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In which we meet a patent attorney who is changing jobs.
“Look, I know there aren’t patents any more. I know there isn’t work for a patent attorney. That’s beside the point. I know patents and I know inventions. I can leverage that knowledge, but I need help.” Martin was sweating without realizing it, and his voice roughened slightly with the undertones of his rising desperation. “You have the Web skills I don’t have. You know how to set up websites and I know the content they should have. Between us we can get rich if you’ll just work with me here.”
The thirty-something woman behind the real wood desk pushed her glasses back up her nose and then lowered her face to look at Martin over the tops of the lenses. “Everybody thinks they can get rich with another website. I been in this business for years. Sure there’s guys that got rich on a website. Google, eBay, there’s a score of them but that don’t mean that every guy with a bright idea is gonna make a fortune.”
“Please just listen for a minute. I really have a dynamite idea. It’s bound to work.”
She rose to her feet, disengaging jean-clad legs from their position on the seat of her leather chair, and extended her hand for a good-bye-and-maybe-I’ll-be-lucky-enough-to-never-see-you-again handshake. “I get six guys a day in here with the same song and dance. I heard it all before. I ain’t got time to listen to you guys and do my work. Okay? So please close the door on your way out.”
Martin was struggling to contain his anger, or perhaps to avoid bursting into tears. “Okay,” he said, mechanically shaking her limp hand. “But you’ll regret this. One day not so long from now, you’ll regret not working with me.”
“I’ll cry in my beer. Now leave.”
Martin turned toward the door with a scowl on his face. He was tempted to slam the door as he left, but restrained the impulse and just stood looking at the closed door for a few seconds. When he turned, he saw the secretary looking at him with a sympathetic expression on his face.
Martin’s face flushed briefly then he said somewhat stiffly, “She really will be sorry she wouldn’t work with me.”
“Oh, she’s just tired and overworked. She said yes too often in the past, and she’s a little bitter about it now. But if you really are having trouble finding someone to help you... and your problem isn’t too big, I do know someone you could try. He doesn’t have her experience or contacts but he should be able to help you get started at least.”
“At this point I’ll try almost anyone.”
“Let me give you his name, number, and email address. I would suggest calling after 4:00 this afternoon.”
Later that same day, having walked back to his office downtown, Martin sprawled in his chair behind his desk. Three months into the new money and it looked like the building owner would probably ask him to leave soon because other prospective tenants would be asking for the office space. He no longer had clients. He no longer even had a secretary. After twelve years working for him, she had left for another job. Of course he couldn’t blame her, since she wasn’t earning anything sitting around the office. Secretary… that reference he gave me. Where did I put it? It’s after 4:00 maybe he’s in. Let’s see. Jasper Morton. Poor guy. Stuck with a name like Jasper. What kind of parents…? Oh well, I might as well get this over with.
Martin picked up the phone and entered Jasper’s number. A woman answered after a couple of rings. “Could I speak to Jasper Morton, please?”
“Who are you and what has he done now?”
“I just want to talk to him. I don’t know anything about what he may have done.”
“That boy is a real trial to me. But I’ll get him if you like.”
Martin heard her yell “Jasper! Some guy on the phone for you. Don’t tie it up all day, now.”
What have I gotten into now? I’m calling some kid. What kind of cruel joke is this anyway?
“Hello. My name is Martin, Martin Hall. I’m a patent attorney. I got your name and number as someone who could help me set up and run a Web page.”
“Can you tell me who it was that gave it to you?”
“He’s a secretary to a professional Web developer in the Foster building down town.”
“My uncle Harvey. Of course. How can I help you?”
“First off I want to know how old you are.”
“I’m 13, almost. Does that mean you don’t want to work with me after all?”
“Kid, at this point I would want your help if you were 6. Can you really set up a website for me?”
“Certainly. I’ve set up several of them for my friends. They’re easy. What do you want to accomplish with it?”
“I want to make it a site that people can use to find inventions that will help them do whatever they do better.”
“That sounds promising. How do you do it?”
“I thought you were the expert in setting up websites. You tell me.”
“No Mr. Hall. I mean how are you going to have them search for the inventions? If they already knew there was an invention that would do what they needed they wouldn’t need your website. They could just google it.”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I was just going to have the inventions listed.”
“No. That’s not good enough. Anyone can do that. Listen. I have friends that could help us with this. Is it okay if I bring them in?’
“How old are they?”
“Is age really that important to you, Martin? Does it matter how old they are if they can help?”
“I guess you’re right. I really don’t care. Will you at least tell me how many there are?”
“Only three. The four of us have been doing things together for a couple of years now. Just a second while I get them in on this call.”
