28 August 2012

tilly with the others: part 26

The first thing Qxz and Xzq noticed when they entered the meeting location was the smell. The Others communicate displeasure with a very distinct, very personal odour. Any individual emitting an odour of this type is unable to smell themselves, and, through some special trick of neuroscience, is unable to smell any Other in the vicinity who is emitting an odour of the same type for a similar reason. This can lead to strained communications when sexual mates are attempting to convey mutual displeasure to each other, but for Qxz and Xzq at the moment, it meant that they were walking into a stinking environment which none of the team members confronting them were bothered by in the slightest.

Qxz and Xzq focused their attention on Zqx, since it had been the team speaker last time, but it was Bqz who announced it was speaking for everyone else.

Bqz paused. Qxz and Xzq automatically displayed submissive tones. Bqz was so irate it was practically shimmering.

"You two know we cannot chastise you for disobeying the research charter and rules," it communicated. "You have gone through appropriate communication protocols, and you have warned the subject of imminent danger. All this is well within the rules."

Xzq started to communicate something back, but Qxz added its own displeasure scent to the mix, and Xzq stopped.

"It is also within the rules to give the subject minor tasks, especially to teach the subject how to communicate with us. As you know from the charter, tasks also test the willingness of the subject to comply with us."

Bzq's shimmer became a steady glow distinctly in the anger spectrum.

"Where you failed in your roles as subject liaisons was in not providing the subject with any safeguards against the hostiles, and not forming any contingencies to deal with hostile actions on the subject."

"The subject was not harmed — " Xzq began.

"The subject was not harmed! Have you reviewed the surveillance? Does that look like an unharmed example of this species to you?" Bzq's displeasure scent was so strong that Qxz could pick it out of the rest of the room's bouquet.

"If I may, Bzq," communicated Zqx. It addressed the two liaisons. "This team has been on location for seventy orbits of the field planet. We found and lost two subjects during the interspecies strife. Then the strife ended, this subject survived, and our research was progressing per schedule. We are in the final phases of research. We are initiating direct contact. We have less than one orbit to complete the research."

"The rest of the team is not willing to have the research fail," added Bzq. "The team wants a successful mission."

Qxz displayed intense submission. "It is only appropriate to complete the research per the plan," it communicated. "I understand. We understand. Perhaps we could find a way to.... coach the subject on how to avoid the hostiles."

"Too late for that," said Zqx. "The subject species is otherworldly, but not entirely stupid. This individual subject will find its own solutions. I imagine it already has."

Xzq emitted a timid scent. "Do you wish to reassign the roles within the team?" it communicated.

Bzq's angry shimmering dissolved into the deep colours of despondence. "Too late for that," it communicated.

"I understand," said Xzq.

"We understand," said Qxz.

"Then stop making mistakes," said Bzq. "That is all." It displayed dismissal.

If several Others emit the displeasure stench towards one or two of their kind at the same time within an enclosed space, the targets will find the smell lingers with them. They can sense it long after it has dissipated, a phantom disapproval, which, their evolutionary biologists maintain, came to be for the purpose of negative reinforcement. Others prize group bonding very highly.

Qxz and Xzq choked back the nausea and discussed how to proceed.

24 August 2012

#fridayflash: data-driven

"Because it doesn't work that way!" Fenmore would have banged his head on his desk if it hadn't been a video call.

On the main screen, Detective Gordon was staring at the camera like a bulldog trying to decide where to bite first.

"Teleport Inc.'s machines gather all the data there is to know about a person when they step onto a departure pad and tap that keycard," he said. "Your network knows their height, weight, hair colour, what's been left stuck between their teeth from lunch. You know what's in their purse, their wallet, what the shape and size of the skidmarks in their underwear are."

"More or less, but — "

"So you have all this data about a person when they use your network to teleport. And you Teleport Inc. folks, you're careful. You've never lost anyone yet, never forgotten to give them their fingernails back on the arrival pad. You have to have data archives."

"Not the way you're thinking of."

"What I'm thinking, Dr. Fenmore, is that under the Criminal Information Act, I don't need a warrant to demand the data I'm asking for. I don't need you to give me the logs of the past week. Just the one. Gina Saunders. I have her DNA sample right here. You find me the record, we know where she last teleported to, and we'll continue our investigation from there."

