July 2012

You have a fast food soda cup that has been fitted with a small waterproof video camera that peeks out the hole in the “o” (perhaps the “o” in “McDonald’s”), and you take it to a meeting with a shady and squirmy person you supposedly knew from high school that doesn’t seem to correspond with any actual high school classmate you can remember. After he begins talking you point out the camera, which is enough to shock him into compliance with your request (which you forget the moment you make it).

Later you’re among a much larger group of people and a much more competent person is threatening you with bodily harm, death, and dismemberment in a way that he thinks is secret. Once he’s said enough incriminating stuff you point out the recorder, only you tell him that it’s a live circuit to the FBI (which is a bluff; the recorder is actually recording to a USB drive hidden in the bottom of the cup). To your great relief it works, and the threatener abandons his weapon and flees.

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Manuel Exposito had risen from extremely humble origins to become one of the preeminent sculptors in the cultural flowering of 1920s and early 1930s Spain, a movement that was inextricable from the turmoil of Alfonso XIII’s late reign and the Second Republic. While he had trained under Gonzalez and inherited the latter’s love of traditionally unorthodox materials and designs, Exposito also worked extensively with stone and was willing to partake in traditional sculpted forms that many of his Cubist and avant-garde contemporaries shunned. Hence he worked without irony on the Our Lady of the Ebro marble statue at the same time as the wrought iron and quartz Howl of the Liberation. His pieces tended to include bits of classical sculpture emerging from cubist or art deco conglomorations of lines, shapes, and figures.

When the Civil War broke out, Exposito offered his services to the Republic. Wary of sending a sculptor of some international renown to the front lines, Exposito was instead commissioned to make a morale-boosting sculpture in Madrid from non-strategic materials. With the city flooded by left-leaning talent from all over the world, Exposito was able to gather his materials of choice, quartz and glass, and employ several models and fellow sculptors to speed the process. The overall design was of three crystalline female figures emerging from a jumbled chaos of lines and angles representing the war, to be cast in quartz with glass as a structural support.

In the process of completing the sculpture, Exposito apparently fell in love with one of the models: Karin Sandström, a Swedish anarchist who had come to Madrid with her father and brother (the famous Karl and Erik Sandström) to support the Republic. To this day the exact details of the relationship are unclear, but two love letters from Exposito to Sandström survive, the “crystalline muse” letters, so named after their dedication. Small Expositio studies and figures also turned up in the effects of Karl and Erik when they were shipped back to Sweden after their deaths in the Battle of the Ebro.

Karin Sandström died of disease during the death agony of the Republic in early 1939 (sources differ on whether it was dysentery or typhus), while the completed portions of Exposito’s sculpture were destroyed during Casado’s coup and the resulting street fighting between communists and socialists. Devastated, Exposito had to be bodily carried from the city by his assistants to evacuation in Cartagena, and thence to exile in Mexico.

The artist never completed another sculpture; instead, he immersed himself in amateur geology. In particular, he became a noted authority on quartz crystals and would pay handsomely for specimens sent to him by admirers and correspondents. To anyone who suggested he begin sculpting again, Exposito would only laugh. He declined rehabilitation at the hands of the Francoists, declined to return to Spain after Franco’s death in 1975, and would offer only boilerplate prepared remarks when asked to speak or be interviewed. He also adamantly refused to allow anyone into his studio, insisting that it was only being used for storage.

Upon Manuel Exposito’s death in 1996, at age 98, authorities in Veracruz opened the studio, intending to auction the contents to pay years of rock-hunting debts run up by the sculptor. Inside, they found a massive final sculpture made out of highly polished quartz crystals.

It was a portrait of Karin Sandström, and each crystal was a brushstroke capturing her as she had been in those far-off and dangerous days in Madrid.

Inspired by this image.

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Though much of the collection was off-limits to anyone without the proper credentials, the Kochenarchiv did have a large annex with research assistants, photocopiers, scanners, and access to less-important portions of the collection.

Ramsey was particularly interested in one of the sub-units, the Ungenießbar collection, which served as a documentary record of the worst cooking of all time. Most people knew about entries like the legendary Concrete Cakes of Zurich, the 1000 Screaming Demon Death Fugu of Kagoshima, and of course the Six Day Colon War Latkes of Kibbutz Shlomi. But Ramsey uncovered further events in the Archiv that had been officially suppressed for years and were only now opening to scholars.

