Digital Ischemia

16/10/2018

BBC Bureaucracy

Another vaguely anticipated episode in my Truthache series of surreal petty vengeance: Merv is piqued by non-contact forms

Merv recently got himself jammed in the most beautiful cul-de-sac of e-pistles, most of the pistle being in the wind. Being an attentive sort, back in April he noticed that BBC Radio programmes suddenly lost their track timing flags. A heinous state of affairs. How can he browse through his HypeLayer and land neatly in the tee-up to a nice reliable bit of Chopin or Placebo without any indication of when in the three-hour timeline this is?

Unpleasant incidents resulted, such as him plunging into some contemporary experimental effort and becoming transfixed by the phased percussion like a chicken rendered catatonic by a vertical line. A virtuoso organist peddling away with unnecessary vigour caused such a thrum in the bass speakers that Merv’s tank-top unravelled and Aunty Spamela’s begonias wilted.

Once recalibrated, Merv’s fluids began to circulate again. He found his Wi-Fi web wireless has little letterboxes with messages encouraging you to punch in your thoughts. He summoned his best letter-writing etiquette.

April 20
Merv: Why?
Devoid O’Smairts, BBC HypeLayer support team: We are aware of similar reports of this and we are currently investigating. We appreciate you bringing this to our attention and we hope to have it sorted soon.

Some time passed, much of it spent extracting Merv from unintended-track-induced infinite mental loops. But the sizzling at the very base of his primitive brain had not dissipated.

May 08
Merv: Please could you let me have an update on this case, or any indication of the expected timeframe?

Merv’s inbox remained populated only by an animated gif of tumbleweed. He resorted to polite threats.

June 09
Merv: If I get no response this third time of asking I feel I should escalate this query to a complaint.
Devoid O’Smairts: “Thanks so much for contacting us again. Since our last response, we’ve removed the timings for radio programmes due to rights agreements with record companies. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused by this, and the delay in getting word back on the issue. We hope this offers you clarification about the timings. We do take on board that you are unhappy about their removal and we will be sure to take on board your comments. Your comments will be included into our dedicated HypeLayer feedback reports which will be sent to BBC HypeLayer Management and other relevant teams to help with any future decisions and developments of BBC HypeLayer Services. Hearing from our audiences is greatly important and your comments can be used to improve our services. So, your feedback can make a real difference and we appreciate you taking the time to contact us. Thanks again for getting in touch.

That’s a lot of taking on board. Merv felt quite water-logged. We wondered if they had run aground and their hull had been breached. He appreciated all their lots of appreciation for helping them deteriorate their service. And clarification? Not by Merv’s dictionary. His blood fizzed for three weeks.

June 29
Merv: I am astonished at how difficult you make it for me to get an answer to a simple, reasonable question. The obfuscatory nature of the eventual answer leaves me disappointed and suspicious. Please can you answer my query?

July 05
Devoid O’Smairts: We were not longer able to continue have timings that linked up with commercial tracks in order to avoid any breaching any restrictions we had with record companies. Although it was only commercial tracks that were affected by these timings issues, we had to disable the feature altogether as it could not only be enabled for our tracks and disabled for commercial tracks.

This is plainly not plain English. Record companies reckon they’ll sell more ‘down-low-discs’ if listeners have to hear random tracks, rather than those they’re interested in? Interesting strategy. Sounds like the death grasp of a dying industry, built on building up fledgling performers to giddy heights of instant popularity in order to legally fleece those same performers on their built-in obsolescent decline, but which had not foreseen the digital age.

July 13
Merv: This still doesn’t explain why this would be in the commercial interest of record companies. What ‘restrictions’ in your agreement with them require this?

More than three months into this farce, Merv received a message from a market research company seeking more of his thoughts. He let rip. This triggered a cascade of phone interview, videocall with lab-rat tests (to confirm that he, like 87% of the audience, is harmlessly entangled and rendered inert by trying to navigate the website) and finally an invitation to an actual BBC location (secret).

We retired to the shed. Merv was in tatters, and not just from loss of tank-top integrity. He has a fear of institutions ever since being locked in his school on four occasions due to spending too long in the lavatory after home economics. One by one the lights went out while he was having arse collapse. He remains understandably traumatised and always carries a candle and matches when he’s away for a session. I daren’t, er, stoke the flames by raising the issue of what might happen should he actually strike a match in such circumstances.

Not to put too much gloss on the mission, I had to be David to BBC Goliath.

In the holding area—given some nauseating label such as welcome boutique—I lined up alongside my fellow victims. As I tried to tune out Droopy Dorothy and stop screwing up my eyes at Alpha-female Anna, I plunged my fidgeting palm into my pocket. It closed on Merv’s phial. The unknown quantity in the statistic. Had to be.

An utterly bland guy called my name from the doorway. He looked as interested in my input and the whole process generally as a cat. But without any of the cool. As I lurched through the rack of my fellow subjects’ knees, he introduced himself as—would you believe?—Devoid O’Smairts.

My facial expression was a study in passive blankitude. I managed the entire conversation through various degrees of pensive frown. He barely tried to draw me out, other than deciding to tick beside my forename and surname on the assumption that since I had answered to them I must be them. Each time he seemed to be about to wind up proceedings, I shifted and cranked my jaw tantalisingly. He watched me with palpable disappointment. He could have saved himself all this torture if only he’d made up some corporate wank about ‘removing the service provision due to resource streamlining’. We took our leave at a delicious impasse.

