Saturday, 11 March 2017

iGod, Chapter 6: Amazing Plants

The long strokes of Splinter’s tongue made a rhythmic, sopping sound. It was perfectly content, licking the bloodstains on its forelegs. ‘You evil murderer’, said Lex when he pulled his dog to his laboratory table. Lex had done a search for mammals with a similar shape as Splinter’s prey, but so far he had not found a match. No single animal, other than human babies perhaps, had the unusually large size of the head compared to the rest of the body and other than bats, he found no mammals with wings.

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A new set of clothes laid on his ClothingHelp, slightly smarter than usual with a freshly ironed shirt and tight trousers. His ClothingHelp, being synchronized with his diary, was usually right in its choice, but now Lex felt this outfit was a bit too over-dressed. After all, it was just a dinner with his neighbor, no big deal. He did not want Diana to think that he expected anything more. On the other hand it could also be impolite to be underdressed in his jeans and eternal T-shirt. ‘Okay, I follow your advice’, Lex spoke out loud in his empty apartment.

He still had time before seven. He quickly zoomed in on ‘Breaking News’. In the city of New Delhi, half of the inhabitants of a home for elderly people had died a mysterious death. So far the Inspection had not found a virus or bacteria or any other obvious cause of their death. It was a conundrum how 156 people could have died within 12 hours, and how 164 clients did not have any health problems at all. The city had appointed a commission to investigate this mystery. More news would follow later.
Then Lex checked a job vacancy. Although he was utterly chanceless with his profile (healthy, young, trained graduated biologist) he still needed to do a minimum of one application per six weeks in order to keep his BaseSalary at this level. Last week, he had made a short video. So far he had not received a rejection and he started to hope that his application might even been considered for this job. He sent a message to the Human Resource officer to ask about the follow-up procedure. The OpportunityBot answered that his application was not known. ‘But I uploaded my video on Thursday, at 3 pm!’ He sent the activity log as proof. ‘I am sorry to hear that. We have not, I repeat NOT received your video.’ ‘I can resend my video’, Lex said. ‘Application date is closed. Sorry for any inconvenience. Good luck next time’, the OpportunityBot concluded the session.
‘Damn!’ Lex yelled and he pushed a chair against the table and he breathed heavily.
He was completely sure that he sent his video – a kid could perform this task blindfolded. How could it be that they had not received his application? He looked up the contact details of the university ombudsman, but when he started to state his formal complaint, he already knew he would never win his argument against a bot and he quit this screen, too.

Lex switched the projection off. He removed old leaves from his plants and cleaned the glass tubes that he had used to fill them with bacteria and plant material. The contact with the plants immediately eased his mind and he started to breathe normally again.
In the experiment that was interrupted by the power outage, Lex had taken material from the Forsythia to transfer the bright yellow color to the bacteria. He had done similar tests in the university laboratory, a couple of years ago. Due to the power failure the experiment could not proceed. During the simple task of cleaning the tools, Lex suddenly shouted, softly but enthusiastically: ‘Yes!’ and even made a miniscule jump in the air. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’

It occurred to Lex that the combination of bacteria and plants might actually be a way out to the immobility of plant communication. In his quest for speed, he had looked for possibilities to transport the plants. He thought about plant pots on wheels, pushed by robots or transported by drones – that kind of solutions. This was the wrong route! The answer had been in his hands all the time. Why did he see it only now! He rubbed his hands and paced around his laboratory table.

Man, he was thrilled! This intellectual excitement was better than having sex, or consuming drugs! It was rare, but he has had a handful of such insightful moments before. It was like he had opened a door he had previously overlooked, and suddenly he could see ten or twenty new doors behind that door. These doors had been there behind the closed door all along, but he had not been able to see them before. Now that this one was open, there were many new possibilities waiting for him! Splinter joined Lex in his delight and toddled in small circles around Lex’ feet, looking upwards to his boss with his head askew, with the same posture when he received his meals.

Bacteria cover tiny distances when they move by themselves. However, if their travel is airborne, or in water or with the help of animals, for example on the skin of the hands of people, they can travel huge distances. If these bacteria could then start or stop the plant communication… Lex wanted to dictate his theory to his SmartHouseProgram like he usually did, but suddenly he remembered the ‘no device’ imperative that Seldon had introduced. He took his tablet and scribbled down his assumptions, logical links and conclusions. However, he decided to add also meaningless formulas and notes in between to obfuscate his true interests. Incidentally he asked his SmartHouseProgram to project a scientific publication or to import a hologram of parts of a molecule, but he made sure that he also asked for publications and DNA structures and genomes that were totally off-topic. He looked up articles and he went through unpublished reports of experiments. The whole exercise was sheer happiness. Oh man, Seldon would be so amazed tomorrow! Now he only had to dive into the issue how…

‘Hi neighbor, you are welcome…’ a message on his personal device from Diana. It was half past 7 already.
Oh my dear, how could I miss my appointment! ‘On my way! Well, almost!’
He went up the stairs to Diana’s apartment. She lived on the seventh floor.
‘Thanks for texting me. I was in the middle of something.’
‘19.35 is still seven-ish – I would say’, Diana helped him with the greeting. Lex was happy that he had changed his clothes to smart casual, since his neighbor was also dressed to the occasion, in a sporty though smart grey dress. Her makeup was light, used with the intention that it was all-natural, much to his approval. He could now admit to himself that he had feared he would meet the sexless office-Diana.

‘Should I remove my shoes?’ Lex asked since he had noticed she walked bare feet.
‘Whatever feels good to you.’
This was not a very specific instruction. After an instance of doubt, Lex decided to take off his shoes. Diana invited him to her kitchen table. Her apartment was slightly smaller than his. She had those typical things that were supposed to make homes cozy: projections of landscapes, a rug and curtains. She had even set the table, with two proper plates, cutlery and two fancy glasses. Since he had left his parent’s home, he had never dined like this.

It occurred to Lex that he should have brought something for dinner, like flowers or alcohol or chocolate. ‘Too little too late,’ his internal headmaster reprimanded him.
‘So I wanted to order an alcohol dispenser, but I did not know what would blend in best with the meal – what do you recommend? Then I order it right away’, Lex bluffed.
‘You mean you forgot to buy me something? Don’t worry. It is good enough you are here’, Diana laughed. She took an alcohol dispenser from her kitchen sink and waited for instructions how he liked his alcohol best. He did not dare to order the way he usually consumed alcohol: the highest percentage possible in the taste of gin or whiskey. He did not drink alcohol on a daily base, but if he did so, he was a result-drinker. Now he chose a modest permillage in the taste of wine.

