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Here is the author with his old friend and fellow UCSD Alumnus, Dr. Tim Mullen, in Munich in 2019.
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The Emperor’s Newer Clothes by Brendan ZaChary AllIson
The bearded man suddenly sat up with remarkable vigor for his age. “Sirrah!! Wherefore art-“ He stopped as he gagged on his moldy yellow moustache, and then began brushing long grey hair from his face. After clearing his eyebrows, his fiery blue eyes fixated on the older of the two men kneeling on the hard dirt next to him. “You. You are a learned Physik?”
“Sir, I’m an EMT, I’m not-“
“Blasphemy!” The old man reached for the EMT’s throat, trying to stand, then collapsed heavily, grabbing his left hip. “Address me as Sire, Majesty, or Emperor!”
The EMT jumped back and eyed the old man, then waved off his young driver. “I so deeply apologize, majesty. I most humbly beg your apology.”
The old man’s blue eyes twinkled, then softened. “Thee hath practised thy art well, young Physik. I am awake. Thy tongue is odd; might thee hail from France?”
“No, majesty. I’m a local. Virigina native. My name is, um, Robert, majesty.”
“Ah! ‘Tis my middle name. Very well. Hast thee followed the instructions of my learned Master Physik, who brought me to this fine rest? His broth leaves me groggy.”
“I am sorry, your Majesty, I do not understand. A couple hikers found you, and they called the ranger station, and they called us. Um… can you tell me the name of this Master Physik?
“Of course. None would dare lay hands on his Majesty but the esteemed van Winkle himself!”
“Majesty, you – asked a Physik named van Winkle to give you something to make you sleep for a very long time?”
“I did, sirrah. And his mastery is evidently yet unmatched. Is van Winkle still alive?”
“No, majesty. He’s deceased. RIP, van Winkle.”
“And yet thee hath revived me, and brought me to health. And I have awakened in a new era, in a new land, when all have forgotten my shame!” He smiled, then looked curiously at the syringe in Robert’s hand. “I have not seen such a staff. Is it of glass?”
“Majesty, I am only preparing something to help you relax. Majesty, we must bring you to a place with more learned Physiks. My master has a new way to heal your other maladies. If I may just approach-”
“Get away! Poke me not with thy cursed staff!” He flailed viciously and both other men backed away. “I too was a Master Physik, and Tinkerer, and Mystic. My inventions were used far and wide! The wisest men sought my counsel! I was welcome at the finest universities! I served the king himself…. And then…. Those weavers! Scalawags! And suddenly I was the laughingstock, far and wide, my name and tale tied with trusting foolishness and… arrogance….” His voice trailed off and he slowly relaxed. The driver whispered something into the EMT’s ear, and the old man perked up. “Indeed, young sirrah! I did not hear all of that, but the word ‘fruitcake’ did catch mine ear. I am most famished.”
“Majesty,” the EMT replied, taking a slow step forward, “My Master Physik has the finest repast! Sweetmeats, fresh bread and Italian pasta, butter, exotic cheeses, with a glorious blend of ice, cream, and fruits for dessert! If I may please-”
The old man waved him off. “Stop thy prattle, young Physik, and tell me but one thing. Art thou also learned in legend, literature, lore?”
The old man suddenly leaned forward, grabbed the Robert’s shirt, and stared through him with piercing, pleading eyes. “Hast thou ever heard of any legend, any tale, story, called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes?’ Please, I prithee, tell me true.”
“No. I have never heard any such tale, most glorious Majesty.” The old man sighed deeply as the EMT moved his right arm and injected him with something. The EMT and the driver jumped back as the old man tried again to stand, then collapsed. “Executioner!! Guards!” He looked around wildly, then settled back and smiled.
“Majesty, please just try to relax, we-“
“Fear not, young Physik, thy concoction is most palliative.” His head fell lazily to the left and a fishing line of drool graced the whiskered mud around his noble cheek.
