voters and lose the house to the Conservatives for a term or two. Then the Liberals get elected again for another try. Then the Conservatives … the Liberals … Conservatives … Liberals … ad nauseam.
The common thread that remains woven, unbroken, throughout every term is disappointment. Time after time, generation after generation, Nova Scotia voters elect new governments, hoping for change, buying into new promises of prosperity, equality, accountability and transparency. Time after time, their patience wears thin. It’s no surprise that after ten or more generations of this cyclical behavior, hope has faded. Would-be voters have finally come to the realization that it makes very little difference which party gets elected. Voters are giving up. This is not disinterest or apathy. This is despair.
When almost half of the electorate can’t be bothered to vote, they are sending a message. And it’s not directed at one party or another. The message is clear: The current partisan style of government does not work. We’ve been using the same system since 1758. We have 259 years of data to show how ineffective this tug-of-war really is. The adversarial nature of our legislature is counterproductive, if not destructive.
The actions of politicians in the house of assembly and the language used by candidates while campaigning clearly indicates that their priorities and allegiances lie with their parties, not with the people they are supposed to represent. Most of their energy is devoted to eroding the credibility of the party that poses the greatest threat to their hold on power.
Rather than forcing citizens to vote, perhaps the time has come to force our elected officials to abandon the competitive practices that are so entrenched in the partisan culture. If politicians were more collaborative and less combative, voters would feel a sense of purpose and pick up their pencils on election day.
“I need something I can tuck into my pants and pull out quickly. Nothing bulky or heavy. And it has to be inconspicuous. I don’t want anybody to notice that I’m carrying a cons… ” Anton’s brain halted his mouth before the adjective could be fully formed. It sounded as though the sentence was interrupted by a cough.
The clerk behind the counter had no trouble finishing. “… concealed weapon.”
Anton’s neck disappeared as he tried to pull his head down into his body in a remarkably turtle-like manner. His eyes darted around the sporting goods department. His fight-or-flight response was in full overdrive. His arms and legs tensed, his pupils were fully dilated, and he held his breath, waiting for an unseen threat to rush in from the blackness beyond his peripheral vision.
The clerk sat on the stool behind the counter, curiously watching Anton’s reaction. “It’s none of my business where you keep your weapon, but wherever you conceal it, in your sock, in your pants, in your jacket, whatever, just make sure it’s C-3.”
Anton relaxed a little. He squinted and tilted his head in a way that is universally understood to mean, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“C-3. Condition-three.” The clerk produced a handgun, seemingly our of thin air, and slapped an empty clip into the base of the handle and set it down hard on the counter. “The full clip is inserted in the gun, but there’s no round in the chamber. It’s convenient and relatively safe. Condition-three.”
“No, you don’t got it, Poindexter. You see, my cousin used to keep his Glock-Thirty tucked in the back of his pants. He thought he got it too. He was the nervous sort, like you; twitchy, always on edge. I can see it in your face – you’re just like him. Trouble seemed to follow him like a shadow. He always kept his piece C-1, as they say; a round in the chamber, ready to rock’n’roll. What my cuz didn’t understand is that Condition-one is colossally stupid unless you live in Bagdad or East L.A or frequent the Tijuana nightclub scene. One afternoon, at a ball game, my cousin gets some bad sauerkraut.”
“Yeah. On a sausage. It gives him real bad cramps.”
“How do know it wasn’t the sausage? It’s more likely that it was a bad sausage. Sauerkraut is pickled. It’s unlikely that it went bad.”
The clerk grabbed the pistol and ejected the clip. “Are you gonna listen to my allegory?”
“So about fifteen minutes after eating the bad sauerkraut, my cousin makes a panic run to the toilets. He’s in a bad way, you know; sweating, doubling over with cramps. Not thinking clear, he rushes into the stall and drops his pants real fast. The Glock-thirty that was tucked into the back of his pants falls out. As usual, he was all jumped up on amphetamines so his reflexes were tack sharp – like a ninja, he actually catches the Glock before it hits the floor.”
“Not really. He had some really greasy onion-rings too, so when he catches the Glock, it slips …”
Anton rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Wait, wait, wait. Onion rings? At a ball game?”
“Yeah. Onion rings. What is your problem?”
Anton shrugged. “I’m a statistician.”
The clerk stared silently at Anton. “Interrupt me one more time, Poindexter.”
