(Please say: SHIFT Fields, as in "These are the fields used for shifting," not Shift FIELDS, as in "These are the fields we are going to shift." The name should be read as a noun, not a verb. Thank you.)
The postcard was one of a half dozen in Thursday's other junk mail. It showed a typical religion-neutral holiday theme: Frosty the snowman, jaunty in bow tie and holly-besprigged top hat. I thought Frostie's deep black background a bit odd for the season, and was glancingly intrigued by the lack of text. I turned it over, and read the imprint. Small neat text read "Greetings from Shift Fields, home of word processing excellence and export database management." At first, I read "expert" for "export," then realised I'd skimmed a typo.
"Oh well," I muttered to myself as the card slipped into the recycling bin, "So much for word processing excellence."
It was less than a week after the new year that I received another mailing from Shift Fields, this time an envelope containing a CD ROM in a jewel box. And nothing else.
"This is a kind of ballsy campaign," I thought. "Pretty low key." Of course, low key is a well worn marketing ploy, intended to connote deserved self-confidence and consideration for the recipient and the "environment." But what the heck, I thought, business was a little slow, I had a bit of free time, and it wouldn't hurt to check out some one else's design ideas. So, I went down to the playroom cum home office and slipped the thing in the tray.
I run the best anti-virus stuff, so I'm not worried too much about viruses or Trojan horses getting into my system. While the computer booted up, I examined the CD box. It was nicely done. The inserts were full color printing on cast-coated card stock that I knew cost a lot more than the usual glossy paper. Subdued design, well-proportioned layout, careful kerning of the type. I was puzzled to see that there was no corporate address anywhere. There were telephone numbers and EMail and Web addresses, but no street or city addresses.
Well, I thought, in this age of telecommunications, that might make a certain kind of sense. Probably no one was going to try to contact them by mail anyway. But it seemed odd.
By the time I'd gotten to that thought, the computer was sitting quietly, and the Shift Fields logo was there on the screen, waiting patiently for my double-click. Gosh, they'd even put a Macintosh interface on it. Now I had to check it out.
When I clicked the icon, sure enough a window opened, with nifty graphics and a very obvious "Start Here" icon, so I did, and the read me started right up. It came up in my Web browser, and a welcome screen gave me some choices. The last of them caught my eye; it was "Export Database Management."
"Oops," I said to myself. It looked like I'd done them a disservice. Their postcard really did mean "export," not "expert." Mea culpa. So of course I clicked on that link. I read through a couple of pages of explanation, but stopped after a few minutes, slightly puzzled, slightly annoyed. The graphics and layout were superb for an HTML production. Perhaps if I was an "Export Database" maven, it would have been more significant. But it was all too vague to make any sense to me. Nowhere among the highly detailed screen shots and tightly fitted text was there anything about what one might actually use this software for. I remember thinking that you had to be an expert on export to get it.
Reading manuals has never been the Macintosh way. Mac software is supposed to be so easy to use it's self-explanatory. A lot of it actually was in 1986, when it didn't do much to begin with, but those days are long gone. The attitude lingers on, though, and I was just miffed enough, and intrigued as well, that I wanted to see the thing work. So without further ado I quit the intro and opened the Export Database Management program itself.
At the same time, I punched my buddy Mike's auto dial button on the phone. Whenever I run across something new and unknown, I always call Mike. He works downtown, for a big agency, doing Web development. Has T1 access all the time, surfs the Web more than I do, and a lot faster than our country home connection ever will. He knows everything.
To my surprise, Mike answered himself. He almost never does, he's legitimately that busy. "Mike, you old scoundrel," I said. "Slow day?"
He laughed and allowed that it was. That wasn't odd, five days into the new year. The folks he works for, and their clients, are the kind that take New Year's Eve parties seriously.
"Have you gotten any of these promos for Shift Fields?" I asked. "You heard about them at all?" Mike told me he hadn't.
"I have the secretary screen out my junk mail," he said. "You know me, I read the Web." I laughed and told him it must be nice to have a secretary screening for him.
