Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui musam meditaris avena:
nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva;
nos patriam fugimus: tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
(Virgilius, Eclogae I)
The Scheisskopf Gluten Company was not having a good quarter. None of the recent quarters had been good. Brayden Scheisskopf, the current president, sat in his office, at the large desk made entirely of gluten resin, and pored over the figures in the latest financial sheets that the Chief Financial Officer had emailed him. The numbers were terrible. Sales of gluten had been plummeting for years, and were now so low that even the illegal offshore shell companies were having no effect.
Brayden rubbed his face and stared at the wall of portraits, showing four generations of Scheisskopfs as they oversaw their empire of gluten. He felt their looks of disappointment. “I’m sorry,” he said to them. But what could he do against the tide of history? Gluten was just not being consumed anymore. “You know how these things go,” he often said to the shareholders. “First one person decides to go gluten-free, then another. Next thing you know all the restaurants have the letters ‘GF’ on all the items on the menu.”
He opened his top drawer and took out a large bag of gluten chips. He always thought better on gluten. He chewed slowly, savoring the elasticity and springiness of the wheat-extracted protein. Why couldn’t people appreciate that?
Suddenly he sat up. “That’s it!” he shouted to the stern faces in the portraits.
Converting the Scheisskopf Gluten Company’s gluten factory into a theme park took nearly a year and more than a few clever maneuvers in the company’s accounts. But once it was done and “Glutanica” opened for the first time, the critics were silenced. No one could have anticipated the success of the theme park.
There was a gluten rollercoaster. And kids could have their picture taken with “Glutus,” a giant fluffy grain of wheat, who was really two undocumented workers, one standing and working the legs and the other sitting on his shoulders and working the arms and head, and both dreaming of a better life and a parking space closer to the entrance.
There was also ride where people were strapped into a giant raft and sent down a river of gluten-extract. The substance was far thicker and bouncier than water, and the smell was not altogether unpleasant, somehow combining the odors of corn flakes and cow manure.
In the center of the theme park was a big pit of gluten where the kids could swim and play while the parents could have a few minutes of relief to play with their smartphones, and a ride where people rode on a little carts through a fairy tale castle and shown all the different ways that gluten is used around the world, with mechanical puppets singing, “Gluten glues the world together/Good in nice or stormy weather.”
And there was a large chamber with long elastic bands of gluten, arranged in crisscrossing patterns and in many layers from floor to ceiling, so that kids could climb in it like spiders on a web. There was a height requirement for adults, too, although this came under some criticism as being age discriminatory, and a lawyer was able to make a name for himself by arguing at the Supreme Court that there was no rational basis why an adult could not enjoy hanging upside down from large bands of gluten as much as a child.
The park’s ticket sales more than offset the loss in sales of edible gluten. Until the company was sued by Disney. Apparently, Disney had bought the rights for turning gluten into an amusement park from Michael Scheisskopf, Brayden’s father, in exchange for a trip to Disney World for his whole family. Brayden remembered that trip, and although it was a shame that Glutanica had to close its doors, no one could argue that the Scheisskopf family had not gotten something valuable in return.
Presidential campaigns were going on forever. No sooner would one president be sworn in than people would already start talking about the next president. It was theorized that the problem was that the campaigns lasted so long that people got bored of all the candidates, including the candidate who eventually won.
So it was decided that the Presidential campaign would last one day. No one was allowed to do any campaigning – no speeches, no debates, no visits to factories or bakeries or diners or ice cream parlors – until Election Day itself.
Several weeks prior to Election Day, anyone who wanted to be a Presidential candidate could sign up by paying a $2 fee to put their name in the hat. Then, the day before Election Day, the Chief Justice of the United States would mix up all the names in the hat, and pick two. These were the two candidates – one Democrat, and one Republican. It did not matter what these candidate’s real positions were, or what party they had been affiliated with during their career leading up to the Presidential race. One had to be the Democrat, and the other had to be the Republican.
