Slow Ghosts in the Soft Machine: Part 1



Tark Wilhelmson learned to face his fear of contracting Alzheimer’s disease by playing in online medical research game.


Every day after work, Tark Wilhelmsen logged into the Alzheimer’s crowd sourcing research website and played the stall catcher game. He joined the other players using desktops, tablets, and phones in a  hunt for stalled blood cells in the brains of mice genetically bred to contract Alzheimer’s disease.

The goal of the game was simple enough — locate and mark blood cells that didn’t flow in a continuous stream. In the video footage, stalled cells appeared as motionless dark spots in the arteries, veins, and capillaries of the infected rodents.

It took time to get used to the low resolution video clips of microscopic brain scans. The camera lens zoomed down through mouse brain tissue in a maze of overlapping vessels fading in and out of the footage. A player needed a sharp eye to determine where one vessel began and another ended and if a blood cell remained motionless the entire time the vessel was visible.

As the amount of movies viewed past 1,000, Tark gained confidence in his ability to home in on a motionless dark spot in the grainiest image sequence.

With each session, Tark’s ranking climbed as he accumulated hundreds of thousands of points in the redemption process determined by expert opinion based on a group consensus.

One morning, at 2:45 am, Tark looked up from the screen, his right hand stiff and sore from dragging forwards and backwards through the footage.

“There’s got to be a better way,” he mumbled to himself, massaging knuckles with thumb and forefinger. Seconds after the words left Tark’s mouth he asked himself: What about my drawing tablet?

Tark reached over and opened the closet door next to his desk. He rooted around in a plastic box. From a collection of hardware components and digital connectors, Tark removed a flat box. From the box he removed a gray and black tablet.

Tark opened a browser and navigated to the products page for the unit. From the support page, he downloaded and installed the latest drivers.

By now, the clock on the task-bar read 3:15 am. Just one more redemption as a test with the pen, Tark thought, tabbing back over to the blood cell spotter website.

Using the pen took the pressure off Tark’s hand. For fine work, using a mouse was like drawing with a bar of soap. The pen, while not efficient as a pointer at basic navigation, gave the user precise control.

Tark scrubbed through footage of blood vessels, wondering if the cell he marked was  the one responsible for making the mouse forget what a piece of cheese looked like. At the next redemption — 22 minutes later — Tark received 67,000 points. This put his daily score at 948,652.

Should I go for a million? Tark asked himself. He looked at the time and decided to get some sleep.

The next day at work was a blur. Tark sat in his car during lunch and managed to get in a 45 minute nap.

When he woke, for a few seconds he din’t know where he was until recognizing the circular object in front of him as the steering wheel in his crossover vehicle.

For the rest of the day, the incident plagued Tark’s mind: Was that an early indication of severe short-term memory loss? Would the next one be worse? Will I even come out of the next episode?

After work, once Tark saw Stallingrab, his username, on the daily board rankings, he took a break from the stall catcher game and ran a search for signs of Alzheimer’s. He copied a list from a high-ranking website then pasted it into a text editor. Tark studied the entries:

  • Poor judgement and decision making
    Tark never answered a telephone number that wasn’t in his contacts. Zero chances of getting hooked in some crooked telemarketing scam. Tark brushed his teeth after every meal and took two showers a day. Keeping clean was a big part of his routine.
  • Inability to manage a budget
    With the aid of spreadsheet software and online banking, keeping track of bills, credit card receipts, and living expenses was a simple process even for a mathematically challenged individual.
  • Difficulty having conversations
    Tark was not a brilliant conversationalist, but he could maintain a train of thought long enough to complete a sentence.
  • Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find missing items
    Pass on that one. Tark always managed to locate misplaced keys, glasses or  his phone by going over the steps leading to the realization something was missing.

Tark continued reading articles on the Alzheimer’s awareness site. Each paragraph reinforced the thought that his brain wasn’t riddled with blood cells grinding to a halt.

When he finished, Tark didn’t get back in the stall catcher game. Viewing low resolution videos for hours every night had left bloodshot eyes feeling as if a handful of sand had been thrown in them.

Tark turned in early, concentrating on a positive affirmation: Blood cells roll like a freight train through the tunnels in my brain.

For the first time since registering at the stall catcher game site, Tark got in a full eight hours of sleep. He actually felt refreshed and clear-headed in the morning. Then he saw the email on his phone from a web site called Alzheimer’s Initial Detection (AID) offering a 50 percent discount off of a simple brain scan. Promo code: NOALZ50

Tark put it out of his mind. He had a date tonight. For the first time in two years he was going out with a woman. They met while both were on a free trial of an online dating service geared to the 50 plus set.

After a few chats, where basic information and recent photographs were exchanged, the “Matched Set” met at a local coffee shop. It was at this meeting Tark learned Alice enjoyed fishing. “Would you like to go fishing with me some time, Alice?” Tark blurted it out.

“Sure,” Alice answered. “Fresh or saltwater?”

“I figured once there’s a break in the weather we could cruise on down to Islamorada and do a night trip on a party boat,” Tark answered, waiting to see the look on Alice’s face. Is she going to go for it?  he thought.

“Is it a drift boat or anchor?”


“Will we be on the stern or the side?”

“If I can’t get on the stern on an anchor trip I won’t go,” Tark stated. “I’ll put in for two spots ahead of time.”