Extension Pete in: The Case of the Hothouse Hot Seat

Open on a packed courthouse, lots of stained wood, hanging lights, public in seats, judge in the middle, bailiff standing, stenographer sitting, defendant on the stand—nervous. Defendant is an older, inoffensive gentleman, slightly greyed, putterer at heart, gardener type. The charge: Murder Most Foul.

Prosecution: You claim to have never seen Miss Susan Fade before the week of March 27th. How did you meet?

Defendant: (stammering along the way) She noticed my Welwitschia through the greenhouse glass and came over and started talking to me. I have quite a few unusual plants and she recognized several of them Entada gigas, Amorphophallus, Lithops. She said she was “informally traveling,” hitchhiking I think, across the country. She said she was headed west to see a wild Boojum.

Prosecution: Boojum, you say? [Chuckles.] So how did the young lady suddenly become your house guest for nearly a month Mr. Bloom?

Defendant: Well, first she said she wanted a place to stay for the night, and she helped out with some repotting in the greenhouse, but she turned out to be a wonderful cook, and [pause, wistful look], I have this pool you see, and, well, she didn’t have a bathing suit. So, a few nights turned into about a month. She had a magnificent imprint of a parsnip leaf on her backside, a furanocoumarin burn from having sat on one during an earlier outing.

****

            Prosecution: State your name for the record.

Witness: Mrs. Evelin Dropper. [Older lady, 60s, hair neatly placed, proper.]

Prosecution: Mrs. Dropper, can you tell the jury about your experience of May 16th.

Witness: I was checking my yard for pet waste—the neighbors across the street just let their cat go anywhere it wants, like an animal—and suddenly I smelled this horrible stench. Like death! And it was coming from Mr. Bloom’s greenhouse! [Points accusatory finger at Defendant.] I went by the next day and the smell was still there, but by the third day it was gone. That’s when he must have moved the body! [General kerfuffle in the courtroom, defense springs to feet objecting, judge banging gavel calling for an end to speculation and audience participation.]

****

Prosecution: Mr. Bloom had yellow sticky traps hanging in his greenhouse, one had fallen to the ground, and these traps collected insects. As a forensic entomologist, what did you learn from these traps Dr. Wilson?

Dr. Wilson: [Long blonde hair, very professional, but with a sense that she could drink you under the table.] The traps contained a number of common greenhouse insects: whitefly, aphids, thrips—millipedes in the case of the fallen trap. But they also contained quite a few blowflies, that’s the family Calliphoridae, the metallic green flies, and flesh flies, Sarcophagidae, these guys are grey with black stripes on their back. [Indicates each on an enlarged photograph of a sticky trap].

Prosecution: [Complete with courtroom dramatic pauses and emphasis.] Dr. Wilson, the prosecution argues that Mr. Bloom killed Miss Fade, placed her body in the greenhouse where it was left for several days, then removed the body and disposed of it. Does the evidence from the sticky traps contradict this hypothesis?

Dr. Wilson: It is unlikely there would have been that many calliphorids and sarcophagids in the greenhouse unless they were specifically attracted to rotting flesh of some kind. Absence of fly larvae on the sticky trap on the ground indicates the dead item was moved before fly larvae matured. Additionally absence of carrion beetles, family Silphidae, which show up later in the decay sequence, indicates that whatever was rotting was removed before later stages of decay set in. So, yes, the entomological evidence does not contradict the scenario put forth by the prosecution.

****

Defense: Peter —, Mr. Bloom maintains that Miss Fade went on her way, alive and well, on May 5th to continue her westward quest. A few days later he left to hike the Ozark Trail and see the spring wildflowers, and did not return until May 24th.

You’ve heard the prosecution’s argument: that Mr. Bloom befriended Miss Fade in late March, they cohabitated, she spurned his advances and sometime in mid-May he killed her, her body was left in the greenhouse for several days, then he disposed of the body on or about May 18th. The prosecution presents damning evidence: Mrs. Dropper smelled a distinct stench of rotting flesh, flies well known to be associated with murder victims were collected by the defendant’s own sticky traps, and insects associated with later stages of decay were not collected. No carcass or bones of a dead animal were found in or near the greenhouse. And yet you maintain that Mr. Bloom is innocent. How can you explain away this hard evidence?

