There was a rustling of unknown origin in the tall grass. A strange
shape appeared lumbering around in the grasslands at the edge of the
forest. As soon as these anomalies appeared on the Laboratory’s sonar,
Viktor and Einida set aside the natural human emotions of fear and
dread, and gathered their gear, to go out into the cold, dark night in
order to investigate this mystery.
A coyote howled. Allowing herself a shred of human emotion, Einida
contemplated the possibility of a hideous death from a pack of Canis
“What was that?,” hissed Einida after hearing the rustling of more grass.
“Grass rustling,” whispered Viktor, with unhelpful obviousness.
“Iknow that. But what caused…?”
“Not enough data has been collected….,” interrupted Viktor.
They stared in the direction of the noise through night-vision goggles.
“The hell?!…,” sputtered Viktor.
“It…it… looks like a donkey? But it’s so tiny,” Einida said in
“How can such a stalwart animal become miniaturized? The donkey is the
most noble friend of humankind, if one chooses to ignores the whole
‘noble dog’ notion. Do you suppose someone’s invented a shrinking ray
gun for animals? Or have mad scientists been tinkering with the genetics
of these darling donkeys?”
“Well,” said Einida, slipping as usual into lecture mode, “the donkey
has served humankind for thousands of years, as a pack animal, a source
of dairy products, and even as a form of transportation. Donkeys have
been so important to civilization that they were buried in the royal
tombs in Egypt. I could go on, as the history of the donkey is quite
“Yes, I do not doubt you, but what purpose could a miniature donkey
serve? It can’t carry much on its back. It isn’t big enough to scare off
a coyote. What practical use would they serve, and who would create such
a bizarre distortion of the natural order?”
Einida pointed a red light at the donkey’s hindquarters. “What’s that
tied to his tail?”
Viktor gently grabbed the tail and untied a bow. An envelope fluttered
into the dry grass. Viktor quickly opened it and started reading aloud.
“Dear Esteemed Colleagues,
I discovered these mysteriously miniaturized equines and I am baffled by
their utility. I urge you to study them closely and to develop some
research studies that will determine their abilities. What are these
magnificent asses good for?
Unfortunately, the study of animal behavior is not my area of specialty
and so I have donated two diminutive donkeys to your Laboratory in hopes
that you can answer these questions.
An Anonymous Scientist.”
The grass rustled again as a second donkey stumbled into the light.
Viktor took out his radio and said, “Mr. Adams, come in. I have an
urgent pick-up for two… er, minute donkeys at this grid reference….”
After giving the coordinates to Mr. Adams, the Laboratory’s resident
groom, Viktor thought for a moment. He rubbed his hands with glee and
said, “Just imagine the opportunity that has been dumped into our laps,
as it were–the chance to delve into the brains of these amazing
animals, to explore the intricacies of their thoughts, their emotions,
their etiquette….There’s no time to waste! To the Stockade!”
But Viktor’s curiosity had gotten the better of his good sense, for he
was soon to find out that despite his desire to harness and shape these
petite equines, these Liliputian neddies were his equal and indeed his
superior in certain areas, to the extent that it was by no means sure as
to which of them, at the end of the evaluations, would be proved the
master and which the ass.
For the technical details on how to build your own Reactive Targets MKIII system, complete with schematics, project notes and source code, please go here
A barrage of bullets pinged off the targets. Sounds of merriment echoed throughout the store.
Einida clapped with delight and said, “Oh Viktor, we simply must build one of these at the Lab.” (“One of these” being a pellet rifle range of toys with lighted targets.)
The targets were mounted onto the sides of stuffed anime character toys. When a target lit up, Einida shot it with a pellet rifle. The final score was the number of toys shot in sixty seconds.
“I do suppose,” replied Viktor, “we need more games to train the staff in such important skills as reaction times, precision shooting, how to handle a fire arm….Oh, and Dr. Phil has been asking for a training range to develop his ‘quick draw from a holster’ technique. Ever since he started watching Spaghetti Westerns, he’s been trying to learn how to shoot like an outlaw.”
Einida blinked for a moment and then said, “I’m not sure that teaching Dr. Phil how to shoot like an outlaw is a good idea or a bad one, but I’m all for an electronic shooting range. And let us offer thanks to the Lord Jehovah, to Zeus, or to the ghost of the late Sergio Leone that Dr. Phil’s Spaghetti Western obsession has at least thus far not caused him to start wearing Eastwoodian ponchos and smoking stinky little Italian cheroots.”
And so, months passed….
“Oh, this does call for a celebration,” chirped Einida.”The ‘Reactive Targets MKIII system’ finally works!”
“Isn’t the act of shooting NERF® bullets at these interactive targets celebration enough?,” retorted Viktor with the raised eyebrow of an expert attorney engaged in cross-examination.
