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A Day in the Sun

A Day in the Sun

This is a short story I wrote last year for an internal work publication, as an imagination exercise: how would the world look like in 20 years? I’m republishing it here, adapted slightly to remove the more obvious name-dropping. If you’re looking for bloody conflict, giant robots / probing aliens or other such bleak dystopian tales of woe, I’ll have to disappoint; as I hope to still be around by the time this takes place, I’d rather live here than in a post-nuclear holocaust desolation. Enjoy!

* * *

Libyen-oase1The gradual light of dawn and a soft chime of wooden pipes woke her gently from her slumber. Eyes closed, body unmoving, respiration carefully measured, she feigned sleep. It was her little morning game, testing his powers of observation.

Good morning, Dara.”

She almost always lost though. He seemed to know exactly when she was awake. Which, she strongly suspected, made the handful of times when she won rather suspicious. “Good morning, Stephen.”

Slept well?” “Can’t complain,” she said with a smile and jumped for the shower. “Are the kids awake already?” “Not yet. What would you like for breakfast?” “Just coffee, thank you, Stephen. And don’t patronize me!”

He had a tendency to oversell the importance of the first meal of the day. Just as well that he didn’t try it today. Her heart just wasn’t in it.

The water was just cold enough to chase away the last cobwebs of sleep from her eyes. “Stephen, agenda for today?”

The glass door of the shower suddenly lit up with her calendar items: blue glowing neon for work items, bright green for personal, orange for shared / FYI and a red cancellation. The lunch meeting, it seems, was not to be. But she wouldn’t look this particular gift horse in the mouth.

“Stephen!” “Yes, Dara?” “I’m having lunch with the kids today. Could you please schedule us an hour? Indian fusion, if you can find a good one in Cairo. They should be getting more in touch with their cultural heritage, I should think.”

Of course.” Stephen’s educated, British-accented voice was somewhat muffled by the shower stall, but nevertheless she allowed herself a moment to luxuriate in the sound. It was modelled after a famous 20th century comedian and activist by the name of Stephen Fry. One of her father’s favourites, that one. She liked the name, too; it made him sound like an invisible Victorian butler.

I’ve also arranged for transportation, ma’am.” She smiled a little. It seemed her assistant could still surprise her. “A Qi will pick you up at 11:45 in Saqqarah.

* * *

She grabbed her steaming coffee from the counter. Majid and Alia looked up from their cereal bowls. She kissed them lightly on the top of their heads, then made for the door. “Mama’s got to run. No sharing today; Stephen ordered a car for you. But I’ll see you at lunch, ok? Have fun in school!” “Bye, mom!” “And Majid, listen to your big sister, ok?” she threw over the shoulder, already halfway through the entrance. A grudging 10 year old acknowledgement chased her out of the building.

Her Qi was waiting outside. She sighed, sipped at her coffee and got in. The fleet of driverless electrical cars, with their polarized glass canopy and specialized AI drivers hooked into a regional planning centre would have been unthinkable 20 years ago for Egypt. Luckily, things changed. She tapped her watch, which caused the windshield immediately in front of her to turn black and accept visual and tactile commands. She pulled the plans for the aqueduct and the desalinization plant with subvocalizations and gestures long turned into routine and started examining the B12 sector. Then made up her mind and called Siew Lee.

“Morning, Dara. En route already, I see.” “Morning, Lee. Afraid not. I looked it over one more time, and I think you’re ready to take care of this on your own. Besides, I have a meeting with TNG Solar about that molten salt reactor they’ve been shopping around. I think they should be the one to build it for us.”

He smiled, taken by surprise. “Are you sure? I mean…” “Course I’m sure. ” A well-practiced flick of her fingers pulled up a list of repair audits; she quickly located one and forwarded the relevant order history. “I’ve just sent you the bill of materials from last month’s issue on the Delta 2 pump. The cases look quite similar, so go ahead and order it. I can double-check your repair schedule before lunch, if you want, but I have complete confidence in you.” “Thanks, Dara. I won’t let you down!” She smiled. “Good luck. Bye, Lee!” Another flick and she cut the connection.

