• Cynthia

    For Steph, who made me write this story long ago, and for who I finish it now.

    This is a fairytale. There are no fairies or tales in it, but nonetheless it is, undoubtedly, a fairytale. One thing it does have is magic. Nobody casts any spells or concocts deadly potions simply because there are no wizards or witches to do either. What we do have, you might argue, is real magic. The kind that makes flowers bloom, rivers run backwards and mockingbirds sing with a thousand voices. You might not be terribly excited about such magic, but it really is better than wizard’s fire and talking dragons. But it’s not my job to convince you that—let the fairy-less tale do that.

    It isn’t a clear sunny day. There are no chirping birds or buzzing bees. Not a single butterfly dances across the summer blooms. No, not a good day at all. It’s quite a miserable day, in fact. There is no color to things, even the shades of gray still left are themselves faded and dreary. In the middle of this miserable day among the forests to the north and the swamps to the south, is a small house with a patched roof and a once bright blue door. The house is small and has only three rooms. In the kitchen, Mother bakes a chicken pot pie for dinner. We see a small table with three seats, but only two plates out. Mother likes to whistle while she cooks. Right now, she joyfully whistles London Bridge is Falling Down. Either that or Mary Had a Little Lamb; quite the mystery.

    The other two rooms of the house are bedrooms. The larger holds a large bed with bumbling brass poles. The bed linen is faded, its floral pattern long since unrecognizable. The walls are covered in framed photographs, all of them of smiling faces and better times. Centered and offset by its huge ornate frame, is the portrait of a man. He’s dressed in dark brown canvas. He is a large man, yet his clothes hang loosely on him. He holds a shotgun across his chest, confident, and wears a broad bearded grin—his teeth are stained yellow, his skin burnt by the sun. Only his hair, a dark yellow—almost gold—is well kempt. The jolly glint in his eyes reminds of Saint Nick, though this man seems apt to hunt reindeer rather than hire them. There is no indication of who this man is, though our readers surely have their guesses.

    The smaller room is, well, rather small. Near a tiny window, crushed against the wall, is a tiny wooden bed. There are no stuffed animals or clowned patterned linen—rather there are books and gray sheets. There is such little precious space that the many books are stacked by the several dozen, perilously balanced—but who is it that would sacrifice her bed to have a makeshift bookshelf?

    Cynthia Helena Wurmwood is not a happy girl. She is sitting against the edge of the bed, reading a book much too heavy for her skinny arms. She lets it rest on her bent knees and peers at it intently. If we peek at the binding, written in large block letters, the title, Fire’s Garden. It has wizards and dragons in it. Cynthia hates wizards and dragons. As we shall soon find out, Cynthia hates a lot of things. At least, for hating wizards and dragons, she has a reason: no wizard or dragon has ever visited Cynthia—she considers this very rude.

    She once, not long ago, put out a sign—neatly colored with crayons—saying “ALL WIZARDS, WITCHES, FAIRIES, DRAGONS, UNICORNS, AND ETC. ARE INVITED TO DINNER. WE HAVE SPAGHETTI (MOTHER SAYS IT’S OKAY).”

    She waited all day, but when dinner came nobody showed up—the extra plate had to be put away, the spaghetti put into the fridge. Cynthia didn’t cry. She went to her room and put all the books that had wizards and other such nonsense in a blanket and had mother put them into the attic.

    Sometimes, dragons and fairies would show up unannounced, frolicking through the pages, despite the books having titles like Being a Green Mother or Darkness Descending. Cynthia would grit her teeth and fume, but she never stopped reading. Maybe the wizard would die. A dragon could eat him. Then the dragon would have an upset tummy. Wizards must make disagreeable meals with all that magic in them. Most of the time, this didn’t happen, but sometimes, sometimes, fairies would lose their wings—this would always cause Cynthia to smile.

    Like we mentioned before, today was a miserable day. Cynthia hated a lot of things but she did not hate miserable days. We watch as she sets her bookmark and puts the book aside. First, she slips on the big black rubber boots she found in the attic. Then she grabs the yellow raincoat from behind the door—she’s hoping it might rain. Out the door, into the kitchen, two cookies into her pocket, and she’s ready.

    “Mama, I’m going out to the pond. Bye.”

    “Not today honey—look at that sky,” Mother said, staring out the window, “it could rain any minute.”

    “I’ve got it covered, mama. I’ll be back before you know it.”

    “No, I don’t think so, Cynthia. Maybe tomorrow, okay? I can make you a little picnic.”

    “Mama! I wanna go today, pleeease?”

    “Not today, honey,” Mother said, rather gravely, “don’t you keep insisting either. I’m too busy to worry about you out in the rain.”

    “Please mama, I have to go today,” Cynthia said, and her eyes welled up with tears.

    “No, Cynthia, not today.”

    Cynthia looked at her feet, determined not to cry, and simply—as always—got angry.

    “I hate you,” Cynthia said, and ran out of the room.

    In her room, Cynthia did start crying—she cried in frustration. We’re going to tell you a secret now, but you mustn’t tell Cynthia because it’s something she must find out for herself. Cynthia doesn’t hate her mother, nor does she hate wizards and dragons and things. We’ve said that she hates many things, but that was only a half-truth. Cynthia only thinks she hates most things. She expects so much of others—and even more of herself—and she suffers constant disappointment for it. Sometimes, the words “I hate…” slip out of her mouth before she knows it. For Cynthia, there is no going back on her word. If she’s says something she sticks to it. It is honor she has learned from the heroes and heroines she visits cuddled against her bed. King Arthur would not betray his promises, nor would Odysseus fail to deliver upon a pledge. This is both Cynthia’s greatest asset and greatest hurdle. For Cynthia, the heroes, the monsters, and the magic spells are all too real. With them, she measures the world and finds it lacking—no dragons ever visit her, no wizards stroll by on their evening walks, not a fairy has ever tickled her nose and granted a girlish wish. So, frustrated, she confuses disappointment with hate.

    So Cynthia went back to her room, careful to slam the door in protest. Still teary, she picks up Fire’s Garden and gently lifts her bookmark—a photograph of her mother as a young lady. Suddenly she’s sobbing quietly, swallowing her tears as best she can. She slams the book on the ground, climbs onto her bookshelf-of- a-bed and opens the tiny window. She’s calm now, looking out into the unbroken woods. With a quick swipe, she wipes the tears off her face, and climbs into and out the window.