“As I was saying … he had just been eating some greasy onion-rings. So when he caught the Glock, it slipped out of his hand like a bar of wet soap. He ends up kind of juggling the pistol. Every time he catches it, three or four times, it slips again. Then on the last catch his greasy little finger slips right in over the trigger. In C-3 this wouldn’t have been a problem. But in condition-one …”
“Yeah. Bang. My cousin’s branch of the family tree won’t get any longer, if you know what I mean.”
The clerk gave a sad little chuckle, half closed his eyes, and shook his head. Anton waited for a punchline. It never came.
“This is the fourth generation Glock-Twenty-six, also known as the Baby-Glock. But don’t be fooled by the name. It’s not as devastating as my cousin’s Glock-Thirty, but it’ll get your point across. Small, light, fast, and…”
“Does it come with bullets?”
The clerk snickered. “Right, your first gun. I’ll tell you what … I’ll throw in a box of rounds.”
Anton put on his tough face; narrow, steely eyes, flattened lips, clenched jaw. “I’d prefer bullets, if it’s okay with you.”
The clerk stared strait into Anton’s face with a seriousness that was several orders of magnitude beyond anything Anton could ever aspire to achieve. Anton shuffled nervously. After only a few seconds he conceded with a timid, uncomfortable smile.
The clerk spoke without blinking. “We call them rounds, Poindexter. If you keep calling them bullets, somebody will kill you and take your lunch money.” He placed the pistol on the glass top of the display case and slid it across to Anton. “The Baby-Glock holds ten rounds in the clip and one round in the chamber.”
The clerk nodded approvingly. “Five points for Poindexter. You catch on quick.”
Anton held the Glock-Twenty-six, turning it over in his hands, examining it like a museum artifact.
“Yeah. The weight should remind you of what you really have in your hand: Power. Life. Death. A weapon like that only has one purpose.”
Anton held it very still. “Right. To kill.”
The clerk reached out and took the pistol from Anton’s hand. “No, moron. You just lost your only five points. Statistician my ass. Persuasion, Poindexter, persuasion. A good weapon will harmlessly persuade any sane person to see things your way. That’s its only purpose – not to kill. Killing is what humans do with their minds; that’s a decision we have to consciously make. A weapon is an inanimate object, like a road sign or a stapler, or a shoe.”
Anton stepped back. “What if I show them the gun, but they still don’t see things my way?”
The clerk put the Baby-Glock back in the display case drawer and locked it. “A gun can’t make decisions. It can’t act. It can’t kill. That’s not it’s purpose. Your mind is the only thing in the universe that is equipped to make decisions. You base your actions on those decisions. You either decide to pull the trigger or you decide not to. Like I said, killing is what humans do with their minds.”
“But the gun is the facilitates killing.”
“A butter knife facilitates killing. Killing is always possible. I could punch you in the throat or flatten you with my truck. I don’t need a gun. I have the most terrifying and devastating killing machine ever conceived of, right here under my hat. ”
Anton had heard enough. He held out his hand. “Thank you. I appreciate your time. I have to think about this.”
The clerk shook Anton’s hand. “You never did tell me why.”
“Why are you here? What made you come looking for a handgun?”
Anton looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter. “I already told you. You just don’t remember.”
The clerk let go of Anton’s hand. In the span of one breath his posture changed from relaxed and friendly to defensive and alert.
Anton smiled. “Condition-orange.”
The colour drained from the clerk’s face. He reached his right hand behind his back, but before he could pull the Glock-Thirty from his waist band, Anton was pointing a fourth generation Glock-Twenty-six at his face. Anton’s hand was steady and his eyes were fixed on the clerk’s.
“You had me fooled Poindexter. Fifty points for that outstanding performance. You look too prep-school for a cop. ”
“I’m not a cop. I really am a statistician. Put your hands up.”
“Okay. Easy does it. How’d you get the Baby-Glock from the display case. I was watching you the whole time.”
Anton smiled. “I bought it from you.”
The clerk’s voice was pitching up. “Me? No. I’ve never seen you before today.”
Anton kept the Glock trained on the clerk. “Yes you have. And you haven’t. It’s complicated.”
“There you go Poindexter. See. The weapon is working, just like I said. I am very willing to see things your way now.”
Anton took his finger off the trigger and stepped back a couple of feet, pointing the gun away from the clerk’s face. “Do you know anything about quantum theory?”
The clerk’s bottom lip began to quiver slightly. “Are you fucking kidding me? Afghanistan. Chechnya. Serbia. And this … this is how I die? Shot by a crazy-ass mathematician because I didn’t finish high school? No, professor Dexter, I can’t even spell quantics.”