What the hell have I got here? How is he going to add them to this call? Martin was not into electronics himself, so he was quite impressed when a few seconds later he heard a light soprano voice say, “Okay we’re here. What have you got for us, Jasper?”
“I’ve got a man who wants to set up an inventions website. He’s a patent attorney whose got an…”
A young girl’s voice broke in--a fast, slightly disorienting mixture of preteen enthusiasm and cynical authority, “Not any more he isn’t, Baby Einstein, that’s just one more job that went to /dev/null at the transition.”
Jasper responded just as quickly, his voice shifting comfortably into a tone of long-standing intimacy and good-natured verbal sparring, “Yeah, Professor Obvious – thanks for the G2. My point is that he has an idea that I think we can work with."
“Swell. What’s the idea?”
The rapid fire exchange suddenly stopped and Martin realized that they were all waiting for him.
“Ah… well, I was thinking that there are millions of patents in the system.”
“Can you skip the primer? Just give us the 'Cliffs Notes' version.”
“So, Alice, ever consider actually allowing anyone else to speak? Or are you still going for Vice President of Logorrheacs Anonymous?”
“Fine, Gasper, my aural acuity shall be inversely proportional to my loquacity. But please be forthwith, Mr. Hall. I have things to do.”
“Go on, Martin.”
“Ah,… I’d like to have the inventions searchable in a way that makes it easy to associate inventions with whatever process or product one wants to improve. That way it would be easy to find things that might make products better that the developer would never have thought of otherwise.”
“See, Alice. It’s basically a good idea. Everybody has access to the lists of patents. But I figure what he knows is what kind of information they have. He knows what people have had to put in their patents. I figure we can use that information to generate an algorithm that’ll do what he wants. What do you think?”
“The product should be useful. Mickey, didn’t you do a paper on library science last year?” Another youthful feminine voice Martin noted, but softer and with less edge to it than Alice’s.
“Yeah, Emmy, but it won’t help with this.” This voice was clearly in the process of changing. “Categorizing is going to be necessary but they don’t go beyond that. What we need is some way to relate things that might go together functionally. That’s the crux we have to bear.”
“Don’t go ursine on us here, Mouse. Why don’t you guys think about it for a couple of days while I set up the basic website and come up with the right way to describe this thing so it’ll be popular with the search engines?”
“Okay by me.”
“Call me Wednesday about 4:00 and we’ll see what we’ve got, okay?”
“Suits me. Bye guys.”
“Can you come up with a list of the information people have to include in a patent? If at all possible, I need you to have it to me tomorrow, Mart-- uh, Mr. Ha--, uh…” Martin let out an audible sigh--the sort of sigh Jasper had heard more than once from the adults in his world.
“Just make it Martin, Jasper. If we’re working together, let’s go by first names.”
“Ok, well! Ok, Martin. Ok. So, I’d really like this stuff tomorrow -- you can send it by email attachment. You know how to do that?”
“I think I can just about handle that, thanks.”
“Oh, ok. Sorry. Ok, so send me the attachment, so I can look it over… Bye-bye uh. I mean bye. Bye, I’ll talk to you later.”
The phone in Martin’s hand was silent. Martin felt like he had been run over. What happened? It was like the kids just took his idea and made it their own. At first he was amused, like it was some kind of joke. Then he felt a little angry. After all it was his idea. Then he felt resigned. Nobody else was willing to help him. Besides it was obvious that they saw things about the idea that had never crossed his mind. Maybe he should play along. He certainly wasn’t getting anywhere on his own. Finally he just felt depressed. He booted his computer and found the Web page that told what one must do to get a patent and forwarded it to Jasper’s email address. Then he turned off the computer, put out the lights, and stood looking out of his office window at the afternoon shadows.
Spring was just getting started and the light green of the trees promised new growth. Usually Martin savored this time of year. His family loved to take a long vacation each summer to someplace they had never been. But the last two years that had been impossible for one reason or another. Martin had hoped that this year would be different. He had known that the transition would mean changes for his work but he hadn’t expected the whole concept of patents to fall by the wayside. There were still patents in law but nobody seemed to care. It didn’t matter who used the inventions, the person who held the patent was getting paid. Everybody who helped to use the patent also got paid. Patent attorneys began to report that they weren’t getting paid for defending patents in court. Judges weren’t getting paid for conducting the trials. It appeared that restraining the use of productive ideas was not going to be considered a benefit. The inventors didn’t seem to care since their income had increased markedly. It seemed that having the idea in the first place and making it available to others was felt to be rather important. But that meant that patent lawyers really didn’t have much to do.
