Tales of Tadeusz

Friday, August 05, 2005

Tennessee Writer: BLEEP!!--A Short Story on Vulgarity

By Eric R. Ashley

I agree with people way too much. Its part of my job, and my nature, but its also why I got this new job which I’m not suited for. Here I am, walking off a jump gate ring ramp, ready to jump into a low meta-cycles distortion engine starship for the last ten lightyears of my trip to the wrong side of the galaxy. I’m supposed to be going to Tau Ceti’s Grandmaster Level Marketing University, but instead Ceres Corp wants me to check out why the miners of Dolor Four aren’t producing in proper quantity.

Did I say “Bleep, bleep, NO!” or even a polite and definite “No.”; of course not, I’m always trying to negotiate a way for everyone to leave the table happy with me being the happiest. So I got bum-rushed into doing a job no one wanted to do, and I have to wait another year, at least for another opening in the very exclusive school. It makes me want to curse, but I won’t because I’m focused on my mission.

Ten hours later, and I walk down another ramp to be met by the local management of the mining colony on Dolor IV. It is a gray, dusty world, even before the mining mechs started to chew it apart, and the skyhooks began to tote its substance into orbit where it can be properly managed in the ubiquitous micro-gravity factories of Settled Space.

My driver, the first thing he does is to start telling me about the weather. But its not a quick report. No, every other word is a curse word. Let me summarize his paragraph for you. Its dusty today, will be so tomorrow. I did not correct his speech to my standards for my great skill is to fit in with other people, even if those people have ways that are considerably out of the norm for the mainstream of galactic society. Besides, other than it being slower than my typical driver, it was sort-of entertaining. Already I could see entertainment being in short supply here.
I met the management again at the hq. The briefed me on the situation. Vingardian Flynson Clan miners had taken over from the Sondu Family miners after Sondu tried to strike too hard for more pay. So the Vingardians were using equipment not to their precise specs, but it was reasonably standard stuff, still. But the Vingardians were not producing as much as the Sondu. The Ceres Corp was unhappy thinking they might have to go crawling back to the Sondu to finish the job in time.

Enter me, the all-powerful and wise troubleshooter. Who did not have a clue what he was doing. The local management complained of a number of problems with a great deal of colorful vulgarities which shocked my ears a bit, and so I saw it was a Vingardian thing, a mainstay of their culture was just how good you were at swearing. I shrugged, and did a mental switch, and accepted it. No more shocking or outrageous than the Kithi who insist on nakedness in public, or the Tak who really, really, really like the color red.

Most of the problems they complained about did not seem serious. Little things which might cause a hiccup, but not a general slowdown. So I politely, and as indirectly as possible inquired into the miners qualifications for running the equipment.

After a bit, they understood what I meant, and that I was not trying to insult them, but that I really had to know if perhaps the miners were a bunch of dumb galoots who could not handle the job. So they took me out to a mech control unit, and inside. Let me choose one at random. Inside I saw a dazzling array of controls, and a busy operator playing them with virtuosity.

It turned out that it took three years to learn to run one, and since I already knew that it takes four years to learn to be a starship pilot (and twenty-five years of study to be a Certified Marketing Genius like me which skill was wasted here), I understood that these were highly skilled and trained individuals.

I talked to the man, and found out further that he had read several of my books on marketing including my most difficult text, which assured me of his intelligence. Of course, like all the Vingardians, he interspersed all this display of skill and grace with dozens of swear words. But by now, I had ceased to notice it, and in fact, I had begun to imitate it with a fair amount of skill. Too bad, I did not have a harder time assimilating, because then I might have noticed things earlier.

I went out and talked to the robot mechs as well. They have shallower personalities than men, more fragile, more simple, and sometimes there is a strange echo like there is a hollow space in their mind. But, they explicitly claimed to be working as hard as they could. And a robot cannot lie about something like that. In fact, robots lie very poorly at all.

I went back, unpacked, and studied things more. Ate dinner with the management, and other than getting a headache from all the loud cursing, and being unable to hold onto a logical thread with anyone else in the midst of the noise, I decided next time to eat with a smaller group in a separate room. Perhaps then, I could find some suspicions in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Thus I began wandering about, studying the data, and “holding court”. I’d invite groups of men from each section as a whole to eat with me in private, and we would talk about the problems. They were smart guys, and in small groups of five or four the noise problem was bearable, and I could actually hold a speculative brainstorming session. The men, at first thought I was trying to be royal, or that I was trying to intimidate them, but they soon saw that I wanted to fix the problem. They did too, so we got on pretty well.

