Bewildering Stories

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And the Truth Shall Set You Free

part 2

by Bob Sorensen

Table of Contents
Part 1 appeared
in issue 127.

Beth Davidson ran a one-woman public relations shop, and tonight, when she needed it the most, she could not get her PC to work. Staring in the face of a nonnegotiable deadline for what could be her most important client ever, she had spent the last three hours wrestling with TelePathX’s new graphics presentation package. The program, according to the manufacturer’s eye-candy laden web page, was supposed to quickly and easily generate high-res graphics with only minimal input from the user. So far, all it had generated was 3 terabytes of static.

She looked at the clock with growing concern. Her teleconference was supposed to start in exactly six hours, nine o’clock, Monday morning New York time, in front of the entire board of directors of FujiCon, a Japanese mega-conglomerate looking to expand into the bio-computational market. Landing this kind of account could put Beth and her shoestring startup on solid ground.

“Godammit,” she swore for the at least the fifth time in the last five minutes. “What the hell am I doing wrong?” Beth felt like the package wasn’t even listening to her.

She bit the inside of her lip. I know it’s late, she though, but he did say I could call any time. She accessed her phone directory and spoke the name “Cray.”

Cray rolled over from a deep sleep and grabbed the cell phone off its Hypernet jack. He had been dreaming that his mother had received an e-mail revealing what really happened the night of his senior prom, complete with 64-bit color graphics and 3-D audio. He muttered a confused hello as he wiped the cobwebs from his eyes and the vision of his mother’s shocked face from his mind.

“Hi, sorry if I woke you, but this is important and I need to get this done tonight or I am going to be standing in front of some disappointed Japanese businessmen in about six hours. Could you at least tell me what I am doing wrong?”

Cray waited until the data stream had slowed down enough to interrupt, “Who is this, and why are you calling?”

Beth suddenly realized that she was babbling. She took a deep breath. “This is Beth Davidson. I did some PR work for the bug house about six months ago. You guys were looking to beef up corporate sponsorship and hired me, I mean my firm, to spin up some brochures and run a few ads in the respectable industry journals. I heard that the results were quite positive.”

Cray remembered the PR effort, and he remembered Beth. Aggressive, capable, and equipped with major boobage. He quickly sat up in bed. “Sure, Beth, yeah, those ads worked out great. We picked up a couple of real blue-chip sponsors.”

“Cray, I’m sorry to have to call you this late, I hope that I didn’t wake you.”

“Nah“ Cray lied, “I was finishing up the proposal for my dissertation. It goes to committee next week. What can I do for you?”

“You are my last resort. I am having some real problems with my PC, last time we talked you said that if I ever needed any help...”

Cray’s heart rate dropped by a factor of two. The good-looking ones were always just after hardware support. “Sure Beth,” he said, masking his disappointment, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“I have this new presentation package, and I can’t get it to respond to my commands. Sometimes the menus I want are available, and sometimes it seems like what I want to do isn’t even an option. The thing acts differently every time I try a command.”

“Slow down,” Cray said. “First, you need to tell me what package you are using.”

“Graf-FX, from TelePathX. Brand new. Just broke the shrink wrap three days ago. It steamrolled my old graphics package, so I can’t do an uninstall.”

“Okay, Okay,” Cray said as he mentally ran down the possibilities. “What operating system are you running?”

“It’s the best, the new Windows 20/20.”

Cray bit his tongue and continued, “What’s the rest of the rig like?”

“Top of the line. SGI Nucleus workstation, Intel VI GHz processor, full-up holographic memory. Only five months old. I bought it with some of the commission I earned on your job. It seemed fitting.”

It’s not the hardware, thought Cray. He paused for a second. Then, bingo, the light went on in his head. “Is this the first package that you ever bought from TelePathX?”

“Yeah, but why should that matter? Aren’t all these packages basically the same, except for some minor bells and whistles?”

“Where have you been? Don’t you read all the hype?”

“Not really,” Beth admitted, “I just shelled out my 600 bucks for what I heard was supposed to be the best package.”

“It is,” Cray said, “You just have to get used to using it. See, TelePathX incorporates a machine learning algorithm in all of its products. It’s the best autonomous neural net on the market.”

“I know that,” Beth snapped back. “I saw it on the box. So what does that mean to me?”