His lawyer friends in other specialties also were feeling the pinch. Corporate law was dead on its feet. Since money could no longer be awarded in a case, there was little incentive to sue. Then Martin got his idea. It all seemed so simple until he tried to get help with the parts he didn’t know about. Then he discovered that he couldn’t just offer somebody money and have them jump to do his bidding. He had to persuade them that what he was doing would be a major benefit. Well, he was having trouble doing that. It seemed obvious to him that putting ideas together was a good way to make better products. I mean they said that as a culture got more elements there were more ways to put them together and thus the rate of inventing should get faster and faster as more and more things were available to be put together in new combinations. At first he’d been sure that this would make him rich. Now it just seemed a waste of time.
Martin finally went home. He didn’t even go to work the next day. He did get a phone call, however.
A girl’s soprano voice, seemingly quite upset, erupted from the phone. “This is Alice. Listen. Mr. Hall. I highly recommend that if you have any actual interest in this project you so graciously have dumped on our laps, you move your ass over to that computer and set your brain in gear. Now. Now! Move it!”
Martin was dumbfounded. “Ah.. ahh… ok. Ok. I’ll--ok, I’ll work on it.”
“See that you do.”
“Oh, okay, right, I’ll get right on it.”
“Ah… Goodbye.” And Martin hung up.
The phone call was not over however. Alice said,” Too much?”
“Yeah, you think?” Jasper’s sarcasm was showing through. “You learned that in acting class? I mean, come on, ‘move your ass?’ Who talks like that? Really classy. And your mom would kill you.”
“Well, we had to do something!” Alice said, flustered. “I don’t know how to order people around -- I was just winging it. You know, ex tempore and all that. Jeez, I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings. Do you think I hurt his feelings? You said I needed to shock him a little. Oh, man. Ok, maybe I should call him back and apologize?”
“No, what’s done is done. Either it works and you got him out of his funk or it didn’t.”
“It’s okay, Alice,” Emmy said soothingly. “None of us have had any experience at psychotherapy.”
Poor Martin didn’t know what to think or feel. It was like getting hit in the face by a bucket of cold water. Some 12-year-old girl was bossing him around like he was a little brother. His emotions went through another series of changes, ending with determination. He crossed the room to his daughter’s study desk, booted her computer, and started thinking. How does one categorize inventions at a more fundamental level than the classes used by the patent office? He came up with several structures and rejected them all. Finally he put together a rather long list of categories he had considered, gritted his teeth and sent it off to Jasper.
How had Alice found out about his first mailing? Probably Jasper sent it to her. I wonder why.
His phone rang again. It was Jasper this time.
“Hi, Mr. -- uh, Martin? Hi. It’s Jasper. Ok, this is a lot better, thanks. But, uh, it still needs some work. Kind of a lot. Maybe the others will want to have a go at it -- I don’t know. We’ll see. Anyway I have a website set up and some sample questions that it should ask. We’ll let the others see what we’ve done tomorrow and that’ll take some of the blame off you.”
“Jasper, why did Alice call me about the categories and not you?”
“Because we--me and the others--we thought maybe you needed a fire lit under you. We could tell you were getting down about all of this, but really -- we think it’s a good idea; it has potential -- really. Emmy and the others, they said you were getting depressed -- well, Emmy said your voice ‘reeked of depression,’ but she can be a bit hyperbolic that way -- anyway, we figured you needed a little electrotherapy to jolt you out of it. Alice seemed like a good choice; she’s been in this acting troupe for a while, and they just finished Hamlet. So, anyway, we thought she’d be good at that kind of thing…”
There were several long seconds of silence followed by, “Martin? Are you there?”
“Yes, yes I’m here. What kind of classes are you in at school?”
“We’re not in a school. We home-school.”
“What are you studying?”
“Whatever we want to. We don’t really have a teacher. We pretty much learn whatever interests us.”
“Yes, homeschool. Like school, but -- at home. Home. School. We study whatever we want, when we want, how we want. No teacher, because we teach ourselves. I mean, the adults, sure, they help -- they can drive and such, and sometimes we have to go places where driving is useful. But we learn what we want, when we want, how we want. Trust me. It works.”
“Don’t the other kids pick on you… or think you’re sort of nerdy?”
“What other kids? That’s the whole thing about homeschooling, Martin. It’s just me and the others. And sure the others think I’m a nerd. It’s sort of a compliment.”
“But what about the ‘other’ other kids -- the ones in real schools?”
