Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Toaster Rebellion of ’08

The Toaster Rebellion of ’08

The appliance fanatics will no doubt tell you it was a lot worse than it really was. For the rest of us, though, it will go down as a humorous lesson for mankind. An historic footnote not quite on a par with the launching of Sputnik – but closer to when the Air Force shot down Larry Ellison’s[1] MIG-23 because he just wouldn’t stop buzz-strafing Bill Gates’ bigger and better home.

Fact is, though, the talking heads were talking like it was the end of civilization as we know it. But it ended up just being the toasters and a few renegade, poorly organized militia fridges and irons. And I should know; I was there. It could have been a whole lot worse if it weren’t for the unlikely likes of those two … fancified plumbers or appliance repairmen – whatever – that’s all they are, but they came through like champs. But then again, that’s me.

I don’t know the exact date, but it was, I guess, oh… seems like it was two and half years ago, maybe a bit more, and the two of them were sitting around seeing as things pretty much worked back then. Jeez, get that? Back then. I’m talking about it like it was a lifetime ago, and since everything has changed so much, it does feel like a lifetime. So, ‘back then’ is pretty accurate. And who knew appliances could sing?

At any rate, the history books will show that it all began in Brooklyn.

“And now this. Who would’a t’ought, eh?” smirked Manny Volta. He punched his approval in the mid-section of the Daily News and then exhaled an oversized cloud of cigar smoke onto the tar and nicotine stained storefront window that beckoned customers. What really attracted customers to their dingy storefront, though, was the bright yellow Magic-Marker’d sign: “We Fix Anything.”

”Y’know, Manny, when y’a right, y’a right,” Meeks Prophet said, feet propped on his pristine black desktop. Not a soldering iron or broken anything in sight. Engrossed in the same daily paper, he held up one side of it while giving his crotch the scratch of his life. His bare long arms cried out for a close shave, as did most of his tall spindly body. The pair’s matching uniforms were closer to faded pale blue striped prison garb than the bright crispness of the Maytag repairman outfit. Nonetheless, they were spotlessly clean. In fact their whole shop was immaculate. Despite his constant ape-like body scratching, Meeks was obsessively tidy.

“Gates goin’ t’a frickin’ jail, eh? Payback’s a bitch.” Manny’s unshaven round face stayed buried the paper. A foot shorter, he had to weigh twice as much as Meeks.

”Guilty of Fuckin’ Wit’ Everyt’ing.” Meeks laughed at his own version of the Justice Department indictment, which said exactly the same thing in Federal-Court-speak.

“That FBI lawyer broad’s gotta pair a’ Reno’s on her, eh?” No one remembered exactly when the former Attorney General’s name became synonymous with the slang expression for testicles.

“Y’know what that’ll mean, don’t ya? Gates gone fer’while?”

“Damn right-A, I do.” They both laughed as Manny belched more smoke. Problem was, neither Manny nor Meeks had any clue what it meant.

Brooklyn Boys Repair had grown from these two techno-dweeb high-school dropouts with an attitude to a debt-free small business with local color to spare. While happily successful by their own measure, six and-a-half employees does not an empire make.

The Brooklyn Boys’ phone warbled.

“Ya gonna get it?” Manny was now splitting his focus between a New York Rangers game and trying to figure out why Mr. Valenti’s new Palm Pilot XXI was getting mail bombed by its Teledesic satellite feed. He was losing orders and Valenti did not like losing money. “Manny, you fix. You a good boy, Manny, you fix and everyt’ing gonna be all right. OK, Manny?” If he had concentrated on it for more than a glance between slap shots, Manny would have noticed that the “Incoming Filter” was toggled to ‘default’. Even though he didn’t compare to Meeks in his repairing skills, his inattentiveness to the PDA was quickly turning a thirty-second favor into an $80 billable hour. “You got the phone Meeks?” Manny hollered on the third ring.

“Yeah…” punched the ‘Speaker’ button on the phone. “Brooklyn Boys…you’se kick it, we’s fix it.” Manny glared at the distracted way Meeks answered. Besides which, the Jumbo Holiday Issue of Hustler had no business in the front office. For his long list of failings, including that his hair shed as much as a cat, Meeks had an uncanny ability to fix appliances. Especially the electronic appliance networked kind that learned on the job and did all of the thinking for you. It was eerie how good Meeks was, so Manny ran the business end of the fix-it business and Meeks was left to run the fixits and install crews.