"But it doesn't work that way," said Fenmore. "We're exempt from the CI Act, because we're considered transportation, not communications. And our data is encrypted. And you can't just 'access' it, because we deliberately stored it in such a way that it can't be queried like a regular database. It's sent redundantly, but not all redundant streams have the same data, so even if one stream gets hacked a hostile force can't go and kidnap someone by re-routing their data..."

"We don't want access to the live data, doctor," said Gordon. "Just the archives. Saunders was last seen at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst on 17 August. We want you to check the archives for then..."

A laugh cracked out of Fenmore's throat. "The seventeenth? That was six whole days ago. Are you kidding me? We only keep stuff for thirty-six hours. Detective, that data is long gone, even if it was legal for me to help you. Do Canadian police still keep notes on paper too?"

Detective Gordon glowered at him. "You better be telling the truth, Fenmore."

Dr. Fenmore tapped his desk in a few different places. "Just sent the documentation proving it. Nice talking to you, Detective Gordon."

Dr. Fenmore made a point of using all the locks on his front door, even though the detectors would let him know if anyone was within five kilometres of his house.

He checked that the arrival pad was completely powered down, then prised off the cover panel and reconnected the wire he'd loosened a week ago. He replaced the cover panel and powered up the pad. The machine ran through boot-up and self-diagnostic processes for a minute or two, and then there was a white flash over the pad itself.

A young woman stood on the pad, her fedora and trenchcoat dripping water onto the rubberised sensor surface at her feet.

"Amazing," said Dr. Fenmore. "Toronto hasn't had any rain since the day you left. How do you feel, Gina?"

Gina Saunders shrugged and stepped off the pad, doffing her hat and coat at the same time. "Fine," she said. "Felt just like a regular port." She noticed the coat rack by the door and hung her hat and coat up. "How long was I gone?"

"Seven days in total," said Fenmore.

"And no-one figured out where I was?"

"The broken circuit meant you registered as arrived on the network, but you stayed in the local cache until I re-connected the wire just now."

Gina raised her eyebrows. "And you think no-one's going to question that the pad was off-line for a week?"

Fenmore shrugged. "Technically it's a lab machine. They're not supposed to be up all the time."

Fenmore watched her check out his living and working space. She ran her hands over his worktable as if she expected the sensors to recognise her hands. As if he'd leave all that data open for access by just anyone. Suddenly she froze and held her hands up close to her face.

"What is it?" said Fenmore.

"I was wearing light blue nail polish when I left Toronto. Look." She flipped the backs of her hands to face him. All the fingernails were bare.

"Oh, that," said Fenmore. "Well, you know, being a man, and not one who wears that sort of thing, I don't have any nail polish remover handy, so I just edited it out of the data record. You understand."

"What, they don't have pharmacies in Australia?"

"If I'd bought cosmetics, it would have shown up on my transaction records. Some marketer or another would have flagged the data, and then it could have gone anywhere. The whole point is to hide the fact that a woman is living here."

Gina frowned. "I figured I'd just find my own way. That last job means I've got loads of credits saved up, even after I give you your share. I just can't spend them in North America without getting flagged."

Dr. Fenmore smiled. "We're in the outback, Gina."

Gina glanced out the living room window. "Looks like it."

"The teleporter pads are the only means of transportation in or out of here. I got rid of my car as a sign of good faith when I joined Teleport Inc. Anyhow, petrol hasn't been for sale within a thousand kilometres of here for two years at least."

"Okay, so I'll teleport out. It's a risk, but if I have to, I have to —"

"You don't understand," said Dr. Fenmore, a little too loudly. "The company hired me to work on secure network nodes, so private areas with teleportation pads couldn't have just anyone using them. The departure pad only responds if it's going to teleport my DNA. It won't take anyone else's. If I so much as have some of your dead skin cells on my sleeve, the departure pad will edit them out."

He watched the information sink in. She was far more pretty than intelligent, this one, but eventually she understood.

"How far is it to —"

"Five hundred kilometres."

More pretty than intelligent, for certain. Prettier still with a pale face.

