Assemblany: Towards Democratic Corporations

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tales of Silicon Castles #2: The Three Sons of Professor Griffith (Part 1)

Once upon a time there was a professor of computer science, who lectured at a red-brick university. He had three sons, and taught them everything that he could; but because the stipend of a professor is not large, they knew that when they graduated, they must go and seek their fortune in the world.

The first son, Alex, majored in finance and computer science, and did well at both. Immediately after graduating, he accepted a position at a company called Full Speed Astern. They were a high-powered stock analysis software company, with an office in an ultra-modern skyscraper in the city. Their chief customers were hedge funds, contrarian day-traders and a group of rogue accountants who for some reason always dressed as pirates. By contrast, company dress code at Full Speed Astern was a suit and tie, and Alex always wore a sober and sensible tie with faint stripes, small dots or fading triangles. Thanks to hard work and dedication, and a knack for finding better visualisations for the oceans of data that their customers daily filtered like baleen whales, he did well. Within a few years, he was promoted to deputy CTO. But one night, flying back from a conference in Switzerland, he looked out his window and saw the stars. Really saw them, the way he hadn't seen them since he was nine years old, realised their beauty and majesty. He stared and stared, conference forgotten, plane forgotten, alone with the blackness and the galaxy.

When he arrived home, he bought a powerful telescope, and took to driving out into the country to star-gaze, something in him thrilling to the mystery of space. He became a little dreamy in meetings, seeing the stars again in his mind's eye. Secretly he painted constellations with luminous paint on his office ceiling, just for the moment when they would glow after he switched off the lights at the end of the day.

The second son, Brian, majored in psychology and computer science; he preferred the statistical and analytical side of psychology, of viewing others from afar, and was never quite comfortable with the practicals. After graduating he soon found a job with an internet dating startup. They had a medieval theme, and were called - though some of the feedback they were getting from their female customers was that the males took the whole armour and visor idea a little too literally. The office was in a business incubator in a former warehouse, next to some arts studios, but was a fun place to work; the management got the developers nerf lances and wooden shields for stress relief, shouted them ale on Friday nights, and put "Sir" or "Dame" on their business cards.

Late one winter afternoon, with twilight shading the full-length windows behind his terminal, Brian was working on adding some new functionality to the date initiation form. The back-end business logic passed the tests, but he wanted to check out the placement of the new buttons as well, so he fired up a browser. He picked a random profile, clicked through the buttons and completed the form. At that point something about the feedback page rang alarm bells, and he realised that he'd selected the actual site by mistake instead of the test version ... It was too late to cancel, she (the damsel he'd selected at random) would have already received a message requesting a date from him.

In shock he stared at the screen. She - Maria - wasn't his type at all; in her photo, she wore chunky jewellery and colourful clothes, and her bio said she liked poetry. But she'd feel insulted if he cancelled - wouldn't he? He logged in to the customer database and found her records. No dates offered or initiated for the past two months ... now he felt worse. Maybe he should go to the date, be as nice as possible, but then fake an oversea trip or serious illness or something - would that work? Would she see through it? Would she think it was pity - would that make _her_ feel worse?

Before he could decide anything, an icon on his browser flashed - she'd already answered! And accepted, and suggested dinner on Friday night at a nearby Greek restaurant he'd always avoided. Numbly he agreed.

The rest of the week passed in a blur. Friday night he got there early, wearing arguably the most colourful and interesting clothes he owned. He sat there, outwardly still, inwardly nervous, and was still somehow surprised when she arrived and sat down opposite him. After introductions (yes, he did work at the dating company, like it said in his bio, he had to admit), and discussions about the restaurant (no, unfortunately he'd never been there before), she sat back and looked at him with a small quizzical smile.

"To be honest, Brian, I was rather surprised that you asked me for a date. From your bio, you don't seem my type at all - very conventional, mainstream background, job in IT, the only interests you list are sci-fi and roleplaying games - no offense, but you seemed like a typical geek. But, you know, so far none of my other dates worked out - too self-absorbed or, well, unstable ... I was going to cancel my account anyway, so I thought why not? But tell me, why _did_ you ask me for a date?"

Brian coughed and looked away. The question had come sooner than expected, and now he found that he couldn't lie to her. He mumbled "Really sorry ... just testing some code out ... it was an accident ... I didn't want to hurt your feelings by cancelling ... I'll refund your subscription fee ... " He wanted to say "and you're beautiful" but his throat closed up, so he just stopped there.

Maria was making a strange noise. He looked at her - she was laughing! He flushed even redder and looked at his feet. But she said, "Thank you, Brian, I do appreciate your not cancelling - though I wouldn't have minded if you'd told me why at the time. As it is, let's forget about the date, but since we're here, we might as well keep each other company while we have dinner. I think you'll like the food here; it's one of my favourite restaurants."

He looked up, gratefully - she was still smiling, now warmly and somewhat ironically. "Thank you", he managed.

The food was good. He found out that she actually reviewed books - serious books, literature - for newspapers and that she'd tried some Asimov once but didn't like it. At that, he suggested a selection of other science fiction, from Anne McCaffrey through Orson Scott Card and Iain M Banks, stopping only when her smile grew a little too wide. Somehow over the course of the evening he also admitted to having a semi-famous father, and got her laughing about his experiences with a lab rat called Walter.

This was the rat that had bitten his finger when it was supposed to be eating cheese, then dived onto the floor and disappeared. Brian had searched for the rest of the practical, but hadn't found him. The tutor said not to worry, they set out traps at night. So he headed off to the lawns for lunch, only to find Walter hiding in his bag and only crumbs remaining of the sandwiches he'd packed. On discovery, Walter had fled again, back to the psychology building, never to be recaptured - to his knowledge, he added.

They discovered that they'd gone to the same university - she'd been a year ahead of him, they hadn't taken any of the same classes but they did have a friend in common, a student politician of that time. Somewhere around dessert time, he also agreed to read some Walt Whitman to make up for not taking any English classes after high school.

As they said goodbye outside the restaurant, he felt relieved that she'd taken it so well, yet somehow flat.

It was a flat week. He forgot to read any poetry. Work was dull, even surfing the web didn't lift his mood - life seemed gray, overcast, he had nothing to look forward to. But late Friday afternoon, there was a knock on the side door to the adjacent studio. It was Maria, her smile electric, glowing bright enough to dispel the winter gloom instantly. She had a friend working in the art studio, it transpired, who didn't know exactly which company was next door, except that they were some kind of crazy geeks who hit each other with rubber sticks. So here she was. Without knowing it, he was smiling uncontrollably, too, and when she suggested that they go and see a new avant-garde near-future romantic comedy, he happily agreed. They exchanged phone numbers outside the cinema, and left open the possibility of having dinner again sometime.

The next week he read Walt Whitman and enjoyed it, because it reminded him of Maria. On their third date, he finally told her that she was beautiful; that evening, she kissed him as he said good night. In two months, they were engaged; within a year, they were married.

His company had just folded after burning through the last of its VC cash; the suits of armour (officially only used for marketing and promotional purposes) were sold off at discount rates. It wasn't long before he found a new job with Maria's help, at a small B2B company for authors and publishers. It was called "market of the mind" (all lower case). There he found a niche for himself in fixing intermittant bugs and reducing users' frustration. Maria kept on reviewing novels, now including an occasional obscure science fiction release.

[End of Part I - to be continued, as we find out what happened to the third son, Chris.]



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