Remember When You Could Have a Private Email Server?

I am going to make a confession right now. When I was a cashier at 7-11 one summer years ago, I had a private email server. There, I said it. My actions were wrong and I am sorry.

When I commenced employment in that position, I had been provided with an email account on the store’s server installed right behind the Slurpee machine. But I hardly ever used that account. At work I had to stand up and sell people coffee, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and, of course, Slurpees. It was usually so busy that I had not any time to check email, and at the end of my shift at 10 p.m., I had to quickly bring that day’s leftover doughnuts to my friends who were starving and had money only for beer.

So it was a matter of circumstance that I hired a consultant to set up an email server at my home. Do not think that it was easy. I was still living with my parents and in the same bedroom I’d had since childhood, with the Disney character wallpaper, Superman sheets on the bed, and Thundercats light switch cover that I’d obtained as a favor in a Happy Meal. There was not a lot of space in the closet and I had to relocate my comic books and Boy Scout uniform at considerable inconvenience both to myself and my staff.

After a long day at the cash register I would return home to conduct my business. As you will see from the more than 40,000 emails that have been turned over to the State Department, I never discussed anything classified or that would compromise national security. The Saudis were interested only in some Power Bars, and the photos of potential drone strike targets were in fact from a particularly tense game of Battleship that to this day I swear I played with integrity.

Much has been made of Protocol 32, which mandates, in pertinent part, that all 7-11 business must be conducted on 7-11 servers. I do not deny the text of the rule, and since that time my staff and I have worked tirelessly to come up with a decent excuse. The reason I did not strictly follow the rule is that I did not read it. The package of materials that I received during orientation was shoved under my bed, and in the midst of all my duties and feeding my drunk friends free stale doughnuts I forgot about the rules, until my mother last year served me with a demand to take all my “junk” out of my old room or else I would face environmental clean up costs.

Nevertheless, my conducting of 7-11 business on a private email server was a violation of the rules, and for that I am sincerely sorry. But I assure you that at no point was the nation put at risk. I never told anyone how long the hot dogs are left on those rotating cylinders or who was really responsible for the irritating music that was always playing over the loud speaker. You can all sleep easy, and I hope that we can now all move past this, into a brighter future where my campaign for register clerk at Pita Pan will not be dogged by distractions that have nothing to do with the real issues.

Remember When People Liked Gluten?

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.

Remember When Presidential Campaigns Did Not Go On Forever?

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.

Remember When It Was Safe to Eat Processed Meat?

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.

IMG_1065.JPG “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.

Remember When You Couldn’t Reconstruct a Rat Brain?

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. rat

“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.

Remember When the Internet Was Anonymous?

Today marks four years since I started this blog. Seems like just yesterday. Thank you all who have read this blog and taken the time to comment. I know that I don’t post as often as I used to, but I’ve got a few big projects I’ve been working, and I’m going to share one of them with you very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this post.

The Director was sitting in his office, enjoying a pumpkin spice latte. He did not like pumpkin flavor, but it was the law of the land that pumpkin flavor must be consumed in the fall.

There was a knock at the door and an intern entered.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But do you remember when we demanded that all social media websites turn over all of the personal information and preferences of their users? Well now they say they are not producing the information.”

“They’re not? I was afraid of this. All right, time for Plan B.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I do. House calls.”

The media at first was skeptical of the government’s new program, whereby they sent government agents to canvass the neighbors, door to door, asking the inhabitants for their personal information. Many pundits thought it an intrusion on people’s privacy, while others thought it a patriotic duty and a chance to expose themselves to some new germs.

Analysts on both sides, however, agreed that people would not want to reveal their personal information to an agent of the government who showed up at their doorstop uninvited and in most cases without even a bottle of wine or piece of fancy cheese wrapped up in nice paper.

So they were really surprised by the responses. People provided their names and ages, of course, and their email addresses and phone numbers, and where they like to shop, and what they think about the things that other people’s kids do, versus the things that their own kids do. They asked about music tastes and food tastes and whether they were more likely to choose a table or a booth when offered both at a diner.