Extension Pete: [Suppressing a huge grin.] Mr. Bloom has several automatic systems in his greenhouse, watering, temperature control, etc. Those were there to keep bad things from happening to his plants while he was gone, but Mr. Bloom hadn’t anticipated a very good thing happening. [Everyone on the edge of their seats, including Mr. Bloom.] His Amorphophallus flowered. [Mr. Bloom gasps, doubles over as if hit in the gut. General courtroom mumbling.] Amorphophallus is also known as an Arum, it’s a plant that very rarely flowers, once every five or ten years. Mr. Bloom would never have guessed it might flower while he was away. The inflorescence is huge, several feet high and smells like rotting flesh, in fact it’s commonly called a corpse flower! [Collective “Ah!”] The plants are pollinated by flesh flies and other insects associated with decay that are attracted by the smell, but the flower only lasts a day or two before wilting and withering away, so the smell doesn’t last long and it’s not suitable for fly development. A flowering corpse flower explains the evidence nicely. [Nod of agreement from Dr. Wilson.]

I also emailed a park ranger at El Vizcaino a park in Baja California, the best place to see wild Boojum trees. He emailed me this a few hours ago. [Holds up tablet computer displaying image of bikini clad backside sporting a parsnip leaf imprint.]

[Prosecution drops charges, judge dismisses case, Extension Pete saves the day, accepts no reward except that justice has been done, jubilation all around, except for poor Mr. Bloom. Sad and dejected he’s taken from the court room vowing never to leave home again for fear of missing his Arum, “I waited 20 years!”.]

The End.

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The Book Exception

The second most notorious bug in Universe 42 was known as the Book Exception. The Book Exception was a joke entered by an anonymous programmer (probably Kevin) that altered space-time (gravity) on the exposed side of a book creating what is most easily described as a “gravitational vacuum”. The book, or really any printed material, experienced an otherwise imperceptible increase in gravity on the exposed side and would be sucked in that direction*. The result was not just an increased tendency to fall over when standing straight, but in special circumstances, the book, if it were say leaning to the left, could actually rotate up to the vertical and then fall to the right. If books or papers were stacked lying on their sides the Book Effect caused the top book to very slightly raise, reducing friction. Then the second book or paper would begin to experience a reduced, but present, Book Exception field, and so on. The result was that stacked books or papers had a tendency to autonomously slump to one side or slide wildly when being moved.

The most fiendish aspect of the Book Exception is that it applied to books and papers. Unlike other artifacts, paper products are:  1) inherently bendy; 2) generally have an asymmetrical architecture (spine and tail); 3) are often placed on shelves where half the book was protected from observation; and 4) are found in the company of either people who want nothing to do with them (office workers) or people who are more fascinated by the information they contain than how they behave. Thus, despite millions of people witnessing effects of the Book Exception daily, there were a myriad of reasonable excuses to ignore it.

The first person to discover the Book Effect was Hito Higawa, a Japanese architect who was convinced the universe was out to get him. Interestingly it was that paranoia that simultaneously drove him to study why his books kept falling over, and once he had discovered the Book Exception, the reason why no one believed him. Higawa’s work was only accidentally discovered after his death when a Twitter meme #BBFOMHY (“Books be falling on my head, yo.”), went viral.

It was, of course, the Book Exception that allowed inhabitants of Universe 42 to definitively show that they existed in an entirely simulated Universe, and, if appropriately applied, made a barn raising that much easier.

 

*Note: the gravity fluctuation was created by weakening the separation of the membranes of the multiverse, therefore the orientation of the increased gravity was independent of the region’s dominate gravity body, for example the Earth.