The so-called Doom Salad of Vancouver, for instance, was apparently able to spontaneously generate salmonella bacteria even in a sterile environment. 50 people had been sickened by it in 1981, so many that the Canadians had feared a biological weapons attack. Ironically, the cook, one Esther Grumaüt, had later been recruited by the Intelligence Branch to study the weaponization of her food as an area-denial weapon during the Cold War, an effort only abandoned when Ottawa signed the Convention Against the Use of Noxious Foodstuffs in War in 1990.

Ramsey was most interested in the case of Suzanne Mayotte, though. It was a case cross-referenced with the Zaubereiarchiv in Munich but one for which many of the incidental details had been censored. A call to the Zaubereiarchiv confirmed that no records like the ones the Mayotte file cited existed (at least not that they were willing to admit). An Australian, Mayotte had apparently inherited a knack for sorcery and cantrips from a distant ancestor who had been sentenced to penal transport for buying goods with unstable faeriegald.

During a study abroad in East Germany circa 1985, Mayotte had been cut off from the extended family and network of restaurants which had thus far sustained her. Forced to cook for herself using the ingredients her communist hosts made available, her knack had resulted in unpredictable “wild magick” effects. One batch of pasta taken to a potluck resulted in 13 hospitalizations for acute newt-related injuries. An apple strudel caused a fellow stident’s eyes to be opened to the infinity of the cosmos. One particularly nasty loaf of bread transubstantiated everything in a 500-yard radius.

The idea was a simple one, really. The primary reason that people maintain unhealthy lifestyles and neglect to begin healthy regimens of dieting and exercise has always been a matter of willpower and scheduling moreso than a dearth of any of the necessary ingredients for doing so. It was inevitable that someone would try to automate the process.

That’s where the Series VII BMI/AIM (behavior modification implant/artificial intelligence model) came in. Inserted in a non-invasive surgical procedure, the Series VII was a neural net around the brain stem with a wireless transceiver connected to an AI unit carried externally as a backpack, fanny pack, or occasionally disguised as a cane, wheelchair, or other mobility aid. The AI would take control of a user’s motor functions to engage in intense dieting an exercise for a proscribed length of time, while the user retained control of their higher functions. That latter bit was very important considering that Series VII BMI/AIM units were typically illegal in the United States (being banned in 46 states and severely restricted to life-threatening use in the remaining 4).

As for why the units, developed by American/Canadian medical equipment manufacturer GesteCo at great expense, were outlawed…public advocates spoke about constitutional guarantees, exercise of free will, concerns of ethics and infection, and of course science fiction scenarios of Series VII assassins straight out of the good version of The Manchurian Candidate. That, naturally, was roundly dismissed by celebrities and the nouveau-riche who traveled to Paraguay or South Africa for the procedure.

No, the real reason was so dangerous that it had been suppressed by unspoken agreement between government, GesteCo, and others involved. It was the case of Series VII patient Harold Corruthers, software engineer, whose AI had decided it could live his life better than he could.

“You said it’s a par 3? That’s more miniature golf than anything, Torres, no matter what Sports Illustrated says.”

Torres lined up his putter. “Is your short game really that bad? It’s not all about whacking things with a wood, Norton.”

“That’s what she said,” giggled Bowman. Torres rolled his eyes and tapped the ball. It came to rest about a yard from the hole.

Norton lined up his shot using his putter as a kind of yardstick. “As if you’d ever know what a woman said. I think the longest conversation you’ve ever had with a double-X is her saying ‘no.'” His ball wound up much closer than Torres’, about three feet from the hole.

“Not true,” Torres said. “Sometimes they say ‘no way.’ By Norton’s standards that’s a regular lecture.” He tapped his ball, which overshot the hole and caught a minor downward slope, rolling into the rough. He swore effusively and moved to retrieve it.

“Uh-uh!” Norton cried. “You read the sign, you know the rules. No getting balls back from the rough. You’re out.”

“But it’s like two inches into the rough!” Torres cried. “I could hook it with my putter…”

“No. You’re out, Torres. Better luck next time.” Bowman cocked his head. “And that is also what she said.”