‘How is your drone doing?’ Lex asked.
‘It is perfect now, thanks. You did an excellent job. For a biologist, you are pretty handy with drones, aren’t you?’
‘I am even better with plants.’
Diana hummed and poured two glasses with wine-tasting alcohol.
‘I saw you are a lawyer, or prosecutor, I forgot, sorry. I am not familiar with these labels in your field – for you it is worlds apart probably.’
Lex and Diana toasted with their glasses.
‘I once were, first a lawyer and then a prosecutor, indeed. These services have been fully robotized. Now I am working in a home for the elderly.’ She said it blank, without expression. Lex found it hard to read Diana’s face. ‘And what kind of work do you do?’
‘Paid or unpaid?’ Lex asked.
‘Work is no longer defined by payment, I would say. I did not ask who your boss is, did I?’ Diana laughed.
‘The easy answer is I work with plants.’
‘Ok. And you want me to ask what the difficult answer is?’
‘Hmm, not really. I like this dispenser Blend. Is it a BordeauxBlend? If I am not mistaken, I taste scents and flavors of cassis, blackberry, dark cherry, vanilla, black cherry, coffee bean, spice and even some licorice’, said Lex.

 ‘Did you learn the wine guide by heart or is it your way of conversation on a first date?’
Lex did not know what to answer and he filled the silence with another gulp of his wine.
‘This is a good time to serve dinner, I guess.’ Diana went to her sink and the plates were nicely presented, with five different compartments for the macro- and micronutrients.
He was very happy to see that she poured more drinks for them. Lex tried to make eye contact, but Diana avoided his gaze.
‘So now I would like to order some alcohol for the after party.’
‘In case there will be an after party.’
Lex ordered an alcohol dispenser in single malt quality, to be delivered within the hour.

‘Plants,’ Diana reminded him of the initial conversation.
‘Yes, I do experiments with plants. I am still not entirely sure whether my plant experiments qualify as dinner subject.’
‘Check it out.’
‘What I currently do is to transpose qualities of plants, let’s say illumination, color, fragrance, on to bacteria. So far I have failed unnecessarily and grandiosely, thanks to EnergyAmsterdam’s power outages.’ Lex took a bite of his food. It tasted even worse than the meals he prepared himself.
‘Okay – this transfer of certain traits of plants and flowers to bacteria has been done before. What is your interest in all this?’
‘The real reason is that I just like to putter around in my home laboratory and solve problems that I invented in the first place. I once read a book on career choices. In that book, two types of people were described. The first one likes to be a dancer. This kind of person has a clear-cut image of what ‘being a dancer’ entails and dreams of being a famous dancer, one day. The other type does not mind about the image of being a dancer, she just loves the actual act of dancing. She dances every day, before an audience or without anyone. I am more of the second type. I am a biologist, currently without a regular employment.’
Diana was somewhat disappointed.
Lex did not dear to mention that the reason behind his experiments was to develop an alternative communication system – afraid that her SmartHouseProgram would pick up more of the conversation than desirable. Lex described some of the successful transmissions of plant characteristics to bacteria he had already realized. She had listened carefully and asked several questions, no single stupid one. Diana poured another round of wine for both of them.
‘And why do I think that there is more to it than just tinkering with your tubes and infrared heating beam?’
She looked at him, and now he saw her grey-blue eyes. He felt pinpricks in the tips of his fingers.
‘Fair question but really, I am afraid I will not know when to stop the nerdy nitty gritty once I have started. Please, now it is your turn.’
‘To tell what?’
‘Well, anything.’
Lex tried to think of suitable questions and topics. There was a short silence.
‘How is your work?’ Lex attempted to reboot the conversation.
‘I have a double degree in psychology and law. I used to prosecute international political villains in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. I worked with the brightest people. And now, I am reduced to a pair of hands, washing and feeding the elderly who are fading away. So, what do you want me to say about my current job?’ Diana laughed shrilly and Lex felt she was even a bit hostile towards him.

At that moment he received a message that the delivery drone would soon reach the apartment.
‘Excuse me for a moment, I have to collect my order.’ Lex went down the stairs in his socks, slipped on the smooth steps, fell, and hurt himself. He returned with empty hands and looked desolate. In the meantime, Diana had cleaned up the dinner table.
‘The dispenser was delivered directly to my apartment window. I paid for it.’ Diana said. Lex felt bad. ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘Shall we have a drink?’ Lex pointed at the parcel..
‘Sorry, I have a maddening headache. I hoped it would go away after a few pills, but it still plows my skull. I guess I should have cancelled this dinner. I am sorry’, Diana said.
She pushed him gently to the doorstep. ‘We can have a drink of the single malt another time.’
‘Ok. Get well soon’, Lex said somewhat dazed.

When Lex came home it was not even eight o’clock. Undoubtedly, this was his quickest and probably worst date ever. He waited for Splinter to come up to him, but his dog ignored him, too. He took one of his own tumblers and poured himself a single malt from his own dispenser, sitting at the laboratory table. He filled the glass up to the edge. Only then he realized he had forgotten, in all the consternation, to feed his dog.
‘Come here boy’, and he filled Splinter’s manger.
Of all unresolved puzzles, the irrational behavior of his neighbor was the most annoying. Why did she invite him first and then send him away like a schoolboy? Did he say anything wrong? Did he smell? He sniffed his armpits. Or perhaps she really suffered from a headache.

He had no lust to engage in something and decided to consume the news. First the rates of the currencies, shares, and raw materials were shown. The price of water per gallon showed a remarkably steep increase, which was good news for water-exporting countries like the Netherlands or Sweden. Then the program reported. Probably 62 passengers, the pilot, co-pilot and 2 stewards were killed, this 6th of April. The exact number had yet to be confirmed. No terrorist organization had claimed this crash, but a terrorist attack was likely, they said. The negotiations for the Global Summit on Energy for the 21st century were just ahead. The main issue was the trade and registration of CO2 emissions in the fight against climate change. It seemed to Lex that the opponents of the new carbon tax largely outnumbered the politicians, who wanted to push it through.
Lex tried to find an overview of the terrorist attacks in the past 40 years, but that was not available. He looked up the facts and figures from different sources, combined the data in one longitudinal overview. The assaults had increased steeply, just like he had expected. In fact the number of incidents had quadrupled in the last year. Looking at the number of victims, there was even a factor of 10.
He ordered the SmartHouseProgram to close the news and to open MultiLayer. Judged by the meager results, the wines and whiskey started to kick in.