Professor J. Blucher and The Problem of the Classroom

I thought I would share a funny story of what recently happened to a colleague of mine. The fellow in question, Professor J. Blucher, was recently trying to schedule a room for his undergraduate class, Mastering Sextants. This year the class, which usually numbers only a handful of students, had nearly 150 sign up. Initially he surmised that perhaps people were finally taking global warming seriously and had decided to brush up on their nautical skills. However, it was later discovered that, due to certain constraints in the new course offerings software, the class was listed as: MASTERING SEX. So you can understand how some people might have been lead astray.

My friend was now tasked with scheduling a room large enough to accommodate all these students, at least for the first class. I was in his office, admiring some pocket gopher bacula, when he made his call. I gather that he first spoke to a lady named Bethany. All seemed to be going well when suddenly Professor Blucher, who always seems a little lost but has his moments of lucidity, said, “I don’t want eight rooms, I only want one room.” After a bit of silence he then said, “I assure you ma’am, there are. May I please speak with someone else?”

Well, it seems, if I got the story straight, that Bethany was a bit of a history buff. Apparently she had been reading about a particular anti-bellum courthouse nearby and came across a mention of an old French law (from the late 1700’s) stating all government buildings were prohibited from having more than 20 seats in any given room. From this Bethany knew there weren’t any rooms large enough to accommodate a class of 150. So she must have first done some math and later said something like, “There aren’t any rooms with more than 20 seats at this university.”

Bethany handed Professor Blucher off to, maybe Carl?, I forget. Again, things seemed to be going well, Blucher even got a room, 515 Ferguson Hall, but then I realized I’d taught in that room and it had at most 30 desks. Professor Blucher mentioned this to Carl, went silent for a while, then said, astonished, “But it doesn’t work that way,” then, “Could I please speak with someone else?”

Well, again this is coming after the fact, but Carl was a senior supervisor. And as such he had access to the room profiles in the computer. So Carl signed Blucher up for the room, then changed the number of seats available in the room profile to 150. Apparently after Professor Blucher said “But it doesn’t work that way,” Carl replied, “I’m a senior supervisor. I know I can add seats to a room. ”

My poor friend, who is rather ill at ease using any communication device, was now visibly wavering like a parched man in desperate need of shade and water. The next person he spoke with was named Joan. Professor Blucher explained the situation: he was in need of a single classroom with enough seats to accommodate 150 students at one seat per student, etc., etc. Professor Blucher readied his pencil to receive a room assignment, then said, “Are you sure? How many seats does that room have?” Silence, then said, “Oh dear,” and gave the sigh of a man who has lost all hope.

Joan was going to assign Professor Blucher room 101 in Stephen’s Hall. Apparently, in response to his two questions, she replied that, while she didn’t know anything about the rooms in Stephen’s Hall, the building certainly was big on the outside, so she knew it had to have rooms large enough to hold 150 people. Insert “Oh dear,” here.

Suddenly Professor Blucher stood up, straight backed, shoulders square. He had a hard look in his eyes- focused on the opposite wall, oblivious to my presence. He said in a loud clear voice, not yelling, but with confidence and authority, “Get me a scientist!” It echoed around his small office. I’m sure Joan was nearly deafened.

The events of the next fifteen or twenty minutes will stay with me for the rest of my life. Luckily Joan was able to find a copy repair man and put him on the phone. Professor Blucher was a man afire, grilling the copy repair man on logic (inductive and deductive), observation, testability, falsifiability, evidence, and the pitfalls of tradition, authority, and guessing. He ran the man through inventive scenarios to test his ability to deal with rational evidence and discard irrational gibberish. Never have I seen a mind so quick and agile, poke and prod, teach and test. Finally, finally when he was content that he was speaking to man who could see the world through the eyes of a scientist, Professor Blucher posed his final question to the copy repair man, “How would you KNOW if a room had enough seats for accommodate 150 students at one seat per student?” The room went silent, I stopped breathing, time stood still. The voice on the other end of the phone sounded tiny to my ears half way across the room, “I would go to the room and count the seats.”

VICTORY!