21 August 2012

tilly with the others: part 25

Tilly didn't have to work the next day. She didn't have to go out for groceries. She didn't need to check e-mail. She didn't need to houseclean.

She stayed in bed, telling herself that she didn't even have to get up at all, for a whole extra hour before she admitted to herself that it wasn't doing any good.

She was going to have to do some research on the "hostiles" for the Others today.

The Others hadn't told her anything about the hostiles, and Tilly wasn't sure she'd recognise them if she did wind up confronting them. The Annex was a very pleasant, friendly neighbourhood, far more friendly than the suburbs had been, but that didn't make its residents immune from the infamous Toronto prickliness. She could just as easily wind up annoying a regular human and report on the wrong person.

And there was the question of when, and what excuse she could give for wandering around the hallways... Tilly sighed, got up, made herself get washed and dressed, and had a cup of tea for breakfast. She sat at the dining room table so that she faced the front door.

She could hear the mother from down the hall taking her children to school, talking to them in Spanish. Something about having all their books on them, she could make out that much. She heard the children's answers fade and then stay at the same volume. They must be waiting for the elevator.

A man's voice joined them, or else maybe a boy and a man... no, it was that teenager who lived at the opposite end of the hall from Tilly. Poor thing, his voice was breaking and simply wouldn't stay broken. Tilly liked him. He was always polite when she met him in the elevator. He lived with his father, and Tilly had never been able to find out if the mother was dead or just not present.

She could hear the father now as well, and then the elevator door chime. Right, everyone was going to work and school now. So now wouldn't be a good time. Even if the floor got quiet, no-one would be around to report back on until evening.

And dinner-time would be bad, because people were just as likely in this neighbourhood to eat out as to stay in.

And after dinner would be bad, because lots of people went out to see films or hear bands or whatever it was they got up to.

And the middle of the night would be bad because everyone would be asleep... Tilly sighed and sipped at her tea. Maybe she was making this too complicated.

She spent the rest of the day going through the motions of eating meals, doing the dishes, and attempting to watch daytime television (which was even worse than she remembered). She was watching television, checking the clock and thinking it was almost time for bed, when it occurred to her that anyone who was in was likely doing the same thing she was, and that anyone who was out would probably be out until just after midnight.

"All right," she muttered to herself. She turned off the television and got changed for bed.

She put a more substantial nightgown on than she usually wore this time of year. Something she could be confident wasn't see-through. After checking herself in the washroom mirror against the light, she put her pink terry bathrobe on over top anyhow.

It was still too warm for slippers, but Tilly didn't like the idea of walking the outside corridor in bare feet, so she stuck her feet into the pink fuzzy slippers she'd just bought at Honest Ed's.

She walked to the front door and carefully stuck her keys in the pocket of her bathrobe. She didn't hear anyone outside, so she took a deep breath, made herself a fresh tinfoil hat, and ventured out. Earlier she had decided that if anyone saw her, she would claim she was putting out the garbage and the hat was to protect her hair while she gave it a hot oil treatment.

The apartment building was L-shaped. Tilly lived at one end of the L. She shuffled as quietly as she could down the hall.

Most people were watching television. In point of fact, most people were watching the same television show. Tilly made a mental note in case that meant anything.

The couple whose unit was right beside hers had the television show on a bit louder than the norm, probably to cover up the loud sex they were having. Tilly rolled her eyes and wondered why they didn't just go to the bedroom if they didn't want other people to hear.

Past the elevators, she could hear the teenage boy and his father having an argument about homework.

The next three units were quiet. Tilly noted that there weren't any visible lights under the door.

Maybe the dark, quiet units were the ones housing the hostiles, because there didn't seem to be anything at all of interest going on.

Tilly trudged back along the hall, this time sticking to the wall opposite the one here unit was on. Just before the elevators she came upon the garbage disposal chute. Under that door, she could see a crack of light.

Odd. She'd taken out the trash once in the evening and checked for a light, but hadn't found one. Maybe it was recessed into the ceiling.

Tilly opened the door slowly, half-expecting to find another tenant inside, dumping garbage, but the closet-like room was empty. The light source wasn't the ceiling, but the gap between the chute door and the edge of the chute.

