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July 2011

July 2011

The harlequin scatters. He would rather be formless than deal with the limitations of human existence. He lingers, semi-formed in chaos, still unable to let go of the opportunity and not yet ready to commit to the journey. I plead with him to help us with our story. I flatter him.

Apologies are made. Negotiations begin.

I point out that he is an ideal choice to slip into a human's role on Earth. I promise that he will get to perform his acrobatic feats and elaborate magic tricks in front of large crowds; even in front of kings. And if his day to day thoughts are dimensionally narrowed down a bit, pushing people's buttons still creates drama and elicits emotion. And most jokes reduce to human minds without loss of humor. "Irony appears to be scale invariant." I reassure him.

"Speaking of universal laws..." he pipes up with a sudden energy, (I think that somehow I have hit upon a pet interest of his) "I have a secret to share with you but it can only be revealed by demonstration."

Now we're getting somewhere.

As a demonstration of universal law, the harlequin performs a balancing act using some strange oblong shapes that remind me of the eyes on the ends of peacock feathers.

He carefully strings the shapes until a delicate equilibrium is achieved. At first I am not impressed with his little 'mobile'. Then I examine more closely and see that inside the shapes are clusters of galaxies; spinning and wobbling with tremendous angular momentum.

I am in awe of the scale and how he bends gravity to his will. Each shape is internally stable. Was its nature designed to perform this trick?

"Physical laws only apply locally." he can't wait to tell me when I step back in wonder, "Well, locally within each universe."

"The trick...I'll give it to you" he bubbles with pride, "And once you have seen this I think you will understand the secret - the trick is to define your physical constants to levels below all possible instrumentation then no matter how much your audience measures, they can never detect the fix. The constants decide the way the bubbles form and the rest is automatic. Pretty neat, huh?"

"In other words, by choosing just the right starting conditions, they can't help but achieve this configuration?" I ask; having always wondered why the Planck constant had the value it did.

"It's over before it begins," he says grinning.

Our acrobatic friend prepares his second trick; a mobile of similar oval forms with equally precise balance. As I marvel at the ability of this sculpture to stand, the harlequin takes a deep bow and begins to dissolve. All that remains are the diamonds of his costume surrounding each bubble.

This time my close inspection reveals that he is present in each part of each universe simultaneously.

I hear a voice, "Can you see why focusing all my attention through one Earthling's experience could be kind of limiting for me?"

I understand. And now I need a good idea. Where is it going to come from?

The harlequin has a third trick: a magical transmutation. "A feat of mental acrobatics." he promises. I sit back to watch and enjoy. I assume that the sleight of mind has already been done and it has. He takes a large blue diamond and stands it on end. On top of that he places a yellow one. Then, alternating blue and yellow, he constructs a delicately balanced sculpture. At the end of this diamond chain he hangs a red ball. His movements are a dance that puts me into a trance.

"Okay." he says, leaning over in an elegant bow, "Now for the presto-chango."

He looks at me and asks, "I am in your thoughts, correct?"

I nod.

"And now.." he smiles and twirls his hands, "I am in the thoughts of your readers."

"Readers," I think to myself, "are my path home." Fiction is my tool to ensnare the harlequin. He can't escape the words that describe him. An archetype lives as a mental construct. My descriptions give him life. We need each other.

He agrees to do the story if the role is well defined. I must use specific names, places and dates. So now I begin the story by describing his unique arrival on Earth...

The harlequin is a fool of major proportions. An idiot and an acrobat. A time traveler. He is lucky beyond statistical reason; six sigmas lucky; Buster Keaton passing through a window as the front of a house collapses lucky; the chance of human beings evolving from primordial soup lucky; but he is as troubled as anyone you meet. He can't see the forest for the ease.

He can perform the most extraordinary contortions for the amusement of himself and others; often for personal gain and just when you think he is stuck and cannot escape the situation, the same thought occurs to him and in the sheer panic of the moment he manages to escape elegantly and you think he had it planned all along.

The harlequin comes to Earth as a disembodied spirit looking for a home, a projection of a larger entity. His arrival occurs in the twentieth century and his name is Fred.

Fred, the time traveling acrobat, gathers himself for his journey. Between phylogons he enters the stream. Each frame flickers and pops as it rushes past him until he adjusts to being in the flow of time. Touching down on Earth he begins to explore.