“Slowly unlock and open the display case drawer. Then take out the Baby-Glock and put it on the counter. Nice and slow.”
“You’ll shoot me.”
“I won’t shoot you.”
“You will. I’ll put my hand on the Glock and you’ll ask me about quadratics and I’ll get the answer wrong and you’ll shoot me in the face.”
“I won’t shoot you.”
“Then why don’t you put the gun down?”
“Because I need it to persuade you to see things my way.”
“Dammit. You’re good at this.” The clerk slowly took the Baby-Glock out of the drawer and placed it on the glass counter top in front of Anton.
“Take that slippery Glock-Thirty out of your pants and unload it, including the round in the chamber; I want condition-four, Castrati. And be careful not to fumble it this time.”
A rush of colour welled up around the clerk’s neck, cheeks, and forehead. “Castrati? How do you know …”
“I’ll explain later. Now, I’m going to put my Baby-Glock on the counter top next to the other one, and you’re going to continue to see things my way.”
The clerk nodded. Anton dropped the clip from the handle of the pistol and pulled the bolt back to eject the round from the chamber before setting it on the counter next to the identical Glock twenty-six. He slid them both toward the clerk. “Look.”
“What am I looking at?”
“The serial numbers.”
The clerk examined the numbers of both Baby-Glock pistols and looked up at Anton. “They’re the same. But that’s not possible.”
Anton smiled. “Five points for Castrati.”
Originally Published on November 5, 2015 (http://southshorebreaker.ca/2015/11/10/murrants-rant-dst-dogs-standard-time/)
What do Arizona, Hawaii and my dog all have in common? Give up? None of them observe Daylight Saving Time. I think they’re onto something. For them, it’s business as usual year round. In fact, four-fifths of the Earth’s humans, and five-fifths of the non-humans, don’t bother to spring-ahead or fall-back.
Contrary to popular belief, the concept of Daylight Saving Time had nothing to do with farmers. In fact, farmers in the early 20th century protested against DST — and with good reason. Try explaining to a herd of dairy cows that they have to wait an extra hour to be milked.
Even Benjamin Franklin, erroneously credited with inventing Daylight Savings, never intended for us to change our clocks. His suggestion, after a late night in Paris, only to be woken by a too-early dawn, was that we adjust our sleep and activity to coincide with seasonal changes in the daylight.
Modern Daylight Savings Time began as means to conserve resources during the first and second world wars. Electric lights were inefficient. Businesses were encouraged to operate during daylight hours, leaving more coal, oil and electricity available to be used in the factories that produced goods for the war effort. An ideal solution at the time — but times have changed.
Today, in a world that never sleeps, with offices and factories that operate around the clock, when more and more of our energy comes from renewable resources, we need to stop and ask: What are we really saving by changing our clocks twice a year? Sure, we enjoy an extra hour of sleep in October, but we have to give it back in April. It’s more of a Daylight Loan than a Saving — and it’s a high interest loan, considering that it takes a few days for most people to adjust to the time change; a few cranky and relatively unproductive days.
Maybe it’s time to do away with Daylight Savings Time and stick with one time, all year round: Dog Standard Time.
Originally Published on September 10, 2015, The Cape Breton Star
I’m not an economist. I guess that’s why the logic behind the Nova Star Ferry eludes me. As you may have read recently in the news, we (taxpayers) are well on our way to spending $13-million this year to keep the Nova Star running between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the $28-million we spent last year.
This is excellent news … for the residents of Maine. According to the Portland Press Herald, “Nova Star will use Portland as its home port. That means Portland-area vendors will be supplying fuel and services”.
But it’s good for Nova Scotia, too, right? The Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership estimated that a season with one hundred-thousand visitors would pump $16.3-million into our economy. Well, it would, but last year we only saw about sixty-thousand visitors and we are on target for about the same again this year. Based on that, with my limited math skills, I figure that each Nova Star visitors contribute less than $10-million to our economy each year.
Now, compare that to Sydney.
Almost one hundred-thousand visitors will arrive in Sydney on cruise ships this year; similar to last year and the year before. According to the Port of Sydney, cruise ship activity will contribute about $27-million to the local economy.
It stands to reason that if the provincial government were to budget tens of millions for the Port of Sydney, like they have for the Nova Star in Yarmouth, the investment would result in an even greater boost to the provincial economy. But, alas, I’m just a writer – not an economist.
