Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

When the phone rings, it's a an actual phone.

An actual, plugged-into-the-wall, mono-functional, analog-only telephone. A rotary, telephone, in fact, an archaic bakelite rotary monstrosity, squatting on the kitchen counter between the bacon-grease-splattered panini grill and the stainless steel industrial strength vegetable blender, under the window looking out onto the garden, where the boys are pulling weeds and hucking dirtclods at each other.

I know these days most of the fixitkids on Alchemy's speed-dial have their Evokes routed through the CubeSats to whatever console or station they're hovering over.

I don't have that luxury, because when I'm teaching, I can't tolerate the distraction, and when I'm not teaching the boys, they're in the garden and need to be watched constantly, and anyway Rachel won't let me have display communications inside the house. Not even a nano-cloud display. She works with screens all day long, she says, tracking incidents and taking statements and filing reports and placing orders for removal or returns... and after all that, she says, she wants a home that's just a place, free of representations.

I stay home all day with the boys, teaching them their lessons in the library and then keeping them from savaging the garden while they try to raise up corn and tomatoes and rabbits.

I do have my shed, out back behind the compost heap, where I've got four different current systems and a dozen or so archaic ones, a matched pair of high-speed datalinks and CubeSat view-stations, a power-generator-exercise cycle, and a cot to sleep on when the occasional long contract (or, twice now, an Urgent Evoke) keeps me busy overnight. Mostly I go there to binge on hyper-connectivity on Saturdays while Rachel takes the boys around town for their visitations. It never feels like enough--I have to set three alarm clocks to go off at once in the afternoon, to pull me from my hyperconnected trance of observation and inquiry and data-tracing, and I always have to rush to save all my sessions and set the drives spinning down and get outside in time to chain the shed door and fasten the lock and sprint back into the kitchen to make lemonade. Rachel knows where I spend my Saturdays, but the boys don't--it goes against the ethos we try to impart upon them through the garden and the library. With mulch and dirt and math and drills and plants and poetry, we try to get them to fully invest in the visceral moments of our house and garden. The here and now is a shelter from the past, and all our boys come to us from pasts that chase them into their dreams.

My habitual escapes into the virtual world of information and representation are hypocrisy, and mostly our boys need a lot of simple (remedial) lessons about human relationships, before an advanced seminar in double and triple standards of adult lifestyles. Also, though the chain on the shed door is thick and the lock is strong, some of them would be tempted to try one more smash and grab and run if they knew what was inside.

Of course, the rotary phone on the kitchen counter would be worth more than all my screens and systems, at the right pawnshop, even with the light retrofitting I've done to fit in a modern circuit board so it can operate as a voicelink to CubeSat relays and CloudSourced applications.

The vegetable blender doesn't have any hidden extras, but it's worth a lot of cash too. I don't worry about it, much; if our boys were that smart about stealing and selling, they wouldn't have ended up under our care.

That antique bakelite frog trills a low and rolling chime, and I know it's Alchemy calling for me.

The first time I received an Urgent Evoke, I was already in the shed, working on a contract during Oakland's latest municipal effort to incorporate Piedmont. Two city councilmembers were paying me a pretty penny to get the Piedmont Fire Chief on board with their campaign. It was a very sweet deal, three months worth of pay just to analyze and exploit one public officer's history of policy statements, political alliances, financial reports, web presence, and social graph, and win them an endorsement. Actually, I suspected the councilmembers were paying me to keep me from taking on a contract for the School Board Charter Renewal measure. It wouldn't do them any good though; it's an open secret that I only take one contract at a time, but these days I've got a half dozen "graduated" boys who came back around after college, and were savvy enough that I could take them out to the shed and give them an apprenticeship in my "other job."

My interns learn realpolitik electioneering through deep web research, social graph analysis, basic cyber and meatspace hacking methods, security and counter-security techniques, and my idiosyncratic versions of praxis and professional ethics. I don't let them take on their own contracts until they've bought their own machines, and I don't use them for my own work. I pay them good money to find campaigns to volunteer for, and one of the oldest was working on the School Board Charter Renewal. I'd never have to touch the campaign, but I knew it would succeed.

So that first time, with the only issue I cared about taken care of, and the only issue I was being paid to take care of a foregone conclusion, I welcomed Alchemy's distraction.

Just as well; Alchemy's Urgent Evoke froze two of my consoles. Both had been running a specialized datamining browser with one too many efficiency tweaks. "Spontaneous function calls are the bane of efficacious multi-tasking, I always say," (when I want to be obscure, and at that moment it kept me from cursing so that's exactly what I said). On the unfrozen screens, Alchemy seemed to shrug in the snowy little video chat window, but it might have been an artifact of the static creating the appearance of shoulders under a dashiki under that strange mask.