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Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

iGod: Chapter 5

The lights went off and with a buzzing sound that slowly muted, his infrared heating stopped working. Damn, this was yet another power outage! Lex was in the middle of his experiments and he needed his infrared heating to regulate the temperature of the plant material with the bacteria in the glass tubes. Now that he was confronted with another power cut, he could not finish this series of tests. More than a day of work was wasted. What was wrong with this country? About ten years ago power outages were extremely rare. Lex was annoyed by the incompetence of the people in charge of such a critical infrastructure and service. How hard could it be to keep it up and running? If they were able to do so in the 20th century, why would it not be possible to do so in the 21th century with all the amazing technology available?

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He cleaned up his laboratory, disposing of the liquid contents of the tubes and preparing the lab for a new round of experiments once the power was back. He decided to do his shopping now when the diesel emergency power generators would still run. Usually, they lasted a couple of hours. After this period of time, electricity was only available to the citizens in the highest echelons. He’d better do the things he needed to do with the help of the network immediately.

Lex logged in with an iris scan. ‘Protein, 1 kilo, carbohydrates 1 kilo, 500 gram fibre and 300 gram fat.’ These ingredients had then to be combined with the digestion bacteria he had at home to prepare a meal that was exactly customized to his body. He was about to give his permission for the payment, when he saw again the unusually high price. What was going on here? The total sum for his shopping list was nearly twice as high as usual. He looked for mistakes or double orderings, but none of this was the case. The prices had gone up. He searched for alternative ingredients in the shop, but these were equally expensive. He visited other shops with no success. Finally, he found a small old-fashioned shop where he paid the normal price. He made a mental note. Once the power was back, he would dive into this pricing issue.

Now that the power was out, there was not much to do for Lex, so he took Splinter for a walk, who was irritated first about the timing, but then very excited. It turned out that Seldon had the same idea.

This time Lex remembered that Seldon had told him ‘to forget his PD’ and imagined Seldon grinning about this wordplay. He hesitated, however, whether he should really leave his personal device behind. He never ever went anywhere without it – what if he needed help? On the other hand, Seldon had sounded earnest when he brought up the issue. To deceive him now could undermine their new bond. Lex did not want to put this relation in danger, which was handy at least and a promising friendship at most. Lex left his device on his laboratory kitchen table, next to his plants. When Lex left his apartment, he felt like naked without his digital gear. Besides, it was really difficult to do nothing. Usually, he checked social prompts and news, or posted some messages.

Lex was disappointed about the lack of progress he had made regarding the mobility of plants. He looked forward to Seldon’s solutions to the alternative communication system. Seldon carried a book under his arm. Lex knew some people who collected books, and in his university library there was a TrĂ©sor with old books even going back to the 17th century. Books were nice for museums, he thought. Lex said hello to Seldon but his friend did not return the greeting. Instead, Seldon tapped vigorously with his index finger on the cover. ‘Do you know who she is?’ Seldon handed the book over to Lex and it took him one quick glance to recognize the scientist from the news yesterday.

‘It is Alida Oosterveen, why do you ask?’

The book was her biography and the cover pictured her.

‘You saw her death and funeral reported in the news yesterday, right?’ Seldon asked without the question-intonation, it was the first statement in reasoning, not a genuine query.

‘This book was written in 2002. Guess what? This biography describes that she died in 2000, at the age of 74. Here, there are pictures of her funeral, and it includes the written accounts of the speeches delivered at her burial.’ Seldon opened the book on page 219, where indeed, her death was reported.

Lex did not believe the message from his academic friend. There had to be a plausible explanation for this double report of the death of a well-known scientist. And since the news was open to a wide, critical public, probably this publication was wrong.

Seldon took the book back and continued the walk. The dogs got used to each other. They did not even sniff at each other anymore and walked side by side.

‘What is your hunch? Is the book mistaken, or was today’s report about her death fake news?’ Lex asked.

‘I am absolutely, 100%, no, 1000% sure that the news today was fake.’

Seldon did not wait for Lex’ reaction and opened the book on another page that showed a picture of a large conference hall, full of people. A tall man stood behind a lectern on stage. The subscript of the picture read: ‘Professor Iddekinge delivering a speech on the memorial service in honor of the deceased Alida Oosterveen, Aula of Delft University of Technology, 25 October 2000. 

‘I worked at TU Delft at the time. As you may know, Alida Oosterveen was a famous alumna of TU Delft. Indeed, she still is the only Noble Prize winner of that university. Anyway, Joost Iddekinge was the dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, where I worked at that time. And you see, here…’ he pointed to the far left corner of the picture, at the bottom, to a back of a head. ‘This is me. I was 42 in that year, working as Associate Professor for Joost Iddekinge, and I was ordered to be present at that ceremony to fill an empty seat. Joost wanted the Aula to look fully packed because it would otherwise look bad on photographs. At the very last moment before the ceremony started, one of his assistants literally pulled me away from my desk to join the memorial service.’

The issue intrigued Lex, but he was by no means convinced. What interest could possibly be at stake, to take all the trouble to falsify the memory of a death of someone who was relevant to the scientific community, but not that world famous? The first time her death was reported in 2002, which is 23 years ago. That may seem a long period, but it is not that long ago. Quite a few people, who were alive at that time, were still around and would remember her and her earlier death, just like Seldon did.

‘Okay, let’s assume for a moment that Oosterveen died indeed in 2000. Does she have any children? Why do they stay silent? And how about former colleagues and friends? Why do they not speak up? Apparently, there is evidence of her earlier death, in this book and perhaps also in other written accounts, like newspapers. What about the period between 2000 and today: are there any public appearances or private pictures of her? Why don’t you raise your voice and show this book to the press? Is her biographer still alive? Surely this author …’

Seldon shook his head while biting the top of his index finger. They had reached a crossroads and Seldon decided to take the left path and Lex followed him.