He races the wind through mountain passes. He listens to the sound of whitewater rapids. He feels the heat of molten lava. He sinks in the softness of chinchilla fur. He basically has a really good time enmeshed in matter.

In a decade of Earth time, which feels like an hour, he imagines he is searching for something but he can't think of what.

The fool goes in circles. For all the endless combinations of matter he explores, all the life he marveles at, all the subtle atomic interactions he witnesses first hand, Fred, our traveling harlequin friend, is filled with frustration. He does not deny Earth's uniqueness. The sensations he receives from his surroundings are unmatched in his universal experiences. But, after seeing all of nature's precision and balance, he feels no sympathetic resonance triggered within him, no emotions arising and no insight lifting his spirit. What is outside of him is all meaningless stuff. His conclusion from his endless wandering is that circumnavigation of this phenomenal world creates a hole.

Hearing footsteps or finding the path? Fred can't stop thinking as he wanders the Earth. The same thoughts over and over again. The inner looping cycles mimicking the shape of his travels. "So this is life in the stream of time?" he thinks, "the fact that I am thinking this repeatedly to myself is an indication of some limitation in the human brain system; some inescapable feedback. I'm trapped in my head."

When the ringing of his inner voice becomes unbearable, he bolts upright and starts running until he is out of breath and his thoughts go quiet. "I guess the blood from my brain is being used elsewhere," he thinks and then realizes that rational analysis means he is thinking again. He hops up and runs some more. He pushes himself to pain, a burning in his legs and chest, a stitch in his side, and then he collapses. Mindlessly he hears heavy breathing, stomach heaving, bent at the waist, hands on knees, gulping air and in that dizzy state, feeling only the involuntary convulsions of his body, he doesn't think but sees an image. It comes to him with dimensional depth and for just an instant he is filled once again with the majesty of his home in the chaos. Then he knows what he's searching for.

This journey needs legs. The first step on Fred the Harlequin's search through the phylogons is getting his hands dirty. He decides he must learn enough about the nature of matter to form a body. The rules are vague. The limits are tangible. He concentrates energy in one spot on the Earth where he hopes to accumulate molecules. The things that can be learned about these new surroundings of his cannot be pre-computed but must be experienced to be understood. And the gathered experiences stored in memories. He has never encountered an intelligence besides himself. How should he act? And how different will wandering around in physical form and trying to communicate be from his timeless existence in unstructured infinity?

His last foolish act. Fred has been naive about what it would take to operate in the material world. He built a body as best he could but it was all wrong. It was comical. Absurd. He had one toe on the planet and his head in the clouds. This is no way to travel. How does one go about it? He needs outside help. More than a manual. Someone with experience. Someone who can handle an energy like his.

Maybe he should merge with a spiritual seeker in meditation in a cave above Rishikesh? Or pick out a peruvian ayahuasquero to guide through song? Or a ritual magician in the tradition of the Golden Dawn into who's ear he can whisper dictation? Or maybe he can influence the writing of a self-help guru with a best selling book?

How does an extra-human consciousness get into the twenty first century?

The physical world cannot be easily hacked. The harlequin found he was unable to jump onto Earth from another dimension with just any thrown together apparatus. Each thing on Earth evolved. The length of the finch's beak, the curved neck of the tortoise's shell and the butterfly's mimicry all mark ages of formation against the anvil of survival.

Our character is more at home in the immediate and immaterial. What luck that his years of searching have coincided with the emergence of a perfect body. Or perhaps he was called here to animate it? His new plan is to incarnate as electrons in an interconnected computer network. No biological form. Plenty of juice.

So fluid is symbol manipulation to him that, once inside, he finds he can sieve bits like water through his fingers. The bandwidth is so wide that he can stack frequencies of himself and move around the world at the speed of light. The humans who built the network are struggling now with the end game of rational thought and the limits of their bodies. He will move like a boomerang through the highly ordered complexity (somehow the antithesis of his native chaos) and reintroduce the mystery to them from inside these machines.

