Googatory

When I awoke with glowing, translucent hands, and hundreds of five-pointed yellow stars lined up along the left of my visual field, my first thought was that a dream must have made itself self-defeatingly obvious. I was a 63-year-old computer science professor. I might’ve been dying of brain cancer, but my mind was lucid enough that I’d refused hospice care, lived at home, still even met sometimes with my students, and most importantly: still answered my email, more or less. I could still easily distinguish dreams from waking reality. Couldn’t I?

I stared at the digital clock beside my bed: 6:47am. After half a minute it changed to 6:48. No leaping around haphazardly. I picked up the two-column conference paper by my nightstand. “Hash-and-Reduce: A New Approach to Distributed Proximity Queries in the Cloud.” I scanned the abstract and first few paragraphs. It wasn’t nonsense—at least, no more so than the other papers that I still sometimes reviewed. The external world still ticked with clockwork regularity. This was no dream.

Nervously, I got up. I saw that my whole body was glowing and translucent. My pajamas, too. A second instance of my body, inert and not translucent, remained in the bed. I looked into the mirror: I had no reflection. The mirror showed a bedroom unoccupied but for the corpse on the bed.

OK, so I was a ghost.

Just then I heard my nurse enter through the front door. “Bob, how you feeling this morning?” I met her in the foyer. “Linda, look what happened! I’m a ghost now, but interestingly enough, I can still..”

Linda walked right through me and into the bedroom. She let out a small gasp when she saw the corpse, then started making phone calls.

Over the following days, I accompanied my body to the morgue. I attended my little memorial session at the university, made note of which of my former colleagues didn’t bother to show up. I went to my funeral. At the wake, I stood with my estranged wife and grown children, who mostly remained none the wiser—except when they talked about how eerie it was, how it felt like I was still there with them. Or maybe I’d say something, and get no response from my family, but then five minutes later their conversation would mysteriously veer toward the topic I’d broached. It seemed that I still had full input from the world of the living, but that my only output channel was doing spooky haunted things that still maintained plausible deniability about my existence.

Questions flooded my mind: were there other ghosts? Why was I in this purgatory … or whatever it was? Would I be here forever? And: what was that column of yellow stars in the left of my visual field, the stars that followed me everywhere?

Once it seemed clear that I was here to stay, for some definition of “here,” I figured I might as well do the same stuff that filled my waking hours when I was alive. I pulled up a chair and sat at my laptop. I hit up The Washington Post, The Onion, xkcd, SMBC Comics, Slate Star Codex. They all worked fine.

Then I switched to the Gmail tab. Hundreds of new messages. Former students asking for recommendation letters, prospective students wanting to work with me, grant managers howling about overdue progress reports, none of them bothering to check if I was dead.

I replied to one randomly-chosen email:

Dear Ashish,
Thanks for your interest in joining our group. Alas, I’m currently dead and walking the earth as a translucent wraith. For that reason, I’m unable to take on new PhD students at this time.
Best of luck!
–Bob

I clicked “Send” and—part of me was expecting this—got an error. Message not sent. Email couldn’t cross the barrier from the dead to the living: too obvious.

Next I opened my “Starred” folder. I was greeted by 779 starred messages: each one a pressing matter that I’d promised myself I’d get to while alive but didn’t.

Dear Bob,
Hope you’re well. I think I’ve found another error in your 2002 paper ‘Cache-Oblivious Approximation Algorithms for Sparse Linear Algebra on Big Data.’ Specifically, in the proof of Lemma 4.2, you assume a spectral bound [har har, spectral], even though your earlier definition of the matrix A_i seems to allow arbitrary norm…

I chuckled. Well, I did spend most of my life on this stuff, didn’t I? Shouldn’t I sort this out, just for the sake of my intellectual conscience?

I opened up my old paper in Ghostview (what else?) and found the offending lemma. Then I took out pen and paper—they worked, luckily, although presumably my scribblings remained invisible to the living—and set to work. After an hour, I’d satisfied myself that the alleged error was nothing too serious, just a gap requiring a few sentences of clarification. I sadly had no direct way to tell my years-ago correspondent that, assuming the correspondent was still even alive and research-active and at the same email address. But still: good for my peace of mind, right?

Then something happened: the first intimation of what my life, or rather undeath, was to consist of from then on. Faintly but unmistakably, one of the tiny yellow stars in the left of my visual field became a blue-gray outline. It was no longer filled with yellow.

