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The Northern Spy
April 2007

Horace before Descartes

Rick Sutcliffe

2007 04 01: Exclusive to The Northern Spy

Following a long plane ride, a session with lost baggage (you know how these foreign airlines can be) and several passport checks, I arrived precisely on time for an interview so secret even governments knew nothing of it.

I was met by a burly couple who both looked capable of dismantling me for spare parts with their bare hands on an executive suite whim, or just to get their jollies. The not-so-gentleman on the left must have massed a hundred forty kilos. He moved with glacial caution, as though some sudden movement might tear him apart from the sheer force. The Amazon on the right was taller, leaner, catlike in a predatory way, obviously the more dangerous. Both wore sunglasses darker then their suits. Neither had nametags. I hung the mental monickers "Sasquatch" and "Cougar" on the pair. Perhaps the latter was prescient, but I won't suggest that idea aloud.

Cougar did the talking. "Name and business." There was no "please" or "thank-you" to this one.

"Rick Sutcliffe, the Northern Spy," I replied.

"We don't respond well to that word around here," she gruffly informed me, and for a moment I wondered if my will was in order.

"'The Northern Spy' is the name of my syndicated column. Started scribblin' it in 1983. Here's my press pass." I held it out, but she declined to touch it. Perhaps she was concerned about viruses.

"Walk in front of me to the green door to the left of the store," she instructed. "No sudden moves."

Then, once I had complied, "Pass face down on the scanner. Should it answer back with a green light, follow with your left thumb and right index finger. Should those happen to be accepted, step forward and look into the camera for a retina scan." Her voice was as friendly as a greenie chatting up an oil industry exec.

There was a slight sigh of disappointment behind me when the third test showed green and the door clicked open. I idly speculated on how she would have disposed of my remains had I failed the credentials check.

"When the door closes, strip completely. Leave all your clothes and belongings in the locker. Walk through the second door, pause until you see a green light, then put on the coverall you'll see hanging at the opposite end. Drape the lanyard beside it over your head so the card is visible from the front. Should you still be in our system we will meet you thirty-one spot two seconds after you exit via the green door. Otherwise, and when your business is over, you'll run an undo on the above steps. Do not under any circumstances attempt to pass through a red door with that lanyard around your neck, or a green one without it."

I gestured at the computer I was carrying, a certified genuine laptop I hoped was the right brand to not give offence in this place. Religious zealots have to be treated with kid gloves. "Will I be permitted this to take notes?"

"No electronic instruments of any kind may be transported by visitors on the site. Leave it with your clothes. Rule five, paragraph three, bullet one, subpoint iii," she shot back. "If you are granted an interview, you will be told how it will be recorded." She sounded like she believed no such thing was possible, so recording was of no moment.

Two more scans, a strip search, and three interviews later (security lieutenant with a dossier going back to what my grandmother liked for breakfast, psychologist probing my mental stability and preferences in politics and explosives, and a dentist), we three formed a procession across the interior lawn of the installation, they still in their anonymizing suits, me clad in a shapeless bright orange garment that fairly screamed "security hazard."

I dared wonder aloud about the dentist, but Cougar tartly informed me that some peoples' mouth chemistry reportedly allowed dentures to receive radio signals. They were just making sure. I didn't dare turn around, but a reflection in a glass sculpture showed me Sasquatch following several paces behind Cougar, just in case their scanner and local shrink were both wrong about yours truly as a potential terrorist threat.

"We stopped at three more doors, took an elevator several levels up, then traversed two corridors. At every transition, my lanyard tag was scanned, as were my guards' thumbprints. I saw so many dark suits and sunglasses I began thinking they were all clones of Sasquatch. For a while I was blindfolded, and by the time this was removed, I'd lost track of distance and direction, and found myself passing through a thick steel door like those in bank vaults into a sterile and windowless hallway. This joint looked proof against an attack with bunker breaker missiles. More to the point, I'd neither be able to guide anyone here nor relate what part of the installation I'd entered.