Tilly tsked to herself. The building supervisor was constantly leaving things in disarray during times when he figured no-one would be using the common facilities. Then he'd forget about putting things back in order until someone complained.

She pulled open the chute door expecting to see that the chute was partially dismantled for maintenance, or that he'd left a worklight on while he was adjusting the compactor, or.... or something. The man needed a secretary, she was sure.

The light was so bright it blinded her, but wasn't so distracting that she didn't notice the voices that started babbling excitedly. She let go of the chute door and ran back to her apartment, locking all of the locks behind her.

She stood panting in the dark for half an hour, standing behind her triple-locked door and peering out of the peephole whenever the halls were especially quiet. When she finally convinced herself no-one and nothing had followed her, she crumpled up her hat and put herself to bed, not daring to use the bathroom light while she brushed her teeth.

Tilly didn't let herself fall asleep until the dawn made the bedroom pale and visible. Whatever it was, it had seen her full on.

And all because she'd paid attention to that damn pizza order.

16 August 2012

#fridayflash: the bride

The first time was when Holly was sixteen. The family doctor had discovered the heart defect when she was five, but the operation had to wait until she was old enough and big enough to receive a pig valve transplant. Her first conscious impression as the anaesthesia wore off was of a huge shadow lurking by the doorway. Somehow it nagged at her. She kept waking up in the night, expecting to see him — the shadow was very definitely a him — there again, but there was only ever the night nurse, the equipment, and the long tubes which ended somewhere beneath her skin.

She recovered well within the expected time limits. When she mentioned him to the nurse who was helping with the discharge, the nurse just shrugged and smiled. People had all sorts of hallucinations when they were in between anaesthesia and full wakefulness, the nurse told her.

Her mother was there to take her home, and teased that it was probably a secret admirer. Holly nodded and smiled and decided to drop the subject.

Two years later the family home burned to the ground when a repairman accidentally caused a spark over a leaking gas pipe in the basement. He ran out the stairs, ignited air rushing behind him as if to catch up and escape too. Holly was upstairs and almost didn't make it out. Both of her feet were burned badly enough that the doctors chose to use grafts of artificial skin.

This time, the anaesthetic wore off quickly, and Holly was sure she was awake when the shadow appeared at her door. It was after visiting hours, the lights were out in all the wards, but she quite clearly saw the silhouette of a large man wearing a boxy, old-fashioned suit. He startled when she turned her head to get a better look at him, and disappeared into the corridor. She could hear his long but surprisingly quiet stride fading away from her.

This time she had glimpsed his hand on the doorframe as he turned and made his escape. While the hand was well-formed it was an odd shade, pale and rather greyish.

Holly's parents both said that initial heart defect had doomed her to a sickly life. She was perfectly healthy most of the time, but every couple of years would need to get an operation for something or other. A tonsillectomy when she was nineteen. An appendectomy when she was twenty-two. A freak accident led to a broken wrist when she was twenty-five, and the doctors had used bone tissue from a cadaver to reinforce her own, too fragile and shattered to heal well by itself.

The shadow-man appeared the evening of every post-op period except once. The anaesthesia hadn't worn off well that time, and a nurse stayed in the room with her the entire night. Holly always wondered if the nurse's presence had scared him off.

Holly had only got a fleeting glimpse of his face, once, the night after the tonsillectomy. She couldn't sleep because her throat felt like she had swallowed a box of needles, so she just lay in bed, clutching at the sheets, trying not to gasp and trying especially not to swallow. He inched into the doorway, checking both her room and the corridor behind him. Two steps into the room he froze, and Holly realised he was staring at her wakened, pained face. She pointed to her throat and mimed a scalpel cutting into it.

She thought he might say something, but he just took another half-step towards her, slowly extending one long grey hand. The light from the corridor caught one side of his face, and Holly saw a wide cheekbone crested by a large, pointed nose, and a big grey eye that looked cloudy. The rest of his face was hidden by shadow and lank, black hair.

The footsteps of someone wearing hard-soled shoes clacked in the corridor. Once more he was gone.

Her manager hassled her about her frequent short-term disability leaves. She went to HR with a sheaf of medical records and a letter from her lawyer. She was transferred to another department.