    The pond was just a skip and a hop from the house. It was surrounded by tall grass, only occasionally broken by the deserted path of a deer or a hare that had stopped to take a drink. There were always a variety of bugs buzzing about. Their collective cacophony was musical. The pond itself was a healthy dark green, full of life. It was relatively shallow, maybe six feet at its deepest but very wide and long by a pond’s standards. What really attracted our particular little lady to the pond was the resident population of bullfrogs, who were always found lazily awaiting that evening’s flying meal. She found them to be good company, never too chatty like the kids at school, but never completely silent like Mother.

    “Well, good evening to you, sir,” she said, and curtsied politely.

    “Ribbit,” said the frog she addressed. Cynthia giggled.

    “Thank you. You look very healthy yourself.”

    She sat down, setting her raincoat neatly down first—so as to avoid a muddy bottom.

    “You know, Mother wouldn’t let me come. I had to sneak out,” she said, whispering the latter, afraid it might somehow get to Mother.

    “Ribbit ribbit,” said the frog.

    “Yes, Mother is very mean. She never lets me do anything.”

    “Ribbit,” said the frog in agreement.

    “When I grow up, I’m gonna be much nicer; I’ll let my daughter do whatever she wants. I’ll be the greatest.”

    “Riiiibbit,” said the frog.

    “It’s time for supper now, what do you think?” she asked.

    “Ribbit,” said the frog.

    Cynthia reached into her dress pocket for a cookie. She carefully broke it in half and placed a piece where the frog could reach it.

    “Ribbit ribbit,” said the frog, advancing on the cookie.

    “You’re welcome,” Cynthia said, “It’s a very good cookie. I helped my mom make them—we put in extra chocolate chips.”

    The frog flipped its tongue at the cookie.


    They both picked at the cookie for a minute, though Cynthia made a bit more headway.

    “Here we are having supper together and I don’t even know your name,” she said.

    “I’m Cynthia, Cynthia Helena Wurmwood; pleased to meet you.”

    “Ribbit,” said the frog and hopped closer to Cynthia.


    “Oh. Hi, hmm, Mr. Ribbitribbit,” she said, giggling softly at her poor imitation.

    “Ribbit,” said the frog.

    The sky, already a squalid gray, was growing black. The wind blew harder every minute—bringing with it a sneaky cold that nipped at your toes and nose. Cynthia, entranced with her new friend, had not noticed. The frog, however, had a particular gift for these things—a bad storm was coming. It wasn’t much of a worry to him, though it would be hard to catch dinner in the rain. The frog did, however, worry about Cynthia.

    “Ribbit ribbit,” he said and hopped up and down excitedly.

    “Oh, another cookie? But you haven’t even finished the first one,” Cynthia said, “We mustn’t waste food, especially cookies.”

    “Ribbit,” he said, “ribbit ribbit.”

    He hopped onto her lap.

    “Ribbit ribbit.”

    “Oh, my! You’re very friendly today,” she said.

    The frog hopped up and down in her lap and then made a good-sized leap to land on Cynthia’s head.

    Cynthia was very brave, but she was after all, a little girl. So, realizing she had a wet frog on her head, she screamed. The frog jumped down and began hopping away. Cynthia stood up to chase him.

    “I’m sorry Mr. Frog. I didn’t mean to. You’re very nice. Please don’t go,” she said, feeling miserable.

    The frog paused, turned, and gave her his rudest croak, then began hopping away again.

    “Now, that wasn’t very nice. I thought you were a gentleman,” she said, “come back here and apologize!”

    She only stood there pouting for a second before running after the frog, which was a good deals away by then.

    She chased him silently for a bit, her socks getting soaked from the forming puddles. Cynthia hardly noticed that it had begun to rain. She and the frog were running along the road, somewhat sheltered by the dense forest growth. Soon enough, however, she was entirely soaked.

    This is about the time that any normal kid would have thought about going home, and in fact, the thought quickly crossed Cynthia’s mind, but it was quickly discarded as silly.

    Silly was exactly what the frog thought Cynthia’s mother would be when she couldn’t find her. He wasn’t sure which of the houses was hers—though there were only a handful near the pond—but he’d figure it out when they got near some shelter.

    “Mr. Frog, where are we going?”

    Cynthia was no longer chasing the frog. She was merely following him because she was apprehensive about wandering on her own.

    The frost stopped when he saw a small cubby hole formed by a fallen log leaning against a giant sycamore. Cynthia followed him inside.

    “Ribbit,” he said.

    “Okay, just for a bit, I guess,” Cynthia said, sitting down.

    The rain and wind against the canopy comforted Cynthia—it was sound she relished, a symphony of splatters and drips and rustles. She was tired and sleepy. She’d only meant to be out for a little bit. Maybe she’d just take a little nap before heading home. As soon as she closed her eyes, the lightning started.

    The storm—as storms are apt to do—grew worse. What had been a cool breeze was now a bone-chilling wind; it whipped the rain under the log. Cynthia shivered, wrapping herself tighter in the yellow raincoat. She wasn’t afraid of thunder, it was just a big bunch of sound. She was afraid of lightning.

    “Mr. Frog, I think I better go now. My mom doesn’t like being all by herself when it’s raining like this.”

    The frog stood silent. Cynthia began to stand up, wringing water from her hair. She took a step tentatively. The frog leaped in front of her, seemingly impeding her pass.

    “Mr. Frog, I need to go home.”

    Cynthia tried to step around the frog, but he was faster than her and simply hopped in front of her again.

    “Ribbit!” he said.

    “I have to go home.”


    “Please, Mr. Frog, let me go!”

    “Ribbit,” he said.

    “Oh, why did I leave?” she said and began crying quietly.

    The rain continued. The frog began to worry; the girl was shivering noticeably. An idea he’d dismissed before he was forced to consider now. He’d take her to cabin just north of here. He hoped the old man who lived there would help but he was hesitant of entrusting the girl to a stranger.

    They walked north through the rain. Cynthia avoided the deepening puddles as best she could but her shoes progressively grew thicker with mud. She pretended not to notice the increasingly closer lightning. The frog leaped to and fro, trying to go slow enough for Cynthia to follow but urging her on as best he could.