That first time, Alchemy asked me to analyze a dataset from the Somali Pirates. Ship movements, freight records, crew lists reconstructed from CubeSat imagery, all cross referenced in database that could, theoretically, reveal to the hidden influencers who would be most interested in a "golden parachute" retirement offer, and could bring the largest number of compatriots along.

I said no.

"We need this information. You've agreed to trust my judgment."

No. And yes, I have, but No.

"The task is within your expertise, and the situation requires a resolution."

No. I'm not going to tell you who the most popular kidnappers and rapists are. A lot of the pirates aren't that kind of criminal, but the ones who can be bribed into retirement will be. And that's not the answer you need.


The stupid approach is to retire the worst. The smart fix is to hire the best.


Search the dataset for the crews with the capacity and character to become Somali's own merchant marine. You get a reduction in piracy, the people get the jobs they need, and the commercial enterprises that have been exploiting their waters trade pillage for a protection racket as the cost of doing business.


Do you need some names of people to do the analysis?

"You won't?"

You need someone who speaks the language. I don't. Translation programs are no good for this kind of nuance. And... You knew that. Was this just a hypothetical? A test?

"The Urgent Evoke is real. We've already done the analysis, but we need someone to run confirmations by the numbers. And we don't trust our datasets to people who don't see things... Our way."

The second time Alchemy sent me an Urgent Evoke, i was free of contracts and enjoying my Saturday afternoon in the shed, chatting with seven friends from college, and grad school, and watching newly posted episodes of police procedurals from the late 90's. Alchemy's mask emerged out of the wrinkled forehead of an angry detective Sipowicz, and assigned me a task I could handle directly. California finally had its Constitutional Convention, and had a chance to fix the budget problems that had crippled it for years. The ratification would be close, though. Alchemy asked me to find local candidates and ballot initiatives to promote across the state that would function as indirect Get-Out-The-Vote campaigns for supporters of the constitutional reform. I had all my graduates working on that one. Our proposals helped win the day for the golden state, and coincidentally brought in a wave of greener policies and politicians. And, not coincidentally at all, a few of those policies included the grant programs and subsidies that helped Rachel and I buy the houses on our left and right, and merge our gardens, and take in a lot more boys.

The third time, I was adding dandelion and grapes to the jicama, carrot and spinach in the blender, and about to call the boys in from the garden, when the Urgent Evoke was routed through to the rotary phone.

"We're going into Tokyo. I need you to identify some likely resistors."

I can do the after-the-fact, but for first analysis you need someone who speaks the language again. There's no reliable algorithms for rendering Japanese into English.

"It's not local resistance. I'm piping our dataset to your shed now."

Not local--you expect hostile NGO's? Or are you saying China is a player?

"Yes to both, but no. I'm sending you our dataset.
Someone's playing us against ourselves, and we need to know who."

Views: 61

Comment by Shannon Henry on March 11, 2010 at 1:32am
Bravo! Well written and engaging, with good ideas to boot.
Comment by Wasserperson on March 11, 2010 at 1:48am
Thanks--I started intending a three paragraph snapshot but the words kept coming...
Comment by Michele Baron on March 17, 2010 at 11:27pm
Quite interesting. Divide and conquer? PsyOps (hi, Pan)? Winners, point leaders, and -- what? Beauty queen phrases "we are all winners here? Eerily appropo to art imitating life, imitating... Good writing. I very much like the add-ins about the boys--life wouldn't be the same without children, reminding us that chaos exists whether we would open our doors to it, open our doors to run from it, or not... Are there reliable algorithms for translating phyrric victories into resilient solutions? Or will innovation and EVOKE persevere? I want a sequel, too. (like your low tech references, as well) Thanks..
Comment by Wasserperson on March 17, 2010 at 11:32pm
Michelle K: Thanks for the encouragement--I'll have more to say soon!

Michele B: I don't know how reliable it is, but there's research on collaboration, division, conquering and trade offs here:
Comment by Michele Baron on March 17, 2010 at 11:42pm
@Wasserperson, thanks. I will explore it tonight...
Comment by Brian Ballsun-Stanton on March 18, 2010 at 2:11am
Interesting point. Do you have any links for the tech you're talking about?
Comment by Wasserperson on March 18, 2010 at 2:19am
Most of it is conjecture/extrapolation from current trends. I don't have anything more informative than you'd find from a casual google or wikipedia search, but if there's a specific one you're interested in, I'll send you whatever source I have..?
Comment by Brian Ballsun-Stanton on March 18, 2010 at 2:33am
Not... really. Oh well :)

Have you read Borgmann? You seem to be describing a Focal Points ethic here.
Comment by Wasserperson on March 18, 2010 at 2:58am
For whatever it's worth, Brian:
Industrial blender:

Social graph analysis:
I expect good information to come from the UC Berkeley Social Network Study (search for it on facebook)
And I love using cmap:
Comment by Brian Ballsun-Stanton on March 18, 2010 at 2:59am
Ooooh! I'm doing something with social graphs for my Ph.D! That's useful.


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