"Well," I said, "I just wondered. It's some kind of data entry and management place, and the promo is pretty darn slick for that kind of industrial business." Mike needled me a bit, the way we do with each other.
"Yeah," he said, "Graphic design is cheap these days. Plenty of kids doing it for next to nothing, you know that. You better put your rates down."
"Naw," I said, "I just need a better class of clientele. With more money.
"OK, I thought I'd call and say howdy, check out this Shift Fields. I'll let you get back to the Web." We traded a few pleasantries, and hung up. By now I had the program noodling, setting up preferences. I find that a good way to investigate new stuff. Customizing a program lets you see what a program does. I'd gotten to a choice for "Create lists of frequently accessed materials." That looked promising. It might let me in on what kind of stuff we were talking about exporting. When I got to the listing tab screen, I had a few popup menus to choose from, one of them labeled "Home."
"Like in home office?" I wondered aloud. No, when I popped up that menu, it had choices for "Living Room," "Kitchen" and all other kinds of rooms one might have at home, including "Home Office." I chose that one.
The program munched for a minute, no longer than that. I heard my hard drive chatter a couple of seconds, as if something had been saved to it, and that was that. I was left wondering how to actually create the list. This wasn't exactly intuitive. There was a menu bar choice for "Export From," so I closed the preferences dialog box, and a dialog box asked me if I wanted to save my changed preferences. I clicked yes, and it closed. When I pulled down the "Export From" menu, there were choices for "Home," "Office 1" and others that corresponded to the menus in the prefs dialog box. I chose "Home" again.
A spreadsheet kind of window opened, listing rooms of a house down the left. Along the top it listed generic areas such as "Main" and "Alcove," and items of furniture such as "Cabinet(s)" and "Shelving." Some of the spreadsheet cells had the word "Show" in them, as if some rooms had cabinets and others not, and so forth. I scrolled down the page, saw that the "Home Office" row had "Show" in the column for "Desk," and clicked on that cell. Another window opened, with another spreadsheet. Along its top, it listed areas and things like "Trays" and "Containers." And under each heading, there were lists of things. I read the lists, and a kind of odd lightheadedness crept up on me. Under the heading "Surface," the list read: Fax (Samsung FX 1502); Copy holder; Monitor (Viewsonic Optiquest V73); Keyboard (Mac Extended); Mouse (Contour Unimouse, Banana); Monitor (Apple 15<= ColorSync) and went on to perfectly describe the contents of my desk. My actual, right there where I sat desk.
That was a bit much. How the hell did Shift Fields know what was on my desk? I flipped open the prefs dialog, and chose more rooms under "Home." I saved the preferences, pulled down "Export From," read another spreadsheet list and my eyes began to burn and my throat went dry as I read list after list of the stuff in our home.
And I mean they were specific lists. They listed the books on our shelves, even my decades old underground comic books. There wasn't a chance in hell that what I was reading could possibly be generic lists of stuff the average person might have in their home. How many people could be expected to own a "Visible Head model kit (completed)" and an "Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition in two volumes)" and a "Spherical Concepts, Inc. 'The Stars Above' (Double hemispherical plastic star chart)"? I read lists of stuff I didn't remember owning. When I saw that my long lost Swiss Army Knife was in the pocket of a coat hanging in the basement laundry room, a coat I had retired years ago, but kept just in case somebody visiting might need a coat some day, I tried to mutter "So that's where that went," out loud and choked on my own dry throat.
I stumbled down the cellar stairs in a sweating panic, found the trusty old SAK right there in the trusty old coat's pocket, and sat down on the cool linoleum floor. My knees just kind of gave way. I was trying to imagine how somebody could know all this stuff about our house; things I obviously didn't know myself. And why they had programmed all that information in a database. It must have taken days, if not weeks or months of some kind of ultra sophisticated spying to get all that information.
I work at home. I'm in my home office all day, pretty much every day. I hardly ever go out in the evenings these days; perhaps one day a week. Every other day I might be out making a drop at the UPS box, or grocery shopping. I might have a client meeting twice a month. There's just not time for anyone to be in our house without my knowing it. Or, so I'd always assumed.
