Fish Fillets

Well I suppose we should start. Good afternoon everyone. I appreciate you attending the Data Informatics special interest group panel on this, the last day and time slot of our conference. Seeing that there are less than a dozen of you in the audience—just our luck to have been scheduled at the same time of the closing downtown pub crawl!—feel free to move your seats closer to the dais.

We’ve an intriguing pair of presentations for you today. Intriguing and, I think you’ll agree, perhaps a tad unsettling. My talk will comment on some accidental yet noteworthy discoveries my colleagues and I have made while applying algorithms to a parcel of the now widely distributed Earshot Logs that have been much in the news of late.

As you know, Invigilation Conglomerate, the transnational cartel specializing in covert global surveillance systems, was subject to cyberattack earlier this year. Before managing to secure its archives—databanks measuring by some estimates in the thousands of quintillions—a trove of random auditory packets found their way into the public sphere. These random ambient transcriptions—the infamous Earshot Logs—came from I.C.’s rather dazzling and sophisticated (some will say shadowy) eavesdropping surveillance modules. The result is a deep, deep well of random recordings surreptitiously grabbed from everyday people from all walks of life, captured and logged and archived and only now made available.

The release of these logs gave our lab an opportunity to try out some of our new Quantum Scrivening software. With no other goal than to see what we might find when applying pattern recognition computations to this storehouse of recorded conversations, we discovered a most curious anomaly—a single, disturbing phrase spoken matter-of-factly, and apparently unconsciously by various individuals, and all at precisely the same moment despite being nowhere near one another.

Today I will present you three such case studies. Given the incredible detail available via Invigilation Conglomerate’s auditory and visual captures, I hope you’ll indulge me as I explore these instances in some depth.

6:55 pm, a Tuesday night, Skelton Falls, just outside Rochester, New York. Gordon Llewelyn Walpinger, Interim Regional Assistant Project Developer slash Tri-County Magazine Units Sales Coordinator for ConnectingUSA! Marketing Inc., steps onto the raised platform at the head of the room to address his merry band of telemarketers, part-timers all, with contracts signed by a colleague Gordon has only spoken to over the phone, Madeline “Well you better not call Me Maddy!” Crowley, one of ConnectingUSA! Marketing Inc’s Co-Associate Employee Transaction Resource Orchestration Managers, a woman who might or might not be Gordon’s boss, neither being completely sure, and whose path has literally never crossed his and not just because her office is located on the other side of their building in Industrial Park 14 Sector R but because she dutifully punches out between 5:15 pm and 5:35 pm every night whereas his shift does not begin until 6:30 pm.

The room has four rows of tables, two tables to a row, a central aisle dividing the room. Three workers to a table, all twenty-four facing the front of the room. Before each person is telephone unit, a script binder standing upright on a little stand, an iPod containing thousands of names and telephone numbers routed directly to the phone unit, and a metal green hotel counter bell which the telemarketers are expected to ding each time they make a sale followed by additional dings for the number of units they have just sold. Some magazines are only worth a quarter unit, like Baseball Digest, whereas others, like Life, can be worth as much as two, and so it’s one additional ding for a quarter, two for a half, three extra dings for a one and, for those lucky enough to sell two units (though as Gordon Llewelyn Walpinger is fond of declaring in a faux whisper to the room at least once a day, “luck ain’t got nothin to do with nothin, people!”), five extra dings.

This is the cue for everyone in the room to enthusiastically call out in unison the name of the employee who made the sale, and woe to the employee who fails to show the necessary enthusiasm, as demonstrating Team Spirit and Collegial Support is not only high on Gordon’s list but at the very top, he being a firm believer in the power of Showing Respect for Your Colleagues Because We’re All in This Together to generate maximum revenue. Each new employee has four days to remember the names of her coworkers and is tested on the fifth day in a “lighthearted contest—we’re all friends here!” where she stands in front of the room, her back to the white board upon which all names are written, and attempts to place names to faces. If no more than 0-2 names are forgotten or misremembered this means Gordon orders lunchtime pizza for all. If 3-4 mistakes are made there is still pizza, just none for the forgetful employee. 5 or more errors means that there will be no pizza. It’s a bonding activity, Gordon reminds.

After a sale is made Gordon, who patrols the aisles constantly, leaps to the platform at the front of the room and writes on a white board next to the dinging employee’s name the number of units. In this way all can see who is selling the most at any given time. At the end of the week the names are rearranged on the board in order of most units sold; the top three people with the highest number of units are allowed to spend the following week sitting at The Special Table at the front of the room which has big pleather chairs.

Employees receive minimum wage but if they sell above a certain number of units they can make commission. This is averaged out over the week so that if a worker sells a lot of Life magazines one night but only a handful of Baseball Digests the next few nights, any extra profit she earned from all those Life magazines goes away. This is why the workers as per Gordon’s encouragement must be On The Top of Their Game Each And Every Night.  