“George Orwell’s 1984 has always been a favorite of mine. Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation is a masterpiece. So in 1992, with a room full of synthesizers and samplers and a clunky old Atari 1040 computer, I produced this. It’s pure, early 1990’s techno – really dated by today’s standards – but I still love it. Some of my old songs are embarrassing to listen to – but not this one.”
I pretended to be asleep. He made his breakfast and packed his lunch. It was November – dark mornings, cold house – so I stayed in bed, listening to the sounds of the dawn: boiling kettle, butter knife scraping toast, ringing spoon stirring cup of tea, turning pages of paperback western.
I heard the back door open; the raspy cough of the car starting and the heater blowing warm air to clear the frost from the windows. The trunk sprung open and I envisioned his rifle in its soft case stowed carefully away; a sandwich and a thermos of tea packed into his red knapsack, tossed on the passenger seat. The trunk slammed shut, and the backdoor opened once again. More footsteps – this time into my room.
I kept one eye opened just enough to see his silhouette against the dim light coming in from the kitchen. He stood there for a moment, looking at me, waiting beside my bed, listening for some sign of lucidity. Finally he put his hand on my head, ran his fingers through my curls, and walked out.
At the time I thought it was a funny trick, lying so still, pretending to be asleep – because everything is funny when you are a nine year old boy. I was going to tell him when he got home that I had fooled him; that I was really awake the whole time. He’d laugh and rough up my hair with his strong hand and call me a “little scamp” – like he always did – but not this time. This time, he wasn’t coming home.
You see, I could have hugged him and told him I loved him and that I admired him and wanted to be just like him, but instead I pretended to be asleep for a laugh. Things were never quite as funny after that.
Don’t ever pass up the chance to tell someone you love them.
Last week I spent over four hours in the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER with my son – and finally left without ever having seen a doctor. But we weren’t alone.
There were eight patients waiting to see a doctor when I arrived at 7:30pm that evening. During my 4.5 hour wait, only two patients were actually called from the waiting room to see a doctor – SIX got up and left.
It’s not an official study, just a 4.5 hour observation, but if this is a typical, quiet Thursday evening at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER, we have a serious problem. 75% of the patients seeking medical care that night, left the ER without seeing a doctor. That cannot be allowed to continue.
Are 75% of the people in need of medical care really going without in CBRM?
Don’t let anyone try to tell you that this has anything to do with an over-burdened healthcare system. This is a management problem (or lack thereof).
Case in point – a well-managed healthcare facility would not have a filthy (frankly, disgusting) ER waiting area. Between 7:30pm and midnight there were no environmental services staff to be seen. There were soiled tissues and paper towels strewn around the bathroom. The floor throughout the entire waiting area was spotted with clumps of mud (or maybe it wasn’t mud?) and debris. A hospital waiting area is ground zero for infection control, but it’s not even on the hospital’s radar.
And although the security office is within earshot, only once in 4.5 hours did a security person bother to get up and do a walk-through of the waiting area.
Lastly – when you rush out the door of your home with a sick child, you don’t have time to stop and check if you have the correct change for the hospital parking lot. Why not use a machine that provides a code – like at the car wash.
If you ever wondered why Nova Scotians are among the highest taxed people in the WORLD, look no further.
The Nova Scotia government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.
Over four years our government will have spent $73-million in hard-earned, taxpayer dollars to keep the passenger ferry running between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine. It doesn’t take a genius to see how ludicrous this is. Just look at the numbers (Google it if you have any doubts):
- 2014: $28-million (Nova Star)
- 2015: $13-million (Nova Star)
- 2016: $23-million (The CAT)
- 2017: $9-million (The CAT)
You say, “So what if we spent all that cash in Yarmouth? It’s all about economic development, right?” Sure. In theory. Supposedly, the Yarmouth-Maine ferry will bring boatloads of American money into Nova Scotia.
But even the most optimistic projected returns fall short. The Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership (the Nova Star folks) estimated that a season with 100,000 passengers would pump $16.3 million into the province’s economy. That’s a projected influx of $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy over four years. Let me clarify: somebody in the Nova Scotia provincial government authorized a $73-million expenditure on the expectation that it would generate $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy. I don’t want to be harsh, but that’s just plain stupid – and it’s about time that somebody stood up and said so.
But wait! It gets stupider … The ACTUAL number of passengers is only 30% of the projected 100,000 per year. The 2014 season saw only 29,438 passengers, while 2015 had 31,150. And there is no reason to expect those numbers to change in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. So, with only 30% of the projected passengers, only 30% of the projected $65-million will materialize. I’ll save you the trouble … $19.5-million. So, in actuality, our government authorized a $73-million expenditure to generate $19.5-million in economic benefit.