Holly's thirty-second birthday fell on a holiday weekend. She spent the Friday afternoon getting a bone graft on her lower left jaw, to repair damage from a less-than-perfect tooth extraction that had been performed when she was a child.

"I hope it doesn't bother you we're using cadaver bone tissue today," the dentist said just before he administered the anaesthetic.

"Already have some in me," said Holly, holding up the forearm to show off her incision scar.

She stopped by a pharmacy afterwards to obtain the painkillers her dentist prescribed, and to get some nutritional shakes to live on until she could eat solid food again. She washed a pill down with a shake as soon as she got home, then went to bed to sleep off the initial discomfort, her cheek resting on an ice pack.

He was there when she woke up. He'd carried one of her dining room chairs to the bedroom, and was sitting in it, watching her as she slept.

She'd never seen him in daylight before. His shoulders were broader than she'd thought. A part of her was shrieking that a strange man in one's apartment was supposed to be a cause for panic, but she'd seen him so many times by this point that it seemed absurd. It felt far more like the arrival of an old and comfortable friend. Someone of her kind had come to take care of her.

He let her stare at him for a few seconds. A smile spread over his face like the slow rendering of a new dawn, and he reached out to stroke her hair away from her face.

"Hate life. Love death," he whispered, and bent down to kiss her.


This blog post is going to seem like it's all about math, but really it's about writing and editing. More to the point, it's about some of the stupid mind tricks we can pull on ourselves when we're planning things like writing and editing, and trying to get a schedule together.

Last Friday I wrote a story about a near-future corporation who replaces their office workers with robots. They then discover that they didn't do a very good job of projecting some of the consequences. True to Friday Flash, the comments were the best part, including a chilling real-life example which Sonya Clark provided.

The effects of outsourcing and automation were certainly a big part of the story, but today I wanted to delve more into the math behind a line I gave to one of the executives:

"We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."

The executive is claiming that a human worker puts in 8 hours a day, that each robot does the work of 3 humans, and, therefore, unless a robot is working 24/7 like she assumed it would (because she forgot to calculate in maintenance time), the company will be less productive and losing money.

Here's a quick spreadsheet I made to show how that assumption works out versus the actuals:

Even leaving out human-worker variables like overtime, vacation, and sick days, the executive's math is off. She assumes humans work 7 days a week, for one thing. Okay, a lot of us do, but it's not assumed to be the norm when figuring out FTEs. Nor did she include vacations, which should have been a no-brainer. Probably if she'd worked out the numbers on a per annum basis instead of per week she would have noticed something was off.

Instead of getting 3 FTEs from a robot, the company is actually getting 4.29 FTEs. They are ahead in terms of productivity, not behind, even with that one hour of maintenance mode per day. Even if you factor in vacation time for 3 FTEs, you still don't lose a whole FTE's worth of hours over the year. There are still too many robots to replace the humans, too much productivity for which there is as yet no measurable demand. Yet perception is reality, and the executives believe productivity goals won't be reached because of the maintenance hour.

But that's the thing about spreadsheets, or any other "what if?" math. Humans tend to simplify the variables as much as they can to eliminate the fuzzy, unmeasured parts of a problem, and in turn come up with off-base predictions.

While I was writing this blog, I Googled the term "how efficient are office workers?". I was trying to find some quick and dirty numbers on how much time the typical office worker gets to, you know, do work, instead of handling interruptions or creating their own. (Yeah, I know, "quick and dirty" numbers. I've been trying to write this post for four days and instead been spending it on overtime. Please understand.)

Check out the results. Loads of tips on how to become "more" efficient, sure. How to measure how efficient you are right now, or how much more efficient you've become after following those fabulous tips? Not so much.

So: writing. Next time you tell yourself you're going to get more done by getting up half an hour earlier, or staying up later, or writing with a fountain pen on paper, or whatever the heck scheme you come up with.... get some numbers. Find out how much different practices improve your game. Okay, don't get to the point where you're spending all your time measuring yourself and no time writing, but get something together.

You may well be surprised what you find out.

13 August 2012

tilly with the others: part 24

It was eight o'clock in the evening when Tilly finished her shift. Rainia said she would be rush-time overflow (whatever that meant, exactly) for the next few weeks.