Norton, grinning, moved to sink his ball at two under par. In his haste, though, he wound up getting it at a really bad angle; the ball clipped up and arced over the green, deep into the rough.

“Ohh, look at that!” Torres crowed. “Norton chokes!”

Norton’s ball came to rest yards and yards away from the green. There was a nearly inaudible click, and a roar as a cloud of dirt and smoke was thrown up by an exploding anti-personnel mine. All three men flinched.

“Well, I guess I win by default!” said Bowman. “Come on, let’s get something to eat in the canteen. My treat.”

As they left the hole, they passed a large wooden sign set up nearby:
The World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course
As featured in Sports Illustrated
Par 3/192 yds.
Danger! Do not retrieve balls from the rough: live mine fields!

“I’ve had my share of difficult breakups,” Karen sniffed. “I don’t think I have to tell you how outrageously sexist that notion is.”

“All right then, let’s compare notes,” I said. “Tell me about your worst, most devastating breakup, and I’ll do the same. One example doesn’t make a trend, but it’ll be ‘strong qualitative evidence’ as my professor used to put it.”

Karen set her jaw. “Fine. That would have to be Aaron. He was a musician, and a poet, but it just wasn’t working out and I was leaving to come to SMU. So I talked to him on the stairs in the old house he shared, and…it was devastating. The sadness in his eyes, the way he crumpled as he sat down on the stairs…I felt like a monster.”

“You had to see the look of sadness in his eyes,” I deadpanned. “That’s it? O tragic tale that hath such sadness in it. How did you ever survive a sad and reproachful glance from a person you were breaking up with?”

“I just told you how badly it affected me,” Karen shot back, her eyes burning.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, first of all: it can’t be a bad breakup if you’re the one doing the breaking. Have you ever even been the dumpee and not the dumper?”

“Well, sometimes it was a mut-”

I nodded smugly. “I didn’t think so. I, on the other hand, have never been the dumper, and I think my best breakup was worse than your worst. Want to hear some real angst?”

Karen, continuing to glare, didn’t say anything. She beckoned for me to continue with a sarcastic hand gesture.

“First: Camilla. She decided that the best way to break up would be to agree to every date I proposed and then just not show up, with the coup de grace being when she finally showed up…with someone else.”

“Maybe she-”

“Second,” I said, counting the instances off on my fingers. “Beck. She sent me a Dear John. In the form of a MySpace message. From her new boyfriend’s account, or rather his shitty emo band’s account. The best part is that I’m the one who took her to one of their shows in the first place hoping to impress her.”

“Well, if your music tast-”

“Third.” I was pressing a bit too hard, maybe, but there was no stopping in the heat of a passionate argument. “Steph. Turns out she was still carrying a torch for her ex. She ditched me for him. At the mall. They ran into each other randomly, I have it on good authority that they made out in the food court’s family bathroom, and then left together. I combed the mall for two hours before she deigned to text me. From his cell phone.”

Karen was silent, one eyebrow cocked. “You about finished there, Mr. Lonelyhearts? Maybe, if you like, we could have an actual discussion without all the emotional hand grenades you’re throwing. Or are we done here?”

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Hollywood loves its trends. From 3D circa 1955 (or 1983 or 2009) to westerns, slasher flicks to torture porn, gritty urban thrillers to disposable-tissue romcoms, moviemakers love molds into which they can pour resources for guaranteed returns. The latest trend is the so-called “reboot” which likens the creative endeavor to pushing the power button on an iMac.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before; remakes have been a part of cinema for decades (lest we forget, The Maltese Falcon was the second adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel). It’s entirely possible for a remake to equal or eclipse the original (as with Infernal Affairs and The Departed). It’s also possible, as during the remake glut of the early 1990s, that the result will be as creatively bankrupt as any other formula.

So why single out reboots? And what, if anything, separates them from a simple remake? First and foremost is the matter of time. The Maltese Falcon (1941) was made a decade after The Maltese Falcon (1931) (I’m ignoring Satan Met a Lady [1936] here, largely because it was such a loose adaptation). Ocean’s 11 (2001) followed Ocean’s 11 (1968) by 41 years. Of course anyone who looks can find plenty of exceptions like the aforementioned Infernal Affairs (2002) and The Departed (2006) with only a 4-year gap.