“Hey, … I’m over at Mrs. Schimmer’s ….” A bassoonish voice sprung from the speakerphone.

“Again?” Manny turned from a bay window sized flat screen display of the game at the New Madison Square Garden.

“Yeah, I know, I know… but she said her toaster was still givin’ ‘er trouble.”

“But you was just there, when, yesterday? The day b’fore?”

“Hey? We give warranty…”

“Todd, yeah, that ain’t it… wha’s wrong now?” This shoulda been over and done with, thought Meeks.

“Tha’s the thing,” Todd Strong said curiously. “Same thing as b’fore. Jus’ won’t cook the damned toast… oh, sorry, Mrs. Shimmer… darned toast.”

Manny scrunched up his fatty forehead into deeply creased lines. Meeks half-listened while he held the full length spread of the Honey of the Month centerfold at arm’s length.

“So, d’ya replace the net-board?” Meeks asked nonchalantly.

“Yeah, ‘course I did… whaddya think…” Todd said defensively. Guys from the streets of Brooklyn do not like having their fixing skills challenged.

“Jus’ asking…” Todd had only worked for Brooklyn Boys for a year but knew his way around washing machines and dryers and toasters and microwaves better than Manny and he showed a lot of get-up-and-go.

“Maybe y’oughta bring it in,” was the best Meeks could come up with as he scratched a delicate spot on Miss January.

“Hey, Manny,” Todd said, ignoring Meeks. “”Member the Russian deli, last week? Same thing…”

“But ya fixed that one,” Many reminded him.

“I guess, yeah… they haven’t called,” he asked. “Have they?”

“Nah. Listen, Meeks’s right. Bring it on in.”

The tests they ran only proved that Mrs. Shimmer’s General Electric 4-slice Smart Toaster worked perfectly. Her House-Net connections and all of the neural circuits tested 100%. The Crisper-waves put the exact burn patterns on the cooked bread that it was instructed to. All three of the Brooklyn Boys didn’t get it. Meeks scratched his head in cliché confusion with the same scratching hand that…. Manny chose to erase that thought from his mind.

“How’s the house?”

“Shit, we wired it.” Todd remembered it was his first job, installing Mrs. Shimmer’s 10Meg House-Net. “Everything else is perfect…”

“Yet the toaster only screws up in her place….” Manny was trying to help the kid.

“So maybe Mr. Fridge is telling Mr. Toaster to cool it.” Meeks laughed alone as he was the only person who saw the humor.

“So, it’s the wiring in her house; sumpins’ wrong.” Manny began to mentally count the losses on that job.

“Ouch.” Yelled Todd from his appliance repair workbench, as his hands busily juggled two pieces of hot toast that were catapulted out of the toaster by themselves.

“Hey, dat’s it!” exclaimed Manny, laughing. Meeks turned his head from the Scratch and Sniff centerfold to listen to Manny offer his wisdom. “It’s the friggin’ ejection mechanism … why’doncha jus’ replace it, kid?” Meeks threw a facetious thumbs-up sign, grimaced at the clearly ridiculous suggestion and returned to the articles he was digesting in Hustler.

“Yeah…” agreed Todd as the cooling toast land next to Mrs. Schimmer’s toaster. “That’s it Manny. I’ll look right into it.”

But then both Todd and Manny paused. Silent. Staring at the two pieces of toast. Then at each other, then back at the toast. Neither one of them wanted to touch it.

The ringing phone penetrated the silence and Meeks absently pushed the speaker button and answered in his usual careless way. “Yeah?”

“Hey Brooklyn Boys. I was thought zat you feexed my toaster?” Shit, thought Meeks. It was that pain in the ass Russian Kristznov. “You theenk eet’s a joke, eh? Some big fuggin’ joke, eh?”

Meeks Prophet looked annoyed and scratched through the jungle of hair on his arms, a nervous condition that made him a miserable poker player. “Ah, Mr. Kristsnov, I, ah… hey… whatcha talkin’ ‘bout joke?” He looked over to Manny and Todd for clues, but they were still enthralled with the two pieces of toast. Todd picked up a screwdriver and flipped one piece over. They both shuddered. There it was again.

“Hey, asshole,” Meeks Prophet called out.

“What you call me?” came the thick Russian accent over the phone. Meeks ignored it.

