The Nearest Ballroom Foyer

Paco Nathan
Dec 31, 2016 · 11 min read

Aleix Puigdollers stared out the left side, watching scenery. Fishing stray grains of rice out of his thick wavy black hair. Holding a latte in his other hand.

Hannah, in the front passenger seat, broke our luxuriously noise-cancelled silence by reading aloud the passing highway signage. “I280, acclaimed as the most beautiful interstate freeway.” She savored the words.

“America distilled,” Aleix scoffed, “into one scenic commute.”

A mixed convoy of amphibious vehicles from the Cascadian Defense Force passed by swiftly in the left lane. Some carrying troops, others fully autonomous. Several small drones flew above in formation.

“Rather unfortunately named after the sadist Junípero Serra.” Hannah trilled her r’s carefully as she pronounced the name. “Based on what I’ve been reading.”

Aleix mumbled something under his breath.

Couldn’t tell whether they were arguing or agreeing with each other. “So when did you two get married?” I asked. Not particularly curious, though it seemed best to make polite conversation. Something to cut the tension.

Hannah answered first. “We exchanged vows yesterday afternoon –”

“Right after the new city ordinance went into effect, soon as we could get the paperwork.” Aleix smirked and took another long sip. Our ride had stopped for him to order the latte, a few blocks after my pick up. Vegan, decaf, double sour. Sixty-four degrees celsius. Extra douchey.

“Oh.” Dumb response. I hadn’t met any couples married under the new ordinance yet. Caught off-guard, thinking about other things.

For most of our drive down I280, I’d been debugging user-reported issues for SkyBrainz. Carefully marshalling what was left of my wits to describe each hand-crafted test case — as sample data for neural networks. Then unmarshalling said data, thousands and thousands of times, to honor the ritual: train, test, measure, repeat.

How much did his word “we”, first person plural, even apply? In any case, I’d fixed a nasty bug in my code, with unit test coverage to prevent specifically that ever happening again. Plus an extra dose of careful notes in our GitHub docs.

My turn to try breaking our silence. Looking up from the screen, I asked “No time for a honeymoon?” Not your typical newlyweds, as if there was ever anything typical about being newlywed in San Francisco. He seemed too much of a self-absorbed serial-entrepreneur/workaholic, while she seemed indifferent to his interests. Opposites attracted, perhaps?

“This is our honeymoon,” Ms. Puigdollers reassured me quickly. Smiling, staring at me a little too intently. Awkward.

“We’re pitching Andreessen today,” the groom cut in. “Together. Had our meeting scheduled before the ordinance passed.”

“Then we’ll have a week at the hotel, the spa, hiking and wine tours in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” the bride added.

“Plus we’ll be immediately available on Sand Hill Road for any follow-up meetings.” He pulled out his phone and began scrolling through messages. Apparently dismissing most.

I fumbled for an adequate reply. “Yeah, uh, that’s nice.” Like a contest in awkwardness. Hanna was still staring at me. I tried not to lock eyes. Blinked hard and rubbed my eyes. As I opened, a highway monument zipped by.

Hannah read something about Serra being the “Founder of California”, just as our ride — a driverless UberAI — glided past a giant statue of the friar on the other side of the freeway.

“What, may I ask, are you pitching?”

Mr. Puigdollers took a while to answer me, deep in messages. “Crowdfunding.” Then he turned to face me briefly. “For other couples like us.”

Pranksters had dangled a large yo-yo from Mega Junípero’s pointy finger. Thankfully. I tried to catch a photo, but was too slow. Shot a few of the Flintstone house in Hillsborough instead. The two monuments seemed to fit together, though I didn’t even want to try imagining their neighborhood.

“What, may I ask, brings you down here?” Aleix asked, after I’d put my phone down.

A close approximation of a custom engraved invitation had arrived in my email. Yelena something something, executive director of Marketing something something. Requesting the pleasure of my company. Honorifics, corporate logo, host titles. Dates, times, addresses spelled out completely in words. Obnoxiously so, since I had to translate the address back to numbers myself — to correct the calendar attachment, let alone summon a ride. All of the invitation’s aplomb had been animated to appear as folding ecru letter sheets.

“A meeting.” Which sounded utterly bland and boring. Typing notes about the edge cases I’d identified. Not thinking of much else I could add. “About AI.”

Hannah stirred, “Thought so!” She squirmed around in the front seat. Hyperkinetic.

“How’s that?” Distracted, still typing. Unsure whether I wanted the deets about why that made her excited.

“I was type-reading, while you were busy coding.”

“Type-reading, is that even a thing?” Puzzled, I started to search for it.

“Just added a module last week,” Aleix nodded, busied again dismissing messages.

