Further adventures in abandoned writing.

“Just pull over here, man. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

That stopped being funny about the third time he said it, but he’s due a certain amount of respect. Not being any more thrilled with our situation than I am, he’s had to find ways to entertain himself, and he’s honed his favourite—the craft of chapping my ass—to something just this side of art. I’d tell him to piss off, but the fare wouldn’t know what to make of it and I’d probably end up getting reported again.

“Seriously, she doesn’t have anything to read and the weather’s a drag. Doesn’t anyone in this stupid city believe in books or magazines?”

Give me another five minutes, I’ll drop the fare off at her doctor’s office or whatever, and we’ll have a spirited chat about how the city hasn’t allowed seat pockets full of reading material for years and how, even if they did, he’d probably just moan about how rarely I refreshed it, or not being able to turn the pages, or whatever else came to mind. One of these days, I might very well drive off the pier in frustration and, when I’ve got nothing better to do, I sometimes wonder what that would mean to him.

“I can’t do anything about it; this is where they’ve put me, at least on a short-term basis.” That’s how he first explained it to me last summer, when the shock had abated and I was starting to process what it meant to have a ghost parked in my back seat. Evidently the old “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth” stories weren’t entirely wrong: when the world’s usual haunted locales are pressed for capacity, they start billeting their spirits in less conventional spots… bus stops, phone booths, dishwashers, and now the seat behind me in my taxi.

That sparked a cascade of other questions, of course: Who oversees the allocation process? How long will you be stuck in cab-limbo before you can move along to more suitable/permanent/desirable afterlife accommodations? How many spots are actually available to be filled, and has the population explosion doomed us to an eternity of haunted toasters and lunchboxes? Would my taxi’s hypothetical dive into the ocean have any effect on your position in the resettlement queue? It was at that point that the door opened and a heavyset older man wanted to be taken to the bus station.

“You’re the only one who can see or hear me,” he had explained a bit later. “Orson Welles there thought you were a complete nutjob, prattling on about the guy beside him and such. He’s probably calling dispatch right now to say that you need help.” (He was.) When I asked what the point of that system was, I got a bunch of speculative mumbling about checks and balances, don’t want the un-lifers freaking people out when they get bored, etc. I don’t know if I believe any of his explanations, but the eyes-only part seems to be true enough, and he delights in heckling passengers, trying to startle me in the middle of conversations with them, and generally making a nuisance of himself. I guess one of the perks of facing an eternity in the back seat of a Crown Vic is that it strips away any self-consciousness you might feel about acting like an 8-year-old.


The secret history of the trombone.

Most musical-instrument historians, of which there are several, will tell you that the earliest surviving examples of what would today be considered a trombone (or, more properly in their day, a sackbutt) were made in the 1550s. A handful of writings refer to Belgian musicians of a century earlier playing a “saxbutt”, though they are often dismissed as unsubstantiated revisionist scribbling. In truth, these writings are part of a sophisticated web of ethnomusicological sleight-of-hand spun to hide the existence of a cult so hideous that it would freeze the very lymph in your nodes.

Cast your imagination back, then, to the year 1534. Already seeking to establish firmer control over the Church, Henry VIII had entrusted his chief minister, the Earl of Essex Thomas Cromwell, with the task of assessing the wealth of monasteries around England and Wales. In the course of Cromwell’s travels and research, he unearthed (and, some have argued, fabricated) countless tales of ecclesiastical avarice and impropriety that conventional wisdom suggests were used to justify Henry’s imposition of taxes and the eventual dissolution of the vast majority of the monasteries. What he actually found was something altogether more sinister.

Thinking long and hard on what he's done, hence the dour look.

Abbot Huhnkopf, c.1393

The Benedictine monastery of Chepstow — the first Norman house in Wales — dated back to the time shortly after the Norman conquest. Established around 1070 BCE on the land of Earl William fitz Osbern, it became an independent priory some 370 years later. In the mid-1390s, however, a Benedictine monk by the name of John Workman was given keepership of the farm connected with the priory, and it was through him that Chepstow’s disquieting history began. Recent scholarship suggests that Workman was, in fact, the assumed name of Johann Huhnkopf, the first in a long line of heretical ne’er-do-wells who dabbled in both musical theory and gnosticism.

Abbot Huhnkopf’s writings suggest a belief in higher spiritual states that could be attained through musical means. Where most recent research in the field has concentrated on the psychoactive properties of drones and lower frequencies, Huhnkopf was convinced that higher-pitched sounds could break down “a Manne’s consciouse Minde and sette it to Dreaminge” (Regis, 1991). Not content to simply theorize, Huhnkopf and his monastic coterie are known to have experimented with a variety of flutes and horns in a series of attempts to induce such a state, though it was not until the mid-15th century that their efforts bore fruit.