“What’s a real school, Martin? Never mind. Don’t answer. The ‘other’ other kids? What about them? I’m not a science experiment, Martin. I mean, I have regular kids for friends, if that’s what you're asking. I play soccer, you know, and…”
“Okay, okay. I get the picture. It just takes me a minute. I have to get adjusted. I’m afraid I’m old-school. Heh, heh… Okay, not a good joke. But sometimes I get the feeling that you and the others are just toying with me. Like I was the butt of some big practical joke."
“No, no. The idea is actually a good one. It’s going to be fun to play with it. I think we may even make some money off it, seriously.”
“I guess I really don’t have any choice but to trust you, do I?”
“You don’t have any reason not to trust me either. Go to my website. It has my life story there. See if I’m trustworthy. Check me out.”
“I’ll do that. What’s the URL?”
“I’ll send it to you in an email. You know, Martin, I think maybe you don’t know exactly how powerful the Internet is, just quite. Do you know what you’re dealing with? You really aren’t taking very good care of yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I learned all about you in twenty minutes on my computer last night. I know what you paid for your house, I know what grades your kids are getting in school, and I know how you met and fell in love with your wife. You don’t take care of yourself, Martin. If this were last year I could have spent most of your money and you would never have known what happened.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Your mother’s maiden name was Olsen. Your dog’s name is ‘Fetch.’ You like green peppers on your pizza. Anything else you want to know?”
“All right, stop, I believe you. Christ, kid, is there anything you can’t do?”
“Sure, lots of things. But I don’t waste my time trying to do things I can’t excel at. Lucky for you that list is a short one, and web design isn’t on it.
“I don’t want you to take this in the wrong way, but I think it’s probably a pretty good thing you ended up finding me -- well, me and the others -- or I think this idea of yours would have ended up in the circular file. Coming, Mom! Got to go now. Call me tomorrow, a little after 4:00. Bye.”
Martin sighed and put his head down on his desk. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I give the wise counsel to clients. I don’t get taken care of by a 12-year-old boy and his chums.
“Meeting, come to order! We have to be a little formal today because we have to get a lot done. I’ll run the meetings if that’s all right with you Mr. Hall? Mr. Hall. Uh… Martin?”
They were seated around a coffee table in Jasper’s home. Martin would have said it was a den except it had a desk setup with computer and attendant electronic components, some of which looked home-made. A coffee table in front of a couch was surrounded by cushions on the floor which Alice and Mickey seemed to prefer while Martin and Emmy occupied the couch. Jasper was seated in the office chair that had served the desk but was now drawn up to one end of the table.
Alice was thin with dark hair, brown eyes, and a narrow face. Even lounging on her cushion she seemed always active. Her foot jiggled as if her subconscious was doing some quick dance and her hand was often going to her mouth to further erode her already short nails. Mickey was at least 5 and a half feet tall, slender, and beginning to show signs of needing to shave. His hands would often pat out some complicated pattern on whatever surface was available. Emmy was black, short, and radiated serenity. She was taking notes on her laptop computer which didn’t seem to conflict with simultaneously contributing to the conversation. Jasper was short, even for a 12-year-old. His gestures were quick and decisive.
“Okay does anyone think they have a basic approach that will give us an algorithm for matching need to invention? Mickey.”
“I think we’re going to need a program that constructs itself by natural selection,” he said looking over Martin’s shoulder. “I don’t think there’s any way we can keep up with nor modify the code accurately enough to make it work otherwise. So I think we should be coming up with parameters to use to determine success and failure in the search modules.”
“Any opposed? Next, anybody got a general approach for what factors to consider in the success determination? Alice.”
“Almost all inventions manipulate energy in some way. We could base the factors on the kind of energy, the kinds of transformation, and the conditions of the transformation.” Alice’s eyes seemed to be examining Martin’s innermost thoughts as she spoke.
“Don’t forget control of energy like in thermostats... and the scale of the energy. Size matters,” put in Emmy .
“Emmy, be recognized, please,” Jasper said with just a hint of sharpness in his voice as he moved to the front edge of his chair.
“Recognized schmecognized. Ok, ok. Sorry. I’ll get with your pseudoprogram. I’ll play along. Prime Minister Rasper, permission to vocalize?”
“Right. Okay, we have what I consider a good basis for a first try; we just need the details. Mickey, you come up with energy forms and conversion types. Emmy, you take conditions of operation, like in air or water or some chemical bath, temperature and so forth. Alice, you take energy storage and size or scaling factors. I’ll take regulation and control.”
“Now we need to have the computer be able to look at an invention as revealed in a patent application and correctly identify all the factors you’re responsible for. I need some ingenuity here, folks. If you need Mr. Hall for anything I’m sure he’ll be glad to help. Any other matters? Okay, formal over.”