The other possibility was just too bizarre to even think about. Had this program somehow surveyed our house, in minutes, figuring out what everything was, listing it on the fly? That was too much like black magic for me.
All in all, it was a pretty darned impressive promo for "Export Database Management."
Then a thought came to me. Still sitting flummoxed on the laundry room floor, I began to grin. There was one person who could have made those lists: my wife Dolores. It would have been a huge project, and not the kind of thing she usually went in for, but it wasn't beyond her. Or at least, not beyond her and Mike, or some evil combination of her organizational skills and somebody's design talents. I was thinking of the time she had stolen one of my beloved t-shirts and given it to the charity auction I was to attend with the company I used to work for. I had to pay forty dollars to charity to buy it back.
And how about the feud she'd carried on for two years with her friend Audrey, the two of them hatching ever more elaborate schemes to trick each other into accepting an old bottle of Yago Sangria? Some of those plots were darned complex. No, it really wasn't beyond her at all, although the reason for it escaped me entirely.
That must be it, I thought. I felt a wave of relief as I wobbled to my feet. I laughed, and said to myself, "Boy, she got me good. She had me going that time." I decided, as I walked back up the stairs with a lot more confidence than I'd staggered down them, that I'd just play dumb about it for a day or two. Let her sweat it out.
But not only did Dolores not appear to be sweating, for two days she was perfectly composed, even oblivious. She came home each evening blithe as ever, telling me about her day, never mentioning my computer work or mail or anything even remotely connected with the gag. Finally I cracked.
We were eating supper in the playroom, watching a video. She paused it to go upstairs to the kitchen for another glass of water, and as she walked away I mentioned Shift Fields.
"I looked at that Shift Fields export thing the other day," I said.
"What's that?" she called down form the kitchen. Talk about sang froid. Now I knew why her hands were always cold: she really did have ice water for blood.
"I'm sorry," she said as she returned, "Did you tell me about that before? It's gone right out of my mind." She sat back down next to me on the sofa, took a drink of water, and picked up the clicker.
I just looked at her, smiling knowingly. Sat there and stared her down, or so I thought.
"I said I was sorry," she said. "Did you mention it before?" And my stomach sank. Dolores may know how to play a joke, but this wasn't one. She was too obviously sincere. I know her, very well, and although I'll be the first to admit to often not paying attention, when I do, I know her moods and she was getting a bit into a mild one now. She thought I was accusing her of forgetting. Uh oh.
"Ummm, I feel like an idiot, but I have to say something. You really don't know about it? I mean, it's not a joke?"
"I'm not following this at all," she said. "You have something called Left Field that you thought was a joke I was playing on you?"
"Shift Fields," I said. "It's called Shift Fields, and yes, I thought it was a joke." My voice got weaker as I spoke. "But if it's for real, it's like the scariest, most bizarre thing I've ever seen." Dolores was peering at me in real concern now.
"No, honestly, I've never heard of it. I promise. Is it something for your computer?"
"Yes," I said, "And we have to look at it right now." Dolores isn't a computer fan. There are things she'll do on one, very practical things like composing her stories, checking airline prices, EMail messaging. But she's not fond of noodling around on them, and can't stand troubleshooting at all. I knew, when she agreed to look at Shift Fields that my antics had worried her. Otherwise she'd never have gracefully left her dinner and movie to get cold and forgotten. We walked over to the office corner of the playroom, I got out the Shift Fields disk from the drawer I'd stashed it in, and started it up.
"OK, look, let me show you how I kind of figured out how this works," I said. " You start here..." First I showed Dolores the lists I'd made so far, then I demonstrated adding a list. I listed our kitchen.
"You made this up," she said as I scrolled through the new kitchen list. "There's nothing that can really do this."
"No, look, I swear it. This is something I got in the mail. Really."
She looked at me, and I looked at her. We just sat there in my messy little home office corner, afraid to believe that anything like Shift Fields could be true.
"How could this possibly work?" Dolores whispered.
"I have absolutely no idea, but it does."
