A Second Chance

Her parents’ townhouse felt much smaller practically the first time she had visited after going away to college. So when Sarah got home from her internship every afternoon that summer, she would sit in the park across the street and read until dinner time. The park was the best thing about the old neighborhood; a small playground and field surrounded by townhouses on all four sides. It had been a wonderful place to grow up.

Someone was already in the bench she always sat in. As she approached, she realized with trepidation that it was Mark. She had heard that he had returned a few weeks ago, but this was the first time she’d seen him. She stood there, awkwardly for a moment, unsure of what she wanted to do.

He had been staring in front of him; whether at the kids playing in the playground or simply into space, she couldn’t say. He glanced at her and recognition was in his eyes, and then guilt. He looked back away. “Hey Sarah,” he said quietly, his voice hoarse. He glanced at the book in her hand. “Want me to leave so you can read?”

She looked him over as she considered this offer. He was unshaven and uncharacteristically pale. She had no desire to talk to him, after the way he had treated her and his family. But she had heard bits and pieces of what had happened to him, and part of her did feel sorry for the guy.

“No…you can stay, don’t worry about it,” she sighed. She sat across the bench from him, and began to read. Or tried to. They sat there in silence for what felt like an eternity but was probably no more than ten minutes before Sarah decided it was pointless to keep trying to read the same page over and over. “How are you?” she asked tentatively. He seemed mildly surprised that she had spoken.

“I’m OK,” He replied in a valiant but failed attempt to seem sincerely fine.

“Needed a little air?” she prodded.

“I needed to get out,” he conceded.

“It must be tough being back with you parents after so long,” she said. It must be hard living with people who know how badly you screwed up, is what she thought, but she hoped it didn’t come across. She wasn’t sure what she thought of him any more, but she didn’t really have any desire to antagonize him.

“No, they’ve been great,” he said, and this time his words had the ring of actual sincerity, “it’s more like…I need to start getting back out. I can’t hide behind them for the rest of my life.” Now she felt guilty. The guy was going through something. It was true that it was a situation of his own making, but he seemed to be really facing it.

“I get that,” she said, feeling herself relax a bit, “I’ve been coming out after work because these houses just don’t seem as big as they were when we were kids.” She smirked a bit, and was pleased to get a polite chuckle from him.

They sat in silence again for a few minutes, though a more comfortable one than the last.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last, his raspy voice barely above a whisper. She didn’t say anything to that, so he continued, “I’m sorry for the way I was to you.”

“What do you want me to say to that?” She asked coldly, suddenly remembering that he had been an asshole and he did make the stupid decisions that brought him to his present pitiful state.

“You don’t have to say anything,” he said, “I just want you to know that I know what I did, and I know it was shitty. And that I’m sorry. I’ve known you my whole life, and I treated you like a nuisance when you were trying to look out for me. I blew you off like you were nothing, when you’re the only good friend I’ve ever had. I’m not asking for anything, I just want you to know, I haven’t forgotten that I treated you like shit.”

She let out a long sigh, not looking at him.

“You fucked up,” she agreed.

“I fucked up a lot of things,” he said seriously.

“How did you think it was going to end?” she found herself asking in spite of herself, “How long did you think you could keep living like that?”

“I didn’t think,” he answered honestly, without missing a beat, “I ignored things like the future entirely. When I couldn’t ignore them, I drank until I could. But I was drunk most of the time, so it usually wasn’t a problem.”

“Oh Mark,” she said, sounding more sympathetic than she had meant to.

“You and my parents have always had your heads on your shoulders,” he went on, “mine was always somewhere up my ass. You know that!” she smiled in spite of herself.

“Now I feel like I’ve woken up and everything everyone else was seeing is so damn obvious,” he said miserably, “it’s like I’ve opened up a set of eyes that I didn’t even realized were closed, only it’s too late because we already crashed the…” he choked on his words and stopped.

“I keep crying,” he told her, looking away and blinking back tears, “even at the stupidest, most random moments. My sponsor said that that’s pretty common, at moments like these.”

She put her hand on his. He looked at her, surprised. She wanted to say that he had fucked up, but she was still his friend and she still cared. But she couldn’t quite find the words.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, and meant it.

