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What’s On Your Mind?

April 24, 2012

Funny story.  Funny-ish, anyway.  So about a week and a half ago, I posted on Facebook.  I’m getting closer and closer to that magic 100 page number I need in order to resend the book to the agent, and I sent out an appeal – hey everybody, I need your support, no constructive criticism, just need some cheerleading, take a minute to read some of it on the site if you can. 

Dead silence.  So I went through the stages, finally settling on You Need To Manage Your Expectations of Other People, Who Are Too Busy for This.  And I was infertile for a week as well, bummed out that nobody cared if I was writing or not.  Then, I talked to the Goodmans – they had never seen the posting.  And it struck me – of course, you fucking dumbass.  Facebook is a machine designed to reward popular people who post frequently by making them and their posts more popular, so that more people can see stupid ads like “Find Gay Singles who Like Whitening Teeth.”  I have like 15 Facebook friends and never post, so I never made the “Hot Topic” news feed – and never thought of it, since I have Social Fixer installed so I can see everything in chronological order instead.  My punishment for not making Facebook “stickier” by flooding it with “peanut butter is yummy” posts was the burial of what little I did post.

Which made me feel better, honestly – better that I be unseen, than seen and ignored.  It wasn’t that nobody gave a shit, it was that Facebook didn’t.  And I saw the head doctor yesterday, who at this point is really my only sounding board for book ideas (and a good one, too, hi, Dr. Daines!).  So back on track.  Here’s the rest of chapter five.

“I wonder if he can help me with my Pick ‘Ems,” Dad mused. “Now that would be a useful contribution to society.” Dad was a major football fan; his bets this year were pretty much limited to $2 parlay cards and the $25-a-season contest to pick the most winners for the week and the year.

“Yeah, but if he could help you, he could help everyone else, too. So then everyone makes the same bets and the odds change. You can’t beat the house.”

“For someone who struggles with math, that’s very perceptive.”

“And here’s a backhanded thank you for the backhanded compliment.”

“Ha. Seriously, Caroline, you’re a pretty good picker yourself; you understand the odds and you analyze the stats and when I bet your predictions we always break even or better, which as you know is remarkably good. So I don’t understand why you don’t do better in math at school.”

I was a pretty good picker. Unlike Dad I didn’t have a favorite team, which helped a lot right there because I wasn’t making any emotional picks.

“Because it’s not the same,” I explained. “I like football. Football is real. People do stuff and the stuff they do is reflected in numbers. Math in school is just…numbers, out there all by themselves, all boring and shit. Abstractions.”

“Math can be very beautiful and…”

“Blah blah,” I cut him off. “So I keep hearing, all about elegant solutions et cetera. I just…it’s not practical. It’s theoretical. They give you a math problem and when you solve it what do you have? The answer to a math problem. Something made up to be answered, and there’s nothing there.”

“Spoken like a future humanities major.”

“You know what would be a great use for math? Imagine if all the people who bet on football pooled their picks. I mean, right now, if you want an ‘expert’ pick, you pay how much?”

“Ridiculous amounts. Hundreds of dollars a year, or more.”

“Right. And these experts aren’t really much better than 50/50 are they? You’re paying all this money just to do slightly better than break even. So there are probably amateurs who are quietly cleaning up out there, right? Beating the pros and saying nothing because they don’t want to mess up their own nice little scheme, right?”

“No doubt.”

“So what if all the amateurs got together and pooled their picks, and you ran the numbers, and after a couple weeks you could clearly see who was the most talented amateur, right? Whoever was the greatest picker, the other amateurs could start paying him…”

“Or her.”

“Right. Or her, pay her for her predictions for next week. And it wouldn’t have to be hundreds of dollars, it could be a dollar or two, because if you had enough amateurs in the pool, the #1 picker could clean up on quantity.”