"But what are you supposed to do with it?" That's my wife. Eminently practical, and not at all afraid to cut right to the heart of the matter.
"Well, I don't know. That's actually what got me looking at it in the first place. I couldn't understand from the documentation what it really did, so I just started playing with it. And then, it was just so weird I thought it must be a joke."
"No, it's no joke from me," said Dolores. "Can we try to see what it does?'
So I dug into Shift Fields' Export Database Management. It turned out to be perfectly easy, at least in theory. There was a menu choice for "Export" that lead through a series of dialog boxes where we made finer and finer discriminations of destinations. It was obvious that one would choose an item from a list, then export it somewhere. There was just one problem.
We couldn't read any of the destinations available on the dialog box popup lists. I mean, we could see the words well enough, but they were all foreign. And not just foreign cities like Addis Ababa or countries like Djibouti. We didn't recognize any of the names at all. Our several atlases and gazetteers didn't list anything we could read. And a lot, perhaps most, of the destinations were written out in lettering we didn't recognize, either.
"OK," I said as I pulled more books off shelves, "here's a couple of catalogs of fonts. This'll show us every damn alphabet known to man." Although we searched through cuneiform and Akkadian, hieroglyphic, Chinese and Javanese, Arabic, Cyrillic and alphabets even I didn't recognize, we had no luck. The odd, unidentifiable alphabets remained just that.
"Oh, this is just too weird," said Dolores. "Where are these places?"
I sat back in my desk chair, stretched out my legs, crossed my hands over my stomach, got myself very comfortable and relaxed, and took the plunge.
"They're somewhere on other planets," I said. "It had to happen sometime. That's just what it is."
"It's a hoax," said Dolores. "It has to be."
"OK, let's try it. Let's call their bluff, then."
"You mean try exporting something?"
"Sure, why not. If it's a hoax, nothing'll happen. If it's for real, who knows what'll happen? But one way or another, we'll find out." We were talking now as if we were discussing tomorrow night's supper, calmly and quietly. And all the while, my stomach was in absolute knots, and I was so weak I didn't know if I could work the mouse to carry out my crazy idea.
"But what?" said Dolores. "What should we choose?"
"Oh, something small," I said. "Like maybe a pen. Nothing we'd hate to lose." So we did. I had three Lumomarkers in one of my white plastic tubular-design stuff holders. Two were medium points, one was fine. All three were listed in the spreadsheet for home office desk, under one of the containers headings. I highlighted the fine point marker in the list, and pulled down the "Export" menu. We chose a really weird looking destination, one whose name, as we supposed the lettering to indicate, was in a truly alien-looking scripty typeface with little doodads sprinkled through it. We watched the marker pen as I clicked the "Export" button. The pen disappeared.
We looked at each other. We looked back at the stuff holder. There was no mistaking it. Where three pens had been sitting in their own tube-shaped slot, black and solid, easily counted, unmistakably three pens, there were two pens. Period, the end. Dolores and I looked at each other again. I guess it might have seemed comical, the way our heads were swiveling in perfect synchronized timing, back and forth, between the pens and each other. Comical to whoever had cooked up this Shift Fields business. But to me, and, I was sure, to Dolores, it was too bizarre to believe.
"Where did it go?" Dolores said.
I shrugged, and said, "Come on. It went to wherever Eeshkabibble is, or whatever that writing said."
"I just can't really believe it, you know?" said Dolores. "Do another one." It seemed that we both, now that the deed was once done, had slipped into some kind of trance of acceptance that it might really be possible. Time was passing slowly for me, and my sight and hearing were pricked, unnaturally clear. Kind of like being high in the old days, when it was still very new, exciting and fun. Whether this was just through shock, or an aftereffect of whatever Shift Fields itself was doing I never knew. We exported another pen. It disappeared.
Now we both were almost blase about it. Dolores wanted to do what she called a real test. She went up to the kitchen, and chose a magazine from the kitchen table to export. She called its title down to me, and though I muttered to myself, "Heck, I'm not finished that one," I was too caught up in the experience to care. I exported it. Dolores ran down the stairs, saying, "It's gone, it's gone!" I knew she was as excited as I was when I saw her running. Except when she's exercising, she never runs anywhere.