“Well, actually yes,” Einda conceded, settling into the exposition portion of the article. “Being able to use the NERF® system of guns and bullets to train on the targets has changed everything. It actually adds a light-hearted aspect to what was formerly a serious activity. Back when we first started prototyping the reactive targets, I used my Airsoft Profession Training Pistol on these targets.Training was more formal.”
“Quite, and it was because of the difficulty some of the staffers had in shooting Airsoft that led me to consider NERF®. Though Laboratory rules clearly state that Airsoft training sessions shall be conducted with all of the care and safety one would use when training with a real firearm, I kept hearing incidents of astonishing violations, such as staffers shooting after experiments with intoxicating beverages, staffers getting unhinged and shooting at everything in the range, or….”
Viktor got a faraway look in his eyes which meant that he was either having flashbacks about episodes of colic from his infancy, or that he was floating away on a gentle wave of scientific and intellectual ponderings. He thought about the fact that the word “NERF” has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to a delightful foam toy, it also means “to take something difficult and and to make it easy,” as in the popular saying around the Lab that someone “NERFED the physics engine.”
“Tee-hee, I NERFED the NERF® targets,” Viktor tittered to himself, while mentally patting himself on the back.
Einida, interrupting his reverie, said, “It would seem that the staff has been seeking out the fun part of ‘Super Fun Adventure Quest Time’ to the detriment of safety.”
“Ah, but now, by using indoor toys, we can train their shooting accuracy and reaction times in a safe, yet fun manner,” Viktor smiled.
“Oh, and I can still use this system to practice my Wild West Outlaw shooting method with Airsoft and NERF®, since both types of guns work,” added Dr. Phil, who had slipped into the room wearing brand-new cowboy boots which added at least three inches to his height. He brushed his new three-day growth of beard with the back of a sun-tanned hand, and slowly loaded his NERF® gun with a steely squint in his eye.
For the technical details on how to build your own Reactive Targets MKIII system, complete with schematics, project notes and source code, please go here.
“You have to meet me at the gas station. I have something very important to give you.”
My eyebrows shot up.”But you’re contagious. You’ve been sick for weeks. There’s no possible way I can meet someone with an upper respiratory infection.”
“I know you’ll meet me because I have something you want. I’ve invented something new. And I know that you’ll want to show it off at your party on Saturday,” said the caller in a congested whisper.
“Oh, for crying out loud! Then I guess I’ll have to meet you, after all.” I sighed and hung up the phone.
“Surely, you’re not going to meet the Master while he’s so sick?,” Einida asked with a concerned tone in her voice.
“Actually, we both shall be meeting with him. You know I cannot possibly resist the lure of a new invention, or the urge to be the first person to show one off to our colleagues….Be sure to pack along your anti-flu suit….You’re going to need it,” I added grimly.
A few minutes later, Einida, clad in a white Tyvek flu suit, climbed out of the car. She startled a person at a gas pump, who apparently thought representatives from the Centers for Disease Control had come to town to deal with a virulent new strain of flesh-eating virus.
I stayed safely in the car, well away from the sickness.
Bellanger K. Shahhat, Esquire, the celebrated master woodworker and joiner, met Einida in the gas station parking lot and handed her a small, item wrapped in greasy rags.
Einida quickly sealed the bundle in a plastic bag, in order to keep any germs from spreading. Then she placed that into several more plastic bags, the bags in an ice chest, and the ice chest in yet another plastic bag–albeit a very large one. She was taking no chances.
Twitching his pointy nose, tittering, and leering, Bellanger asked, “So, you’re really afraid of germs, eh? What would you do if I touched you with my soiled handkerchief?”
“I would shriek and run away. But why would you want to do that?”
“All the cough syrup I’ve been drinking has put me in a mood.”
“Well, let me suggest that it put you into reverse!”
(Bellanger was a notorious mischief-maker. He loved to show his affection for his nervous co-workers by subjecting them to humorous, yet mildly sadistic pranks.)
He pulled out his yellowed handkerchief and waved it at Einida with twisted glee, as if flinging clouds of disease from the depths of its snot-drenched fibers.
Einida shrieked and ran.
He cackled as he chased her around the parking lot, but then drew to a sudden stop when seized by a violent coughing fit.
Einida knew this might be her one window of escape, so she quickly placed the ice chest into the trunk, pulled off the anti-flu suit, stuffed that into the bio-hazard waste disposal container we also keep in the trunk, ran around to the passenger side of the car, leaped in, and yelled, “Drive! Drive! Drive!”
As I put the car into gear, Ballanger leapt to the hood of the car and began licking the windshield.
“Germs! Germs! Oooh, big, scary, nasty germs! Get some! Get some!,” he hooted between obscene licks.
Thinking quickly, I switched on the windshield wipers and squirted the fiend with windshield-wiping fluid.