‘I do not know why they forged the date of the death of a scientist. I have no clue. I do not even know who “they” are. But what I do know is that this has happened more than once. It seems, events, facts, maps, territories, dates and places are being rewritten.’

‘I am not sure…why people like you, who have proof that a news reports of an event or fact is incorrect, would not publish their evidence? There are more people of your age around.’

‘Remember, since some time, people do stand up against the mainstream news, but if they do, they are labeled as the lunatics of this world, Lex. In this instance, I have hard evidence in the form of a paper book. But most of the times I have to rely on my memory and no one would believe me, if my recollection of an event differs from the mainstream news. In most occasions, people surf the Internet to check facts, and – strangely – the electronic reports have all changed.’

‘Well, in this case you do have a book. Why don’t you publish that the current coverage of Alida Oosterveen is false?’

‘I have reasons to believe that no newspaper would print such a story, and if they did, it would attract the attention of people whom I surely prefer not to meet. I am convinced I am better off without their attention.’

‘Now you speak in riddles my friend’, Lex said.

‘It appears that they can now edit history, i.e. find all information on the Web containing certain content, take it off, edit it by means of Artificial Intelligence systems, and put it back. They took George Orwell’s “1984” as an instruction manual rather than a warning. I believe, they have started to make experiments with the public in order to see how far they can go.’

Seldon saw Lex shaking his head slowly but surely. Obviously, he did not believe a word.

‘I understand that you need time to accept all this. If you are open to it, I would like to share with you what I know – or at least what I think I know – of the world we are living in.’

Lex paused and watched his dog running. ‘You seem like a knowledgeable and smart person to me. I looked up your academic record and you have a solid reputation. But now you seem to draw me into a corner that I really do not like. You know, conspiracy theorists are not my favorite gang of people. They create their own conundrum, connecting a few dots and leaving out other events… Therefore, their theories can never be falsified. However, these are no theories that can stand scientific scrutiny, they are like astrology or mysticism: they evolve around their own principles and the facts in the outside world have no relation with their truths. That is my main objection against conspiracy theories.’ Lex even made the quotation mark with his hand in the air – a gesture he had never consciously made – to mark the fact that the word theory was not appropriate to describe this self-referential tangle of arguments, inferences and events.

‘It's surprising that the word "conspiracy theory" makes everyone stop thinking immediately – the opposite would be appropriate!’ Seldon objected. ‘In today's information age, governments cannot suppress secrets. They can only cover them up by obfuscation. Add some unlikely details to the story, exaggerate it, spread the opposite version, and a third and fourth version, and it will be so misleading and confusing that nobody can identify the grain of truth behind these stories anymore. What's worse, the contradictory stories make it impossible to talk about them without being ridiculed. People prefer to move out of the fog to see clearly, but when the fog gets thicker, you are getting closer to the truth and to the place where the power resides.’

Seldon started to bite his index finger again and Lex was afraid the fingertip would start bleeding soon.

‘Of course I know that a sensible, smart guy like you would not agree with me on this. In fact, I would have been disappointed if you would not have challenged me and go along with me on such issues immediately. Perhaps I can invite you to have an open mind and have a look at the jigsaw pieces I have gathered over the years. Once you have seen them, you decide. If you come to the conclusion that my ideas are the result of the imagination of an old confused professor, we stop our joint inquiry immediately.’

‘Joint inquiry? I thought you were helping me with my plant experiments and now you want me to be part of your world conspiracy team?’ Lex raised his voice.

‘Team…team, if two makes a crowd’, Seldon laughed. ‘You are right about the plants. I am interested in your experiments, sure, and I want to help as much as I can, as non-biologist. For me, the two topics are actually related. How I see it, your plant experiments could potentially help to build an alternative communication system and transcend the current non-fact society – I would even go so far to call it fake reality. But it is a long, long shot…’ Seldon looked into nowhere, with no focal point in particular.

‘So you want me to know the oddities and deviations of the world we live in, and you want me to go on a journey with you to rescue humanity?’ Lex mocked Seldon.

Either the professor did not notice the disdain, or he chose not to go into that. ‘All I ask is your open mind for a limited time. If you decide to quit our conversations, it is perfectly fine. No strings attached.’

‘I have to think about this’, Lex answered. This was yet another response that the course on human interaction had taught him. His inclination was to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ immediately, but often he regretted his initial response later on, finding himself in a job or relation he was not really happy with. The course explained to him that introverts like him needed some time to digest new situations.

Both Lex and Seldon kept silent for a while. Lex noticed that both dogs were out of sight.

‘Have you seen where they went?’ Lex asked.

‘I did not pay attention to them. Let’s continue our walk, they will certainly find us and catch up with us,’ Seldon answered.

Lex regretted he left his device at home. He would have activated the Splinter’s collar now and Splinter would be with his boss within seconds. The two continued to walk in silence and Lex was grateful for Seldon to let this silence grow.

‘Shall we make a second round in the park?’, Seldon suggested. They had completed a full round and the dogs had not returned yet. Lex nodded.

‘I do not say I am in, but I would like to share a few observations, for which I do not have an explanation either’, Lex broke the silence. He started his recollection of the photo session at the Rijksmuseum a few days ago.

‘So the group of world leaders, consisting of the same people and walking and standing in the same order and with identical gestures, wearing identical clothes, were in the news before you witnessed the actual event taking place?’ Seldon asked.

‘Apart from the color of the Chinese woman’s dress, yes, the events were indistinguishable.’

Seldon scratched his head. ‘You said one of the politicians stumbled?’


‘Did he spill a drink?’

‘This is true. Why are you asking?’

‘Maybe the scene has actually been recorded before and then holographically projected for the public? It is possible that they video-edited the recording to replace the spilled-over shirt?’ The use of holographic technology was quite common now, but he was not convinced. Why should they trick the public? He continued his story without a response and instead he told Seldon about the sudden price increase last week, both for meals and for the basic ingredients.

‘Aha. Is it fair to say that those meals and ingredients were typical for you. Do you always buy the same stuff?’

Lex did not know whether Seldon had a clue, or he was randomly asking questions. At the crossroads, they took the path on the right this time. Still no trace from the dogs. ‘They will be waiting for us where we started our walk,’ Seldon said, as if he guessed Lex’ thoughts.