"Let's try something else," she said. "What else can it do? This is crazy!" And that's when the trouble began.
I started to check out other menu choices, and everything was grayed out. The text in menus is normally black. If the text is gray, it means that the menu choice is not available: not working. "Uh oh," I said. "This isn't good." Dolores asked me what I meant. I told her about the grayed-out menus.
"Oh, damn," I said. A horrible thought had occurred to me, and sure enough, when I tried to list my home office, a dialog box came up, reading "Thank you for trying Shift Fields Export Database Management. Your limited demo has expired..." and listing phone numbers and EMail addresses for purchasing the full version.
"What's wrong?" said Dolores. I said, "This is a limited, a demo version. It won't work any more."
"It can't not work," she cried. "It can't."
"Hang on, just a second. Let me try something." I looked in the System folder of my computer, and took out the file I found for Shift Fields' preferences. "Let me hide this, it'll fool it into thinking we haven't done anything with it yet." I put the Shift Fields prefs file in another folder, and quit, then restarted Shift Fields. No luck. The same old message kept coming up. Moving the prefs file onto my other computer, restarting, changing the system clock, even resetting the parameter ram did nothing to get the program going again. I had no idea how it was doing it, but Shift Fields remained convinced that it had expired. I searched my computer for other new files it might have written with no better luck. Finally I admitted defeat.
"It can't have written anything onto the CD itself," I said. "I don't have that kind of CD player. Any software that can do what this just did can keep track of itself somehow I can't fool," I said. "There's nothing I can do."
Dolores was frantic, and I was glum. The Macintosh way had let me down. Undoubdtedly there was a notice somewhere in one of the Read Me files that told us about the limited demo, and I had breezed right by it.
"We can't prove it ever worked," said Dolores. "We can't show it to anybody or anything."
"Nope," I said, "We're stuck. It's over." That's the kind of statement my mother calls "famous last words." Because Shift Fields was far from over.
Over the next two days, Dolores and I discussed trying to invest in, or at least find out more about, the company Shift Fields. I sent EMails inquiring about the software and the company itself to all the addresses listed on the CD packaging. While the EMails were going unanswered, I tried without success to place a call to the phone number for Shift Fields. For three days, I spent hours wandering a seemingly endless maze of voice messaging options. After ending up at the same disconnecting dead ends over and over, I began to draw up a flow chart of the paths I had followed through the labyrinthine twistings of the phone system just so I wouldn't be repeating the same futile number punchings. There was never any way to get through to a live person. Every night for a week I gave Dolores a progress, or, lack-of-progress report on my attempts to contact Shift Fields.
"This isn't going to work, is it?" said Dolores.
"Nope," I said. "We're at an impasse."
"We'll hire a detective," she said. At first I was surprised. But in a moment I realized she'd been mulling it over for a while.
"OK," I said. "Who should, oh, wait, should I call Ralph? He might know someone." Ralph is our lawyer. We don't speak to him from one year to the next; we hardly have pressing legal questions in our lives. But for some reason, too much TV perhaps, law and detectives seemed linked in my mind.
"Sure," said Dolores, "Try Ralph." The next day, I did, and he gave me a recommendation.
"I'm not sure if this is exactly the right person," Ralph said. "But I'll bet on it that if he can't do your job, he'll say so and know somebody who can." Joe turned out to be a brick. In a day he had gone through the 'Net, searched out the owner of Shift Field's web site, gotten an address, and called a colleague in San Diego to check it out. Dead end. No occupants. Joe checked patent records, bank records, stuff I never would have thought of, and came up with exactly zilch. He was very kind with his billing, and apologetic. We ruefully but gratefully paid his nominal invoice. We were sure he'd done all that could be done, and that Shift Fields was gone, if indeed it had ever actually existed as such.
It was two days after we'd paid Joe, and a day after we'd given up on Shift Fields and the zillions of dollars we'd hoped to make investing in it, that the first...thing...showed up in the house.