In Merv’s honour, I lurked in the toilets a dodgily long time until other members of the interrogation squad ‘passed’ through and loosed their tongues. Nope, sorry, definitely not that sort of diversion. Please concentrate.

Seemingly, after refreshing themselves plentifully with hot drinks concocted from the rolodex of stale sachets combined skilfully with hot water from the urns, the other participants became just as unresponsive as myself. There’s a puzzle.

Merv had not wasted his time either. Using QuackQuackBong (I understand this is a research engine you can hire, which operates rather like an animated Ronald Searle), he ‘harvested’ a code from some knowledgable students in the magic online letterbox. Then, without realising its power, er, penetrated the market people and arranged for all reports on the research to be sent to his own personal dead letter drop. I barely comprehend what he’s up to these days, but surely you can’t do much damage with a radio.

The outcome was spectacularly underwhelming: Devoid O’Smairts had failed to get any response from anyone. Combined with his Service Level Absences, this caused his manager to suspect that he didn’t exist at all and consequently terminate his employment. His redundancy made no difference whatsoever to the non-performance of the website comments process.

Merv finally iced the cake by reweaving the ‘routings’ (he’s gotten right into this ‘coding’ lark; much more fun than listening to the radio, he says) so that commenters receive in reply other commenters’ comments, thereby creating a social broadcasting network. People are being entertained by one another instead of the amorphous bureaucratic behemoth, and a national licence fee boycott is planned for next Saturday.

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29/09/2018

Take and Give part 3/3

A surreal adventure through loose-wire interpretations of retinal blobs
continues from part 2

I have stumbled upon the Machiavelli behind the machinery, the stage manager, the master bungler. The Wizard of Oats. I have even challenged him. He wanted to be found.
“They were like spoor through the kitchen.”
“You had a lot.”
“Staple. Long life.”
“Yours or the oats’?” Smart. I like him. He puzzles me.

What to ask first? The exhumed prima donna? Obviously a mother metaphor. Father and the buns; enough said. The cancerous housing situation? Hackneyed satire on humanity’s avarice? Lost interest in that habitat. The illusion of reality? Who cares? Ah, but all my valued possessions are still unaccounted for.

While I’ve been metaphorically mulling, my host has brought us to another, much smaller, footbridge. He breaks into my thought maelstrom.
“I’ve decluttered you.”
“You’ve de…materialised me.”
“You still want them?”
“Yes!?” Is he going to try to buy me off with Turkish delight now?
“No.” He can read my thought maelstrom.
“You gave me a new phone, then you ate it.”
“A small lapse.”
“The giving or the guzzling?”
He moves on, ignoring my apparently amateur question. How about something more fundamental: what’s the point?

Tucked in beneath the footbridge, beside a pallet of firewood, Mr Oats wrestles a tarpaulin. I expect an indignant troll or other claimant to emerge at any moment. He triumphantly reveals the smallest vehicle I’ve seen. It could technically fit a person, rather like a kayak, but it won’t carry your groceries, let alone your lifetime’s hech. Of course: we’re living lightly now. Except. Smugly I point out its obvious flaw.
“They’ll spot that in about five satellite refreshes.” ‘They’ being the long overdue archetypal baddies. The small, mildly menacing ones, clad helpfully in black. The Marketeers of the Materialistic.

Mr Oats is disappointed—no, hurt at my distrust. At my not buying wholesale into his illusion. I don’t feel obligated to loyalty since he still hasn’t explained any of his tremendous liberties taken. I push on.
“You know how they scan the country: massive scale blocks then recursively finer resolution until they’re examining your tile grouting.” Hyperbolae always wins.
“They don’t know what they’re looking for.”
“No, but as soon as it moves they’ll lock on to it like any predator.” I’m right into my case now, regardless of destination. However, there’s one feature I haven’t given due attention, probably because he’s only just manifested it: he lovingly polishes its shiny red nose cone. How drearily phallic. But a point of sorts.
“Not if we’re above the satellite.”
Clever. Notwithstanding the directional ambiguity of such domains.

The pod—boarding feels rather like squirming into a broad bean pod—has a comfortingly stretch-to-fit interior as well as a furry lining. Take-off has the standard discomforting sudden loss of stability and, well, ground. We birl up into the air and take a final impression of terra firma, including the once again diminishing aspect of my house. The rapidly receding landscape features pass through aboriginal dot art stage in an instant then coalesce into smudge.

The ride smooths and my giddiness subsides. Satisfyingly we jump by the trumped satellite, mentally giving it two rods. Like the beans, we’re travelling in tandem: my benefactor’s legs are hugging my hips. I just begin to enjoy the sensation of animal warmth within the vegetable habitat before he begins a series of interstellar leaps and bounds, like the pronking of gazelles.

I feel oddly unconcerned by the loss of everything familiar to me. My wonder at the unfamiliar settles; analysis resumes.
“You’re showing me how small and insignificant my world is?”
“I’m showing you what you can do.”
If not limited by attachment to the familiar? Silence. That exquisite potential on the cusp of supreme wisdom. That moment of joyous expectation. That vacuum of answers which always precedes…

I wake reluctantly and disappointingly back in this mundane bed. With the nagging idea that spilled oats is some sort of ghastly smut.

END

Confession: three dreams bodged together like a cut-and-shut. Excellent image creativity—nice to see my porridge supper penetrating—but narratively utter nonsense. If I don’t get these scenes out of my head, and stretched into some loosely cohesive narrative shape, I fear descending into a tedious parody of Lewis Carroll.