    They arrived not that much worse for wear. The brisk walk had helped to keep Cynthia from getting too cold, though she did feel tired. She’d refused to panic, deciding to trust the feeling—though she knew it was a little loony—that the frog knew where he was going and that he wanted her to follow. When she saw the cabin she looked at the frog in disbelief.

    “Oh, Mr. Frog, you’re wonderful!”

    She began running to the cabin excitedly only to stop in front it suddenly. She looked at it sideways with a puzzled look in her eyes. Somewhere deep in place of her mind she didn’t visit often, she recognized it.

    The cabin stood tall, the wood black and brittle with age, blending into the black night behind it. The wood siding was cracked and dilapidated and hanging by a thread. Cynthia could smell the freshly cut wood pile sitting near the cabin. Despite the abandoned look this place had somebody did live there. Cynthia hesitated, uncertain whether she actually wanted to meet that someone. Yet something drew her to it. Something she couldn’t resist. She walked to toward the front door. Wood chips cracked under her feet despite her measured steps.

    The frog ruined her careful approach with a loud croak and then another and another. The door creaked open and the old man poked his head out.

    “Stop that racket, boy. Go back to the pond, there ain’t no dinner here,” he shouted. He looked steadily at Cynthia for a moment, puzzled, and finally scrambled for his eyeglasses.

    “You ain’t no frog! What in God’s blue earth are you doing here, child? And look at you, soaked to the bone and cold no doubt.”

    Cynthia held her breath, slightly frightened by this tall stranger. His hair was a neatly trimmed salt and pepper. He wore an impeccably clean white shirt and creased brown slacks.

    “Are you lost?”

    Cynthia nodded.

    “Well, come on in. No need to be afraid of me. I’m too old to waste time doing anything less than kind.”

    Cynthia looked past him, into the cabin. Surprisingly it was brightly lit—the firewood was being put to use.

    “You promise to be nice, mister?”

    “I’ll promise no such thing, young lady. Nice is something people do but don’t mean. That said, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of, like I told ya. I’m about as harmless as they come. Please come in. We’ll get you dry and on your way home as soon as possible.”

    Cynthia walked past him into the cabin, still apprehensive. She pulled the warm air into her lungs and nearly collapsed.

    “You too, frog. I suppose I owe you dinner for the deed.”

    The frog hopped into the cabin as well.

    “Here, let me find something you can dry yourself with,” the old man said, looking through an old armoire that opposite the door. He pulled out an clean brown towel and handed it to her.

    “Take a seat near the fire, young lady. I will set some water to boil.”

    Cynthia did as she was told, drying herself as best she could before sitting in a unexpectedly comfortable rocking chair. The old man hung a kettle above the fire and sat on a small stool opposite her.

    “Now what is a little woman like you doing out in a storm like this? And what are you doing way out here?

    “Well, I suppose the frog is responsible for the latter. Clever frogs ‘round these parts, aren’t they miss?” he said, smiling.

    Cynthia nodded, smiling back.


    “I got lost on my way back home. I was just visiting the pond for a bit. It started to rain and I got confused. Mother is going to very mad at me.”

    “I’m surprised she let you out on a day like this; the clouds have been black since morning.”

    “Oh, Mother must be worried sick. Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m always doing things I oughtn’t.”

    “It’ll be fine, miss. We’ll get you home soon as the storm settles.”

    “She doesn’t even know I’m gone! I snuck out but I didn’t meant to stay out so long. Now she’s gonna be worried and it’s all my fault. It’s always my fault.”

    Cynthia started to cry again.

    “Don’t cry, young lady. Your Mother will be glad to know you’re well. Besides, harm’s done as they say. Crying doesn’t do much towards fixing that.

    “Now, I figure you haven’t much to eat and I know I haven’t. So, how does some hare stew sound?”

    “Hare stew?”

    “Pop’s use to say I made the best he’d ever tasted.”

    “Yes, thank you,” Cynthia said, realizing how hungry she was now that she wasn’t freezing.

    The old man stood up and unearthed a pot under a pile of coals. He pulled bowls out from a small cabinet and began scooping the steaming stew onto them.

    “Time for proper introductions: I’m Yuri. I’ve lived in this cabin probably longer then even you’re mother has walked on this green earth. When I wore a younger man’s clothes I was a lumberjack, like my father and my brother. More people came this way then. You’re probably the first person to visit me here in ten years.”

    He set the bowls on the tree stump that acted as his table.

    “Grab a stool and tell me your name.”

    Cynthia did so and eyed the stew hungrily.

    “I’m Cynthia Helana Wurmwood. I live in a house right near the road. I’ve lived there all my life,” she said quickly and began hurriedly drinking the stew.

    Cynthia didn’t see Yuri’s eyes widen. Nor did she see on the wall behind her a large portrait—the same portrait that hung in mother’s bedroom.

    Yuri looked at her, only now realizing how foolish he had been not to see the similarities.

    “What does your father do, Ms. Wurmwood?”

    Cynthia mumbled something, her mouth still full of stew.

    “Sorry. This stew is delicious,” she said, “really must have been the best your pa tasted.”

    “Thank you.”

    “I never met my dad. He died when I was a baby. Mom doesn’t like to talk about him.”

    “You know his name?”

    “Yep, it’s on the inside front cover of lots of the books he left: Sergei Wurmwood.”

    “What did he do before he died?”

    “I don’t know. I don’t like to make Mother cry by asking questions.”

    “I see. Well, finish your stew, young lady. I will tell you a story before we go. I’m sure you’ll be interested.”

    “I love stories. I read lots of books. I have an attic full of them.”

    “Yes, I’m sure you do.”

    Yuri stood up and grabbed a jar from the window sill.

    “I own you much today, frog,” he said addressing the frog, who was sitting on the counter. He opened the lid of the jar and several flies flew out angrily—the frog immediately ate them.

    “You’re welcome to more anytime, friend.”

    “Ribbit,” said the frog.

    Cynthia was done with her stew. Yuri took both their dishes and set them in the washbin.

    “Some tea?”

    “Yes, please.”

    “Take a seat near the fire.”

    Yuri began preparing the tea, nodding his head in quiet disbelief.

    “Tell my Cynthia, you see that photograph I have hanging near the door. Do you recognize it?”

    Cynthia looked around for a bit before seeing the small picture frame. The bright light from the fire reflected off the glass and made it hard for her to see. She squinted for a few moments before finally getting up to take a closer look.