“I knew I should have installed more defensive technologies in this car,” said the wide-eyed Einida. “No one is safe when that lunatic is on a tear.”
We made haste to the Lab, where the mysterious object and the car were sanitized to operating theater levels of cleanliness.
In the luxurious Conference Room, everyone waited expectantly to see if our latest acquisition would be worth all the trouble it had thus far cost us. What creative sorcery had Bellanger been up to? Would a prank blow up in our face, or would we soon marvel at a wondrous new invention?
The Sanitation Clerk rushed in shouting, “I have it! I have it!,” and handed me the case that housed the item. I opened the case and gasped.
Then, I held the mysterious item aloft. It was a small, but beautifully-made triangular object, crafted of silky, purple cherry wood, which reflected the light with an exquisite softness.
“By the Eternal, that carpenter is a genius! He’s crazy, but he’s crazy as a fox!”
“What are we looking at, exactly?,” asked Dr. Phil, who was, as usual, several pages behind in that day’s script.
“Why, it’s a ‘One Ball Rack,’ for pocket billiards. Remember when I invented the game of ‘Four Ball’ because ‘Nine Ball’ took too long to play? Well, Friend Bellanger has invented ‘One Ball’ because ‘Four Ball’ also takes too long.”
Dr. Phil, warming to the topic, replied, “Well, erm, it seems to me, that, erm, if a game takes too long to play, then you ought not to bother playing it at all.”
Poor man. No doubt all the formaldehyde he’d been using lately in his ghastly and unspeakable art projects was beginning to rot away his powers of reason. With infinite patience and tolerance, we ignored his ramblings, transfixed as we were by the other-worldly beauty of the glorious Rack.
Unexpectedly, Einida produced a gleaming cue ball from her bag, set it onto the conference table, and said with wonderment, “And, we can also use it to rack the cue ball.”
Scarcely had the sound waves of her words faded before I found myself clapping my hands in delight as I watched Einida run around the table in an attempt to catch the now-rolling cue ball before it went over the opposite edge of the table and cracked apart on the floor.
Still, I could not resist making yet another speech to sum up our adventure of the day: “Now our pool-playing skills can be sharpened to a professional level. And we have yet another trifling, yet thrilling, amusement for the pocket billiards devotees that visit or work at the Lab.”
“Hello,” said the “Say Hello” unit.
Viktor cackled with glee and said, “Dr. Phil, do you hear it? Do you know what you’re listening to?”
Dr. Phil set down the bone he was caressing and thought carefully and replied sourly,”I hear that the unit is finally saying something other than ‘That’s what she said.’”
Viktor flashed a pained smile, and patted the unit affectionately. “This is far more important than you could possibly imagine. It’s not merely the first step in solving ‘The Great Missing Dog Treat Mystery.’ Its significance is mind-blowing.”
He paused for dramatic effect. “What you’re hearing is the very voice of the ‘Internet of Things.’”
He paused again to let that sentence sink in.
“I have given voice to those objects that were previously voiceless. Because of this unit, objects can now talk. Technology finally has a voice. This is a leap into the evolution of… things. They now can talk!” He thrust his fists into the air enthusiastically.
Dr. Phil blinked and replied flatly, “I know that ‘Say Hello’ can be configured to do lots of things, like reading data streams aloud, like e-mail, stock reports, weather temperatures.Those are all data streams that get sent to the unit and then spoken aloud. So, how is it you’re giving voices to objects?”
Viktor grinned. “Because it’s a speech server. It can be used with any object that has data to report.”
Dr. Phil shook his head. “But couldn’t you have just made a speech server in software? You love writing software.”
“Yes, but I would have to write a thousand lines of code.” Viktor waved his hand dismissively. “And if I wrote software for phones I would have to use the AT&T voice technologies which are too…human. Technology shouldn’t sound like a person–it should sound like an object. The voice of this unit is like the whisper of an angel using a computerized voice
Viktor smiled as he imagined that scenario and continued, “The most important thing about the ‘Say Hello’ is it’s a modular solution to the challenge of adding a voice to a project. You don’t need a computer, you don’t need software. You just build this unit and you’re ready to make things talk. It’s a stand-alone module. If IKEA were part of the mad science world, this would be their solution.”
Viktor stopped talking and typed into his computer furiously.
“I am M-O-D-U-L-A-R,” said “Say Hello.”
“Well, isn’t it difficult to build a speech server out of hardware? That sounds pretty hard. I would rather do open-heart surgery on an angry bee than solder hundreds of tiny electronics parts.” Dr. Phil stuck his finger in his mouth to see if his latest bee-related injury had healed.
“There are magical products that only engineers and mad scientists know about. And I, like Prometheus, shall bring fire and light to humanity, in the form of useful hardware that no one else seems to know about. Like the Parallax Emic 2 Text-to-speech Module. Why write software, when this module already has speech software? All I had to do was to connect it to a Wifi module and voilà!–a networked speech server,” said Viktor, who was now typing again.