Five hours later
The EMT entered the conference room and addressed Doctor Rossen-Williams, who was seated at the head of a mahogany conference table. “May I sit down, doctor?”
The doctor motioned to a chair. The EMT sat down, placed his backpack on the floor, and nodded to the two others in the room, the Head Nurse and one of the lab techs. “Good, we’re all here,” the doctor said. “Sheila, can you please repeat what you just told me?”
“Yes, doctor. John Doe was brought to room 19 at 1440 hours. We placed him in bed and applied arm and leg restraints, based on the report from Bob.” She motioned to the EMT, who nodded in agreement. “He awakened briefly and we spoke for about a minute before he lost consciousness again. He – well, doctor, he believes that he is an emperor, has a weird accent like some high school Shakespeare play, and made violent threats if I did not remove the restraints. I obtained bloodwork, which I sent on to Jing here, then examined him further.”
“And you recommend immediate remand to the ward?”
“Definitely, doc-“ began Robert, but he was waved off by the doctor.
The Head Nurse spoke up. She said, “Leave this one alone.”
“She can tell right away that he’s mad for the throne,” agreed Robert, but he was waved off again.
“And when you examined him, then….”
“Doctor, I first checked his teeth. I’ve never seen anything that bad.”
“You did say he was British.”
“Of course, doctor, but… he’s never had any dental care except his wisdom teeth look like they were yanked out by pliers. Scarring is horrible. Just simple braces would have helped what’s left of his incisors. He needs major surgery and dentures. He has gum infections that probably just need penicillin. I also checked, he seems to have survived a burst appendix, don’t know why nobody noticed it. He’s lucky he survived. He has some other pustules that could be some bacterial infection-“
Jing spoke for the first time. “Gonorrhea. He has gonorrhea. And mumps.”
Doctor Rossen-Williams looked at the lab tech. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, ma’am. Had to go online to confirm it. Also, no vaccinations for anything. Ever.”
“He has Type I diabetes, no trace of any insulin injections. I’ve never seen such high LDL. Guy must eat like a king every day. He has odd levels of uric and ketonic acid in his bloodstream. The only explanation is that he drinks urine. I did a swab around his tongue, traces of goat urine. Lots of lactic acid, seems to have been sedentary for a long time. Also some weird plant-based alkaline barbiturate, never seen it before, but seems to be a strong sedative.”
“Keep working on that.”
“Will do, doctor. I also checked neurotransmitters and byproducts, as you requested. Weird levels of 5-HIAA, choline, COMT, typical of extended sleep. Otherwise seems to have a balanced diet. No hint of any aluminum plaques, or actually any trace of aluminum. Something odd with his monoamine levels, may be consistent with agitation or mental disorder.”
“I’m sorry, doctor?”
“Porphyria. Was called the king’s madness. It was a disease that affected many British noblemen. That could account for the erratic behavior.”
“Doctor, are you joking?” asked the Head Nurse.
“You reported a bluish color on the urine sample?” the doctor replied quietly, looking at the table.
“Yes, I sent it off for testing.”
“And in your 34 years as a Head Nurse, have you ever seen that?”
There was a long pause until the Head Nurse spoke again. “But, doctor-“
The doctor turned to glare at her, and she fell silent. “I also swabbed his cheek and sent it to the lab. Still working on it, but it confirms porphyria, which hasn’t been seen in over 100 years.” She looked around the room for any comments, then addressed Robert. “Did you bring the papers you found with him?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He unzipped his backpack, pulled out several crackling scrolls, carefully walked over to the doctor and placed them in front of her, then sat down. She examined one, scratched at the red wax seal for several seconds until it broke, then slowly unscrolled the long parchment.
After ten seconds of unbearable tension, the Head Nurse finally spoke. “Doctor, this is completely ab-”
“Thank you, Nurse,” the doctor replied, emphasizing the last word. “Return to your duties immediately.”
