Hot Docs is a world class documentary film festival held every year in Toronto. Click here to read my review of Danny, a biography of the controversial Newfoundland premier Danny Williams.
William was bawling. Tears poured down his cheeks as he wailed and pointed at the Cookie Monster cookie jar on the counter. Negotiations had broken down.
“William, stop. William, no, we can’t do this right now. Daddy has to go to work.”
Trevor was already ten minutes late. The boardroom would be filling up with people waiting to hear his quarterly report. It wasn’t much of an excuse to tell them that his son rested the fate of the world on eating a cookie for breakfast.
“You know what the real reason is?” he imagined telling them. “Sarah bought a cookie jar that looks like Cookie Monster and then filled it with cookies. Where are the broccoli jars made of Broccoli Man the broccoli monster?” But he wouldn’t say that.
William hadn’t let up. He was torrential and losing vowels rapidly. He had settled on consecutive As but every few dozen he found space for, ‘Aaaaaaaaaaa-pleeeeeeeease-aaaaaaaaaaa.’
Trevor handed his son to his wife and left the house. He slammed the car door and reversed into the road without checking for traffic. He floored the pedal didn’t even stop at the intersection before turning right.
He sped down the road hitting lucky green lights along the way. He kept glancing at the dashboard clock, calculating how late he may end up being: amazingly he had made up five whole minutes.
But then a red. He stopped abruptly, his bumper sticking out over the line. He hit the steering wheel and cursed. It’s okay, he thought, he had to turn left anyway. He watched the red light and urged it on, asking it to change. It held on a little longer, just to punish him, but then it switched to yellow and green. He barely registered the green at all and sped out to turn left, to beat the oncoming traffic.
Thwak. His back end swung away in the other direction. His head went sideways and put a crack in the window. The world spun around him like he was suddenly on a Merry Go Round. He clenched his body and reached for something to hold on to.
The doctors said there wasn’t much they could do for him. They bandaged his head and wrapped his wrist. They said he sprained it but he couldn’t figure out how. They said there was no need to keep him in the hospital overnight and that he should go home and rest.
Sarah came to pick him up, William in tow. The boy looked concerned and poked at his father’s bandage. ‘Boo boo?’
“Yeah, Daddy got a boo boo.”
At home, William rushed to the television and to continue his morning cartoons. Trevor pickedup the Cookie Monster jar and brought it into the living room. He sat down next to his son and opened the jar. Trevor said, “Do you want a cookie?”
“Good, cause we’re going to eat ‘em all.”
There was nothing to say. The five suited board members asked Doctor Andrew for his presentation, his ideas on how to produce revenue from his filament storage container within five years. But Andrew spent the last several weeks trying to find the source of the signal, the man inside the vessel. They were extremely disappointed.
“I’m sorry but we’ll have to let you go.” He wasn’t expecting that. Sure, the loss of his project but not his livelihood. “Dr. English will escort you out.”
English was standing at the back of the room. He had been there the whole time, confidently behind the board, protected by a wall of bureaucracy. Andrew wondered if the English had only humoured him, had only pretended to be interested as Andrew rambled on about little men in jars. And then English used this information against him and convinced the board that he was a crackpot. That’s why they were letting him go.
“This is the wrong time for this,” said Andrew. “You can escort me out next week. You don’t even have to pay me in the mean time but you have to let back into that lab.”
They said no.
“I just need one more message. We have to tell them. There is someone who lives in there. Maybe there are millions of people and they have the right to know. Wouldn’t you want to know if you – ” He trailed off.
The sun was setting and the room was filled with an orange glow. Andrew raised his hand to let it wash in the light. He looked at it and then out the window. The board members glanced at each other, confused. Andrew mumbled, “One more message.”
“Absolutely not, Doctor Andrew. We’re not wasting any more time on this. Doctor English, if you please.” English walked to the front and placed his hand on Andrew’s elbow. Andrew clenched a fist and threw a wild haymaker. English went down, falling into the wall before hitting the floor. Andrew put him in a choke hold while dragging him to his feet and toward the door.
“One more message!” Andrew said to the board members and he pulled English out of the room. Andrew struggled with the man down several flights of stairs. Back in his own lab, he locked the door and let go of English who had his dukes at the ready. He roared, “What do you think you’re doing!”