28/09/2018

Take and Give part 2/3

A surreal adventure through loose-wire interpretations of retinal blobs
continues from part 1

A bigger problem looms: what is the number for non-emergency type police? I mean it’s definitely not an emergency. Even if there is stuff going on as I speak. Nefarious stuff. But no life is under threat. Actually, it all seems very amateur, but I need my documents, all the helpful notes I’ve made in the past for exactly this sort of… Well, not exactly; I didn’t foresee anything like this sort of half-baked theatre.

Just do something. I tap hopefully at the pristine screen and hear a solicitous voice, a not very distant voice. I launch in.
“Hello. I need the number for non-emergencies. A burglary. I can’t remember if it’s 111 or 101 or… All I know is it’s not 999, which isn’t 999 anymore either, because now it’s 911 or 211 or… No, apparently I don’t know that either.” I had all this stuff carefully noted, as I have already whinged. In my mobile, now missing, and beside the house phone, now severed.

But my rambling serves a dual purpose. I let the cheery chap fake away at his helpfulness as I prowl through my no-longer-my-own house. Who are all these extras? Where are they coming from? Where is the swelling space coming from? Seemingly the bungled burglary comes with gratis gratuitous extension into TV chat show set. In the greatly enlarged living room I round a freakishly smooth, new plasterboard curvature and literally bump into a rather short guy chattering into a black phone – an obvious sign that he’s one of the baddies. Actually having the very helpful unhelpful conversation I’ve been having.

With a frisson of delight I loom over him. He senses the shadow, looks up and squeaks. To his credit, he abandons the failed deception and stammers about there being no time to explain as ‘she’ is due on set. The set: that explains the giant toilet bowls that facilitated my slumber in the hall. Actually two enamelled hemispherical seating efforts – part of a nineteen-sixties white plastic delusion to facilitate the ‘star’ feeling less of a relic. Are we to be graced with the towering narcissistic ego of a wicked witch, clumsily ensorcelling all these drones?

Here indeed she is: descending an ostentatious and ego-flattering shiny white staircase from what used to be my neighbours’ conservatory. I wonder if they’ve noticed. I recognise the actor but don’t show it. She looks ravenous for recognition as she grasps at her ebbing celebrity. I’m allergic to obsequiousness. My eyes are intolerant to the shimmering albedo. I reverse out of the snow palace and skid through the kitchen. That floor really needs swept. The back door is the first available exit for fresh air to quell my nausea.

The modest garden as was, now immodest grounds, has been somewhat remodelled. I head along a broad stone bridge’s parapet, which also seems to be a busy public walkway linking distant parts of the vast estate. A bench made from springy wood calls to me. I settle down to close my dazzled eyes, foutering with my fancy phone for an exact music track. Of course all my favourites are pre-loaded. I get the right track, but the wrong volume. As the sound quietens and my frazzled ears relax, I become aware of a nearby phone conversation.

A guy behind me is speaking to the ambulance service about some healthy eating campaign. I suppose ambulances like to be pre-empted, and I applaud the apparent promotion of oats, although I cynically doubt the usual ‘wonder panacea’ label.

He seems to be aiming for: “I always have sixty grams of porridge oats to start the day.” He tries to be brisk and businesslike in supplying his quote, but keeps being interrupted by the other party. I wonder what distinguishes him to contribute. I open my eyes hoping to identify him but focusing is hard work and I’m distracted by someone further away. Still so easily misdirected.

I believe I recognise a girl standing by a chemist about fifty metres away. That used to be my patio. Such amenities in my locale. She beckons me. As I approach she flattens to a cardboard cut-out, swaying in the light breeze. Another mere extra. Drat. My legs are already propelling me back to my perch.

I admit I’m curious about Mr Oats. Gratifyingly he hails me.
“Do you have a magnifying glass?”
Not the personal recognition I hoped for. Still, unperturbed by this unusual request, I expect my new swank multi-application phone device has one on the back. As I unfold what is actually a sheet of silver plastic foil with hexagonal wires through it, I quip about the overheard conversation.
“Will there be any more hilarious oat-related stories?”
He chuckles momentarily, takes my phone and its flapping foil strip, and puts the lot in his mouth.
I complain. “Hey! My phone does not contain any oats!” I know I can wear him down with persistent escalating wacky. “You could at least sort the kitchen cabinets. They’re disgraceful. I mean they were before, but this business has mangled them beautifully.”
He continues silently masticating my shiny new technology.

With a heroic gulp he swallows the device and peripherals and sheepishly admits. “It was the oats, wasn’t it?” The fluke-filled freight truck of figuring-out runs into my forehead.

…concludes at part 3

27/09/2018

Take and Give part 1/3

A surreal adventure through loose-wire interpretations of retinal blobs

I wake reluctantly and unusually close to the carpet. After the standard three seconds of empty innocence, my memory throws in a disturbance: I was awoken during the night by a noise, but I suppressed my irrational fears of gremlins. I’d come back late, but early: supposed to be away at a conference, which had been underwhelming so I’d left, so I’d arrived, tired. Apparently so tired that I fell asleep on the hall carpet between two giant’s fish farm wellies, or enormous toilet bowls, or plant pots. Unlikely.

I sense a movement beyond the window. Someone is darting around the house. I lurch up to investigate, peering through successive windows, and catch sight of a colleague emerging from a rose bush. Shaken not scarred. Has he been changing his clothes? Unlikely.

I stagger into the living room. Something not right. Everything not right. Empty. All my furniture, clutter, cables, all gone. Carpet and dust and disoriented woodlice still present. More of them than I usually see.