The program was so successful and the responses so thorough, that the government turned it into a reality tv show.

“You know, usually I go for the booth. If I’m offered both, I go for the booth.”

“So you’d classify yourself as booth in response to question 19a?”

“Well, now, sometimes I don’t feel like a booth. I gotta be honest, I like booths. But sometimes – I don’t know – I just feel like a table.”

“So would you classify yourself as a hybrid booth/table? There’s a choice for that.”

“Well, you know,” he says with his finger in his mouth, and looking up at the ceiling. “Now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure if I ever chose a table over a booth when offered both. I think I was thinking of something that happened to my mother. Maybe I really am a booth guy after all.”

In fact, so effective was the government program that the social media websites started offering the government money for the personal data of the citizenry, in hopes of offering content that would attract more viewers. The official answer was no, but then some Congressmen and Senators got into a bit of hot water over selling of personal data to social media companies, and had to do penance by reciting the 80s pop hit single “Safety Dance” a cappella, including all of the instrumental sounds, before every session of Congress.

Remember When Your School Got Its Own Tank?

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now of the school district that obtained an armored vehicle – actually, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle or MRAP if you want to impress someone – from the United States military through its Excess Property Program.  The vehicle was free, and the district had to pay just the cost of transportation, which was $3.95 for regular ground, or $5,000 for 2-day express.Tank1

I remember when my school got its first tank, the graduating seniors’ class gift to the school they loved so much.  At the dedication ceremony, the Class President, Class Vice President, and Class Risk Assessment Manager spray painted the sides of the tank with “Woo Hoo Class of Awesome!  To Thine Own Self Be True!”  There was an after-party, mainly for those three people, where they ate pizza and discussed what they were going to do with all their Barron’s review books.

Some concerned parents managed to have the tank classified as dangerous, so the school had to keep it under strict lock and key in the A/V room, along with the televisions on those tall skinny carts.  The School Tank, as it came to be called, was taken out for special events like Homecoming, where the Homecoming King and Queen would ride atop the military vehicle, holding flowers and wearing their crowns, and waving to the crowds in the stands.

The following year, a neighboring school district, a rival in football, basketball, and Monopoly, got its own tank. It was larger and shinier than ours, and at the Memorial Day parade, at which all high schools in the region could march in whatever formation they liked as long as it met federal safety standards, their tank got more cheers from the crowds of parents and siblings.

Over the summer, the school diverted some funds earmarked for social studies books and ordered up another tank. This one was bigger and shinier than even the tank that our rival had obtained. Next to our first tank, it was a giant. We started calling them Big Tank and Little Tank. At lunchtime now, the school paraded the two tanks, sometimes Big leading, sometimes Little, around the track. All students could look out the window and see the two tanks parading.  The tanks were driven by students, and for some reason this job attracted the same students who were in charge of the audio/visual technology.

At the Memorial Day Parade, Big Tank and Little Tank rolled down our town’s main thoroughfare in triumph. Parents and siblings cheered loudly and the day appeared to be ours. But then a sound…a buzzing chop-chop sound filled the air and all were quiet.

And then we saw it. A helicopter with a bad drawing of a wildcat – the mascot of our rival school – spray painted on the side.  The tank was rolling on the street, directly underneath the helicopter, with balloons floating from the nozzle of the gun.

This was absolutely the last straw. Classes were cancelled for a week while school officials sold books and some desks where the chair and desk are fused together to get another military vehicle. As we sat at home and wished we could be back in English class reading Wuthering Heights, we speculated on what the new vehicle would be. What could be more impressive than a helicopter?

The Warren G. Harding High School Air Craft Carrier was delivered via overnight courier. Since our physical school building was not that near the water, we had to be relocated to a coastal town on the bay. It was a lot windier but we didn’t get as much snow.

One night our radar caught a few blips off the coast of Madagascar. Our commanding officer, who was also the official wearer of the school mascot costume at home football games, ordered our battleship and guided missile cruiser – gifts of the National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America, respectively – in for a closer look.