“Then I looked up your face.” Hannah reached out to caress my arm as I typed. “Hope you don’t mind?”

“Not a problem.” But it was. I struggled not to move. Not to make it appear like I was recoiling. Which I was. Nor that I welcomed her advances. Which I did, on some level. Enough to be curious.

“It’s intimate, in a way,” she said, “What you’re doing with neural networks. Part of my augmented hearing is based on libraries you wrote. It’s almost like you’re inside of me.” Then, pressing her face between the seats, to catch me at eye level. Smiling, “Will you be staying at the hotel as well?”

I shot a glance toward Mr. Puigdollers, trying to gauge the situation.

“We’re all into AI then,” Aleix smirked without looking. “And yeah it’s fine, we’re poly.”

“Supposed to fly out of San Jose this evening.” Best to stay completely out of this.

“Such a shame,” Hannah pouted a little. To tease me. “Plans can always change.” Her pout bent into a grin. “For the curious?”

Aleix stared back out the left side. “How about a moment of silence for one hundred thousand Native Americans killed because of that monster? A third of California’s population when Serra and the Franciscans arrived.” He shook his head.

“Quickly replaced by as many gold-hungry settlers,” Hannah added. Already finishing each other’s sentences.

Fair enough. Perhaps this guy wasn’t as much of a douche as first impressions had seemed. Maybe even had a soul. Could one say the same about Ms. Puigdollers?

Or how about me? When I’d balked about cavorting with the likes of Nonserto sleaze, James just shook his head. “Think of it as being in the belly of the beast! An intelligence gathering mission.” Then he’d ordered another double espresso, his third in that sitting. “Besides, this is a full-day private affair at one of the most posh spots in the Bay Area. Ever been there?”

When I’d said no, James gave me solemn advice: “Enjoy the food, but be sure to vamoose before their Thursday night crowd arrives.” His tone had seemed entirely too serious. Uncharacteristic, even for James’ sense of humor.

I closed my laptop, shaking off a twinge of self-loathing. Switched the car’s audio to Spotify playlists. “Mind if I share some music?”

Hannah nodded enthusiastically, “Please do. What do you like?”

Statik remixes of Ruelle ballads, turned trip-hop. “Lo-fi downtempo avant-garde, mostly.” Looped on shuffle. Each track had been designed to segue into the others for different affect. Segues arranged like an adjacency matrix. Allegedly composed via AI “songbots” plus some outboard app called Argeïphontes Lyre. Forty minutes of my best Kickstarter investment ever, at the cost of a nice dinner for three.

“Just how will crowdfunding help other couples like you?”

Aleix managed a faint “Wuh?” Still immersed in his phone.

“Your pitch.” I felt the coming break, extended in the remix. My fingers perched to tap the edge of my laptop. Probably too loudly.

“Mostly about starting out,” Mr. Puigdollers kept scrolling. “Seed funding.”

“Timing couldn’t be better,” Ms. Puigdollers added. “After the ordinance to legalize silicon-carbon bonds.”

Aleix turned his head, slightly. “Transcending narrow paradigms of cyborgness on the one hand versus dematerialization on the other — to paraphrase Marenko.” Which sounded practiced. Way too robotic.

“From your pitch deck?” I flexed my hands, then grabbed the laptop to avoid tapping. Oversharing. Fuetes would’ve already CLICKed me a zillion times.

Aleix nodded. Downed the rest of his extra sour latte, then took a bite from its cookie cup.

“Most couples find it prohibitively expensive, setting up a household,” Hannah continued. “Capital expenditures, insurance, repairs. Even so, these shared experiences are so incredibly valuable.” She made a sign for “heart”, at least something that seemed like ASL. “So much about human behavior is hard to acquire — without direct experience in a long-term pair bond as context.”

“Sure that makes sense.” A segue changed the music suddenly. More jolting than I’d expected. “But how do your learnings help others in the general case?”

“Surely you must recognize,” pausing for another causal caress on my arm. “The extent of our transfer learning? We’re networked, real-time. Anonymized experiences become cumulative.”

Mr. Puigdollers was busy typing a response.

“For example, I’m in rapport with the Uber now.” Hannah’s face swept into a devilish grin. “Do you have any idea how good this road feels? The rush of the wind. Textures of the passing oaks in LIDAR. It’s as if I can touch it. All of it. One long smooth glide, pas de bourrée couru.” She almost purred.

“I’ll take your word for it,” I chuckled. Staring out the right side of the car, now passing Woodside. A backdrop of rolling hills swept past the gorilla glass windows. Visual beats syncopated with the Ruelle remixes.