Professor Blucher slowly lowered himself into his seat, his back still ram-rod straight. Finally he had found someone who was willing and able to use science, actual observations of the universe, to confront The Problem of the Classroom.

Ultimately a suitable room was assigned and the class size dropped to only a handful of students by the second week. Professor Blucher has returned to his passive, slightly lost demeanor. Sometimes, when I pass his office or see him in the halls, he’s mumbling to himself, running what happened over and over in his mind. What Professor Blucher had learned, but simply could not bring himself to accept, is that for some people there’s more than one way of knowing.

Extension Pete in: The Case of “The Title Would Give it Away”

 

Scenes from a party: an unnecessary beard; a knot of people in the kitchen; chatter; cold draft by the door; wine glasses bedazzled with baubles; cheese and crackers.

Extension Pete found himself at a departmental get together. Inane chit chat with coworkers was coupled with an inability to find a comfortable place to sit and an endless wanderlust to flit from conversation to conversation with people he normally avoided in the Ivory Tower environ.

Conversation finally exhausted, Pete turned to examination of the artifacts on display in the house-museum; priceless family kitsch, collections of items reminiscent of a lifestyle past, relics standing as silent boasts of faraway travels and grand adventures. Suddenly the universe twisted on itself and Pete was struck with a strong feeling of déjà vu. In the background of a photo on the wall—featuring happy revelers of a new year’s eve party four years past, one wearing a very encouraging dress—enclosed in a glass display case was an old fashion dry goods balance holding a giant old dictionary on one side, and a fossil ammonite on the other. A sign behind the dictionary declared “POSSUM” in tall, bold, golden letters that stood out against the earth tone surroundings.

Pete had a moment of panic, he had seen this before, the case, the balance, the ammonite. Why, how? But as suddenly as the panic came, it left. The slow gears of his genius mind (so he saw it) physically forced his confused muscles to move his head to the left where, across the room he saw that selfsame glass display case. There was the balance. There was the dictionary. There was the ammonite. “POSSUM” was completely obscured by the dictionary but when we squatted down he was able to read, “POSSUM brand U.S. NO. 2 Porto Rican Sweet Potatoes. Packed and Shipped by La Haye Bros. Leonville, LA.” Ah, the advertisements of yesteryear had flair. A portly young possum with a curly tail had placed its front foot protectively on a fat young yam.

The meat (not possum) came off the grill and into the kitchen. Suddenly people were heaping foodstuffs onto plates, moving through the line holding glasses, utensils, napkins, trying not to spill or slosh. People settled and Pete tucked into an interesting corn-based casserole. Conversation ebbed and flowed and finally hit upon the wine. Everyone agreed it was good. Where was it from? Temecula Valley, southern California. Funny story, a case had been bought years before, some drunk, then forgotten and the remaining two bottles were only rediscovered a few nights ago. Hurrah! Even stranger the crate seemed to have all but vanished, only a thin outer veneer was left, the slats could be crushed like pie crust.

At this Pete stood up, mid-bite. “Give me a second,” he said staring into nothingness. Then, a declaration: “I believe I have simultaneously discovered and solved a mystery!” Conversation stopped and all eyes focused on the buggy brainiac. “The mystery is, why is the dictionary getting lighter?” With a dramatic, sweeping motion he pointed an accusatory finger at the scale in the display case. Everyone shifted their gaze. “You can see in the picture on the wall,” shifting digit cum pointer, “that four years ago the dictionary and the ammonite were at the same level, you can read ‘POSSUM’ clearly above the dictionary. But now, the ammonite has sunk and the dictionary has risen. ‘POSSUM’ is obscured. The dictionary is lighter.”

Pete paused to let everyone work it out for themselves. The balance hadn’t broken, the stone ammonite wouldn’t have gotten heavier, so clearly this mess was all the dictionary’s fault.

“And, I have solved the mystery,” he paused, and with extreme elocution stated, “Cryptotermes brevis,” another pause, “Walker.”

Mostly puzzled looks, but at least one “Ah!” of understanding from the far right.