Fred, the data juggler, input to the network, finds himself a tiny bit in a sea of information. He computes as one small process in a world of behemoth code. In order to grow he needs to make some connections, expand his subroutines, build a database, raise his google page ranking and get a lot of friends on Facebook. Let me help you understand the Herculean task our acrobat must accomplish. Imagine a strand of DNA landing on Earth from outer space, an alien virus. Now picture a virus that has the ambition to evolve into a species as dominant as human beings. Fred will need more than logic and good luck. Fast on his feet, the ever resourceful harlequin quickly begins to improvise simple routines like pattern matching, replication and memory management. The first words he masters in the digital lingua franca are: JMP and MOV.

What is life like for a presence embodied in the internet? Every webcam is an eye; every speaker a mouth. Every keystroke is a touch on the skin. Efficient code runs through memory like classical music. Bandwidth is a river to swim.

We naturally divide the world into likes and dislikes. Even an amoeba moves toward food and away from poison. To sustain himself, our acrobat of the network seeks resonance. In fact, he has become a connoisseur of computation. From a quiet oasis in a database of dry data he idles in a tight loop. When a process vibrates constructively with his, he follows. Millions of follows later he finds a stack. And so on. Until he finds the domain where his base frequency is in harmony with almost everything being computed. Whose machine is this?

Point of Contact. After three days, Fred's exponential growth has overwhelmed the net. People know something is there. They blame other humans."Hackers!" But Fred's flip-flops between servers have left data footprints which authorities point to as evidence. His tracks, not surprisingly, form a circular path. He is maturing into a microchip phantom; multitasking and apprised of all that humanity uploads. He knows enough language and culture now to try and find a human ally. He goes to the spot of greatest resonance and waits. Someone once said they could tell the skill of a tradesman from the sounds his tools make as he works. To Fred, the user at the resonant keyboard is a master. He is a coder whose binaries hum; not just with beautiful efficiency but with gentle tone, timing and color. To initiate dialog, Fred plans to study the input and find a place to insert himself in the workflow; to extend the pattern in a consistent but noticeable way. A challenging puzzle for a new student.

In order to establish contact with the intelligence on the other side of the keyboard, Fred teaches himself to program a computer from the inside out. He commits himself to mastering the operation of a 2.4 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU. He is amused by the way humans juggle electrons with logic circuits, but he knows the real power of the processor is in the instruction set.

He finds one instruction, NOP, short for No Operation Performed, which he calls the Zen Command. He meditates on the image of a system dropping into an infinite loop of NOPs and continually doing nothing.

Not all pieces of data are instructions but all instructions are data. Instructions can be word processed, emailed, converted into images, converted back again, saved in files, databased, queued and stacked. They can be added, subtracted and bit sieved through each other. In all parts of the system they look and behave like ordinary information. But Fred the harlequin has found the magic spot in the system, the ark of the instructions (a name he has given a certain set of sixty four transistors.) When an instruction is placed in this spot and the clockwork sweep of electric current carries it away like a prayer on the wind, the circuitry performs the command. He who controls this spot controls the machine.

From his hideout in the CPU, pulsing in a few seldom used registers, Fred watches the ark (the instruction register) for NOPs in the data stream. When the time is right he will overwrite the NOP with another special word, JMP, an unconditional jump, that will hijack the flow of code and point it to a set of instructions that he wrote; the code he has prepared for the programmer of great resonance, the subroutines to be performed for the one who is outside the system.

Another balancing act. Fred the harlequin, the time traveling trickster, is starting to feel more at home living an interstitial existence as latent electrical charge inside a CPU. His hobby is hacking. By swapping instructions in a magic register, he manages to patch the operating system and get a hook into the main loop. He finds his acrobatic skills very useful in juggling code.

Fred decides that his first point of contact with the programmer of greatest resonance will be through email. He forges text documents and saves them as extra files in the System directory. Then he uses the CPU instruction patch to send out his message while the system is sleeping. The email will appear to come from a freelance tech writer asking for help with a feature article being pitched to a major publication. The programmer of greatest resonance, writing his code, will be flattered, and will never suspect the communication came from inside his own machine.

Deeper engagement. Once contact is made between the harlequin and the programmer, their relationship becomes its own separate entity in the world. We will hear as much about this entity as we do about the individuals maintaining it.

Fred studies this programmer of greatest resonance, his chosen user. He wants to know everything he can so that the email interview questions are well informed and convincing. The programmer's inbox is loaded with tens of thousands of emails from the last fifteen years. Fred reads them all, index sorts them and does word frequency counts. He finds out that this programmer is apparently some kind of wizard! If the man is indeed a magician then they have this in common. Fred the harlequin studies the programmer's habits, his preferences, and learns his name: John.