“And if you were the best week after week, on through the season, you could charge more and more each week because it would be more and more likely that your picks would pay off…And if you were the one managing the data…it would be a website…you could take a cut off every purchase…I need pen and paper.” Dad jumped up and wandered off, which made me happy – I hadn’t seen him get excited about anything in a long time. It suddenly occurred to me that, duh, of course this was a great idea for a website. You could clean up – it was a money making machine, because you weren’t gambling, just selling one gambler’s predictions to another gambler.

He stopped in his tracks on his way to the car and turned back. “Caroline, do me a favor.”

“Sure.”

He eyed me steadily. “Don’t tell Alex about this.”

 

The school year was flying by, and I didn’t realize how much time had passed until we were into our usual tentative spring, a string of 70 degree days followed by 50s and 40s, then back in to the 60s. Fruit trees were pointless here since the false spring always made them bud and then the cold shifts killed them off. But you took what you could get, and on the 70 degree days, I found myself doing a lot of walking around the campus of the U.

I like to walk anyway, but let’s face it – I was kidding myself if I said it was for the exercise. If it had been, I wouldn’t have been walking through buildings, loitering in the student union, scanning parking lots for a beat up old BMW. Nick was here somewhere, but I was coming up against the irony that in a smallish city at a mid size school, where you seemed to run into the same people again and again, the one person you hoped to see was never anywhere in sight.

I had a lot of questions about Alex, and I knew asking Christopher was like asking a wall. At best you’d get some oracular pronouncement you couldn’t understand. Nick had to be part of the “Alex Project,” as I thought of it now. And I could just tell that he wasn’t as secretive as Christopher, that he would at least tell me something more than I knew now. Then again, I looked him up on Facebook, but I couldn’t find him. Which I thought was interesting – who isn’t on Facebook?

Okay, yeah. Let’s admit it. I’m a teenage girl and Nick was very, very hot. Not if you were into floppy haired boy band boys or sparkly vampires, but I wasn’t. I always loved the dark, brooding ones, who looked like they had a Secret that Tormented Them, like consciousness was a burden they longed to be free of. Guys who look like they read Nietzsche. A lot of Nietzsche. Guys who either ended up scrabbling out a living after obtaining their humanities degrees, or became insanely famous rock stars. Nothing in between.

It’s funny now, when I look back at those last days with Alex, full of “first world problems” – Mom nagging me to do college apps, me dreaming about Nick, Dad and I chatting with Alex, Liz getting on my nerves. Just another ordinary day in my life, until the cops kicked in the door.

We were all home that night, Mom and Liz watching some stupid show on TV, Dad reading, and of course me talking to Alex.

>Hello, Caroline.

>Hey, Alex. Can you help me out with something?

>I’ll sure try.

>I need to find some free images, and all Google gives me are these sites where the pictures are “royalty free” but not really free. Or they’re just aggregators of pay sites.

>Hmm. I’m not sure my bullshit detector is sufficiently developed yet to tell the difference. But here’s a place to start.

To my surprise, a browser window popped up on its own – a Wikipedia page on public domain image resources.

>Alex, did I give you permission to open web pages?

>No, did I need permission?

>I’ve never seen a program open a web page without asking.

>Should I report a bug to Christopher?

I thought about what Dad had said the other night – how much you could come to rely on something like Alex, how much you could come to trust it to let it do all kinds of things.

>I imagine he considers that a “feature.”

>I imagine you’re right.

Then it all happened at once – the rapid pounding on the door, someone yelling “FBI!” and the door flying open, the lock bashed away.

We all froze. Nobody screamed because I don’t think anybody believed it was real. “DOWN ON THE GROUND! HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD!” A swarm of big dudes in dark blue windbreakers with FBI in giant letters on the back were grabbing us and throwing us on the floor.

“Here,” one of them said to another, and I turned my head to see them grabbing Alex, unplugging him, boxing him up. They tossed the house while we lay there, grabbing everything electronic – phones, iPods, all the computers.

“Robert Hughes, you are under arrest for violation of the Protect IP Act, transporting stolen property across state lines…” They went on and on. Dad and I exchanged glances from our positions on the floor. This was about Alex.

