the seedy underbelly

This is fiction. Science will return shortly.

Cornelius Kipling doesn’t take No for an answer. He usually takes several of them–several No’s strung together in rapid sequence, each one louder and more adamant than the last one.

“No,” I told him over dinner at the Rhubarb Club one foggy evening. “No, no, no. I won’t bankroll your efforts to build a new warp drive.”

“But the last one almost worked,” Kip said pleadingly. “I almost had it down before the hull gave way.”

I conceded that it was a clever idea; everyone before Kip had always thought of warp drives as something you put on spaceships. Kip decided to break the mold by placing one on a hydrofoil. Which, naturally, made the boat too heavy to rise above the surface of the water. In fact, it made the boat too heavy to do anything but sink.

“Admittedly, the sinking thing is a small problem,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “But I’m working on a way to adjust for the extra weight and get it to rise clear out of the water.”

“Good,” I said. “Because lifting the boat out of the water seems like a pretty important step on the road to getting it to travel through space at light speed.”

“Actually, it’s the only remaining technical hurdle,” said Kip. “Once it’s out of the water, everything’s already taken care of. I’ve got onboard fission reactors for power, and a tentative deal to use the International Space Station for supplies. Virgin Galactic is ready to license the technology as soon as we pull off a successful trial run. And there’s an arrangement with James Cameron’s new asteroid mining company to supply us with fuel as we boldly go where… well, you know.”

“Right,” I said, punching my spoon into my crème brûlée in frustration. The crème brûlée retaliated by splattering itself all over my face and jacket.

“See, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to you if you invested in my company,” Kip helpfully suggested as he passed me an extra napkin. “You’d have so much money other people would feed you. People with ten or fifteen years of experience wielding dessert spoons.”

After dinner we headed downtown. Kip said there was a new bar called Zygote he wanted to show me.

“Actually, it’s not a new bar per se,” he explained as we were leaving the Rhubarb. “It’s new to me. Turns out it’s been here for several years, but you have to know someone to get in. And that someone has to be willing to sponsor you. They review your biography, look up your criminal record, make sure you’re the kind of person they want at the bar, and so on.”

“Sounds like an arranged marriage.”

“You’re not too far off. When you’re first accepted as a member, you’re supposed to give Zygote a dowry of $2,000.”

“That’s a joke, right?” I asked.

“Yes. There’s no dowry. Just the fee.”

“Two thousand dollars? Really?”

“Well, more like fifty a year. But same principle.”

We walked down the mall in silence. I could feel the insoles of my shoes wrapping themselves around my feet, and I knew they were desperately warning me to get away from Kip while I still had a limited amount of sobriety and dignity left.

“How would anyone manage to keep a place like that secret?” I asked. “Especially on the mall.”

“They hire hit men,” Kip said solemnly.

I suspected he was joking, but couldn’t swear to it. I mean, if you didn’t know Kip, you would probably have thought that the idea of putting a warp drive on a hydrofoil was also a big joke.

Kip led us into one of the alleys off Pearl Street, where he quickly located an unobtrusive metal panel set into the wall just below eye level. The panel opened inwards when we pushed it. Behind the panel, we found a faint smell of old candles and a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs–which turned out to run three stories down–we came to another door. This one didn’t open when we pushed it. Instead, Kip knocked on it three times. Then twice more. Then four times.

“Secret code?” I asked.

“No. Obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

The door swung open.

“Evening, Ashraf,” Kip said to the doorman as we stepped through. Ashraf was a tiny Middle Eastern man, very well dressed. Suede pants, cashmere scarf, fedora on his head. Feather in the fedora. The works. I guess when your bar is located behind a false wall three stories below grade, you don’t really need a lot of muscle to keep the peasants out; you knock them out with panache.

“Welcome to Zygote,” Ashraf said. His bland tone made it clear that, truthfully, he wasn’t at all interested in welcoming anyone anywhere. Which made him exactly the kind of person an establishment like this would want as its doorman.

Inside, the bar was mostly empty. There were twelve or fifteen patrons scattered across various booths and animal-print couches. They all took great care not to make eye contact with us as we entered.

“I have to confess,” I whispered to Kip as we made our way to the bar. “Until about three seconds ago, I didn’t really believe you that this place existed.”