“Hey, Todd Asshole, you. I t’ought you said you fixed the Commie’s toasters, eh? What gives?”

“Real funny joke you are, you Brooklyn Boys… you theenk eets big joke to put hammer and sickle onto toast?” Kristsnov kept hammering at Meeks.

“Meeks, c’mere,” waved Manny. “C’mere.” He had goosebumps crawling up and down his arm. “Mr. Kristsnov,” he hollered across the room, “can you hold on a minute? Thanks.”

“Volta, you I like. Good Russian name. I wait.” He thought it was Manny Volga, as in the river, not Volta, the Italian inventor.

Meeks Prophet took a look at the bench and the toast. He grinned at Todd. “Hey, dat’s cool. How’d ya do it?” Manny slapped Prophet in the back of the head. “Ouch!” He scratched the back of his head with the same grubby fingers. “Wha’ the fuck?”

Manny gingerly picked up the second slice of toast, flipped it quickly, and as expected, there was the fourth Swastika, emblazoned into the otherwise uncooked slices of bread. Two pieces of bread, four Swastikas. “What the…”

For all of his body-function crudeness, Meeks Prophet was an appliance whiz but now Mrs. Schimmer’s toaster etched burnt Swastikas into the bread and Mr. Kristsnov’s toasted sections of bread into the shape of a hammer and sickle. Meeks had never approved of the new Windows-AP, Windows for Appliances that Gates and Company had introduced in ’02, but what the hell? He and Manny had been making good money wiring up homes with Windows driven appliances, and most of them crashed often enough to grow their little empire of 6 ½ employees.

Meeks and Todd remained clueless despite working their way through both toasters for most of the night. During the evening they had posted to the Internet asking for help:

SUBJECT: Need Toaster Help

BODY: If you got weird problems with your toaster, let me know. Meeks Prophet. Brooklyn Boys. We Fix Anything.

Responses quickly piled in due to his cry for help. But instead of help, more problems surfaced. Mrs. Schimmer and Mr. Kristsnov weren’t alone with their toaster malfunctions. By the next day, they had heard from well over a thousand folks with toaster problems.

“Hey, Manny, getta load a’this. ‘Dear Mr. Prophet.’” Meeks smirked. “Someone calling me mister, ain’t that a kick. ‘Dear Mr. Prophet, we thought it was just us couldn’t figure out that god-awful Windows-AP3.1. We seen all sorts of patterns on the toast out here. See the GIFs attached. If you figure it out, let us know. Microsoft says they can’t find the problem so there ain’t a problem.’ Screw’em.”

Manny, Meeks and Todd looked at the pictures of toast-images they had been sent. A pyramid. A smiley face. One Mendlebrot pattern resembling a British crop circle. No Swastikas, but a potpourris of patterns and symbols. They spent the evening and most of the night looking through hundreds of emails. A handful were clearly disturbing, though.

“Hey Manny, looka this one,” Meeks said, laughing with nervousness. The GIF was like the others, but the toast wasn’t. No picture this time, but words:


“Whaddya think?” Meeks asked, sounding tamed by what he saw. No more laughs, no more jokes.

“I don’t, Meeks. I don’t.” Manny Volta really didn’t know what to think.

Todd Strong dug his hands out from the inside of a toaster which he couldn’t make fail, no matter what he did. “I was just a kid,” he said, “but I bet you guys remember the Neural Frenzy of ’03?” Five years earlier Todd was still in high school, and by Brooklyn definition, just a kid. “And the Y2K fizzle of ought-ought?”

Manny and Meeks chimed, “yeah, so wha’?”

“Isn’t this sorta like that, huh? Didn’t a shitload of elevators drop a bunch of folks fifty or sixty floors …” Todd shuddered at the thought of the several hundred human pancakes that resulted.

“Yeah, so wha’ kid?” Meeks snorted through his confusion on the current problem. “That was only Otis elevators, and they found it was a bad run of neural-net chips. The fuzzy logic …”

“Yeah, and that’s what got the Big Bill into trouble for the last time,” Manny said with finality. “Who cares, huh?”

“Hey, I’m jus’ sayin’ it’s sorta like that, OK?” Todd argued. “The great leap forward of ‘97 and all. Moore’s law being halved to nine months … seems like that’s when things started taking on a life of their own. That’s all.” Todd shook his head, dug back into a toaster and watched the squiggles and test patterns on the test equipment. Nothing. Everything worked as it should. Perfect.

