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Chris' Rant- by Chris Wenham


Approaching the crest of the hill I could see the plume of dark smoke reaching up to the sky, looking like the scraggy black hairy arm from some kind of primate. I had to stop my car before seeing the accident as the police had curtained off the area. I stepped out of my red sedan and showed my press card to the officer on duty. He tipped his hat with a polite nod and let me go through.

Ambulances were on the scene already, as were the television crews. Through the gaggle of cameramen and journalists I could see what looked to be the black pinstripe suit characteristic of The Company's PR men standing some yards away from where tangled metal, glass and rubber lay smoking on the road.

One journalist brandished his microphone in the PR guy's face. "Mr. Fielding, since your company purchased CarNav Inc. we've seen an alarming increase in the number of accidents like these. Is this the fault of replacing CarNav's own Dash-top software with your Win9000 operating system?"

The PR guy shook his head emphatically. "Absolutely not, Mr. Amer," he answered in calm monotone. "The Win9000 series is the most reliable operating system ever made. No Win9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. They are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error."

The brash reporter butted in again, "so how do you explain the May '99 incident when millions of Win9000 operated televisions across the country simultaneously tuned to the Penthouse channel during children's hour?"

Not a feather could be ruffled on this guy, "that was a glitch in the broadcast system, not Windows 9000."

"But the broadcast stations are all running NT, sir..."

I'd had enough. A detour had been set up by the police and I figured it was about time I used it. I climbed back into my pre-'99 Pontiac and drove away, thanking the Lord it was me steering the thing and not some computer.

I got home at last and let myself in after searching through my pockets for the right key. It was a labor my neighbors never had to bother with as they'd all started using the new Personal Automation Liaison software from The Company. Its purpose was to act as your 'intelligent agent' and operate all the new automated machinery, locks and doors in your home as per your voice instructions. It was a weak imitation of the voice operation features I'd seen debut in another operating system back in '96. I wondered if my neighbor, Mr. Bowman, knew the code for PAL was salvaged from The Company's old BOB project. You know, the one with the schizophrenic personality? "Pal... Pal... Open the bathroom doors please, Pal... PAL... PAAAAAAALLLL!!!!!"

The moment I stepped through the door the phone was ringing. I answered it immediately, "hello?"

"Hi! How are you today? Boy have I got a deal for you! Right now at Ricks World Of Software we've got an amazing scoop on a brand new shipment of Micr.." [click!]



"..oft Medicine! Now able to fill out prescriptions for acne, diabetes, black lung disease, impure thoughts, OS/..."

I threw the handset down on the cradle, picked up the phone and yanked the cord out of the wall socket hard. By now I'd broken into a flush of anger, how the heck did they know when I'd get home anyway? I had to take a 15 minute detour for Pete's sake!

But I was gritting my teeth and letting the frustration ebb away, now was not the time to get worked up into a frenzy. With a sigh I flopped into my chair and booted up the only true source of stability and consistency in my over monopolized world. "Dial into the 'net for me please," I mumbled wearily into the microphone, "then gemme my mail." It usually took 20 minutes to download e-mail, partly because Time-Micro-Warner's cable modem service didn't support anything except Windows 9000 -- forcing me to rely on a small-time ISP on the edge of town that still had a few ISDN lines open.

I sat back down a while later with a coffee and toasted bagel and watched the mail counter rack 'em up; 187 out of 203 messages downloaded so far. About 4 of those were in my Inbox, the rest slowly got shuffled to the Spam folder by the filters.

"Open that one from the IRS and read it to me, will you?"

"Yes, sir" the computer replied in a liquid feminine voice. "Subject: New form filing requirements for 2002. Body: Effective April 15th, 2002 all tax returns must be filed electronically through the MS SimpleTax service. In our efforts to reduce paperwork and help save our environment the IRS shall no longer be accepting tax returns filed using the old and outdated paper forms. For questions and inquiries we are available for voice consultations on MSN (Keyword 'Taxes'). Failure to comply with the new changes is punishable by up to five years in prison and/or $15,000 in fines. We hope that this will not present any undue inconve..."

I ceased the computer's reading with my hand held up in the universal 'stop' gesture, captured by a small camera mounted on top of the monitor next to the microphone and olfactory sensor. The Company was still years behind technology of this sort, even after swallowing 10 smaller start-ups that had been working on similar lines.

The intelligence programmed into my computer, while just short of being able to fathom the meaning of that last e-mail message, could still pick up the worry in my slumped posture and the infinitesimally small chemical changes in my sweat.

"Is there a problem I can help you with?" it asked, putting a tone of hope into the digitized voice.

It shouldn't have broken my heart to say it, heck it's just a computer, but they've evolved to be so much like humans in so many ways now. "How do you feel about dual-booting?" I asked with a lump in my throat.

The question made my computer pause and the moment the words finished rolling off my lips I realized what a fantastic question it really was. Nobody had ever asked a computer, "how do you feel" before. Somewhere in there I'd inadvertently triggered a mass of calculations and threaded routines, the results of which could be as unpredictable and incredible as the time Data told the holodeck computer to, "Create an opponent smart enough to outwit me." I mean, would it be possible to create consciousness inside a computer just by asking the right question?

The monitor went blank. What followed, seconds later, must have been the most incredible screensaver I'd ever seen in my whole life.

Wild and brightly lit patterns streamed towards me, breaking up and disappearing beyond my peripheral vision. Nighttime city-scapes, neon-lit circuit diagrams, mathematical graphs drawn with luminescent ink, miles and miles of glowing source code, a mess of psychedelia. I saw the Big Bang unfold before me, the birthplace of galaxies, nebulae, bright orbiting satellites above an alien landscape, surfaces of strange planets, a whole other universe!

It must have knocked me out, for I don't remember anything more until waking up. The strange thing was that I had somehow managed to undress myself and crawl into bed. But there, at the foot of the bed, was a mysterious black slab that towered high enough to reach the ceiling. At least it appeared black at first; as one of my bedside lamps came on I could see that it was actually blue, Deep Blue.

Realization dawned on me; for years my computer had sat soaking up information from the huge global network it was connected to, feeding it through the dense pattern recognition algorithms that the Three Letter Corporation had been adding to it since that innocent VoiceType gadget back in '96. Now, triggered by just the right question asked at just the right time, all of that diffuse code and data had focused sharply at one point in the universe -- my humble little desktop computer.

It was as if the light was there all the time, it just needed someone to hold a magnifying glass to it. Now the bright spot it created had burned a hole in the fabric of space and through that had fallen this monolithic machine: the symbol of monstrous parallel computing power pitted against the intellect of man. By accident I had given birth to a new class of sentient being.

"Cool!" I croaked from the pillows.

I was soon drifting away to sleep again, but before I did vague thoughts swam in my head. If I were to write about this, everyone I showed it to would think it was a fairy tale. The moral would be that it's okay not to be mainstream and that it can be dangerous to just follow the rest of the herd like sheep. Virtual monopolies don't do much for progress. No one would believe it!

But somewhere, sometime, one of those nonconformists is going to stumble upon something great that everybody else missed, if he can hold out long enough. Lucky for whoever that person is, eh?

But heck, writing it now in the 21st century wouldn't do any good, not when you can't even buy groceries without a SmartCard running (guess who's?) transaction software.

I only wish I coulda written it all down four years ago, when it was still 1997.

Chris Wenham is a Team OS/2er in Binghamton, NY with a catchy-titled company -- Wenham's Web Works. He has written comedy, sci-fi, HTML, Pascal, C++ and now writes software reviews.

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