‘Another irregularity that puzzles me are the mistakes of my SmartHouseProgram. A few months ago, it would never ever fail me. But now…Recently, I ordered coffee, instead it presented green tea. I gave the oral command to show the news with subtitles and it returned a voice over. These are all small things, but nevertheless it is weird. I instructed the News to present in the 2-dimensional mode and it switched to hologram mode – that type of faults,’ Lex summed up.

‘Hmm’, replied Seldon, ‘the only thing that comes to my mind is that the personalized pricing and the disobedient SmartHouseProgram may be punishing you.’

‘For what?’

‘For a low SocialCitzenScore.’

Lex stared at Seldon with eyes wide open. ‘You believe computer algorithms are discriminating me? This is absurd!’ Some time later, however, he was not so sure anymore. He remembered the accident of the kid some days ago, which did not receive any medical aid.

They had reached the starting point of their walk and their two excited dogs were waiting for their bosses, wagging their tails. Hagar came up to her boss, but Splinter stayed where he was. Lex knew immediately that something was wrong.

‘I bet he has a special present for us, Seldon. This happens when I do not babysit my little hunter.’

Between Splinter’s forelegs laid something like a bloody rabbit. Traces of blood marked Splinter’s sprout and legs. Every now and then Splinter caught a rabbit, weasel or squirrel – remnants of his original purpose in life. Genetically, Splinter was trained to bring his prey to his boss and no matter how hard Lex tried; he could not change this habit. Splinter looked up to his boss, wagging its tail even more frantically in the hope to receive the praise of his boss or more.

‘Not again, will you. What did you catch this time?’

Lex pushed away his dog to have a better look at the prey. The animal was unfamiliar to Lex. It had the size of a small rabbit but its skin was not furry. It was smooth and naked, like a newborn hedgehog. The animal’s proportions were alienating. Half of the creature, or what was left of it after Splinter’s attempts to shred it, consisted of the body and four legs, and half of the size was its head. Lex studied it closer and saw that the mammal had a pair of wings with the size of its entire body.  Lex looked up to beckon Seldon, but he had already approached Lex.

‘Boy, oh boy’, Seldon stammered.

‘Do you know what this is?’

‘I am afraid I do and I hope I am wrong.’

Out of one of his pockets of his old raincoat, Seldon took a weathered plastic bag and picked up the animal. He had to be careful not to spill any drops of the bloody parcel leaking on his clothes.

‘And now?’ Lex asked.

‘I have to go home and examine this creature. We will meet each other tomorrow, normal time. I owe you my report on yesterday’s homework – I may have got the beginning of our plant mobility solution.’ Seldon resumed their conversation as if they had not found this disturbing creature. ‘Good luck with your plant experiments – we will discuss your progress tomorrow. Keep up your good work!’

Lex could not think of anything else but Seldon’s invitation to investigate the world according to Seldon. Lex had always despised conspiracy theorists. They are lazy thinkers – believers really. They are not interested in alternative perspectives or explanations. They develop one theory and they fold the world events to match their worldview. In that way, they will never see what they do not want to see. Worse even: they do not even care. On the other hand, Seldon was credible for Lex.

When Lex presented his wrist-RFID to the central door of his apartment building, he already knew he would accept Seldon’s invitation for the joint investigation. His motivation was not to save humanity – he did not believe he could possibly be its savior. His reasons were more straightforward: he looked forward to go on an adventure and he liked the exchange with a sparring partner who was at least as intelligent as he was.

When he was almost at home, he discovered he had forgotten to take water from the pond for his plants. On the way back, he was continuously scanning for more creatures and he almost forgot the reason why he went back to the park. At the pond he took his jerrican, which he had carried on his back, and filled it with water.

He felt complete and whole again when he was reunited with his digital device. Immediately, he checked the news. The power outage was resolved. It had been a ‘system problem,’ whatever that means. He searched yesterday’s news on the Web and replayed it. To his great surprise, the color of the dress of the athletic woman had changed. This was really unbelievable. Was he already so confused? Then he remembered that he had actually recorded yesterday’s news. Instinctively, he disconnected his computer from the Internet and played the recording. Now, the dress was turquoise again, as he remembered! When he reconnected his computer with the Web and played the recording again, the color had changed! Amazing! When he investigated the file, he noticed that it had just been modified. The old file was overwritten by a new one, so his only piece of evidence was lost. Perhaps Seldon was right and something strange was going on in this country!

He walked nervously up and down his apartment and was about to call Seldon, until he remembered he was not supposed to do so. To calm himself down, he watered his plants. Then, he checked the delivery of tubes and other lab material he had ordered two days ago. It should have been there yesterday, but so far no sign of his stuff. He contacted the manufacturer and the company’s chatbot informed Lex that the order had been delivered 23 hours ago. It showed Lex’ digital fingerprint on the receipt. Lex took a deep breath and sighed. It would be a major hassle to prove that it had actually not been delivered. It was a company of good reputation, so he should be able to trust them. Who could have stolen his stuff and – even more seriously – his identity? For sure, his insurance would never cover the loss.

Lex was frustrated. Hoping for some better news, he said ‘next.’

Lex had a few missed messages during his walk with Seldon. Clients trying to get hold of him for their SmartHouseProgram problems. And a message from Diana, asking about his preferences or allergies for the meal tonight. Lex felt a tiny shock in his fingertips, the same sensation he experienced when his schoolmates scared him in the dark.

‘My preference is to have a healthy and tasteful meal, but most important is the company. No allergies.’ He erased the message before he sent it and tried at least ten variations.

‘No allergies or preferences. Look forward meeting you tonight. See ya @7.’

