1. There never seems to be a clean coffee cup in this house. I could, I suppose, run the dishwasher more often, but then I spend extra time juggling everything to fit into the top rack so I can select the “water and energy saving Top Rack Only” feature, which is procrastination heaven; not to mention that I’ve already spent at least five solid minutes in the dish soap aisle with my phone’s calculator feature figuring out that while the 48-count dishwasher tabs cost $15.50 per hundred, and the 90-count (called “Mega-Value!”) came out at only $15.41, for some inexplicable reason the 60-count box (which was marked at price per pound instead of per 100 tab???) came out to $14.90. I bought the damn 60-count box. In two months I’m going to have to do all that math again. Plus the cunning little drawer over my wooden paper towel holder fits exactly 60 tabs. Like they planned it.
2. When I decide that I am NOT, simply NOT, going to let my schedule be ruled by the tyranny of network television, and take advantage of my cable company’s “On Demand” feature to catch up on “Gotham,” “Forever,” and “Gracepoint” at odd times like before I leave for my 9:30 am office hours, sipping reheated coffee out of a Pyrex measuring cup, I discover that “Fast Forward has been Disabled for This Presentation” and I watch a lot of really frightening commercials.
They’re probably not frightening to not-writers, but they scare the hell out of me.
Take the pizza ordering phone app.
No, really. Bear with me. I know this isn’t as important as the Middle East and the election (see, describing the current news issues like that makes the piece timeless! It could be 2004! It could be 2010! It could be 1850!) but the pizza app, whose name is Dom (I suppose it’s short for something, like Dominic) has an unnerving quality we often associate with evil artificial intelligences: it has a binary, inductive mind.
See, the real reason computers drive us so crazy is because they are perfect. Watch any number of original-series Star Trek episodes to learn that their rigid, absolutist, zero-one on-off mentality makes those of us weakened by ethics and irrational decision-making just obstacles in their way.
Who saw “I, Robot”? Nobody?
Oh, right, this isn’t my 8 am Intro Phil class. Some of you actually have. Some of you might even have read Asimov. I forget where I am momentarily.
Anyway, in this movie you haven’t seen, a “helper” robot saves the life of a cop instead of a little girl after a car accident because its “decision engine” determines that the young man has a higher probability of survival and recovery, making his rescue the best possible use of its time and effort. Probably something like 15.50 instead of 14.90. And of course it calculates this instantly without the aid of any handheld device, so the child dies, the cop lives, a survivor-guilt resentment is born, and we get a story. And by “we” I mean Asimov.
So the pizza app, named Dominic, uses the same kind of binary/inductive reasoning. The young gentleman speaks into his handheld device: “Dom, I need six pizzas.” Dom says, “Sounds like a party. Whoop, whoop.” Now, he does not make a “whoop, whoop” – like sound. I am not indulging in onomatopoeia. He actually utters the word “whoop,” phonetically. Twice. Empirically, I suppose, that could mean anything up to and including that he has pertussis — but I think it is meant to imply that this anticipated, inferred party will have music and dancing and people making whoop-like noises for the purpose of celebrating rather than expectorating phlegm. Because his inductive reasoning is binary and mechanistic. Six pizzas means more than three people. Speaker into handheld device is under thirty years of age. Pizza is fun. Therefore, six pizzas = party.
And then the writer’s mind kicks in and starts writing alternate stories. They sound like this.
“No, Dom. The team and I have been working sixteen hours straight trying to solve a massive data breach which could potentially bring down the entire financial system of a major corporation. We’re nervous, tired and hungry and the boss told us to keep the T & E below $200. Can we get an itemized receipt?”
“Um, Dom, a friend just lost her husband and a bunch of us are here comforting her, taking care of the kids and making arrangements. We’re sad, hungry, tired, and nobody wants to cook. Someone will be picking that up.”
Usually I only get two scenarios spun before the commercial break is over. But that’s enough. My scenarios are uniformly filled with conflict, because that’s what stories are. No conflict, no plot. “Sounds like a party.” And they had their party. The End.
Now, I am a devoted student of William of Ockham, so I understand Dom’s natural tendency to infer the most likely explanation for the six-pizza-order phenomenon. But for whatever anecdote is worth, I’ve been in situations similar to my two fictions and I am pretty sure that if some talking on-off switch told me that I was having a party…well, the scenarios are endless.