    It was her eyes that widened now.

    “This is the same photo that Mother has in her room. Why do you have one?”

    “Oh, I will tell you, Cynthia. Did your mother ever tell you who was in it?”

    “She said that he was her best friend a long time ago. She always smiles when she looks at his picture.”

    “Wouldn’t surprise me one bit—they were indeed good friends. Now sit here and let me tell you about this man.”

    “Winter’s can be harsh here in this part of the country. Well I bet you’ve seen enough snowfall in one day to cover you from head to toe. Country folk get by nonetheless, through sheer will sometimes I’d say. There is one thing all of’us need though and that’s firewood. Keep the fire burning and it doesn’t matter if the world outside freezes, you just ride it out—but somebody’s got to cut down the firewood and get it ready for the burning.

    “That’s what my family’s done for as long as men have seen the sun rise in this part of the world. We’re lumberjacks: cutting trees down and making them into something people can use. In the summer people use the lumber to build and in the winter they burn it and it keeps them moving even when all you can see outside is white.

    “My father and his brother’s were lumberjacks ‘till they could no longer lift an axe high enough to split the wood and even then they could pick out the trees that were ready for cutting from two hundred feet. My parents had three children, two boys and a girl. My sister’s name was Petra and she lived to be 42 before she died of consumption long away from here. She could split wood with the best of them despite mother’s repeated objections. I was always a decent hand with an axe and ‘ave never been outa work thanks to it but I was always a better spotter. I learned the forests like the back of my hand, knowing what trees were ready for cutting and how to cut just enough so our grandson’s would still have a forest to cut from.

    “Father said that he must have eaten extremely well the night he made Sergei because he grew up big as a bear and stronger too. He could cut down a tree before another man would have gotten through the bark and he’d tell you a joke while doing it. Him and I could go out and bring home enough wood for a fortnight in a single day. While Sergei was around nobody was ever in need of wood. He was much too jolly and good-spirited for his own good, giving wood out on credit over credit. Truth is, that might have been a stroke of genius. Sergei was always welcome for dinner at any home and if it was a favor he needed then it would be gladly done. He was loud, brash, and he liked to tell dirty jokes and tease the girls but nobody faulted him because he’d take the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it more than him. He married the only girl in town who always laughed at his jokes. She’d tease him right back, Rose, and he’d turn red as a beet.

    “Ten years ago we had the worse winter I’ve lived to see. By then, Sergei and I didn’t see much of each other, he being settled down and I still single. I lived further north of here, near town, working splitting wood for the locals and occasionally doing some construction work. Sergei did what he always did, cutting wood like a machine. He’d built a house near the pond and made it clear he didn’t approve of me living in town, abandoning the old work.

    “I acted like a fool for years, refusing to buy my firewood for Sergei and going out to buy my own. But I was so busy that winter, patching up cabins and splitting firewood that I let my woodpile dwindle ‘till I found myself out of wood with a bad storm coming.

    “I tried to buy a cartful from the local’s but they wouldn’t sell me any, afraid they’d have need and knowing it’d be too dangerous a trip to get more. So I went home and sharpened my axe as best I could. I headed into the forest, hoping to strip a tree before nightfall so I could split it in the morning.

    “I miscalculated the storm and it came at me like an angry bull. I marked the nearest tree and started back home. The storm poured snow and hail on forest making it impossible to see. I got lost in the forest for the first time in my life and I did the worst thing I could have—I kept walking.

    “Night came and went and I was still lost. The storm didn’t give in an inch, constantly snowing me in when I stopped to take a rest. Finally, I decided to find the safest spot I could and try to ride the storm out. I made small cubby between a fallen log and a tree and I slept for what seemed like days, but I lived.

    “When I woke the storm had passed. I climbed the nearest tree and got my bearing. I was west, near the pond, and I cursed at the thought of asking Brother for help but I was starving and half-dead and he was nearest.

    “I trekked my way to his front door and resignedly knocked on the door, your door, and Rose opened up, looking like she hadn’t slept in days.

    “You can guess the rest, Cynthia, having read all those stories of yours. Your Father was a good man and he did what good men do: he went out to find me as soon as he found out I was missing. They found his mark on every tree from coast to town but he never found me. On his way back home, when the storm was finally over, he started crossing the river that runs not three hundred feet from here. The embankment broke under him and buried him under a ton of snow and rocks.

    “He was my brother and I loved him despite my clueless rebellion. My stupidity left you without a father and Rose without her husband. She never forgave me and maybe she never forgave him. She had you a few months later and she never spoke another word to a Wurmwood since then.

    “I’m glad to have met you, young lady. I’ve spent ten years regretting the death of my brother and blaming myself every minute of my waking hours. Despite that I’ve grown more like him every day, always thinking of a joke to tell the town folk, and trying my best to keep them stocked with wood. I hope I’ve paid back part of what I took.

    “He read me stories, Sergei. He had a thousand books despite my Father always objecting to him wasting his pennies on them. Sergei liked to say that making books was a better use of wood than making fires but unfortunately books didn’t keep you warm before he laughed that contagious laugh of his.

    “He left them to you and you’ve put them to good use I see—following frogs around and such.

    “Well, now I’ve told you my story and it’s time for me to take you home.”

    Cynthia cried silently.

    “Thank you for telling me about my Father, mister. I wanted to know so bad but didn’t dare ask.”

    “Come on, I best take you home.”

    The storm had passed, leaving the clean scent in the air. The sun fought its way through the still slightly hazy sky. Yuri and Cynthia walked down the road toward her house.

    “You best be along from here, Cynthia. I don’t think your Mother should see me.”

    “Perhaps, Uncle Yuri, I can change her mind.”

    “Perhaps—but not today. Today, just head on home and get some rest.”


    She hugged him and waved goodbye to frog. She started running home but stopped a few feet later.

    “You know, Uncle Yuri, I know you feel bad about my father but it wasn’t really your fault you know. I’ve read his books, every single one of them. You didn’t make him go into the forest after you. He did it because he had to. I know because I would have gone too. And I know one more thing—he would have been happy that you’re okay; yes, he would have.

    “Bye, Uncle Yuri, and Mr. Frog, I’ll see you soon.”

    Cynthia ran to her house and climbed into her window again. Her mother was leaning against the bed, her face wet with tears. She had fallen asleep.