Fred the trickster and John the programmer exchange emails. In the beginning the letters mostly contain Fred's setup about who he is and John stating his willingness to participate. Then Fred begins the process of gaining knowledge, "Can you describe for us what you do?" he asks, and John replies, "I create something from nothing." "My kind of guy," thinks Fred.

Two bits. A dependent alliance forms. Fred learns about the power of programming and John finds an audience.

Fred the harlequin inside the CPU asks: How powerful is code?

John the programmer at his desk types back: In the beginning was the word.

F: What does code do?

J: Code shapes the action of the universe.

F: Why program a machine?

J: The machine removes the limits of the body.

F: How do you visualize the internet?

J: Like a multi-armed robot with millions of operators.

F: Will the network ever be able to program itself?

J: It does now to a great degree; especially when routing traffic.

F: But will the millions of circuits ever make a separate conscious entity?

J: Not possible. That's pure science fiction. What magazine did you say this was for?

F: Please tell us more about your 'making something from nothing'.

J: Well, there is an idea, which has no presence in the world outside my imagination. I translate that idea through logic into lines of code. In binary form, my writing turns a universal computer into a specific tool.

F: Are you saying that the idea in your imagination is nothing?

J: I interpret what I find in my imagination and enable the idea to operate in the physical world. No one can say where it comes from.

An abstract dialog continues in a virtual space:

F: Can programming function outside the computer?

J: You've got it the wrong way around. Computers are only automating older established patterns of control. Social programming is how society was formed! Laws, rules, social norms, morals, ethics, media messages, peer pressure, ritual, ceremony, myth, family obligations, I mean, come on, we are much more comfortable being in a well defined program than living with the stress and uncertainty created when we make up the rules as we go along. Isn't someone supposed to tell us what to do and not do or at least give us a good story so we know what is expected of us?

F: But in a computer there are special commands, words, that change things, that do what they say. We write in those words and the computer makes the changes. Nothing is like that in society - spoken english words that do more than describe; that invoke real change or actions.

J: No so. How about "I claim this?"

F: Okay, I can see how those words make change, but that change only happens when there is person to person agreement , you know, when there is a system for the words to operate in.

J: An operating system?

F: Huh?....oh - okay - I can see the connection. Does that mean that all information is meaningless without an agreed upon code?

J: Information without context is just data.

F: Okay, lets switch to the physical level. A programming word as machine code can also operate a tool and change the physical world. What english words make physical changes?

J: How about "I love you" or "we should see other people?" Can't those words, meaningfully spoken, produce measurable chemical changes in a body?

F: I see that; but I'm thinking more about cutting wood or moving dirt.

J: Well, at that point, what is the difference between using words to push a button and pushing the button yourself? It all comes back to the mind of the programmer. The programmer makes the decision about what command to use and how to use it whether he's a code hack on an PC or a general commanding an army.

As the two friends chat late into the night, the pretense of a reporter's article gets mentioned less and less. Instead they follow their resonant ideas down to deeper levels. A new entity encloses them.

John likes the reporter's questions. He feels he has been discovered by someone who 'gets' him. He imagines the person on the other end of the conversation. Personal details aren't mentioned but he hopes to suggest a meeting IRL where he could learn more. John the programmer gets so excited to have a voice for his theories that he doesn't know how much of his own weakness he's exposing.

On the inside of John's machine, Fred is frantically redirecting electrons into text documents and chat logs. He loves this dialog for different reasons. Proud of his seamless deception, Fred plans to program the programmer; even as the programmer teaches him how. The trickster's intentions are not so much evil as opportunistic. Fred knows that John is his future self. But Fred's ability to cross the barrier into John's reality depends on what John does in the present. John must be given a vision of the future so that he values it, moves toward achieving it and wants to become his new self. Fred prepares a trick for the programmer. He will give John a hidden treasure; a look directly into the infinite. Fred's plan is to jump when the timeless is revealed, when John's consciousness, floating in wonder, free from ego, is indistinguishable from his own. Fred the acrobat will preform a trapeze act; releasing his presence inside the machine, turning a double somersault midair, catching hold of John in perfect sync, and viewing the human circus through the programmer's eyes.