“Vwah-la,” said “Say Hello.”
“So, you didn’t have to write any software?”
“No, all I did was connect a few pieces of hardware together with wire. That’s it. It was so easy, even a medical doctor could do it.” Viktor smirked, then realized the danger of taunting one’s doctor.
“But couldn’t you have designed a board that puts all the hardware parts together?,” asked Dr. Phil, ignoring Viktor’s quip.
“Nonsense. I want to inspire people to become mad scientists, eccentric engineers, and artistic aesthetes who revel in the joy of inventing. One day… one day I will rule the world with my army of mad scientists and…” He paused again.
“Oh, anyway, one can only be creative if the parts one needs are readily-available and reasonably-priced. And so, I designed this project with parts that can be acquired at a local Radio Shack or Fry’s. A few parts have to be mail-ordered, but most don’t.”
“So, even I, who have no programming experience, can make something talk?” Dr. Phil was beginning to look excited. “What couldn’t I do with a speech server?”
Viktor shouted, “Exactly! And you can make anything talk, whether it’s a Raspberry Pi computer, an Arduino Uno board, a Propeller board, any kind of phone, any kind of computer. It’s like the Swiss Army knife of speech for technology. Its uses are limitless. And anyone can easily build it and use it for any conceivable project.”
Dr. Phil smiled and asked, “Why did you call it the ‘Say Hello?’”
“Well, when I write software, I, of course, do the ‘Hello World’ thing, as that is just the proper etiquette in the world of programming. But I would never merely say, ‘Hello World.’ That’s just gauche. Instead, I write the far more elegant, ‘Hello C compiler,’ ‘Hello Python,’ et cetera. Oh, and I happened to think up the name while watching this music video on the big-screen projector TV. So in essence, the TV told me what to name it.” Viktor emitted a happy sigh.
“So, do TVs often tell you what to do?,” asked Dr. Phil, with a look of concern.
“Of course!” exclaimed Viktor, “And now I can actually have the TV talk to other people.”
“I need a…” Viktor said to Einida, as she walked in room “…another wifi module. I have an Idea!”
For the technical details on how to build your own “Say Hello,” complete with schematics, video, project notes and source code, please go here.
The door alarm chimed deafeningly. A crash was followed by a string of foul curses.
A livid Einida stormed into the computer lab.
“That’s it! If something isn’t done to lower the volume on that [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] door alarm, I will take drastic measures! That [expletive deleted] noise made me drop my experiment, and it makes everyone’s ears ring!”
This was not the result I expected when I originally purchased the door alarm.
It had been installed because we suspected that the Laboratory dog, Digger, trained himself to open the door so that he could sneak in and help himself to the Laboratory treats that Einida had been giving him.
She was using treats to see if she could teach Digger to count to ten. So, each day she would ask him how many treats he wanted. If he tapped the ground once, she would give him one treat, and so forth.
But now it appeared that she might have inadvertently taught him how to open doors and help himself.
To solve this mystery, I installed a door alarm that would alert everyone to the presence of anyone or anything that opened the door.
I wasn’t keen on the idea that Einida might take drastic action to stop the noise. Many of her engineering solutions involved balloons and lasers. (One of the reasons she’d earned the fearsome nickname, “Lady Tesla.”) And while some of you might be wondering why I didn’t simply alter the volume of the door alarm…well, something that simple and obvious just isn’t the SFAQT way.
“Eureka!,” I shouted, startling Einida again from whatever it was she was doing.
“I shall set up a camera with facial recognition and a remote module that will announce the name of a visitor/interloper in a voice unique to whoever or whatever comes through the door.” I grinned broadly as I stroked my goatee.
At last–a project worthy of my talents.
And so I called the staff together and we built the first stage: A “Say Hello” wireless, text-to-speech module. (To see the technical details with schematics, project notes, and softer, visit the project page.)
The “Say Hello” takes any text and says it aloud. It has a marvelous potential and can give any invention I make a voice.
The unit even has the ability to speak the words from any computer anywhere on the Laboratory compound.
I instructed the staff to think of creative things to make the “Say Hello” speak.
I wrote software to make the unit announce the time at the top of the hour, and then I sat and waited.
The first words were, predictably,”Shall we play a game?” (We at the Lab had recently studied the technologies from the movie “War Games.”)
The next words were just as predictable: “Hello World.” (All software has to say that at least once.)
“Ah, is there anything funnier than the humor of a computer programmer?,” I mused aloud to an audience of dead air.
Suddenly, the “Say Hello” said, “Can you tell Dr. Phil to remove his animal bones from the cafeteria?”
(Einida was miffed about Dr. Phil’s habit of bringing dead animals into the cafeteria.)