In a few minutes, automated factories in Germany, Ireland and Iran would receive their respective orders. Past experience showed that the order would be there in about a week. In fact, given the nature of the aqueduct malfunction (which was public information after all) and the past ordering pattern from her desert-forming company, chances were that the forecasting algorithms already predicted the order and the production was already set up, just waiting for the final “go”. And Lee was more than capable of dealing with the outcome. Besides, the temporary rerouting held through the night, and the main project was still on schedule.

It was one of the most ambitious projects of her generation. Reclaiming the desert had been a dream ever since Egypt, once the breadbasket of the Roman empire, had fell under the rule of the sand dunes . Desalination plants processed sea water via reverse osmosis and pushed it via reinforced glass aqueducts (sand had its uses) to the enrichment stations, where it would be mixed with nutrients – mainly from algae farmed off-shore – and onwards to the irrigated argan tree and oil palm forests that slowly turned the yellow desert glare into a sea of green. The goal was self-sustainability; the massive initial investment from World Global Climate Control Centre having been matched year after year by private investments playing the long game.

TerraForma, the consortium that took on this challenge, was unique in that it gathered the best and brightest from various companies around the globe, lending their expertise in their respective areas. Dutch planning and German engineering met Chinese solar tech and Japanese miniaturization – to name but a few of the nations that were represented in the project. And now Dara Stephens, née Banerjee, project manager and Harvard graduate cum laudae, daughter of a Mumbai rickshaw driver who turned his humble business into a logistics empire, got to fight for the rights to deploy the latest Australian molten salt solar reactor design into the heart of the soon-to-be-extinct Sahara.

* * *

The meeting was shorter than expected. Her initial plans for 10 reactor deployments was met with enthusiasm from the stocky, jovial Melbourne native representing TNG Solar, who seemed to regard this engagement as a proof-of-concept for an ambitious deployment in the Northern Territories. “And who knows, when you guys are done here, maybe you’ll visit us Down Under. We’ve got some deserts of our own to take care of.”

She smiled at the memory, already on the way to a well-deserved lunch, when her watch chimed. A touch and a well-known voice sprang from her left earring. “Ma’am, I just received confirmation on your order. The drone will be en-route in 15 minutes.” She drummed her fingers on the pseudo-leather of the seat. “Could you reroute it to the restaurant, please? It’s Alia’s present after all.” “Of course.” “Thank you, Stephen.”

She checked her schedule for the afternoon. Two more meetings, but none with face-time required, as the office lingo went, so she could work from home after lunch. Checking into the Virtual Office, the car canopy obliging her once more with the familiar black, she saw that the order placed by Lee already had solid confirmations and delivery estimations 5 days from now. That should keep him happy for at least a week, she thought, right until he’ll run into the subcontractors “midday-sun” fees. With a guilty smile, she admitted to herself that she looked forward to seeing him haggle his way out of that one. The Egyptian construction company they hired was nice enough, but enthusiastic negotiations were so ingrained in the local psyche that few visitors were ever able to get the better of a deal. She was an exception; but she learned from the best. Her father could out-haggle a Nairobi fisherman – and that was no faint praise.

* * *

As presents went, Alia’s wasn’t spectacular: a vintage iPhone with the WiFi module replaced to be able to connect into the modern CommNet. But Dara knew her daughter well, and a squeal of delight confirmed it, much to her satisfaction. Her interest in retro-hacking was recent, but enthusiastic. Fifteen minutes into the meal she was still playing with the thing, trying to get it to talk to a so-called retro appstore maintained by like-minded nerds somewhere in Pakistan.

“They were pretty dumb. I mean, you had to touch them all the time, and they didn’t even have voice commands.” It seemed the 10 year old’s enthusiasm did not extend to his big sister’s toys.

“Yes it did! Look!” A few minutes and turned heads later Dara began to question the wisdom of her decision to have this particular present delivered to the restaurant. Fortunately, a stern motherly look still had the desired effect (not for long, Dara sighed, the teenage years are fast approaching) and the rest of the meal went by in a much more companionable fashion.