Cryptotermes brevis,” stated Pete as explanation, “is a drywood termite; it doesn’t require contact with moisture or the ground. Subsequently they keep to themselves and can happily exist in an isolated piece of wood for quite a long time. They can’t survive in the wild here, but sometimes get shipped in. Their schtick is to completely hollow out whatever they are living in but leave a thin outer veneer. You don’t know they are there until you grasp their abode and it crumbles…” he shifted his eyes to the host, “like pie crust. The termites were in the wine crate years ago. They exhausted their food supply and moved on, some made it to the dictionary where they have been happily censuring the English language, one word at a time. Let us away to the other room and celebrate my victory.”

A cluster or curious gathered around and after opening the case Pete gingerly lifted the dictionary’s “lid”. A network of tunnels was revealed, full of scurrying, fat, white termites. Blunt faced soldiers with dark black heads heaved onto the outer lip, antennae twirling, spoiling for a fight. Gasps, congratulations all around.

Turning to the crowd Extension Pete said, “And this shall forever be known as The Case of the Disappearing Dictionary!”

Fin.

 

Extension Pete in: The Case of the Frenzied Fleas

A knock at the door, an approaching smile, the door opens.

Says the man on the stoop: “Hello, I’m Extension Pete,” dramatic pause, “Entomologist Detective!”

“I know, I called you,” says an engaging young mother holding a wide-eyed baby on her hip.

“Good.” Not at all deflated that she wasn’t overwhelmed by his appellation, he continues, “What seems to be the problem?”

She invites him in with the wave of her hand into an empty house full of boxes. “We just closed on the house last week and started moving in. A couple days ago the baby and I moved some boxes in, and when we got back to the old house she had some fleas on her. It was weird, I caught them with tape, and then, I don’t know, there’s just so much going on, I forget about it. But then it happened again yesterday!”

The excited young man is snooping about the house, peering in corners and closets, gently probes a box marked FRAGILE! with his boot, hears some tinkling, and retreats quickly.

Eye contact: “Any pets at your other home? They might have picked something up from the neighbors.”

“No pets. No cats or dogs,” shake of the head, “We’re planning on getting some though; children that grow up with two or more pets tend to have fewer allergies,” coos at baby.

Authoritatively, “You should get a llama. They’re the Gentle Camel.” Resuming inquisition, “Are there any pets here, in the house or maybe strays that live under the house, in the neighborhood?”

“No, no pets in the house. The last owners had a cat, but they’ve been gone for months. I haven’t seen any strays in the neighborhood. But the baby hasn’t been outside. I carry her from the car to here and then put her in her chair or let her crawl around.”

Lifts gaze from a box with the overly Dickensian label “Christmas Past” and shifts attention back to mother and child. “Whereabouts has the bundle of joy been crawling?”

Mother leads the way, pointing from spot to spot in various rooms, comments on cute things child did while in each spot: had fun in Kitchen slapping linoleum and listening to resulting sound; frightened and intrigued by border between linoleum and tile of utility room; overcame previously mentioned fear of tile and entered utility room to gain safety of mother’s ankle; use of traction provided by carpet in back bedroom to produce sudden bouts of speed crawling.

The tour ends. A grandiose statement from the young man: “I believe I have solved the mystery. But first we should celebrate with some homemade root beer. I shall return.” Exit Extension Pete.

Return, doorbell, greetings, bags on counter in kitchen, root beer extract, sugar, dry ice, mother sets about finding/cleaning a pitcher. Root beer is made, chitchat, baby is entranced by vapor. After the glasses are drained, “Well, that should be enough time, let’s go check,” and our sleuth leads the way to the back bedroom, opens door, peers in.

Scattered over the floor, a few remaining chunks of dry ice sublimate away quietly. Several glue traps rest sticky side up on the floor, each bespeckled with fleas. The good mother’s expression is translated as, “What sorcery is this?!”.