The room was silent as the Head Nurse stood up and left, then the doctor quietly spoke. “Robert and Jing, please lock the door, then each open one of these documents, very carefully, and read it.” She then continued unscrolling and reading while the two followed her instructions. After about a minute, she turned to Jing. “Well?”
“The paper looks like a contract. It’s very beautiful. Great calligraphy. He agrees to pay two Master Weavers a lot of amethysts, tea, spices, and indigo for some clothing that only wise people can see. It’s supposed to be invisible to anyone else.”
“Right!” said Robert, and then looked at the doctor, who nodded. “He was saying that he traveled to a new land, I guess here, and slept for a long time, cause he was so embarrassed about that. People were making fun of him, and he couldn’t handle it, so he wanted to get away from people associating his name with, he said, trusting foolishness and arrogance.”
“And you lied and told him you never heard of the Emperor’s New Clothes?”
“Right, doctor. It was just a judgment call, I was trying not to agitate him-“
“It’s OK. Good decision. Never mention that around him. Let me tell you about this one. Also looks like an old legal document. He is also supposed to pay a bunch of arcane stuff to a Master Physik named Rip Van Winkle. It’s to administer a potion to make him sleep for as long as possible. Also, Doc Winkle is supposed to then transport him and his so-called carriage to America and arrange for him to be buried. Well, no surprises there. Robert, how about yours?”
“Ma’am, it has his name, title, and his appointment as personal physician to King Geroge IV. It seems to be signed by King George. His name is Mark Robert Patsy. It says-“
“What was the name again?”
“Mark Robert Patsy.”
“He went through all this trouble because he didn’t want his name associated with people who were fools? And he’s named mark, and patsy?”
“That’s what it says, ma’am.”
“OK. Well, at least there’s nothing wrong with his middle name. Sure you can agree there.”
He read further for a few seconds. “Hm. Seems that they had to include his nickname for legal reasons. Was a contraction of his middle name. He was called Rube.”
“Jesus Christ!” Both of the others were startled, and Robert continued after a pause.
“Ma’am, it-“ Robert paused. “Ma’am, his appointment is as the First Earl of Condom.”
“This poor man!”
“Yes, ma’am. It says he is supposed to develop ‘overcoats’ made of linen to prevent the transmission of gonorrhea.”
She frowned. “Linen condoms wouldn’t prevent STDs.”
Jing chimed in, “He does have gonorrhea, ma’am.”
“Yes, thank you, Jing.” The doctor stood. “And that’s one opportunity to do our jobs and help this poor man. Jing, you get back to the lab, do what you can to help. Robert, want some overtime?”
“Get him a splint for his left hip, and the following list of medications.” She pulled out a pen and began writing across several pads while she continued speaking. “Bring all that to his room. Arrange meal service for him, and yourself if you want. I’ll meet you there in half an hour and revive him. He’s been asleep too long for an old malnourished man with an unknown barbiturate. If he wakes up earlier, don’t take his restraints off, no matter what. I’m calling some colleagues in Dentistry and Endocrinology, so don’t be surprised if other people show up. And-” she paused, then shrugged. “I’m going to learn how to treat porphyria. Let’s go, people.”
55 minutes later
Robert startled awake when the door opened, mildly surprised that the first doctor who arrived within a half hour of the scheduled time. The doctor first looked at the sleeping patient, then turned to the recently-roused EMT. “You’re Robert, right? The EMT who’s helping us?” Robert nodded. “Good. I’m Dr. Toericht from Neurology. Think we met before. What is that device on his head?”
“Sir, I didn’t put it there.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“Sir, I didn’t examine it. I assumed it was placed there by one of the doctors.”
“Good guess, cause putting shit on patients’ heads is my job. Find out how he got this item and –”
“Twas a gift, kind Physik.” Both men turned to the old man, whose Newmanesque blue eyes were as intense as ever. “One of the fair wenches was here when I awakened briefly. She did provide me with this marvelous viewing device as well, on my request.”
“Good to see you are awake,” said Dr. Toericht. “What viewing device?”