A Crucial Missing Element

Norman loved New York City, but sometimes he wished it wasn’t so damned crowded. You can get around Manhattan so quickly, if you can push your way onto a train. There are so many great restaurants to eat at, if you make it while they still have tables open. There are wonderful art museums like the MoMA, if you can stand all the people standing around you.

He wished he had it all to himself. And one day, he got his wish.

He noticed the quiet immediately. Even as far uptown as he lived, Manhattan was imbued with a continual noise of humanity and its machines. He tried to write it off. How could you notice quiet? He was probably just so used to it at this point that he couldn’t hear anything. Or maybe his neighborhood had never actually been all that noisy. Anyway, what other explanation was there?

He got dressed, gathered his things for the day, and made his way to the subway stop near his apartment.

Once outside, he could not rationalize the utter quiet and emptiness of the streets and sidewalks. Maybe there was some holiday going on that he had forgotten about? But even then he had never seen the area so completely abandoned. His anxiety grew—something felt very wrong about all of this. Still, he made his way down to the subway station, where three frustrated swipes of his Metro card and finally one successful one got him beyond the turnstile, as it had every day.

The station was just as empty as the streets had been. He waited five minutes—longer than he usually had to—and no train appeared, nor was there any sign of one in the tunnel. Ten minutes after that, his heart pounding in his chest, he walked back out of the station.

Walking down an utterly abandoned Broadway, he thought, maybe there was an accident. Maybe they sealed off the area entirely, and he somehow slept through the whole thing. If so, he would just need to walk outside of the sealed area to find a living city again. He did not worry about what would have caused such an unprecendented locking down of his neighborhood; instead, he clung to the idea that such a thing was possible to comfort him.

He wasn’t even halfway to midtown before he knew his theory was absurd, but he kept walking. He didn’t know what else to do.

When he got down to Chelsea, he was hungry, and tired of walking, so he walked into a restaurant he knew had food he would like. It had often been too crowded when he had attempted to go in the past, but just like everywhere else on that strange day, it was completely empty. This also meant that there were no waiters and no cooks, unfortunately. However, whatever happened must not have happened too long ago, because there was food on the tables. It was still good enough to eat.

But what could he do? He couldn’t eat every plate in the city before they went bad. In fact, he couldn’t even eat very many plates before the food everywhere started to go bad.

It did not take long to figure out that New York kind of sucks without people. For one thing, it takes people to cook food and run subway cars. But even if those people had been left by whatever had taken everyone away, it’s not like Norman could have paid all their salaries himself. Hell, he couldn’t pay for jack without the people who paid him to work for them!

He explored the abandoned shell of what had been America’s most populous city for a few days, out of morbid curiosity more than to obtain some sort of enjoyment. Then he walked his way off the abandoned island and went in search of people.

In Praise of Blogosphere

In 2004 I jumped into the world of blogging in a big way, both in the sheer amount that I read on a daily basis and my personal output in a widely-unread blog with a name only a pretentious 19-year-old could come up with. At that time, Very Serious Person that I was, I hated the term “blogosphere”. At a time when I was angrily arguing that the Mainstream Media was overrated and bloggers were the future, “blogosphere” seemed awkward and embarrassing. I tried to avoid using it, instead resorting to things like “blog ecosystem”. In the end, I relented, because it was clear that blogosphere was here to stay, and it began to feel even more awkward to be the only one not saying it.

Nine years is a long time in the cycle of media storytelling, to say nothing of technology and technological adoption. Nowadays you’ll still get the occasional scare piece to the tune of “Jesus Christ the Internet is nothing but one, big, angry mob of wide-eyed vigilantes!” but these are at least as likely to cover people’s activities on Twitter and similar social media as on blogs. For the most part, the role of the blog has been cemented and matured, within a larger (dare I say it?) ecosystem of social interactions and media platforms.

There is greater appreciation for the fact that a blog is nothing but one part of the greatly lowered barriers to entry into producing public content, and that non-professionals can and do contribute a great deal to the public conversation every day. Some of them have aspirations of becoming professional contributors to this conversation, but many do not.

As perceptions and usage of the blog have matured, there has been an increasing allergic reaction to some of the rhetoric of the early adopters. More than once I have seen friends I follow on Twitter complain about the term blogosphere and wish that its usage would cease.

