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Greg Egan

ZENDEGI

PART ONE

2012

1

Martin stared anxiously at the four crates full of vinyl LPs in the corner of the living room. A turntable, amplifier and speakers sat on the floor beside them, their cables draped in dust; it had been three weeks since he’d sold the shelving unit that had housed the components. The records would be far too heavy to take with him on the plane to Iran, and he didn’t think much of their chances if he sent them separately as surface freight. He’d contemplated putting them in storage, as he’d done when he’d gone to Pakistan, but having already spent a month selling furniture and throwing out junk he was determined to complete the process: to reach the point where he could fly out of Sydney with no keys in his pocket, leaving nothing behind.

He squatted beside the crates and did a quick count. There were two hundred and forty albums; it would cost more than two thousand dollars to replace them all with downloads. That seemed like an extravagant price to pay in order to end up exactly where he’d started, give or take a few minor scratches and crackles. He could always just replace his favourites, but he’d been lugging these crates around for decades without discarding anything. They were part of his personal history, a diary written in track lists and sleeve notes; there were plenty of bizarre and embarrassing choices, but he didn’t want to forget them, or disown them. Whittling the collection down would feel like a kind of revisionism; he knew that he’d never part with money again for Devo, The Residents or The Virgin Prunes, but he didn’t want to tear those pages from his diary and pretend that he’d spent his youth entirely in the exalted company of Elvis Costello and The Smiths. The more obscure, the more dubious, the more downright cringe-inducing the album, the more he’d have to lose by excising it from his past.

Martin knew what he had to do, and he cursed himself for not facing up to it sooner. Normally he would have scoured the web for the pros and cons of different methods, then spent another week mulling over the choices, but he had no time to waste. The crates held almost seven days’ worth of continuous music, and he was flying out in a fortnight. It was not impossible, but he’d be cutting it fine.

He left his apartment and walked two doors down the hall.

At the sound of his knocking, Alice called out grumpily, ‘I’m coming!’ Half a minute later she appeared at the door, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, as if she was about to brave the afternoon sun.

‘Hi,’ Martin said, ‘are you busy?’

‘No, no. Come in.’

She ushered him into the living room and motioned for him to sit. ‘Would you like some coffee?’

Martin shook his head. ‘I won’t take your time; I just wanted some advice. I’m going to bite the bullet and put my vinyl on computer—’

‘Audacity,’ Alice replied.

‘Sorry?’

‘Download Audacity; that’s the best software to use. Plug your turntable preamp into your sound card, record everything you want and save it as WAV files. If you want to split each album side into individual tracks, you’ll have to do that manually, but it’s pretty easy.’ She took a small notepad from the coffee table and scribbled something, then handed him the page. ‘If you use these settings it will make life simpler if you decide to burn CDs at some point.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Oh, and make sure you get the recording level right.’

‘Okay.’ Martin didn’t want to appear rude, picking her brains and then rushing away, but since she hadn’t taken her hat off he assumed she was itching to get moving herself. ‘Thanks for your help.’ He rose to his feet. ‘It looks like you were going somewhere-’

Alice frowned, then understood. ‘You mean this?’ She took hold of the hat by the brim and pulled it off, revealing a mesh of brightly coloured wires tangled in her short dark hair. ‘I didn’t know who was at the door, and it takes me ten minutes to stick all the electrodes back on.’ Though it didn’t look as if any hair had been shaved off, irregular partings revealed patches of white skin to which small metal discs adhered. Martin had a disconcerting flashback to his childhood: grooming the family cat in search of ticks.

He said, ‘Can I ask what they’re for?’

‘There’s a Swiss company called Eikonometrics who want to see if they can classify images by flashing them on a monitor subliminally and looking at the viewer’s brain activity. I signed up for one of their trials. You just sit and work normally; you don’t even notice the pictures.’

Martin laughed. ‘Are they paying you?’

‘One cent per thousand images.’

‘That’ll catch on.’

Alice said, ‘I expect they’ll replace the micro-payments with some kind of privileges scheme. Maybe give people free access to games or movies if they’re willing to wear the electrodes while they watch. In the long run they’re hoping to get it working with a standard gamer’s biofeedback helmet instead of all this DIY-neurologist crap, but off-the-shelf models don’t have the resolution yet.’

Martin was intrigued. ‘So what’s your angle?’ Alice earned her living as a website designer, but she seemed to spend most of her spare time on mildly nefarious projects, like the ‘Groundhog Cage’ she’d constructed that made thirty-day free-trial software think it was always on the first day of the trial. Apparently this was harder than simply lying to the software about the true date; there were exchanges with distant servers to be faked as well.

‘I’m still analysing the system,’ she said, ‘trying to figure out how to game it.’

‘Right.’ Martin hesitated. ‘But if the experts can’t write software that classifies images as well as a human brain can, how are you going to write a program to simulate your own responses?’

‘I don’t have to,’ Alice replied. ‘I just have to make something that passes for human.’

‘I don’t follow you.’

‘People aren’t all going to react identically,’ she said. ‘There might or might not be a clear majority response to each class of image, but you certainly won’t get the same signal from everyone. Some participants – through no fault of their own – won’t be pulling their weight; that’s a statistical certainty. But the company wouldn’t dare discriminate against people whose brains don’t happen to go aaah every time they see a fluffy kitten; they’ll still get the same rewards. I want to see if I can ride the coattails of the distribution.’

‘So you’d be satisfied with passing as a low-affect psychopath, just so long as you don’t actually come across as brain-dead?’

‘That’s about it.’

Martin rubbed his eyes. Though he admired her ingenuity, there was something about her obsessive need to prove that she could milk the system that felt every bit as crass as the brain-farming scheme itself.

‘I’d better go,’ he said. ‘Thanks for the tips.’

‘No problem.’ Alice smiled, suddenly self-conscious. ‘So when are you flying out?’

‘Two weeks.’

‘Right.’ Her smile stayed awkwardly frozen, and Martin realised that it wasn’t her eccentric head-ware that was making her embarrassed. ‘I’m really sorry about you and Liz,’ she said.

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