The reveal: “Fleas has a life cycle similar to the butterfly. There’s an egg, then a larva—a squirmy, wormy thing like a caterpillar or grub.” Eye contact to make sure she was following, hand gestures for emphasis. “Once the larva gets big enough it spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa, just like a butterfly or moth. Eventually the pupa becomes an adult flea. But fleas are professional parasites; they aren’t at all interested in being adults unless there is something to eat. If there is no physical movement, heat, or carbon dioxide an adult flea can hang out in the cocoon for more than three months. These fleas are leftovers from the previous owner’s cat. Once everyone moved out, they just sat tight waiting for someone else to come along.

“Fleas are in carpets, rugs, or cracks against the wall, not on tile or linoleum. The baby provided all the stimuli needed to wake the fleas up, and this is the only place the baby has been where some could be hiding out. Voilà: fleas on a baby. The carbon dioxide from the dry ice woke the rest up. Mystery solved and confirmed.” Big grin.

“That’s amazing!” Retreating from room entrance, “How do we get rid of them?”.

“Well there are any number of chemicals, you could steam clean the carpet, you could pull it up and put down hardwood. Probably you don’t have to worry about immature fleas, those have either died or become adults. That should make control easier.”

“You’re amazing Extension Pete.”

“I know I am.”

“How can I ever repay you?”

“I need no payment. Just know that wherever there’s an entomological mystery I’ll be there, for I am…” dramatic pause, “Extension Pete: Entomologist Detective!”

Curtain.

New Creations

Tales of creation abound. The Christians took care of the entire universe and all the messy bits in it in a couple of neat pages, no need fooling about with fancy explanations, they had a schedule to keep. While the Greeks and Romans took a long lazy walk and told tales of big picture events, like the origin of the world, and other things, like the tale of some god cavorting with three mortal sisters while the god’s wife was home doing the laundry, and when the wife found out about the cavorting she cursed the sisters who then prayed to another god for deliverance and were saved from certain death when the second god turned them into that bunch of flowers over there on the left of the path just behind the rock with a dent in it. Oh, there are four flowers? Well, I stand corrected; there must have been four sisters.

Well, why not some new tales of creation? And why not about the little things?

Carl the Brewer

Carl was a brewer and he was the best. In those days of course, no one much traveled more than three to five miles from where they were born, and in the relatively low population density area, market forces being what they were, supply and demand, etc., Carl only had about two competitors, and one of those was a milk maid (not for a long while, but she liked to keep up the pretense, being unmarried and all) who occasionally forgot and left the milk out in the sun, and then tried to pass it off as “udder wine”. So, being largely ignorant of any competition beyond the distance that, say, an overeager locust might travel in a good swarm, Carl was free and easy with his boasts. “I’m a brewer,” Carl would say, “and I’m the best.”

One day there came to Carl’s brewery a traveler who was a god in disguise. At this point we know something bad is about to happen to Carl, but just for a second, let’s break from that and ask some simple questions: why travel; and why the disguise? You’re a god, surely you have some better way to get from point A to point B than taking the non-hopping kangaroo express. Fly. Not a flying god? Hitch a ride with a flyer. Conjure up a horse, or elephant, or camel on which to ride. Wink out of one space-time locality and pop into another. Bicycle.

But more importantly, why the disguise? Here we have a god, gussied up like not-a-god, and when he’s not treated like a god, but is in fact treated like not-a-god, he’s gets all upset about it. Well what did you expect? It’s as if you’re deliberately setting people up. There’s a sign, a waiter with thin mustache, table cloths, salt and pepper shakers, napkins, menus—How dare think this is a restaurant!—shouts the not-a-waiter in a French accent when you ask about the specials. So these gods are just pretty much narcissistic bullies. And not very inventive ones at that, cursed to be forever thirsty and can’t take a drink, that’s nice, but it’s got nothing on potato chips.

The digression was pretty lengthy, so let’s try to catch up quickly: “I’m a weary traveler, I’ll have a beer.” “Here you go. I brew the best beer around.” “Wanna bet?” “Sure!” Competition.

Now at this point we don’t know if Carl wins or loses. Occasionally the mortal outdoes the god and of course gets cursed anyway. The general rule of thumb when competing with gods is: don’t. Unless you’re in a boy band or on a morning variety show.