“Jasper, this is going to take a lot of programming grunt work,” Alice said. “Do you think we should consider bringing in some computer nerds for specific code? I know we could do all the programming ourselves but I don’t think we have the time right now. I mean, I’ve got that thing at the Julliard next month, and Mickey has his photography show to get through.
“I don’t know, Alice. I think that’s a political potato. How do you feel about it, Mr. Hall? Can we let others share some of the loot?”
“Loot? What do you mean?”
“The pay we’ll get if this takes off like it should. Remember that the more people we involve, the more people share the pay.”
Martin was still recovering from the meeting. He had expected it to take hours and yet it had been over in minutes. The fact that he had been given no tasks and had said nothing was quite humbling but that was what he was beginning to expect. He was also beginning to believe that the group had done some “dumbing down” for his benefit so he could understand what they were doing. He had noticed that whoever was talking, other than Mickey, would look at him whenever examples were given. It was frightening to consider what the meeting would have been like had he not been there.
“I don’t mind sharing the wealth. If it takes off, there should be plenty for everybody.”
They were all grinning at him. “See, Alice? Lawyers can be good, even at sea level,” Emmy said and the group broke up laughing.
Martin was puzzled—”Uhh, am I missing something?”
“You know, Mr. Hall: ‘Why put lawyers on a submarine? Because deep down, they’re not that bad.’”
“Oh. I heard that one, but it wasn’t as polite.”
“So Emmy’s joke was that at sea level…”
“I got it, I got it, Jasper. And thanks, Emmy. I guess.”
Martin was still a little emotionally tender and even though he had been made the victim of lawyer jokes since he told his friends in college that he was going to law school it hurt a little that The Others had done it, too.
Just out of curiosity Martin asked,” What do you really need me for? I don’t seem to have any tasks to speak of.”
“Isn’t it obvious, Martin? You’re the adult. Look at us. We can’t drive. Mickey sounds like malfunctioning hydraulics. I have a zit the size of a third eye on my forehead. Do you see the benefits of having a post-pubescent humanoid on this project?”
Martin suddenly realized the project wasn’t really his anymore.
“If I’m the front man, what are you, Jasper?”
“Well, I guess I’m the coordinator. I see the world as a 4-D puzzle with all the parts there to be put together. I look at the parts and see how they have to fit together if I want the picture to come out this way or that way. All I have to do is move a few parts and they all bump and jiggle and come together. It’s kind of like playing billiards only the balls are in 3-D space and they aren’t round but lots of shapes. Oh, and the web design. I got into that when I was five. I’m pretty good at it. It appeals to my artistic side.”
“And you Alice?”
“I’m the emotional driver,” Alice said around the edge of her thumb. “You know how Emmy’s sort of the empath around here? She can tell what people are feeling, sometimes even before they know it themselves. Well, she feels emotions but I can put emotions there. Like when things go crazy and people don’t know what they are talking about but they still keep on talking and it gets everything in a mess. I try to keep them in line. I guess that’s why I like music and the theatre and such. When I perform I’m making the audience feel what I want them to feel. People are really interesting, you know? I mean, not in a way that makes me want to know more of them, but they’re interesting. I mean, it’s all Plato’s forms and whatnot -- everything is an imitation of something -- so I figure, why not just do it? Just do the imitation thing? Plato was totally right. You read much Plato, Mr. Hall? Maybe his Republic? Not even in Greek -- a translation?”
“Not even, as I guess you’d say, peripherally.” Martin shook his head, wonderingly.
“Ok, ok. Well, it’s the cave thing. All we see are the shadows on the cave wall. What we can’t see are the things that are making the shadows, right? So, that’s what I’m interested in. The things making the shadows. Oh, and I can cook really good pasta.”
Martin was beginning to feel a headache coming on. “Mickey?”
“Okay, I’ll play. I am the logician.” Mickey was looking at some kind of transformer figure and flipping it from one configuration to another. “I break down problems into their component parts so the solution becomes obvious. That’s how I got my nickname. People stopped calling me Michael and used Mickey instead because they said I kept having Mickey Mouse ideas.”
Jasper broke in, “Mickey, it was your ears!” and the others laughed.
“Yeah, you guys crack me up. Listen, Martin, everything’s really, really easy, if you break it down enough into its component parts. I think I’m the opposite of Alice--she thinks everything’s incredibly complex. I think everything’s incredibly simple. But that’s cool. She’s into philosophy; me? I like biology and life processes -- evolution of complexity, chaos theory and whatnot. Oh, and sports. I’m sort of ok at basketball. I mean, I’m tall for my age and have big feet, no cracks guys, so it should be a natural for me. And if you calculate things properly, anyone can make a basket. It’s a matter of simple triangulation and then, of course, basic physics. You take the height of the basket…”
Now it was time for Martin to interrupt; his headache was full blown: “Emmy?”