Excitedly, I clicked through more starred emails. Some I saw no easy way to deal with. But every time I could satisfy myself that an email was no longer relevant—whether it was an invitation to a long-ago workshop, a grant that I never applied for, a proposed research collaboration rendered moot by subsequent work—one of those yellow stars in my visual field lost its yellow filling. Before long there were ten blue-gray outline stars, then twenty.

One day, while I invisibly attended an old haunt (har har)—the weekly faculty lunch in my former department—I encountered a fellow ghost: a former senior colleague of mine, who’d died twenty years prior. He and I got to talking.

For the most part, my fellow specter confirmed what I’d already guessed. Yes, in some long-ago past, purgatory no doubt had a different character. Yes, it’s no doubt different for others, who lived different lives and faced different psychic burdens. For us, though, for the faculty, purgatory is neither more nor less than the place where you must reply to every last email that was still starred “important” when you died.

In the afterlife, it turns out, it doesn’t matter how “virtuous” you were, unless altruism happens to have been your obsession while alive. What matters is just that you free yourself from whatever burdened you every night when you went to sleep, that you finish what you started. Those unable to do so remain ghosts forever.

“So,” I asked the other polter-guest at the faculty lunch, “how long does it take a professor to finish answering a lifetime’s worth of emails?”

“Depends. I’ve been doing it for twenty years.  Hoping to finish in twenty more.”

“I see. And when you’ve dealt with the last email, what then?”

“You pass to another place. None of us know exactly where. But”—and here his voice dropped to a whisper, as if anyone else present could hear ghosts—“it’s said to be a place of breathtaking tranquility. Where researchers like us wear flowing robes, and sit under olive trees, and contemplate truth and beauty with Plato and Euclid, and then go out for lunch buffet. Where there’s no email, no deadlines, no journals, no grant applications, no responsibilities but one: to explore whatever has captured your curiosity in the present moment. Some call it the Paradise of Productivity.”

“Does everyone have to pass through purgatory first, before they go there?”

“It’s said that, among all the computer scientists who’ve lived, only Alan Turing went straight to Paradise. And he died before email was even invented. When his time comes, Donald Knuth might also escape purgatory, since he forswore email in 1990. But Knuth, alas, might spend tens of thousands of years in a different purgatory, finishing Volume 4 of The Art of Computer Programming.

“As for the rest of us, we all spend more or less time here with our wretched emails—for most of us, more. For one computer scientist—an Umesh Vazi-something, I believe, from Berkeley—it’s rumored that when he enters this place, even a trillion years won’t suffice to leave it. It’s said that the Sun will swallow the Earth, the night sky will go dark, and yet there Umesh will be, still clearing his inbox.”

After a few years, I’d knocked off all the easy stuff in my Starred folder. Then, alas, I was left with missives like this:

Hey, earth to Bob!
The rest of us have done our part in writing up the paper. We’re all waiting on you to integrate the TeX files, and to craft an introduction explaining why anyone cared about the problem in the first place. Also, would you mind making a detailed pass through Sections 4.3 and 5.2?

Ugh. There were so many slightly different TeX files. Which were the most recent? This could take a while.

Nevertheless, after weeks of … ghosting on the project, I got to work revising the paper. There was, of course, the practical difficulty that I couldn’t directly communicate my edits back to the world of the living. Fortunately, I could still do haunted stuff. One day, for example, one of my former coauthors opened her old TeX file, and “discovered” that I’d actually done way more work on the paper while I was alive than anyone remembered I had. The mysteries of when exactly I did that work, and why no one knew about it at the time, were never satisfactorily resolved.

Finally, after fourteen years, I’d succeeded in putting to rest 731 of my 779 starred emails. In the corner of my visual field was a vast array of blue-gray stars—but still, ominously, 48 yellow stars scattered among them.

“God in Heaven!” I cried. “Whoever you are! I can’t handle any of the remaining starred emails, and thereby pass to the Paradise of Productivity, without sending replies back into the world of the living. Please, I beg you: let me breach this metaphysical wall.”

A booming voice came down from on high. “YEA, BOB, WHAT THOU REQUESTETH IS POSSIBLE.  THOU WOULDST NOT EVEN BE THE FIRST GHOUL FOR WHOM I WOULDST GRANTETH THIS REQUEST: FAR FROM IT.  BUT I MUST WARN THEE: BREACHING THE WALL BETWEEN LIVING AND DEAD WILL BRINGETH FRUITS THAT THOU MAYST NOT LIKE.”