Two more security checkpoints later I stood before a desk bearing no name, merely the designation "executive secretary". No need to ask whose. I wondered to myself whether anonymity was to protect her, or if the position had so short an average tenure there was no point in wasting money on names. I glanced around. No inner office door was apparent.

"Ah," she announced brightly, "you must be the nine-thirty. If you will allow me to scan your campus credentials, Sir."

"I extended my lanyard yet another time, and felt considerable surprise as she rose to take it, for by contrast to my "companions" she was barely (oh, go for the old imperial units, why not) five feet tall. Quite a looker, too, if you liked spiked purple hair and lip rings. I looked away to hide my distaste, spotted the calluses on the sides of her hands, then took in the karate trophy atop the filing cabinet. Ah.

"Very good, Sir," she disarmingly continued. "Now for a procedural matter or two. You will have twenty minutes in the office, not a second more. Our escorts will accompany you. You will make no sudden movements. The entire interview will be recorded by our equipment and edited by our staff and company lawyers for any errors before being emailed to you at your address of record in approximately one month. We trust this will ensure accuracy, and of course we disclaim any transcript you claim to produce by memory or some other means you have that we might have missed on your way in. Neither may you disclose any facts not in the official record, or write about the interview until after the product release date. Will that be satisfactory?" I think you'd call her expression a smile, but....

Any "yes" I might have essayed was apparently redundant. "Sign this release," she said, disdaining to await my reply.

I complied, barely noting the part about civil and criminal penalties. At least the document didn't lay claim to my firstborn. He's about to be married and, despite that most weddings these days could take place with a cardboard cutout and a tape recorder standing in for the groom, a foreclosure might unduly inconvenience the bride afterward.

"Hood him, Three." For my edification, or the lack thereof, the guards were apparently numeric rather than patronymic.

A large dark hood was thrust over my head, and tied loosely around my midriff so I couldn't even watch floor tile patterns. These people were thorough. No interview with Osama could have been more secure. I was turned several times, walked about a few minutes through more changes of direction than you'd find in a bag of pretzels, then halted. About another minute passed, then a buzzer sounded.

"Right," announced the perky secretary with the deadly hands, "the nine-ten has just left with One and Two. Let's do this one."

A whine followed, and I imagined a portion of wall sliding aside. Urged forward, I finally entered the room to which I'd spent so many influence chips to secure a visit. Moments later my hood was removed, and to my utter shock, I found myself facing, not the iCEO here at One Infinite Loop, but wSteve instead.

He favoured me with a warm smile. "iSteve was busy off campus, and I Woz available, so rather than disappoint your readers, I'll be conducting your briefing," he advised, bouncing around the desk to greet me with an enthusiastic handshake. "I don't spend much time on campus, but the technology we're showing you this morning is something I tinkered up working after school hours in my own basement then perfected in my Apple Fellow office down the hall once my old buddy iSteve got a loo at it."

"It's good to see you after all these years," I enthused in return.

"Last time was Vancouver, mid eighties, he recalled."

"You addressed Apples BC," I agreed, "and afterward some of us inducted you into S.A.G.E. as member number, oh, it was either six or seven as I recall."

"Serious Apple Group, Eh? An exclusive Canadian club. What's your number, if I may ask?"

"One. We went by age to start with, and Archie was older so he got zero."

"Of course. Well, let's get down to business." He removed three locks from and opened a cubical case on the desk, extracting from it a striped skullcap surmounted by what seemed like several limp tinfoil leaves and a central metal pole. I caught a glimmer of wire mesh inside as he turned it over in his hands.

"Ever heard of René-Prosper Blondlot?"

"The turn-of-the-last-century scientist? Of course."

"His 1906 discovery that human beings gave off N-rays was heavily criticized at the time, but like many geniuses, he was merely unappreciated. I've done a follow-up."

"You've done something with them?" I was astonished.

