Saturday, June 11, 2011

54/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Will It Go Round in Circles" by Billy Preston

"There's no way we're going to win," said Woodrow, looking around the gymnasium. It was filled with rows of tables and topped with various entries in the science fair--mostly creaky duct tape and poster board affairs, with a few three dimensional constructions of higher craftsmanship here and there. Woodrow, who had a dark proto-beard just emerging, and Billie, awkwardly tall for her age, her clothes and hair disheveled, and who was Woodrow's best friend since kindergarten, picked through the throngs of students setting up their displays. Woodrow carried several poster boards, while Billie carried a cardboard box.

"Oh come on," said Billie, her tone typically dismissive, "we're the only ones who've actually solved a problem of significance."

"Yeah, but it's too complex. They're going to think we just printed it off the internet somewhere."

"Well, we didn't. And if the judges can't realize that, then they're idiots."

"I'm just saying--"

"And if we don't win, we'll just move on, contact a couple of universities, maybe even SETI itself."

"Well...I just think we're going to get creamed." They passed one of several papier maché volcanoes. It was being set up by three boys that were slightly more popular than Woodrow and Billie.

"Hey Woody," said one of the boys snickering, "what's up?" All the boys at the volcano table burst into laughter.

"Screw you!" said Woodrow.

"Don't pay attention to them," said Billie. "They're the type of neanderthals that give neanderthals a bad name. Not worth your time."

"God, I hate my name," said Woodrow. "I can't wait till I'm old enough to legally change it."

"When you're old enough, you might not want to," said Billie. "Besides, your name is going to be on one of the most important scientific research papers...ever."

"You said it was just going to be the initial!" Woodrow stopped walking and grabbed Billie by her sleeve. "You said it was just 'W.'"

"Yeah, all right, chill out. I can change it before we contact the universities."

"Billie! You said!" said Woodrow.

"I'm sorry, I just thought it sounded more authoritative. Anyway, that's just little stuff," said Billie turning and looking around th gymnasium. "Where the heck is our table?"

"Um," Woodrow looked around, then pointed a few tables down the row. "I think that's it there."

They walked to the table and Woodrow set up the posterboards into two trifold presentations. The first one was filled with graphics that showed the problem of finding compressed data, and the second showed the solution. Billie unpacked the box. There was a stack of one inch three ring binders that contained the summary of their research. Those were for the judges to read. Then there was a five inch binder filled with printed out graphs of the data packets they analyzed. Finally she unpacked a beat-up laptop so she could show the judges an animation, as well as the programs she wrote to perform the analysis. She didn't want to print those out because she was thinking of applying for a patent.

"Oh man," said Billie. "There's no outlets." She peered under the table for any sign of extension cables. There was an overwhelming maze of moving legs and feet as far as she could see.

"Didn't you charge it up?" asked Woodrow.

"Yeah, but this means we can't keep the laptop on for the entire fair. We'll have to save the battery for the judges," said Billie. "That's going to suck for anyone else who wants to see it."

"I thought you didn't care about 'unwashed masses'," Woodrow employed air quotes with his fingers.

"I don't. I just don't like the appearance of unprofessionalism." She looked around the room again and sighed. "God, this going drag on. They should give us chairs. Your graphics look fantastic by the way."

"Thanks," said Woodrow. "But you did most of the work."

"I couldn't have done this without you," said Billie.

"But it was you're idea. You did all the math stuff," said Woodrow. "I mean, you're totally brilliant or something."

"Well, you let me have your old laptop," said Billie. "And you gave me the idea in the first place, when you complained about video compression when were watching that pirated movie."

"Yeah, I guess," said Woodrow. He looked down at his sneakers and ran his fingers through his longish, unkempt hair. "It's not quite the same though."

Billie looped her arm through Woodrow's and leaned into him sideways, briefly. Then she disengaged, scooted back and sat slumped on the table, the toes of her shoes grazing the floor. Woodrow leaned against the table next to her. He milimetered towards Billie over the next few minutes until their jeans were just touching. They waited through the next hour and a half for the judges to make the rounds. They watched a tornado machine whirl a few rows down. They watched as a fake volcano spewed fake magma all over the floor, and as a janitor angrily cleaned it up. They watched a girl run down the row, crying hysterically. They debated about the cause of her display.

Finally the judges came to their table. One was the principal, an ancient, rotund woman with an affinity for beige pantsuits and colorful scarves. Another was the district manager, a nondescript man who was absolutely average in his averageness. The third was a man from the schoolboard. He had beady eyes and overly-moistened lips. They all appeared completely exhausted, even hostile.

"And what do we have here?" said the principal with feigned cheeriness.

"This ma'am," said Billie, gesticulating authoritatively with her hands, as Woodrow handed out the research summaries to the judges, "is our analysis of a portion of the existing SETI at Home data for compressed digital signals. Now as you can see here--"

"What's SETI?" asked the beady-eyed judge.

"Um, Wha--" Billie sputtered, confused.

"You know, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence?" said Woodrow. The beady-eyed man shook his head.