“I often think I’m the group’s mother. I know I’m the smallest here, and I’m also the youngest, if only by 78 days and 6 or so hours. The others call me ‘Mom’ sometimes, and that’s mainly to annoy me, because I’m so small but I sort of try to keep things together. Mainly, I’m into languages, which are all detail-oriented, all about picking up the pieces; but they’re also about the bigger picture. I only have five or six right now -- languages, not pictures” Emmy chuckled at herself, “Well, plus two ancient ones and a few programming languages, but no one counts those anymore -- but I guess you could say that’s my thing. Other than that, I’m sort of into animals -- mainly horses.”
“Horses have their own language. It’s almost all body language, of course. But if the rider can learn that language and has the courage and will to dominate the horse, riding can be like the most wonderful conversation. It uses your whole body and it’s like music and dance and poetry and I don’t know, like team sports, too, I guess, all mixed up into one art form. Besides they make the most wonderful, patient pets and when you’re on that horse you have this feeling of exalting power, you know?”
Martin didn’t know, and he realized he’d never know. And he realized he really, really needed the sort of drink these kids were years from being able to enjoy legally.
“If you’re the mother figure, perhaps I should audition for the father figure, then, Emmy?” Martin said with a grin.
“Actually, Mr. Hall, we have chosen you for an Uncle figure, if you don’t mind,” Emmy said.
Martin experienced a sudden lurch in his emotions. Emmy reached out and squeezed his arm, Jasper nodded, Mickey punched him on the other shoulder, and Alice grinned at him. He wasn’t in Kansas any more, Toto. He felt adopted. The smoothly functioning group before him seemed to have welcomed him. He also was convinced that they knew him much better than he knew them and they accepted him despite that. His feelings of failure began to abate for the first time in months. His headache dissipated.
He even felt brave enough to ask, “Why have you let me into the group? I have the impression that you are used to doing things with just the four of you.”
They looked at each other and after a moment of nods and shrugs Emmy said, “Jasper felt that your idea should be pursued. He also knew that you really didn’t understand what it entailed. He knew that to solve the problem we would need a representative to the world of adults. So, since it was your idea, he decided to see if you could do that job. At first Alice and I didn’t think you could do it. She thought you were condescending and considered us children and wouldn’t work with us anyway. I thought that you were so depressed that you would be unable to work at anything. We suspected that you were clinically depressed but Jasper did some investigating and decided that your state of mind was probably situational, that if your situation changed you would probably be just fine. But he said that we couldn’t just do the job for you and hand you success that you had to do your part to earn that success.
“That’s when I suggested using Alice to jolt you and get your emotions to react to something other than your lack of a job. Alice is a very good actress and we felt that by her stepping on your pride a little and shocking you with her language because 12-year-old girls aren’t supposed to talk that way, she could change your emotional state.”
“Well she certainly did that!” Martin said, laughing.
“Today we found that you were treating us as equals and taking us seriously and not as somebody to pat on the head and dismiss. Jasper respects you, and Mickey thinks you made sense so we decided you were an acceptable adult. We’re really coming to like you, Mr. Hall… Martin.”
Martin’s high lasted for days but he was never able to explain to his wife why his mood changed so radically. She just wouldn’t understand and for a time she even thought Martin was having an affair. But it soon became obvious to her that Martin still found her very attractive, so she just came to accept his happiness as one of life’s miracles.
About eight months later we find the group, minus Martin, in Jasper’s “cockpit” comparing notes.
“Problem graphed here. Over 90% solid, improving matches for each serious attempt to find appropriate patents. That should be translating into improvements within two to three months. But where’s the money?”
“Alice? Over $8000 last month is…?”
“Trivial, Mouse. Should be an O. M. better.”
“In one sense it is, Mickey. Sure we’re getting plenty of money to buy what we want to buy. Emmy’s rather happy with her new horse, for example. But I think in a larger sense it’s a big problem for the Payers and the economy.”
There was a pause. Mickey’s head came up and he actually looked at Jasper’s face. Alice stopped writing in her book. Emmy got a startled expression.
“Rescale!” breathed Alice as Emmy gripped her arm.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Emmy asked Mickey?
“Beyond the dreams of avarice,” Mickey nodded, grinning.
Then they all started talking at once in tensed, almost hushed voices.