“I think he means-” Robert began, but was shushed by the doctor.
“The color-curtain.” He gestured to a monitor. “I have learned so much of this new world, Master Physik. I learned of the mystic, Jon Edwards, who can speak with the dead. I learned of new medicines to help men lose weight or grow the phallus. I learned of ways to become wealthy through the postal services. I saw …” his voice trailed off. “Good Physiks, one of the few joys of being an old fool is that I am most familiar with the expression that now clouds thy countenances. Mayhaps chicanery is afoot again?” He smiled, but failed to conceal deep concern.
The other two men looked at each other, and then Robert spoke. “Majesty, I am sorry. All of these are false. I am afraid that scalawags are still pretty common today.”
Dr. Toericht added, “What about that thing on your head?”
“’Tis a Brain-Computer Interface!!” The old man beamed at his mastery of a new term. “The Necopupi cat ears. The ears bristle, like a cat’s ears, when I become alert. Pray, observe, for I have been practicing.” The old man strained forward as much as possible with his restraints, yet the cat ears didn’t move for several seconds.
“Majesty, those ears haven’t moved since we arrived, when you were unconscious.”
“I beg thy pardon, sirrah?”
“Majesty, you went from unconscious to quite alert. If that thing senses alertness, why didn’t the ears move?”
“Mayhaps I was not wise enough.”
Robert began to speak again, but was again shushed by the doctor. “It could also mean it’s all bullshit. Looks like a one channel system, with a low-quality electrode over the forehead, that supposedly relies only on brain activity? I don’t buy it. It’s gotta be using EMG, EOG, no way they can filter out ambient noise like-” Dr. Toericht paused, finally noticing the confusion he’d created. “I mean, it’s a scam. The whole thing relies on nobody having the balls to risk looking stupid by calling them on it. It’s the same basic premise as ‘The Emperor’s New-‘”
“Excuse me, doctor, may I speak to you outside for a moment?”
“No. Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking to a patient.”
“OK, you get half of what you want. Go outside, and talk to yourself all you like.”
“Doctor, you can’t mention-“
“Leave the room. Now.”
Robert hesitated, then left. He watched through the door as Dr. Toericht spoke to the patient for another minute before the patient began shouting. “Lies!! Thy Physik hath lied to me!!! My shame is not unknown here!” Dr. Toericht jabbed him with a needle, but the patient continued raving. “Avast ye, arrogant whoreson! One mistake! One, in a career of insight and genius, and I am forever cast as….” He collapsed again. Dr. Toericht checked his pulse, then left.
“Don’t say it, Robert. Just follow me.”
Robert obediently followed the doctor down the hall, where they bumped in to Dr. Rossen-Williams. “Was just on my way-“
Dr. Toericht interrupted her. “Why didn’t you remand this guy to Psych?”
“He needs treatment first. Pretty sure they don’t know how to treat porphyria.”
“Fuck him. He’s a quack.”
“And we’re doctors.”
“Whatever. I’m signing off on this guy. He’s out cold now, I just administered 10 ccs of chloral hydrate after he became hysterical.”
Dr. Rossen-Williams frowned. “You sedated an elderly patient, in poor health, with an unidentified barbiturate in his system?”
“I told you, he became hysterical.”
“What did you say to him?”
“Well, he was all excited about some headband that he thought could read his mind. You know, one of those Facebullshit systems that people sell to kids and morons, and every goddamn news clip I see has some wide-eyed journalist fawning over how well it works.”
“Yeah, I know.” Dr. Rossen-Williams sighed. “I got friends helped an ALS patient with a real brain-computer interface. Believe me, the cheap scam systems annoy them more than us. And I’m guessing Robert here tried to stop you, and you blew him off?”
“He’s just an EMT.”
“He was following my explicit instruction not to mention that to him.”
“How was I supposed to know?”
“Doesn’t matter. You said you would sign off on him?”
“Gladly. He’s all yours.”