These two names were picked at midnight on Election Day, and the first debate was at 5:00 a.m. The two lucky candidates had to quickly familiarize themselves with the platform that they were supposed to adopt. The main task was to make sure that they didn’t agree on any issues. So as they studied their positions from midnight to 5:00 a.m., they often called each other up. “Hey, so are you against starting that war in whatever that place is? Oh, you’re for it? Okay, then I’ll be against it. Glad I checked.”
After the 5:00 a.m. debate it would be time to raise money and run commercials slinging mud at the other candidate. Given the little amount of time available to raise funds, checks could not be accepted because of the time required to clear. Only credit cards, debit cards, and transfers between PayPal accounts would work as valid campaign contributions.
Then at 9:00 a.m., with all the money raised, the two campaigns would set out making TV and radio ads that would cast the other candidate as a totally incompetent and unethical hypocrite who cared more about himself or herself than the American people. Because there was so little time to produce these ads, there was only time to take an existing ad and splice in the names of the candidates. The ads were really identical except the two names would be in one order in one video, and the in the reverse order in other video.
Then at noon the two candidates would go on their book tours. They would appear on talk shows with their new books where they discussed how their simple backgrounds and professional adversity had molded them into the perfect President. Since there was only one day to appear on the shows, the candidates would have be guests at the same time, sitting at opposite sides of the host’s desk, each holding up their book and sipping from their mugs of coffee. The host’s main job was to prevent the two candidates from talking at the same time, so the host would turn to one and say, “Now you talk,” while holding up a hand to the other, and then would turn to the other and say, “Okay, now you go.”
At 2:00 p.m. there would be another debate, usually featuring at least one scandal that had been leaked at some point during the day, and the targeted candidate would have an opportunity to look grim and admit that “mistakes were made.” At 3:00 p.m. the candidates would eat a late lunch at a local restaurant, serving locally grown food on plates manufactured in China. And by 4:00 p.m. the candidates would be shown at home with their spouses and children so that the American voters could see how ordinary and down to Earth they were.
Finally, at 5:00 p.m. the polls would open. Americans could vote until 10:00 p.m., at which time the vote tallies would be open to legal challenge. At 11:00 p.m. any legal challenges had to be ended, and at midnight the new President would be announced.
Everyone would watch the announcement with great excitement. It would have been a very exciting 24-hours. And just after the announced winner gave the speech thanking supporters and offering best wishes to the loser, the TV stations would automatically switch to a regularly scheduled program, and no one would speak of campaigns for the next four years.
The President of the Happy Swine Processed Meat Company was not having one of his better days. He sat at his desk, atop which stood an anthropomorphic plastic sausage, the company’s mascot, head in his hands. There was a knock at the door and in walked the President’s assistant.
“Sir, I came as soon as I heard,” the assistant said. “I knew we could never trust the World Health Organization. And after all the nice things we said about it. How dare they say that eating processed meats causes cancer? That should be a matter of personal choice.”
The President shook his head. “No, it’s over.” He looked at the mascot, a sausage beaming a huge smile. “We are just going to have to find a different way to bring people the magic of processed meat.”
The marketing campaign for the “Desk Sausage” was received initially with skepticism. The idea of a having a real sausage on your desk to keep your papers from flying off was seen as rather unorthodox, especially since the sausage would leave little grease stains on anything it touched. Yet thanks to a couple of intrepid celebrities, within weeks everyone had a Desk Sausage on their desk.
“I don’t know how I got anything done without it,” said one customer in one of those candid customer commercials. “I can’t explain it,” said another. “It just makes you want to do more work.” Said a third, “The Desk Sausage has changed the way business is done. We recommend it to all our clients.”
Soon the Happy Swine Processed Meat Company branched out into other products, making Desk Bacon, used to cushion one’s elbows from an especially hard desk surface, and Desk Salami, which was pulled out of dispensers like Post-It notes, and used as bookmarks, or placed between the fingers as a way to reduce stress during a hectic day.