Along the rear wall is an aluminum rack for hanging coats and bags and in a corner a water cooler. Other than this there is nothing else in the room save two framed posters, one of the Grand Canyon and another of a man fly fishing at dawn, with accompanying quotes about “Excellence” and “Dedication” respectively. To the side of the room is the door to Gordon’s office which contains a filing cabinet, desk, swivel chair, waste basket, computer printer (though no computer), phone, and a stack of manuals and catalogs in disarray on the floor. There is a window in the wall between this office and the main room that allows Gordon, when he is sitting in there, to look out onto his team.

Gordon does not spend much time in the office. Instead he stands before his employees at the front of the room or he walks up and down the center aisle or stands in the back of the room pitching his voice at the backs of their heads. Throughout the evening he provides a running commentary meant to inspire. A major part of his job consists of Pumping Up The Crew and goading them to Be The Most Awesome Sales Force They Can Possibly Be and to not only meet their quotas but to Strive To Surpass Their Efforts Each and Every New Day. Gordon Llewelyn Walpinger grew up in a religious household where his mother and grandmother took him to church three nights a week and where a charismatic preacher exhorted his parishioners to Get One With God Amen and employed the standard evangelist affects, wiping his brow with a handkerchief and holding a bulky family bible high above his head, eyes downcast or raised to the ceiling. He even slipped into a southern drawl from time to time even though all this took place in Cuttleburg, a small town in western New York state.

Gordon has self-consciously chosen to replicate the mannerisms of this preacher who half-scared, half-bored him as a child but now, through the romanticized hindsight of middle age, he has imbued with desirable leadership qualities and a magnetic demeanor. In fact Gordon, while not a religious man in any traditional sense, is trying dutifully to adhere to the somewhat redundant second and third Performance Goal Criteria Items bulleted on his Partnership for Performance Form that Madeline “not Maddy, ever!” Crowley reviews with him over the phone each quarter, namely: #2 Inspire employees to reach greater and greater sales heights, and #3 Serve as Sales Role Model for Employee “troops.” Gordon is sincerely inspired by the trust his company has placed in him to fulfill these obligations, so much so that he has to be careful lest he actually refer to his employees as his congregation or flock or even his children although this is how he views them. He was hired for this job in part because he used to be an assistant middle school football coach and has a piercing voice, uncomfortably high and nasal and which cuts through the air like a hedge trimmer.

Along the top of the whiteboard behind him he has written in red marker, “The Hotbox!” underlined three times in red erasable marker. This is his nickname for the room. Some of the workers, speaking among themselves in the break room down the hall and out of earshot from Gordon, who chooses to eat in his office, have another name for it. They call this room The Cheese Shop on account of the smell. They have pinpointed the source of the offending odor to an older female employee, or rather the handmade handbag she keeps on the floor between her feet, the contents of which remain a mystery.

Gordon is proud of his employees who are so diligent at getting to work on time, eager beavers all itching to sell magazines to humans living on the other side of the country and even as far as Hawaii. He is unaware they arrive early solely to be able to sit farthest away from the woman with the cheesy smell wafting from her handbag. On most nights two of the workers, college students, one in a sorority and the other in a fraternity, are the last to arrive and have to sit at the table with the cheese woman and as a result get a lot of ribbing from their coworkers when they sit in the break room or go outside to smoke.

Tonight at 6:55 Gordon stands before his flock as he does every night. He says Let’s Prime the Pump Compadres and Time to Put the Pedal to the Metal and No Pain No Gain and You Can Do It I Know You’ve Got That Fire In Your Bellies. He says Reach Into The Homes of America And Take. Their. Money, punctuating each yell with a fist pump.

When he first took this job Gordon gave short inspirational sermons at the top of every hour. He considered this his managerial signature. He imagined himself the equivalent of a warm-up act before the main event, the main event in this case being his crew seeking to persuade potential customers to renew subscriptions during their dinner hour. Over time however he realized that, as his workers’ leader, mentor, and guide, he himself was to some degree the main act, or at least a stimulant necessary for the success of his charges. His monologues grew longer, more intense, lasting ten minutes or more. He came to view The Hotbox as a rhetorical laboratory to try out various incitements and gauge their effect upon the number and frequency of sales. Much of his monologue is filled with quotes from a volume he had found in his desk drawer, A Compendium of Motivational Phraseology for Management Leaders, a resource providing him with a wealth of material. At first he had used this volume the way a preacher might, as a prop—waving the testament in the air to punctuate his words, opening it and quoting at random when the spirit moved him. But over time he became comfortable enough with the text that he dispensed with the volume. He would recount quotations as best he could from memory, further enhancing their effect through a degree of tweaking and remixing. Because his workers were all immersed in their tasks, each busy pleading in earnest and insistent voices into their phones to women in housecoats standing in kitchens, or to gravediggers watching television, or to road crew employees interrupted while giving birthday parties to their daughters, or even, every so often, to other part-time telemarketers trying to nap in their apartments on a night off, Gordon knew that the purpose of his performance was primarily atmospheric. It was not the words themselves that had their magical effect but the flow, the streaming discharge.