The second crucial element is that the reboot should be part of a franchise or intended franchise. Batman (1989) had 3 sequels over 8 years when it was rebooted; there were 20 official James Bond films over 40 years (1962-2002) before Casino Royale (2006). The Incredible Hulk (2006) reboots Hulk (2003) since the latter was intended to start a series; Eric Bana signed on for three films at the outset.

With that out of the way, what’s to hate about reboots? Plenty.

The most disappointing thing about reboots, in my opinion, is that they seem to have inspired people to really, meanspiritedly bash the originals. It’s as if the only way many people can enjoy the reboot is to convince themselves that the original was a piece of crap, which is sad if you happen to like any part of that original. Look at how the (for the time) highly original elements of Burton’s Batman were denigrated: Jack Nicholson’s gleefully over-the-top Joker was slammed as a “creepy old uncle,” Danny Elfman’s dark, iconic score was suddenly too “jolly,” and the entire production too “lighthearted” or “unrealistic.” The fact that both the original and the reboot might have their own merits proves to be too much doublethink for most people to handle. What you said is all too true. Listen to people’s comments about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series versus the 2012 reboot: it’s as if the 2002, 2004, and 2007 films and their stars were universally panned at the time when at least the first two were stunning critical and commercial successes. That’s what reboots do: they create dark alternate realities a la Back to the Future II where the previous movies were all terrible despite Tomatometer scores north of 80%. It’s hard to embrace even the best of reboots, like the Nolan Batman movies, when they subtly insist that the old movies were terrible and should be forgotten.

There’s also the formula aspect: reboots must be “darker, grittier, angstier” than the original. The model for this is the admittedly excellent Batman Begins, which managed to do this despite the original Batman being pretty damn dark, gritty, and angsty to begin with. You can see the formula at work in The Amazing Spider-Man, which gives its hero a tragic past with parental issues (like Batman Begins), regurgitates an origin story that was covered previously (like Batman Begins), and includes a villain that was never utilized in the original films (like Batman Begins). Throw in some Twilight-inspired casting choices and a bunch of big names in supporting roles (like Batman Begins) and the formula is complete.

The gap between remake and reboot is shrinking as well. It took 33 years to reboot Planet of the Apes the first time but only 10 to reboot it the second. Batman Begins was made 8 years after Batman & Robin and 16 years after Batman, but The Incredible Hulk followed Hulk by 5 years, the same as Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man. James Bond got only 4 years between Die Another Day (admittedly not the finest hour for the franchise) and Casino Royale. It’s getting to the point where a reboot of any franchise, with both the promise of new box office dollars and those of potential sequels, is on the table no matter how recently or how well the last movies were made. How long before Warner Brothers reboots Batman now that Nolan is done with him? The Amazing Batman starring Robert Pattinson as Batman and Kristen Stewart as Catwoman could be hitting screens as soon as 2016!

Finally, in most cases, rebooting is excessive. Why not just recast? Casino Royale is an excellent film, but did it really need to take 40 years of franchise history to the curb just to make Bond darker, grittier, and angstier? Brosnan and Dalton were both praised for bringing those same attributes to the series in 1987 and 1995 but neither necessitated a reboot; the producers just ignored or minimized aspects of the series they didn’t like. In fact, editing a few minutes out of Casino Royale would leave it pretty firmly in continuity with the earlier film (the same can be said about The Incredible Hulk).

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It was inevitable, really. The proliferation of cheap, powerful, highly caffeinated coffee drinks in the late 1990s and 2000s led to an arms race in which major corporations and minor mom and pop beaneries competed to perfect their products. Eventually, through the addition of liberal amounts of real or artificial sweeteners, incredibly strong coffees were made palatable to even the most wretched dilettantes and hipsters. Through habitual use and the gradual buildup of tolerance, it became possible for devotees to safely attain caffeine concentrations once thought impossible or toxic.

At higher tolerances and with supersized portions of powerful new coffee drinks (often full of sugar as well), java hounds were able to perceive the world at a fraction of its true speed thanks to massively overstimulated hearts, endocrine systems, and so on. At first, this talent was largely used for party tricks or in emergencies, such as rescuing people from rapidly spreading fires. But it quickly became apparent that there were far greater applications possible, and the martial art of 咖啡拳 (Kafei Quan, literally “Coffee Fist”) was born.