One could travel the entire country and not find an office untouched by Happy Swine office products. As people lunched on kale, beet greens and chard, they had sausage, salami and bacon keeping their work space organized and chic. Desk Hot Dogs were particularly good monitor risers, and the gift that everyone wanted that holiday season was the 2016 Corned Beef Planner, known for its distinctive cover and briny pages.
By the following year, Happy Swine office products were global. It shipped to more than sixty countries, and its products were known for surviving even the longest and most difficult journeys without a single change in appearance. So successful was the transition, that people forgot that processed meats had once been sandwiched between slices of bread instead of staplers and paper clip caddies. Happy Swine was more successful than ever, and it now praised the World Health Organization, for breathing life into a dying company.
And then the World Health Organization released its report on kale, and Happy Swine’s unchallenged domination of office gear was at an end.
The day we all knew was coming is finally here. Scientists have reconstructed a rat’s brain. I immediately phoned my research assistant. “Are you reading this article?” I asked.
“Sure am, boss.”
“They’ve really ratcheted up the competition,” I said. “Time to show the world what we can do.”
“You got it, boss.”
When this news about the rat brain came in, we had already been working on reconstructing a cat brain for some time. We had hoped to announce our findings before Team Rat announced theirs, but had allowed laziness and a “Game of Thrones” marathon to distract us from our mission. But time was of the essence now. There could be no more procrastinating. I asked my research assistant to show me where we had left off in our work. He led me to a cardboard box filled with little folded up pieces of paper containing mostly sketches of cats. I recognized the pen strokes as my own.
We borrowed a neighbor’s cat, a cute little gray and black striped tabby with green eyes, and observed her for a few days. We wrote down everything she did. My assistant and I worked in shifts.
The first step was to program the eating function. Cats have a very distinctive way of eating. They won’t eat just anything, and won’t eat it in just any particular way. The rat brain decision tree, I’ve no doubt, had just one branch: Is it edible? If yes, then eat. But our decision tree had branches upon branches upon branches. Is it food? If so, then is it wet food or dry food? If it is wet food, is it from one of the premium brands or is it that generic store-brand stuff? If it is the generic store-brand stuff, then walk away with nose in the air. If it is the premium brand, has it been placed on a plastic lid not too close to the toe-kick on the lower cabinets?
Next we had to program the cat’s daily rounds about the house. After eating, go from the kitchen, to the dining room, to the living room, to the basement, then circle back along the perimeter. If there was a desk or table in the cat’s path, we had to program jump. If there was anything on the table, we had to program the cat to rub her face against it.
But the trickiest part was programming where the cat would want to sit or lay or curl up in the shape of a woven trivet during the day. There were so many places in the home, and this cat that we had observed seemed to go from spot to spot without rhyme or reason. It was just impossible to decipher why the cat chose the back of the couch in one moment, and then the owner’s bed in another moment, and then the middle of the kitchen floor in another moment. Only by resorting to Heisenberg Uncertainty and related laws of quantum physics could we introduce enough randomness to simulate the perambulations of a real cat.
At last the reconstructed cat brain was ready. Consistent with the ethical principles of our field, we invited an audience of actual cat owners and seated them before two screens: one screen showing a text-based description of the actions of the real tabby, and on the other screen was a text generated by our reconstructed cat brain. We did not the audience which was which. If we could fool these humans into not being able to tell the difference between the real cat and the computer cat, then our mission would be a success and we could brag to those rat brain scientists.
The programs started, and immediately both screens described the cats as going to sleep. And when the text “wake up and stretch” appeared 14 hours later, the audience was gone.
I was just settling down to another day at the office when I happened upon the startling news about a trend in China of people wearing plastic flowers on their heads. Yes – taking a plastic flower and sticking the stem in the hair so that it looks as if the flower is growing directly out of the head.
The obvious question was, of course, why do the flower arrangements have to be plastic? Surely there must be a way to grow real flowers on your head. I went outside into my yard and got some dirt from the garden and sprinkled in on my head, and planted a seed, and watered it. And within a few days, a sprout began to show itself.
