Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tashi, version 1.1

A fragment:

Tashi v 1.1

The LCD screen floats in the darkness: a window into a separate world of towers, satellites, and interpersonal connectivity. A profound, throwaway single from last year’s Euro-dance electronica band chimes. Euro-dance: genres emerge, thrive, and vanish so fast that individual names become almost meaningless. Any sort of pure strain fails against an offspring of hyphenated mutants. Success in this darwinistic game is measured in the transmission of a certain musical genetic code – a sample that survives in the next generation’s genre. But tonight, in this room, it means one thing: Devin.

“Tashi? You awake?” Time was, every household had one phone line. Seven digits, rather than an entry in a portable electronic phone book. One thing you never knew for sure was who might answer any individual call. The caller’s only refuge lay in his own mystery; before caller ID was everywhere, one had to ask as soon as the phone was answered. There was a commitment to the conversation.

“Tashi?” Sometimes, you’d answer the phone just to find out who was calling. Now, you know before you answer, just as they know just which person’s number they’ve dialed. No one knows what to say. People today don’t say hello. They just start talking.

“Yeah. Devin. What’s up?”

“I’ve finished Exodus. Patterns are emerging. I feel like I can almost see through it.”

“It’s Hebrew, Devin. It’s easy to see through. Anyone can learn to read it. You don’t even have to be Jewish.”

Devin sighs. I can hear the tick-tick-tickle-tack of his keyboard in the background. It’s an almost human sound; in some ways more distinctly Devin than his voice. Which, as usual, is wire taut with caffeine and fatigue.

“Tashi, you know this as well as anyone. Hebrew has no separate characters for numbers. The Torah’s just a string of digits. Pure numbers, unburdened by the concrete. Long strings of pure numbers: God’s own cryptosystem.”

“Go to bed, Devin. I’ll see you tomorrow.” In the days of telegraphy, each operator had a distinctive way of keying the line: his fist. An experienced listener could identify who was on the other end of a transmission by the distinct timing of the dots and dashes. Now we’ve got unique phone numbers, caller I.D. Our wireless transmissions carry voices: supposedly a human way of telling each other apart.

But there’s recordings, voice synthesizers, automated phone operators. Lawyers spend days worth of billable hours arguing about the identity of a single voice on a phone line. But I know it’s Devin when he calls; a declaration of identity emerges from the sound of his fingers on the keyboard. A fist.

“Sorry to wake you,” a pause, “Yeah. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” A chirping as he hangs up. I’m denied even the lingering connection of the dial tone. The cell provider needs the bandwidth for another restless caller. This one disappears as if it had never been. Another entry in a call log to be ignored until it’s deleted. The memory of the conversation in my mind, sharing space with my dreams. An ordering of bits.

7:00 AM, Central Standard Time. GMT -6. Once a way to help ships at sea keep track of where they are, now it’s become a mechanism to keep the world on the same clock. Nothing happens in order anymore. Now it all happens at once, to the universal rhythm of Greenwich Mean. Seven in the morning. No point in chasing sleep, the echoes of my dreams. I might as well get up.

There’s a face in the mirror that hangs above the antique dresser. It’s a cute little Polynesian girl; dreadlocks cascading around an oval face. Sleep clouded amber eyes look out, pulling in data from this new world of morning. Looking into your own eyes in a mirror, it’s like a recursive loop of data gathering. Best be careful that I avoid any sort of resonance, lest the world collapse in the wail of feedback.

I’m dressing slowly, looking for decent and clean clothes from the piles, the dresser, the closet. This certainly isn’t the face one would expect to attach to ‘Doctor Linda Natasha Tanner’. Even ‘Tashi’ seems too much like a stretch. It’s a young face – radiates ethnic charm. You’d expect it in the background of an exotic travelogue or documentary on refugees from global warming. Certainly not teaching students at a university in the white bread, corn-fed American Midwest. “Dr. Linda Tanner, PhD. Post-graduate assistant, Department of Archeology, Northwestern University.” My mother never prouder than when I mailed her my business card.

The morning sequence is so automatic now, it almost feels like someone else. Like there’s a morning person living in my own engrams. One that knows how to start water boiling for tea and ramen; how to go boot the computer and log in for e-mail.

Nothing much. Spam. Students with the usual excuses; professors with the typical demands. G-mail can’t find anything else, no matter how much I will it to, no matter how many times I press the refresh button. The network is just a carrier – a mediator. It cannot make an e-mail out of whole cloth, can’t fill the gap if someone chooses not to send. I curse my monitor for its unfeeling stupidity. I feel silly and better at the same time. It’s a good thing there’s a smiley for ambivalence.