Gordon: A wise man named Aristotle once said Excellence is a habit people. He who hesitates loses the early worm my friends so strike before that iron gets cold. Because and take it from me you want to build that castle in the air don’t you and be master of your own pocketbook. Who’s master of your fate well you’re looking at him my friend. Right there in the mirror. He’s right there staring back at you. Or her. Her too. All of you I mean. You’re all captains on this road of life so leave no stone unturned or ha ha in this case no phone number. Happy are those who dream and pay up front to make those dreams come alive. No guts no glory and don’t you ever forget it people. Because the difference between somebody who’s successful and somebody who isn’t is the successful person gets back on that horse where the winning formula is. You will learn the most from your unhappy customers. They are the rungs you step on so as to climb to the top…

Lately however Gordon had begun peppering his motivational comments with phrases entirely of his own construction, sandwiching them between the chestnuts. And on this particular evening, at 6:55, in between Remember that early bird people and how he got that worm, and Don’t ever forget that what your brain can conceive your mind can achieve too, Gordon inserts this: When the Gray Lords come, we shall be filleted as fish, and fed to their young. A phrase he has never used before nor will again, and in fact, he is not even aware that he has said it, so immersed is he in his delivery.

4:55 pm, the same Tuesday night, 1989, Carter County, Montana, Mountain Daylight time. Tommy Red Saddle, a powerline technician, is in his cherry picker making adjustments to a capacitor bank on route 7 a few miles south of Medicine Rocks Ranch. He and other linemen have spent the better part of the day inspecting transformers throughout the area in hopes of assessing a series of irregular fluctuations reported across the local grid. As he stands in the insulated bucket, rubber gloves on, he recalls a conversation he had had with his brother Fred the night before. Tommy had mentioned he’d be spending the day out in Medicine Rocks territory, and Fred had jokingly told his brother to watch out for the dwarves (the area being full of dwarf mythology). As he reaches for a cable, Tommy automatically and unthinkingly mumbles, as he often does when working with electrical components powerful enough to cook his innards, his good luck mantra, but instead out comes this: When the Gray Lords come, we shall be filleted as fish, and fed to their young. He is apparently unaware of what he says, his thoughts directed elsewhere, likely conjuring visions of the vicious little dwarves his clan believes haunt the area, they of the bulbous heads and razor sharp teeth who would as soon tear the heart from your ribcage as they would look at you.

At 3:55 (Pacific Daylight Time) pm on the same Tuesday night in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Charles “Richie” Neidermeyer, age eleven, is being home schooled at the dining room table by his mother Harmony. One might say Harmony Neidermeyer’s interpretation of home schooling is relaxed; she allows the child to read and draw throughout the day, broken up with frequent walks to find rocks and bugs. This is fine by Richie who much enjoys reading, writing, and looking for rocks as well as bugs. At this moment he is drawing a robot. The robot has wires shooting out of his arms into the grass at his feet. Richie draws a yellow zap of electricity going from the robot’s brain, which is blue and housed in a glass jar on top of his head, into the grass, and as he does so he chants in a sing-songy voice, When the Gray Lords come, we shall be filleted as fish, and fed to their young. His mother, also sitting at the table engrossed in a magazine, asks What’s that honey? and Richie asks May I have some buttered toast mother to which Harmony replies Of course sweetheart.

Well now. Three disparate slices of life, each connected by nothing whatsoever except a single phrase coming out of nowhere, released into the air and unheard and forgotten entirely where it not for I.C.’s mammoth surveillance retrieval network.

When the Gray Lords come, we shall be filleted as fish, and fed to their young.

What does this mean? Our lab has no idea to be sure. But one thing we do know, even more curious than the statement itself, is that this same utterance was spoken, as far as we can ascertain–we are still collating the data–no less than 8,732 times by individuals around the globe. In yoga class, sitting in traffic, harvesting rice, making love, and in their sleep. And all, according to the Earshot Logs, at exactly the same precise time.

This concludes the first part of our presentation. I’d now like to turn things over to my colleague Dr. Barbara Glückman who will now share data pertaining to another much smaller but no less intriguing batch of recordings, also harvested by Invigilation Conglomerates—a series of utterances in an as of yet unidentified language and emanating from somewhere beneath the Thwaites Ice Sheet, a.k.a. the Doomsday Glacier of Antarctica. First however I’ve just been given this note by our moderator to remind any of you who might have signed up for tonight’s line dancing that the event has been moved from the Fourier Lounge and will now take place in Ballroom C.

image: Fish Fillets, PickPik Royalty-Free Photo

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