“It’s still dumb,” Majid commented as they finished their deserts. Alia deigned to ignore both the comment and its author, with an exasperated sideways look that Dara recognized too well. As their father always liked to say, they learn it all, whether you want to teach it or not.

* * *

“… and then she played with that annoying pseudo-AI voice interface until I thought Stephen was going to take offence and shut me out,” she laughed, remembering. Daniel’s laugh came 3 seconds later, as the signal bounced through the network of comm satellites and reached him on-board the ISS Ophelia, the high-orbit biotech lab working on some I’d-tell-you-but-it’s-complicated 0grav project that was stealing her husband from them for 6 months at a time. She got used to the delay, and the absence; you got used to a lot of things in time, it seems. Humans are such amazingly adaptable creatures, she thought to herself.

“Speaking of Stephen; I hope you’re not replacing me with an AI, priya.” The warmth of his smile melted the distance between them.

“Not a chance. Be safe, jaanu.” She ended the call with what has become her mantra for all those times he was a way . Two more weeks , she thought, two more weeks and then he’s back with me. And this time it’s New Zealand, and we leave all the communicators at home. He promised.

“Stephen!” “Yes, Dara?” “Please schedule a meeting as soon as you can with R&D. I’d like to talk to them about Jasper’s fluid models; they were achieving an efficiency increase of 16%. And book us a flight home for the weekend. Don’t tell my dad; it’s a surprise.” “Of course, ma’am.” She dismissed the last of the mails and closed her eyes. “Good night, Stephen.” “Good night.

The lights, already dimmed and red- shifted to stimulate her circadian rhythm, slid down towards oblivion. Outside, a prickle of stars shone above the night desert.

In her dreams, the desert was green.

Free fallin’

Free fallin’

free fall“Falling is just like flying, except there’s a more permanent destination.”1

I love that quote. Ever since I heard it, it kind of stuck in my head, sloshing around like melted snow. It is true, in its own way – skydivers know that best of all. But it also hints at something more, some deeper meaning. I don’t know whether the author really thought about this being misconstrued as a metaphor for life. But I like to think that he did; he just refused to explore it further, just letting it dangle there, for the world to see.

Oh yes, we think we’re flying. Some higher, some lower, some faster, some slower. Look at us go. Look at us, flapping those arms, going through the motions! Look at those fluffy clouds, man! Ground? What ground? We can see no ground from up here, and anyway, for us, the ground is just some theoretical abstraction that those folks of a philosophical persuasion thought up. Why, they say we’re all going to hit it sooner or later, and it’s “goodbye, flying” from there on.

Other folks say you’ve got to keep light while you’re travelling, ‘cause when you hit that ground, you’re going under! But just keep light and then, well, there’s a chance you’d bounce right back up, all the way to heaven. There’s even folks saying you just hop like a frog, depending on your baggage, and that your purpose in life is to get just the right weight to stop altogether.

As for myself, I know we all are falling. I’m guessing I’m about half way down, give or take a few years. If all goes well, that is, and I don’t hit some Everest. Like an idiot. If I steer free of mountain ranges in general. Who knows, maybe I’ll find me some good old chasm and ride this thing down for all it’s worth. Hey, if I’m really lucky, there might be some zero gravity zone at the end of it.2 But I don’t get my hopes up. All I’m aiming for are some nice barrel rolls along the way.

So. Wasn’t that a waste of a good metaphor? *ahem*. Welcome aboard Air Destiny. Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride.

  1. This is what Steven Moffat, one of the great screenwriters of our age, tells us in the – quite grand, to be honest – finale of the second series of “Sherlock”, a modern take of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character. []
  2. That would be what some of you good folks are calling “The Singularity”. Kind of like a Heaven for nerds. []

On euphemisms, or why ‘heck’ is a four-letter word

On euphemisms, or why ‘heck’ is a four-letter word

reverse_euphemismsWhat is a reference? For a software engineer, that’s a language construct that takes you to a certain place in the computer’s memory. You may have multiple references to that place. They may even be called differently, or describe said place in different terms; if they get you to the exact same place, you can safely say they are equivalent1. They have, if you will, different forms, but the same underlying meaning. References are a programmer’s euphemism, and in this context they’re quite useful, too.