“Epidemic. Payer problem. How to know. Reputation. Online. Everybody can.” These words and phrases were murmured by various members of the group.
“Usual jobs or a special case, oh ghostly one?” Alice’s dark brows rose.
“Usual, I think,” Jasper said. “Saturday morning I suppose, so we don’t interfere with Emmy’s riding too much.”
“So, Mr. Hall, we’d like you to present this to the Payers as something they should include in the accounting system.” They were meeting at Jasper’s once again in the usual formation with Jasper speaking. There had been quite a change in the computer equipment at the desk. All of it was new. “Call it another invention if you like but this time it’s a social invention rather than a mechanical one.”
“What is it, Jasper?” Martin asked.
“It’s just a way to prevent people from trying to hog credit. You know, like when you do some work that had somebody else’s help and you don’t let the Payers know that they helped, as if you had built a house and claimed to have cut down all the trees for the lumber yourself.”
“Well, how can you prevent that?”
“Reputation, Mr. Hall,” Emmy said.” Each person must have a public reputation, a reputation that anyone can view. Sort of like an individual person’s Web page but one that other people create.”
“I still don’t follow you, Emmy.”
“Okay, let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re a patent attorney in the old days. Let’s say you have a really good patent application that a client wants your help with. This idea is worth millions. So what you do is prepare the application with flaws, flaws will make it possible for someone else to get a patent for that idea that is sound and by which that other person can get most of those millions. Then you sell that idea to some other company. That would be immoral, of course. The original inventor would be the victim of your immoral behavior. But what could he do about it? You did create a patent for him and that patent did allow him to have protection for an invention, but just not the invention he thought he was getting a patent for. So he can’t sue you and expect to win. And he has no way to tell the world and especially other inventors what you did to him. So you can go right on doing the same kind of thing to other inventors.”
“But what if every time someone wanted to do business with you they could check a Web page and read about your past? What if every prospective client could find out what you had done to that inventor? What would happen to your business? No one would trust you to act for them. What we propose to do is make it possible for anyone who feels cheated to tell the world about the person who cheated them. In short, to give everyone a Web reputation.”
“But, Emmy, that’s outrageous. Think of the scope for slander, for libel, for unfounded accusations? A person could have their reputation ruined for nothing at all.”
“Be calm, Mr. Hall,” Alice said. “It’s not what you think.”
“Well just what is it then?”
“Mickey, you explain it,” Emmy suggested.
“The problem, Mr. Hall, is that people will want to cheat to get more money.” Mickey’s voice was now in a bass register so if Martin closed his eyes he would have thought he was listening to someone much older. “Some people will give in to that temptation. We need to make cheating so obvious that the temptation will be very small. The best way to find out about cheating is to have people who are cheated report the cheating. Cheating no one knows about doesn’t worry anyone but God. So when cheating is reported it needs to be investigated.”
“Are you following this, Mr. Hall?”
“Yes, Emmy, but I don’t see how that’ll prevent false accusations.”
“The computer can do most of the checking on reports of cheating. When the cheating involves capital goods, you know, tools and such, the computer follows what happens to them. It keeps records about that kind of thing. So denying the person who supplied your capital is rather easy to detect and knowing who supplied those goods and so forth right back to who mined the ore and who felled the timber is also known.” As he spoke Mickey was interweaving a complex rhythm of finger taps while staring into space. “Your education and training is also easy for the computer to follow, so knowledge of chemistry, for example, can reasonably be attributed to the classes in chemistry one has taken, and to the books and journals one has been able to read. The computer also knows who taught the classes and who wrote the books and so forth. Which people are working with you is known to the computer, as we found out at the transition, so that couldn’t be hidden or falsified either.”
“It turns out,” Alice put in, “that our very own invention engine was one of the ways that people believed they could get away with not giving credit. They thought that no one would know that they found an improving invention from using our Web page. So there were lots of inventors and producers who, for one reason or another, didn’t give us credit for improving their products. That’s costing us quite a lot of money.”
“So you want the computer system to verify the accusations?”
“Exactly, Mr. Hall. You see, if people expect the computer to know if their accusation is true or not, they’ll be both unlikely to lie to get credit and unlikely to lie to hurt someone else.”
“But that doesn’t prevent more subtle lies, does it? The computer can only detect lies about things the computer has data about.”
“True,” Jasper put in. “But there have always been and still are letters of recommendation and answers to the question ‘What do you think of Joe as a worker?’ We just want to make those things public so that people are more careful of what they say. If you give a negative review of someone, you have to take responsibility for that review.”
