Sunday, April 29, 2007


I'm not really a science-fiction guy. The only science fiction I've ever read has been Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and William Gibson and none of it solely for the purpose of reading science fiction. I watch Dr. Who and spot the enormous plot holes (seriously, my bitches, when the pig slaves were attacking Hooverville, Solomon -- who had fought in World War I -- took up the weakest defensive position I've ever seen), and the episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in which Picard learns to play a flute* made me cry, but beyond that I don't really watch a lot of science fiction, either.

Yet, I find myself constantly thinking up lame science-fiction ideas. Case in point, the TV series in my head. And this morning I thought up something new:

Shortly after New York City is completely destroyed by a category 5 hurricane, the United States government finally decides to respond to climate change. Typical of American extremist mentality, it outright bans the use of oil and coal (except for its own military necessity). This move sparks a boom in the use of solar panels and soon the whole of America has an environmentally-friendly dark silver sheen. Western Europe is happy to follow along, as are a number of South American, Asian and African nations. Although it has yet to happen, it is implied that those slow to convert to solar energy will find a U.N. military contingent knocking at the door.

So, the world is becoming a better place but in a slightly uncomfortable way. Amid this, one of the main side-effects is that the cost of silicon jumps rather dramatically. The cost can be offset by using less-efficient, easier-to-produce silicon for the solar panels but the cost of the quality silicon needed for computers bumps up by 900 percent.

At about this same time, an MIT biochemist hooks a special processor to a live chicken's brain and is able to create a shockingly powerful computer, one with vastly more memory than most existing technology. The discovery goes over incredibly well: Chickens are cheap to feed and maintain, they don't require deadly chemicals to create, they are considerably easier to dispose of, and the only power needed is that for the access box (the processor device attached to the chicken's head connects via a simple cable to an "access box" that feeds to a monitor, keyboard and mouse). And, much to everyone's surprise, this bio-computer is impervious to computer viruses. Within a short time, "PC" comes to stand for "personal chicken."

The only drawbacks are this:
1) The chicken has to be alive.
2) Using the computer knocks the chicken unconscious. This has no lasting negative effects, but it does mean you have to shut the computer off so that the chicken will wake up and eat and continue to live.
3) Chickens have a short lifespan.
4) Chickens are difficult to interface.
5) Chickens are troublesome to transport.

These issues lead to further experimentation and eventually Apple develops a hip mouse-based bio-computer that is easier (and cuter) to carry around and, due to the way its brain works, easier to interface. The drawback is that the lifespan is shorter and your computer runs risk of being eaten by the family cat.

At this point, as almost always happens in science fiction, someone works out that human brains are the best suited to this whole bio-computer thing. The size and power of our brains mean that the bio-computers are, in effect, infinitely powerful, we interface brilliantly, and we take direction better than mice and chickens.

But there remains the issue of knocking the "computer" unconscious when it's being used. For the average user then, a person-based bio-computer is unrealistic. Getting a person to carry around your unwritten novel and Frank Sinatra albums in their head is tricky because you run the risk of them deciding they don't really like you anymore. Imagine asking for an extension on your master's degree thesis because your girlfriend is mad and won't let you access your files. So, most people stick to mice and chickens.

But corporations, as they are wont to do, are perfectly happy to use people as computers. People are hired on to basically spend eight hours a day sleeping. Corporations choose candidates who are intelligent, relatively well-adjusted, live healthy lives, and inclined to be loyal to the corporation; a lot of Mormons get jobs as computers**.

And so we arrive at the protagonist, Milo, whose enviable life involves being paid to sleep, eat well, and live healthfully. It's a pretty good life. The corporation puts him and his wife, also a bio-computer, up in a great home and treats them both quite well. Thanks to advanced interfacing technology, they are even able to take vacations, albeit only to corporation-sanctioned locales.

This bio-computer technology is different than William Gibson's microsofts technology which allows a person to input information into their brain and use it. For example, with microsofts you can put a chip in your head and suddenly speak Spanish. With the bio-computer technology, the information is not accessible to the person carrying it. It's just there in their head and they know nothing of it. Occasionally, though, and for unknown reasons, the people serving as bio-computers will experience a "mental burp," in which some bit of data suddenly reaches their consciousness. For the most part, these are short, irrelevant bits of binary. For example, in the way that a smell can suddenly flash a memory of a girl you dated in high school, unspecified situations can suddenly cause the bio-computer to see a stream of binary in his or her head (the headline to this post is "Milo" written in binary). But sometimes, mysteriously, these mental burps will actually produce snippets of intelligible information: "...Davis and I contacted..." "...activates 29 August..." and on.

Milo has been experiencing several of these as of late, all coming from what seem to be the same document. His guess is that it is being accessed and updated frequently, but it's none of his business to bother about what they put in his head and he doesn't pay much attention to it until he wakes up one afternoon and five of his fellow bio-computers are dead, including his wife.