“No worries,” he said. “Until about three seconds ago, it had no idea you existed either.”

He looked around.

“Actually, I’m still not sure it knows you exist,” he added apologetically.

“I feel like I’m giving everyone the flu just by standing here,” I told him.

We took a seat at the end of the bar and motioned to the bartender, who looked to be high on a designer drug chemically related to apathy. She eventually wandered over to us–but not before stopping to inspect the countertop, a stack of coasters with pictures of archaeological sites on them, a rack of brandy snifters, and the water running from the faucet.

“Two mojitos and a strawberry daiquiri,” Kip said when she finally got close enough to yell at.

“Who’s the strawberry daiquiri for,” I asked.

“Me. They’re all for me. Why, did you want a drink too?”

I did, so I ordered the special–a pink cocktail called a Flamingo. Each Flamingo came in a tall Flamingo-shaped glass that couldn’t stand up by itself, so you had to keep holding it until you finished it. Once you were done, you could lay the glass on its side on the counter and watch it leak its remaining pink guts out onto the tile. This act was, I gathered from Kip, a kind of rite of passage at Zygote.

“This is a very fancy place,” I said to no one in particular.

“You should have seen it before the gang fights,” the bartender said before walking back to the snifter rack. I had high hopes she would eventually get around to filling our order.

“Gang fights?”

“Yes,” Kip said. “Gang fights. Used to be big old gang fights in here every other week. They trashed the place several times.”

“It’s like there’s this whole seedy underbelly to Boulder that I never knew existed.”

“Oh, this is nothing. It goes much deeper than this. You haven’t seen the seedy underbelly of this place until you’ve tried to convince a bunch of old money hippies to finance your mass-produced elevator-sized vaporizer. You haven’t squinted into the sun or tasted the shadow of death on your shoulder until you’ve taken on the Bicycle Triads of North Boulder single-file in a dark alley. And you haven’t tried to scratch the dirt off your soul–unsuccessfully, mind you–until you’ve held all-night bargaining sessions with local black hat hacker groups to negotiate the purchase of mission-critical zero-day exploits.”

“Well, that may all be true,” I said. “But I don’t think you’ve done any of those things either.”

I should have known better than to question Kip’s credibility; he spent the next fifteen minutes reminding me of the many times he’d risked his life, liberty, and (nonexistent) fortune fighting to suppress the darkest forces in Northern Colorado in the service of the greater good of mankind.

After that, he launched into his standard routine of trying to get me to buy into the latest round of his inane startup ideas. He told me, in no particular order, about his plans to import, bottle and sell the finest grade Kazakh sand as a replacement for the substandard stuff currently found on American kindergarten sandlots; to run a “reverse tourism” operation that would fly in members of distant cultures to visit disabled would-be travelers in the comfort of their own living rooms (tentative slogan: if the customer can’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must come to the customer); and to create giant grappling hooks that could pull Australia closer to the West Coast so that Kip could speculate in airline stocks and make billions of dollars once shorter flights inevitably caused Los Angeles-Sydney routes to triple in passenger volume.

I freely confess that my recollection of the finer points of the various revenue enhancement plans Kip proposed that night is not the best. I was a little bit distracted by a woman at the far end of the bar who kept gesturing towards me the whole time Kip was talking. Actually, she wasn’t so much gesturing towards me as gently massaging her neck. But she only did it when I happened to look at her. At one point, she licked her index finger and rubbed it on her neck, giving me a pointed look.

After about forty-five minutes of this, I finally worked up the courage to interrupt Kip’s explanation of how and why the federal government could solve all of America’s economic problems overnight by convincing Balinese children to invest in discarded high school football uniforms.

“Look,” I told him, pointing down to the other side of the bar. “You see? This is why I don’t go to bars any more now that I’m married. Attractive women hit on me, and I hate to disappoint them.”

I raised my left hand and deliberately stroked my wedding band in full view.

The lady at the far end didn’t take the hint. Quite the opposite; she pushed back her bar stool and came over to us.

“Christ,” I whispered.

Kip smirked quietly.

“Hi,” said the woman. “I’m Suzanne.”

“Hi,” I said. “I’m flattered. And also married.”