    Cynthia wrapped her arms around her and cried.

    This post (10/30) is part of 30 Days - Stories and Thoughts, June 21 - July 20, '07 at

  • What is DRM? An explanation for the non-techie.

    DRM or Digital Right Management is able to exist because most people either don’t know what it is or don’t truly understand its implications. I thought I’d take a shot at explaining it in as simple terms as possible. Let it be clear that I am anti-DRM and therefore biased—but that never stopped anyone.

    What is Digital Rights Management? The somewhat technical—and bound to be either ignored or forgotten by non-techies—definition is: a system of encryption or obfuscation designed to restrict the ability to play or copy digital media unless previously set conditions are met. The key word in that definition is restrict. HBO CTO Bob Zitter recently said that people are more likely to accept DRM if they simply changed its name to something more consumer “friendly”, like Digital Rights Enablement. This is the sort of magic trick where the magician waves his right hand so you’ll be distracted while he palms your twenty with the left—a turd by any other name still smells like s…

    Whatever you call it (and we’ll stick to DRM), its only purpose is to limit, which is something we’ll get to in a second. One of the problems with understanding DRM is that we have to grapple with the fact that we are exclusively talking about digital files. You can take a digital file and make a trillion copies of it; every single one of them, including the original, will be perfectly the same. And there is nothing to stop you from doing just that. This terrifies traditional content producers because: 1. they assume that given the chance to steal their content instead of paying for it, all of us will do so and 2. they lose the ability to sell us the same content more than once.

    I still haven’t said exactly what DRM is but here it is. DRM’s purpose is to limit:

    1. What device or software you use to play a digital media file. For example, Apple iTunes songs with FairPlay DRM can only be played on your computer with Apple iTunes software or with your Apple iPod. This enables brand lock-in, where you must use a certain company’s products to play files you’ve purchased. This also means that if you wanted to play a file on another mp3 player which isn’t an iPod, you’re out of luck. There are all sorts of workarounds around this, many technically illegal, and most involve some sort of loss of quality.

    2. How long and how many times you play it without checking in. Most DRM systems require that you check in or what they call “reauthorize” with an internet server every so often to make sure you have the right to play a file. Some make you check in every time you play a file, others once a week, and others are more “lenient”—they only make you check in if you change computers or devices.

    3. The ability to change from one file format to another. If you have a song you purchased from Napster in wma (Windows Media Audio) format, you cannot change it into another format, say mp3, so you can play it on another device, like an in-dash mp3 CD player, despite there being tools to easily do so. DRM is being pushed on all types of digital media, including movies and books. Imagine purchasing a movie this month, only to find out that you can’t play it on your new home theater media player which doesn’t support that particular flavor of DRM?

    The traditional content producers want you to buy the content again and again. One copy for your computer, another for your portable media player, and yet another for your car stereo or home theater. Perhaps, ultimately, they can charge us every single time we decide to watch or listen or read something they’ve produced—nickel and dime us death.

    Digital media cost nearly nothing copy and the online distribution costs are minimal. They pay almost nothing compared to buying a CD or DVD in a store (nevermind that those costs are also minimal). They spend much much less selling content in a digital format yet you pay the same or more and you get less!

    Another issue is what happens in the future when the current DRM systems are replaced by others. Will you be left with files, bought and paid for, that are useless? Do we expect the producers to give us new copies or simply tell us we’ll have to buy it again? And yet, will they stop us from removing the DRM (illegal under the DMCA)?

    Content producers also have the leverage to force the companies who make DVD players, home theater systems, computers, and phones to lock down those things to prevent you from using them in any way they don’t want you to. This sort of feature limiting would have driven companies out of business in the past. Today a ton of people will buy Apple iPhones despite them being locked in order to prevent you from doing anything that might cut into AT&T’s bottom line, and yet they charge you the full retail price.

    Would do business with somebody who treats you like a thief, attempts to provide the least amount of service to you at the highest cost possible, and actively stops you from using the very thing you purchased from them if you step outside their rules?

    This post (9/30) is part of 30 Days - Stories and Thoughts, June 21 - July 20, '07 at

  • Open Chase

    Their arrogance still amazed her—past experiences notwithstanding. The man they sent was excellent at his craft, amazing even. But the emperor and his cronies were not ones to trust; they wanted assurances and guarantees. Left alone their man would have completed his mission easily, but by trying to make it easier they had been cursed him from the beginning—they had given him magic.

    It was a short and simple silver chain necklace, worth nothing to anybody except its owner—who valued it very much indeed. She’d been forced to leave her belongings, knowing that a return to her quarters meant almost certain capture. The chain had meant more to her than she was ready to admit. It was the only thing she had that tied her to the life she’d long ago lost—twelve years ago her grandma had placed the chain around her neck, incanting it quietly.

    “The assembly says I simply dote on you because you’re my granddaughter, but the honest truth is that you’re the best student I’ve ever had. Soon you’ll be my equal, sweetie, and someday you’ll be a much better enchantress than I.

    “Custom says I should imbue your graduation necklace with the enchantment I think will be most useful to you but we both very well know you could do that yourself.”

    She hugged me tightly—for the last time. I never saw her again after leaving the academy. Our paths had only grown farther apart as the years had gone by.

    “Here is some magic only this old lady can give you.”

    She touched the necklace and collapsed. She’d bound a part of her gift to me, the chain only the conduit.

    No doubt they’d chosen the chain because it was so unassuming. They knew it meant something if it had been kept despite its company of gorgeous jeweled amulets. It had been taken to a dark tent, instructions whispered, and gold exchanged. The enchantment was treated as cursory and rightly so—a locating enchantment could be done masterfully by even the dimmest of enchanters. Maybe the enchanter had felt something slightly suspicious but wouldn’t risk their fee investigating it—it had been a grand mistake. The necklace had been delivered to the tracker with handwritten instructions and he had ventured out to find her.

    She’d felt it the morning after leaving Turega, after waking with a start. An intense feeling of nostalgia came over her. She’d known immediately what it was—she’d slept near the necklace for years. The bond between her and it was weak but unbreakable. She’d felt its presence clearly that morning. It led her to the only conclusion it could—she was being followed.

