Chip did get to use a clichéd line from old television shows when he told Ellen “I have to take this” and slipped out the basement door onto a brick patio with weeds and grass coming up through it so that it straddled the line between floor and lawn, but listed strongly onto the lawn side. He decided to raise the communication stakes a couple of notches and call Allison right back instead of continuing on with text or video messaging. He didn’t know enough about his own feelings to know the names of the things he felt at the suggestion that Allison was leaving town, but he could at least by this point in his life identify that he was experiencing something called “emotions” and that he should pay attention around times like these.
He pulled up the phone number from her text and swiped it down to the phone icon and stuck the big black rectangle up by his comparatively tiny ear. It rang back at him with some kind of custom ringtone that straddled the line between modem tones and noise rock. Allison answered before too many bars of music or bits of data transpired. “What’s up AAAAH-nold?” she smirked down the radio waves. Chip wasn’t sure if she was trolling him with her old movie references or if it was just how she usually talked, but he let it go.
“Nothing much” Chip replied obligatorily, “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing much” Ellen returned Chip’s opening salvo. “I think I’m getting out of Dodge or whatever you call this place.”
“Wait, why? Why go now, can’t you, uh, stay for a few more days? Don’t you have more, um, reporting to do?”
Ellen’s tone shifted higher as she raised her lips into the chuckling position. “Ooo, good line. Is that what you say to all the girl reporters?” She nearly giggled at herself, then brought the tone of voice and corners of her mouth back down closer to coolness. “The collective says this story isn’t going anywhere. There’s no evidence on the dead guy, not enough to drum up enough views to justify me being down here. Maybe if some information comes out on the civic news feeds, we’ll wrap it up and push it out as an article, but we don’t need warm bodies on the scene for that kind of thing. I’ll get my subscriptions and search alerts polished up for this whole shebang and then I’ll move on to something new.”
“Wait, what about another angle? Maybe you’re missing something that you don’t even know you’re missing?”
“Like what, boy detective? Unless the dead guy was sleeping with someone, there isn’t much else that can compete with blood and sex for online attention. If nobody’s a pedophile or there’s no hilarious security camera footage, people won’t hardly look at a crime story these days.”
“Look, just give me a chance, hear me out. Meet me at—”
She cut him off, “let’s just say the usual place—”.
“—the usual place then and I’ll tell you about what you don’t know.”
“Okay sport, I don’t have a thousand and one nights here, so come on down and we’ll make it snappy.”
Chip ducked back inside and quickly and unconvincingly made his excuses to Ellen. They had just uncovered the possibility of hacking, destruction of property, and a cover-up that violated state and federal endangered species laws and here Chip was running off to meet some girl at the drop of a text. Ellen nodded curtly and thanked Chip for his time and before she got to the silent “e” in time, Chip was gone up the basement stairs on his way to the steep driveway and the road back to town and eventually over the river bridge and back to the community prairie.
The city hadn’t yet bought out the farmers on this often-flooded piece of land back when Chip had lived in Fredrickton, but when he had come back when his parents were sick, he hadn’t ever stopped once in the little dirt parking lot, yet here he was for his third time in as many days. He started to worry that it was suspicious just showing up there again, but he tried to comfort himself that lots of young men probably met up with young women to go for walks and maybe he should just get a dog for cover if they were going to do this again in the future.
Without a dog, Chip tried to look confident and comfortable and engaged when he stepped out of the car, but his body still felt quite furtive as he sidled over to where Allison stood against her own car bumper with her own phone flipped open in front of her, thumbing away on one of the few remaining phones with an actual keyboard, but Chip figured it might be an occupational hazard to have to write on the go. Relatively newly social mores demanded that you treat someone with their thumbs on the phone screen as if they were in conversation with another person and wait patiently for their attention, so Chip slid his furtive sidle awkwardly to a stop beside the car door and tried to wait patiently for Allison to acknowledge him, but he was so keyed up by the prospect of getting to share something that he knew and nobody else did that he pulled out his own phone and began texting his opening pleasantries to Allison.