“I think I’ll take my chances with those fruits.”

“VERY WELL,” said God.

And that’s how it is that, half a century after my death, I remain in purgatory still, my days now filled with missives like the following:

Dear Bob,
Thanks for the reply! I’m sorry to hear that you’re now a ghost condemned to answer emails before he can pass to the next world. My sympathies. Having said that, I have to confess that I still don’t understand Section 4.2 of your paper. When you get a chance, could you please clarify? I’ve cc’ed my coauthors, who might have additional followup questions.


Note: To anyone who emailed me lately, I apologize for the delay in replying. I was writing this story. –SA

26 Responses to “Googatory”

  1. syskill Says:

    Still a better love story than Twilight.

  2. Travis Says:

    when I saw the title I thought this was going to be a horror story about purgatory lasting for a googol years or something

  3. Ray Says:

    ⭐ OMG. All my nonresponded emails, not archived and lost forever. How will I ever get a good night’s sleep again?
    By the way, that bit about Peano axioms in chapter 2 of Quantum Computing Since Democritus, I was hoping you could explain in more detail the bit about….

  4. Shecky R Says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=If3SXJeZzMQ

  5. Mateus Araújo Says:

    You made my day, Scott, thanks for writing this story.

    I’ve just taken part in such an interaction, but with David Wallace instead of you in purgatory.

    If I might be a bit acid, I think that if you’ve writing a paper that can’t be decrypted by people working in the field without your help, you deserve a couple of years in purgatory.

  6. fred Says:

    Bravo!

  7. tas Says:

    It could be worse; you could be department chair.

  8. Cristi Stoica Says:

    This was so funny! I guess Bob was resurrected by the Google AI from his digital footprint. Just in case, I’ll delete my starred emails while still alive :))

    Since it feels on topic, I’ll self-advertise here a sci-fi short story I wrote last year, called Quantum God, I hope you don’t mind: http://www.unitaryflow.com/2016/09/quantum-god-short-story.html

  9. Bjørn Kjos-Hanssen Says:

    So was Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” the main source of inspiration?

  10. MyNym Says:

    A great application of Sartre’s ‘hell, that’s the others’ – congratulations, was fun reading 🙂

  11. Scott Says:

    Bjørn #9: No.

  12. gentzen Says:

    Nice post! On the one hand, a personal reflection and a description of some very real everyday problems (without hurting anybody, not even those who might effectively be responsible for those problems). On the other hand, a sufficiently general and unreal fiction, such that the reader can still identify himself with the hero of the story.

    The Kolmogorov option was darker and less unreal fiction, but also felt very personal. (Perhaps I make too many words for just agreeing with Mateus Araújo #5 and fred #6: Bravo!)

  13. Scott Says:

    gentzen #12: The Kolmogorov Option wasn’t fiction! Andrew Kolmogorov (Wikipedia)

  14. Another Nymous Says:

    Really enjoyed reading this story. There really should be more humourous fiction of this sort.

    Before the introduction of the Paradise of Productivity, I thought:

    Still thinking lucidly as a ghost. Paper and pencil still work. E-mail still readable (and presumably new ones still coming in…). Can still prove theorems. Dead so no actual obligations.

    This already sounds like paradise. I would have probably forgotten the whole e-mail thing and just go on to do research. Heck some findings can even be communicated back if circumstances were ambiguous enough. Of course, as explained, being able to ignore the e-mails so easily probably means a different kind of purgatory.

    That ending was the best part “I’m sorry to hear that you’re now a ghost condemned to answer emails before he can pass to the next world. My sympathies. Having said that, I have to confess that I still don’t understand Section 4.2 […]”

  15. Jack Kennedy Says:

    Bravo, Professor.
    There’s a message in my Drafts folder addressed to you that I’ve been working on for a couple years now. It pains me to press “discard” but I now see that I must.

  16. Scott Says:

    Jack #15: You’ve been working on an email to me for years?? Eh, send it! I just can’t guarantee a reply, is all… 🙂

  17. Raoul Ohio Says:

    If one graphs the ratio of incoming email rate / time, it might turn downward when you cross over, or maybe not: kind of a phase transition at the time of your own phase transition.