“We have to send one more,” said Andrew.
“I’m not going to help you do anything.”
“You want to know as much as I do. I know you do.
“I don’t care about the man in the cylinder!”
“It’s us, English! It’s us!”
“It’s a matter of scale! Universes within universes! To us we are a galaxy but to him we are an atom!”
“Him!” Andrew pointed to the sky. “Up there, there is a scientist working in a lab who just invented a machine that allows matter to form universes. And in that cylinder is a scientist who created a cylinder that allows matter to form universes!” It looked like English was coming around. Andrew continued, “Don’t we have the right to know? Don’t you want to know if you are stuck inside someone else’s jar?”
“You don’t want to send a message into the cylinder. You want to send it into space,” English clarified.
“We’ve been doing that for years while searching for extraterrestrial life”
“Yes, but what if we send a message for the jar man?”
“Like what? What could we send that is purely mathematical and that would be misunderstood by other advanced societies?”
“They don’t have to misunderstand it, they just have to not care. It only matters what He does with it. It has to be a wave so broad that no one else would consider it information. The waves we send into the cylinder are tiny to us but they are giant to the receiver. If we send out a giant wave it might be big enough for the jar man to hear. Can your machine do that?”
There was a bang on the door. The board members were trying to get in. Muffled voices were yelling on the other side of the thick oak door. Then there was a thud, a shoulder shove. They were breaking it down.
“A radio wave can be as long a football field so it has to be bigger than that. Something unusual.”
“Can you do it?”
English booted up his machine. Andrew opened a window and English scoffed, “The glass isn’t going to get in the way.”
“I’m not taking any chances.”
English pointed the transmitter outside and entered the pulses into the machine, the Fibonacci sequence. He pressed enter and the machine whirred. It blasted long pulses into the sky just as the door cracked open.
Everything he tried had failed. Dr. Andrew was not able to reproduce the faint signal that seemed to be emitted from the filament cloud. Worse, he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t an accident. As he tried to reproduce the conditions of that moment, a voice in his head told him that there was a more reasonable explanation: his equipment had picked up some terrestrial radio signal.
After several weeks and nothing to show, he walked upstairs and knocked on the door of Dr. English, an expert in wave physics. “Aren’t you supposed to be commercializing this project?” he asked Andrew. “This sounds like an incredible waste of time.” English had always been a faithful board ally but he was intrigued by Andrew’s data. The signal did look like it was coming from within the cylinder.
They considered various possibilities. Perhaps the cylinder had reflected or enhanced an existed signal. Or perhaps this was a typing monkey situation, “You’ve got infinitely random data in there. Eventually, it will create something that looks like organized information.” But Andrew wasn’t convinced. He suggested that maybe there was someone in the cylinder. “On what grounds do you make this ridiculous assertion?” asked English. Andrew didn’t have an answer. He thought unlikely things may have equally unlikely explanations.
While he wasn’t the best ally, English was still a physicist and was excited by the impossible. He was willing to test the idea that, however the means, the signal was sent by an intelligence and Andrew wanted to know if they could send something back.
English offered a piece of equipment, a transmitter that produced waves that were atomically small like the one they had received. He brought it down to Andrew’s lab and pointed it at the cylinder which was still perched in its chamber. “What do we send?” asked English. “Are you there God, it’s me Margaret? Although, I suppose we would be God in this circumstance.” Andrew suggested the Fibonacci sequence and English replied, “Yes, I’m sure these people will be as excited by over hyped pop math as you are.” The machine hummed on and English entered the sequence to be transmitted in pulses: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 They transmitted it continually for an hour, turned the machine off, and waited.
Nothing happened that day. Dr. English eventually got bored and left. He checked in the next day but nothing still. He stopped by a week later but still nothing. After that, he stopped coming. Dr. Andrew, however, had no choice but to show up for work, sit quietly in his lonely lab, and watch his glowing cylinder. He didn’t dare perform any more tests. He didn’t want to alter the system in any way.
So he just sat there and looked at it and thought about how he would never get to show his technology to the world. Some other scientist at some better funded university would invent this same technology in a few years and get all the credit for being the father of quantum computing. Still, he thought while sitting in his chair, it is beautiful to watch.