When her phone beeped and the notification of the new message from Chip appeared, Allison whipped her head around and motioned with her hand for Chip to settle down, boy, and finished off a message with her remaining thumb, reaching the last few characters awkwardly across the other side of the wide keyboard. She slid off the bumper and turned to face Chip. “So, what’s this scoop you’ve got for me, Scoop?”
Chip charged off down the trail forcing Allison to double time a few steps to catch up. As they hustled around the loop trail, Chip told Allison the entire story of Ellen Suffolk and her computer virus and the captured network traffic that he had decrypted and replayed after her hard drives had smoked themselves. He finished up with the scene of the Least Tern that they had been among the few people on earth to have seen already.
Ellen followed everything he had said with the skills of a modern reporter, occasionally nodding or gesturing at something he said to lock a particular phrase into her situation-dependent memory by tying it together with a particular movement. But as he finished, she still looked quite skeptical, or maybe even confused. It was hard for Chip to tell the difference.
“So what’s the story supposed to be?” she asked quizzically. “What’s the headline? What gets enough clicks that it’s worth being here in meatspace?”
“Well, how about ‘Mining company stopped in tracks by tiny bird’?”
“David and Goliath isn’t a good theme for online. Everyone suffers from delusions of grandeur when they think that they’re the ones making the news on social media, so they tend to identify with the Goliath instead of the David and the numbers don’t work out.”
“Well then, what about writing about the victory for the anti-mining forces like Don Mockson’s bunch? Tie it into his death, human interest on how the band of crusaders rallied after their leader had fallen?”
“Better. It’s still little guy vs. big guy, but at least it has some martial resonance so we can get the young male demographic who loves the suggestion of battle. But, unfortunately for you, what makes you think that Mockson and his crunchy cronies have won?”
“Well,” Chip wrinkled his brow in the middle wondering where he hadn’t been clear about what he had witnessed in Ellen Suffolk’s basement. “Well, Ellen said that it would be years before the state might sign off on any new mining. So those people from the meeting got their way. No mining for more years, or maybe even indefinitely, depending on what they find. Isn’t that what their group wanted?”
“I don’t think they were chanting ‘no more mining’ in that meeting, were they? I think you’ve misjudged your friends from the granola aisle in the supermarket. I don’t think they want a regulatory solution at all. They were chanting “down with the Commerce Clause” weren’t they. I think that’s what they really want.”
Chip looked confused and crestfallen that what he figured was a victory was no such thing. “Why does it matter how the problem gets solved? Don’t we have rules about endangered species to protect the environment and they are going to do just that here? What’s wrong with a, uh, what did you call it, a regulatory solution?”
“Have you ever heard the term ‘regulatory capture’, Chip?” Allison indulged him with the most schoolteacher-y glance she could muster.
Without grabbing for his phone, Chip couldn’t say that he had any idea what that term meant and he was forced to admit his ignorance with a slight shake of his head.
“It’s a term that refers to the relationship that emerges between a regulated industry and the regulators who make and enforce the rules. It isn’t just bad guys on one side and good guys on the other side. Most regulations are specialized enough that the only people who understand the situation well enough to enforce them are former industry insiders. Or on the other hand, the only people that knows the regulations well enough to get around them are the former regulators who get hired on as consultants to work for industry and extract what they want.
“When that happens, the regulators and the regulated begin to align their way of thinking so that the agency in charge of stopping some corporation from doing something begins to think that maybe it isn’t such a terrible thing for them to do. Over time, this leads to weakening of regulation or the creation of loopholes that don’t seem so bad when they were put in place.
“The reason that Don Mockson and his young friends weren’t out shooting videos of terns themselves is that they probably don’t even trust the environmental regulators to keep the mining company out. Oh, here’s a perfect example of regulatory capture for you! Who’s the agency in charge of endangered species regulation in this state?”