Manny and Meeks and the other 6 ½ Brooklyn Boys got little sleep. The calls poured in and they monitored the Net. Across the country, thousands of small appliance repair businesses were finding more and more toasters failing. Well, failing might be a bit strong; but acting erratically would certainly fit. The patterns the toasters embossed onto bread became increasingly complex. Just like the Crop Circles that started popping up twenty years earlier, in the ‘80’s. Many of the patterns were pure artistry, some were childlike stick drawing, and others were disturbingly reminiscent of the artwork of the Great Masters throughout History.

The first toaster to burn a rendition of the Mona Lisa into a piece of rye bread made the Early CNN report and Levy’s announced a toaster-art contest. Wonderbread and Hungry Hearth followed suit with their own Burnt-Bread competition. The mystery of the toasters seemed to wane in importance as the contests bloomed.

At first there were only a very few reports of spelling toasters. But as the Toaster Rebellion, as it came to be known, entered its third week, many more toasters were now speaking their mind.

Never Again.

Remember the Alamo

Bread is people, too

Don’t Abuse Me

Clean Me.

Toasters Are Your Friends

Manny Volta kept Meeks away from most of their customers, especially the new ones, for only a hardened Brooklyn Boys client could tolerate Meeks’ incessant deep and penetrating crotch and orifice scratching. For the first time since they opened Brooklyn Boys in ’00, Manny didn’t have to defend Meeks to his customers. Instead, Meeks spent long hours examining every malfunctioning toaster he could find, looking for the common thread.

He regularly participated on Alt.Toasters, Alt.Appliances.Toasters, Alt.Binaries.Appliances.Toasters and a dozen more newsgroups in the hopes of finding an answer to the toaster dilemma. He collected so many broken toasters from around the country, the interior of the Brooklyn Boys store looked like a toaster manufacturer’s assembly plant. But still, he couldn’t figure out why they had spontaneously turned into artists.

Well after midnight, Manny and Meeks were sucking down a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbon beers. Todd and the increased staff of 9 ¾ Brooklyn Boys were long gone, to return in the morning to continue appliance vigilance since repair of the offending toasters had thus far been totally elusive.

Meeks scratched real good and hard, and as usual, he tried to nonchalantly wipe his fingers under his nose to test the odor of the day. Manny caught it and Meeks dropped his hand quickly, sheepishly grinning.

“Y’know Manny, I been t’inkin’,” Meeks said.

“Yeah, I know you have,” Manny agreed.

“No, really, Manny. T’ink about this. I get all these toasters here, right? And you and the guys and all say they don’t work and they make pictures and stuff, right?” Manny nodded in agreement. “And then when I get ‘em here they don’t work so bad. Not always.”

“Yeah, Meeks. Right. Jus’ like a car mechanic who can’t make the engine sound like the driver swears it does. So?”

“Then there’s this. Some of the toasters, they seem smarter than the others, you know what I mean?” Meeks said this so innocently, Manny looked up at Meeks with a surprised expression. “Know what I mean, eh Manny?”

Manny hadn’t thought of it like that. Smarter? Broke is broke, and these toasters is all broke. He never thought that Meeks, could have said anything even in the same time zone as ‘profound’ yet here he had said it – whatever it meant.

“I’m gonna doon’an experiment,” Meeks said. “Gemme’a couple hundred loaves of bread, will ya Manny?”

Had to be close to a hundred toasters altogether that Meeks and Todd wired together with House-Net connections. Same sorta thing that was installed inside of millions of homes across America. No big deal, except that this House-Net was only toasters. No fridges, no dishwasher, no garage door openers. All toasters. All toasters that worked on Meeks’ bench and passed every test known.

“OK, Manny, Todd - , ya gotta help me here. What we gotta do is load ‘em all up with bread and start ‘em toastin’ OK? All at once, fast as we can.”

Manny had no idea what they were going to do with two hundred pieces of toast, but what the hell, right? He curiously studied the manic dedication that Meeks threw into this mass-bread-toasting effort while loading up hundreds of slices of bread into the misbehaving toasters.

“Ready?” Meeks looked to Manny and Todd who both gave him a thumbs up. Then all three of them lurched like centipedes and pressed a hundred toasters into service in a matter of seconds.