Except for Hardison. He had a chip on his shoulder, and I think was bound to be soon fired anyways. I invited Section S-14 to dinner, three weeks after I arrived, still stumped, and fretted for Home Office was wondering when I was going to produce a miracle. Hardison came with them. Immediately, he started debating my points, and jumping up and down.

I am really amiable as I say, but I was tired. So I snapped at him to sit down. Instead, he jumped up, and began advancing on me with every word a vile curse word, and his face twisted in fury. I was born on Lakarga, and Hardison was a big guy, a tough guy, and I was a little marketing wizard. He would break me in half.

So I panicked, and did as we would have done on Lakarga. Lakargans don’t swear at each other except for the prelude to some dreadful violence. And even then, a lot of times we don’t even say anything, and we just do it. Yes, as a talker, a jaw-jaw type person, I was dreadfully out of place in the grim austerity of the blood feuds of my native planet.

I slipped out my neural destabilizer pistol which was up my sleeve, and pointed it at him. Two seconds later, I realized I’d made a dreadful mistake. Hardison stared at me in utmost astonishment. He had never intended violence. Instead, he planned to get in my face, and yell at me for ten minutes.

I apologized of course, but the story was soon going to be over the whole planet, and then back home, and I might be relieved in disgrace. Especially considering I had not solved the problem yet. I had perhaps, two days.

Then one stat of the many I saw in my now gloomy studies of numbers jumped out at me. The safety stats for the interaction of men without control chambers, and robots (aka robots rolling over men’s feet, and such) was almost exactly identical to the slowed productivity rate. It was probably a meaningless pattern in the data, but it was all I had.

So I asked the men about safety. They admitted that the Sondu machines had slightly different safety specs than their regular machines, but no big deal. Granted a few people had gotten feet crushed, and the repair logs showed higher levels, much higher levels of repair time for safety functions in the robots than was at all reasonable.

Now I was convinced I was on to something. So I asked about two dozen men to climb outside their control chambers, and direct the robots from outside. It was more inefficient, they grumpily pointed out, but I was the boss, so I got what I wanted. Then I watched.
One at a time, it was not obvious, but with two dozen robot mechs, giant machines capable of chewing down a mountain in hours, in a small area, it took me a minute to see it, and three minutes to be sure. Each and every time one of the men swore, which they did with great faculty and volume and amount, the robot mech would make a small jerk in their direction.
I asked the robots about this.

They informed me that a swear word was a sign of danger, or of actual physical harm. So they had to investigate before going back to regular work to make sure that their human operators were not in trouble or damaged. I laughed, and of course, all these little jerks off course made them more likely to actually damage the humans. But most obviously, it threw them off their groove.

And the men thought that Sondu machines were just naturally not as smooth as Vingardian. Instead, it was their repeated cries of “Danger!” that were throwing the big machines out of whack. If the Vingardians had been like the Sondu, or had used their own machines this would not have been a problem.

To double-check, I searched the planet for a Vingardian who did not swear like a sailor, whatever a sailor is. Some type of hyper-spatial rudder I think. There were a few. Their machines ran fine, and here I learned a valuable lesson. I should have been looking at the guys who were doing it right to search for differences.

So I had them show others on the others machines, and while it was better, it still was not up to speed. Now I had two data points. Non-swearers on their own machines did okay. Non-swearers on others machines did far better, but still not good enough.

So I inquired of the machines as to the problem. I asked them what was the difference. After a bit the machines hesitantly pointed out that they like to be like their operators assistants. I nodded. It is a well-known phenomenon. A robot will tend to mimic the humans in its vicinity.
They told me they spoke to each other like the humans did.

It took me a second to understand, but then I saw it. Each and every one of the billions of sentences of programming code that these machines exchanged within themselves was larded with the fat of unnecessary vulgarities. Each one by itself hardly slowed them down, but by the billions, it actually made a measurable difference in how fast they reacted.
I told them to stop it.

They refused. I snarled threats of unemployment. They pointed out relevant sections in the robotic employment manual which basically allowed robots to mimic humans to the degree the robots felt was necessary to avoid emotional hardship.
I did the only thing I could do.

I started cursing, and only stopped intermittently to search the galactic want adds for employment. Unfortunately, I found I was out of practise with using Standard English, and since that was my primary job skill, that hurt.



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