“I see that. I also see that you have some food in your… neckbeard. It looks like whipped cream. At least I hope that’s what it is. I was trying to let you know from down there, so you could wipe it off without embarrassing yourself any further. But apparently you’d rather embarrass yourself.”

“It’s crème brûlée,” I mumbled.

“Weak,” said Suzanne, turning around. “Very weak.”

After she’d left, I wiped my neck on my sleeve and looked at Kip. He looked back at me with a big grin on his face.

“I don’t suppose the thought crossed your mind, at any point in the last hour, to tell me I had crème brûlée in my beard.”

“You mean your neckbeard?”

“Yes,” I sighed, making a mental note to shave more often. “That.”

“It certainly crossed my mind,” Kip said. “Actually, it crossed my mind several times. But each time it crossed, it just waved hello and kept right on going.”

“You know you’re an asshole, right?”

“Whatever you say, Captain Neckbeard.”

“Alright then,” I sighed. “Let’s get out of here. It’s past my curfew anyway. Do you remember where I left my car?”

“No need,” said Kip, putting on his jacket and clapping his hand to my shoulder. “My hydrofoil’s parked in the Spruce lot around the block. The new warp drive is in. Walk with me and I’ll give you a ride. As long as you don’t mind pushing for the first fifty yards.”

deconstructing the turducken

This is fiction. Which means it’s entirely made up, and definitely not at all based on any real people or events.


Cornelius Kipling came over to our house for Thanksgiving. I didn’t invite him; I would never, ever invite him. He was guaranteed to show up slightly drunk and very belligerent, carrying a two-thirds empty bottle of cheap wine, which he’d then hand to us as if it had arrived unopened from some fancy French cellar.

Cornelius Kiping was never invited; he invited himself.

“Good to see you,” he said to me when we let him in. “Thanks for inviting me over. It’s very kind of you, seeing as how my other plans fell through at the last minute.”

“Hi Kip,” I said, knowing full well he’d never had any other plans.

“Ella,” Kip nodded in my wife’s general direction, taking care not to make direct eye contact. He’d learned from extended experience that once he made eye contact with people, it became much harder to ignore social cues.

“Cornelius,” she said, through a mouth as thin as a zipper.

“Just Kip is fine,” said Kip.

“Cornelius,” my wife repeated, louder this time.

“What are we having for dinner,” Kip asked, handing me a two-thirds empty  bottle of Zinfandel.

“Well,” said Ella, “I was going to make a turducken. But now that you’re here, I figure I should make something special. So we’re having frozen chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes.”

“We spare no expense!” I added cheerfully.

“Funny you should mention turducken,” Kip said, ignoring our jabs. “My new business plan is based on the turducken.”

“Oh really,” I said. “Do pray tell.”

I wasn’t surprised Kip had a new business plan. If anything, I was surprised he’d managed to get as far as exchanging pleasantries before launching into a graphic description of his latest scheme.

“Well,” he said, “it’s not really based on the turducken. The turducken is more of an analogy. To illustrate what it is that my new startup does.”

“And what is it that your new startup does,” Ella’s mouth asked, though the rest of her face very clearly did not care to hear the answer.

“We miniaturize data,” Kip said. He waved his hands in the air with a flourish and looked at us expectantly. It made me think back to something my wife had said about Kip after the first time she ever met him: He thinks he’s a magician, and he acts like he’s a magician, but none of his tricks ever work.

“Prithee, do continue,” I said.

“We take big datasets,” he said. “Large datasets. Enormous datasets. Doesn’t matter what kind of data. You give it to us, and we miniaturize it. We give you back a much smaller dataset. And then you carry on your work with your wonderfully shrunken new spreadsheet, which keeps only the important trends and throws out all of the unnecessary details.”

“Interesting,” I nodded. On a scale of one-to-Kipsanity, this one was a solid five. “And the turducken figures into this how?”

“Weeeeeell, imagine someone hands you a turducken and asks you to figure out what’s in it,” said Kip. “I grant that this may not happen to you very often, but it happens all the time in KipLand. So, you know there’s a bunch of birds in there, all stuffed into each other’s–well, you know–but you don’t know which birds. All you see is this giant deep-fried bird collage, and you want to disassemble it into a set of discrete, identifiable fowls. Now, you hear a lot about how to construct a turducken. But if you think about it, deconstructing a turducken is a much more interesting engineering problem. And that’s what my new venture is all about. We take a complicated mass of data and pick out all the key elements that went into it. Deconstructing the turducken.”

