Category Archives: Missives from modernity

We are digging the Pit of Babel

In the area surrounding the Pit, no sounds could be heard. No birds chirping, no small things rustling in the undergrowth, no insects buzzing to and fro. Only a silence so profound as to defy the senses could be heard. The workmen, numerous and well organized, took great pains to fill out this void with sounds of their own, talking and singing so as to ward off their unease. Yet the many tongues and languages were insufficient to the task of heeding the warnings scrawled upon walls of the Pit, an ancient writ in symbols only remotely and accidentally similar to the ones now in use. As this last work crew, already bored by the routine and fresh out of songs to exorcise this most dreaded of horrors, passed the now familiar warnings that




one of its members noted that it sure was a strange thing that so many different languages were represented therein. Upon relaying this comment, a comrade remarked that they were but a few short of one of each; another, laughing, stipulated that, truly, they were digging the Pit of Babel

How the email found you

It found you, in your office, as you were reading through your list of emails. Somehow, even though the list of things you actually do during your days has shrunk recently, the amount of emails you receive has not followed suit. If anything, it has expanded significantly, taking up more and more of your time, in an inverse proportion to things accomplished. The email found you in a state of pondering this state of things

The email found you as you were out clubbing. It was something of a dissociative moment to see those very bureaucratic words coming at you during the thumping of a bass so phat as to threaten to shake the very Tree of Life itself, the beat boosted by at least one counterfeit chemical brother. The dissociation triggered within you the realization that none of that stuff mattered, and that doing it half-assedly would get the job done just as well as acing it. The email did indeed find you well

The email found you submerged under a trio of cats, who all individually want the same thing from you, albeit with the provision that none of the others get it. It’s shaking out to be another tough round of negotiations, and this new email is relentlessly orthogonal to this series of events. It is unclear whether it actually found you

It found you by gyrating through the forgotten crawlspaces and air ducts of the many buildings of the many cities between sender and receiver. Along the way, it cleared the path for many a blocked airflow, possibly preventing a double-digit number of respiratory-related diseases. The exact path it travelled is a marvel of fractal geometry, geopolitics and edge cases of zoning laws. Alas, the email was filtered out by the spam algorithm

As the sound of a particularly large bird awoke you in the middle of the night, you decided to make the best of it by going to the loo. At some point in this process, the email was checked. An email that would ordinarily require an inordinate amount of thought had appeared. The thought apparatus being temporarily disconnected, you replied with a simple “k” and promptly forgot about it. Lawyers and literary theorists argue to this day about whether this email actually found you

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This email hit like a truck, and you hit back

The letter always arrives at its destination. Indeed, it is created at the moment of arrival. It is not a physical letter, per se. Rather, it is a sudden connection in one’s mind between all the things that brought you to this moment, and how one led to another, in what now seems an inevitable series of events. The letter, upon arrival, manifests as this sense of inevitability, foreclosing upon any thought that it might have been different. This is either a lack of regrets or the gradual disappearance of historical contingency. Either way, it’s here now

As the white whale was hauled to shore, its dead carcass a mass ever so slightly too large for the human mind to grasp in its entirety, one of the surviving sailors waved at you to come over. He’d found something lodged within the whale, somewhere; a bottle with a note in it, with what seems to be your name etched upon its rolled-up surface. The sailor, still in a haze after the ordeal, simply hands you the bottle. At some point in the future, you vow to figure out a way to get the letter out of the bottle without smashing it

The business of the future, today

Dear Bank,

My business proposal is as follows. I intend to run a business at a loss for a decade or so, relentlessly driving down the price point to such a degree that my competitors will be unable to successfully act in a competitive fashion. The goal for this initial stage is not to make a profit, but rather to eliminate any serious organized competition and establish a functional monopoly. At that point, I will make efforts to remove the structural possibility of new competitors arising, partly as a function of being in a monopoly position, and partly by lobbying the local government into enacting legislation making it difficult for new businesses to establish themselves. From then on out, I will expand my activities to neighboring business sectors, gradually enlarging my functional monopoly to such an extent that profit becomes something that can be enacted arbitrarily at will. Clearly, you can see the potential earnings in such an enterprise.