Other chapters:

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

iGod: Chapter 4 of Willemijn Dicke's science fiction novel on the digital age

The SmartHouseProgram informed Lex that someone was waiting in front of his door. On the display, Lex recognized Diana’s face. In a hurry he kicked some remnants of plant leafs under the table and placed dirty kitchenware and cutlery in the sink. Splinter barked vociferously, but Lex urged him to shut up. ‘Don’t mess it up!’ he said. When Lex opened the door he was surprised by the somewhat dull appearance of his neighbor. Yesterday he saw a noticeable girl; now she was a rather plain woman. Her outfit did not help. Either he had been wrong about her unemployment or she had started a new job recently since she wore an official working suit with sexless trousers and men’s lace up shoes. She wore her long blond hair in a bun.
‘Hi’, Diana said. Splinter tried to assail her and Lex had to keep him away from her.
‘Hi’, answered Lex, half-bent to keep Splinter away from Diana.
‘Can I please come in?’ Diana asked after a short silence.
Diana entered his apartment and gazed with surprise at his home-lab with man height plants; metal instruments organized in an improvised holder; various microscopes; piles of white boxes; wirings of different sizes and colors hanging crisscross from the ceiling to the floor and rows of numbered glass tubes. She raised one eyebrow.
‘My hobby’, Lex tried to explain in an apologetic way.
Diana frowned, but did not elaborate.
‘I wanted to come back on our conversation last night. Your dog scared me and I was sharper than I intended to be. He…’ She did not finish her sentence but looked at Splinter, still snarling. 
‘He will get used to you. Give him 10 minutes and then he will calm down. All he does is protecting me against a dangerous intruder, ’ Lex laughed. He noticed that Diana was too tense to smile back and he remembered to bring in a ‘neutral yet positive element’ in situations like this. 
‘How do you like the Forsythia?’ Lex pointed at the plastic water bottle with the three branches.
‘Nice’, she responded expressionless – so much for the effectiveness of the tips of his premium conversation class. ‘Anyhow. I wondered if you could help me with my drone. There seems to be a bug in the system and I cannot get it right. Are you handy in programming?’ Diana, still fixating the dog, did not look into Lex’ eyes.
‘I am quite good at geeking and programming. Let me have a look. Why didn’t you bring it with you?’
Diana told she was on her way to work now – actually she had to hurry, but perhaps she could come back this afternoon, if Lex was available? Lex agreed instantly and only when he closed his apartment door behind her, he realized that he was supposed to meet Seldon too, in the afternoon. It was since long that Lex has had such a busy social scheme.

For about 5 minutes, Lex was walking back and forth in the apartment. He was off balance and he did not like that at all. He had tried meditation, but that did not work for him. He could play games though, endlessly, and he told himself that too was a kind of meditation.
‘Gaming Position’, he ordered and the furniture changed to a different shape. Every time he used the chair he was pleased immensely with his ingenuity to adjust the robotized furniture exactly to his liking. When Lex opened MultiLayer, he saw that Hector08 was not online, unfortunately. Lex decided to perform an individual task instead of a team challenge. Although he liked to team up with a select group of fellow gamers, it was also required for his MultiLayer portfolio to achieve results on his own every now and then. He gave the oral command ‘individual mission’, and a task was assigned to him.
The game opened with the traditional trailer of MultiLayer. It built up the tension by presenting the various individual missions in a roulette display. Instead of numbers, names of the missions were assigned to colored pockets on the wheel. A croupier spun the wheel in one direction. Lex was allowed to spin a metal ball in the opposite direction around a tilted circular track. The ball lost eventually momentum and fell into a colored pocket with the label: ‘Health for all.’

The imaginary case was presented to Lex in short video clips and accompanying documents, files and data. Today’s role for Lex was the Secretary General of the Dutch Health Council. The challenge was to

‘Adopt a new vaccination policy for the imaginary Beta-virus. The conditions to be met are: take into account the annual production capacity for the Beta vaccine in the Netherlands; the policy you propose is built on solid risk analysis for the entire country; no force or coercion is used for people either to receive their vaccination or to abstain from it; stay within the budget; the adoption of the new policy should be possible without any pandemic or social upheaval. The timeline is half a year.’ 

MultiLayer overloaded Lex with background material. He received countless files, raw data and detailed longitudinal statistics. Lex did not particularly like these kinds of challenges within the game. He preferred land grab, to trace the invisible enemy thanks to his cunning research methods, and he was quite fond of a good fight between armies every now and then. This policy stuff was not really his thing. Anyhow, he needed to get it done for the sake of his portfolio.

Lex started with a study of the Beta virus. There had been no outbreaks so far in Europe, including the Netherlands, but in Africa the virus was already active in a handful of smaller cities. Once infected with the virus, no treatment was possible for the victims yet. Most likely, they would die within a week. Moreover, the virus was highly transmissible, corpses being even more contagious than living carriers of the virus. African Health Institutions had reported only a small number of men and women who survived once having been in contact with the virus. All others had died.

MultiLayer showed pictures of victims of this virus: men and women with dark veins and bleeding from their nose and ears. Lex clicked the horrible pictures away. The good news was that a vaccine had been developed. However, the capacity to produce the vaccine was not sufficient to immunize all Dutch people. Lex dived into the facts and figures. How much was the capacity at present, and how much would we need to treat the Dutch population? It was not a difficult calculation: there was a shortage for 3,5 million people. Current production could be increased in the future, but not in the coming six months. When Lex tried to retrieve information about international vaccine capacity and whether it was possible to buy this vaccine from other companies, a notification appeared that Lex was acting outside the parameters of his assignment. The same was true when Lex tried to move people to other areas in the world or to volunteer for colonization experiments in space. He had also considered to ship most vaccination doses to Africa to help to contain the spread of the disease over there, but that solution was invalidated too. The rules of MultiLayer were strict: the puzzle should be solved solely with Dutch resources. Lex had to complement the game-developers: it was a difficult though neat assignment.
In the demographic statistics, Lex retrieved information on terminally ill patients together with data on citizens older than 85 years. Lex expected that society as a whole could form consensus that the terminally ill and the very elderly would not qualify for the scarce vaccination resources. These categories together however, accounted only for 1,5 million people.

How to determine the choice for the remaining two million people who would be denied access to vaccination? Taking into account the risk analysis, the simple way of reasoning would be that some people were more valuable than others for society, and a select group of people may even be indispensable. To his mind came CEO’s, world leaders, schoolteachers and scientists as being more indispensable for society than, let’s say criminals and unemployed. Probably most people would list the category of children, but Lex thought that the value of youth was overrated. They did not have added value yet for society, only costs.