I’m waiting at the Foggy Bottom CafĂ© after work, as planned. Devin shows up ten minutes late, per usual. He’s clutching a sheaf of inkjet printout. Numbers sit like bricks on the page, the 10 point Arial font he prefers. I smile, remembering his rant against serifs. Devin rants frequently; it’s one of his more endearing qualities. The buzz of passionate discourse is the carrier wave of his being. His only real nod to intellectual honesty is his willingness to listen.

“Any word?” he asks. I chew my bagel and shake my head. “No. The only contact I’ve had with her is her absence. The clothes she didn’t leave behind. The food that’s not in the refrigerator, waiting to be cooked. Normally, people can’t help but leave traces of themselves behind. That’s the whole basis of the study of archeology. The things people leave behind. But Alice? Nothing.” Except a pattern of bits in my mind, I guess.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” he quips, trying to lighten the mood. I shake my head, as if banishing a mournful dream. It’s time to stare at my coffee: cream swirls on the surface, driven by the spoon in my hand. My ambivalence written into chaotic flow, the turbulence of liquids mixing. Two substances breaking the liquid barrier and blending into one – indistinguishable. Driven by need and a sense of loss.

“You know it’s just a couple of years. It’s a temporary situation. She’ll be back.” Whenever Devin starts to utter simple declarative sentences, I know he’s at a loss for what to say next. Not knowing what to say makes him distinctly uncomfortable. “She still cares for you, you know. It’s just…” he trails off, giving up.

“Yeah, I know. She’s always had a restless spirit. This project was just too good a chance to pass up. She’s going places and seeing things that few people will ever get a chance to. But even if she does come back, will she still be the same person she was when she left? People aren’t like computers, Devin. You can’t just roll them back to a previous state because you don’t like what they’re doing or what they’ve become.” I imagine how mournful I must look.

“Sure. They’re not like your books and pots, either, Doctor Tanner,” dripping here with his easy sardonic tone, “At least computer admit to some sort of internal change. Characters in a book are dead data.” It’s an old argument, one that slogs out of the grounds of a dozen cups of coffee just like this one. He’s trying to get a rise out of me, I know.

“So. Tell me about Exodus,” I throw in before he really gets started. “Making progress?”

His excitement easily changes channel and direction; he shifts conversational streams with ease. “Yep. I’ve got the whole thing in numerical text files. But, God, it’s tedious, reducing the Hebrew characters to their numerical equivalents and typing them in. Beats me why there’s no decent OCR software out there. I mean, how hard is it to read printed characters?”

“But you’re getting something out of it, right? Something to work with?” He nods, slurping his espresso. He barely swallows before the words come gushing out of his mouth.

“Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m still not sure if I ought to include the original text breaks or not. Cryptanalytic tradition would say not, but given the somewhat arbitrary nature of the division into books, chapters and verses, I suspect there’s some import to them.” Now he’s off into the minutiae of the project, debating with himself the need to sum whole words or whether the single characters are important. He goes on to consider the peculiarities of the original Hebrew text and characters, how the numerical values of the letters can change depending on placement.

It’s never really bothered him that I don’t care about the details. Nor is it important to him that I share his passion; indeed, if I did, I think he’d be annoyed. Mostly, I like to hear him talk. There’s a conviction that people have when they believe in something; a conviction that’s almost hypnotic. Preachers, protestors, or demagogues – there’s a fire in the spoken word. Right now, though, I just need to listen to someone talk about something. Devin’s exactly what I need: always ready to talk about his latest obsession.

He’s actually been at this project for quite some time. He’s convinced that the original authors of the Torah wrote it in code. Which is not a completely original theory: Kabbalists have been playing around with this idea for millennia. Devin’s convinced that modern computing and cryptanalysis techniques can be used to break the code.

So far, he’s still entering the raw data. The more he has entered, he believes, the more he’ll have to work with when it comes time to do the hardcore math. Breadth of data, he calls it. Breadth of data to be met by depth of analysis. I suspect he’s chasing a dream, though. I’m thinking all the meaning the Torah - or any other book - contains is derived from a more human analysis: the act of reading and understanding.

“For centuries, people have combed through holy books, searching for hidden meanings. Many people still do today,” I interject at some more or less random pause. “There’s little more there than appears to be there. It’s not about the hidden meaning behind the printed text. It’s about how people interact with that text; how people interact with people. It’s about letting the words influence how you deal with the world around you. There’s nothing written behind the lines, nothing hiding behind the characters.” It’s a re-run of a similar discussion he and I have had, but I feel the need to leave the audience and become a participant. I want a dialogue, not a monologue.

“Then why is there such an emphasis on preserving the text *exactly* as written?” he emphasizes. “Why all the dicta against adding or subtracting a single word? Why such emphasis on making sure that not a character is out of place? Rabbi Akiva once ‘hung an interpretation of the Law on the hook of a Gimel.’ The Rabbis have insisted that the text is pure and primary. For a two thousand year old document, that’s a pretty robust error-checking scheme.