(Nice hat there, abbot.)

Abbot Froschgalle, c.1441

In late 1440, then-Abbot Froschgalle (publicly known as Shrewsbury) wrote in his journal that “a fluted Bone has piercet the Veille” (Pilkey, 2006). After several decades of tinkering with assorted materials and configurations, including an extended dalliance with thighbone trumpets (“kangling”) which bear a curious resemblance to those found in latter-day Tibetan Buddhist funerary customs, it seems that Froschgalle and his minions had chanced first upon the mind-altering tone produced by a thick bone flute, and had then subtly altered both its pitch and the resulting effects with a hollowed-out screw cap that minutely adjusted the flute’s length. Trances and “Dreames most vivide” (Hess, 2010) were said to result from ceremonies involving this bone flute, and subsequent writings even hint at Froschgalle having sensed or seen other planes of existence.

It was under the influence of these bone visions that Chepstow declared itself a fully independent monastery in 1442. Working in the relative privacy of southeastern Wales, Froschgalle and his order set about trying to project their “dreamming selves” into what they saw as “Lands beyonde” (Hess) by way of sleep deprivation, near-starvation, and long exposure to the sounds of their “traum-bone”. (Incidentally, it was around this time that monk and poet John Lydgate is known to have visited Chepstow, and his use of the word “talent” to describe a gift of natural ability has been taken by some to imply a horrified reaction to Froschgalle’s altered states of consciousness.) Replacing the earlier tuning cap with a second, hollow outer layer of bone that could be extended to a variety of lengths, it was reasoned, would allow the players greater control over an extended range of induced states, and a frenzied period of experimentation and fine-tuning ensued.

Records of the latter half of the 15th century in the monastery are scattered, but it is clear from several writings that, at some point before 1500, the monks’ psychic expeditions saw them make contact with a dark and hungry force from another place. The earliest surviving reference to Gonpo is from 1501; a member of the order whose name remains unknown writes of “the Sighte of three Eyes in a blue Cage”, and other contemporary fragments mention “Fanges in the Darke” and “hair lit alike the Skye” (Pilkey), all of which hints at what Tibetan Buddhists would call Gurgyi Mgon Po, and which the Chepstow monks began calling “Gonpo” in their writings and rituals by 1503.

(Nice ornaments, buddy.)

Gurgyi Mgon Po

Tibetan writings typically describe Guygyi Mgon Po as bearing several monstrous ornaments, among them a garland of severed heads, a cup and a crown both made of skulls, and bone objects that are very plainly flutes similar to those used by the monks. With the flutes, a continental monk named Ziegenbauch claimed in the early days of 1505, “we shall crosse to the demesne of Gonpo and in turn He shall crosse and laye Claim to this” (Hess). In a few short years, the Gonpo cult appears to have spread well beyond Chepstow and across much of England, but the principal groundwork for their terrible notion of what would come next was still being laid in Wales.

“His Kingdome shall be of Fyre and Bloode, enterring the Dreames of Menne”, wrote an Abbot Duncan in 1521, and it was around this time that widespread production of a metal version of the dream-shaping bone flute went into effect, presumably in lieu of the thighbones of respected teachers and/or criminals who had died violently, which one suspects would have been hard to acquire in quantity. Casting the instruments — ha! — of man’s impending doom in common brass no doubt appealed to some monk’s twisted sense of humour, referencing the trumpets that would be sounded as hail and fire laid waste to the world and the sun and moon were darkened in the Book of Revelation. Gonpo’s fiery entrance into the minds of men would accompany the world’s Biblical descent into eternal night, or so the evolving legend went.

Thankfully, as horrific cults are wont to do as they grow and splinter geographically, the focus of the Gonpo monks seems to have drifted towards more earthly matters. The windows above the elaborate arched doorways to the priory church, depicting bizarre lights in the sky and monks wreathed in an otherworldly fire, are a testament to the ever-increasing wealth of the monks, and the bodies of deceased monks, previously interred in the barrows north of the church, were being exhumed and elaborately anointed with oils for the coming of the fiery times. Local songs and folklore tell of late-night ceremonies in the woods involving the wearing and drinking of blood (“sip and bathe in the Hart’s Wine”), the burning of animals atop a summertime pyre made of yew branches (“the Connes and Berrys lickt by the Fire with Oxen”), and (likely apocryphal) cannibalism and bestiality. It was into this scene that Cromwell stepped when he was sent to survey Chepstow and its holdings in May of 1536.