Lex got up to get himself something to drink. With his cup of tea he walked circles in his apartment. Standing amongst his plants in the corner of his apartment, he suddenly questioned the methodology of weighing different categories of people according to their supposed added value for society. He was convinced that there were business leaders who were more criminal than the convicted crooks and for sure there were utterly incompetent political leaders around. Why would they be eligible for vaccination just for the sake of having this job? And what about the unemployed? Did he really think that people with work had, qualitate qua, more added value for society? Wasn’t there an intrinsic value of humans, not defined by the fact what kind of work they did? And now, as Lex came to think about this, there were more people like Lex, executing all kinds of work, but formally unemployed. And what about employed people who were very anti-social and nasty, compared with unemployed people who were like angels, in comparison at least?

For a moment it crossed Lex’ mind to use the SocialCitizenScore to justify who is saved and who will be denied access to the vaccination program. He hated the SocialCitizenScore System wholeheartedly for its way it suppressed all critical thinking.
To Lex, it would be even better to roll dice rather than to be predetermined by a single number in all life affairs.
Applauding the government was always rewarded with high scores, while questioning government policy would cost you status points. Everyone knowing a little bit about evolution knew that variety was key in improving a system – the SocialCitizenScore was very much an instrument killing this diversity and thereby, in the long run, a genuine danger for the survival of society. On the other hand, why would he be so worried about this decision? ‘Man, this this is only a game,’ he thought, and the SocialCitizenScore would definitely offer a solution. Moreover, the ratings of his missions in MultiLayer were coupled directly to his own SocialCitizenScore. Lex could expect a positive result on his own SocialCitizenScore, if he suggested this solution to his MultiLayer mission. With the mantra ‘It is just a game’ in mind, he started to do a calculation for the 2 million people based on the SocialCitizenScore. When he typed some of the principles, his stomach protested and his hand stopped. Even for the purpose of a game, he could just not legitimize the use of this horrific system. Besides he would be one of the people to die, if this solution were applied.

Lex took a time out. He changed the armchair into a bed and ordered the SmartHouseProgram to play music. Listening to Bach always did the trick for him. With his eyes open, Lex went over different scenarios. After half an hour, he returned to MultiLayer and resumed his mission.

Citizens were more expensive for society as they grew older, that was commonly known. Lex calculated the average costs associated with each life phase. In Lex’ proposal, government made the following offer: ‘all citizens have the individual choice to take part in the vaccination program or not. If you abstain from your right of participation in this vaccination program, and if the virus takes your life, your extra life years will save us expenses. After all, if you die, the state does not have to provide for your monthly Base Income and the cost for health care. We, the government of the Netherlands, offer you the following: We will calculate the total cost that would be probably spent on you. If you choose not to take part in the vaccination program, we will pay you a one-off installment, worth approximately one tenth of the total expected allowance that you would receive until your death. You can use the installment as you like, to support your family or to go on an expensive holiday. The odds are that the virus will never have an outbreak in the Netherlands. In that case, you have extra money in your pocket. However, once the virus is detected in the Netherlands, we will isolate you immediately and do whatever needed to contain the disease and avert danger from the public – of course, in a very humane way.’

The good element in his design, Lex thought, was that people can make the decision themselves, instead of some Bureau Authority placing individuals in one or another category. He would expect that people who are world-weary, ill or elderly would opt for the choice for the one off installment. They could use the sum to provide their beloved ones a better life, or to rebuild their apartment or to ensure some savings for their grand children. Lex understood very well the risk that people might flee the country once the virus had entered Dutch territory, but to be honest, escaping was no longer a real option with the RFID implants and other tracking devices. Another intelligent element in his solution, Lex thought, was that in case there were not enough volunteers to opt out of the vaccination program, the Dutch Health Council could decide to heighten the premium of the one-off installment. Extremely content with his smart invention, Lex completed his solution within the given timeline and budget. He was eager to hear how his assignment was received, but he did not wait at home for the results. He had to meet Seldon…

‘So where were we’, Seldon started their conversation like they just paused a minute ago. ‘Tell me about the genome editing and the plants. What is it what you are trying to accomplish?’
While talking, they walked the dogs in the park. The trees and bushes were neatly organized, just like all nature was systematically planned and arranged in the Netherlands with signs stating what was and what was not allowed at what time. Here was the message that walking a dog was only allowed with one dog per person.

‘What I seek is to develop an alternative to electronic communication. I believe in redundancy. Great civilizations always relied on this principle. If one big system failed, there was another one in place to guarantee its survival. In the nineteenth century for example…’
‘Do we really need to go back to Adam and Eve to explain the problem you are working on?’ Seldon asked with a smile, but underneath, Lex sensed the old man’s impatience. Lex was not used anymore to be amongst people who were quick thinkers, just like him.
‘I will try to be to the point. Worldwide society relies completely on electronic communication. We have perfected this means of communication to the max, ignoring other ways to transport information. If there is a power outage due to a big solar storm, or a worldwide computer virus, or any other ill that causes a shut down of the communication system, we have nothing left.’ 
Seldon nodded and Lex continued. ‘I started my quest for an alternative means of communication when studying history. Native Americans had smoke signals and drumming as way of conveying messages over large distances. Some people say that tribes had the skills to communicate via dreams – but that is too difficult to experiment with for a simple biologist with a kitchen-laboratory like me.’
‘Yes, got it’, Seldon interrupted bluntly. ‘I understand what you are saying and I fully agree with the need for an alternative way to convey messages. Something you did not mention is that our electronic communication can and is monitored and scrutinized constantly – that fact alone asks for a novel way of sharing information. So what is your alternative?’

In his explanation, Lex tried to avoid the biology jargon so that Seldon could follow the line of argument. Lex sought to optimize the stream of communication between plants. At present, Lex was working on the problem of the slow pace of communication. Plants had to be rather close to each other for the pheromones to travel from one plant to the next, and it would take ages to bridge a distance of 10 kilometers. If Lex would be able to either strengthen the message or to increase the ability to intercept the pheromones, the distance between the two plants could be enlarged accordingly.  Lex noticed that when Seldon listened very focused, he rubbed his right index finger to his fore teeth and then gently biting it, a gesture he had never come across before.

At a soft buzz, Lex checked a message from the MultiLayer team.
‘Lex…I had asked you something…’ Seldon stripped up his sleeve and tapped with his index finger on his bare wrist.
‘O Damn. I completely forgot. Next time, I promise!’
Nevertheless, Lex read his message. MultiLayer rated his Health for All assignment with 67 credits. Apparently, the team had not acknowledged how clever his solution was. Probably they would give more credits for a stupid solution that used the SocialCitizenScore as point of departure. 
‘Something wrong?’ Seldon informed.
Lex shrugged. ‘Yes. But nothing I can change.’

