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Jocelyn Paine

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Rhetorical Initiative I

August 30, 2009

Douglas Adams: a man I admire for many reasons. One is that he invented a new figure of speech, the antisimile. On the particular Thursday that opens The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the day Earth is due for demolition, something is moving quietly through the ionosphere: "several somethings in fact, several dozen huge yellow chunky slablike somethings, huge as office blocks, silent as birds". They descend, fail to be observed by Jodrell Bank and Cape Canaveral, and halt:

The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

I was thinking, as I started up Windows XP this morning, that one could have hours of harmless fun inventing antisimiles about the shortcomings of common software products. Indeed, beginning to coalesce in my mind was an antisimile involving start-up acceleration and racing cars, applied to boot-up time for XP on my Toshiba Satellite. Just what does Windows think it is doing, and why does initiating a few system processes take so painfully long?

I then got diverted by remembering a related construction from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Adams published this in 1987, and one of its characters is software tycoon Gordon Way. His first company, WayForward Technologies, has gone bust, because it was selling hobby-computer hardware at a time when "every twelve-year-old in the country had suddenly got bored with boxes that went bing". So he makes his second fortune in software instead:

As a result of two major pieces of software, one of which was Anthem (the other, more profitable one had never seen the light of day), WFT-II was the only British software company that could be mentioned in the same sentence as such major U.S. companies as Microsoft or Lotus. The sentence would probably run along the lines of "WayForward Technologies, unlike such major U.S. companies as Microsoft or Lotus ..." but it was a start.

WFT-II's Anthem is a program that makes numerical data easy to understand by translating it into music. Japanese companies love it because it turns their financial accounts into cheery company anthems, though "if you were going to criticise you'd probably say that they tended to get a bit loud and squeaky at the end". British companies are less enthusiastic, as their yearly accounts tend to sound like the Dead March from Saul.

However, it's WFT-II's other program, Reason, that I want to draw attention to. Here's ex-student Richard MacDuff, explaining Reason to his college tutor Reg, a.k.a. Professor Urban Chronotis. (Reg is the Regius Professor of Chronology, occupying a Chair founded by King George III. So many terrible things happened in George III's life that he was terrified of the consequences should time slip back by even an instant. Therefore, he instituted the Chair of Chronology to see whether there was any particular reason why one thing happened after another, and whether one could stop it.)

"Well," he said, "it's to do with the project which first made the software incarnation of the company profitable. It was called Reason, and in its own way it was sensational."

"What was it?"

"Well, it was a kind of back-to-front program. It's funny how many of the best ideas are just an old idea back-to-front. You see there have already been several programs written that help you to arrive at decisions by properly ordering and analysing all the relevant facts so that they then point naturally towards the right decision. The drawback with these is that the decision which all the properly ordered and analysed facts point to is not necessarily the one you want."

"Yeeess ..." said Reg's voice from the kitchen.

"Well, Gordon's great insight was to design a program which allowed you to specify in advance what decision you wished it to reach, and only then to give it all the facts. The program's task, which it was able to accomplish with consumate ease, was simply to construct a plausible series of logical-sounding steps to connect the premises with the conclusion.

"And I have to say that it worked brilliantly. Gordon was able to buy himself a Porsche almost immediately despite being completely broke and a hopeless driver. Even his bank manager was unable to find fault with his reasoning. Even when Gordon wrote it off three weeks later."

"Heavens. And did the program sell very well?"

"No. We never sold a single copy."

"You astonish me. It sounds like a real winner to me."

"It was," said Richard hesitantly. "The entire project was bought up, lock, stock, and barrel, by the Pentagon. The deal put WayForward on a very sound financial foundation. Its moral foundation, on the other hand, is not something I would want to trust my weight to. I've recently been analysing a lot of the arguments put forward in favour of the Star Wars project, and if you know what you're looking for, the pattern of the algorithms is very clear.

"So much so, in fact, that looking at Pentagon policies over the last couple of years, I think I can be fairly sure that the US Navy is using version 2.00 of the program, while the Air Force for some reason only has the beta-test version of 1.5. Odd that."

"Do you have a copy?"

"Certainly not," said Richard. "I wouldn't have anything to do with it."

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