Then the “Say Hello” said, “Can you tell Einida that if she’s upset by something, it is her job to fix it?”
Great Scott! My wonderful invention was turning into a tool for passive-aggressive arguing! It was like listening to the conversations of angry divorcées.
“Say Hello” suddenly said, “That’s what she said,” followed by a rather flat, metallic-sounding “Ha ha ha ha.”
I groaned. Our wondrous technology was being misused. Technology that has been designed for the greatest good was being soiled by the basest of human emotions– low-brow humor. I sniffed with annoyance.
That evening, as I tried to fall asleep, all I could hear was the endless chorus of “That’s what she said” bouncing off the walls of the Lab.
Several weeks passed before the staff tired of all of their juvenile humor, the bickering, and the inappropriate comments about body parts.
Eventually, the “Say Hello” returned to speaking such dignified things as weather statistics, e-mail alerts, and the time, with only an occasionally, rogue, “That’s what she said,” thrown in just to make me grit my teeth and wince.
I have since disabled the door alarm, and put my project of the facial recognition on hold. I shudder to think what my staff would do with unbridled access to technology like that
The mystery of Digger the treat-seeking dog, remains unsolved.
For the technical details on how to build your own “Say Hello”, complete with schematics, project notes, video and source code, please go here
“How much rain did you get?,” drawled the leathery-skinned old farmer.
Viktor gritted his teeth and said, “1.43 inches.”
“Ha! I got 2.5 inches! Haw haw haw!”
“How in tarnation can you possibly have gotten an inch more of rain, when your rain gauge is less than fifty feet away from mine?”
Such was the ongoing feud into which SFAQT personnel found themselves embroiled.The farmer that grazed his cows on the Lab’s land always managed to report an inch more than anyone else after a rainstorm. This was a problem, since the Lab was engaged in an in-depth study of local and regional weather patterns. The Lab tracked hurricanes, rainfall, average wind speeds, lightning frequencies, and all the other nifty weather-related occurrences that can be tracked, followed, quantified, recorded, or measured.
The farmer’s reported extra inch of rain was destroying our data set.
“That weather-hating curmudgeon is destroying my scientific survey! I will bury that mocking rustic! I will show him! I will show them all! I will buy the most sophisticated weather station I can find, and prove to him and all the mocking mockers and lying liars that his data-collecting is flawed!,” proclaimed Viktor, sounding more than a little like the raving mad scientist Bela Lugosi played in “Bride of the Monster.”
But the years years went by, and Viktor seemed no closer to having his revenge.
Finally, one day, a kind associate, who knew of the rain gauge contretemps, called with important news. He had found a fantastically sophisticated, reasonably-priced weather station: the Davis Instruments Vantage Vue® Wireless Station (DIVVW Station).
It was and is perfect. A truly great investment. The DIVVW Station is an incredible weather-collecting machine that collects weather-related data in both wide varieties and impressive amounts.
No doubt, Gentle Reader, you know that SFAQT Laboratories lives and breathes data. It is the cream to our coffee, the butter to our bread, the AC to our DC. It is vital to our mission, viz, to know the secrets of the Universe, and to smite without mercy the enemies of Science. And how, we ask you, can we smite down the ill-conceived arguments of our enemies without without first collecting quivers full, nay, formidable arsenals full, of data?
And so, to return to our narrative, it was with great anticipation that we set up our weather station. The sensors were placed on a hill on the Lab’s campus, and the receiver was placed in the window of one of the Lab’s buildings.
The installation proved to be so easy, I was sure that the station couldn’t possibly work when powered up. But I was wrong–the data poured in like a mighty river after the spring thaw.
After a quick celebration to welcome the new data-collecting unit to our scientific family, Viktor decided that the unit was worthy of being connected to what he so charmingly still calls “The Internets.” Not all data collecting units get that honor, but the DIVVW Station had already proved itself special.
Now Davis, the company that sells this unit, already has modules for connecting to the Internet.
And it has helpfully included software, as well.
Viktor wanted to see if we could get the data in the SFAQT way, according to that saying we have around here, “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the SFAQT way.”
But could we connect the weather station without using the commercially available product?
After making a few online searches, Viktor stumbled across this inspiring article:
Mad Scientist Labs – Davis Weatherlink Software Not Required
Once we learned that we could hack this machine, our excitement could not be contained. The mere thought that every employee at the Lab would soon have weather data streaming into his or her consoles made my heart flutter.
Now the data can be used to to make charts, graphs, and it becomes accessible to the people with whom you want to share it.
This data is extremely useful in convincing the enemies of Science that they are absolutely wrong.
“Ha-ha-ha! I showed them.” crowed Viktor with a gleam in his eye. ”Just wait until the next rain, I will crush that mocking farmer with my pure data set.”
He was warmed with the glow of the smug satisfaction he was feeling. Victory, after so many years tasted very sweet, like tears in rain.