Tilly forced herself to go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea. The truth was, she felt tired enough to go to bed right away. Not just tired. Old. She sighed and filled the kettle. Normally she didn't feel old. She just felt like herself.

She tried to remember the last time she had eaten something while she waited for the kettle to boil. On the one hand, she was pretty sure the tomato soup and half a cheese sandwich was the last thing, and that had been at noon. So she should probably eat something, if only the other half of the sandwich. On the other hand, it was already late.

Tilly put a biscuit on the saucer out of habit, then glared at it and retrieved the half-sandwich from the fridge. She was not going to turn into one of those crazy old widows who lived on biscuits and pudding cups. She added a slice of pickle to the empty half of the sandwich plate to make it look more like a meal.

On a whim she brought out one of the old TV trays that some neighbours had given her and Marcus just before Owen was born. The trays had brass folding legs which supported the table top with plastic clips. Two of the trays had had their clips break, but two of them were still good. The trays were made of metal and painted with a cluster of orange and brown roses on a black background. Tilly had always thought they were hideous, but they did come in handy.

She made the tea, brought her dinner to the living room area, and found the remote control. The last time the TV had been on was when she first moved in — another thing she'd lost interest in since Marcus died.

All the shows had already started by time she got settled and started flipping through the channels. She clicked past the sitcoms and reality shows for a while before stumbling upon a documentary about the Crusades. Tilly settled back and took a bite of her sandwich, frowning at its fridge-chill. It tasted like something from a traveler's rest stop from the 1970s. She'd have to wait until it came up to room temperature so the bread and cheese had the right flavours again.

Most of the things the narrator was saying on TV were so generalised as to be completely inaccurate, but the people getting interviewed got a few good pieces of information over. Tilly liked seeing the period artwork, and even the re-enactments weren't half-bad.

The next show was on the Eighty Years' War, which Tilly had written about for her undergrad thesis. The narration started to annoy her after only five minutes, so she put it on mute and filled in her own details for the images. Her sandwich tasted better now.

The episode ended, and the next show didn't seem worth watching, so Tilly turned off the TV set. It occurred to her that she hadn't thought of the Others the whole time she had spent watching television. Perhaps she should start spending her evenings with the set on.

She mulled over the latest information as she put the dishes and the TV tray away. She didn't like the idea of putting herself in danger by spying on these "hostile" types. Besides, the building was busy and had all sorts of people living in it, coming and going at all times. If she was going to do some spying for the Others, she was going to have to figure out a good time to do it.

Tilly left the dishes in the sink and got ready for bed. There would be time to figure out the new directives tomorrow.

09 August 2012

#fridayflash: uptime

Beth held back a sigh. Her tablet screen had just gone red, and a blinking  message saying, "URGENT -- report to the Progress Room immediately" had appeared. She undocked her tablet and did a slow jog to the elevators, checking the executive office cluster as she passed by it. All of the executives were away from their desks.

Doesn't mean they're all in the same meeting, she told herself as the elevator call button scanned her thumbprint. But she knew they probably were, since it was time for the weekly status meeting.

The elevator arrived, and Beth told it to take her to the Progress Room, which, it turned out, was only three floors away from her cubicle. She paused in the elevator bays, searching her tablet for all references to robot status and the Office Worker Automation project. If it was urgent and they were asking her to attend a status meeting, then it had to be about the new robotic office team.

Beth adjusted her features into her best poker face, palm-scanned the door open, and followed the arrows her augmented-reality spectacles displayed to make her way to the meeting room.

Sure enough, the entire executive team of GovCorp was there already. John nodded her in, while Ratna indicated an empty chair for her to occupy.

It was Gloria who spoke first. "We were just reviewing the latest weekly status reports, and saw some odd numbers," she said. "The OWA project seems to be losing efficiency every week." She hand-signaled the room's presentation screen. It displayed a line graph in response, showing a shaky but steady downward trend. "We just wanted to know if there were any... technical reasons this should be. We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."

"That's correct," said Beth. "Per the specifications and instruction manual, the robots need an hour downtime every day for maintenance, recharging, and data backup."

"All of them need an hour, every day?"