For this purpose, I require a zero-interest loan of several tens of billions of dollars, with no or very low rates of repayment in the first ten year period. As already demonstrated, my proposal requires access to functionally infinite amount of money for this period in order to drive out the competition. However, the upcoming profit margin will be well in excess of any repayment plan we will negotiate at that time.

As to branding, I am currently contemplating Guinea as an overall name. People like rainforests, and I want to initially appear harmless, so the third largest such forest should suffice for my purposes.

Sincerely yours,

J Sozeb

From whence the future came

The pitch

We are a cutting edge, forward looking company seeking the best of the best, the brightest of every generation. We strive to do things that have never been done before, so as to make tomorrow look like yesterday. By striding boldly into the future, we will advance the cause of science and economics alike. Nothing is too new or unexplored for us. If there is anything to be done for the first time, we will do it in a trailblazing fashion. We are not bound by tradition or convention, and will innovate at every turn. The future will remember us with reverence and awe


Two master’s degrees and seven years of relevant, extensively documented work experience

The actual job

You will be expected to perform tasks related to accounting, bookkeeping, gardening, sanitation, copywriting, web design, HR management, car maintenance, municipal policy wrangling, labor relations, geoengineering, email server maintenance and fashion design

The pay

Ask not what the company can do for you, but what you can do for the company. Good company is its own reward

The benefits

Our recreation rooms feature many state of the art arcade machines, some of which can not be found anywhere else. The free pizza is baked by local artisans who have meditated at length on the optimal way to prepare each individual ingredient. Just as we take great care to ensure that our employees have every creature comfort available to them whilst bringing the future to life

Editorial notes

The text was complete. Finished. Ready. 100%. All that remained was one single, small matter of semantics which had to be ironed out. To be more specific, whether a certain word should be written in the singular or the plural

At first, he thought it would only be a matter of grammar. Some words are simply inexplicably plural, and this might just be one of those words. However, looking closer at it, he realized that things were about to become slightly more tangled than that

If he were to go with the singular form, he would write himself into a very specific tradition, bringing with it a whole host of assumptions, connotations and non-obvious baggage that may or may not be appropriate to the rest of the argument. If he were to go with the plural form, however, those who ascribe to the aforementioned tradition would likely find the text insulting, or at the very least ignorant to an unflattering degree. Which in and of itself would be neither here nor there, except that these people had a non-trivial influence on the matter of funding

This was, he concluded, indeed one of those words

Big data, 8-bit style

His job was related to big data and data extrapolation. The first two first words simply meant he worked with computers, while the second pair was a bit of clever marketing speak to indicate that he worked with forecasting whilst at the same time clearly not saying he worked with forecasting. Which, in short, meant he got invited to a lot of forecasting events, where everyone talked about different ways of predicting the future, possibly using computers in some way. For those not savvy to the distinction between extrapolation and forecasting, he was indistinguishable from those busy attempting to predict the future

The reason for insisting that he was not, in fact, in the prediction business was that his big data did not work. Trends that had looked the same for decades suddenly changed, while temporary movements became permanent fixtures of the data landscape. This was true only so long you did not apply this analytical heuristic, however; it almost seemed as if looking at the data changed it by means of some unclear causation. Given the data, it made no sense whatsoever, yet there it was. And it was his job to find something useful to do with this tangled mess of all the things. Somehow

Rather than digging in and galaxy braining the data, he had opted for another method of dealing with the pervasive random fluctuations. Whenever he needed to perform some public function relating to his job, he consulted the I Ching. Not because it worked (although it had a better success rate than most of the algorithms in use), but because it too was something depicted as a predictive tool when it explicitly and specifically was not

In his heart of heart, he suspected many of his conference peers and network buddies performed similar extracurricular activities, but that admitting this would demolish the prediction business as we know it

This was the only prediction he made with a statistically significant degree of certainty