He was so lost in the beauty of it that he didn’t hear the knock at the door. He didn’t hear the door open and someone come in. “Dr. Andrew!” He looked over. “The board would like to see you now.” Now? Why now? He wasn’t given any notice!
“You were sent several letters,” said the man who sifted through the doctor’s stack of unopened mail and pulled out a pair of envelopes from the university. “You have five minutes,” said the man and he left.
He presumed this the meeting where he was to explain his million dollar idea, an idea he never bothered to come up with. Andrew stood up and reached out to grab the cylinder out of the chamber. But there it was, displayed on the screen, little pulses separated by a space: 13 then 21 then 34. Those were the next numbers in the sequence. It wasn’t his own information coming back. There was someone in the cylinder and that person could do math.
The presentation had not gone well. Dr. Andrews thought all he had to do was place his cylinder on the boardroom table and the beauty of it would convince them. The cloud of subatomic strings swirled slowly like a fog and shone like a flickering fire. He thought there would be no need to explain the complex physics of what was in the cylinder: it was clearly amazing, it was clearly deserving of another year’s funding.
But they weren’t impressed. They claimed it was too theoretical, that it didn’t have any practical applications. He protested, ‘This is raw existence, the most basic filaments that make up all matter.’ He told them how difficult it had been to separate them and design the magnetic casing that held them in suspension. He told them the technology would lead to a revolution in quantum computing. He proclaimed, ‘In five years, this will usher in a new era of technology and today’s most advanced machine will feel like a rotary phone.’ But the board wasn’t convinced. Five years was too long a time to fund a project with an unknown ROI. If he could come up with at least a theoretical use for the technology, they would consider more funding.
So he lugged his container to the lab placed it back in the sensory chamber. The dozen monitors began to display reams of data like energy levels, positioning, and composition. But as all the line graphs were being drawn, he realized they were right, those graphs had no specific purpose. The whole contraption was the subatomic version of SETI. He was just collecting information without any idea of what it would be used for. He assumed that the purpose of this technology would present itself to him. After all, it was new. It was a breakthrough. There before him were the building blocks of the universe. Surely they had purpose.
A line graph spiked. It was very noticeable. It wasn’t a random fluctuation. Dr. Andrews backed up the data to see it again. It looked like a sine curve, like a radio frequency. It was short, just a few cycles, but it was measured, and it came from within the cylinder. It was impossible.
Daniel tapped the pen against the edge of his desk. He read over the resume, nodding approvingly when he reached each period. He looked up at Jenny, the young, professional woman waiting politely before him. He caught her eye smiled.
DANIEL: “Yeah, this looks good.”
DANIEL: “Yeah, you have everything you need to be an entry level programmer. But you’ve also got something else.”
JENNY: “What is that?”
DANIEL: “We’re trying to hire more women.”
JENNY: “That’s great. Women are under-represented in the tech sector.”
DANIEL: “That’s what I’m told.”
JENNY: “Google said only 30% of its workforce were women.”
DANIEL: “Yeah, I heard that. So we’re trying to hire more women. More women who can…you know.”
DANIEL: “We’re trying to hire more.”
JENNY: “Yes, women who can…?”
DANIEL: “Who can…?”
DANIEL: “You know.”
DANIEL: “You don’t know?”
JENNY: “No, what are you talking about?”
DANIEL: “I’m just saying that we’re trying to hire more women.”
JENNY: “I get that, but you keep saying ‘women who can’ and then trailing off.”
DANIEL: “Yeah, I was hoping you could tell me. Being a women yourself.”
JENNY: “Tell you what?”
DANIEL: “What it is we need them to do.”
JENNY: “Their job?”
DANIEL: “Yeah, but we need women so they can…”
DANIEL: “Sure. Yeah, But also…?”
JENNY: “Do you not want to hire women?”
DANIEL: “I do! Of course! No, no, no, I’m not saying that at all.”
JENNY: “Okay. But you’re looking specifically for women…”
DANIEL: “Yes, women…”
JENNY: “Who can…”
DANIEL: “Who can…”
DANIEL: “I don’t know!”
JENNY: “What are you talking about!?”
DANIEL: “Women! Who Can! Do something!”
JENNY: “Women are regular people.”
DANIEL: “I know. That’s what we learned in the seminar.”
JENNY: “Okay. So, are you hiring me?”