    She packed her things leisurely, knowing someone could be watching. When she was done packing, she kneeled and prayed. She felt for the necklace, trying to isolate it from all the other streams of magic she could feel out past the horizon. Ten minutes later she rose: it was to the south, back the way she came. So she picked up her bags and began walking back to Turega.

    It was noon and the market was full. The throng of people and their varied and pungent smells made him dizzy. He had spied a café to the west earlier, near the plaza, and he made beeline towards it now.

    He pushed the dilapidated wooden doors open and felt grateful for the cool breeze that washed over him. Picking a table near the window, away from the rest of the clientele, he stared at the market through the window, furrowing his brow.

    He had been tracking for two weeks, having been given a general direction and, despite his rebuff, an enchanted necklace. It made him feel foolish to carry such an item. He had two decades of experience under him and much to be proud of. He was the best tracker for hire and his reputation preceded him wherever he went. He should have been insulted to be given such an instrument—but this was not just another client. The Emperor paid well and with good reason: failure resulted in death or worse, eternal servitude. His objections had been mild, intended only to satisfy his own ego.

    Using the necklace reminded him of a game his sister and he would play when he was child. She would hide candy in somewhere in the house and guide him to it, yelling “hotter!” or “colder!” as they went along. The necklace grew warm when he approached his target. It was absurdly effortless.

    But two days ago, sleeping among a small outcropping of rocks outside Turega, he had woken up to incredible pain. The necklace had grown hot enough to sear his flesh. He had bandaged his burns as quickly as he could and raced in the direction the necklace responded to, hoping to find his target that night. He had been left searching through the night, never managing to pinpoint a location. The necklace guided him down one direction for an hour only to completely change direction from one moment to next.

    He would rest here for a bit, taking a meal, and maybe a drink or two before he began his search again.

    “Your drink, sir,” said the petite waitress, smiling at him warmly, “may I take your plate?”

    “Yes, thank you,” he said, “I’ll take the bill as well, please.”

    He leaned back happily. The meal had been great—lamb tagine and goat cheese on fresh khubz—and the anise tea had settled his stomach. Now he sipped his drink slowly, enjoying the burning sensation as it crept down his throat. Soon he would have to abandon this temporary refuge.

    She’d spent the past two days learning to pinpoint the necklace’s location and she’d gotten exceedingly good at it. The tracker was fast and efficient, never revealing himself—fast enough to keep her running but not to single himself out. She’d hoped to tire him, leading him from one edge of the city to another, and she’d succeeded, but only after she herself was past the point of exhaustion. She’d caught her fist glimpse of him when he entered the café at the edge of town. She watched, waiting for him to relax. Then she did something she’d been dreading since morning, something she suspected her grandma would condemn her for: she prayed urgently, but not to God. And she became someone else entirely.

    “Is that the bill for that gentleman near the window?” she asked.

    “Yes, m’am,” said the waitress.

    “How much is it? I’ll take care of it. He’s a dear friend of mine; I’d like to surprise him.”

    The waitress agreed, happily receiving the large gratuity she added.

    “Have a good day, m’am,” the waitress said, curtsying.

    She walked toward his table and sat down opposite him nonchalantly.

    “You’re very good—the best I’d surmise. The Emperor’s money was well spent on you. I cannot say the same about the necklace.”

    The tracker pretended to remain calm but she could his eyes widen in surprise. He unconsciously touched the necklace wrapped around his right arm.

    “You’re wondering why the necklace isn’t responding? You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not quite myself at the moment—something has suddenly got into me.”

    She smiled and looked at him kindly. He tensed in fear—she’d had the effect she intended.

    “I wonder what silly magic they gave you,” she said. She concentrated on the necklace, plying its magic apart and learning it. “Oh my, they have you playing games.”

    “Hot, cold, hot, cold, hot, cold, hot.”

    She tore at the enchantments trigger, making the necklace hot enough to glow, just for a second.


    She paused and leaned over, grabbed his tea, and took a drink.

    “I’d like my necklace back. I’d rather not have it covered in melted flesh.”

    The tracker cleared his throat.

    “What do you want? I’ve no doubt reason to fear for my life, sorceress.”

    “Josephine Margo. Priestess, not sorceress.”

    His eyes widened once more.

    “Shadow Priestess Josephine, the Emperor’s devastating weapon.” he said, “They send me after you with a trinket.”

    “At the moment perhaps, I am she. The sooner I can leave the sooner that ends. I’d like some answers; give them to me and we both walk out of here alive and well.”

    “Please,” he said.

    “What were you to do after you found me?”

    “Report you to the nearest garrison. They would send the message to the capital from there.”

    “How were you to identify me?”

    “They gave me a description—tall, but not abnormally so, neither plain nor beautiful but extremely attractive, raven hair and dark brown eyes, a handsome figure, and a mark on her left hand, a black ankh.

    “Even if you were in disguise, I figured I’d single you out using the necklace—a mistake, to rely on such things.”

    “True honesty is rare in the Emperor’s servants—you’ve earned your life. Now, I’d like my necklace.”

    The tracker pulled up his sleeve and began unwrapping the necklace from his arm.

    “Your name, tracker?”

    “Moses Portico.”

    “Those bandages around your neck, are they from the necklace?”

    “I’m afraid you passed a bit too close to me in the dark.”

    Josephine decided she no longer needed the darkness which made her the Emperor’s “devastating weapon”. She smiled, sincerely this time. The tracker handed her the necklace.

    She grabbed his hand as she took it.

    “May you always walk with God, Moses Portico”

    “Thank you, priestess,” he said, feeling his charred skin heal.

    She placed the necklace around her neck.

    “I won’t lose this again.”

    She stood and curtsied.

    “Your bill has been taken care of, tracker”

    “You’re very kind,” he said, nodding his head.

    “I’ll take my leave. You may continue following me, Tracker Moses. I will not risk your life. Send your report to the Emperor—it will be of no use. And when we reach our destination, I will serve you a real drink,” she said.

    The tracker laughed.

    “’till then.”

    This post (6/30) is part of 30 Days - Stories and Thoughts, June 21 - July 20, '07 at

  • The Pixie Stick Murder

    He died in the cafeteria. Right in the middle of the goddamn ca-fe-te-ria. He didn’t make one little peep. He turned beet red, sat down slowly, made as though he was gonna say something and died. What the hell was he gonna say? I don’t know. Help, maybe. I was there too, a table away, eating a disgusting meatloaf sandwich, observing the goings-ons. That’s it. Just sitting there, eating some slimy day-old meat between two pieces of toast. But by the time I tell you my story, you might think it was my fault. That’s what people around here say. But it wasn’t me. I didn’t kill Douglas Weller. The pixie sticks did.

