Postcards from Quarkwood, #3: ‘The Corner Shop (II)’

by Hari Sriskantha 


Sterling Connor was still staring intently at the room, but he had long forgotten what the intent was. He was a few minutes closer to making his big announcement, but somehow a few minutes further away from knowing what he was going to say. (He had come up with a new opening sentence, but forgot to write it down, and subsequently lost it to the ether alongside that other thing he was supposed to remember today.*) The original plan was to announce an exciting new feature of The Corner Shop website — † — which he had spent most of the last year developing. Well, not him personally, because he didn’t know how to code things, or even that you could use ‘code’ as a verb now. But he was the one who told other people to do it.

Unfortunately, one blog had leaked what he was announcing early: an automatic delivery network. Using all the data his shops had collected over the years, his software could predict what you want and send it to you automatically. It used a sophisticated series of patterns: those five or six recipes you usually cycle through even though you keep meaning to learn more ‡; that pack of toilet roll you only remember to get when you’re standing in the bathroom staring at an equally naked cardboard tube; that edition of The Economist you get every couple of months that you’re definitely going to read this time. You just set a spending limit, and the algorithm does the rest. In the days before the press conference, several other blogs and websites had revealed a detailed pricing structure, the availability within different regions, and even screenshots of the user interface.

The Internet was excited.

Sterling was not.

He was annoyed for two reasons. Firstly: he did not like it when things were leaked. He had worked hard — or at least his team of developers had — and he hated that he had been deprived the pleasure of a big reveal in front of an expectant audience. Secondly, and perhaps a little more crucially: the automatic delivery network did not exist. He had only added same-day delivery: you order something during your lunch break, and it’ll be delivered when you get home from work. This had taken a lot of planning and organisation to pull off, but now everyone was convinced he had this other, considerably more impressive algorithm — which could have been dismissed if anyone in the process had taken a few seconds to think about the impracticalities and impossibilities of such a system — and everyone was going to be disappointed.

And so here he was, in front of shareholders, in front of business partners, in front of the public whose respect he valued so highly, about to announce something that no-one was going to be interested in.

So he did the only thing he could:

“Hi, I’m Sterling, and I’m here to announce the all-new Automatic Delivery Network.”

He lied.



* Toilet roll?

† This choice of name was especially uninspired, as he didn’t even have the creativity to realise that he could easily afford to hire someone to come up with names for him.

‡ Especially since one of them is just a frozen pizza.

Postcards from Quarkwood, #2: ‘The Corner Shop (I)’

By Hari Sriskantha

Sterling Connor was staring intently at the room. He was trying to commit it to memory, in the hope that his future self a.) stumbles across a time machine and b.) remembers to come back to this exact moment in space and time to tell his current self what to do. (He had made this pact before, but had long forgotten for where and when. He’d definitely remember this time, though.) For he was five minutes away* from making his big announcement, and — unlike the usual protocol for people in such situations — he had no idea what he was going to say.

He had many strengths, but imagination was not one of them. When he started his corner shop sixteen years ago, he couldn’t think of a better name than ‘The Corner Shop’ despite spending a long afternoon with a pen and a blank pad of paper. (You would’ve thought he could’ve at least come up with ‘The Connor Shop’, a witty but ultimately simple pun on his last name, which sounds like the word ‘corner’.†) The shop was founded on the promise that it would be an antidote to the large, soulless chains that populated almost every shopping street in Quarkwood. Unfortunately, that promise was becoming increasingly difficult to keep, now that — sixteen years later — The Corner Shop was a large, soulless chain that populated almost every shopping street in Quarkwood.

It wasn’t his fault, though. And unlike most people who claim it wasn’t their fault, he could actually mean it. He wasn’t that good at negotiating with suppliers, so everything was way more expensive than the competing corner shop down the road. (They opted to carry advertising, and so their sign was just the logo of The Quarkwood Chronicle. Which was a shame, because the owner, Conor Shoppe, was much better at spotting aptonym-based puns.) He hadn’t quite figured out stock control, so he was always running out of popular items. He didn’t even spend that much on marketing or visual pleasantries. It just so happened that a bunch of trendy, young offices sprung up nearby, flooding the store with trendy, young office workers perpetually looking for skipped breakfasts, unpacked lunches, or dinners where you don’t plan anything in advance and hope what you’ve bought and what you think you’ve got at home could just about be combined into some kind of meal-like experience. It wasn’t his fault if they interpreted his expensive prices, limited choice and minimalist marketing as some kind of cool prestige thing rather than a failure to grasp basic business skills. Before long, he had enough capital to start another store, and then another, and the rest was a combination of history and uninteresting exposition.

Two minutes to go, and still no Future Sterling. Maybe there was some rule about not interfering with your own timeline. He knew what he was going to say one week ago, when he invited everyone to this press conference. Of course he did, because otherwise organising a press conference would be a weird thing to do. But things had changed since then. And he knew his audience were not going to be happy.



* It was more like six-and-a-half minutes if you used the clock on the wall, which everyone knew was one-and-a-half minutes slow‡ but had subsequently and independently decided that doing the mental adjustment every single time was less effort than actually changing it.

† It would be nice if narrators were allowed to point out such things, but that’s both against the rules and impossible for a fictional story.

‡ Unless, of course, it was daylight savings time.

Postcards From Quarkwood, #1: ‘Tin-Foil Hats’

by Hari Sriskantha

Daphne Russell was walking home from campus one day, when she saw Uncle Jim standing in front of his house. He was holding an unusually large quantity of tin foil.

“Hello, Uncle Jim! What an unusually large quantity of tin foil.”

He wasn’t her uncle, and she was fairly confident that his name wasn’t Jim. But ‘Uncle Jim’ was what everyone else in the village called him, and Daphne had learned long ago that correctness is inversely proportional to the number of people who willingly talk to you.*

It didn’t help that she was doing a PhD in particle physics, which meant that every time she explained what she did to a hairdresser/cab driver/humanities student there was a non-trivial probability of them replying something along the lines of “that’s impressive” followed by “I gave that all up after secondary school since I’m not that clever”, forcing her to explain that a PhD is a measure of the ability to do a PhD rather than inherent intelligence, and that it’s only because she was lucky enough to have a really good physics teacher at A-Level, and that she would be rubbish at hairdressing/driving cabs/being a humanities student, and not be ambiguous about how much she means it all lest the balance of the relationship be lost forever.** Which is especially important for people wielding scissors near your head/driving you places/not so much for humanities students.

If she was then to point out that it should actually be “because I’m not that clever”, because ‘since’ refers to time rather than causation, then the ensuing silence would be as painfully awkward as the time that happened once.

“I’m selling tin-foil hats! Would you like one?” asked Uncle Jim in the main narrative.

“To stop the government from reading my thoughts?”

“No! To keep out all of those ridiculous conspiracy theories. I heard this helps.”

Ironically, that was actually a myth propagated by the tin foil industry.

Welcome to Quarkwood.


* As is the number of inverse-proportionality relations you point out.

** But not in a way that was too convincing, either. After all: doing a PhD and all the associated assumptions of intelligence and worthiness pretty much defined her existence.