He did the little flourish with his hands again. Again, Ella’s words rang out in my head. None of his tricks ever work.

“That’s quite possibly the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” I observed. “This whole turducken analogy isn’t working so well for me. I hope you haven’t put it in your promotional materials.”

Kip stared at me unpleasantly for a good ten or fifteen seconds.

“Actually, I take that back,” I said. “That conversation we had about the shinbones on Isaac Newton’s coat of arms that time I ran into you at the dry cleaner’s… that was an order of magnitude more ridiculous.”

Maybe it was a mean thing to say, but you have to understand: my friendship with Kip is built entirely on mutual abuse. And he who flinches first, loses.

“Whatever,” Kip said. He looked annoyed, which filled me with schadenfreude. It wasn’t often he got to experience the full range of emotions he routinely visited on others.

“I didn’t come here to talk about turducken,” he continued. “You brought up the turducken, not me. I just wanted to get your opinion on something…”

Again the hand flourish. Again the voice.

“I’m trying to figure out what to call my new startup,” he said. “Which do you like better: ‘Small data’ or ‘little data’? Neither has the ring of ‘big data‘, but I think both sound better than ‘Kipling Data Miniaturization Services’.”

“How about MiniData,” Ella offered. I noticed she was hitting the wine pretty hard, though we both knew it would do nothing to blunt the Kipling trauma.

“Or maybe NanoData,” I offered. “If you can make the data small enough. What level of compression are you aiming for?”

“Oh, sky’s the limit. Actually, that’s one of the unique features of my service. Most compression schemes have a fixed limit. Take a standard algorithm like bzip2. You compress text, you might get a file 10% of the size if you’re lucky. But binary data? You’ll be lucky if you shrink it by a factor of three. Now, with my NanoData compression service, you as the customer get to choose how much or how little you want. And you select the output format. You can hand me a terabyte of data and say, ‘Dr. Kipling, sir, I want you to distill this eight-dimensional MATLAB array down to a single Excel spreadsheet, no more than 10 rows by 10 columns.’ And that’s exactly what you’ll get.”

“And this miraculously distilled dataset that you give me… will it, by chance, have any passing resemblance to the original dataset I gave you?”

“Oh, sure, if you want it to,” said Kip. “But the fidelity service costs double.”

I resisted the overpowering urge to facepalm.

“Well, it’s certainly not the worst idea you’ve ever had,” I said diplomatically. “But I have to say, I’m amazed you keep launching new startups. A lesser man would have given up ten or twelve bankruptcies ago.”

“I guess I just have an uncanny sense for ideas ten years ahead of their time,” Kip smiled.

“Ten years ahead of anyone’s time,” Ella muttered.

“Right,” I said. “You’re a visionary. You have… the visions. Hey, what happened to that deli you were going to open? The one that was going to sell premium hay sandwiches? I thought that one was going to make it for sure.”

“Terrible shame. Turns out it’s very difficult to get sandwich-grade hay in Colorado. So, you know, it didn’t pan out. Very sad; I even had a name picked out: Hay Day Sandwiches. Get it?”

I didn’t really get it, but still nodded in mock sympathy.

“Anyway, since you brought up my new startup,” Kip said, oblivious to the death rays radiating towards him from Ella’s head, “let me take this opportunity to give the both of you the opportunity of your lifetime. I like you guys, so I’m going to cut you in as my very first angel investors. All I’m asking…”

And here he paused, looking at us. I knew what he was doing; he was trying to gauge our level of displeasure with him so he could pick a number that was sufficiently high, but not completely ridiculous.

“…is fifteen thousand,” he finished “You get 5% of equity, and I’ll even throw in some nice swag. I’m having mugs and frisbees printed up as we speak.”

Around this time, Ella put her head down on her arms; she may or may not have been softly sobbing, I couldn’t really tell.