“Let’s keep it that way.” The two doctors glared at each other before Dr. Toericht walked away. Robert finally spoke up.
“I’m sorry, doctor, I tried-“
“I’m sure you did. My fault for assigning him. Shoulda known. Follow me, please.” They walked in silence to the room. “Robert, I’m going to write a name on a piece of paper.” She did so, folded it in half, and handed it to Robert. She then went inside and examined him, then administered several injections. “Stay with this poor man until he wakes up and ask him if he ever met anyone by that name. Hard to say when.”
“Speakest thou of mine eminence, good Nubian Physik?” Robert and Dr. Rossen-Williams both looked at him. “I fear my faculties hath escaped me. I was speaking to another Physik – an arrogant fool, as I once was, and then- I regret that I forgot what we said.”
Dr. Rossen-Williams sat on the bed and patted his shoulder. “Your Majesty, thine apologies are unwarranted. Please, let’s focus on what you remember. My friend tells me that you were a learned Physik?”
“Indeed, I was headmaster of the Imperial Academy of Science. The title of ‘Emperor’ is some exaggeration, I admit, but I was most taken by titular pride.”
“And you mentioned a scandal of some kind?”
“Aye. Two scalawags convinced me that they could make the finest raiment, clothing that only the wisest men could see. They fitted me with gowns of air and I trotted about the palace, my manhood flapping about like my jaws, and none of my councilors dared admit they were unwise, so each plied me with tales of the magnificence of my new attire. A humbler man might have noticed that they all described a different garment, but I was not such a man. I organized a parade before the entire town, and it was only a child who had the courage to note that I was quite nude. What could I do but continue the parade, with thousands of peasants laughing at me?”
“I’m so sorry to hear it, Your Majesty.”
He nodded. “I ordered the child whipped. Yet, before the sentence was executed, I realized the failure was all mine. I instead met with him and told him my tale.”
“And I’m guessing this was sometime in the late 1820s, in the year of our Lord?”
“Thou art a most wise, learned, and charming Physik. Twas.”
“And might you recall his name?”
Dr. Rossen-Williams glanced briefly at Robert, who opened the piece of paper with the name. His eyes widened as the patient replied. “Indeed, he was a most clever lad. Hans Christian Andersen.”
“Uh-huh. And then you decided to sleep for almost 200 years until everyone forgot?”
“Majesty, I- um. Hm. Perhaps another topic would be in order. Have you been treated well here?”
“Very much. I have been well fed, and greatly enjoy this contraption from the master haberdasher.” He pointed to the headset that he still wore. “I am told that it can read thoughts like a scholar can read ancient tongues.”
“Majesty, we do have the knowledge to do that in a very general sense, but not like you think. You may have noticed-“
“Aye, it doesn’t work. I realize that now. The toy changed many times as we spoke, though I have done nothing different. Yet its appearance is pleasing, and I am grateful for newer clothes of any sort.”
“You’re not – upset?”
“Learned Physik, I have lost too much of my life in regret. One can only learn and move forward. Mayhaps I shall laugh about it someday. I was also taken by an expert crier on that contraption.” He gestured to the TV.
“I’m sorry, Majesty, what is a crier?”
“A newsreader. One who reports on events. One who is responsible for exposing scalawags. Somewhat like I am. Or was.”
“My apologies, Majesty. Criers are called ‘journalists’ today.”
He nodded. “She had the same odd haberdashery on her head. She said it had a chip from BlueSky, though I saw no potato products of any kind. And a man in a most exotic suit told her that it could tell when she relaxed. I watched her contort her face most comically, close her eyes, glare, yet nothing happened. I could see myself in her eyes. She dared not suggest that her mind was weak. And so, when it did finally move – quite at random, while she did nothing new – she said ‘There it goes’ and left an audience of trusting fools convinced of its efficacy.” He laughed again. “With all the learning since my era, nobody thought to question it. They need merely put the system on ten of their colleagues – fellow journalists, as you say – and it would be obvious. Yet none dare play the fool.”