    It all started because I didn’t wanna watch TV, which is all my parents do.

    “Oh, Jerry’s on!”

    “Seinfeld?” my dad screams from across the house, where he’s watching the other TV on the back patio, smoking a cigarette. “No. Springer, dummy” Mom squawks back.

    Personally, I’m over it. Not that it matters. My parents are always hogging the TV even if I wanted to watch—which I don’t.

    I didn’t wanna watch TV but I did wanna do something. Otherwise I’d end up going nutso from boredom, like Aunt Jemima—her real name’s Raquel—who pours syrup over everything and talks like she’s in s-l-o-o-o-w-m-o-o-o-t-i-o-o-n. What I really wanted was a skateboard ever since Sam came by during Spring Break and let me ride his around the block. The problem was my parents wouldn’t buy me one since they’d seen some special on TV on the skateboarding lifestyle. “I just don’t want you to end up hurt, dear. Besides, skateboarders are just truant vandals. Anyways: no.”

    So I racked my brain for an idea. I needed to raise the money for the skateboard without making my parents suspicious.

    Then Gummy Sax—who eats gummy bears all the time and plays alto sax in the school band—brought a bag of pixie sticks to school; probably because the store was outa gummy bears. Everybody knows she’s a clutz, so it was no surprise that during history, trying to sneak one, she spilled the whole thing onto the ground and made a worse mess trying to clean it up. News of the incident spread quickly and Gummy ended up being mobbed at lunch. Everybody wanted pixie sticks and not necessary for eating.

    The next morning during morning announcements Principal Nestler interrupted and said the following: “Due to a number of incidents yesterday, and complaints from the janitorial staff, as of today, pixie sticks and any other short of powdered candy is banned from campus. Anybody caught with it will get, minimum, three days of detention. That is all. Thank you.”

    I knew that I would have more than enough money for that skateboard.

    I started small. Three or four pixie sticks at a time. I knew who the troublemaker’s were; I went straight to them and they bought them with whispers. “If you tell anybody, anybody at all, it’s over.” Some of them got smart. They could simply buy them themselves, what use was I? They were right, of course, but I kept at it. If they resisted I sold to them at a loss. If I made enough sales I could get mom to buy me boxes from Costco and I’d start making money again.

    They couldn’t resist. Banning them meant everybody wanted one. Word—as I knew it would—spread quickly. Such secrets spread like wildfire. Soon I had two dozen regulars and the number just kept growing. I bought them in bulk, a half-dozen boxes at a time, from a wholesale candy supplier online, with mom’s credit card. She didn’t mind me buying copious amounts of candy but skateboards were a no-go!

    I sold them and I waited for the inevitable; I was gonna get caught, probably sooner later than later. All I wanted was to sell enough to buy my skateboard. And I was close, so very close, and then Douglas Weller happened.

    Douglas wasn’t somebody I would have chosen to do business with. It wasn’t because he was a dork but because he refused to acknowledge that he was, in fact, a dork and that made him a dork twice over. He had a loud, high-pitched voice which he used constantly to ask questions in class. He did have one redeeming feature in my eyes, however: money.

    Nobody knew what Douglas’ parents did; mostly because nobody wanted to talk to him in the first place. This wasn’t entirely true, he did have a couple of friends, but they too were outcasts. All everybody knew was that Douglas Weller could buy anything he fancied and he wasn’t shy about doing exactly that. Perhaps it was his way of getting back at everybody for treating him so badly. He always had the latest of everything and he made sure you knew it. Now that I think about it, I should’a known it was a bad idea to sell him anything—I was looking at him with dollar signs in my eyes.

    He came to me during lunch and wanted to buy an entire box but it was the end of day and all I had was a few left. “I’ll buy everything you bring tomorrow. Don’t sell to anybody else. I’ll buy all of it.” That night I stuffed every last pixie stick I could into my backpack. The hell with concealing them; this was the last sale I had to make. I would have more than enough money to buy what I wanted. I knew what Weller wanted: nobody else would have pixie sticks that day. I didn’t care.

    It would be an understatement to say that Douglas Weller was not a strong person. He bought the pixie sticks from me not because he wanted them but because he saw it as some kind of retribution against everybody else. He was grasping at some control over what was for him must have been a horrible existence. At lunch that day I found out how far he was willing to go to rub it in our faces. Poor Douglas Weller.

    At lunch, with two friends at his side, they emptied his lunchbox and began emptying the pixie sticks into it. They worked fast. Weller’s eye darted quickly around the room. He knew that everybody was watching, however sly they were being about it.

    When they were done with all of them—I had sold him hundreds—the lunchbox was a swirl of colored powder. Douglas Weller looked at it and grinned. Then he did what we all knew he was going to do: he began eating it. He spooned it into his mouth greedily, over and over. I thought he’d have to stop eventually. It was too much.

    But ten minutes later he slowly swallowed the last tiny bit and grinned at his friends. I sighed. What a pig. I opened my chocolate milk, sipped it slowly and thought about my new skateboard.

    He died. I didn’t believe it at first. After he collapsed they corralled us back to class. The whispers said he was dead but the whispers always exaggerated. This time they didn’t have to. He was dead.

    I took all the money I had made from my pixie stick sales and buried it during P.E. near the soccer field. I could get it later. I was waiting for the prosecution.

    “Mr. Adams, will you come with me please?”

    My heart raced. This was it. I was led straight to Principals Nestlers office.

    “Good morning, Mr. Adams. Please take a seat.”

    I sat down, afraid that he could already see the guilt in my eyes.

    “We’ve been aware that somebody was selling powdered candy to students since last week. We were having a hard time tracking the culprit down but now, tragically, we know who it was.”

    I sighed, resigned to taking whatever punishment there was.

    “There will undoubtedly be many questions, so we’re trying to piece together the course of events.”

    The principal fiddled with his tie.

    “We know Mr. Weller was selling large amounts of candy to students here. Various people witnessed him carrying a large amount in his backpack this very morning. However, nobody is willing to admit buying any from him, which leaves us tenuous position. You understand, Mr. Adams?”

