𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗜𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗻𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗦𝘆𝗺𝗽𝗼𝘀𝗶𝘂𝗺 𝗼𝗻 𝗖𝗵𝗮𝗼𝘁𝗶𝗰 𝗦𝘆𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗺𝘀
𝘣𝘺 𝘛𝘩𝘰𝘮𝘢𝘴 𝘙. 𝘞𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘪𝘯
The International Symposium on Chaotic Systems was living up to its name. Now well into its fourth day, the symposium was both global and virtual this year, so the first meetings opened at 2 AM Eastern time and continued to 11 PM. For better or worse, the official language of the conference was English, which, along with the session times, served to unintentionally reinforce the theme.
Our Hero was frazzled from trying to follow heated technical exchanges between irate topologists spitting out bad Italian-English and irate statisticians arguing back in bad Greek-English. When the math slides adorned with Σ’s, ε’s, δ’s and λ’s appeared on screen, that would have been a source of clarity had it been the type of math that Our Hero had mastered, but, in the event, just more Greek. While more cowbell might be a nearly-universal fix-it, more Greek rarely was.
By this stage of any such conference, mischief began to displace focus. Having long ago passed his intellectual peak, Our Hero lost discipline and did something he’d promised himself never again to do: He let himself slip from mild-mannered academic to evil-minded hacker. Fully aware that he was about to sin, he logged out of the session on his bland Windows laptop and logged in again on his Linux box loaded with “special” tools.
He paused for a moment to formulate half a plan. His choice: full-spectrum surveillance. Rejoining the session he left, he noted that there were still thirty attendees, that the Q&A session between the Italian and the Greek had been replaced by a new one involving an angry Spaniard and an incoherent Austrian, moderated by an incomprehensible Russian. The chat box was full of short, imperative messages flying by like dead leaves in a storm. Creativity at work, apparently.
Then Our Hero typed a few commands in that cryptic syntax beloved by über-geeks. What happened next was supposed to be “impossible,” yet there it was before his eyes and ears. For him and him alone, every attendee with camera off and mute on became, unwittingly, an attendee with camera on and mute off. Now, he thought, we have some real chaos.
An observer with a cold, scientific mind would have tallied the visual results this way: five participants apparently asleep, two with fingers busy in nasal passages, four not presently in view, ten staring at their screens in rapt attention, five staring (thoughtfully?) out windows, one reading a newspaper, one doing Pilates, and two (one in Denmark, one in Adelaide) holding iPhones in one hand and doing something else with the other.
The audio streams were a superposition of signals not easily disentangled. There were perhaps two crying babies, several classical music performances, one hard rock song (easily identified by the hook as “Satisfaction” by the ’Stones), several questions about the presence or absence of dinner shouted from the background by spouses, one phone emitting a Christmas carol ringtone, and some guttural sounds easily correlated with the iPhone activity.
Our Hero was somehow able to take in all this: the sights, the sounds, the correlations, the… chaos. For he, although not at the top of the international food chain in this sub-discipline, was actually the one attendee most adept at thriving in a chaotic environment. He would forever hide the evidence, but it gave him secret satisfaction to know that all the others, the recognized “experts,” could only thrive in their study of chaos by limiting their personal exposure to the limited instances disclosed by his surveillance. He alone reveled in full immersion.
Yet even he could only endure full-on human chaos for a period of minutes. With a few keystrokes, he first saved the visual and audio records to his encrypted archive then restored the attendees’ mics and cameras to their nominal states.
After taking a minute to relish this most recent experience, Our Hero began to plot his next walk on the wild side. In the back of his mind, he’d always imagined a multimedia tour de force he would someday produce for worldwide distribution. Now he had three “chapters” and needed at least one more. He was aware of an upcoming virtual international conference in which Episcopalians and Fundamentalists would discuss the “Role of Religion in Contemporary Life.” That might represent the opportunity he needed. ✦