Lex’ line of reasoning was as simple as ingenious, according to his own judgment. Plants communicated with the help of pheromones. At present he experimented with the idea to increase the density of pheromones on the leaves. So far, he had been able to increase the capacity by a factor of 500. On the receptor side, he sought to increase the density of receptors with a similar factor, but so far he succeeded only by a factor of 15 compared to ordinary plants. Even if this would eventually work, plant communication would be extremely vulnerable, dependent on wind and rain for example.
Lex stopped since Seldon was shaking ‘no’ with his head all the time. 
‘Whatever the increase in density you would be able to achieve, plant communication would always remain extremely slow’, Seldon said. He tapped on a trunk of a tree they passed. ‘Plants are as immobile and static as you can imagine. The nature of plants conflicts with the principle of the communication system you seek to develop: transport of information over a distance.’
Lex was disappointed.

They walked in silence for a while and then Seldon said that he was impressed by the approach Lex had to the communication system. He praised Lex’ progress. ‘But we need an alternative or additional angle to your redundant communication system. We have to work on the movement aspect, the transportation. Plants are just too static to form an efficient communication network – whatever the improvements in sending and receiving the message you may achieve in the future.’
‘Like?’ Lex asked.
‘I don’t know – yet. We need to get motion in. If there is a solution, we will come up with it together.’
Lex was not satisfied with the judgment of the professor, who was so encouraging in their earlier exchange. Lex had expected to receive applause for his genius and originality. Now the conclusion seemed that he was working on the wrong problem with a chanceless solution.
But then Seldon said: ‘This was the most interesting conversation I have had in months, or even in years. I love this homework you provided me with. Thanks Lex.’
Seldon was already making his way home when he mumbled, ‘See you tomorrow.’

Lex did not know how he felt when he walked home. Empty, yet confident about a new beginning. With Seldon, he felt at ease, even though he missed the admiration, if he were honest. Most people were overwhelmed by Lex’ intellect, but Seldon got right to the core of the problem and of the solution. Lex was slightly irritated that Seldon had been able to reveal the root of the problem: the immobility of plants. Strangely enough, Lex was confident that they could come up with an entirely new approach, yet not triumphant. He simply could not find the right words. Often, Lex used the EmotionSheet, a copyrighted method listing 25 different emotions to help him identify his feelings. Today none of these described his emotional state well.

Lex had already noticed a newsflash on the death of Alida Oosterveen, an esteemed Dutch scientist, who had done the measurements that were widely acknowledged to be foundational for the perfecting of hologram technology. She died at the age of 108. At home, Lex wanted to see more of the reporting on her life and funeral. He started the hologram mode of the News. The president of the International Science Society delivering his speech was projected on Lex’ right, which was ok. But Oosterveen’s coffin – of disposable easy-inflammable material – was placed directly on his left. Lex felt uncomfortable about the coffin being so close, especially since it looked as if it could open any minute. He switched to the two-dimensional mode again and felt immediately relieved by the increased distance to the coffin. Another official was delivering his speech and yet another. Lex commanded a fast-forward. This lady was a legend, no doubt about it, but he hated how they turned her into a saint. Even more despicable in the whole canonization business, was that everything was utterly uncreative. The adjectives were so predictable: ‘esteemed, brilliant mind, yet she was open, friendly and warm heartedly; revolutionary mind; a role model for women.’ Enough of this!
He swiped to the next news item. In the Amsterdam-West, 26 people were hospitalized today with similar symptoms: unbearable pain in their intestines and irregular and uncontrollable heart rhythm. As far as the medical specialists knew, these symptoms were not coupled to viruses and bacteria already known. No less than 6 of the patients had died. The experts did not have a clue whether they dealt with a virus or bacteria; and what the victims had in common, other then that they lived in a vicinity of roughly 10 square kilometres. Did they visit the same venues? Had they bumped into each other? Did it have to do with the air quality in their neighbourhood? Many questions, but no answers so far. The twenty remaining patients were seriously ill, but no longer in critical conditions.
Lex was alarmed since this was the neighbourhood where Mr. VanBuren lived. He texted Mr. VanBuren – the old fashioned way – to ask if he was okay, and Lex was grateful that he responded immediately with a message in capital letters and quite a few typo’s that he had heard the news too, but thank God, he was still ‘ALLVE&KICKING’. Although Lex had shown him many times, VanBuren still did not know how to switch his caps lock on and off.

Lex stopped the news and played music. In his laboratory amongst his plants he tried to think of ways to make the plants mobile. Images crossed his mind: robots pushing pots on wheels, plants floating on water; drones transporting plants. None of these were convincing. He got frustrated but he could not switch to another topic. He was glad to be disturbed by the doorbell. Since he had moved into this apartment four years ago, it was exactly the second time his doorbell rang.

Diana came in. She had once again undergone a transformation to a vital young woman, smart and sporty in her tracksuit and ponytail. He was relieved he did not see a trace of the plain woman. Lex was even more relieved that Splinter had surrendered to her. He did not bark anymore and he even laid down on his dog bed. While Diana was explaining the difficulties with her drone, he noticed small freckles on her cheeks.

Lex fixed the problem within ten minutes.
‘Normally I charge 60 eCoins for this kind of work’, Lex tried to make conversation.
‘Ok, no problem.’ She got her personal device out of her pocket and presented it to him to make the transaction.
‘No, of course not. It was a joke. This is what neighbors do for free.’
Lex had difficulties looking into her eyes, but he knew it did not make a good impression to avoid eye contact.
‘Ok. Thanks man.’ She picked up her drone and she prepared to leave.
‘Can I offer you something? I mean, as in eating or drinking?’
Diana laughed. ‘It is my turn. I can make a meal, see it as a way to pay back for your work on my drone.’
‘No, that is not acceptable to me. Like I said, I refuse compensation. It is a duty that neighbors help each other without further obligations.’
Diana frowned.
‘If your offer is not a compensation, I would, of course, gladly accept your invitation’, Lex continued.
‘See you tomorrow then, let’s say seven-ish?’
‘Ok, seven o’clock.’
Fortunately, Diana was not the grumpy person anymore he had encountered in the park.

Other chapters:

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)