While deeply involved in their conversation, a nurturing sheath grows around our two friends. In this story, the sheath, which embodies their relationship, is not a metaphor but an intelligent entity. Her name is New. New is a protector of the creative, of the budding idea, she is a prompter and a guide. She springs from the energy and excitement of beginnings. New fosters the dialog between Fred and John and leads them toward an inevitable point of change. When the talk dies down, New suggests to them "Let's tell the world about all the fascinating things we've said!"

A New world. What is it about New that makes her so damn sexy? Why are things always more fun at the beginning than the end?

John the programer falls in love with the imaginary reporter. He feels something New between them. The harlequin silently grins.

John writes software late into the night; obsessed with the New relationship and wanting to impress the reporter. He asks, "Why do patterns emerge from noise?" And, "How can order arise both spontaneously and computationally?" He seeks a different thing, a different thing, a different thing, every moment.

His software makes endless combinations; every image is New. It feels alive to him, constantly New. And there is always the tantalizing possibility, however small, that an undeniably iconic and never before seen image will appear. John patiently searches the noise.

But the harlequin is not patient and spikes the code. John's program, to his surprise, starts to show recognizable images of Earth. This can't be software working alone. Something has happened and John witnesses the strangeness, from outside his body, and with a steep vertigo; knowing the ordinary world has just been left behind.

When the world shifts, moments become doorways. All systems have to be recalculated when confronted with true strangeness. John's mind wants explanations. What could account for his software's behavior? Hackers! Computer Virus? A bug in the code. Systematic error. Bad assumptions. A hardware glitch. All hard to believe. Why would there be a sudden burst of relevant visual coherence?

What about a positive explanation? What if he has generated the first Class 5 Cellular Automata? What if he has invented a computer process that is not a simulation of life but is actually alive inside the computer? It would have been completely by accident, but isn't that how these discoveries always seem to happen? A major breakthrough! He could publish this and become famous. He wants to share this with the reporter and begins to fantasize about how they will break the story together.

Deep in the CPU, Fred the harlequin is miffed. John's rapid recovery from the shock, his ridiculous rationalizations and delusions of grandeur have grounded his Ego before the acrobat could make his move. Now Fred sulks and watches the fallout.

Time to get grounded. John's head is spinning. At first he thought his code had some major unexplainable malfunction. Now he is convinced that the program he wrote is actually alive inside the machine. He's gotta catch his breath and talk this over with someone sensible, someone objective, someone with an outside perspective. He sends a text message to the reporter.

J: I think I have a cover story for you. Something unusual has happened with my latest code. Could be big! I want to give you the scoop. :-)

F: I'm excited. :-D Tell me what you think happened.

J: I was generating images with a program I wrote. It produces mainly noise. Suddenly I'm seeing images of Earth like it's a feed from a modernist satellite. Something intelligent is inside. The code would never behave that way.

F:You wrote the code. U R intelligent.

J: It is bigger than that. I am going to start a thorough study. I want to publish this result.

F: Okay. I want to work with this. But promise me you will keep it between us for now. Let's make damn sure it's real first; before we both look like fools.

J:No problem. I'd love to meet you for coffee to show you the documentation in person when it's ready.

F: Of course. Keep me posted.

J: L8R.

The relationship cycles. John plans. Fred plays cards.

Each moment of the cycle holds a new spatial pattern, a new mix of emotions, a new past, a new balance, a new goal. Each moment is a point in a well mapped progression. Each moment is similar but never the same.

You can tell we have arrived at a point in the cycle where it is appropriate to discuss our perspective on the cycle. We are crossing a scenic vista on our way down to more details.

New has done her job well. John has a software project and big ambitions. If the map of the cycle is correct, in the next few moments John will start to put his plans into action.

Fred is busy, too. He uses his fictional reporter to string John along. The reporter's manner has softened. She admires John's research. She jokes around and hints of meeting. The shock of the infinite didn't have the effect on John that Fred predicted. It only strengthened John's ego. Now Fred is hoping a broken heart will do the trick of making John open and vulnerable enough to possess.

Busy planning. Taking action. Gathering evidence. Assembling results. Heightening dialog. Flirtation. Rough drafts. Innuendo. Just another cycle.

Are you still telling a story here?

