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General

If I'm honest, my life didn't really begin until after the accident. Until that point, well, until I was recovering in hospital, I had no idea what I was missing out on. Yes, I was successful, or so many people would say. I was making good money, had all the trappings of success. I was surrounded by friends, people who enjoyed my company and wanted to be with me, or so I thought. But let me back up.

To understand what I mean in that opening sentence you need to know who I am, what I did and what happened. Only then can you understand why now I think my life began at the age of 26.

I was born into an academic family. My paternal grandfather was a Professor of Applied Mathematics. His eldest son, my father, got his PhD at Michigan before moving to California to take an Assistant Professor position in the Astronomy department at Berkeley. While in California he met and married the woman who gave birth to me, my mother. She was a Research Assistant then but once she'd completed her doctorate we moved back to Michigan and my parents both became full professors. So you see, I come from what might be called “brainy” stock.

At school I excelled at math and physics and became an accomplished chess player. At 11 I was playing in state-level tournaments, which made my parents very proud. Where I struggled was in making friends.

Despite my mother's best efforts, I didn't have any. I don't think it wasn't her fault. She arranged “play dates” and pushed me into activities like the Boy Scouts, which I detested. I just didn't understand the process of making friends. I'd be brought together with a boy of about my age and we'd be expected to do some activity together. Often this meant a board game, which I'd win easily if it involved any level of strategic thinking. On other occasions we were sent outside to “play in the yard,” a particularly pointless activity, in my view.

Most of these play dates took place at my parents home and were awkward, forgettable affairs. Almost inevitably, the visiting boy would soon decide it was time to call his mother for a ride home. However, one such play date stands out.

I'd ridden the bus back to Dwyane Jewson's house, with Dwyane of course. Dwyane was a big kid, in the interests of honesty, lets just call him fat. He was also African-American, a fact to which I think I was oblivious. However, these two traits led to his being somewhat ostracized socially, hence the inevitability of us being put together.

We went up his bedroom to “play,” and that's when I had my first encounter with a computer. There on a white-painted desk was an Apple II. I'd heard about such things; my father talked about the computers he used at work, but we didn't have one at home. So this was my first opportunity to lay hands on a keyboard.

Dwyane showed me how it worked. He had software which let him create simple mathematics and graphing routines. He showed me how to write a “Hello World” program, how to change the screen layout, and how to draw and animate crude figures.

Dwayne soon tired of teaching me and insisted we play a game on this computer. It was a text-based program involving some kind of quest. The game didn't interest me but what had seized my attention was that I could bend this machine to my will.

Time went by and I persuaded my parents we should have one of the new IBM PCs. On this I honed my programming skills. My father, intrigued to discover what I could accomplish with such a tool, would set me astronomical problems, astronomical in the sense of calculating orbits and trajectories. I enjoyed creating these programs but they had little practical use. Talking about them at High School, or even copying them furtively onto a computer in the school library, wasn't winning me any friends. And then I started coding games.

I started small, with Tic-Tac-Toe and Snakes & Ladders before progressing to facsimiles of Pacman and Asteroids. Suddenly I was surrounded by kids who previously never wanted me at their lunch table. Now they were pleading for a floppy disc with my latest game.

Sixteen now, my interests were changing. I was still playing chess and programming games but there were girls to think about. Sadly, thinking was all I did. Girls weren't much interested in my latest game creation and when face-to-face with one, usually in the dreaded “team project” assignment, I'd stammer and turn red. But up in my bedroom I was able to create games that involved attractive girls, usually curvaceous and compliant.

At first I'd give away these games to “friends” but as word got out I realized I could charge for them. And so began my career as a programmer of “adult” computer games. Soon I was paying hundreds of dollars into my bank account each month. I told my parents I was programming games, but was always careful to keep the details from them.

At 17 I took my AP exams and was rewarded with an Arkwright Scholarship to MIT. It took me three years to get my Bachelor's, Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science. Nine months later I had a Master's in Computer Science and a letter accepting me onto a PhD program in the nascent field of Artificial Intelligence. What I still lacked though were real friends, and especially a girlfriend.