Which is not something I would care to say about the euphemisms in the natural language.

At best, euphemism is metaphor’s retarded cousin. And justifiably so, because a metaphor still leaves some room for the imagination, whereas with an euphemism everyone knows what you intend to say. Semantically, it doesn’t make any difference if you replace ‘hell’ with ‘heck’ each and every time. Rest assured, people will know what you mean. We just do the reverse substitution in our head. You know you’re swearing, we know you’re swearing, so why pussyfooting around that one four-letter word? It may have sounded cute in kindergarten, but you’re an adult now. Either assume your fucking swear words or refrain from swearing at all.

There are only a few valid reasons for employing an euphemism instead of the actual word. The most remarkable is the use of formal or diplomatic language, which is almost as precise as a programming language in nuances and accents. Given that this code was born out of the necessity to communicate a monarch’s wishes to his hated adversary while kneeling within decapitation range, it is no wonder that those glorified messengers tried to convey as little offence as possible. Therefore obscenities and profanity are simply not included in this highly specialized construct. You have to admit though, they would have ensured substantially juicier WikiLeaks disclosures.

Another reason is speaking in front of children. This is still a valid use in my view, because children typically assume and repeat adult behaviour without completely understanding it, which can lead to them being hurt or shunned for no reason. An adult can be reasonably expected to assume responsibility for his utterances – that is, barring exonerating circumstances such as acute Tourette’s syndrome. It is not fair to ask the same of children, especially when they do not discern the true significance and weight that society places on such words.

Other than that? I do not see the point. I’m certainly not advocating swearing like a sailor in polite conversation, but if you feel like swearing either abstain or do it properly. ‘Piddle’ is not currently registered as a swearword. Neither is ‘poppycock’.

Come to think of it, some of the most used swear words of today have begun their career as euphemisms. How sad is that? The aforementioned ‘hell’ is actually an euphemism for ’underground’. In the Norse mythology, Hel is Loki’s daughter, and she’s in charge of – who would have guessed? – Nilfheim, the lowest of all worlds, apparently also populated with evil dead. ‘Cock’ means what you expect, a male mature bird, but it also denominated the firing mechanism on muskets. The expression ‘going around half-cocked’ comes from this latter context, and it actually means having a weapon that is not ready to fire. As for ‘fuck’, the word every prude loves to hate, its original meaning was ‘to thrust’, which explains rather neatly why it was so suitable for describing – euphemistically, of course – the act of sexual intercourse2.

In fact, I have recently encountered said word it in quite polite company. It was used in Jack Vance’s 1966 Nebula award winning novella, ‘The Last Castle3, from which I’d like to quote the full paragraph:

Xanten looked up toward the heavens, kicked at the turf. He drew a deep breath and approached to Glys Meadow-sweet. He noted that she had fucked a flower into her long loose hair.

After a second or two she looked up and searched his face.

“Why are you so angry?”

Xanten slapped his thigh, seated himself beside her.

” ‘Angry’? No. I am out of my mind with frustration. […]”

Jack Vance has a keen interest in language; in fact, languages take centre stage in another one of his masterpieces, ‘The languages of Pao’ where he examines how linguistic relativity could influence a nation’s world view4. You can hardly accuse him of bastardising his beloved English language. And, as a lover of language, I’m sure he cringed at every ‘gosh’, ‘geez’ or ‘golly’ that happened to cross his path.

Note the frustration of his hero, Xanten. Perhaps he too had to deal with one euphemism too many.

Note: This post was inspired by the encounter of one ‘heck‘ too many in  the SCPJ Study Guide book that I’m supposed to study for my Java certification exam. Who says procrastination can’t be fun?

  1. I know, I know, I oversimplified things. I’ll see your union and raise you a reinterpret_cast<> 😉 []
  2. And it also has precisely four letters! How convenient! []
  3. The linked article is more of an author review, but you’ll get the idea. []
  4. A topic that is making a come-back nowadays in the field of neurolinguistic programming in applied economics, and consumer behaviour in particular. []