A weak explanation is given and Milo is given a few weeks off to mourn. In that time, he is tormented by the mental burps. He suddenly realises that the document he keeps seeing contains the true explanation of what killed his wife and co-workers, and that something important, something big is set to occur on 29 August. But all these things are totally unclear.

The novel, then, follows Milo as he goes on the run and tries to figure out the mystery of what happened. To access the information, he needs to find someone he can trust -- since he has to be asleep and defenceless when the information is accessed -- someone who can hack the corporation's security codes, and some way to access the information without it being immediately obvious to the corporation (the computers are so well integrated that as soon as the information is accessed, the corporation would know exactly where to find him).

This leads him to hunt down an old work colleague who lives in one of the remaining "carbon nations." Suspiciously, at exactly the same time, a war kicks off against the carbon nation and Milo finds himself pursued by the corporation, government agents from both the carbon nation and the United States, and possibly some other nefarious entity.

And that's what I was dreaming up this morning as I lie in bed staring at the ceiling. My only challenge now is, uhm, thinking up what the hell the big secret is and how Milo could save the world. You know, the plot. I've got an amusing premise and absolutely no substance. Typical.

*You know which episode I'm talking about. If watching that didn't make you weep like big baby, you have no soul.

**A nod to my favourite nutjob theory, that Mormons are behind an elaborate conspiracy to take control of the United States.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I say spider, you say monkey

3 Minute HeroSometimes the world is not fair. We all know that, but sometimes it is more glaringly obvious. Sometimes the unfairness of this life looks you square in the eye and doesn't even flinch when it stabs you in the gut.

Such is the case that 3 Minute Hero never became famous.

They were good. I mean really, really good. Originally formed as yet another ska band, their horn section was just too powerful for such staid musical confines. In its prime (1997-2000), the horn section was fronted by two trombones -- instruments that, when played right, produce a brutal sound; a sound that punches and leaves you standing dumb like Peter Manfredo Jr. against Joe Calzaghe. This was supported by trumpet and sax and keys that swirled around the jabs and pulled you in. The whole thing fell together so perfectly that you found yourself not really hearing the different instruments, just this immense, immense sound. It was a sound that you could feel in your chest, a sound that felt too large for your head.

Fuelling the immensity was the sort of if-Animal-were-real-and-angry-and-100-feet-tall drumming you would expect from a guy who taught himself to play by listening to Kiss records. Atop it all was a larger-than-life frontman who stood as ringmaster, wailing and bellowing through the songs.

Obviously, with such a dynamic sound they were difficult to categorize. They were sort of a cross between stadium rock, Barenaked Ladies, Mighty Mighty Bosstones (circa Let's Face It), Parliament, and the first time a girl let you put your hand up her shirt. The lyrics were rapid-fire funny and brilliant, the music was incredible, and their shows were explosive in energy. They remain my favourite band of all time.

OK, true, I went to high school with three of the band members, one of whom has been my best friend for 19 years*, and I wrote the lyrics to one of their songs. I am biased. Even in the face of this they were good. In my mind, they had everything they needed to be big and I very seriously believed that one day everything would drop into gear and they would be touring around the world.

That never happened, of course. They played in bars in forgettable towns in forgettable states, bounded across North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin in an old school bus that they had won in a battle of the bands competition, until growing up became inevitable. The band split in 2000 and the members became husbands, fathers, home owners, teachers. A few of them joined other bands and achieved equal levels of success (most notably Jack Brass Band, where the two-trombones-kicking-your-ass-with-sound format was again used), but the 3MH experience remains wholly unique in my eyes.

The story of 3 Minute Hero is an almost bittersweet tale; evidence that incredible talent can exist and go unnoticed. It forces you to realise that there are authors more brilliant than Shakespeare who will never be published, songs being sung that would fill your soul but that you will never hear. It's unfair.

But there is hope: They're back, bitches!

Well at least for two performances. One will be in St. Peter, Minn., which became a sort of spiritual home for the band, and the other will be at Minneapolis' Fine Line. Their meteoric rise to fame will still probably never occur but at least a few more people will get a chance to finally hear the greatest band they never knew existed.

3 Minute Hero's Fine Line show is June 9, so you can expect to see me going on about this for a while. I am very serious that when I got the e-mail from Eric today I spent about half an hour trying to figure out if it would be at all possible for me to fly back to the U.S. to see the show (sadly, ignoring the $1,500 cost of a flight, I still have exams at that time).

There are a goodly number of Upper Midwesterners who read this blog, though, and I would encourage them to make the trip. No, really. This is a band worth driving several hours to see. Tickets are only $11, so you should have some extra money to buy Eric a beer.

*19 years, Eric. We are old.