“Besides, Tashi, you know it’s more complex than that. Or why were you in the same textual analysis class? You’re no more a biblical literalist than I am. Everyone reads books for what they want to see. At best reading a text is a dialogue for meaning between the author and the reader.”

“That’s a standard deconstructivist thesis,” I tell him, almost quoting our professor, “almost pure post-modernism. Really, though, do you think the original rabbinical authors – Moses or Yaweh, if you will – were sophisticated enough to hide the true meaning in a code that would take a twentieth century innovation to crack?”

“No way to know until you check,” he says with a grin. “Beats living your life on autopilot, moping over a girl that’s walked out of your life. Especially one who went so far away as Siberia.” He drains his cup quickly as a means to avoid my glare. He drops some cash on the table. “See you later,” he says. He leaves me staring at my cup again.

What begins as exciting and new, a hot blend of two very different substances has cooled to a homogeneous sameness. No amount of staring or stirring can revive it again. I’m left with the choice of finishing it quickly or leaving it for the waitress to come and pick up.

There’s an implicit challenge in the last inch of an espresso drink like this. I know there’s a pile of grounds and silt drifting around the bottom of the cup. Drinking it would be bitter and gritty – an unpleasant act of masochism. How much do I want to finish off? The further down I drink, the more bitter the results will be. Bitter dregs. How far do I want to push myself in the pursuit of the last sweet drop? I add my own bills to the pile, smile at the waitress, and walk out.

[MediaLurker is here]

MediaLurker: [Who is there? LCX] [All text to be replaced with numerical Hebrew. LCX]

DocT: I’m busy.

MediaLurker: [ What is going on? Who is there? LCX]

DocT: I can’t be distracted right now. I’ll talk to you later.

MediaLurker: [Are you an angel of the Lord? LCX]

DocT: Bye, Devin.

[DocT is offline]

“Tashi? Tashi? Don’t hang up.”

“Devin, I’m busy. I told you online that I don’t have time to talk right now.” I’ve got papers to evaluate, and I’m not really in the mood for Devin’s passions tonight. But he sounds panicked, almost frantic. His voice keeps the connection open.

“Something’s happened. Something weird,” he says.

“Weirder than you interrupting me to babble strings of numbers?”

“Yes – wait – what?”

“I was working earlier. Had a chat client open. You popped in babbling strings of numbers. I figured you were screwing around, sending me some sort of coded message. I didn’t really want to get involved with trying to interpret what you were saying. I though you were just trying to annoy me.”

“No, why would I do that? I mean, I would do that, but I didn’t do it tonight. I never logged in tonight. Something odd’s been going on with my computer.”

That’s got to be the understatement of the year. I sit up and listen much closer now. Devin is a self-identified cyberpunk. He gets paid by various media organizations to look up, run down, and pass along media clips from around the world. Need a news report from last weeks Osaka evening news? Or the manifesto of last months bomb-mailing luddite bunker crazy? How about a scientific report from last year on global climate change written in Russian? Devin will find it for you. In between, he pursues his own digital obsessions, often at the risk of his own online hygiene. For Devin’s computer to exhibit behavior he’d consider odd is unusual. Behavior weird enough to call me about is news of near-apocalyptic proportions.

“Devin, what did you do? It’s probably a virus or a worm or something.”

“I’ve run three different virus scans. Nothing unusual has come up. And it’s not a software bug. What happens is that I’ve got a chat client open. Every time I try to close it, it reopens. But it’s spewing noise. Numbers…”

“So maybe someone’s trying to screw with you. Can you trace the screen name back? It’s probably just some adolescent playing games with you. Block the screen name or something.”

“Tashi, it’s coming from my own account. And that’s not the most peculiar part. It comes through even when I pull my network cable out!” I understand now his distress. Something has refused to obey the clean, explicit rules of his logical universe.

“Wait. What kind of noise are you getting?” I ask him.

“Looks like random numbers. Long streams of num – wait… you said that I was sending you numbers earlier? Send me the chat log!” I walk across the living room and open my idling notebook. It takes me a second or two to pull up the log of the mysterious chat and e-mail it to him. Meanwhile, I ask him, “Does it look something like this?”

“Yeah! Pretty close, anyway. Hold on a minute, here. Some of these strings look familiar.” Devin’s always had a pretty good eye for numbers. If he’d had the drive, ambition, or willingness to obey authority, he might have made it in the NSA. Thank goodness he’d opted for a civilian life and tweaking the noses of online authority figures. “Yes. Some of the same sequences. So they can’t be all that random. Let me look at them a bit.” Without stopping to say good-bye, he hangs up.

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