“Identify yourselves,” Kevin said into the microphone, which no one except him seemed to know was not connected to the unknown ships.  “Prepare the guns,” he said to the crew, who were making posters for a pep rally. “This could get ugly.”

Our ships were moved into position and guns aimed. Now we were worried about the math test in third period and the possibility of war.

“Man the cannon!” Kevin said. “Ready, aim…”

“Wait! Wait!” said the Class Gluten-Free Bake Sale Coordinator. “What’s that on the side of the ships? I think it says…Go Wildcats?”

Yes, it was our dear rivals from the neighboring town. Looks like they had obtained for themselves a navy. Had it not been for the unsteady block printing and pathetic drawing of a wildcat on the sides of the ships, we would have launched on them and probably have had to make up our math test.  The near risk of war marked a turning point in the relationship of our schools, and I can safely say that today we are not rivals but allies.

Editor’s Note:  It turns out that the San Diego School District has returned the armored vehicle.  I hope they kept the receipt.

Remember When the World Cup Wasn’t On?

I was walking down the street, with my headphones on, listening to Sir John Gielgud’s performance of the “To Be, Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet.  Suddenly a long black car pulled up to the curb beside me, and two large men with black suits got out and pulled me into the car.  They blindfolded me, I imagine so that I could not see their faces, or perhaps they wanted to surprise me with a gift, the way parents would do after we lit the Hanukkah candles.

Then someone spoke to me.

“We heard that you said football was boring.”

I protested and said that I never said such a thing, that I love football and cherish every tackle as if it was happening to me or someone I loved.  There was some whispering, and then the man who spoke cleared his throat and spoke again.

“I mean, we heard that you said that soccer was boring.”

I tried to remember if I ever said that soccer was boring.

“Well, I certainly remember thinking it,” I admitted.  “But saying it?  I’m afraid I don’t remember.  I mean, I’m not saying I didn’t say it.  I’m saying I just don’t remember if I said it or not.”

The car stopped moving and the door opened and someone led me out of the car.  We walked for a while and I wondered if I was going to be killed for thinking or perhaps even saying that soccer was boring.  Then I remembered that many great people had died for a deeply held belief, and I was comforted.

Then someone stopped me, and removed my blindfold.  I was standing in the middle of a field.  It was a sunny day, and I felt around for my prescription sunglasses, and realized that I had left them at home.  Then someone called to me from my left.

I turned and a large man in a black suit, perhaps one of the pair who had kidnapped me, was standing by a soccer ball.

“We are going to show you how much fun soccer is!”  And he kicked the ball over to me.

“Now kick it back,” he said cheerfully.  I kicked it back.  I admit it was a little fun, kicking a ball.  I’ve never been able to hit a baseball or throw a perfect spiral.  But kicking a soccer ball?  It’s just like kicking a TV that doesn’t work, except it rolls.

The man kicked the soccer ball in different direction, and I saw that the person he had kicked it to looked as confused and out of place as I did.  Without a word, he kicked the ball back to the kidnapper, who then gracefully kicked the ball in yet another direction to yet another person looking confused and out of place.  I turned my body around a full 360 degrees, and saw many other people standing around, looking confused and out of place, all with a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here playing soccer.”  I was apparently part of a soccer game designed to expose soccer to people who were rumored to have said that soccer was boring.

I don’t know how long I was out there.  Time seemed to stand still as we kicked the ball to this person, then to that person, then to that person.  It was too hot to run around, so we all just stood there kicking the ball.  But after a while it was kind of fun.  Just kick the ball.  At some point someone asked the kidnapper how much time was left in the game.  The kidnapper signaled to the sideline, and two other large men with black suits came onto the field, hit the person over the head with something, and dragged him off the field, his heels leaving tracks in the grass.  He did not return to the game.

At some point the soccer ball disappeared, and we were blindfolded one at a time.  I was led to the car, told to get in, and driven a distance.  Then the car stopped, the door opened, the blindfold removed, and I’m let out of the car.  The kidnapper who played with us was standing next to me.