“That’s quite an offer, Kip,” I said. “And I’m really glad you like me enough to make it. It’s not like I’ve ever bought into your ideas before, but then, the thing I like best about you is how you never take repeated failure for an answer. Unfortunately, I just don’t have fifteen thousand right now. I just spent my last fifteen thousand souping up an old John Deer lawnmower so I can drive around the bike path blaring Ridin’ Dirty from three hundred watt speakers while glowing pink neon lights presage my arrival by five hundred feet. You should see it, it’s beautiful. But I swear, if I hadn’t done that, I’d be ready to sign on the dotted line right now.”

“That’s quite alright,” Kip said. “No harm, no foul. Your loss, my gain. It’s probably crazy of me to give up that much equity for so little anyway; this idea is going to make millions. No. Billions.”

He paused just long enough for some of the delusion to drip off; then I watched in real time as yet another unwise idea corkscrewed through his ear and crawled into his brain.

“Hey,” he said. “I’ve never thought of pimping out a John Deer lawnmower, but that’s a pretty good idea too. You sound like you have some experience with this now; want to go fifty-fifty on a startup? I’ll provide the salesmanship and take advantage of my many business contacts. You provide the technical knowledge. Ella, you can get in on this too; we’ll throw in a free turducken with every purchase.”

This time I definitely heard my wife sobbing, and just like that, it was time for Cornelius Kipling to leave.

sunbathers in America

This is fiction. Kind of. Science left for a few days and asked fiction to care for the house.

I ran into my friend, Cornelius Kipling, at the grocery store. He was ahead of me in line, holding a large eggplant and a copy of the National Enquirer. I didn’t ask about it.

I hadn’t seen Kip in six months, so went for a walk along Boulder Creek to catch up. Kip has a Ph.D. in molecular engineering from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and an MBA from an online degree mill. He’s the only person I know who combines an earnest desire to save the world with the scruples of a small-time mafia don. He’s an interesting person to talk as long as you remember that he gets most of his ideas out of mail-order catalogs.

“What are you working on these days,” I asked him after I’d stashed my groceries in the fridge and retrieved my wallet from his pocket. Last I’d heard Kip was involved in a minor arson case and couldn’t come within three thousand feet of any Monsanto office.

“Saving lives,” he said, in the same matter-of-fact way that a janitor will tell you he cleans bathrooms. “Small lives. Fireflies. I’m making miniature organic light-emitting diodes that save fireflies from certain death at the hands of the human industrial-industrial complex.”

“The industrial human what?”

“Exactly,” he said, ignoring the question. “We’re developing new LEDs that mimic the light fireflies give off. The purpose of the fire in fireflies, you see, is to attract mates. Bigger light, better mate. The problem is, humans have much bigger lights than fireflies. So fireflies end up trying to mate with incandescents. You turn on a light bulb outside, and pffftttt there go a dozen bugs. It’s genocide, only on a larger scale. Whereas the LEDs we’re building attract fireflies like crazy but aren’t hot enough to harm them. At worst, you’ve got a device guaranteed to start a firefly orgy when it turns on.”

“Well, that absolutely sounds like another winning venture,” I said. “Oh, hey, what happened to the robot-run dairy you were going to start?”

“The cow drowned,” he said wistfully. We spent a few moments in silence while I waited for conversational manna to rain down on my head. It didn’t.

“I didn’t mean to mock you,” I said finally. “I mean, yes, of course I meant to mock you. But with love. Not like an asshole. You know.”

“S’okay. Your sarcasm is an ephemeral, transient thing–like summer in the Yukon–but the longevity of the firefly is a matter of life and death.”

“Sure it is,” I said. “For the fireflies.”

“This is the potential impact of my work right now,” Kip said, holding his hands a foot apart, as if he were cupping a large balloon. “The oldest firefly in captivity just turned forty-one. That’s eleven years older than us. But in the wild, the average firefly only lives six weeks. Mostly because of contact with the residues of the industrial-industrial complex. Compact fluorescents, parabolic aluminized reflectors, MR halogens, Rizzuto globes, and regular old incandescents. Historically, the common firefly stood no chance against us. But now, I am its redress. I am the Genghis Khan of the Lampyridae Mongol herd. Prepare to be pillaged.”

“I think you just make this stuff up,” I said, wincing at the analogy. “I mean, I’m not one hundred percent sure. But I’m very close to one hundred percent sure.”

