Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

[Read more…]

Bourbon Crossing

Late one night, wandering drunk through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, far from the cell towers and bright lights of Gatlinburg, Karim al-Marin tripped over a root, flailed his arms wildly, and sat down hard.

“Ouch,” the famous qalandar of the Muir tariqat muttered to himself.

It was dark. The sort of intense forest darkness that the unaided drunken eye cannot easily penetrate. Fortunately, Karim had enough juice left in his phone to turn on the flashlight.

He saw at once that though he was still on the trail, it had narrowed sharply at that point. He was deep inside the woods. All around him were trees, the creepily lush, full-of-life kind from horror movies. His ankle was caught in a tangle of hard, crooked roots poking out of the ground. The roots had spread across the trail, forming a sort of low, woody wall across it. As he began to carefully extricate his foot, aided by some minor sawing with his handy Leatherman, a stern grandmotherly voice rang out.

“Ouch!” it said theatrically, but with real anger.

Karim stopped his sawing and looked around warily. To his surprise, the root he’d been sawing at uncurled, slowly and with apparent pain and effort, releasing his foot. He withdrew it at once, and stood up.

[Read more…]

The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible

A short story.

The city was content in the deepening twilight, as the Sun set with the air of a job well done. Wrought iron street lamps flickered to life and small birds twittered in the bushes on the gentle hillside sloping down towards the water. From the patio of the Em Cafe, two thin and earnest young men looked out across the bay, nursing their cold brews with an air of reluctant contentment.

“Would it be bourgie to say ‘this is perfect’?” asked the ginger-infused cold brew.

Classic cold brew pondered the question gravely for a moment, and opened his mouth to respond, only to shut it again as a homeless black woman shuffled into view, pushing a shopping cart, and muttering something under her breath in a disturbed undertone.

Ginger cold-brew shuffled uncomfortably, “Well, you know what I mean. The bay view, the weather, the coffee. Not, you know, life.”

[Read more…]

Berliners #6: Purgatorinomics

berliners6

Click here for the Berliners Archives

The Berliners #1

berliners1

Introducing The Berliners, an experimental ribbonfarm comic strip inspired by (but not limited to) Isaiah Berlin’s Fox and Hedgehog. Drawn by Grace, written by Venkat. Please bear with us while we both learn the craft.

The Art of Gig III

And now for the thrilling finale. Read Parts I and II first. 

I exited the AspireKat building at a slight trot. Time was of the essence. Anscombe was scurrying to keep up with me, trying to type with one hand on his open laptop, balanced on the arm of his Starbucks-mug hand.

“Figure out Donna’s home address and get us an Uber. I am going to have Guanxi open up a line.”

He reluctantly folded his laptop under his arm, pulled out his phone and fiddled briefly with it. “Okay. ETA three minutes for the Uber. Looks like Donna lives about twenty minutes away.”

“Good.”

“So why are we going to see her? Why would she know about the acquisition bid?”

“Hold on. I’m texting Guanxi here.”

Unlike young digital natives, I can’t text and talk at the same time.

Things under control?

All good. Bainies getting set up for the initial goat sacrifice.

Khan?

Trying to get to Saul, but the Bainies have him.

We need a live feed.

On it. Periscope.

I pulled up Periscope on my phone. It looked like Guanxi had managed to position his phone strategically by the window ledge near the display. Almost the entire room was visible in a fishbowl view. At the far end, Saul was standing regally, in a gown the Bainies had put on him. Three Bainies were doing a slow, ritual snake dance in a circle around him, waving incense sticks and chanting.

Guanxi wandered briefly into view and nodded imperceptibly at the camera before wandering out if view again. I handed my phone to Anscombe.

“Could you monitor that? I get a headache if I stare at a screen while moving.”

Anscombe promptly forgot about the question he’d asked. His gaze latched onto my screen.

“Firehose time. I’m going to have to reconfigure my setup a bit to handle this.”

Handing your phone to anyone born after 1985 is an incredible gesture of trust. So in consulting, it is increasingly important to maintain your phone in a state of plausible shareability to form alliances. It’s also a good way to keep digital natives busy so you can think.

And I needed to think about an important question: what did Donna know?

[Read more…]

The Art of Gig II

Read Part I first.

I shut the door of the conference room gently behind us. We could still hear Khan and Isabella out in the reception area, but their voices were now muted. Saul seemed to be in some sort of philosophical reverie as he made his way to his chair. Guanxi looked at me with narrowed eyes and nodded significantly. I narrowed my eyes as well, and nodded significantly in turn. A look of mutual understanding passed between us.