“You see?  Now you know how much fun foot – I mean, how much fun soccer is.  Tell all your friends!”

The car drove off and I wandered down the street.  I passed a bar where people were watching World Cup soccer, and I walked inside.  The players on the screen were kicking the ball from one to another, just as I had been doing a short while before.  I thought about how much fun I had been having.  I remember the satisfying feeling of kicking the ball, and projected my feelings onto the players on the TV.  No one in that bar was more focused on the game than I was, and soon I started to feel like I was actually in the game.  I was living soccer!  This is what they were talking about!

I lasted almost five minutes.  Then I felt around for my headphones, put them on, walked out of the bar, and continued listening to Sir John Gielgud as the melancholy Prince of Denmark.

Remember When Virtual Reality Was More Virtual Than Reality?

Facebook’s Director of Newfangled Operations was sitting at his desk, reading reviews on Yelp for a good place to get turkey salad. An assistant knocked at his door.

“Come in, come in,” he said, facing the assistant. “So what’s the good word?”

“Well, sir, you know that ever since we acquired the virtual reality company Oculus VR, the, uh, upper management has been anxious to learn about the user experience.”

“Yes, yes,” the Director said. “And what is the user experience? Do the people, the salt of the earth, the great unwashed masses yearning to be free…do they like virtual reality?”

“Yes, they do, but—”

“But what? Are people displeased with the gaming?”

“No, they love it. They say the exploding bodies have never been more life like.”

“Are they able to access enough pornography?”

“Of course. We’ve enabled even individuals with visual, hearing, and tactile disabilities to enjoy it. A Congressional committee has commended us.”

“Don’t tell me they’re concerned about privacy.”

“Most people accept the theory that privacy was a myth originated by the Sumerians around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

“Well what then?”

“Sir, the users’ concern is that when they wear the virtual reality headgear, they can’t tell if people are touching their food.”

The Director stared at the assistant for a few moments. “Touching their food?”

“Yes, you know. Like putting their hands all over a bowl of potato chips, and then watching while the virtual reality user eats the potato chips that have just been touched.”

The Director was a silent a moment. “I see how this could be quite a problem.”

“Sir, should we tell Mr. Zuckerberg? Perhaps—”

“No! Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t like problems.” The Director chewed on a nail. “We’ve got to fix this ourselves.”

The solution was to offer virtual reality users the services of someone who would sit in the same room with them, without wearing headgear, and would stand guard over the users’ food or drink or bodily integrity. These hired individuals—called “guardians”—could also watch coats and book bags. And for a while it worked.

But then people started to worry that these guardians were doing things to them that they had been hired to prevent. What if the guardians had been bribed by someone who wanted to dip a finger in the users’ coffee and stir it around? How would the users ever know?

So then the guardians were scraped and instead the headgear was fitted with a little camera that would broadcast the user’s immediate surroundings through a little window in the corner of the headgear’s screen. So now users could watch the real world while they were immersed in virtual reality.

After a while, users found that watching their real life surroundings was more interesting than the virtual world. If they were alone, they could watch an empty room and see if anyone came in. If they were in a room with other users, they could watch a bunch of other people wearing headgear, bobbing around in their seats and waving their hands.

Users started talking to each other while they were immersed in virtual reality. Now that they could everyone else in the room, they could talk freely, knowing that they weren’t speaking to an empty room. At first they talked about the virtual reality simulation they were using at the moment. But soon they moved on to other topics, like the weather, or upcoming weddings, or what each of them had done that day. Tech bloggers dubbed this growing practice of in-person conversation while wearing the headgear “non-virtual reality.”

Non-virtual reality became so popular that the software engineers kept enlarging the size of the window projected on the inner screen. Before long, this window took up the entire screen, so that when the users put the virtual reality headgear on, they saw a live, perfectly to-scale rendering of the same exact scene they would see if they took the headgear off.