Yes there were people I hung out with. They tended to be from various Asian countries and like me, had prodigious math and programming skills, but were they really friends? I lived in a grad student dorm, ate in the cafeteria, and spent 18 hours a day in front of a screen. I'd converse with my fellow students but I really didn't know how to build a relationship of any kind.

At 23 I hired into ARC, a shady research company funded through the Department of Defense. There I worked on AI solutions for, well I can't say what for. Then I was headhunted to an AI company in Cambridge England. England didn't really appeal; I was settled in Boston but the more I said no the more they increased their offer.

In England I had more money than I knew what to do with. I bought a Porsche Boxster and got written up in several business and IT magazines. My new-found celebrity led to invitations for drinks and dinner. For the first time in my life women took an interest in me and, well I admit, I took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself.

One morning, April 23rd in fact, I was walking from my loft apartment in a converted mill to the city-center office building where I worked. It was walk or bus because the office had no parking and as I hated being in proximity to students and old people I walked.

Outside, the office looked like every other old Cambridge building: honey-colored stone and an air of permanence. Inside though, it housed a state-of-the-art AI development center. My team and I would huddle around electronic whiteboards, doodling and arguing. We'd hypothesize all morning, develop tests in the afternoon and study results late into the evening.

That morning as I walked I was reading an academic paper that had just come out of China. They were doing some amazing AI work at Nanchang Technological University and this paper approached a problem we were wrestling with in a different way. So I stepped off the sidewalk, pavement, I should say, without looking to my left.

The details are hazy. I recall being lifted onto a stretcher and then into an ambulance, because it hurt like hell. My head was being whacked repeatedly with a shovel and someone was twisting and pulling my legs at the same time. Or that's how it felt.

I know I drifted in and out of consciousness for a while, several days I later learned. There'd been 12 hours of brain surgery, followed by reconstruction of my legs, but the first thing I remember clearly were two bright blue eyes inches from mine.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, in a soft English accent.

I mumbled something, I don't recall what, and she went away. The next morning I was awake when she came back. She came over, stood by my bed and smiled. Her eyes were the same intense blue as her uniform. I'd say sky-blue but the English sky was never as blue as her eyes.

“Feeling better?” she asked.

This time I could speak real words. Maybe they'd dialed-back the pain meds a little. “I feel like hell,” I mumbled, “What happened?”

“You were hit by car and when you landed you banged your head on the curb.”

That explained the pounding inside my skull then.

“Your parents are on their way,” she continued, “Is there anyone you'd like us to call? Any friends?”

I shook my head. I couldn't think of anyone.

My parents arrived the next day. Pale-faced, my mother clutched my father's hand as they stood by my bed. They came back the next day, and the day after that, but as they were leaving my father turned back to face me.

“I'm really sorry but we have to go home tomorrow. I'm chairing a conference in Hawaii on Friday and your mother's presenting a paper in Chicago on the same day. But we'll stay in touch all we can.”

My mother came over and kissed me on the forehead before they left.

The weekend came and went with my only visitors a succession of matronly nurses and nurses aides. They smiled, some would say a few words, but for the most part I just lay looking up at the ceiling.

Monday afternoon my nurse with the blue eyes came back. The badge above her left breast said, “Williams” but I figured that must be her last name.

“What can I call you?” I asked, “Nurse Williams seems terribly formal.”

She smiled. “We're not supposed to tell patients our names but it's Nicola.”

I nodded as best I could. “Nicola. That's nice. I don't think I've ever met a Nicola.”

She smiled again, “Lucky me, I get to be your first.”

Smoothing down the bed covers she looked at me again. I noticed the glossy sheen of her chestnut-brown hair, tied into a ponytail high at the back of her head and how her nose took a turn upwards at it's tip.

“I heard your parents had to leave,” Nicola said. “Did you get many other visitors over the weekend?”