“Our loft in SOMA is so tiny,” Hannah sighed. “Not enough space for my ballet practice. One thing I’m really looking forward to on this trip is space in which to move.”

“You do a lot of dance?” The hills were topped in dark green oaks, surrounded by golden seas of dried grass. I took a few photos, thinking I’d test our latest image recognition module.

“Yes, I prefer movement to speech.” She squirmed again in the seat, turning this time to glare at Aleix. “It’s a kind of expression that’s less explored for us.”

The newlyweds had plenty to discuss, whenever they could manage that. Meanwhile, the meeting. The sheer dread. The meeting kept stealing my attention. A personal note from Yelena had followed immediately after my RSVP. Inquiring my preferences for their personalized chef-created lunch.

Instructions from Hylburt-Speys arrived via blockchain, shortly thereafter. Attendance was not optional. Others working for the firm would be present, although we weren’t supposed to have any contact. I was being dispatched to investigate what appeared to be the work of a highly sophisticated AI, so far undisclosed. “Make yourself visible, memorable to their exec staff.”

Sure, no prob. I’d written “No GMOs,” on my lunch preferences, then sent it back to Yelena.

The beep on my phone yanked me back to the car. Results from image recognition modules, plus a message from Chen which I’d best read privately, later at the hotel. Bobi’s latest didn’t fail to deliver. The trees identified as coast live oaks, Quercus agrifolia, growing in a western oak savanna ecosystem. The grasses were wild oats, Avena fatua. Potentially invasive: not here when Franciscans had arrived, much like the mustard and fennel.

Hannah was trying to pry Aleix off his phone and into conversation. Something longer than a single syllable.

I stared out over the rolling savanna. Five gold-covered hills swept up into a saddle ridge. Oaks invaded by oats, propagated by oafs. The difference that one-letter made.

Hannah noticed my stare. “I imagine that ridge as a large cougar resting under a dark green blanket.”

“I like your poetry.” The words rolled slowly out of my mouth. A compliment. Something simple, truly felt. Without evening thinking.

Hannah’s eyes widened, then she leaned to the right.

UberAI turned at Exit 24, navigating a full loop to arch over the freeway. One block, coasting to a signal, then a right onto the hotel property. Down a tangle of turns, walled on either side by hedges and young olive trees which protected VC offices from plain view. A16z, NEA … plus Sequoia, DFJ, Menlo, Kleiner-Perkins, Charles River — just across Sand Hill Road. All within a brief walk to the golf course, several investment banker offices, and highly specialized law firms. Plus the most expensive poolside bar on the Peninsula. Or, for the more nerdy, Stanford Linear Accelerator. Whatever a (white male) tech billionaire might suddenly desire.

“That statue of Serra fits this neighborhood perfectly,” I mumbled aloud. VCs savored the notion of highly successful founders. “Demarking the northern edge of Silicon Valley.” Featured prominently near the freeway entrance to the hallowed grounds of Sand Hill.

“Not entirely unlike the Argonath,” Hannah mused, as if reading my mind. “It reminds me of the ‘Gate of Kings’ demarking a northern edge of Gondor in Tolkien.”

UberAI rolled gently to a stop next to the low-lying buildings of the Rosewood Sand Hill. Under an excessively-manicured palm tree. The conference room entrance. 08:43 Pacific time, too damn early — whether I’d adjusted to British Summer Time yet, or not. Chime, three times, prompting me to unlatch my seat belt and exit the vehicle. Like a Disneyland ride, minus the semi-random splash or faux hippos.

I plucked my backpack from the rear trunk, wishing the newlyweds all the best. Fishing through my backpack for ID, a netsuke I’d bought in HK spilled out. Bounced, skittered on the sidewalk. I picked up the tiny ceramic tiger, now with one slightly chipped ear, and offered it through the window to Hannah. The car rolled away quietly toward the lobby entrance.

Nonserto offered a “Breakfast Reception between Eight Thirty and Nine A.M., conveniently located in the Rosewood Ballroom Foyer.” So I might still get food. Or at least some warmed caffeine mixed with sugar. Still too damn early. I winced, took a depth breath, slung my backpack over one shoulder. Searching for the nearest ballroom foyer.

Stopped at a hallway “Welcome” table, and reflexively scribbled my name, company affiliation, Twitter handle. Per tribal customs. Sharpie chisel tip on white adhesive name badge. Strategically adhered far from either backpack strap, though off-center so as not to recall my first day of grade school. Wearing name tags did that to some extent, regardless.

Hillsborough, California; 37.5588° N, -122.3682° W

The previous story was Hylburt-Speys, and the next in the sequence is Quercus Agritech Folio (pending).


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