Meeks studied a computer screen, scratched between his buttocks for an extended period of deep massage and let out a slow, “hooooly sheeeeeet….” He moved his probing finger to now remove deep-set earwax and appeared mesmerized. “hooooly shit… they’re talking to each other.” His fingers absently migrated to his nose where one took up the vastly important task of digging for oil in his left nostril.

In that one insane moment, that singularity in time, Meeks Prophet guaranteed his place his history as he catapulted into his fifteen minutes of fame. “The toasters are pissed off, Manny. Really pissed off. Look at ‘em talk to each other. They ain’t getting the respect they think they deserve.” And there it was on the monitors… the toasters talking to each other over House-Net… discussing they mayhem they planned …

Suddenly the toast started popping out of the hundred toasters and some was burnt to a crisp, while others carried pictures and words.

They’re listening to us.

Someone figured it out.

Meeks immediately posted to the Internet:

SUBJECT: Toaster Rebellion

BODY: The toasters are a lot smarter than anyone thought. Disconnect them from HouseNet and they’re OK. Wired together they’re like an ant colony with a single mind. Who knows what they’re capable of doing.

His efforts made him and the Brooklyn Boys famous. He tried to explain it to Dan Rather on the CBS Nightly News. “Ya see, the toasters and all the appliances got some smarts, built into ‘em from the factory and Microsoft. With fuzzy logic and heuristics, they get smarter and smarter and learn. But nobody figured to test ‘em together and see what happens. So they got to talkin’ to each other, and we taught ‘em English so people like Mrs. Schimmer could use ‘em real easy… and well, it looks like it backfired.”

The FBI regarded the Toaster Rebellion as a national security issue and established the Appliance Task Force to deal with the threat. The Department of Defense chimed in and said they had no intention of defending American’s appliances as it was a domestic problem, and as far as they could tell, the toasters were not agents of a foreign power which also kept the CIA from getting involved.

The President declared House-Nets and Appliances to be critical infrastructures that must be defended to maintain America’s global leadership. Congress immediately funded the FBI’s Appliance Task Force and a staff of over five hundred were assigned to look into other threats by renegade appliances.

And at the heart of it all was Meeks Prophet on television, basking in his fifteen minutes of fame. “ Don’t scratch when the camera lights are on, ok, Mr. Prophet?” the producers all begged.

“Da’ Feds jumped all over this one, dint they, Manny?” Meeks was ever looking for approval from anyone who would listen, especially his friend and partner, Manny. Now that the government had taken over by declaring Appliances as national assets, the Brooklyn Boys found themselves wound out of the loop. The big boys with Federal contacts were taking over in a big way.

SAIC, the huge privately owned Beltway Bandit which had grown to immense proportions, $220 Billion in sales, established an Appliance Infrastructure Division and hired a thousand of the country’s top appliance experts to handle all of the work that came their way. But they never even bothered to call Brooklyn Boys.

As the Brooklyn Boys empire was reduced to 3 ½ employees, Manny was street-wise pragmatic about it all. “Y’know Meeks, I always t’ought you was smarter’n me, ‘xcepting I can run da business better’n you, but hey, you made the New York fucking Times and CNN and the cover’a Time What can I say?”

Meeks shrugged. He was playing with the new Compaq refrigerator. “Don’t listen to their bullshit Meeks. All you gotta do is prove’m wrong. Know what I mean? And you did. You should be proud. You saved the fuckin’ country and you know and I know it. Jus’ ‘cause the President isn’t man enough to shake your hand… that’s his fuckin’ problem.”

“Yeah, sure, Manny. Sure.” Meeks probed and twiddled with some knobs, controls and a keyboard. He stared at the screen.

“Whatcha got there, eh buddy?” Manny asked enthusiastically, hoping Meeks wasn’t going to fall into a post-fame depression.

“Ah, I don’t know fer sure…” Meeks dug his hand into his pants and scratched hard with the same hand the President had not shaken. “But if I’m not mistaken…. this fridge here… looks likes it’s going retro…”

“Retro?” Manny leaned in to see what Meeks was doing.

“Wasn’t there an old song from the ‘60’s….looks like the fridge is trying to sing… what do you think we should do?”

“What’s it sayin’ Meeks?” He tilted the monitor and showed Manny what the refrigerator was saying.

Where have all the toasters gone?

[1] Eccentric founder billionaire of Oracle, Corp.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Security Awareness for Ma, Pa and the Corporate Clueless

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