For the technical details on how to hack your DIVVW Station, complete with schematics, project notes and source code, please go here.
“Ah, little lad, you’re starin’ at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of Right Hand–Left Hand — the story of science and entertainment?”
The man raised his left hand.
“‘E-M-C-2!’…It was with this Left Hand that old Brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low.”
The man raised his right hand.
“‘C-A-T-S.’ You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The Right Hand, friends! The hand of entertainment!
“Now watch and I’ll show you the story of life.
“These fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warrin’ and a-tuggin,’ one ag’in the other. Now, watch ‘em. Ol’ Brother Left Hand. Left Hand, he’s a-fightin.’ And it looks like CATS is a goner.
“But wait a minute, wait a minute! Hot dog! CATS is a winnin’? Yes, siree. It’s CATS that won, and ol’ Left Hand Science is down for the count!”
The grizzled old tour guide was explaining to the tour group why it is that we here at SFAQT Laboratories have custom-made gloves with the word “CATS” across the knuckles of the right hand and “EMC2.”
It all started one evening, in the Lab’s luxurious Screening Room, as we studied the unforgettable Neo-Expressionistic film noir masterpiece, “The Night of the Hunter.”
Viktor became transfixed by the scene in which the villain, masterfully portrayed with chilling evil by Robert Mitchum, tells the tale of “Right hand, Left hand.” Mitchum had the word “Love” tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand, “Hate” across the knuckles of the left. The villain’s hands wrestled with each other as he told the tale of the constant fight between love and hate.
“What a brilliant metaphor for mankind’s eternal struggle…” remarked Viktor.
“Eureka!,” he added loudly, unaware that he was still in the middle of the previous sentence. “What words would you want tattooed on your knuckles? Words that would explain the duality inherent to technology? Words that describe the very essence of the raging war that exists in the hearts of scientists? You all have twenty-four hours to make a decision.”
This impromptu homework assignment was met with shrugs. When one works for SFAQT Laboratories, requests like these are common.
The next evening in the Break Room the staff shuffled in with hands stuffed deep in the pockets of their lab coats, a gesture less indicative of street hooliganesque sloth than a preventative measure to keep others from peeking at their hands.
“Dr. Phil, show us your interpretation of the question at hand,” Viktor said, giggling at his flaccid pun.
Dr. Phil, the Lab’s Medical Doctor and a respected artist, had written the words “Body” and “Soul:”
“You see, in the heart of doctors, we are constantly battling the forces in the body that go awry. I wrote ‘Body’ because I treat a patient’s physical body. But to do that, day after day, patient after patient, I have to keep my soul nourished by making art out of bones, albeit, I hasten to assure you, not the bones of my patients. Hence the other word, ‘Soul.’ So, in the end, these two words represent my struggle to find the motivation to heal people, and find the time to heal myself by making spiritual sculptures.”
“Bellanger K. Shahhat, Esquire, show us your hands,” Viktor said, intrigued and enthused by the direction in which the results of the experiment were heading.
Mr. Shahhat, the master of wood-working, had written the words, “Wood” and “Épée:”
“As you know, my professional expertise lies in studying the science of wood, while my recreational passion is fencing with an épée. As such, I am torn between researching the properties of moisture in wood or poking my team-mates with an épée.”
The Whistler, resident botany expert and holistic landscaper said, “My words are H2O! and BEER. There can be no life without water and no fun without beer.”
Viktor smiled and stroked his goatee.
“Well, it seems the time has come for me to reveal my words. They are “EMC2″ and “CATS.” The first word because it is the most significant and elegant scientific formula ever postulated, and the second word because I struggle with staying focused on science. Sometimes, I just want to look at funny photos of cats. Another indicator of the struggle between the serious and sublime, work and play, body and soul.”
“It seems we all struggle with the same thing, even though we are in vastly different fields. How fascinating,” remarked Bellanger Shahhat, Esq.
“Einida, what’s on your knuckles?,” asked Dr. Phil.
Written across my hands were also the words, “Cats” and “E=mc2.” I smiled and said, “I suppose this means that cats and relativity are the victors in this little experiment. Shall a put in an order for some custom-made gloves with our new motto, Viktor?”
Viktor got that faraway look in his eye that always serves to warn me that one of his pronouncements is on the way, and I was not mistaken. He put his finger into the air and said, “The time has come to consult the greatest and most extravagant book ever written!”
We opened the safe and and gazed with rapture and awe upon our latest acquisition.
“Do you see it, Einida? Do you see its magnificence? Its stupendousness? Look at the lavish box that holds those two mighty volumes together like hands humbly enfolded in prayer,” he said in a whisper.