I step back in shock and into the hall. Father heaves into view, in familiar piqued-by-puzzlement mode.
“Why is my room empty?”
“Probably because you don’t live here anymore.” But that’s the wrong question and answer.

My next concern is the kitchen: similarly stripped of all moveables. Counters that have not been clear for fifteen years seem pitted with archaeological depressions. Cupboards suddenly unburdened have distorted horribly in trying to return to neutral shape and position.

Father is unusually astute: he draws my attention to the tiles behind one strip of counter. Some of it isn’t tiles: it’s vinyl printed as tiles, poorly stuck on and peeling off. He also points out the new horizontal, being ten degrees adrift from the old conventional. Its cause is below in the floorboards: also decidedly off course and diverging from their neighbours. The floor is strewn with sawdust or wood chips. Or breakfast cereal. He pronounces with deductive relish.
“Somebody’s had this whole thing out and put it back badly.”

With a delayed but inevitable anxiety spike, I realise that the absence of furniture and everything on it or in it means all my personal stuff too: my phone, my documents, my collection of toothbrushes designed for the dentally anxious. I reach into my pocket and in bafflement pull out a brand new mobile phone. Seriously future new. Advanced beyond shop new. Not mine. I turn back to Father with curious relief.
“This is not just a bungled burglary; someone is trying to give us something.”

A rustle emanates from the bathroom. Yes, what about the bathroom? En route, a hubbub in the living room attracts my eyes. An auditorium of chairs is arranged and an audience of strangers files in. All actors or strays off the street I’m sure. Two-dimensional figures.

The bathroom no longer has a ceiling. Murky figures scrabble in the rafters, pulling cables and curious twinkling electronicary into the gloom. All part of the deception, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ machinery. I manage momentary eye-contact with one goblin who acknowledges a shared conspiracy: we all know it; the veil is pretty tattered. We’re playing along just for… What?

With a jolt I realise that was merely a diversion. There are still people scurrying past the windows. I must investigate that as well, in due course. The living room is the key: the audience has swelled considerably, probably due to the gargantuan gluttony of pink-iced buns heaped upon a fairy table at one side. Father enquires after the flavour, slavering over the promise of cinnamon or vanilla.
I reply firmly, “pink,” declining to be drawn into complicity in this sideshow. But he is lost to my cause, weaving hypoglycaemically toward the bait.

Enough. I go to the phone on the kitchen wall. No longer on the kitchen wall. Still present, surprisingly, but no longer attached to anything. I bet I know where the cable is now: trailed along the loft for some mischievous purpose. Perhaps I can use my ultra-new mobile phone, assuming it has phone functions, if I can work them out. But it will be monitored by whoever gave me it, won’t it? Who did put it in my pocket? Have I been violated?!

…continues at part 2

01/07/2018

Egg Timer

Two colleagues share ‘corporate intelligence’ about some less than intelligent IT events

JIM: That’s the egg timer woman.
KEN: The one that crashed the whole IT system?
JIM: Aye——no.
KEN: What do you mean?
JIM: What she actually did, well, I’ll need to start at the beginning. First thing she did was get the helpdesk lassie fired.
KEN: I never heard about that.
JIM: No, well, basically the helpdesk lassie was taking the pish. She was constantly complaining about her workload and how she couldn’t get anything done for this constant stream of emails.
KEN: Wasn’t that her job?
JIM: Aye, but nobody really looked closely to see what she was actually doing. Ken what Usman’s like: doesnae like to get too close to the keys. Obviously she was meant to be answering folk’s queries about, I don’t know, how do you copy and paste, where’s my file I was working on yesterday, type thing. Pissy stuff. Anyway, she takes a sickie for all the ‘stress’, and this woman, who’s some sort of auditor I think, says to Usman, since he’s like the helpdesk manager, she’ll take the opportunity to review it.
KEN: Right, got landed with the job.
JIM: No’ exactly. Apparently, in the course of one day, she deletes 2400 emails that’ve been sat in the inbox for more than six months – this is no’ the techy stuff, mind, just the stuff where the problem’s between the keyboard and the seat.
KEN: Very good.
JIM: Same time she’s running reports on the lassie’s online activity, ken: all what she’s been daein’ on her computer the whole time.
KEN: How do you do that?
JIM: The IT folk can see that easy.
KEN: Shit. I didn’t know that.
JIM: Dinnae be daft: they’re no constantly peering at your computer, watching you spending your lunch hour looking up motors and transfers and pish. They’ve work to do. Just if a manager is concerned about someone’s productivity, like, they have a look. So, it turns out the lassie’s spending two and three hours a day playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds or suchlike, and also a fair bit of time on the phone to private numbers, ken. Basically blethering.
KEN: So that’s the end of her.
JIM: Aye, and the auditor totally overhauls the protocols. First thing folk notice is they start getting email replies fae the helpdesk dead quick. And most of them just say RTHF.
KEN: What?
JIM: “Read the help file. It’s much quicker.” Actually I’ve one on my phone here that Sandra forwarded: goes on “unless you just want to put off a task you don’t fancy. In that case copy this code into the command window – you can change the 27 to however many minutes you want – and you’ll get some peace.”
KEN: What’s the command window?
JIM: Doesnae matter; there’s instructions. Basically pulls an animated gif off the shared drive and runs it over a black screen for as long as you’ve set.
KEN: So nothing’s crashed?
JIM: No, just looks like it’s hung.
KEN: Egg timer! Cunning.
JIM: Dinnae get any ideas! You ken what happens.
KEN: Oh, yeh.
JIM: Aye. Nobody should take that gimmick seriously, right? No’ gettin’ away wi’ that in the workplace. No. Within three days five folk in Strategy have the thing running hours so they can take a long lunch. No’ one of them thought to wonder if anyone else was doing it. They just trot aff.
KEN: Does no-one notice?
JIM: That’s the point. Takes the Strategy Director two mere days to get suspicious why all her staff are no’ working and it’s all getting blamed on the IT. She calls Usman; he says there’s nae problems. She hauls him up to the office, shows him the egg timers; he hits F5, screen back to normal, emails, everything sat there, no problem. Well, except they’ve broken the security, haven’t they, by no’ locking their computers when they’re away. Strike one.
KEN: So the twits come back from lunch and see they’re rumbled?
JIM: Aye. They blame it on the helpdesk.
KEN: All this over five folk in Strategy?
JIM: No, see everyone was at it.
KEN: Seriously? Are they all stupid?
JIM: Seemingly. Everyone of them thought they were special. So, Auditor woman gets summoned. Now, seemingly, according to Sandra again, ’cause she was in the Strategy meeting, Auditor woman comes right in wi’ this attitude, like she’s no’ taking any shit. Director’s hackles are up right away. Usman’s just sort of watching fae the corner, see what happens wi’ two alpha females. The director’s had Sandra put the bloody email up on the wall so they can point at it. She launches into demanding explanations. Auditor woman just laughs and says “how’s this my problem?” She draws a circle round the bit about ‘putting off a task you don’t fancy’ and says “this is the problem; this is _your_ problem. Depending on your management style, you either have a motivation problem or a discipline problem. Sort it.”
KEN: Strike two?
JIM: Aye.
KEN: What’s strike three?
JIM: What’re we daein’ here?
KEN: I don’t know; waiting for some announcement?
JIM: Aye, announcing we’re all taking some assessments.
KEN: For what?
JIM: How are we employing folk wi’ nae IT savvy? Folk that are asking these daft questions in the first place. Like she says, either they’re incompetent or they’re taking the piss. How are the managers no’ managing?
KEN: Right.
JIM: What’re you daein’?
KEN: Typing an email. Helpdesk.
JIM: Are you tryin’ tae get struck aff?!
KEN: I want to speak to this woman.
JIM: What’re you typin’?
KEN: “My egg timer’s broken.”