“Sir!” the assistant said, entering the Director’s office with the headgear on. “Your program is a complete success! It is reported that 98% of the world’s population now walks around with headgear on all the time.”

“Splendid!” said the Director, wearing his own headgear. “But who are the 2% that aren’t wearing headgear? Are they from those primitive societies that walk around in loincloths and star in those movies they show at the Museum of Natural History?”

“No, sir. That was our initial theory, too. But it turns out that the 2% are hardcore techies.”

“Techies! But how can that be?”

“They say the original headset was better.”

Remember When Extinction Was Permanent?

I read in the newspaper that scientists have figured out how to bring back extinct animals like passenger pigeons and woolly mammoths. So filled with possibilities was my brain that I kept giving customers incorrect change. As I rollerbladed home that evening the words in the article kept going through my head.

Thanks to advances in genomic sequencing, the woolly mammoth will once again roam the steppes of Asia.

The idea appealed to me in a way I could not yet describe. Bringing back extinct animals – yes, that was impressive and would certainly be a boon for the manufacturers of squishy toys. But the real potential here was something even greater. Over my usual dinner of Cheerios I had a vision.

I am eight years old and I am sitting at the kitchen table. The morning sun is shining and I am eating a bowl of something called Ghostbusters cereal. The cereal is made of multicolored Os of grain and little dense marshmallows that don’t seem quite like food but melt it my mouth nonetheless.

Suddenly my father comes by holding open a garbage bag.

These sugary cereals are making you crazy,” he says, sweeping the nearly full box of Ghostbusters cereal into the large black plastic bag. I am devastated.

That was the last I saw of the great sugary cereals. Cereals made of pure sugar and oat-like structures with a commercial tie-in to a popular television show or movie. I blink back tears. Now I know why the article about un-extincting extinct animals moved me so.

I dress in all black and make sure there are batteries in my flashlight. The museum is a few miles but Mom is glad to drive me and doesn’t ask too many questions. Closing time was hours ago but I’ve seen enough movies to know how to cut a hole in the glass skylight and drop in like a spider.

In between the Monets and Caravaggios is the crowl jewel of the collection: extinct breakfast cereals, on loan from the Smithsonian. Behind heavy glass the boxes are lined up in diaramas. My eyes linger over each one. Mr. T Cereal, Smurf Berry Crunch, Nintendo Cereal System, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, and…oh yes…Ghostbusters Cereal (with Slimer inside).

These cereals have been off supermarket shelves for decades. These are last survivors, their genetic structures and free toys perfectly preserved for the viewing public, and a day when science fiction would finally become science.

The genomes of these cereals turned out to be not as complicated as I’d feared. All I really had to do was add milk, and the colored oats and marshmallows would distintegrate into an extremely sweet primordial soup. Then boil off the milk, implant the leftover cereal residue into boxes of newer cereals that are still in circulation, and voila – resurrection.

For days I was in a dream state. I was eating cereals that were supposed to be long dead. I pittied the poor fool that couldn’t eat Mr. T cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

And then one morning I realized I had been up for days, functioning on nothing more than the sugar rush from the cereals. I wanted to stop but could not. I ate one bowl after another. Suddenly it was clear to me what was going on. These cereals had been created and marketed to kids in another time. Our present environment had no defenses against the glazed oats and marshmallows. If only I had not been so eager and fallen victim to human folly.

Just when I thought I would never be free of the sugar rush, my father appeared.

Dad, you were right,” I said. “It’s too late for me, but you can still save yourself.”

But instead of running away, I saw that he was holding something. It was a large, black, plastic garbage bag. I rubbed my eyes.

In one motion my father swept the resurrected cereals into the bag, and tied it shut with the built-in plastic drawstring. I could see the boxes writhing inside. He ran out of the house, just in time to catch the garbage truck, which was techinically only supposed to pick up paper, but could be bribed into taking some extra baggage.

And as I watched the truck drive away, I soberly reflected on the danger of bringing back creatures long extinct. Sometimes your curiosity gets the best of you.