And if that’s not bad enough, it gets even stupider-er … Not only are we seeing fewer American tourists than expected, but more Nova Scotians are now sailing to Maine to spend their money. According to Nova Star’s numbers from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, 17,649 Nova Scotians sailed to Maine – taking with them almost $3-million OUT of the Nova Scotia economy. Considering this, it looks like our government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.
I don’t know about you, but to me this ferry deal smells like a load of … carp. Rotting carp.
Torstar, the Toronto Star’s parent company, outsourced it’s printing to TC Media and laid off 300 workers in Ontario.
Post Media, parent company of numerous Canadian newspapers, including the National Post, merged newsrooms in three provinces and laid off 90 editorial staff.
The Guelph Mercury printed its last newspaper and laid off 26 employees.
Staff at the Chronicle Herald, Canada’s largest independent newspaper, are on strike – opposing proposed changes that management has deemed necessary.
We only hear about these examples because they are the major players. Closures and lay-offs are par for the course among smaller daily and weekly newspapers across Canada – and around the world.
The reason for this decline couldn’t be any simpler – low demand.
Why would anybody pay for news, especially printed news, when they can get it for free on the internet? News is ubiquitous on the world wide web. There are millions of websites, blogs, newsfeeds, and Facebook and Twitter pages that deliver news. Users don’t have to wait until the newspaper is printed. News is available on demand, around the clock.
But is it really “free”? And even more importantly, is it really “news”?
Facebook is a perfect example. People flock to Facebook for instant updates on current events. They read, they leave comments, they share, and they re-write and re-post their version of events – complete with opinions and bias. This is not news.
Only a very small fraction of a percentage of the information available on Facebook can be considered as news. The vast majority is rumour, hearsay, conjecture, opinion, and misinformation. The only content on Facebook that can be considered as “news” is the content provided by news organizations.
News organizations employ journalists – professionally bound to be truthful, factual, thorough, and unbiased. We can trust journalists. Humanity has journalists to thank for keeping the world in check. The world relies on vetted journalism. Governments, corporations, and individuals take extraordinary measures to hide their transgressions from the masses. When they act unscrupulously, it is most often a journalist that exposes the story. The world would be a very different place if journalism were to disappear.
The problem with journalism is that it’s very expensive. Journalists themselves don’t earn an excessive income, but the resources needed to do their job can be costly. To produce and deliver a verifiable news story takes considerable time and involves the efforts of a team of individuals.
Who pays for this? Not Facebook. Not Twitter. Not the consumer of “free” news.
News organizations, like newspapers, employ the journalists that entertain us, inform us, enlighten us, and yes – I will even go out on limb here and say – keep our world safer.
Aside from the cost of solid journalism, news organizations have tremendous production costs. Publications have to look good, read well, and be delivered on time. Producing a newspaper, whether in print or on-line, is incredibly expensive – but also incredibly important.
In light of the recent turmoil among Canadian newspapers, countless comments and replies have been made in social media; many of which imply that newspapers are an antiquated, outmoded throwback to the previous century.
It is an undeniable truth that fewer people are reading printed newspapers. The days of paper are numbered, but the days of news are not. Vetted journalism and timely delivery of news are more important today than ever before.
The news industry is going through a tumultuous period as it transitions from the daily paper to real-time on-line delivery. Every so often in the course of human history we encounter a technological shift which ushers in a new social paradigm. Early on, these shifts were few and far between – the mastery of fire, the first farms, the development of written language, metal tools, Gutenberg’s press, and now, the internet. News organizations are breaking new ground every day as they come up with new ways to produce and deliver relevant content to a fragmented audience.
The average consumer, who relies on Twitter and Facebook for their news, likely doesn’t care who is paying for the content they consume.
The newspaper, who incurs the expense of producing and delivering vetted content, struggles to find new sources of revenue.
The journalist, who holds themselves to a noble and uncompromising standard, is caught in the middle.
Today, there is no clear path. This is uncharted territory. We will encounter many changes, trials, and failures, before the transition away from printed paper is complete.
The issue at hand is far bigger than the economics of the news industry. If news organizations fail to adapt and journalism suffers, the real cost won’t be measured in dollars. The real price will be truth and accountability.
Originally Published in the Cape Breton Star on October 22, 2015
Mariners have been using the Stone Church to navigate the mouth of Sydney Harbour since 1916. Perched high on a Victoria Mines hillside, the church is one of the first landmarks to greet cruise ship visitors as they arrive. It was also one of the last images of home seen by soldiers sailing for Europe in the two world wars.