"Yes," said Beth. "May I?" She pointed her tablet at the presentation screen and made a few taps and gestures. Messages from her to various members of the executive appeared, pointing out the maintenance duration.

Gloria looked pained. "But we need these to work 24/7! All of our contracts assumed... can't we squeeze the extra hour out of them? Delay the maintenance?"

Beth shook her head and displayed more messages. "The one-hour window is the minimum. Either you run the robots at 100% for 23 hours and then let them run maintenance at 100% for one hour, or you run them at 100% for 14 hours and then let them run at 90% for 10 hours. Those are the choices."

"There must be some alternative." That was John.

"The manufacturer says there isn't. If we want more work, we need to buy more robots. I put that in my pre-launch report," Beth said, displaying the cover page of the report.

"We can't afford more robots," said Ratna. "We need to find a way to make these run 24/7."

"You could hire a human team to do one of the projects," said Beth.

Gloria smiled. "These robots... they're highly... configurable, aren't they?"

Beth shrugged. "Sure. That was a big part of the pre-launch work, getting them set up to take over from the human project teams."

"So... couldn't they just be, configured to work 24/7? Like an override?"

John nodded vigorously. "An override! Change the settings to what we need!"

Beth counted to ten before answering. "There is no override for maintenance mode," she said, displaying the relevant documentation page. "And configuration only switches between 1 hour at 100 or 10 hours at 90. No other choices."

The block in the centre of the table turned blue and chimed. The presentation screen went blank.
"That's the sales report arriving," said Gloria. "Thank you for all of your... information, Beth. We'll let you know what our decision is."

"Wait," said Ratna. "Let her stay. We were going to release the numbers in the next newsletter anyhow, and I want to talk more about this maintenance window problem."

John palmed the cube, which turned pink in response to his positive ID. The display screen showed a line graph, which had a far sharper downward trend than the robot productivity graph Beth had seen when she came into the meeting.

"We won't be needing those maintenance hours at this rate," said Ratna. "What's the analysis?"

Gloria made a gesture with her hand. The diagram transformed into an analysis bar graph. The "lack of customer disposable income" bar stood out amongst the other reasons like a skyscraper amongst bungalows.

"Wha?" said John. "We're not in a recession."

"We will be." Beth said the last, which made the team glare at her, since she wasn't answering a technical question. "Companies all over the country have been replacing staff with robots. The only people left are tech support types like me and managers like you. Everyone else is out of a job. I heard it on the news this morning on the way to work."

"But if we hadn't automated, we wouldn't have been able to cut prices," said John. "Robots work 24/7, okay 23/7, and they're more efficient than humans."

"Why don't you go, Beth," said Gloria. "We'll call you back down when we're ready to discuss the maintenance issue further."

Beth picked up her tablet and headed for the elevator bay. Along the way she spotted a group of robots linking together with their data probes — the robot equivalent of a closed-door meeting. She envied them.

06 August 2012

tilly with the others: part 23

This time, Tilly only played solitaire for about five minutes before she started receiving orders. Pizza Tela had just circulated flyers with coupons in them, so most of the calls could be dealt with quickly. Tilly just had to click the button for whichever special the caller wanted, try and upsell them on drinks and sides, and then go through the standard payment script prompts as they appeared on her screen.

After the initial flurry of calls, things settled down again. Tilly switched from solitaire to mah-jongg. The incoming call indicator flashed.

This time, the order was for a large Hawaiian with hot peppers. Tilly listened frantically to the background noise, but the call just proceeded like any other order. The caller gave their payment and contact information, and just rang off.

Tilly opened her spreadsheet and wrote down the details from the call anyhow. Maybe the Others were trying to tell her... were trying to tell her that they wouldn't be trying to tell her anything anymore. She saved the spreadsheet and sighed. That would be a relief.

The incoming call signal flashed again.

Tilly clicked the answer button and gave the Pizza Tela greeting. The caller wanted a medium Hawaiian with hot peppers.

Tilly swallowed and tried to act like this wasn't out of the ordinary at all. She ran through the standard scripts for the upsells. When she got to the payment part, the caller — it sounded like a young man — asked her to hold on a minute while he asked his girlfriend to get his wallet for his credit card number.