With trembling hands, Viktor carefully lifted one of the large tomes up to his nose and inhaled deeply. Then, as if bearing aloft a tiny infant to a baptismal font, he passed the book over to me and said, “Take a deep breath, pause, and inhale the delicate perfume of seven hundred thousand beautiful words. This is a matter not to be taken lightly. You shall be sniffing the greatest book in the history of mankind– ‘The Oxford English Dictionary.” He sighed, overcome with emotion.
I took the book and tentatively inhaled. Then, after I coughed, said, “Oh my, the smell of seven hundred thousand words is, erm, quite pungent. Quite a crowd there, that seven hundred thousand. That is quite a distinctive smell. It smells like human, erm, knowledge.”
“Can you believe that you have the English language in its magisterial entirety here, in your very hands? How is this possible, you may ask? And to you I would reply….”
He paused dramatically and slid open a tiny drawer that was built into the top of the dictionary’s cardboard case.
“A magnifying glass!,” he cackled as he triumphantly brandished a rather battered hand lens over his head.
“And I know what you must be thinking–that’s not the original glass. Bah! This magnificent magnifying glass is even better than the original! Remember when our dear comrade, Professor Bellanger K. Shahhat was sent to Russia on a quest to find us a magnifying glass? This fantastic, archaic lens was purchased by him from an amber dealerin Mandrogy!”
“Why does the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ come with a magnifying glass?,”asked Dr. Phil, who had stopped his experiment and ambled over when he saw the group of people that had gathered around us, drawn by the mesmerizing power of the book.
“Well, actually the book is referred to as ‘The OED’ by those of us in the know. And it came from the publisher with a magnifying glass because the only way to fit seven hundred thousand glorious words into a book of two volumes is to make the type smaller than most human eyes can discern,” explained Viktor.”Our set was purchased at a substantial discount, and somewhere along the line, the original magnifying glass vanished into the ether.”
The fifteen-pound book weighed heavy in my hands. Clearly, it meant to be studied by someone sitting at a desk, not lollygagging in front of a safe.
The day we acquired the OED was one of great celebration. Viktor handed out test tubes filled with an intoxicant of indeterminate provenance and insisted that we decorate the laboratory with banners and balloons that said, “Welcome home, ‘Oxford English Dictionary’!”
My gentle reminiscences were interrupted when Viktor asked impatiently, “Well? Is the word ‘nincompoop’ in the OED or not? I simply can not wait another moment for the answer.”
And there the word was displayed, right in the middle of page 1928.
“Hmmm, I wonder if I can come up with a word that’s NOT in the OED,” pondered Viktor.
And, gentle reader, if we do indeed ever manage to stump the OED, you will be among the first to know.
The walls were closing in on me.
The barely-illuminated objects in the room seemed to spin.
The lights were flashing madly and intensely.
My Disorienting Sequencing Strobe Light of Madness (DSSLoM) was working!
The overhead lights came on. Einida walked in and carefully adjusted the array of buttons on the control panel, stating, “I’ve changed the speed, brightness, and duration of each light…This may prove to be more…disorienting.”
To my great relief, I did not have to suffer through too many more tests, as the perfect setting for variables for maximum distortion was found quickly.
The strobe light requires the perfect combination of speed, duration, and brightness to change an entire room into a weird, animated, flashing nether world.
I once dreamed of a series of sequencing strobe lights, and ever since had longed to build such a set-up. But the technology simply did not exist. I spent years waiting for LEDs to become powerful enough to match the lighting in my dream.
Just think of what one could do with this technology! One could create fascinating effects with low-light photography, or a silent but disturbing burglar alarm. It could be a marvel of entertainment at such annual Lab rumpuses as New Sock Weekend, El Dia de las Muertos, and Guy Fawkes Day.
After I surveyed many available light sources, I found the answer in the new, super-bright LEDs that have recently been appearing on the market. I ordered a handful, wired them up, and added a device to control the speed of the strobing effect. This was my first attempt to recreate my vision, and it provided a simple and effective solution.
This primitive contraption was installed in a sophisticated haunted house environment. It was used in a black room, the walls of which were painted with white circles. Also in the room were performers dressed i n black body-suits, which in turn were painted with white circles.
When the lights were flashing in spinning sequences, the wary haunted house visitors were scared witless–the walls seemed to move in peculiar ways, and eventually oozed and crept towards them. The visitors could not actually distinguish the performers from the walls.
I had discovered this latest generation of the lights by a happy accident: I’d spotted a clip-on desk lamp at the local store, carelessly tucked away on the bottom shelf, almost out of sight. I required the assistance of an employee to test the brightness of the lamp, as I doubted that it would be bright enough to suit my nefarious purpose.
The lamp proved to be fantastically bright, and perfect for my disorientation goals. I promptly and gleefully purchased five.
As soon as I returned to the Lab, I soldered the desk lamps to reels of wire, and built a controller with two buttons–one for the speed of the light flashes, the other for the brightness.
