Sunday, 4 November 2012

A little bad taste...

Bob approached the Quipping Room with more than a little trepidation.  Even as he turned the corner at the end of the corridor, still five doors and nearly eighty-five feet from his target, he felt sweat spring out on his forehead and the backs of his arms.  He swallowed firmly, and made himself keep moving.  His eyes darted from side to side, hunting for anything out of the ordinary.  The corridor was empty apart from himself; the walls were a lemon yellow chosen for its calming effects on the human mind, and the carpet was an inoffensive dark green.  The doors were veneered with a nutty brown layer that felt slightly plasticky to the touch.  He realised suddenly that he was itemising everything he saw to avoid having to think about what he was having to do.  He straightened up, and wondered when he'd started slouching – no, cringing would be a better descriptor – and tried hard to concentrate on what he was doing.
MSPARKER's room had a little white sign on the outside of the door that simply stated Quipping Room.  He lifted his hand to knock, and then lowered it again, feeling slightly silly.  He wiped his palms on the front of his jeans, and then pushed the door open quickly.
The room was empty apart from the keyboard and screen that interfaced to the quipping machine.  He felt let-down, and realised he'd been hoping that someone else was using it.  Lots of people around the university seemed to talk about MSPARKER, but he'd not yet found anyone else actually using her.  Even Dr. Malmstein seemed happier to instruct Bob to do things than to actually come in here and do them himself.
There was a blue-upholstered swivel chair in front of the desk, so he sat down, heaved a sigh, and typed his username and password on the keyboard.
<Hello Bob> appeared on the screen.  <How shall we take over the world tonight?>
He looked at the screen for several seconds, telling himself that the engine behind it simply picked words and phrases out of a large database, and that sometimes they would seem more apposite than others.  MSPARKER didn't truly think, it solved specific problems in the style of a long dead author, and was really just a glorified expert system.  Hell, calling it MSPARKER surely indicated that it was just a vanity project.
MSPARKER, he typed back, We have a man in the Common Room
<Tell me more.  It's not like I'm fucking busy> appeared on the screen while he was trying to decide how to continue.  <Or vice versa.>
Bob's jaw actually dropped open at this point and he read and re-read the lines on the screen a few times before he understood that they actually were there.  He stared, and finally shook his head, and re-read his own statement, determined to continue.
He has some skulls with him and he claims that he dug them up like that
<A graverobber then.  Perhaps he'd like to jump my bones?>
There are houses built into the skulls, little houses with little mortared bricks and some glazed windows and gardens and everything!
<An industrious graverobber with  his own opinions on what should be in Good Homes and Gardens?>
Pause and stare again.  Whoever had done this was good, MSPARKER seemed more and more real every time he talked to her.  Typed on her.  Whatever the damn verb should be to describe their communications.
I think he's a fraud.
<A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika.>
Bob sat back, feeling cold sweat run down the back of his neck.  He ran his hand through his hair and it came away wet, so he wiped it on the front of his jeans again.  That was a good answer to give to Dr. Malmstein, he thought.  It sounded like it came from a machine, and it was easy to interpret how you wanted to.  He could certainly claim that he thought it meant that even MSPARKER considered the claim dubious.
He leant forwards again and tapped the PrintScreen button, and then stood up and left, entirely happily.  The printouts came out in the next office, the print-hub for this floor of the building.  There were several people in there, some standing around waiting for long printouts, and some just standing around and chatting to their friends.  For the first time since he left the Common Room Bob relaxed a little.
"Hey, whose is this?"  A voice, a young woman waving a sheet of paper and sounding annoyed.  "How did you schedule it into the middle of my job?"
Bob looked up, suddenly worried.
"What is it?" asked another voice, an older man, probably the print technician who managed the hub.
"Weird," said the woman.  "At the top it says 'A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika'" – Bob noted that she said paprika wrong – "and then there several paragraphs about something called a memento mori and a drawing of some kind of insect."
"That's mine," said Bob, his chest feeling hollow and the pit of stomach cold.  "I'm sorry, I don't know how it interrupted your printout."
"You're the guy who uses MSPARKER," said the older man looking at him.  "That machine's got some odd functions, you know."
"I know," said Bob, holding his hand out for the page, now desperate to leave.
"It's probably not his fault," said the older man.  "God knows why that machine has all the privileges it does."
The young woman snorted and let Bob take the page from her hand.  "My printout had better not be interrupted any more," she said impatiently.  Bob slipped out of the room, afraid to look at the printout with people around him, and wondered as he did what MSPARKER had decided to tell him now.

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