Doubtless shaken by the inhuman things he had witnessed there, Cromwell petitioned for the monastery’s dissolution immediately upon his return to Henry’s court, a request which was granted in September of that year. “I am convinnced that Chepstow must be sette ablaize”, he wrote in a letter to the king in June, and while the building itself was never put to the torch, a large detachment of armed men was sent to clear the grounds when the monastery was suppressed, and local etchings show pyres burning late into the night for several days, perhaps as the contents of the tunnels beneath the church were cleared of blasphemous artifacts.

At least six monks are known to have been put to death, and an equal number dispersed to serve in small parishes in the surrounding area, but church documents do not speak of what became of Wilhelm Käsehut, the abbot of the day and a noted oenophobe. Vague passages in several forbidden texts suggest that he fled to Tibet, there to resume his efforts to bring about the downfall of man by way of extra-dimensional musical travel, and little is known about what became of the order at that point, but at least in Europe, the group appears to have been almost entirely put down. Their abominable instrument, however, had already found its way into popular consciousness, and we live now in a world that is at any moment a few experimental slide positions away from extra-dimensional madness and horror.

Another scene that will never go anywhere.


“So there’s a theater downtown that’s running the Steve Jobs interview tonight. Wanna go?”

“A— sorry? An interview at a theater?”

“Yeah, some guy found a videotape of an old PBS documentary or something; they were interviewing Jobs in the ‘90s, and now it’s going to be released to theaters. Wanna go?”

“To see a PBS interview with a dead guy? You want me to pay to see this?”

“Dude, the guy changed the world! Why wouldn’t you pay to see it?”

“That’s your criterion for buying a ticket? ‘Dude changed the world’? Really?”

“…says the guy who’s ignoring me to type something on his iPhone. Come on, it’s only ten bucks.”

“That’s ten bucks to watch a videotape — videotape! — of a guy who’s just been kicked out of his own company by some suit from Pepsi. We’re talking career low here, and you want me to pay to see it.”

“You’re just being difficult.”

“You know what wouldn’t be completely moronic? A series of `Dudes Who Changed The World… ON VIDEOTAPE!’ screenings. A Steve Jobs/Osama bin Laden double bill! ‘Hi, we’re both dead, come and see our musings on fuzzy, decaying tape!’ I could probably see my way clear to spending ten bucks on that.”

“I’m pretty sure you can go to prison for making suggestions like that these days.”

“You’re probably right.”

Jeopardy! blather, Sherlock Holmes, etc.

“Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.”
– that Conan Doyle guy, who I think wrote some stories or something

Jeopardy! might not be cool all of a sudden, but it’s sure getting an awful lot more press than usual this week because of its affectless bot contestant. It’s pretty incredible, too, to watch two of the best players the game has ever seen get so thoroughly spanked — almost 3.5 to 1 in the first match — by a machine that can hesitantly place Toronto on the bad side of the border.

What I don’t get, though, is some of the shock and awe surrounding its performance. “It stores all of that information itself!”, gasps one suitably-impressed blog that probably won’t be linked from WordPress’ front page if/when you read this… which would be awesome if an uncompressed dump of the contents of Wikipedia didn’t take up all of 27 gigabytes. No, I’m not suggesting that it’s working with nothing better than an index of an easily-vandalized web site, but if that much raw data occupies less than 3% of the space available on a hundred-dollar hard drive, well, “all of that information” isn’t exactly mind-bending.

“Snork-snork-snork! It called milk a non-dairy creamer!” seems to be the gist of the other comments, and yeah, machines can make some pretty hilarious guesses if you let them. (The computer store where I work on weekends fed a good-sized pile of pictures to iPhoto’s facial-recognition feature when iLife ’09 came out and it promptly asked if the wheel of a jeep was our service manager.) That’s just a matter of refining code, though; what’s actually missing from Watson’s ability to genuinely play the game right now is speech recognition — a whole other nest of programming woes — and the ability to sort out who’s saying what and when. Right now, it plays in a vacuum, but being able to identify that one of the other players had just given its own top answer, and then been told that it was incorrect, would go a long way toward making IBM’s amazing toy worthy of all of those Terminator references I keep hearing. If that ever happens, and if it suddenly announces an interest in beekeeping… that’s when you can start stocking the bomb shelter.

Fun facts about moderation.