It’s a consultant thing. We call it the Significant Look Protocol.

Scientists have tried to figure out precisely what information is exchanged and  during these narrowed-eye-nod exchanges, and have come up with nothing. What is known though, is that about 1% of the time, a Significant Look results in a subtle, but unmistakable situational change known as Going Meta. Nobody knows what that is either, but it is a documented fact that when things Go Meta, cartels form and billables increase by a factor of 10.

This means a great many Significant Looks are exchanged at management conferences, but most lead to nothing. Some lead to sexual harrassment lawsuits.

This was one of those 1% of times. We had just gone meta. We both knew it, and knew the other did too.

[Read more…]

The Art of Gig

I don’t talk about my consulting gigs much on this blog, since there is surprisingly little overlap between my money-making work and my writing. But many people seem to be very curious about precisely what sort of consulting I do, and how that side of ribbonfarm operates. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain without talking about actual cases, and I can’t share details of most engagements due to confidentiality constraints. But fortunately, one of my recent clients agreed to let me write up minimally pseudonymized account of a brief gig I did with them a while back.  So here goes.

It all began when my phone rang at 1 AM on a Tuesday morning a few months ago. The caller launched right into it the moment I answered.

“Oh thank God! Donna has the ‘flu…I tried calling Guanxi Gao, but I can’t reach him. I left a message but… omigod, we’re going to run out of inventory by Friday, what are we going to do?”

If you aren’t used to the consulting world, this is how most engagements begin: you’re dropped into a panicked conversation in the middle of a crisis that has already been unfolding for sometime.

Luckily, I was not yet in bed, but doing some routine Open Twitter Operations from the Ribbonfarm Consulting Command Center.

I hit the red alert button on my desk, which turned off all but one of the 16 flat-panel displays that line one wall of the darkened main room of the RCCC. The one that stayed on showed a blank 2×2 grid with a flashing lemon-yellow border. The speakers switched from Mongolian throat singing to a steady pip…pip…pip. 

16panel

Many consultants today use more complicated first-responder protocols, but I am old-fashioned. One clean vertical stroke, one clean horizontal stroke, at most 10 quick labels, and you’ve got your Situation all Awared-Up in the top right. 75% complexity reduction in minutes.

Ten seconds into the call, and I was already set up to Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. This is the sort of agility my clients have come to expect from me.

[Read more…]

Seoul Station

More fiction. Because I can. And because it’s August and all of you are probably off vacationing anyway.

If you think it’s unsettling to suddenly find yourself in a strange place, with no idea how you got there, try doing it with no idea where you came from. With no sense of there having even been a before.

I don’t mean waking up groggily in an unfamiliar place after an evening of drinking. Or waking up after having been administered ether. I know those sensations.

I mean suddenly having no answer to the question, what is the last thing you remember?  Because suddenly being, fully formed, is the first thing you remember.

And for good measure, try arriving, as I did, to find yourself suspended in mid-air, and falling.

[Read more…]

The Heirloom Lounge

A short story. A sci-fi short story. A kitchen-sink sci-fi short story. You’ve been warned.

The flight had been delayed for another hour and my glasses had just been bricked by yet another update. Plus the rim was cracked from when I’d sat on it earlier. There was a printing and service station at the other end of the terminal, but I didn’t feel like leaving the lounge and weaving through the crowds of uncannies to get it fixed, just so I could read. So I sipped the free coffee, fiddled with the glasses, and looked around idly.

The SeaTac heirloom lounge had been renovated since my last trip. There was now fake wood paneling. The snack selection was more varied, but cheaper. No more fresh fruit. Worst of all, sections of the opaque corridor-side walls had been replaced with floor-to-ceiling etched glass sections. You could see passersby peering in through the gaps in the etching.

Well, I had nothing to hide, let them watch. At least I didn’t have to see bits and pieces of the uncannies if I sat facing the back wall.

The older man across from me was pretending to read a magazine, but he seemed bored and annoyed by the delay too. We were the only ones in the heirloom lounge. He tossed his magazine aside.  I glanced surreptitiously at it. Real paper. Letterpress. What looked like hand-stitched binding. Nice.

He looked me over with a benign, patrician air.  Sixty or seventy, I guessed. Not much anon there.

His eyes rested for a moment on my hat, making me wish I’d worn my other hat. The one not emblazoned with the chain logo, and without transcranial leads showing under the fraying band. But I needed to do some thinking on this flight, and the older hats still worked better than the cheap new ones.

He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he spoke.

[Read more…]