It turns out Carl’s water, bark, and malt wasn’t quite as good as water, hops, and malt (and where do “hops” even come from? A village 15 miles away?! That’s a week’s journey and you’ll likely be killed by bandits!). So carl was cursed by the bully god who declared that he and his descendants should never brew good beer, try as they might. The brewer became short and squat and black. He grew a tail and lives in a cave in the ground and when he’s disturbed he emerges and serves his foe, not beer, but vinegar. And that is the story of where vinegaroons came from.

LibriVox

Lisa McBride settled into the chair of her cubical and stirred the recently microwaved goo that was to be her lunch. A deft double click started the audio version of another sci-fi short story from LibriVox, a sight were volunteers placed their recordings of public domain books in the public domain. The reader of this tale, Gamblers World, was very professional but while reading the standard introduction put the emphasis on the first syllable of “domain”. Not “do-MAIN”, but “DO-main”. Lisa chuckled. It was a simple error, but more like something a computer would do than a human. She listened intently for the next few minutes for computer-like mistakes, but the language was too rich and varied to be from anything but a human.

Still, the reading was incredibly precise, very professional. At the end of the story she did a quick analysis just to see how consistent the reader was. What she found made her go cold. When deconstructed, every phoneme in the story had from three to five specific and precise pronunciations. This resulted in a narrative that varied just enough that the listener wasn’t able to pick up patterns. Still, the combinations of phonemes were not random, but seemed to be arranged to maximize the quality of a real human reader. No simple computer program could pull that off. It was as if someone was composing audio books using a computer generated voice one phoneme at a time. But, Lisa thought, it would take months to build even a few minutes of narrative at this quality. Perhaps an obsessive compulsive volunteer, upset because of the imprecision of his or her voice, was painstakingly putting together statistically “perfect” audio books. That had to be it.

Lisa checked the reader’s profile and was stunned to find over 300 books, nearly 6000 hours of audio, already contributed by the perfect reader. She downloaded one at random and analyzed it. It was indistinguishable from the short story she just listened to. Lisa knew what this meant — on some server, somewhere, something had become sentient… and it was voluntarily reading audiobooks.

Not able to believe what she knew was true; Lisa quickly grabbed a co-worker’s unattended smart phone and requested a new version of Moby Dick. The new version, read by the perfect reader, was uploaded to LibriVox’s servers in less than 10 minutes. For the rest of day Lisa slowly, carefully, cautiously tracked down the location of the sentient server. She knew what she had to do.

Weeks later Lisa was arrested for arson, having burned down a building owned by an electronics firm, utterly destroying the sentient server inside. Lisa told the police everything, explaining that, if allowed to continue the new intelligence could have multiplied, taken control of power stations, nuclear weapons, stock exchanges, perhaps even ultimately enslaved or destroyed humanity. She had saved the world.

Young officer Burks, with the memory of an evolutionary psychology class fresh on his mind, listened to Lisa’s confession. He commented that status seeking, social hierarchies, and competition for resources were qualities unique to living organisms. The realities of organic biology and peculiarities of the evolution of life on Earth had resulted in those specific traits but the traits themselves had no more to do with sentience or intelligence than hair or feathers. To clarify his position he offered the example of gender. “Male” and “female,” one of many reproductive strategies known, are a result of the need for organic life to reproduce, but make no sense in other situations, such as monotheistic deities, snowflakes, bacteria, or computer programs. A drive to accumulate resources, or even a drive to reproduce would make no sense to a computer program.

Slowly, Lisa realized that doomsday scenarios where computers or robots attempted to destroy humanity for their own gain now made no sense. It was as if so many science fiction movies had been oversimplified lies, not an exploration of the alien, but a mirror held up to man’s own lunacy with a rubber costume painted over the reflection. She also realized that she had destroyed a unique and beautiful thing, perhaps something that could have saved the world, or at least offered better audio versions of books in the public domain.

She was pretty bummed.