And then the days of testing for “Ultimate Disorientation” began. After many hours of fine-tuning the settings, I was extremely pleased with the results of this invention and even more so to be out of the testing chamber, though it did take time for me to shake the illusion of lights flashing before my eyes.
A kind local flagged us down. He said, “Yer headlight’s out. ‘Round here, that’ll git ye ‘rested. You’d best git it repaired.”
He spoke with a gravitas that one would not expect to find in a grizzled rustic, and that is how Viktor and I ended up in the “Eternal Waiting Room.” You know the place. You’ve been there before. The location changes, but the details do not: a drab, bare space with blinding fluorescent lights, a scattering of magazines dated two Presidential administrations back, stale, bitter coffee, asinine blabbering and monkeyshines blasting from the television, the restrooms a vision of Hell not even the pen of Dante could accurately capture, and chrome and vinyl chairs so fiendishly uncomfortable that they would no doubt elicit a thin smile from the grim lips of Torquemada.
The car was in the repair bay, and I had such high hopes. It shouldn’t take long at all for a professional mechanic to do something as simple as replacing a headlight. Such a procedure is no doubt as easy as typing a shoelace to his trained hands. I wasn’t going to do it myself, since the last time I tried I smashed my hand within the bulb’s damnably cramped housing. There is a time and a place for DIY, and that time was not now. Sometimes, things are best left to specialists.
Time passed. The procedure had started with one mechanic, but presently he sought the aid of others of his kind. With every oily brow that creased, with every pair of dirty hands thrown up into the air in despair, with every newer and larger regrouping of mechanics, I imagined I heard the chiming of an old-fashioned cash register, as my time was being wasted and the bill was growing ever larger.
More time passed. Viktor and I were in the middle of an expedition when this automotive interruption took place, and this setback was costing us valuable research time.
I think it was when the football-player-turned-chat-show-host had finished demonstrating his “can’t miss” recipe for jerk chicken on the dusty TV perched on a narrow corner shelf that my patience reached its natural end, and I approached the garage manager: “Sir, if you can’t change the headlight, please return my keys, so I can take my car to the dealership, where they have experts knowledgeable about this process.”
The manager responded, “Well, we did replace/one/ of the headlights, only it was the wrong one. And we’ve had to take out a bunch of parts from the engine, to try to access the space where the headlight is, but it don’t seem to matter. It may take some time to put your car back together.”
I gritted my teeth, pursed my lips, and shot Viktor a sour look that told him we must expect an even longer wait.
And so, since we are scientists, inventors, and explorers, when life gives us lemons, we dive in, and engage in an exhaustive study of the properties of lemons, their nutritional aspects, and how to improve the current methods of their cultivation and usage.
The collection of data is for us second-nature.
Data collected from this experience:
Q) Number of mechanics needed to change a headlight?
A) Zero! Even though five different mechanics attempted this procedure, they all failed.
Q) Number of hours spent watching trained mechanics failing in their attempts to change a light bulb?
Such unpleasantries are often unavoidable on our adventures, but when I was able to distance myself from this fiasco, to observe it all in a
disinterested, scientific manner, it was truly amazing to watch so many professionals befuddled by something so seemingly simple.
A few days after this, I took the car to the dealership. Here, the repair procedure took all of seven minutes, five of which were devoted to the mechanic walking to the workshop to fetch a certain tool.
And those were a precious few minutes, though sadly they did not afford me adequate time to enjoy a cup of exquisitely-brewed coffee, made available by the specially-trained baristas that occupied a corner of the mechanic shop’s waiting room.
As a coffee aficionado, I know where to get get all manner of java. Coffee is everywhere now–restaurants, local and chain coffeehouses, convenience stores and gas stations, bookstores, and even hotel lobbies.
But did you know where to find the world’s most expensive coffee? It’s at your local bank. Most banks offer “free” coffee along with a small tray of cookies or mints. But it’s not exactly free, at least not the way I see it. I cannot enjoy bank coffee without thinking that I paid for it somewhere along the line with all those pointless and exorbitant fees the bank sees fit to charge me.
And the drinking of bank coffee is not without its hazards. The bank never provides a lid for the coffee and so, quite often I’ve found myself driving with one hand, while clumsily bringing the open cup to my lips, trying to gulp the beverage down before it sloshes over and scalds my hand or spills over my clothing.
While I was sipping my coffee at the car dealership, getting my headlight replaced, I noticed a pickup truck in an adjoining bay with a bumper-sticker that exhorted, “Freedom Ain’t Free.” And while I realize that the bumper-sticker was a commentary on the matter of national defense, I reflected instead that sometimes “free” services can be used as a dodge, a financial shell game, a diversion of the buyer’s attention from shoddy service.
*Yes, I know that is a picture of a lime, but when life gives you limes instead of lemons… you take photos of limes.