Posted on: November 22nd, 2009 The Chinese Room

by Alec Deason

It held out its palm for Jason to see. There was a single grain of sand on the worn plastic surface.

“I have many thoughts,” the thing elaborated.

It gestured at a dozen or so woven grass baskets that dotted the dune above the high tide mark. Each was filled to the brim with sand.

“Do you have a…” Jason began but stopped and started over. “Do you remember the manuscript we brought you?”

He spoke in a slow, slightly sing-song voice like he was talking to a child or an idiot. It was a reaction he couldn’t really control. The thing withdrew its hand, glancing down into it and then back up at Jason.

“This one is about irrigation practices in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous region,” it said.

“A woman brought the manuscript. About a week ago.”

The woman, Charlotte, would be doing this part too instead of Jason having to come down here, but she was sick and deadlines were deadlines. The thing stared at him for more than a minute in silence. Jason thought about how this conversation would seem in a Turing test. Not all humans could pass them either.

“I kept the manuscript,” the thing said at last.

It reached into the hole in its plastic shell where the neck emerged and pulled out a rolled bundle of paper which it offered to Jason. The paper was discolored and felt like it had been out in the rain. In was covered in Chinese characters which were blurred to illegibility by the moisture.

“Thank you,” Jason said. “We were hoping that you had given it some thought as well.”

“You are welcome,” the thing said and then after a pause, ”I have many thoughts about the manuscript.”

It turned and lumbered towards the nearest of the baskets. Its feet sank deep into the sand at every step. The thing dipped its hand into the basket, brushing at the handful of sand it retrieved until there was only one grain left. It held this out for examination. The other grain, Mongolian irrigation, was clutched between its thumb and index finger so it would not get lost.

“Its about the relationship between calligraphy and typography in modern Chinese writing,” it said.

“That’s very interesting, but have you thought about the translation we asked for?”

The thing stared at him in silence again before answering.

“No,” it said. “Do you have anything to write on?”

Jason dug an empty spiral bound notebook and a pen from his backpack. He handed them to the thing, which set its grains of sand onto the basket. It began to write smoothly, filling page after page. Jason sat down to wait.

He dug up a handful of sand and let it sift through his fingers, thinking about those early pioneers of machine translation who, after decades of failure, had decided that any machine capable of manipulating human language in a meaningful way would have to be at least as complex as a human. He wished those people had been wrong or that their descendents had found a way to make their complex machines seem more like humans. Or less. It wasn’t clear in which direction the problem really lay.

The thing finished. It handed the notebook back to Jason. He flipped through the first few pages. They were in English. Those with better taste assured him that the thing’s work was always beautiful.

It reached out and plucked a grain of sand that had stuck to his shirt.

“I have a thought,” it said.

He turned to trudge back up the dune without responding. The thing didn’t seem to mind.

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Posted on: November 8th, 2009 ISO

by Derek Zumsteg

“Need missed connections posting. $2,” they offered.

I stopped pushing an origami fetish site for affiliate money. Two bucks is two bucks.

“Interested,” I replied.

“Man, short brown hair, stocky, Embarcadero Plaza. Must appear organic.”

Organic = mistakes. I wrote it:

I allmost ran you over …Sorry – w4m – 30 (Embarcadero)

Iw asn’t watching and almost walkedinto you. Id didn’t have time to think of a line. I blushed mumbled and ran off. You: short brown hair, preoccupied too?

Overjoyed customer = $20 tip. Badly-patrolled forums learned where folding and paper cuts meet sexual release. I ate. My customers returned.

“Can you do additional good MC w4m $20? Same but different, and give us the anon@ account.”


“Apx 6th & Geary, yesterday 7-8pm, suit and tie, glasses, badge.”


I’m giving it up, I swear – w4m – 36

You: smart-looking, glasses, suit. 7:30 ? Me: long brown wool coat, hair up, smoking, embarrassed. You looked at me curious ? Great eye contact but you walked on. In a hurry or? Let’s have a drink. I won’t smoke, really, I promise it’s a funny story.

They paid forty. Forty! I’d spam my mother for forty bucks. I’ve done it for less. I’m not proud. And yet, the crawly feeling. The badge — what conventions were in town? They came back in an hour.

“Again but at coffee. Please no emo.”

No emo. Fuck you no emo.

“Age range?” I asked. “Where? Identifying details? Pics? Vid? Extra charge for emo-free lol.”

“40s. SOMA. w/similar looking friend. Can pay $20 for emo-free.”


Next time don’t bring your friend, doc ;) – w4m (SOMA)

You came in for coffee. Both in suits with badges. I was your barista. You gave me a great smile. I waited for a chance to talk and didn’t get it. I’m pre-med (was pre-med) and you might be immunology(?)

I looked like your standard late-30s underemployed, but it was mid-shift and I clean up nice, I promise. Let’s meet for not-coffee.

Turned over the account and got paid.

“Thought no emo?” they said.


SOMA almost certainly meant AACR.

“Need response email,” they thought. “Short, convincing. Pay 400.”

400 was rent. 400 was things. At 400 I would fold my mom on the origami site I spammed her about for twenty.

Also: response? Someone bit?

“Convincing requires details,” I said. “48h ETA.”

“8h = 2x bonus? five ten, sharp features, decent shape, black-framed glasses, green eyes. Subj went to two: Left Hand Bay Cafe, Industrial Process Coffe Co.”


Subject? I scratched at the curious itch of conscience. I searched the UCSF internal listings and shuddered cold in my office-salvage chair at the titles:
Need F med students for soc survey

ISO F med school drop outs for grants

Commercial work for authentic grad students

Work training program filming testimonials. Barista experience a plus.

I checked Stanford, UC Irvine, UC Davis. Trawlers worked them all with similar nets.

Then, a jolt of recognition on the second page of AACR presentation speakers: square, black-rimmed glasses on a glass-cutter nose, his chin a sheer drop. Suit untailored, but not bad.

I watched his incomprehensible presentation on trial T-cell use in cancer prevention. He made a little joke early and he smiled — cute — and looked sheepishly at the audience, flashing green eyes. Aww.

He owned four early T-cell anti-PMSA patents outright, shared rights in dozens of others tied up in lawsuits.


He’d be on to straight spammers, suspicious of family and friend business pitches. This, though… cash-only short con or part of those lawsuits, in a year he’d be broke and selling his patent rights, living off whatever they paid teaching professors. Which is like ten percent over career spammer. There’s a match for you Prof, but she’s not responding to a casting call. Maybe she’s in an apartment she shares with six people, trying to justify this and failing.

Re: Re: Next time don’t bring your friend doc ;) – w4m (SOMA)

Left Hand Bay. You had a black suit, badge had green(?) ID stripe. Pen in your shirt pocket: cute! Almost black hair and bright green eyes. I hope this is you and not your friend – you took the drinks, he sat down. I smelled of coffee, and always will.

And if I don’t take the job someone else will, and I’m sorry, so sorry. So here’s this in paired warning, as complete as I can be in only 750

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