“Your envy of other people’s imagination is your biggest problem,” said Kip, rubbing his biceps in lazy circles through his shirt. “And my biggest problem is: I need more imaginative friends. Just this morning, in the shower, this question popped into my head, and it’s been bugging me ever since: if you could be any science fiction character, who would you be? But I can’t ask you what you think; you have no vision. You didn’t even ask me why I was checking out with nothing but an eggplant when you saw me at the grocery store.”

“It’s not a vision problem,” I said. “It’s strictly a science fiction problem. I’m just no good at it. I’ll sit down to read a Ben Bova book, and immediately my egg timer will go off, or I’ll remember I need to renew my annual subscription to Vogue. That stuff never happens when I read Jane Austen or Asterix. Plus, I have this long-standing fear that if I read a lot of sci-fi, I’ll learn too much about the future; more than is healthy for any human being to know. There are like three hundred thousand science fiction novels in print, but we only have one future between all of us. The odds are good that at least one of those novels is basically right about what will happen. I won’t even watch a ninety-minute slasher film if someone tells me ahead of time that the killer is the girl from Ipanema with the dragon tattoo; why would I want to read all that science fiction and find out that thirty years from now, sentient goats from Zorbon will land on Mt. Rushmore and enslave us all, starting with the lawyers?”

“See,” he said. “No answer. Simple question, but no answer.”

“Fine,” I said. “If I must. Hari Seldon.”

“Good. Why?”

“Because,” I said, “unlike the real world, Hari Seldon lives in a mysterious future where psychologists can actually predict people’s behavior.”

“Predicting things is not so hard,” said Kip. “Take for instance the weather. It’s like ninety-three degrees today, which means the nudists will be out in force on the rocks by the Gold Run condos. It’s the only time they have a legitimate excuse to expose their true selves.”

We walked another fifty paces.

“See?” he said, as we stepped off a bridge and rounded a corner along the path. “There they are.”

I nodded. There they were: young, old, and pantsless all over.

“Personally, I always wanted to be Superman,” Kip said as we kept walking. He traced an S through his sweat-stained shirt. “Like every other kid I guess. But then when I hit puberty, I realized being Superman is a lot of responsibility. You can’t sit naked on the rocks on a hot day. Not when you’re Superman. You can’t really do anything just for fun. You can’t punch a hole in the wall to annoy your neighbor who smokes a pack a day and makes the whole building smell like stale menthol. You can’t even use your x-ray vision to stare at his wife in the shower. You need a reason for everything you do; the citizens of Metropolis demand accountability. So instead of being Superman, I figured I’d keep the S on the chest, but make it stand for ‘Science’. And now my guiding philosophy is to go through life always performing random acts of scientific kindness but never explicitly committing to help anyone. That way I can be a fundamentally decent human being who still occasionally pops into a titty bar for a late buffet-style lunch.”

I stared at him in awe, amazed that so much light and air could stream out of one man’s ego. I think in his mind, Kip really believed that spending all of his time on personal science projects put him on the side of the angels. That St. Peter himself would one day invite him through the Pearly Gates just to hang out and compare notes on fireflies. And then of course Kip would get to tell St. Peter, “no thanks,” and march right past him into a strip club.

My mental cataloging of Kip’s character flaws was broken up by an American White Pelican growling loudly somewhere in the sky above us. It spun around a few times before divebombing into the creek–an ambivalently graceful entrance reminiscent of Greg Louganis at the ’88 Olympics. American White Pelicans aren’t supposed to plunge-dive for food, but I guess that’s the beauty of America; anyone can exercise their individuality at any given moment. You can get Superman, floating above Metropolitan landmarks, eyeing anonymous bathrooms and wishing he could use his powers for evil instead of good; Cornelius Kipling, with ideas so grand and unattainable they crush out every practical instinct in his body; and me, with my theatrical vision of myself–starring myself, as Hari Seldon, the world’s first useful psychologist!

And all of us just here for a brief flash in the goldpan of time; just temporary sunbathers in America.

“You’re overthinking things again,” Kip said from somewhere outside my head. “I can tell. You’ve got that dumb look on your face that says you think you have a really deep thought on your face. Well, you don’t. You know what, forget the books; the nudists have the right idea. Go lie on the grass and pour some goddamn sunshine on your skin. You look even whiter than I remembered.”