I had been working in my office, and gone upstairs for a drink of water. There was an odd object on the kitchen table. It hadn't been there that morning. The thing was made of a golden metal, a thin sheet of it, eight inches square, standing on a thin, flat base of the same metal. I put my hand near it, but didn't touch it. It gave off a bit of warmth, and I thought it might be humming very faintly. It was difficult to tell. At any rate, it was only the first of the things that appeared in our house over the next two months. I'm not going to describe all of them; that would just take way too long, and be pretty pointless. At first, I was taking photographs of the things, but after a few weeks I gave up. There were just too many of them. We lost count early on, but there were certainly hundreds, maybe a thousand oddball things in the end. Some of the things were large, one particularly odd piece was the size of our sofa, and was a jumble of jillions of hair-thin, but very strong wires. Luckily it didn't weigh a lot. Some of the stuff was tiny, the size of a button. None of it did anything we ever figured out, although we really didn't fool around with anything. But nothing that got shiftingly exported to our house made noise, or moved around, or did anything obvious on its own.
Eventually, we were just laughing at it all.
"What on earth..." said Dolores one evening, and we both broke out howling as we realized what she had said. "I mean," she continued when she got her breath, as I was tossing a lump of what seemed like coal in a box full of junk, "What could all this be?"
"Pens," I said.
"Oh come on," said Dolores.
"Well, sure," I said. "I mean, not literally, but, you know, trinkets, inconsequential stuff. That's why none of it does anything."
"Oh, of course. Everyone's trying out Shift Fields, and no one is going to test it on anything valuable."
"Exactly," I said. "Interstellar pens. And maybe paper clips."
"And it's coming here because we used the program?"
"That's all I can think. It's just typical buggy first release software. Nothing ever works right when it's first out these days, and that damn Shift Fields is just like all the rest."
Toward the end, we were being inundated with stuff, and I spent the last few days of the onslaught just picking things up, loading them in my truck and carrying them to the dump. The one saving grace of it all was that even though Shift Fields may have been screwed up, exporting to who knows where, including us, it never put anything inside anything else, or where something else already was. Nothing fell out of the air either. Things appeared on the floor, or on a shelf, on a table, even in the bed, but nothing of ours was broken by exported items. That was good luck.
Although at first it had been a wild adventure, and Dolores and I had discussed trying to sell the things we were receiving to a high-tech research company, in the end it was all just a huge pain in the butt.
We decided that we didn't want to get involved in trying to sell things we didn't know anything about. What if some incompetent geeks blew up a city trying to pry apart something we'd sold them? That was too much responsibility for us. So the exports were really just worthless junk to us. I wasn't getting any work done while keeping our house free of alien knick knacks, and my clients were getting a bit peeved. Luckily, the exporting stopped. One afternoon, the last object appeared, and no more have come through since.
When Dolores came home that evening, I told her that we'd been five hours without an export, and she sighed and said, "Thank god. Maybe it's over." I just nodded my weary head. Some of that stuff had been heavy.
Well, the exporting seems to be over, and apparently for good. But Shift Fields isn't gone. I haven't had a chance to show it to Dolores yet, because it was just this afternoon that I received an EMail message from Shift Fields. It read, "Dear Valued Customer, We at Shift Fields appreciate your enthusiasm for our Export Database Management product, but must reluctantly withdraw it from production. We have encountered insurmountable problems with the Location Translation Algorithms which formed an essential part of our Export Database Management product. We trust these problems have not caused you, our valued customer, any inconvenience, and that you will be looking forward to receiving our new product, our Personal Makeover Database Management software just as much as we look forward to sending it to you. Thank you for your continued support of Shift Fields, home of word processing excellence and expert database management."
Needless to say, there's no way in hell either Dolores or I are going to fool around with Personal Makeover Database Management. That goes right in the trash the minute it hits the mailbox.
But, we did keep a couple of the things we had exported to us, and that jigger that looks kind of like a lava lamp, with the tiny moving pictures instead of goo floating around in it has some awfully intriguing buttons on its base...