"Quite a bit, actually. Watch." He donned the cap, and at once the loose metal leaves rose slightly into the air and began spinning around the little metal pole that stuck up from the cap about three centimetres. "Powered by body heat," he remarked, almost absentmindedly, "saves the weight of batteries and helps keep the head cool in the summer. Now what's the right thought pattern for the password to turn on iSteve's screen? Ah, here we go," he announced, as much of the wall behind him suddenly lit to display an OS X screen. The machine generating it must have been out of sight, perhaps under the great one's desk. "Now, we'll fire up iWrite...." As he spoke, the indicated application started, and soon displayed an empty document template. He hadn't touched a thing.

He already had me hooked. "How does it work?"

"The mesh inside the cap detect and amplify the N-rays given off by the brain. The blades intercept the amplified signal and detect changes at intervals determined by their spin, then the circuitry in the post digitizes these and drops them into the net at the nearest AirPort. Takes a little training, but you can easily control a computer, hands off."

"By thought alone?" This was stunning.

"Yes, of course. I called the system "Rene", but iSteve wants to market it as 'iThink'. It's Leopard's secret feature, the killer app that'll obsolete word processors." As he spoke, his words also formed on the screen, but then, even though he stopped talking, they were followed with, "especially Billg's bilge". A graphic of a certain dominant office product appeared, only to animatedly tear itself in two. This was followed by "He'll probably succeed, too. iSteve's an even better marketing genius than Billg, even if just as much a twit in person."

"Whoops, I shouldn't have said, er...thought that. Strike those words from the record, will you." He glanced over my shoulder to the office minions, and the word "goons of his" appeared briefly on the screen, then were erased.

But before Ms. Karate could acknowledge his order, the screen has also displayed, "iSteve would kill me for that, but even if he's the same guy who outed the Apple //x back in the eighties, there's no need for some lamebrained reporter to.... Oops, sorry, did it again. No offence. Gotta adjust the sensitivity."

This was followed by a momentary pause, then his stomach involuntarily rumbled, and what appeared to be a grocery list began displaying. He glanced up, frowned, and commented, "My wife wants me to make tacos tonight. They're one of her favourites." But the screen rendered this as "their" one of, and seeing it, he added, "thought recognition software needs a few tweaks. Gets the odd word wrong. Still, it's my best piece of work since I wrote Apple ][ DOS in one sitting, way back in the day."

Meanwhile, tacos, groceries, and wife had apparently kick-started further thought-word association, and before he could stop himself, a picture of a woman appeared on the wall. She seemed to be getting closer, eyes closed and lips pursed, as if for a steamy kiss. His wife, I assumed.

At that I had the inspiration that would both rescue his thoughts and simultaneously prove the interview's undoing. "Say," I brightly probed, "I don't suppose you could comment on any Mac hardware releases the company has planned for the same date Leopard comes out."

"Not a chance," he shot back, but fast as thought, schematics, pictures and specifications snapped onto the screen. Expecting the automatic reaction, I struggled to memorize what I could.

8-cores over two processors, more speed, bigger drives, more and faster memory, bluetooth, blu-ray and HDTV combo drive, steel blue box and packing, built-in wide-range 802.11n, code-named iBlue, and bundled with.... I devoured the inadvertently disgorged info for all of three seconds before anyone could react, then was roughly seized from behind, spun about, re-hooded, and unceremoniously bundled from the premises. They didn't even give me time to dress, just dumped me on the outer lawn by the store entrance, and tossed my things on top of me. My Targus bag with the Mac inside nearly took my breath away as it hit me in the solar plexus.

Worse, when the file of my interview with wSteve arrived in the eMail this morning, it was empty. Discrete enquiries were met with "We do not comment on unannounced products," so, officially, and for a few more days at least, it's a cast of "iThink is not", and neither, I suppose are the shiny new blue boxes wSteve thought upon. Guess iBlue that one, but you read it here first.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


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Last Updated: 2007 04 01