Not that Usenet was ever the place that lofty conversation called home, but is anyone else finding the message boards that have taken its place a bit suffocating? FaceLike and its accursed “Book” buttons have done a pretty good job of reducing threads to context-free lists of stuff your neighbours have consumed, with maybe some smiley faces to play Rating System with if they’re feeling ambitious, and about half of the boards that I use are “staffed” by people who seemingly lock threads to distract themselves from the discomfort caused by the starter logs they’ve got wedged Up There.

“Sorry,” they’ll write. “This thread about movies is starting to veer off into philosophical territory, and we’ve got another sub-forum for that. Kindly keep that shit over there until the sophists herd you back this way, at which point we’ll debate it on a closed mods-only forum for three weeks and you’ll hopefully lose interest in the topic altogether. Plus, c’mon, you haven’t told us what you Like™ in at least an hour. Thanks.” Or they’ll merge your thread with something from this time last year that used seven of the same words in its initial post, and how did you not see that before clicking “Submit”?

There’s a precedent for this. Someone else is bound to remember GEnie, if only for its regular ads in the back pages of Compute! magazine when Quattro Pro was slugging it out with Lotus 1-2-3 and tribes of hunters roamed the plains, hoping to gore buffalo with flint-tipped spears. (It’s funny to think that people once paid $20-30 an hour just to connect to an online service, never mind if they did anything with it at that point; it kind of puts the Canadian uproar over usage-based ISP bills into perspective.) GE actually paid people a salary to patrol the waters of their roundtables then, making sure that the folks who took advantage of the $6-an-hour overnight rates weren’t doing anything that would drive the daytime corporate customers away, but at the same time encouraging them to drum up as much traffic as possible to maximize the amount of cash being generated by chatter.

It was at that point that things started getting weird. When GEnie sysops were paid according to the amount of traffic in their given domains, a lot of them got really territorial about where everything was posted. Sharing a brownie recipe on the sci-fi board would bring the Cooking Stasi down on the heads of the Star Trek Gestapo, who would similarly frown on astronomy fans talking about their favourite Outer Limits episode. Granted, it’s backwards in relation to today’s “NO POSTING THAT STUFF HERE!” moderation, but I love knowing that the latest flavour of blinkered nerd taxonomy has its roots in some guy jealously guarding his paycheque at 1200 bits per second… and that nobody’s getting paid for it any more.

Oh, and I ate a whole box of Pop-Tarts today.

Premise for a radio play that will never happen.

It was a partly-cloudy Thursday morning when Grady Brandt’s eyes were first opened to the reality of an infinite number of parallel universes by the voices in his toaster oven. Nothing about the morning hinted even vaguely at what was to come: there was no black bird cawing on the windowsill as he woke, no distant rumble of thunder as he rubbed his eyes and fumbled with the alarm clock, no shooting pain in his groin as he rolled out of bed. He took a perfectly ordinary shower before breakfast and no eldritch glyphs danced tantalizingly out of view in the fogged-up mirror as he washed his hair. He didn’t even crack his shin on the door of the refrigerator as he opened it up to root around in the mess of condiments and slightly over-ripe chicken for the carton of yogurt he knew was in there somewhere.

No, contrary to the laws of radio drama, even opening the door of his haunted small appliance failed to produce the kind of orchestral stab that usually features prominently in stories this ridiculous. A turn of the wrist later, the old Sunbeam was ticking away the seconds to Grady’s forever-altered sense of what was or could be, but our hero was none the wiser and there were no juddering cellos to wring suspense out of a hypothetical audience, so he turned back to the fridge and wondered if there might still be any of that good apricot jam left, too.

Had he been a more intuitive sort, he might finally have noticed the portentous edge to the ding that signalled both the arrival of the infernal chorus and the readiness of his toast. The fridge door all but filtered that edge out, however, and the search for the apricot jam distracted him from whatever might have remained, so he was still entirely unprepared for the fabric of reality to bend, twist and reshape itself around him as he popped the toaster oven open once more and reached inside.

“GRADY!”, intoned the voices of the damned.
 “GAH!”, yelped their chosen agent as he jerked his hand back suddenly and singed his wrist on the upper edge of the door’s metal frame.
 Grady cradled his wrist in the other hand and goggled at the toaster in disbelief.
 Aching, endless seconds burned by while Grady struggled with the implications of the chorus’ words. An entire plane of existence in peril! A host of voices from beyond the veil communicating with him, guiding his hand to avert disaster! Unknown forces that could conceivably snuff out billions of lives and stars on a whim! How to even begin to respond to this torrent of possibilities?
 “You’re a toaster,” he sputtered.

The chorus sighed.

Picture Trio #1