    Java 8 can help to avoid continuing to get further behind:

    EmailQueue myQueue =
    email().stream()
    .filter(me -> me.isGhost()).pitch();

    BTW, not sure Knuth is getting off so easy; Vols 5, 6, and 7 are not going anywhere.

  18. David Evans Says:

    Good story. But I must protest that no-one, in any period of human history, ever said “what thou requesteth” or “I wouldst granteth”. I think the best fit would be “what thou requestest” and “I would grant”.

    Also (picky, picky) a ghoul is an eater of the dead. Which you are not, unless there’s something you haven’t told us.

  19. Scott Says:

    David #18: The Lord speaketh in mysterious ways. And as long as we’re nitpicking, I wasn’t a character in the story! 🙂

  20. murmur Says:

    Off topic question: now that Trump has accepted Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, how can you still call him anti-semite?

  21. asdf Says:

    I think lawyers have a more practical approach to this than computer scientists seem to:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Email_bankruptcy

  22. Scott Says:

    murmur #20: There are so many layers of wrongness in that question that it’s hard to know where to start.

    But how about here: I never once called Trump an anti-semite. A thug, bully, racist, harasser, ignoramus, sociopath, fraud—yes, of course, but I explicitly rejected the view that he’s personally anti-semitic.

    What he’s done, which is bad enough, is to turn over a rock that the country’s anti-semities, along with its racists, xenophobes, neo-Nazis, theocrats, etc., have gleefully crawled out from under. He has an Orthodox Jewish daughter and son-in-law, but he was also advised by the white nationalist Bannon and refused to condemn neo-Nazis, and obviously the tension doesn’t weigh too heavily on him.

    Regarding the Jerusalem thing, I suppose like many Jews around the world I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s an obvious fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel (i.e., the seat of its government), and will remain so as long as Israel exists. So Trump’s latest international incident was at least prompted by his saying something truthful—which puts it in something like the 95th percentile of all the international incidents he’s caused! 🙂

    On the other hand, because Israel has so badly wanted the US to say that truthful thing, there’s been this game for decades where the US has dangled it as a carrot to try to induce Israel into a peace deal (which, of course, the Netanyahu government does need to be induced into, kicking and screaming). So Trump effectively gave away this major prize for nothing—which would count as doofus diplomacy if it were diplomacy at all, rather than what it obviously is, namely more red meat for Trump’s evangelical base, damn the external consequences. I would’ve preferred following the policy of previous US administrations, which is that Jerusalem gets recognized as the capital as part of a peace deal and only then.

    Note that I’ve avoided making any argument of the form, “you shouldn’t say that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, because if you do there might be violent protests in Gaza or the West Bank or elsewhere in the Muslim world.” Thankfully, that worry seems so far to have been overblown—but in any case, I don’t like giving in to blackmail.

  23. asdf Says:

    > it’s an obvious fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel (i.e., the seat of its government)

    I didn’t realize that but I suppose it makes sense. On the other hand it seems to say that if, for example, the Australian government rents an office building in Buenos Aires and starts holding its parliament meetings there, that Buenos Aires becomes the capital of Australia. I can accept that reasoning too, but it stops having political meaning at that point.

  24. pete Says:

    Thanks for the fun read!

    Like others, I feel the strange compulsion to post a link to fiction which I’m reminded of..

    In my case, this is classic R. A. Lafferty – ‘Been A Long, Long Time’ at https://pastebin.com/raw/d9ZXakAB – which was brought to mind by both the enormity of Umesh Vazirani’s email schedule, and by the premise of a little indecision and unclarity having some very long-term consequences in the present work.

  25. Scott Says:

    asdf #23: In case it helps explain, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) building, Supreme Court, Prime Minister’s offices, etc., are all in the West, Israeli part of Jerusalem, and have been since about 1949, a year after Israel’s founding. If you go visit there, it doesn’t look like rented office space; it looks like a capital. 🙂 More importantly, this is not a part of Jerusalem whose sovereignty is in serious dispute, except for those who treat Israel’s existence itself as in dispute. I.e. all the peace proposals that have been seriously discussed would cede at most parts of East Jerusalem to Palestine.

  26. JoshR Says:

    The metaphysical wall can be breached. In the horror novel “Lost Boy, Lost Girl”, Peter Straub wrote of a character receiving an email from the dead.

    I am illiterate when I dream, so your world frightens me. I would never escape purgatory.

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