I want to defend the much maligned blogosphere, and not just on the (very valuable) rule of thumb that if 19-year-old Adam Gurri believed it, there was probably something crucially wrong about it. Blogosphere was a term coined and adopted by people who were sick of the modes of conversation inherited by modern media from our mass media past. Bloggers who wrote about new media in the first half of the last decade were sick of bad fact-checking and baked in moral assumptions being hidden under the veil of a style of fake objectivity. Most of all, they were sick of people taking themselves too damned seriously.

That is why blogs writing about rather serious topics nevertheless took on silly or offensive names such as Instapundit or Sandmonkey. It’s why many posts that had ever increasing weight in the public discussion used an inordinate amount of profanity to make their points.

The equilibrium has shifted since then; now there are a greater number of professional outlets that have adapted their rhetoric to be less stilted and less objective, if still intended to be respectable. And the blogs that carry weight have, in my subjective perception, seemed to tone down the juvenile naming conventions and swearing in posts, to a certain extent.

Nevertheless, I like blogosphere because it has that overtly geeky, tongue in cheek side to it that I think is unlikely to become irrelevant in my lifetime. We could all stand to take ourselves a little less seriously.

Sabueso

Years later it was clear to him that his father had tried to warn them, but it was already far too late. They came not long after he arrived, already nursing a fatal wound. Long after he had confronted every individual involved in the attack and come to learn how truly small they were, his memory of that day would cast them as terrifying, overwhelming giants.

They were merciless rather than cruel; their swift efficiency ensured no suffering from their victims.They dispensed of his father first; despite being in no condition to put up a fight he still posed the greatest threat to them. Though his mother and aunts were murdered in what seemed an instant, the sound of their screams would ring in his ears for the rest of his life.

Yet fast as they were, he still slipped away. His father had trained him relentlessly for just this turn of events, had seeped the routine deep into his muscle memory. Though he was unable to save the love of his life and her sisters, the old Chari warrior’s sudden appearance had been enough of a signal; his training kicked in and he ran deep into the woods, towards the hidden grove his father had shown him.

The Chari raiders did not stop at his family or the house; they burned the entire farm to ashes. The chase began before the destruction was completed; when it became clear that their primary target had fled they formed hunting parties and split up to cover more ground. He was quick on his feet, however, and his father’s hiding place served its purpose well. He was able to stay the night there without being found.

He did not feel safe staying in one spot, however, so the next day he began walking away from where he believed they would be coming from. He was hungry, but did not know where to find food. Halfway into the day he came upon a pond, which he drank from the quench his thirst. It didn’t take long for him to start feeling sick. After a few hours, he was even more hungry, and dehydrated, than he had been to begin with.

On the third day, he spotted a family of coatimundi. He was weak, and his mouth and throat were painfully dry. But he was of the Chari, and even in his state he was a match for at least one measly little racoon creature. He waited patiently, and then scrambled over, adrenaline surging as he clasped one of the cubs. He sank his teeth into its throat as it writhed in his hands.

It was hardly the level of sustenance he was used to even in his humble Chaco home, but it gave him the strength to wander on for a few more days. He eventually came upon a stream, and this time the water did not make him sick. He lingered there for a few days, but as his strength returned so did the anxiety of being found by his family’s murderers.

He was five years old at the time. He slowly learned the terrain, the best places to hunt, the plants that did not make him sick. The Chari were relentless in those years; he narrowly escaped them many times. One of them had successfully gripped him once and he had broken his arm in order to get free.

The encounters grew increasingly violent and getting away more difficult. Three years after his family’s deaths, he decided to stop running and start fighting back. He followed a hunting party from a safe distance for months, observing their habits, eating the scraps of their kill. Heart beating wildly, he crawled what felt insanely close in the dead of night. When one of them went to relieve themselves, he sprung up and beat the hunter to death with a rock. Terrified and elated, he crawled a great distance away, then climbed up to the top of a tree.

The next day he did not move an inch, but he heard them tearing through the area, could feel their anger and frustration. Sabueso smiled to himself.

Sabueso grew quite good at picking them off one by one. As the years went by and the confrontations became more and more direct, he grew in strength and skill. Once, when he was twelve years old, a hunting party got the jump on him. He did not try to run. At the end of the confrontation, his right arm was broken, his belly had been pierced, but he was alive, and they were not. And he would heal.

