By Denny Tan

“So,” I mused, “Can you tell me about yourself?”

The seventh grader beamed with excitement. I had recently signed up as a Judge of the Juniors for the Robotics competition. There was everything from enthusiastic kids presenting little squirming robots to undergraduates explaining their complicated programs and creations.

“Hi,” he answered, “I’m Alexander James. I go to school at East Point Grey Academy, which is not far from here. I just like spending time by myself, and my creations.”

The enthusiasm present in kids was not lost in this one, but not conspicuous either. I, a tenth grader, suddenly paused in my mind’s path. He was half a foot shorter than me, with surprising wisdom and depth in his voice. I told myself not to judge him yet, as I was a judge for his Robotics creation.

“The Tinkerer,” I squinted at the Alexander’s messy handwriting. It was a very intricate hominoid sitting on some kind of block of metal. Its action resembled Rodin’s “Thinker”.

“So, what can you tell me of its genesis in your mind and in the physical realm?” I asked. 

The kid straightened himself and started: “Five months ago, I began reading some Aristotelianism, I noticed…”

“We are talking about your robotics creation, Alexander . Not Philosophy.” I cut him off abruptly. In truth, I was surprised at his knowledge and vocabulary. Two can play at that game, I thought to myself. 

Alexander  remained unfazed; he nodded and presented it once more.“The Tinkerer took 5 months. I foraged for scraps. The two portions, the man and the box, are made distinctly different, one relying on tiny mechanisms and the other on gears.”

“What does it do?” I murmured, enchanted from its detail.

“Allow me to demonstrate.” Alexander  checked over everything a last time; then, he clicked a microscopic button on the side of the box. The machinery whirred as everything warmed up. I watched as the little person got up and jumped from his pondering position on the box and ran to the side of it. Its actions were surprisingly human-like. We saw the little person scramble and kneel next to the box, appearing to be taking a deep breath. I took notes on my notepad, eyes never leaving the little figure. It flipped a small switch next to it. Immediately, the entire project disintegrated into a heap of former-robotic parts. I frowned.

“So, Alexander , now that your robot has been destroyed either intentionally or unintentionally, is there anything else I should know before going off to someone else?”

Alexander  grinned.“Yes.” He pulled out a tiny controller, and pressed the only button on it. The box miraculously reassembled itself. The little figure was back on his seat on the box, empty eyes same as ever staring downwards.

I congratulated the kid, who was beaming with pride. “Mr. James, if I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed that you made a time machine. Is the projects only purpose to reassemble itself?”

“Sometimes, I wonder the same thing…this robot appears too life like, and it sometimes it even seems more than a scrap tin creation.”

I finished up my comments, then returned the clipboard to the deciders of the awards. I clapped Alexander  on the shoulder once and left the room. Outside, I put my coat on and drove home, my mind still on Alexander’s model.

I have known the difference between being alive and living, but the robot was neither and seemed to live even better than some did. Its purpose was clear. Who writes our book, even before our birth, even before our existence? Who decides when we will die, when we will triumph the elements of life once and for all at the end of our days? Perhaps, in a theologist philosopher’s view, it could be an omniscient’s whose writing weave our essence. Or perhaps, time itself aids our existence far before it made it out of the realm of nothingness, before existence. Or perhaps before even time itself, in the reaches of the whirlpool of oblivion, our consciousness lives but does not die, dies but does not live.

Maybe I was overthinking this.

On the following morning, as I headed towards a coffee shop through the miserable weather, I saw on the paper that Alexander’s did not win any awards. I played hooky that day to find Alexander . I showed him the paper’s final headline: “The Town’s Philosophical Theories Contests Open Today”, and we walked through the gates of the building, the dark clouds behind us.


Haiku Story (modern version)


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