"I don't know what that is," he said. The principal turned to him, looking a little flushed.

"You know, Carl Sagan? The billions and billions guy..."

"That sounds vaguely familiar..." said the beady-eyed guy.

"All right, moving on," said the district manager brusquely.

"And Jill Tarter. She did more of the..." Billie trailed off as the district manager spun his index finger in a circle. "Yes. Okay. So basically what we did was analyze a portion of the collected data for signs of compressed digital data, which under current analysis methods looks just like regular noise." Billie smiled broadly.

"So what does that mean?" asked the principal.

"Wha--" Billie was confused that her explanation could not be understood by the judges.

"It means," said Woodrow, "We found signals. we found 'WOW' signals." He used airquotes again.

"Signals for what, dear?" asked the principal.

"Life!" exclaimed Billie. She was bursting with frustration. "Out there!" She pointed at the ceiling.

"Alien life," clarified Woodrow.

"Really..." said the principal.

"Yes!" said Billie. "Look, let me show you the algorithm I trained to recognize large-scale pattern in compressed data." She pointed to code on the laptop screen. "First we gathered a set of known compressed data and a set of nonsense data created with a random number generator. We trained it to recognize the valid data from the noise, with an eighty-nine percent accuracy rate, I might add. I'm thinking of ways to get that better, but it's still pretty good at this stage. And okay, anyway, then I set the algorithm loose on the SETI data set we picked. We let it churn for a few days, and voila, it came back with positive results on segments of the data."

"Okay, so what does that mean?" asked the district manager after a pause.

"Well, those are the signals. Look," she pointed at the screen, "see for yourself."

The three judges leaned into the screen.

"It looks like a bunch of squiggles," said the principal.

"Where's the Start button?" asked the beady-eyed man.

"It's Linux," said Billie dryly.

"What does that mean?" asked the district manager.

"Why don't you guys look over here," said Woodrow, pointing to a graphic on one of the posterboards. "You can see how the signals differ from noise. And down here," he pointed to a stylized star chart, "is the region where this particular signal originated."

"Yes," said Billie. "And it's got a class-M star."

"What does that mean," asked the beady-eyed man.

"It's a star like our Sun," said Billie.

"Pretty average as stars go, actually," added Woodrow.

"I think it's chatter," said Billie. "I mean I'm probably wrong, but the way the signals start and stop, I think it's indicative of chatter."

"And what does the signal say?" asked the district manager, with zero humor.

"Well, without knowing the how it was compressed, or if it was encrypted, or what the language is, we'd have no way of knowing what any of it actually says. With years of research, maybe we could pick it apart, but that's not the point our research."

"And what is that?" asked the principal.

"To show proof that we aren't the only intelligent species in the galaxy," said Billie.

"Hmmm," said the district manager. He turned and looked at Woodrow and Billie with a measure of skepticism. "I think we're done here," he said, turning to the other judges.

"Yes, we need to keep moving," said the principal. "Thanks for your presentation," she said to Billie and Woodrow. The judges put the binders back on their table and moved down to the next table.

"What a boring project," they heard the beady-eyed man mutter as he left. "Ah, another volcano...wonderful..."

"Unbelievable," said BIllie. "How could they not get it?"

"That guy didn't even know what SETI is," said Woodrow. "How does an adult, connect to the field of education, not know what SETI is? How could anyone living through the past several decades not know what SETI is?"

"Forget about it," said Billie, closing the laptop lid. What a waste. We spent like fifty bucks at the office supply store, and for what?"

"The printer ink cost thirty dollars alone, so it was more like eighty bucks," said Woodrow, shaking his head.

"We should have just gone straight to SETI or something. This was pointless." Billie leaned back against the table again. She crouched down and rested her head on the tabletop, then gently banged it. Woodrow reached out and carefully stroked her hair.

"I guess it was worth a try," he said. "I mean, we might not have done the project at all if it weren't for the challenge of the science fair. So what if they fail us or think we cheated or made it up or something? We still did it. That's worth something." Billie stood up.

"Yeah, you're right. You're definitely right," said Billie. "But why does school have to be so unfailingly demoralizing? God, I can understand why that girl ran out of here balling. She probably presented something really good."

"Yeah, probably," said Woodrow chuckling. "You don't want to stick around do you?"

"Hell no," said Billie. She reached under the table and brought up the cardboard box. She started packing up. "Let's make our escape from this awful crucible." Woodrow folded up the posterboards.

"Wait, where are you going?" It was the district manager.

"Uh, we were--" said Woodrow.

"Stick around," said the district manager. "I'm pulling some strings. I'm sick of volcanos. You two seem to have a relatively original idea, and you seem to have done some actual science."

"Really? You believe us?" asked Billie.

"I overheard you two complaining. Cheaters don't say those things."

"Oh," said Billie.

"I don't know if I can get you first place, but you'll go on to represent the district. From there, I have no promises."

"That's--that's great," said Billie. "But I don't think we need it any more."

"There's a monetary prize," said the district manager. "You can recoup the money for your supplies."

"Okay we'll stay," said Woodrow and Billie together.

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