DANIEL: “I guess?”
DANIEL: “I mean, yes! Yes, you’re hired. Welcome aboard!”
Search through the morning paper for an idea. That’s where the new things happen so maybe there are new ideas. Many headlines but few are unique. Always a plane crash, always a dead body, always a scandal or a new beverage flavour. Water, water, everywhere.
Regardless, words must be placed one after another. But as they are, their orientation feels very familiar. There are only so many words and there are only so many words that people use therefore there are limited permutations. It is not just possible, it is likely that this has been written before. This.
And trying something new doesn’t guarantee uniqueness. It’s only new to the writer. Today’s ideas could have been last years ideas. they could have been the same ideas two hundred years ago. Or perhaps a totally different idea resulted in the exact same word placement. Perhaps some other writer wrote everything you’re reading now but in response to something else entirely. Maybe this is the millionth time these words have been placed thusly. Thusly. Thusly.
It’s the little things – no song a chorus, no story a page – so the whole can only be measured at the end. Still, there is no surety that anything has been accomplished at all. But maybe. Maybe.
Daniel wore khaki pants and white polo that hung loosely on his thin frame. The fifty year old bank manager sipped his red wine as he entered the kitchen which smelled like fresh rosemary and rich cream. His housemaid, Gerta, had bubbling pots ans sizzling frying pans on every element.
“Smells delicious in here, Gerta, just delicious.” He pecked his nose at the air like a bird pulling falling bread out of the air.
“Yes, Mr. Daniel,” said Gerta.
“We’re just about ready in there. Mr. Roberts and his wife arrived and look hungry so let’s make this thing perfect.”
“Yes, Mr. Daniel,” said Gerta
A cell phone rang. Gerta pulled it out of her apron and answered it. Daniel couldn’t understand what she was saying but she was upset. Something had happened, an accident. Gerta was nearly in tears as she tossed her apron on the counter and ran out. “My daughter! The hospital! So sorry!”
“Gerta! Wait, what about dinner?” Daniel surveyed the mess of the kitchen. “Hrm. Alright. Well. No problem, I’ll just delegate this to… to, uh, hm.” The boiling pots begged for attention.
“You there!” He pointed aggressively at the pots. “I don’t want to see you slacking! I need this dinner on my table ay 6:30! We run a tight ship here!” The pots bubbled.
“I can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy!” He sipped his wine. “Let’s get this money train moving!” He pumped his arm enthusiastically. The pan of onions squeaked in oil.
“I get you. You remind me a lot of myself at your age. If you become dinner I will make you regional manager. Oh, alright, Vice President of Development and that’s my final offer.” A ball of red sauce exploded onto the range.
“You’re going to make me get my hands dirty, huh? I’m no stranger to messy situations. You’ll regret this!” He rolled up his sleeves and picked up a wooden spoon with his free hand. He stirred daintily, going around the pot once and stopping. “That’s a thrashing you won’t forget!”
The apron caught fire. One of the ties fell too close to the heat and was burning. “Hostile takeover!” Daniel almost tossed his glass of wine at but decided against it, taking a sip instead. He found an oven mitt and just threw it at the flames. “Unstoppable,” he said.
“What’s going on in here?” Mr. Roberts had become peckish and bored and found his way into the kitchen. “Is dinner almost ready, Daniel?”
Daniel turned his eyes to the floor. “I’m very sorry, sir, but there will be no dinner tonight. My housekeeper ran out suddenly and I can’t get this operation producing again. I’ve tried everything! I tried motivating, I tried negotiating, I tried being aggressive, but nothing has worked. I hoped I would be able to impress you tonight, sir, but clearly I’ve failed.”
Roberts put a hand on his shoulder. “Being willing to fail is an important quality in an executive. I know you have a bright future ahead of you.”
Daniel brightened and eagerly grabbed Roberts hand. “Thank you, sir. Would you like to go outside and discuss some of my ideas?”
“Yes. This whole house is a lost cause.”
“That’s executive decision making!”
Daniel walked his boss out of the kitchen just as the oven mitt was just beginning to singe.
Lucy hummed to herself as she arranged the burger supplies on the table. She placed the bowls of sliced tomato and hand ripped lettuce. She spooned some homemade ketchup into a ramekin. Alan entered the kitchen and inhaled loudly, ‘That smells fantastic. Burgers?”
