Rudy Rucker

The hacker and the ants


The Dark Dream

Monday morning when I answered the door there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets. They came swarming in and scattered to every corner of my great dry-rotted California manse. Several of them had video cameras. What a thing to wake up to.

I’d been tenaciously renting the place for two and a half years despite the fact that the Indiana owner (a Mr. Nutt) continuously had it up for sale. I tried to make it hard for people to get in to look at the house, and even if an agent did manage to bring a client inside, the place had enough flaws (termites, bad foundation, bad plumbing) that nobody had wanted to buy it yet.

Sooner or later, each agent gave up, but then before long a new Realtor would stumble over the listing and come bustling in, eager to make a fat commission- perhaps as much as forty thousand dollars-by moving me out. The one here today was a frozen-faced five-foot-four yuppie blond. She’d been here before. Her name was Susan Poker and she was blandly bent on making my life so miserable that I would move out to make her activities easier.

“I appreciate your working with us on this, Mr. Rugby,” she told me after herding her twenty-one agents in through my door. She wore a dark blue skirt, a frilly white blouse and, as a mark of rank, no gold blazer. She had a gold watch and small but heavy gold earrings. She stood on my front stoop, her sunglasses impenetrable in the bright April sun, her face a mask of peach and tan makeup with thin, bright red lips. She showed her joined teeth as a gesture for a smile.

If I describe Susan Poker so particularly, it does not mean that I found her attractive. My emotions toward her were the opposite of love at first sight. This feeling for Susan Poker was of such intensity that had it been love, I would have proposed to marry her. But as things truly stood, it was my fervent wish never to see her again or, failing that, to crush her like a bug.

Actually, I’d been feeling that way about lots of people lately. My wife Carol had left me two months ago, the bitch, and I was having trouble adjusting to life alone. One of our teenagers was at college, and the other two had gone with Carol, who was living with her boyfriend in a cheesy condo on the east side of the Valley. She had a job teaching English as a Second Language to Hispanics and Vietnamese. I’d kept the big house so the kids could still have their own rooms here when they visited or stopped by after school, but this weekend the two highschoolers had stayed with Carol, the brats. Being all alone, I’d hacked all day every day as usual. Sleep was the only slack I ever had, and Susan Poker had woken me up too early.

“Why did you bring so many agents?” said I, essaying a tone of testy befuddlement. “And why do they have cameras?” My personal robot Studly sidled up behind me to peer out at Susan Poker, and then whipped around to tag after our unwanted guests.

“Some of them are new,” said Susan Poker. “We’re using your property for training today. It could set off some networking. The property’s been so terribly slow to move… I think heroic measures are called for. And the videocams? We want to get a data base so we can give browsers a virtual walk-through to decide if they want to view.” Her well-shod foot tappity-tapped the metal lockbox that she’d recently bolted to the outside of my house, down on the ground next to my front door. “With the key in here, agents will be able to come and go when you’re not home. We’ll be as little bother to you as possible.” She rummaged in her double-jointed beige leather purse and drew out a gold pencil and a small notebook. “What are your work hours? I want to put some times in the listing; times when you’ll be out of the house.” She poised her pencil and glanced up at me. “Another thought. If I can get it cleared with the branch office, I want to set up an Open House for as many Saturdays and Sundays of this month as you and I can handle.” She scrunched her nose to indicate pluckiness.

“That’s impossible!” I exclaimed. “It’s all impossible. I work at home; I never leave. And I don’t want Realtors letting themselves in. And as for an Open House…”

“Looky out back, Donny,” yelled one of the novice Realtors, a lean bumpkin with a Western accent. “Thar’s a crick!” Far from a creek, it was a dry gully. This overlaying of idiotic errors onto my own perceptual space was insufferable.

“I have a rental contract!” I shouted at Susan Poker. “If someone wants to come in here, they have to call me twenty-four hours in advance, and set up an appointment. It’s in my contract! No exceptions!”

“Mr. Rugby, I’m friends with a young couple who are looking for a place to rent. If you’re unwilling to cooperate, I’m sure I can move them in here.” She turned huffily and strode to her idling Mercedes diesel, there theatrically to pick up her cellular phone. The really killing thing about this performance was that Susan Poker had not yet even talked to Mr. Nutt, the home’s owner. She was a plastic-faced scavenger with no moral authority to harass me.

The voices and footsteps of the twenty-one new agents went on and on. Several of them handed me cards, gave encouraging winks, or tried to start conversations. Though but larvae and pupae of the species Realtor, they were frighteningly reminiscent of the adult vermin. Several of them commented on Studly the personal robot, marveling at his ability to follow them up and down my stairs. They’d never seen anything like Studly before, and no wonder, as he was an experimental prototype for a product that had yet to reach the market.

Finally the front door slammed and it was over, though two raggedly linked knots of Realtors lingered outside, chatting. I went and dead-bolted the doors, lest one of the agents get the house key from the lockbox and come back in.

I headed back toward my computer, located in the sun porch off the rear master bedroom. Time to hack some more.

My current job was with GoMotion Incorporated of Santa Clara, California. GoMotion got its start selling kits for a self-guiding dune buggy called the Iron Camel. The kit was a computer software CD that was like an interactive three-dimensional blueprint along with assembly instructions. GoMotion kit software used electronic mail to order all the parts you’d need, and it guided you step-by-step through the assembly, calling in registered building helpers if you needed them. Once you got the thing built, our kit would load intelligent software into the vehicle’s processor board, and you’d have a dune buggy that could drive itself. Various models of the Iron Camel had sold one and a half million units worldwide!

GoMotion had hired me a year earlier to help develop a new product: a kit and software for a customized personal robot called the Veep. The preliminary design work was all being done in virtual reality; instead of building lots of expensive prototype machines, Go-Motion liked to put together computer models of machines that could be tested out inside cyberspace.

My contribution to the Veep project was to use artificial life techniques as a means of evolving better algorithms for the Veep. The idea behind artificial life was to create a lot of different versions of a program, and to let the versions compete, mutate, and reproduce until eventually a winner emerged. In certain situations-like figuring out the best way to set a thousand nonlinearly coupled numerical parameters-a-life was the best way to go, although not everyone in the business believed this. I owed my job at GoMotion to the fact that Roger Coolidge, the superhacker founder of the company, was a vigorous a-life enthusiast, actively engaged in a series of experiments with electronic ant farms.

The robot Studly was the first physical prototype of a Veep that GoMotion had actually built. Studly was a joy to behold, a heartwarming payoff for all the mind-numbing hacking that went into making him happen. He moved around on single-jointed legs which ended in off-the-shelf stunt-bicycle wheels. There were small idler wheels on the knees of these legs, so that on smooth surfaces Studly could kneel down and nestle his body in between his big wheels, with the little knee wheels rolling on ahead. In this mode, he didn’t have to waste compute time keeping his balance. Out in the yard, Studly would rise up into a bent-knee crouch, using arm motions and internal gyroscopes to steady himself. On stairs, the full glory of Studly’s a-life-evolved control algorithms came into play; he

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