“Perhaps that’s long overdue.”
“Learning from books comes easier than learning from the heart. I have much to ponder.”
Dr. Rossen-Williams looked at him for a long time. “Majesty, if I remove your restraints, do you promise to cause no harm?”
“Learned Nubian, thou art as kind as thou art wise and beautiful. I give my word.” Dr. Rossen-Williams removed the restraints and then silently left the room, motioning Robert to follow.
“You WHAT?!” The Head Nurse looked around the conference room for support, but got none. “Lemme get this straight, you unstrapped him 2 days ago, based only on his word that he would cause no harm.”
“Right. And he didn’t.”
“Then you treated his – whatever – and got him free dental surgery, even though he has no insurance.”
“And instead of remanding him to Psych, you- you…”
“Your command of the obvious is dazzling one of us.”
“But-“ The Head Nurse sputtered. “Where will he stay? What will he do?”
“Not your problem any more.”
“What if he’s wandering around the street, freaking out at-“
“He’s not. He’s fine.”
“And you know this because….”
“Not your problem either. Finding a new job is. I’ve had enough of your insolence.”
“Fuck you, doctor.”
“I’m already leaving.”
Three months later
The journalist beamed. “Doctor Rossen-Williams, I think this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen! I mean, I’ve heard of this kind of thing, but a mood ring that really works?”
“Yes. See, most mood rings are just scams. They sense temperature, which can change with all kinds of things. But I invented a new chip that can actually read brain activity from the ring finger. See, I’ll prove it.” She put a ring on the journalist’s finger. “It can even sense subtle changes in your subconscious mind. Even emotional changes you might not even sense. See, it just changed color. Now, what were you thinking?”
“I- I’m not sure, doctor.”
“Let me guess. You were experiencing the emotion of awe, with some suspicion. And you didn’t want to look foolish because you didn’t know what to say.”
“That’s- yes, that’s exactly it!” The audience applauded.
“You can even try it on a random volunteer. How about we let the audience prove it? You choose someone there, someone who seems wise and trustworthy.” The audience chattered excitedly for several seconds as the camera panned over them, then a tall man emerged from the crowd.
The journalist stood and put her microphone under his carefully trimmed beard. “You, sir, what’s your name?”
“I am Sir Harold, good lady.”
“Ah, an Englishman! Well, everyone knows your reputation. And you’re nobility?”
“So I’ll put this ring on him, and we’ll see how it works.” She put the ring on his finger, and the audience was silent while it changed color a few times. “What were you thinking?”
“I am- awestruck, good lady. I thought of my homeland, then my wife, then an old foe of mine in primary school. Every time, it changed color. Amazing!” The applause reverberated throughout the large room as the journalist nodded.
“You saw it here first, everyone! On my program! Hard to believe it’s only 229 bucks!! I know what I’m asking my hubby for Christmas! Thank you so much for being on my show, doctor. And you, sir, thanks for volunteering. That concludes our best show ever. We’ll see you all next week!” The applause eventually died, as did the camera and stage lighting.
Dr. Rossen-Williams walked out the stage exit, went to her car, and checked her cell phone. “We just sold 500 of them during the interview. We’ve made more money in the last month than I made in my entire life.” She beamed at the man in the passenger seat. “Never too late to learn, eh?”
He laughed as he looked at his cell phone. “Indeed. And I hath learned that a ring could conjure love.” His wife just looked at her new wedding ring, then kissed him.
Journalists get fooled by bullshit BCIs just like this quite often. There are dozens of articles by journalists falsely claiming that this is the first BCI of some type. They typically reflect a very poor understanding of BCIs and don’t mention asking any outside experts. Shame on such writers.
I haven’t vetted this story with any medical experts.
The protagonists become bullshit-BCI scam artists. And they’re successful and happy. That (to me) is a sad ending.
I think that I first posted this publicly on my blog in August 2016. I just revised it in March 2022.
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