“That’s the whole point,” Cray explained, “this software watches everything you do, and it tries to learn what you like and what you don’t. Then when it starts to understand, it will do it for you. Sometimes, even before you ask. The AI engine is primo. You know, I was a pre-med in undergraduate — don’t ask — and I took a couple classes in neural mechanics... I attended a presentation my last semester...”

“Cray. Stop. Listen to me. All this sounds very interesting, but it doesn’t help me right now. Can you tell me why the program won’t work its magic for me tonight?”

Cray made a face. He wondered why people never took the time to understand the tools that they were using, yet got so bent out of shape when they didn’t work right. “Sure. I bet that the system hasn’t had enough time to figure out what you are like. Running a learning algorithm under a tight deadline can confuse the hell out of it. It’s probably madder at you than you are at it. For tonight, reinitialize the neural net to default, and turn off the learning function. Then you should have no problems getting the work done. You can start it up later when you have time to be more logical.”

“Thanks Cray, I bet that will do the trick. Look,” she said, “I’m under some pressure. When I have some free time, what’s say we get together, dinner, whatever. My way of saying thanks.”

“Sounds great,” Cray said. They always say that, he thought, but they never do find that free time. Aloud, he added, “Good luck tomorrow, I mean today.”

Beth added her goodbye and then terminated the connection.

Cray lay back down in his bed. That was easy, he thought. I wish that I could nail down this e-mail hack as fast. As he was getting comfortable, something he had said on the phone bubbled up in his mind. Something about the software from TelePathX. Just before he dropped off, it came to him. “When it starts to understand what you want, it will do it for you.”

As Sid had predicted, signal analysis on the O-4 boards had been conclusive, and the news was not good. In the last year and a half, the firm had shipped over 25 million boards that were susceptible to outside interference. When a customer got an O-4 board, Sid thought, he got more than he bargained for. Besides getting a state-of-the-art-computer platform, he got a high-frequency antenna with its ears open wide. Sid gave up tying to calculate how many unexplained, non-reproducible errors had been caused by those boards.

Sid spent the few weeks trying to get PlanarTech’s management chain to face up to the problem. He sent memos, cornered people in the men’s room, and left messages with all the important, and some not so important, department heads around the building. All were ignored. Sid figured they were more worried about how bad news would affect quarterly earning statements than facing up to a real live engineering problem. The one bright spot, Sid thought, if you could call it that, was that the O-10 board was pulled back. According to a press release issued by PlanarTech’s PR office, the product would be delayed indefinitely for additional beta testing and burn-in studies.

Next, Sid did a full Hypernet search to see if anyone had posted related problems on any of the computer hardware troubles sites and discussion groups that were the bread and butter of the technical underworld. He used an experimental search-bot he was beta-testing for a new software company his seventeen-year old son had started up in the garage. He told the bot to check for all recent reports of spurious failures, both hardware and software related, on O-4 boards, cross-checked against signal failures, shielding problems or frequency latch-up issues. The bot took about three hours to reach the conclusion that there was nothing out of the ordinary to report.

He considered going directly to a trade journal with a stack of printouts under his arm. Drop the whole problem in their lap and let the chips fall where they may, he thought. After a few sleepless nights of tossing and turning, he rejected that option as well. Once the press got hold of this story, PlanarTech’s name would be dragged through the mud. Worse, Sid figured, human nature being what it is, the company would be bombarded with messy lawsuits from the owner of every PlanarTech board sold since the Civil War.

Not that Sid cared if the firm’s legal staff self-destructed, if fact, he figured that would be fun to watch. But Sid knew that the news would likely bring the company and its stock, which was one of the most heavily traded on the NASDAQ, to its knees. Sid’s retirement nest egg, along with most of his friends’ that he had worked along side for over thirty years, was sunk heavily into PlanarTech’s stock. If the firm went under, Sid thought, those guys would be forced to drastically reconsider their retirement options.

Sid decided that there was a middle ground. Over the next few weeks, Sid went to work posting a number of anonymous trouble reports to a mix of Hypernet hardware news groups and chat rooms. He used anonymous servers, cutouts, remote pass-throughs, every trick he could wring out of his son to prevent being traced. He worked carefully, not revealing too much information at any single session. He dropped clues about the types of problems people would be encountering along with some good hints about the ultimate source of the problem. Sid did everything he could so that a tireless, relentless, and diligent trouble shooter, a guy like me, Sid thought, could see what was causing the errors and who was to blame.

To be concluded...

Copyright © 2004 by Bob Sorensen

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