27/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 3

begins at Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

As Fossoway Flora, the fragile frond, recovers equilibrium, Tantalum the nixie summarises their position in discussing pacifist extremism.
“Whether or not we can hear plants cry in pain, they react to harm. They experience something unpleasant. We shouldn’t need to hear a scream to tell us harm is not good.”

Tin is agitated. The nixie equivalent of a nerve has been nipped. He emits a rapid series of encyclopaedic squeaks.
“Plants are way more sensitive than to just pain. Pine and elm trees can identify which species of insect is chewing them from the insect’s saliva. They then release an appropriate deterrent chemical to the area under attack, or a specific airborne pheromone to attract the insect’s predators.* How clever is that? What else can we conclude but that plants have a sense of taste?”
Tantalum adds: “Just because we don’t know about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Tin squeaks on.
“The roots of tree and grain seedlings crackle at a frequency of 220Hz.”
Tungsten belligerently interrupts: “Could be just the sound of ’em growing or shifting about.”
Tin is delighted to respond.
“Indeed, or from their cell walls losing turgor with dehydration. However, the interesting observation is that seedling roots not only make a noise but they also respond to that frequency: they orient their tips in that direction.*”
Tungsten is still translating the technical terms. Tantalum is impressed. Tin squeaks on to a conclusion.
“Except cultivated plants: for example farmed grains are quite quiet*. Humans seem to have bred all the sense out of them, all their community communication and resilience.”
Flora feels faint.

Tungsten feels obliged to leaven the hysteria.
“So at some level they taste and hear. Next you’ll say they can see.”
Tin pipes back with a sneer.
“What is seeing but responding to light?”
Tungsten feels an invisible net is closing.
“And they do that?”
“Phototropism? And you may have heard of photosynthesis.”
“Ar, very clever.”

Tantalum detects Flora’s energy waning, despite the passionate debate, and attempts a summary.
“Usual human folly, then: just because you can doesn’t mean you should…in this case: impose yourselves on other lives.”
Tungsten wades back in with a late surge.
“Bacteria and other microbes are constantly being expunged from yer body, billions per second probably. Is that acceptable since your survival depends on it? Since you can’t see them? Is killing anything to survive acceptable?”
Flora’s twiggy mindlette explodes in a coruscation of anguish and anxiety. She becomes as limp as a twig can, probably in severe drought. Tin wavers nauseously. Sensitive souls.

Tantalum re-establishes pragmatism.
“Not every single seed gets to grow into an adult plant. There isn’t sufficient resource on the planet. ‘Nature is profligate,’ as Umbel says.”
Flora faintly tries to insert “although humans seems to have forgotten…” but Tungsten’s still surging.
“Yer right. Assuming the number of trees stays roughly the same, and, naturally, a tree lives for hundreds of years, and produces millions of seeds during that time, the chance of any one seed making it to reproductive adulthood is literally millions to one.”
Flora sighs in uneasy relief.

But Tungsten likes playing devil’s advocate.
“Of course that same profligate strategy only evolved because of the numerous hazards to be navigated. You can argue it any way you want.”
Flora sways. “Oh, please don’t.”
“I’m just saying, like, for humans, animal protein is easier to digest than plant protein. From that you could argue that human protein is the most easily digested so you should eat one another. Yer moral threshold is arbitrary.”