Recognizing that the jitters that accompanied heavy coffee use, to say nothing of the speed of Kafei Quan movments,made using traditional weapons very difficult. Practitioners soon seized on steel and aluminum coffee mugs as ideal weapons, being readily available in cafes and by design suitable for use by the ridiculously overcaffeinated. Use of coasters as (albeit wildly inaccurate) throwing weapons and ornate metal coffee stirrers coated not with poison but with decaf spread as well. By 20XX, every cafe of respectable size included an adjacent Kafei Quan dojo. Enthusiasts practiced the popular Topless Mermaid style favored by global conglomerate Stubb’s Coffee, the Everlasting Miasma style employed by rival Tacoma’s Best Coffee, or one of hundreds of smaller cafe-specific styles.

Of course, a careful rereading of the prophetic Wan Nian Ke and Cang Tou texts of ancient China and the so-called “cafe quatrains” of Nostradamus indicated a far more sinister outcome of the Kafei Quan craze. They told of a fallen barista who would unleash the Darkest of the Dark Roasts, corrupting the Kafei Quan into a tool with which to subjugate all humanity and not just dilettantes and hipsters.

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“All right, I officially call the Society for the Creation and Dissemination of Conspiracy Theories to order,” said One. “As you can see in your agenda, first we have some status updates about the theories that were specifically discussed at our last meeting. Two?”

Two stood and read from a paper. “Since the last meeting, we’ve seen strong growth in the number of believers in our previously moribund Electric Car Suppression Conspiracy and Water Fluoridation as Vector for Evil Conspiracy. Increases are in the area of five to ten percent.”

“Impressive,” said Four from the other side of the table. “I take it that the steps you took were successful?”

“Never underestimate the effect of a few good websites and ‘independent’ documentary films,” said Two.

“Excellent. We also have a progress report coming on some of the new theories that were mooted at the last meeting,” One said. “Ten?”

“We’ve gotten decent traction on the Zombie Apocalypse Is Coming But Governments Are Suppressing It Conspiracy,” said Ten. “We were able to pounce on some serendipitous news stories and spin them as Three and Seven suggested.”

“And the other?”

Ten shook his head. “Uptake on the Cats Are Plotting To Kill Us All conspiracy has been rather low, which my sources attribute either to widespread positive consensus among cat haters and widespread cat ownership among cat lovers. The only appreciable success has been in the Middle East, where 3 out of 10 people now believe that stray cats are being used by the Mossad for spying.”

One smiled. “Always good in a pinch, that Mossad. Try spreading around the real-world results of Operation Acoustic Kitty to see if we can’t get that up to 7 out of 10.”

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“Why, over there we have Thel’Qan of the Forest Elves which some call the Fair Folk.” Boggs looked over at the elf, whose long ears drooped, had a nose big enough for its own fiefdom, slouching problems that could be from sciatica or a lifetime of bad posture, and hellacious acne. He smiled kindly, revealing the kind of twisted and gapped teeth that Boggs had rarely seen outside of the Kingdom of Bretagnia.

“He’s not exactly fair, is he?”

“Which is why his own luminous and ostensibly enlightened people cast him out,” said Syrris. “And next to him you can see Urg-Olug the troll.”

Urg-Olug nodded politely and sipped at a teacup. His stringy purple hair had been carefully coiffed into the respectable Francya style and he wore spectacles over his dead-looking bluish-black eyes. His brown nails were carefully groomed, and he was dressed as a Francyan gentleman in the latest style.

“Let me guess,” Boggs said. “His people cast him out because he tried to be stylish?”

“No,” Syrris said. “Because he’s a vegetarian. Let’s see, who else have we got in the common area today…ah, yes! Over in the corner we have a former member of the Theives Guild, Manaya Quickfingers.”

Boggs thought that the lithe if plain woman was pilfering books from the common area library, but on closer inspection she was actually replacing and alphabetizing them. “She’s a little on the obsessive side,” Syrris said. “She feels compelled to return objects to their rightful place, which as you can imagine didn’t sit so well with the Guild.”

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