The bottom line

They were, unequivocally, backed into a corner. Some would equivocate and say a more apt metaphor was that they were about to go careening of a cliff, but that implied the possibility of stopping. Which, after today’s announcement, was the one thing they could not do. They had explicitly promised not to do it, ever

Thing is. Being a massive global social network imposes certain limits to growth. There are only so many people in the world, and the recent proclamation to become ever larger and expand forever – well, the maths didn’t check out. Eventually, the world would run out of people, and then the company – solely and completely geared towards eternal expansion – would fall apart


Thus, the discovery of an alien civilization with the capacity to communicate with humanity came as a big boon. To be sure, it was a momentous occasion in the grand history of humanity and its place in the universe, but – more importantly – it also meant that the company could keep expanding, and would thus survive

Which was the most important thing. No two ways about it

A lot to think about

He was, to put it politely, in a hurry. Not to worry, though, he was also very close to where he was going. All he needed to do was to find a parking spot, and then he’d be all set. There should be one somewhere around – aha, there’s one!

In fact, there was a whole row of them. An entire sidewalk’s worth. A worrying plethora in this sea of scarcity. Something had to be up. But what?

Then he saw them. The signs. They explained in extensive detail when parking was allowed, and when the full force of the municipal government would come crashing down upon those who broke its sacred commandments. Better pay attention, lest one makes a mistake

He began to read

After reaching the fifth sign – parking was allowed on even-numbered dates, but only if they were not a Sunday, but only during the summer months of the year (weeks 23-25 excluded), unless a special occasion dictated otherwise, with reservation for local variations – he gave up and moved on. Surely, somewhere, there had to be a parking spot that was not also a logic puzzle

They came, they saw, they conspired

Some time ago, we found out that the rumors of a complex, multi-layered, long-term global conspiracy to take over the world were in fact true. They had been at it for centuries, ever so slowly inserting themselves into various centers of power, some obsolete, some emerging, some so boring you wouldn’t even think of them as such. In short, they were all over the place, and they endeavored to make it theirs. If rumors and analytical indicators were anything to go by, they were pretty efficient at it.

We did what any rational municipal planning body would have done. We hired them to solve our complex, multi-layered, long-term local problems. There were necessary construction projects that had stalled since time immemorial, structural issues which required some serious out of the box thinking to solve or bypass, and on the whole a vast range of problems which we simply could not solve left to our own devices. While the solutions they proposed sometimes made little short-term sense, they overall tended to make such retroactive sense that having done otherwise seems nonsensical or ideological to an extreme degree.

To be sure, the risk of them inserting their own machinations into our everyday lives was an ever present constant. But listen. They solved traffic. They solved segregation. They solved homelessness. It would be something of a stretch to say that they solved ecology, but things used to be much, much worse in that regard. Everything is better now. Ever the very air is cleaner, somehow.

If this somehow furthers their plans for global domination – we’ll take it. We willingly understand and accept these new terms and conditions.

Algorithmic matchmaking

At first glance, the trend was as inexplicable as it was unexpected. For what seemed to be no discernable reason, hiking rates had hiked. More people than ever ventured out into the countryside to explore the nooks and crannies of nature – the mountaintops, the deep forests, the long treks only possible in wilderness conditions. Something had set all these people in motion, and no one knew what

At first, it was assumed it was the ancient allure of Nature, in all its splendor. The simplest answer usually being something akin to the truth, and all that. But when asked, hikers rarely made reference to this most natural of reasons. In fact, the responses didn’t seem to indicate any particular reason at all, on either individual or collective levels. The stated reasons were all over the place, ranging from budding but enthusiastic spirituality (which somehow did not make reference to nature), to a (seemingly very sudden) interest in exercise, to vague stories of very distant relatives once having occupied these lands. The sheer variation of flimsy responses became the subject of much speculation, before the real reason finally revealed itself by means of participatory observation

It turns out that uploading photos of oneself in outdoor situations into dating apps generated more matches than indoor equivalents. Moreover, the more outdoors the photos were, the more matches it generated. Thus, it became something of a race to the most remote locations, so as to be able to return home and tell the tale

Perhaps it could be said to be the ancient allure of Nature, after all