Flora is surprised to glimpse familiar territory – her starting point circles back toward her. At least they’re not hopelessly lost in a dark, thorny underbrush of debate. Not quite.

“Should we strive to evolve to a physiology where we can absorb all the basic nutrients we need from minerals—if we still consider those to be inanimate—and from them construct every chemical compound that we need?”
“Like us, ya mean?”
“Is that how you do it? Oh, brilliant!”
“Sun, sea, soil and, er, stratosphere?” Tantalum beams self-congratulation. Tungsten grimaces, the verbal initiative having been snatched while he was self-indulgently circumloquacialising around his argument. Best to plough on, push the rollercoaster right to its vertiginous finale.
“The fact that you have evolved to this point through the efforts of others is not in itself justification for continuing. Human evolution has not reached an endpoint. Yer not perfect; yer work in progress.”
Flora agrees with a faint flutter of leaf, despite a haze of impending doom.
“Our ‘success’ is predicated upon killing which is neither ideal nor sustainable. Certainly we have a way to go yet. Why not aspire to exist by absorbing pure energy?”

Tin has a final word.
“When universal aliens make themselves known on earth, will humans respond by assuming their usual superiority complex, regardless of the dazzling astrophysical evidence to the contrary?”
Flora despairs of her native species.
“I’m not so sure I want to be human again.”
“With all your trans-species experience?”
Tungsten can’t resist one last barb.
“Crying out for a superiority complex!”
“Not helpful, Tungsten. I was thinking you’d be uniquely placed to spread a little much needed empathy.”
Flora sighs.
“It’s academic anyway. Can’t even get back to the tree until Umbel resurfaces.”
Tantalum exclaims: “Why did you not say that was what you were after?”
Tungsten’s contributions remain brusque.
“Piece o’ piss.”
Tantalum continues solicitously.
“How close do you need to be to re-thingummy with the full tree?”
“Oh, you see, I think I’ve had enough of the tree, for now at least. I was hoping to extricate myself and resume human status.”
“Sure?”
“Is that an option?”
“As you may have noticed, we’re kinda in the business of evolutionary progression.”
Tin pipes up “You could be like us: Pacifist Extremists!”

As Flora digests this too perfect offer, a trumpet of a fart rips through the bunker.
Tantalum quips: “Action stations, chaps.”

Tin skitters along the bench to the wall. Between two wooden struts, he presses his tiny hand into a crack. There follows a thrilling clattering and clunking of cogs and cranks. An irregular door springs open revealing… nothing: a dark hole lined with vertical wood grain that fades to black as it recedes. Flora is fearfully fascinated by this hellish enslavement of her tree ancestors.

“What’s in there?”
Tantalum beams.
“The wood between walls.”
“Is that some dreadful parody of Narnia?”
“You’d rather ‘stick’ it out here in the trench with Mister Mustard Gas?”
A disappearing Tungsten adds: “who, by the way, can’t transmogrify a ginger biscuit without total digestive collapse.”

Tin and Tantalum don’t wait for the warm, toxic gust that inevitably follows the fanfare. They pitch Flora through the hatch by—or possibly to—her sticky end.

A few minutes later, as the fug clears, a heaving and a creaking brings forth Umbel.
“What-ho, chaps. A little inner work clearly required there. Fascinating.”
Here ‘inner work’ means a restorative doze; however, clothing remains decorated by crumbs and cocoa, and hair has been restyled by screwing against a heat-retentive pillow.
“Ah. Popped out for a spot of fresh air, I see.”

THE END

*Tree sense facts from Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate.

20/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 2

follows Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

“One for all, all for one!” This squeaky trio preludes three tiny leaps from the tin on to the bench, accompanied by aggressive shaking of tiny fists. Fossoway Flora, or twig thereof, is baffled.
“How can you win if it’s four-all?” Another bafflement arises. “What are you?”
“Nixies. What are you?”
“Oh, yes, I forgot; Fossoway Flora – got myself involved with a dear old beech tree. Lightning strike type thing.”
“Pretty small tree.”
“Ahaha. I’m travelling light. Flying, baggage allowance – you know.” Flora’s stoicism wavers.
“Not even slightly. Anyway, I’m Tantalum, and this is Tungsten and Tin.”

Flora acknowledges graciously, as best she can by a slight bend of stalk, and raises an invisible eyebrow to Umbel’s careless approximations. A staggering insight smacks her.
“You were in a tin!”
Tantalum sighs.
“Misappropriation of proprietary label. It’s actually an alloy.”
Flora catches Tin smirking.

Tungsten moves the discussion on before it becomes irretrievably bogged down in wordplay.
“What’s yer conflict?”
“Where to draw the line.”
“Always tricky. ‘specially when yer basically a line yerself.”

Tungsten performs a triumphant miniature jig at this wit. He aborts this on realising that he too has succumbed to wordwankery. Flora decides not to engage in an escalating series of barbs until she has ascertained if these ‘conflict demonerals’ can help her. But please let’s move on.

“That’s quite good. Well done.” Flora commences formal proceedings. “My question is: how do you eat without killing? How do you live without killing?”

Tin develops a beatific grin but remains silent. Tantalum raises his arm to claim an imaginary conversational baton.
“Ideologically?”
“Yes, I suppose. Is it possible? What is… Beyond Veganism? I mean, vegetarianism is not killing animals; veganism is not using—some would say abusing—animals at all; but each threshold is arbitrary. What’s the ultimate level? – total harmlessness.”
Tungsten beckons to Tin.
“Yer up, Tincyclopedia.”
Tin frowns but recites with ease and squeaks.