As his confidence grew, he became more aggressive. He followed hunting parties back to the Chari village, gathering information on the people that lived there. He decided he would make them pay for any more action against him. The next time he was confronted by a hunting party, he left one alive, but took an arm and a leg from him and put out one of his eyes. Before the maimed hunter could return to the village, the boy snuck back and burned down his home, just as they had done to him so many years ago. The warrior would be able to tell all who was responsible. He continued to make direct assaults on the village in response to aggression against him, and in time the hunting parties became fewer and further between. The Chari children spoke of him in whispers, like a monster of legend.

He had become quite good at hunting down his food, but early on he found he could do better by trading with the scattered households of the Chaco. The households, mostly Guarani families, would trade him their crops for meat, as well as for protection. Many would-be thieves and murderers met their end when they sought to trifle with families under his protection.

It was through these families that he was eventually introduced to Manuel, the merchant. Manuel bought from Chaco farmers and many others, and then sold their wares back in Ciudad del Este. “They tell me that you protect the families around here, and bring them meat,” the older man said to him.

The boy grunted; he understood, but was not used to talking. The merchant looked him over with cold appraisal.

“Do you have a name?” at this, the boy came up short. He did have a name, he knew it—his mother had given him one. But it had been far too long since anyone had called him by it, and he had forgotten. At that point, he had almost forgotten what his own mother’s face looked like, never mind his own name.
“They call you many things here,” Manuel said after receiving no reply, “some of them not so nice. My favorite is sabueso, for your keen ability to find game.” There was a twinkle in his eye as he said the word; the idea of this lean, surly boy as a wrinkled old bloodhound clearly amused the merchant.

“Sabueso is fine,” the boy murmured, and it was.

Manuel needed a bodyguard, and while skeptical of Sabueso’s age, the villagers vouched for his strength and ruthlessness, and he came cheaply. Sabueso agreed to follow him for a time for food and lodging. As a result, at the age of sixteen, Sabueso left the Chaco for the first time. The dangers in a place like Ciudad del Este were no less real, but so long as he had an employer, they would hopefully exclude things like starving or drinking tainted water. And he would be far, far away from the Chari village.

Though now employed in the business of dealing with violent and dangerous people, Sabueso felt safer than he ever had. Surely in Ciudad del Este he need not fear Chari hunting parties ambushing him while he slept.

He would learn the hard way that the Chari were far more dedicated to his extermination to let him off because of a little distance.

Invasion of the News

It all started innocently enough. Writing about the decisions and conflicts of the powerful and famous, printing up a ton of copies on cheap paper to circulate the information as widely as possible. Many more people were illiterate in those days, and it was much harder to transmit information over large distances. So the impact of the news was very localized, but there was a sense in which, over time, we would get better at keeping people informed through this emerging mechanism.

Little did we know that it was all an elaborate plan to slowly prepare us for global conquest.

The invaders were not susceptible to the biases that so hindered their prey, so it took them longer than it might have to understand why it was the humans seemed to defeat themselves in a hundred different ways each day. They performed various psychological experiments to get to the bottom of it, and concluded that these biases could be used to their advantage. The bias towards short term thinking in particular would come in handy, as the invader’s plan would be centuries in the making.

In the beginning, they were very directly involved. Using their finest brain manipulation technology, they implanted the idea of newspapers into the minds of numerous individuals around the world. They encouraged their subjects to write in terms that appealed to the group affiliation and confirmation biases of potential readers. To cover their bases, they made sure that multiple groups were represented.

They A/B tested different versions of the same article within towns and neighborhoods and observed the effect. In this way, they were able to refine the news into a weapon to turn people into drooling, ranting, biased idiots. Over time, the human population grew and the increasingly effective news outlets turned them into a bigger and bigger pool of potential slaves for the invaders to walk right in and conquer.

In the 20th Century they kicked things into gear, introducing more and more tools through which news could be delivered in an even more potent state. First came radio, then came TV—a tool so powerful it would not be surpassed until the 21st Century, when the world wide web came along, and smartphones made it possible for people to carry the news with them everywhere they went.

When the invaders finally came, in wave after wave of spaceships, humanity barely resisted. Democrats immediately jumped to blaming Republicans, and vice versa, and they all started arguing about it rather than mobilizing a defense. Android and iPhone users conjured up reasons that the others’ choice in smartphone OS had something to do with it.

The invaders’ plan, hundreds of years in the making, finally came to fruition.