“Yeah! I thought you might like something…more conventional.”
“That’s really nice, sweetie. Not that I didn’t appreciate those other dinners.”
“I could tell you weren’t into the strawberry soup.”
“It’s not that I wasn’t into it as much as it wasn’t soup.”
“It was soup.”
“It was a smoothie in a bowl.”
“It was strawberry soup.”
“Anyway. I really appreciate this.” He kissed her on the temple and sat at the table. Lucy dressed the bun with a piece of lettuce and tomato. She turned the heat off the stove and placed the sizzling beef patties onto buns.
“Here you go,” she announced, “Topless burgers!” She placed the plate before Alan. He stared at it, a burger without a crown.
“What’s a topless burger?”
“Right there. It’s a burger, topless.” Lucy sat across from him with her plate. She cut into the burger with a fork and knife.
“Where’s the top?”
“This is so much healthier for you. Less gluten, fewer carbs, fewer calories. Do you want a knife and fork?”
Alan considered this for a moment and decided he was taking too long. Clearly he would eat it with a knife and fork.
“Yes. Yes, I would.” Lucy handed him some cutlery. He cut a slice out of his burger and put it in his mouth. It was good, juicy, a little red in the middle.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lucy.
“Nothing. Good burger.”
“You’re not quiet when you eat. Every time you eat a burger you talk about how much you love the burger while you eat it. Is there something wrong it?”
“No, I love it.” He cut another slice and chewed. He looked at her and smiled.
“Is the problem that it’s topless?”
“It’s good for you.”
“I’m sure it is. But how am I supposed to eat it?”
“With a knife and fork.”
“It’s good for you.”
“Just go with it.”
“Stop complaining. Try something new.”
“I didn’t say anything! I was eating my topless burger!”
“I’m going to eat it, alright. I’m eating it.” He cut another slice of his burger.
“Are you a prude?
“What the hell?”
“Because a topless burger is flirtatious. It’s sexy. We could have had a great conversation about public nudity and then maybe I would take my shirt off and we would eat dinner naked and then we’d have sex. But if you’re not into that then let’s turn a blind eye to burger repression. Let’s shackle our burgers with the patriarchy of buns!”
They sat quietly, deciding who would speak first. It was Alan. “You know…I…I’m into all of that stuff. The…uh…burger patriarchy thing was a bit weird…but the other stuff…I’m all for.”
Lucy watched him watch her. “Are you going to put a top on your burger?”
“No. I’m not. I would feel terribly self conscious about it.”
“Okay. It’s good for you.”
“Yup. I’m eating it.”
“Tell me you like it when you eat it.”
“It’s fucking amazing.”
“It’s a really good burger.”
WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION STATUS REPORT ON CONDITIONS IN TORONTO – 16/07/2014
AUG 8: Local news reports hundreds are sick, thousands in quarantine, creatures in the subway tunnels.
AUG 9: Doug Ford holds funeral for brother and mayor Rob Ford. It is televised. During a eulogy, Doug pledges to fix the city no matter the cost.
AUG 10: The Premier closes the city of Toronto. No one is to enter or leave.
AUG 11: Doug Ford refuses to submit himself to hospital quarantine. He insists he was not at City Hall during the five days previous to the outbreak. He hosts press conferences with updates from police and fire departments from Deco Labels office.
AUG 12: From quarantine, candidates release statements that Doug Ford is not the mayor.
AUG 13: City Councillors that are confirmed healthy are released from quarantine. Emergency session held in Deco Labels office appoint Doug Ford Mayor of Toronto.
AUG 14: Doug Ford orders the closure of original outbreak building, 40 Firvally Crescent, to starve the illness. The Toronto Star publishes an attack against the decision which result in the deaths of residents whether or not they are sick. A public opinion poll shows quiet but strong support for Ford. Police seal 40 Firvally Crescent
AUG 15: Provincial and federal MPs urge leaders to open Toronto, take control. The Premier refuses to reopen the city, declares martial law for the safety of Torontonians.
AUG 16: Doug Ford and remaining councillors cancel Fall election. Ford orders closure and containment of all TCHC buildings for two weeks. No major media outlet criticizes the decision. Situation on-going. Reports as developments occur.