The most difficult thing was washing my hair without damaging the fledgling flower. At first I tried to put a small plastic bag over my head in the shower, and then shampoo around the plastic bag. But the stream of water kept bending the small plant, struggling to grow. So instead I went to the local florist, and was advised to just put my head under the sprinkler for half an hour every day.
As my flower on my head grew taller I thought it might be nice to add a few others, just for some variety. Before long I had daisies and tulips and even roses. A few dandelions showed up, but I got a good discount on a lawn service and the itchy scalp and dizziness from the pesticides lasted only a few days.
People started to stop me on the street and admire my head garden. If I was standing in front of my house on a nice day, they would slow down their cars as they passed and look. Often they would take photographs, and I always sure to ask that they not sell the pictures on eBay.
One day I noticed I was attracting bumblebees. The bees would buzz in and around the flowers on my head and I was worried I or some passersby would get stung. I went online to see if there were any methods to getting rid of bees, and I learned that the bees help the flowers grow. So I learned to live with the bees, forcing some of my co-workers to start wearing body nets around the office.
Then there was the time the town water authority issued a warning that I was using up too much water to water my head. I needed the water to keep the flowers looking fresh, and to reduce the watering schedule even a little would cause them to droop and bring less sunshine into everyone’s day. I started an online campaign on one of those sites where you can raise money from complete strangers for valuable causes. I told them about my head garden and what it stood for, and what it meant, and how I needed water to keep the flowers looking fresh and that the town was shutting me down. The outpouring of aid was more than I ever could have imagined. Within two weeks I had enough water money to grow my head garden for the next three years.
But then something happened that I had not expected and could not control. The weather turned cold, and the flowers on my head started to lose their petals. I found petals on my pillow when I awoke and in my bowl of breakfast cereal. I kept the heat on in my home but it did no good. Once I walked outside to go to work, the cruel autumn crept in and deflowered more flowers on my head. By the time I was in the supermarket looking for “fun size” Snickers bars to appease the Halloween extortionists, my head garden was completely gone, leaving nothing but memories and a streak of yellow in my hair from the pesticides.
Some people ask me why I don’t just get a plastic flower, like they have in China, so that I can have my garden all year long. I told them they didn’t understand; that what made having flowers on your head so special was that I had personally tilled my hair and watched the flowers grow, like little children into adults. A plastic flower just wouldn’t be the same. And the stores were all sold out.
Today at around 8:00 p.m. everyone received an extra second. Scientists do this every now and again to make up for the wobble in the Earth’s rotation. Otherwise, in a few centuries sunrise would take place at noon. So they add a leap second. It’s a nice gesture, and my only complaint is that they don’t announce it in advance so that I might have planned to do something with the extra time.
Instead of adding the leap seconds piecemeal, they should save them up and then spend 15 or 20 leap seconds together. I mean, there’s not a heckuva lot you can do in one second. One second is barely enough time to straighten your collar or check that there’s enough money in your wallet to go set a Slurpee or something. But with 20 seconds – now we’re talking some real time. You could microwave your coffee that’s been sitting on your desk unsipped because you keep getting interrupted by emails about a new “office refrigerator policy.”
Or you could floss in between a few pairs of adjacent teeth. Probably couldn’t floss them all in 20 seconds. But, then again, many people do not floss at all. Imagine if a few times a year the entire universe of people who do not regularly floss stopped whatever they were doing and flossed for 20 seconds. The trajectory of dental history would be altered forever.
Or we could even use the 20 seconds to recite the theme song to a television show we liked as children. Twice a year people could plan what theme song they would sing in those 20 seconds. They could even plan to gather in one place and sing the same song. People who hardly knew each other could gather in the cereal section of the supermarket and sing the theme song to Charles in Charge.
Of course, the planning of how to use the extra 20 seconds would take up many non-leap seconds. That’s the problem with these things. People take it too far. There would be books and podcasts and three-day webinars at $299 early registration, all promising to teach you how to get the most out of the next scheduled chunk of 20 leap seconds, “just like the pros.”