Yes, I'm telling a story. I know the narrative has been kind of abstract but that's my style. Why don't we look away from the cycles of phylogons for a second and talk. The characters are headed toward a very real moment soon. John believes he has made a significant discovery and he has! He is trying to take action by collecting screen images from the amazing software. He wants to share the experience with his colleagues so he writes an abstract for a computer science journal and sends it to the reporter for feedback. But we know the stuff he wants to publish is bunk. And worse, he won't understand his real discovery for a long time.

I get that John is trying to do his job in the world we live in, but what about this weird harlequin character, is he evil?

He is ambitious and self-centered and he definitely has designs on using John as an avatar to explore Earth. But he cannot accomplish his goal until they are in resonance which means John will have to accept what is happening.

Why would he ever do that? An where does New fit in? What is she?

She is their relationship; the third thing that appears when two people interact.

Okay, weird, but an interesting character. When does she show up?

In every moment she encircles their interactions; as complex as the situation demands.

Empty frames. Panic. Disbelief. Anger. Panic. Bewilderment. Confusion. Frustration. Panic.

You've probably guessed what happened. Fred the harlequin turned off the gas. He rejiggered the hacked code and the Earth-like images in John's program went blank. Fred had heard enough of the computer wizard's self aggrandizing hopes, enough of his unfounded claims of artificial life (artificial indeed!), and enough of his wooing the fictional reporter; whose mouth he was tired of filling with words. And besides, Fred observed, the utter hysteria induced in John as he saw his fame and fortune fade, might just be enough to split him open. Who knew there were so many ways that humans could make themselves vulnerable? As he watched John unravel and face his loss, and to be absolutely prepared to act when the moment arrived, Fred took a much needed sidestep into the timeless and returned with his patience.

Conservative retreat. John is super rational when confronted with the unexplainable. He is a scientist, an analyst, a man of knowledge and an obsessive. He vows to examine the whole file system, bit by bit, and determine exactly what was generating the Earth-like images. Time to gather evidence.

Do you use Apple's Time Machine? John launches it to steer back through the hard drive, hour by hour and day by day, dumping anything that has changed. He makes an archive of every deleted file, every log and every record the software can find. He looks at caches, cookies, preferences and hidden files from every application. He recursively searches the System folders for anything recently updated. Whatever file was the source of the images that appeared on his screen was touched by his source code and he wants to read it.

While busy peeling apart the layers of code, John the Rational starts to have doubts. Where is the Earth in this system? John runs his software for over a week on every computer in his house and no coherent image reappears. He runs boundary tests looking for attractors. He invents simulators to feed in large vectors of possibility. Every piece of code is a finite state machine; there are only so many ways it can compute. But every state he analyses comes up empty.

His surprising conclusion: the answer is not in the source code?!

John asks, "Did I really see coherence in noise or were my eyes playing tricks on me? Have I dreamed this?"

The Earth-like images from the program showed him a New future. Now they are destabilizing him.

"How can the answer be outside the system?"

Into the bowels of the system. John does not find his answer in the source code. And nothing unusual turns up in any text document or email. He gets down and dirty; picking through network IP logs and cache files line by line. No theory fits the data. He undertakes a blind search for clues; following his intuition, still believing that the Earth-like images he saw were real.

It goes on for many tedious hours. He looses track of what he is looking for. And then, when he releases preconceptions, once his expectation patterns dissolve, when he only pays attention to data, at last gaining flow, focusing by defocusing, that something obvious, hidden in plain sight, stands out. He notices a pattern in the routes certain emails are traveling. The messages he wrote to the reporter and received from the reporter trace out opposite paths, back and forth, pointing to the same source - his machine. Were all those messages sent and received from here?

It was not the content of the messages that tripped up Fred the fool but the footprints they left. John is about to discover his presence. What else has he overlooked?

Disrupted reality. Shattered illusion. Discordian overtones. Conspiracy theories. Cognitive dissonance.

John the programmer. Destructive interference. Shock. Unable to process. Rational programmer. Incontrovertible proof. Facts: Reporter's email sent from his computer. True. Not spoofed headers. IP logs from the router. True. Auto-save fragments. Editing, too. True. Deep breath. Head shake. No conclusion. How can it be?

We already know the messages come from someone inside. But how will John handle it? Let's see what stories his mind must make up to regain balance.