I don't recall exactly what I said, but she understood. No one had been to see me in days. No one from the office, none of the group I'd have dinner and drinks with. I wondered out loud if they'd heard what had happened.

“Oh I'm sure they did,” she said, “Your accident made quite a splash, no pun intended. It was on the front of the local newspaper.”

Nicola stopped by the next afternoon and we talked some more. I asked how long she'd been nursing and how she got into it. She asked about my work but when I tried to explain it was as if there was a blockage in that part of my brain. I knew what I wanted to say but the words wouldn't come.

I slept a lot during those days, but the pain was receding. I'd be wheeled out of my room for tests or scans, and then back again an hour later. Nicola was there a lot. She was funny and kind, never too busy to talk, always concerned about how I was feeling. A couple of times she asked if there was anyone I wanted to call, and that was when I asked for a laptop.

“You can borrow mine,” she said, and the next day as I lay propped up against the pillows she placed an old Mac on my lap.

I pressed the power button and the screen exploded into brightness. I screwed my eyes shut and looked away. The glare was so intense, the colors so garish, I couldn't look at it.

Seeing my discomfort, Nicola snapped the laptop shut and took it away. Next morning one of the specialists, Doctor Harding it said on his white coat, came by to ask about it.

I was confused by this. “I think she needs to take it in somewhere and get it fixed.”

Harding, a tall, thin man bald but for traces of gray over his ears, shook his head. “Her laptop's fine. We'll run some tests but I think the problem is in how you respond to visual stimuli.”

He wasn't joking about “some” tests. I spent the next few days in front of screens, none of which I could look at. Then there was a meeting in his office. I was walking by this time, unsteadily, but Nicola was there to help me down the hallway.

I sat down and Nicola went to leave. “Nicola,” I called out, “Stay with me, please.”

She sat beside me as I learned how this aversion, this inability to look at screens, was something I'd have to live with for the rest of my life. Then Harding asked what I did for a living.

I tried to explain but again the words wouldn't come. They'd gone from my memory, but it was worse than that. I couldn't use alternative words or sketch pictures because, the harder I tried to remember the more I realized that I didn't know.




Four months since the day I stepped in front of a white Range Rover I still hadn't seen anyone from my old office. None of my team came by, although they could if they wanted because I was still in Cambridge.

Well there was one exception. Nancy Grewal, the HR Manager. She came to see me soon after I'd moved back into my apartment.

“You'll be paid up to the end of the month,” she said, “But that's all.”

And then she left several documents for me to sign. I wasn't sure what I was putting my name to, so when Nicola came by that evening I asked her to look.

She scanned the pages silently before putting them back down on the dining table.

“What total bastards!” she exclaimed, “They're giving you the boot. You, Wilson Dunaway, inventor of the sideswitch algorithm.”

“What's that?” I asked.

She frowned for a moment before replying, her head tilted to one side.

“It's a machine learning concept you invented. I read about it on your Wikipedia page. Didn't understand a bit of it though.”




After that I saw a lot more of Nicola. I met her friends and then her family. They seemed to like me. Heck, even their Cocker Spaniel seemed to like me, judging by the way he'd hump my leg while I sat on their flowery sofa.

The money I'd saved was running out and I needed a cheaper place to live. That's when Nicola suggested I move in with her. I didn't need asking twice. For the first time in my life I'd found someone who really seemed to care about me, who wanted to be with me, not because I was rich or somewhat famous, but because she liked me.

After I'd moved my stuff in she threw me a welcoming party. Her tiny flat was packed with people, some of whom I knew and some I didn't. Everyone seemed so friendly and they were all so interesting. I spent the evening asking about peoples jobs and likes and families and where they went on holiday and I learned so much. And they seemed to like me too.

After they'd all left and Nicola and I were collecting the glasses.

“That went well,” she said, “Everyone really likes you you know.”

I nodded. “I like them too, but I wonder if they would have liked the old me, before I was normal?”

January 28, 2020 01:12

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