“Ahimsa, you mentioned?”
Flora casts her mind back to that pearl cast before Umbel cast his crumbs. Not really surprising that the wee nixies overheard that conversation, as they sat poised in their resona-tin. She twitches a leaf encouragingly. Tin resumes.
“Then it’s fruitarianism for you. Fruit, nuts, seeds, any reproductive part—zygote—that the plant produces and detaches for dispersal in order to propagate itself. Fruit in particular evolved to be attractive to animals as food for the very purpose of entering a trading partnership: the animal gets sustenance, the plant gets propagated with a handy dollop of fertiliser.”
“Oh, good. Can you live on those?”
Tantalum is horrified.
“We’re mineral sprites!”
“Oh, gosh, no, sorry. I mean: can I?”
Tungsten can’t help himself.
“Yer a tree.”
“Damn it.”

“Stop provoking the lass, Tungsten. Flossie, we’ll come back to transmogrification, so don’t fret. Follow the line!”
Flora appreciates Tantalum’s benevolence and pragmatism – sentiments always lacking from interactions with Umbel. Incidentally, that would-be puppeteer of this unlikely conversation remains off-screen, in a post-prandial stupor, emitting nonsensical murmurs. Flora succumbs to a rush of questions.

“How far can you take harvesting? Is it permissible to take some of a plant’s tubers if the plant can survive? That’s still a harm. I’ve felt it! Sodding Tiahmin, snapping my bits off. Is it acceptable if the plant is an annual and would die anyway after producing its offspring? Provided you leave some—how much? And isn’t that just sustainable horticulture?—for the next year? If you let a plant go to seed and collect that seed, is it then acceptable to eat its root, stem, leaves, or any or all of the rest of the plant? Are leaves permissible? A plant will likely survive the loss of a few leaves, but, again, that’s still harm – there’s still an injury and a detriment to potential…” Flora’s twiggy stomata gulp fishlike.

Tungsten peers at the gasping twig.
“Is it oxygen yer needing, or carbon dioxide? Nitrogen?”
Tin, more pragmatically, thrusts a rubber tube at her. He notes her increased alarm.
“Not from the swamp! Piped by fungal mycelia from—”
Flora clamps a vesicle around the tube and draws in fungal gas. More pleasant than it sounds. If yer a tree.

To be continued…

13/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

Fossoway Flora quickly became tired of life at tree pace—or, more tactfully, she’d learned what she needed and it was time to move on. Prince Tiahmin was adorable, but also became tiresome every time his baddies threatometer lurched and he reached for a stick. Repeatedly she had to remind him that sticks had an original purpose before they became handy weapons. He was leaving her disfigured.

Such irritations all come to the same thing: Flora has learned the various ways we live and let live or let die. That old tree is a canny beech. The way it manipulates everything that enters its space, deciding who to encourage, who to repel. She feels the urge to visit Uncle Umbel. This could be problematic, given that her genome has merged with Fagus sylvaticus fossowaii, and currently exists in a firmly rooted way. However, she reasons, every cell carries the complete genome and her uncle is an open-minded sort.

Uncle Umbel has an allotment that appears to have been trampled by a navigationally-challenged herd of migrating aurochs, pulverised by glacial moraine, and finally kept at perfect conditions for putrefaction by the lukewarm outflow from a more-alcohol-less-taste whisky distiller. An extremely quaggy mire.

“Umbel? Umbel? I’m quite bored and if you don’t show yourself I’ll plant something with flowers on!” …calls a thrawn twig, swirling across the mire.

A three foot diameter octagon of mud opens via eight triangular petals, carefully draining slime outward, and reveals a spartan subterranean bunker. The clipped voice of one who aspires to have served in the RAF c.1940 dots and dashes forth.

“Wotcha. Get a move on, girl. Hatches to rebatten T minus three!”

The twig daintily pivots into position to surf a gust-stream and thereby dives between the gnashing metal petals.

“Cocoa?”
“Er, not really practical, thanks.”
“No. Hah! You’d get sticky! Hah! Sticky!”

Fortunately, a twig is also excused from having to disguise disrespectful facial expressions. Flora grabs for the conversational initiative to avert any further grocerial puns.

“Ahimsa, Umbel.”
“Gesundheit!”
“What is your understanding of it?”
“Your what-what?”
“Sanskrit: harmlessness. As in: toward self and other living beings.”

Flora gulps in horror at the contagious nature of the abbreviated style. She reassures herself that she is merely applying ‘mirroring’; a clever technique of neuro-linguistic programming. And she’s doing it unconsciously so she must be good. Still, she hopes producing puns won’t be necessary.

Umbel blinks repeatedly as distant, neglected circuitry is recommissioned. His amphibiously protruding eyes swivel and his ears twitch back an inch, stretching his forehead. On grocerial subjects you can get an interaction in real time, but anything even vaguely philosophical requires Umbel to shut down and dedicate all cognitive resources to the matter. His head lolls, lip slackens and cocoa teeters precariously on his chest.

Flora patiently scrutinises the bunker’s interior: piles and piles of dust-besmothered…shapes. She really can’t identify any of it, apart from the odd protrusion of wire or single sheet of paper, revealed only by apparent overwhelm, tilt and subsequent dustalanche.

A fragile connection sparks. Umbel’s cocoa hand twitches. Cocoa inevitably splashes on his shirt. Umbel powers back up.

“Ah. Just logged off pro tem, chaps. Buggeration.”