So much real time would be used in planning for the leap time that scientists would be asked to stop letting the leap seconds accumulate, and to stop announcing the leap seconds in advance. And so little would now be said about the leap seconds that the scientists would forget to schedule leap seconds at all. And after several centuries, we would all be sleeping until noon, which is what everyone wanted anyway.
Last month a doctor said that he was planning to undertake the world’s first head transplant. The operation is as simple as it sounds. Take the head of one body and surgically reattach to another. The articles discussing the planned operation, which is apparently going to take place in China despite all of the interest that Western countries have in seeing this real-life Lego project, seem focused just on the source of the head. No one seems to be discussing where the body will come from.
Maybe there will be no body at all. Perhaps the idea is to reattach the head to a mannequin’s body, like the kind you see modeling clothes at the mall. Imagine how many more outfits will be sold when the customers, looking for the right size or for something that will match their Kindle Fire, notice one of the mannequins moving its eyes to follow them throughout the store. It will certainly put an end to shoplifting.
Or maybe the head could be reattached to the body of a large kid’s toy. Imagine how popular the toy would be? No need for batteries or pulling a cord. The head just speaks. The box that the toy comes in would have to detail what the head was going to speak about. The toy manufacturer would have to interview the head and find out what it knows. Maybe the head comes from someone who majored in physics or chemistry or ancient history. Think about how much kids could learn. On the other hand, the head may have come from someone who watched nothing but HBO programming, and parents will have to censor the doll and get to tone down its language and imagery, perhaps by making it watch whole seasons of Downton Abbey, until the head-doll starts addressing the kids that play with it as “M’Lord” and “Your Ladyship.”
Or maybe they will locate a body that is fresh and available enough and comes with few enough questions asked as to be ready to receive a new head. But who is to say there will be only one head needing a transplant? What if there are two? The surgeon will have to sew two heads onto the same body and hope they like the same kinds of movies.
Of course, this is all fantasy. No head transplant is going to take place because no insurance carrier is going to pay it. It doesn’t have a procedure code.
The doctor’s schedule was full, I was told, but after some pleading the doctor agreed to see me on his lunch hour.
“So what seems to be the problem?” the doctor asked me, taking a bite of his tuna fish sandwich.
“Doctor, I have a serious problem,” I said. “I can’t get that ‘Boom Clap’ song out of my head.”
“Hmm,” he said. He wiped his mouth and got up and looked at me. He felt all around my head. The smell of tuna fish on his breath was so strong I thought I was going to faint.
He ordered tests, and an MRI revealed that in fact a pop song was stuck in the left-back quadrant of my cereberum. Surgery was too risky, I was told, but left untreated the song would spread to other parts of my brain, and soon I’d be singing the song uncontrollably. The only way to eliminate the song was to replace it with another song.
“You can choose any song you like. Just think of one song or musical piece you would want stuck in your head.”
For reasons of both taste and insurance coverage I chose Mozart’s Oboe Concerto No. 5 in C. I’ve always enjoyed its felicitous phrasing. But someone mixed up the tapes at the outpatient clinic, and I ended up receiving treatment with the 1980s hit ‘Safety Dance’ by Men Without Hats. By the time they realized the error it was too late, and my insurance company said any subsequent treatments would have to be out-of-pocket.
So I’m going to have ‘Safety Dance’ stuck in my head for the rest of my life. There are days I wish I’d just left it alone. But at least I qualify for disability now.
One night, many years ago, I dreamt that I was in a dark forest. Suddenly a little ball of light came from behind one of the large oaks. As the ball of light floated towards me, I saw that it was a small winged fairy that glowed from head to toe.
She flew right up to me, and whispered in my ear in the sweetest tone I’ve ever heard – more music than voice. She said, “Make sure your website uses a font with serifs. Sans serif fonts, like Arial, look junky.” Then she kissed me on the nose, and I awoke before I could ask her about line spacing.