The young man yelled a woman's name, something like Marlene, maybe Darlene or Charlene, and asked for them to bring him his wallet.

And then there were two other voices. Tilly couldn't peg an age or a sex to them. They could be women, or they could be young boys. When they spoke, the background noise of the main call seemed to disappear for a moment, and their voices were clear and sharp, far too clear to be overheard if the young man was still holding on to the telephone, or if he had set it down.

It felt like the two voices were speaking directly into her head, taking over her hearing.

"We shouldn't have just barged in like that," said the first voice. "Into your habitation. We shouldn't have talked to your descendant either. We apologise."

"From now on, we'll respect your boundaries. Promise," said the second voice.

"But you have a problem," the first voice continued. "There's a... hostility living on the same floor as you in your building."

"Goddamn it, Arlene," the young man shouted, almost directly into the phone. "Just read me the goddamn credit card number. I can remember the expiry date. I can't remember the actual number."

"We need you to listen and report back to us," said the first voice. "Could you do that?"

"Got it!" said the young man. "5555.... you still there, lady?"

"Yes, let me repeat that back to you," said Tilly. "That was 5, 5, 5, 5?"

The young man gave the rest of his credit card information, and Tilly finished the call on autopilot, grateful that she'd done phone work for Marcus's business back when.

There was another call ready immediately after this one, and another, and another. It was end of shift before Tilly had a chance to update the notes in her spreadsheet. Most of the calls were for the coupons. Some of them were for other kinds of pizza.

No-one else ordered a Hawaiian with hot peppers, and none of the other calls had seemed strange. All right, there was the man who ordered the meat-lovers with extra sausage. He couldn't answer any of her questions without adding, "Extra sausage, get it?" Tilly had wanted to answer, "All right, you're insecure, I understand, now did you want wings with that?" but stuck to the script.

Just before she logged off, her manager, Rainia, called and chatted with her. She apologised for the number of calls Tilly had had to take, but said it was busy for all of the order takers and couldn't be helped. She praised Tilly for how she handled the call from the meat lover.

Tilly thanked her for the feedback, Rainia rang off, and Tilly logged out with a sigh. She realised her throat was dry. No wonder — she had been too busy to even take a sip of water. She gulped down the water in her glass, poured another glass from the pitcher, and updated her spreadsheet.

The last thing she did before she shut the computer down was send an e-mail to Emily. She simply said she didn't know what the door in the sky was, and not to worry about it unless Emily saw it again.

Tilly drank another glass of water as the computer powered down. She felt hot and uncomfortable, and it wasn't until she got up that she realised she was still wearing her tinfoil hat. She took it off and crumpled it into a ball so it could join its comrades in the recycling bin.

She stared at the darkened computer screen. Things were going to get busier now.

02 August 2012

#fridayflash: recreational endeavour #30

We live and work in a beige environment. Beige is best for interiors because it reflects the ambient light, is a warm tone, and is easy to keep clean. We have beige walls and carpets, beige furniture and countertops, beige work equipment and dishware.

We wear beige clothing. Beige is flattering to every skin tone, yet practical and suitable for any season and weather.

We don't wear uniforms. We have choices in cut and fabric composition, with the proviso that the clothing must be suitable to whatever task of work or leisure is at hand.

We have choices in meals as well. There are three choices for breakfast: toast, hot cereal, or cold cereal. There are many choices for midday and evening meals. We can choose rice or potatos. We can choose chicken, seafood, or red meat. We can have red or pale sauce, mild or spicy.

We work six days a week, ten hours per day. Most of us work during the day. The evenings are for socialising, education, and hobbies.

The Governing Corporation encourages us to pursue hobbies which will ameliorate our work skills. We practise music to improve our mathematics, we read to increase vocabulary, we knit to make us more dextrous. We are expected to maintain our physical selves with regular exercise. After all, we wouldn't want to steal from the company by being ill and unproductive.

We also participate in artistic endeavours, so long as they do not infringe on our work time with the Governing Corporation. We may paint on Sunday afternoons, or sculpt.

We may also post a maximum of one piece of fiction per week — so long  it does not exceed 1,000 words.

We are fortunate in our freedom, and enjoy a healthy work-life balance.

We couldn't imagine it any other way.