A winter's tale for the end of the year

Normcore 2020 in review

Some time ago, on a dark snowy winter’s night, in a land far from here,  four Councilors to the Emperor stood together huddled in the cold at the foot of an immense mountain at the far northern reaches of the Empire.  

These were wise men and women, each learned in their respective fields of study. They lived in fine wood-paneled scholars’ chambers near the Emperor’s headquarters. they had fresh fruit from the southern shores of the Empire delivered to their anterooms every morning.  Their birthdays were celebrated throughout the land.  Farmers cheered and took their hats off whenever the Councilors’ carriages passed, on their way to important business. 

But, in the past year, the Emperor had declared war upon his enemies outside the empire, and was now marching north to meet them, far from the sunlit shores of his sea kingdom, over mountains and treacherous terrain. The opposing army was somewhere beyond the peaks. He needed to cross them. 

Only now, in the dim of the mountain pass, a dark, menacing figure blocked the small path up through the peaks. It was clear that the figure was sleeping, but other than that, not much was visible in the snow and howling wind. 

The Emperor’s great army stood at an impasse.  Horses snorted with impatience and soldiers rubbed their chapped palms together, stamping their calloused feet to stay warm. The army was restless and nervous. The enemy could be waiting in the darkness if they did not cross. 

“Come,” the Emperor said to the four Councilors. “Study the figure with all your infinite wisdom, and tell me what’s blocking this mountain pass and how we can move past it to form our attack.”

The four Councilors looked at him unsteadily from their fine stallions. 

“Go,” the Emperor commanded with an even, steely voice. 

The first Councilor, trembling, ascended to the figure in the darkness. He waited for a beat too long before approaching. He gulped.  The beast made a terrible sleep noise. Sticking a hang out, he groped the black air. All he felt in return was dry, hard bone. His hand trembled with relief, feeling around. Only the shell, smooth and flat, met him.  It must be an immense tortoise. “Sire,” the Councilor said, returning and kneeling before the Emperor. “This beast is the Turtle at the End of the World. As it sleeps, it can be bypassed. When it awakes, it offers travelers a riddle. We must somehow clamber over the turtle while it rests. Or overturn its giant carapace.”

The second Councilor, no less scared than the first, came up to the great beast, and put her hand on its side. She felt only warmth, fur, and the great beating of an ancient heart. She probed gently, further, and felt its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, somewhere deep within.  She returned. "Sire, it must be a yeti. We must make haste to kill it as soon as possible, for at midnight, it awakens and draws humans into its lair. It has supernatural strength and will be hard to fight.”

The third Councilor passed the first two with a scornful glance that said, "I'll get to the bottom of this. You know nothing.”  He put out a hesitant hand and felt a single great coiled muscle that moved as the beast snored, tense and strong. There was no question. “ ‘Tis a monstrous serpent," he said, matter-of-factly. "We shall chop off its head and then the great snake will be no more."

The fourth Councilor moved into position and tripped upon a great, thick hoof splayed out in front of the beast. "It must be a horse, perhaps even a great stallion," she said "We need to treat it with great respect. We must capture it and ride into battle. The enemy will surely fear us.”

"Well,” The Emperor asked, becoming increasingly agitated and looking at his Councilors. "Which is it?" The Councilors glanced at each other, suspicious and sheepish. They were the wisest in the land, and yet they could not come to a consensus on this beast. 

"Come, let us discuss in council...and over some brandy," the first Councilor suggested smoothly, to pacify the great man,  and they all retreated to the Emperor's tent, huddling away from the driving snow. 

While the four Councilors were seated among luxurious carpets, deriving warmth from a  bottle of cognac, a small girl, one of the children of the soldiers that followed the camp, was woken up from her sleep among a nest of warm army dogs by the great beast snoring.  More curious than frightened, she tucked her small slingshot in her pocket and started walking around the darkness of the pass, traversing the length of the animal. 

She felt the fur, the bone, the great muscle, the hooves gently, tenderly, one by one. 

"It's a mammoth," she giggled. "it's a mammoth!" she said, over and over again, skipping through the camp, over the snow drifts. 

She passed the great tent, where the councilors, four shots deep into the bottle,  turned their heads. “Silent child, we’re trying to solve this problem here.,” said the first councilor, slurring his speech. 

The emperor silenced all of them. “What is it you saw, girl?”

“It’s a mammoth!” she said, laughing and brushing the snow from her bangs. “I went around the whole animal! I felt its great thick fur, its tusks, its hooves, and its trunk. And it definitely is a mammoth! If we wake it up and yell at it, it will move! We just need some big pointy sticks!”

The councilors looked at each other, the color draining from their faces, the dignified air of seconds ago draining from the tent. 

The Emperor narrowed his eyes at them. It was silent for a second longer before he exploded. 

“Fools! How many times have I told you that you need to be systems thinkers?! Always with you it’s about the single piece of the picture! The latest controversy! The latest scandal!”

“But you absolute witless wonders, it’s like none of you even read Normcore Tech. Squire, pull up my morning scroll. Why, right here she says to pay attention to the system rather than the individual players! Of course there are going to be controversies! And of course the individuals are important. But the controversies are not just about the individual players! The stories are much bigger!”

“They are the result of these mammoth systems and companies we’ve watched being built for years and that now deeply impact the way we think, the way we work, the way we live. If we focus on each individual controversy in 2021 and  we do not examine the entire mammoth in 2021, we are going to be massively doomed. We’ll never get over the mountain. And we’ll never be able to attack the enemy.”

The Emperor stopped. His voice became eerily quiet-calm. The Councilors helplessly watched him pace around the tent. Then he stopped and took a small, casual sip from his glass. 

“I’m disgusted with all of you,” he said at long last.  He turned to the soldiers guarding the war tent. “Tie them all up and post them outside for the night so that they may feel shame at not being systems thinkers,” the Emperor said. He paused, “And take away their Apple Watches,” he added as an afterthought. 

He paused again, finally. “And promote that child to Senior Staff Director of my distributed armed forces.”

A great clamor of protest arose from the Councilors, but it was of no use. The Emperor’s word was law. They all left, their heads hung in shame. 

“What does he need to attack the enemy for, anyway,” one of the Councilors grumbled as his hands were being tied. 

The fourth Councilor spat bitterly. “The Emperor has heard that the enemy possesses a vast quantity of something known as Bitcoin,” she said, and walked out into the night.

A very, very long-awaited happy and (most, most importantly) healthy 2021 to Normcore readers and your families and loved ones. Here is hoping we are at last coming out of the very long tunnel that is 2020.   I’m taking a break and will be back in January. 

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The Author:

I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a kindergartner and a toddler, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.