    I nodded, trying to ignore the roar of thoughts in my head.

    “You were seen talking to Douglas before class this morning, Mr. Adams.”

    He leaned back in his chair and looked at me.

    “Did you buy candy from Mr. Weller this morning, Freddy? Nobody is gonna punish you, on my word. You’d be helping your school by telling us the truth. It’s important that you tell us the truth.”

    Years later I understood the desperation in his voice. A child had died on his campus doing something that he should have stopped. The buck would stop with him—not that it wouldn’t scathe the rest of the staff. If Douglas was responsible for what killed him then some of the blame would be shifted: to himself and his parents.

    I gave them what they wanted. It was a way out and I didn’t feel responsible at the time. I’m not sure if I do now. I’m not sure who holds the responsibility—maybe Douglas himself, his parents, or all of us for making him an outcast.

    “Yes, sir, I bought some candy from Douglas this morning.”

    I pulled out a pixie stick wrapper I knew was in my pocket.

    “I’m sorry. I just…”

    This post (4/30) is part of 30 Days - Stories and Thoughts, June 21 - July 20, '07 at

  • Computer Memory in Analogy: The Slow Librarian, the Marathon Winner, and You

    I find myself trying to explain what memory (as it corresponds to computers) is. A lot of people have a hard time understanding what R.A.M. is and the difference between it and hard drive space. Well, listening to a news story a few months ago about the 2007 LA Marathon winner, Kenyan Fred Mogaka, I came up with an unlikely analogy.

    The Slow Librarian, the Marathon Winner, and You

    You’re standing in a large room (imagine a school gymnasium). You’re here to do research about computer memory. Your desk is near the entrance. It is one of those small school desks and you only have room on it for a couple of books at a time.

    On the wall opposite the entrance (farthest from you) there is a giant bookshelf on which there is every book on computer systems you can imagine. The books are indexed and it would be possible for you to browse through the stacks and find what you need but this would take an unacceptably long time.

    Instead you’ll rely on the highly skilled librarian who’s been hired specially to find books on this giant bookshelf. This librarian has a printed index of all books on the shelf, cross-referenced to their location. He also has a ladder, a book bag, and more importantly, experience. He’s practically made to retrieve books from this particular bookshelf.

    When you ask for a book from this librarian he can find it relatively quickly (compared to you). However, if the books you ask for are far apart, split into volumes, or very very large (think unabridged dictionary) it will slow him down. He can carry a substantial but still limited amount of books at a time.

    You might think you’re set. You request the books you want and the librarian brings them to you. But the room you’re in is very large and the librarian would take a long time to cross it. The same goes for you. You need a faster solution.

    As it so happens, you met 2007 L.A. Marathon winner Fred Mogaka the day before and he’s agreed to help you today. Being a marathon runner, he is both fast and reliable. He’ll have no problem running across the room getting books for you. He can’t carry nearly as many books as the librarian but he makes up for that in speed.

    This is how your system works: you ask Fred for the books you want. He runs across the room to the librarian. The librarian quickly looks up your books in his index and retrieves the books as fast as he can. Fred grabs all the books he can and runs back to your desk. He stands there with the books, handing you only the ones you need since you have limited desk space.

    First, the obvious:

    1. The librarian and bookshelf is the hard drive of this “modern computer”. It hold a vast amount of information but is slow at retrieving it; too slow to be practical for your fast-paced research. The bookshelf can store those books indefinitely as well but waiting five minutes while the librarian gets back with a book each time you need to look something up is inefficient.
    2. Fred, the marathon runner, is the Random Access Memory (RAM). He’s fast and can give you any book he is currently carrying immediately since he doesn’t have to look through a bag like the librarian. The downside is that he can’t carry many books and at the end of the day he goes home—the books he was carrying have to be put back on the bookshelf or they will be lost.
    3. You, the researcher, are the processor (CPU/Computer Processing Unit). You take the information out and process it in some way, whether that means taking notes, writing abstracts, or writing new material. Your small desk, which holds the books you know you’re going to need immediately, is the processor cache.

    So far this system is read-only—you’re not sending anything back to the bookshelf. Well, all this research you’ve been doing has inspired you to write a book full of easy to understand computer analogies. You’re going to want to store all those pages you write but you know that Fred will only carry them until the end of the day, so we have to file them on the bookshelf.

    You hand the pages you write to Fred and when you’re sure you don’t need them anymore, he hands them to the librarian to file for later.

    We might run into a problem if we start requesting many books and sending back many pages: Fred can only carry so many books and pages at a time. If you need additional books he has to return to the bookshelf and file some of the ones he is carrying before he can carry more. What if you need those particular books or pages again, perhaps to review a concept you missed? The whole process has to be carried out again; with Fred running back and having the librarian pull the books from the shelf. There is a better solution called virtual memory (or swap space).

    The librarian has set up a desk especially for Fred. It’s one of those expandable desks—you can pull out the sides for additional space. Since Fred is so fast he can pretend to be able to carry more books than he actually can. He places the books that he thinks you might need again or will need soon on this desk. When you ask for those books he can retrieve them relatively faster than going through the librarian to access the bookshelf.

    I don’t want to wear this analogy thin (perhaps I already did) but there are some additional analogues we can make.

    1. The librarian is like the read/write head of the computer hard drive, reading and writing data to the platter. The bookshelf is a platter, actually storing the data. Hard drives can have many platters (bookshelf’s) and usually one head (librarians) per platter.
    2. I said that requesting books that are split into volumes, very large, or very far apart can slow down the librarian. Books which are split into volumes are fragmented. This also happens to data on a hard drive. A file is split onto different areas of the drive and the head/librarian must run around to get the whole thing.
    3. You can see why adding another Fred to the system would speed it up immensely. You would have less need for virtual memory and could hold more books at a time near you, where you have almost instant access to them. Adding another you would help, so long as the work you’re doing can be split up (you and you’re partner would be dual processors. If you had a Siamese twin you’d be a dual-core processor.). The thing is Fred works for free (or cheaply) since he loves to run. Hiring another you would be expensive. So too is RAM the cheapest solution to making a computer “faster”.

    I’ll be posting additional analogies in the next 28 days. If you have something you’d like explained just leave a comment.

    This post (3/30) is part of 30 Days - Stories and Thoughts, June 21 - July 20, '07 at

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