He blots himself with a towel placed at the ready for such regular eventualities, thereby scattering a portion of crumbs he carefully collected earlier.

“Clean on today, of course. Irretrievable. I shall have to disrobe forthwith.”
Umbel chuckles and lurches into unsteady motion. Flora’s patience was never good during pantomime. “Ahimsa?”
“No. Not a flicker.”
“Nothing?”
“Refer to the Conflict Chaps.”
“Who are..?”
“Thomson, Tim, and… and… Tarantula. You get the idea. Cheerio, folks.”

Flora is nowhere close to getting it, and rather thankful for the implied shreds of sanity. There are some peripheral gene puddles she’s keen not to paddle in. With Umbel retiring for a post-cogitatory nap—’cocoa’ is merely a vehicle for a substantial sugar and cream component—Flora is unattended in the elves’ factory. The fact of being trapped holds little concern as yet. Her leaf stalk flits investigatively along the bench, enticed by a curiously shuddering tin. A little probing releases a lid to reveal three blinking figures, of similar stature to herself in her current twig incarnation.

To be continued…

01/08/2017

Cold Call: Day 19

The last in a series of telephone conversations where truth comes away in layers – begins at Cold Call: Day 1

SOUND: PHONE RINGS, REPEAT, REPEAT
LACRIMOSA: You know I know how to escalate nuisance calls.
SìMON: (D) I wasnae a nuisance till you found out I wasnae a total stranger. That’s no’ even rational.
LACRIMOSA: You were a nuisance, even when you were funny.
SìMON: The end justifies the means. Just like it did for you.
LACRIMOSA: You kept calling me! I was lying in self-defence!
SìMON: You could’ve hung up. You did, even.
LACRIMOSA: And yet here we still are! You’ve created this whole idea of me in your head that’s not real!
SìMON: Aye, no’ like you’ve any experience of making up fantasies.
LACRIMOSA: Why did you call me?
SìMON: It really was because of the whale thing.
LACRIMOSA: No, I mean why did you call me after I left Dalry’s? – if you weren’t after a job.
SìMON: (PAUSE) I like speaking to you. You speak about interesting stuff, no’ boring shit like soap operas and celebrity gossip. You’re funny. Why did you no’ call me?
LACRIMOSA: You scared me. I don’t know why. Probably my subconscious alarms bells going off: here’s a guy that thinks you’re someone else!
SìMON: You cannae imagine someone just liking speaking to you? OK, listen: I’m sorry for the way the conversation went yesterday – and this conversation seems to be going.
LACRIMOSA: It’s not your fault I’m like this: shit-abled.
SìMON: What I was gonnae say was: it turns out it doesnae matter.
LACRIMOSA: It really does.
SìMON: No’ to me.
LACRIMOSA: You have no id—
SOUND: DOORBELL
LACRIMOSA (CONT’D): How can there be someone at the door?! I used to live a peaceful life then I started getting these nuisance calls.
SìMON: And those were just the ones fae me.
LACRIMOSA: They were all from—
SOUND: DOORBELL
SìMON: You should answer it. Could be important.
LACRIMOSA: No, it won’t be; it’ll be some chancer with a flat-bed wanting to mess up my path or mutilate my trees or ruin the roof or something.
SìMON: Could be Gordon, checking on you.
LACRIMOSA: He just walks in.
SìMON: Still, you should maybe just check.
LACRIMOSA: OK, but it might take me a while.
SìMON: I’ll wait.
LACRIMOSA: No, hang up! I don’t care. I want my life back.
SOUND: DOOR OPENS
LACRIMOSA: (OFF) But you’re on the phone!
SìMON: (OFF) I ken you willnae have much experience of these devices, since you’re no’ ‘mobile’, but—
LACRIMOSA: (OFF) Are those your aunty’s dead daffodils?

ENDS

31/07/2017

Cold Call: Day 18

A series of telephone conversations where truth comes away in layers – begins at Cold Call: Day 1 and ends at Day 19

SOUND: PHONE RINGS, REPEAT, REPEAT
LACRIMOSA: Why did you suddenly decide to call me?
SìMON: (D) I always call about this time.
LACRIMOSA: The first time.
SìMON: Just a spur of the moment thing—well, a spur of twenty hours thing.
LACRIMOSA: Meaning?
SìMON: I was on a boat, aff the coast of Iceland—place called Olafsvik – brilliant, by the way—so I was watching for whales, and that conversation we had – what was it—four, five years ago?
LACRIMOSA: This whole obsession is over a conversation five years ago that I don’t even remember?
SìMON: Aye, you do.
LACRIMOSA: Reading my mind now?
SìMON: You told me the beached whale story then, too.
LACRIMOSA: Norway?
SìMON: No, the rotting carcass.
LACRIMOSA: OK, because Norway was after…
SìMON: Alright? So, anyway, it came into my mind and I wondered if you’d ever been there—Iceland—and seen a live whale. Like, how it’d be weird if you’d been in the same boat or at the same exact point in the ocean. After a while I thought, why am I tantalising myself with ‘what ifs’ and pish? Why don’t I just ask you? Maybe you’d want to come with me somewhere. Maybe see a non-beached whale.
LACRIMOSA: So you just lifted the phone.
SìMON: After the twenty hours on boats, buses, ferries getting back.
LACRIMOSA: You weren’t planning to come back?
SìMON: No’ at that point. I just suddenly felt like, what am I doing here myself?
LACRIMOSA: When you could be making nuisance calls to someone who it turns out can’t go anywhere.
SìMON: No, it—

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