Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I: contact

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Daisy slammed the keyboard in frustration. Instantly, a tiny multicolored spinning beachball replaced the cursor. Everything else froze.

“Yeaagh!” She gave the helpless keys another solid whack. “Fucking computers,” she spat, reaching for the reset button.

As it rebooted, she brooded over the dregs of her hours-old cup of coffee, hazel eyes simmering under a mop of slightly unruly brown hair. For a moment, as the screen winked silently black, she saw herself staring back from the reflection, almost a caricature of disapproval.

She laughed, impulsively. It was so ridiculous, scolding a computer. Your own damn fault, her fiancee would have told her; it’s just a machine.

Her ex-fiancee.

She scowled again, trading the cold mug for the mouse and opening back up the analysis program. Weren’t machines supposed to be dependable?

They’d better be, she thought, or she’d never get out of this post doc. Daisy’s research from this point on was strictly at the mercy of machines, all the countless hours of collecting and chemistry distilled into a few terabytes’ worth of silicon. She missed the excitement of field work, those first two years she’d spent traveling around the world, collecting microbial samples from wildly far-flung environments. Despite the trials, the sleepless months, the sweltering days slipping through sulfurous bogs -- the inevitable strains on her relationships -- those were the moments she still woke up remembering.

But her own career, like biology as a field, had moved on from the romance of exploration and observation to the cold tedium of mathematics; the Voyage of the Beagle foundering in an ocean of data. A modern Illumina pyrosequencer could generate 20 billion base pairs of DNA sequence information in a week, clocking in at 7 terabytes of raw data -- about a third the size of the Library of Congress. By the time she was done processing the hundreds of samples she’d collected, Daisy estimated she would have just about a dozen Libraries of Congress’s worth of information to sort through.

Which is why she was in the lab, at one o’clock in the morning, staring at a computer screen. No human could hope to deal with that kind of database on their own. They had to trick machines into doing it for them. That was Daisy’s specialty: knitting together bits of code, nudging and tweaking subroutines to separate the bioinformatic wheat from the chaff.

At the moment, she was having problems with a borrowed code module. She’d rewrite it from scratch later, but right now she just needed it to prove the concept. Or at least to fricking compile.

“For Christ’s sake,” she sighed, exasperated at the obscurity of the anonymous programmer’s code. No matter -- there must be dozens of people who’d had this issue before her. She’d just ask the Internet.

“Dear Internet: WTF?” She clicked “I’m feeling lucky!” and giggled, sightly loopy from caffeine and fatigue; it turned into a guffaw when a blank white page popped up, the words “I KNOW, SRSLY!” in block letters across the top.

Man, there was a web page for everything.

Heartened, she typed a few words describing her problem into the search bar. Feeling lucky? Sure!

Another white page with block letters. “NO RLY, DO THIS:” it said, with a modified block of code from the troublesome module pasted below. How bizarre. Her eyes narrowed as she looked over the changes, absently draining the last of her coffee. The code seemed reasonable enough, but--

She jumped as a popup ad exploded on the screen. Reflexively, she closed the window. Another blinked open in its place. Then two more. They were white, with block letters. They said, simply, “Daisy?”

She whipped her head around, suddenly feeling phantom eyes drilling into her. Outside, the lights of Palo Alto were winking out, a dark wave constricting towards campus. Towards her.

Across the street, the computer science building winked out. She felt the low hum of the biology building’s air handler click off, then the hallway lights, and then the office.

The only remaining illumination was the glow of her computer monitor. As she turned back to it, fighting the urge to run, a new window popped up.


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