In fact, one of St. Alphonsus’ spires was paid for by the Atlantic Pilotage Authority of Sydney. The other spire, as the story goes, is dedicated to a lady who agreed to match all of the community’s donations for the construction of the church, so long as it was not made of wood — since the wooden church before it had burned to the ground.
Melanie Sampson, spokesperson for the Stone Church Restoration Society, explains that though it wasn’t made of wood, it wasn’t made of stone either.
“It’s actually constructed of concrete. Architects are amazed that it was done in one complete, continuous pour. A remarkable thing back in 1916.”
Formed in 2014 with the original goal of halting the demolition of the church, the society’s offer to purchase the church for $40,000 was recently accepted by the current owner, the Diocese of Antigonish. Once the terms of the sale are met, the church and the land it sits on will be handed over to the society. The adjacent cemeteries will remain in the care of the diocese.
So why would a community group want to save a 99-year-old building which, according to the National Trust of Canada, needs $300,000 in repairs.
“You can’t put a price tag on history, said Sampson. “We want to make sure it’s there for generations to come.
“It’s in relatively good shape. The majority of the work that needs to be done is on the two spires. We’re confident we will be able to get grants after talking to different levels of government, and different heritage grants as well. But the key thing for us is to have ownership. We need that deed. We won’t quality for any grants without it.”
Sampson said the Stone Church is listed by the National Trust as one of the top 10 endangered buildings in Canada.
“As soon as we get ownership of the building, we plan on making it into a designated national heritage property, so that we can apply to receive funding.
“We want to tie it into tourism. It’s one of the first things cruise ship passengers see when they’re coming into the port of Sydney, and one of the last things they see when they’re going back out … we really want to keep it open for the tourist season, from the spring to the late fall.”
To purchase the church, and to get the proper designation so they can apply for grants and funding, Sampson said the society is required to have a business plan.
“We are in the process of revamping the business plan, now that we know the price tag. We never knew before what the diocese was going to charge us.”
The society has provided the diocese with a $7,500 non-refundable deposit, which is being held in trust by their lawyer until the final agreement is drawn up and signed. The society will then have until July, 2016, to pay the balance.
Samspon said the society has raised roughly $13,000 so far.
“That includes the money for the down payment. Each weekend we’re raising more. We’re really hoping for a good turnout to our dances and other events so that we can get it paid off as quickly as possible.
“We’re on track, but we can use more volunteers. More hands make less work. No task is too small. Even if people can only donate an hour or two per month, that’s fine. The more people we can get, the better. We really want to make this a community effort, not just a small group effort. We’re open to anyone’s suggestions and ideas. We could use people’s areas of expertise, especially business people. And even people who wouldn’t mind sitting in the flea market or the mall to sell tickets or our merchandise. No one is too old or too young.”
Sampson would like to see more youth getting involved.
“This is something we are trying to save for future generations. Young people could help us put on concerts, especially college students— where they might need volunteer hours. We would be willing to sign off to help them.
St. Alphonsus was always a Roman Catholic church, but as Sampson pointed out, this effort has more to do with history and community than with religion. “We’re getting help from people that aren’t even catholic. They feel that the building just needs to be saved — it’s a piece of their heritage.”
Presently, churches enjoy certain tax exemptions. Once the sale of St. Alphonsus goes through, however, the church will lose its tax exempt status. The Stone Church Restoration Society will have to factor property taxes into their business plan, “Unless,” Sampson adds with a laugh, “maybe the municipality will be kind enough to waive that.”
Overall, Sampson said the operating costs are modest.
“The cost for the last three years of operation, 2004 to 2006, was only 6,000 per year. There’s no running water in the church, so you don’t have to heat it when it’s not in use. We anticipate our costs will be about $10,000 per year, including property taxes. We will only open it in the winter for special events and weddings so we won’t have to be heating it on a regular basis.
“One of the ways to provide some regular revenue for the church will be to use it as nondenominational wedding chapel — one-stop-shopping for your wedding. We also plan to host a lot of community events, concerts and such since there is no other community hall in this area.”
The society will be working hard over the next few months to raise funds before their July deadline. One idea that Samson is very excited about is Stone Aid.
“We’re looking for musicians who will volunteer their time and talent for a Stone Aid concert early in the new year. Anyone who interested in performing should give me a call.”
Musicians interested in performing at the Stone Aid benefit can reach Melanie Sampson at (902) 539-8347.