Chip chewed his lip, trying to recall the TLA for the department that Ellen Suffolk had named. Chip figured he had the first letter, “The, uh, the D—” he racked his little wet brain until it coughed up the euphonious combination of letters, “—the DNR”. He smiled satisfied at his feat of human memory.
“Correct. One half point for the man in the trenchcoat. For the other half of the point, what does that stand for?”
“Department of—” Chip began confidently, “—of, uh, department of…” He frowned again now, going for just a wild guess, “department of natural regulation?”
“Bzzzt. I’m sorry, we have some lovely parting gifts. Department of Natural Resources. And what is sand?”
Chip looked around to see if anyone could give him a clue if this was a trick question, but there were no other heads visible above the tall, dry prairie grasses. Seeing no one, Chip tried the closest answer still in his mind. “Uh, a natural resource.”
“Ding, ding, ding, we have another winner! Yes, if the whole department that protects the natural resource of Least Terns is also in charge of regulating the natural resource of silica sand, then they are seriously captured conceptually. If we want to make sure that everyone has their chance to get their fill of terns and turkey hunting and sand mining, then we just need to make common-sense rules about how and where to go about hunting and mining and keeping terns alive. There’s no will to prevent mining or listen to the will of citizens in the regulatory approach. The regulatory approach is only about making sure that everyone gets all the pie they can eat.”
Chip was seriously frowning now. “But Ellen thought that there might not be an environmental impact statement on the mine for a couple of years.”
“Yes, but then there will be such a statement. And then there will be mitigation plans and workarounds developed based on that statement and then sand mining will be permitted during certain periods of time and in certain locations and then in more locations and at more times as the mining industry keeps lobbying for more and more of the regulations that they and their friends in the DNR find so common sense.”
Allison seemed really worked up about this, which concerned Chip who liked all of the people in his immediate sphere of emotion to maintain a certain equilibrium at all times. He shrugged, preparing to go to one additional level of remove, “So, I guess my story isn’t enough for you to stick around town for any longer?”
Allison did a double take. “Wait, no, why would you say that? Your story isn’t good news for people who want to stop sand mining in this county, but it’s plenty good news, especially with that video. Tell me, is this bird cute? Please let it be cute. Do you remember those spotted owls. Those things were cute. Is a, uh, least tern cute?”
Chip considers, “No, not spotted owl cute. It’s a kind of seagull I think. It looks like a seagull with a black hat on.”
Allison continues constructing the eventual blog post in her head, imagining the embedded video above the fold with flapping birds, cutting up 6 second trailer version before she even saw it, nodding to herself.
Then she stopped dead in her tracks and turned to face Chip who had to screech to a halt and take a half step backwards to be facing her questioning look head on. “What’s the paper trail on this video? Did you check the EXIF tags? What can we do to authenticate the footage?”
Chip is glad that he’s already stopped dead in his tracks or else this question would have stopped him dead. “Um, there’s no paper trail. It’s not really a, uh, video, I mean, not per se, it’s a, uh, sequence of network packets, decoded on a virtual Windows machine browser, turned into a series of screenshots. Is that a problem?”
Allison doesn’t understand half of what Chip said, but that in and of itself is already bad news. “I don’t think that is going to cut it with my editorial klatsch. There’s been so much faked video going around recently that it’s almost completely poisoned the waters for video exposés. If you want to use a video to smear someone, you’d better have a notary present for each step in the transcoding process. Otherwise, they just come out and say that it must be faked, even if it’s clearly not.”
Chip looked absolutely crestfallen. He had thought that he was losing his shot to spend any more time around Allison back when she read him the regulatory riot act. Then, she brought him back by starting to talk and dream about the article she could write. Now, his spirits had crashed back to slightly below ground level with her latest objection that the video he had hand-crafted was insufficiently authentic. Apparently nobody appreciated artisanal bit-bashing in the online news world.
“Hey, no problem, I’ll get you the original file, so you should probably stick around to start writing up your story. I’ll send you an encrypted message with the video when I get it.” Which would be a safe way of conveying an item that Chip had no idea how we to get at.