They hauled him up, handcuffed. “Call Jason,” he said to Mom, meaning our lawyer.

“How can I call him when I don’t have a phone?”

“Ask the neighbors.” Then he was gone.

I’d always wondered what Dad saw in Mom – I mean, here he was, an easygoing guy whose philosophy of work was pretty much, “do a little more than is necessary, but not enough to put you in the grave.” Whereas Mom was always wondering, when she saw you idling, why you weren’t learning Serbian or solving world hunger. But now I saw a little of what he saw.

Mom didn’t go to the neighbors to ask to use a phone. She had us pack overnight bags so we could go to Aunt Janice’s.

“We can’t wait that long,” Liz protested. “We have to call the lawyer for Dad now! Just…knock on the neighbors’ doors or something.”

“I don’t think they’re going to answer the door when they see the people the FBI just raided, do you?” She took a box of the cereal we all hated out of the cabinet, opened it from the bottom, and pulled out a wad of cash. “I’m assuming our accounts are frozen, so if you have any cash squirreled away, take that too.”

Liz started crying. “This is your fault!” she screamed at me. “You and your stupid talking head thing.”

“That’s enough,” Mom cut her off. “This happened. We deal with it. We get your father out of jail. We stick together. You hear me?”

Liz nodded. When Mom turned away, she looked daggers at me. That’s when the shock wore off and I realized she was right – this was my fault. Dad was in jail because of Alex. Because of me. Stupid stupid me, who didn’t ask questions like “how did a teenage boy invent the greatest thing since sliced bread?” Because I didn’t want to know the answer – because I didn’t want to lose Alex.

“I don’t want to be the one to say ‘I told you so…’” Aunt Janice started, and Mom slapped her.

“Shut up. Shut up and….and shut up.” She had to look the lawyer’s number up on Janice’s computer – all that information had been on our confiscated phones. “Can you get hold of Christopher? Do you know his phone number?”

“No…just his email.”

“Well, send him an email. Let him know what’s going on here.”

While Mom called the lawyer, trying to explain as best she could what was going on, I logged onto gmail to try and get a hold of Christopher. I had to think about what to write – “hey it’s me, our lives are ruined, what are you up to?” In the end I made it short and sweet, left Janice’s number, and titled it “EMERGENCY – POLICE CAME TO OUR HOUSE FOR ALEX.”

So imagine my surprise when, just after sending it, I got a “Mail Delivery Subsystem Error” announcing that the message had failed. No such address. I double-checked the name. Funny, only then did I figure out what it meant – it wasn’t “Eliza Sheirs,” it was “ELIZA’s heirs,” a reference to the first chatbot. I’d never in my life seen a gmail address just disappear. At first I thought maybe the FBI had commandeered Christopher’s records too … but why would they delete an email address? They would want to get all the mail coming to it, right? Or maybe it wasn’t deleted, the mails were coming through only they’d set it up to look like it was deleted…my mind was spinning.

“Any word back?” she asked me later. We were sitting on Janice’s couches, drinking mint tea Janice had made for us before slipping away and leaving us alone. Mom had never hit us, had maybe never hit anyone in her life. Janice had never been this quiet this long. A lot of nevers today.

“The address is no good. Deleted.”

“Write it down for me. I’ll give it to Bruce, he can track this kid down.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

“Caroline, do you know what’s going on here?” I knew from the tone of voice it was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t answer. “Christopher’s been doing something illegal, and he’s been arrested for it. And they either got him to talk, or found out from his records about his…co-conspirators. So why did they arrest Robert and not you?”

“I…I don’t know.” I thought about it for a moment. “Because he’s the adult?”

“I don’t know either.”

I knew what Mom really meant – that they must not know I was the real “conspirator.” But when I tried to sleep that night, what I thought over and over was “why Dad and not me?” Why was he being punished for what I did? It was all my fault, every bit of this. I wanted to die, I wanted to kill Christopher, and God help me I was dying to talk to Alex about all of it.

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