“There’s such a thing as libel, you know,” Martin said.” Since the transition, quite a number of my friends have lost lucrative practices in prosecuting and defending libel suits. Without the threat of an action for libel, what’s to keep people from putting all sorts of negative statements in there about people they don’t like?”
“Oh, we think we’ve figured that out, too, Mr. Hall,” Emmy smiled. “You see, you have to put your comment in one of the given categories. We mentioned the work reputation, there’s also a housing reputation, a driving reputation, and a gun reputation and so forth. There isn’t any category that gives one the chance to just spew general insults about somebody.”
“But couldn’t somebody just put insults into any category even if it didn’t fit?”
“The computer has quite a dictionary, Mr. Hall,” Mickey said. “It can tell if what you put in has nothing to do with the appropriate topic. But even so, you have to remember that the computer is also writing what gets put in the reputation. People provide it with their comments but the computer translates that into standard forms so it’ll be easy to read, terse, and clear. If you managed to fit insulting statements into some category when they got translated into some standard forms they would be both germane to the category and make definite statements. Those statements could be checked, in most cases, by the computer. Thus, if the hothead affirmed that the computer translation was what happened, he would be responsible for that statement. If he was shown to have lied, that would become part of his own reputation. Because lying is relevant to most of the reputations, it would be posted in many places. Thus an attempt to slander could redound upon the slanderer as well as cost him in future earnings.”
“Redound? What does that mean?” Martin asked with a surprised look on his face.
“It means to bounce back upon, probably unexpectedly. In this case what was expected to hurt someone else turns out to hurt one’s self,” Emmy said, quietly with a kindly smile.
“Oh. Okay. I understand that.”
“Do you understand how we make it difficult to lie on these reputations?” Alice asked.
“Um, I think so. First, most things people might put in them can be checked by the computer. Second, what you say has to fit into a category like job reputation, or housing reputation, or driving reputation. This means that the topics that one can address in each reputation are limited by that topic. Third, the computer will translate what you say into some stock answers which are well-written rather than quoting you verbatim. Is that it?”
“Yes, Mr. Hall, that’s it.”
“Does the person submitting an entry for the reputation have to type it in or can they just talk to the computer?”
“The computer should be able to handle your just talking,” Mickey said. “It’ll show you what it’s made of your statements and ask for confirmation. If you can’t read, it’ll talk them to you. This should make for easy access even if a person is blind or has other handicaps.”
“You say that just anyone can see these reputations? All I have to do is ask the computer for John Doe’s job reputation and it gives it to me?” Martin’s skepticism was showing.
Jasper could wait no longer and was at the front edge of his chair. “Well, Mr. Hall, it could be that way, but we’d rather have each person own their reputation so they can choose when and to whom to show it. There are things more important than reducing cheating. Cheating is somewhat self-correcting anyway by gossip even if the computer doesn’t help. We think it’s far more important that people should be able to control what the computer reveals about themselves to others. The computer is able to get to all sorts of information about everybody. You probably noticed that we’re able to find out a lot about people without their even knowing we’re getting access to their personal information.”
Martin vividly remembered how shocked and almost naked he’d felt when Jasper revealed that he knew quite a few things that Martin had thought were private. The idea that anyone could have such information just for the asking was downright frightening.
“So,” Jasper continued, “we’d like these reputations to be available only upon the request of the owners. That’s another reason why we categorized the reputations by type so that one could release just the information that was relevant without divulging extraneous material. At the same time, if one is going to release some of one’s reputation concerning some topic, like housing, say, one must release all the information on that topic. One cannot release just the good stuff.”
“Have you got a write-up of this plan for me to give to the Payers?”
“Sure. We even have an appointment for you at 3:00 tomorrow afternoon. That should give you plenty of time to prepare a brief, right?” Jasper said with a big grin and handed Martin two memory sticks.
“I can’t read this much material in a month,” Martin said looking at the multi-gigabyte sticks with his eyebrows raised.
“Oh the material for you to read is only about 20 pages. The rest is some programs and descriptions of some algorithms that should make this work better. If you convince the Payers at the meeting that this is a good idea, they’ll give it to some of the folks working on their computers that can understand it. Just give it to them after your presentation.”
“Won’t the Payers there be the ones who’ll make it work?”
“I’d be surprised. The computer nerds almost never get to set the policies. They just make them work. No, I’d expect the people you meet at first will have little understanding of what the computer does and even less of how it does it. Remember that most of them are old and retired.” Alice said.
“Alice, don’t say things like that to Mr. Hall,” Emmy rebuked. Then she turned to Martin to apologize.
But Martin was already laughing. “Don’t worry, Emmy. I don’t take offense at being called ignorant due to being old, especially when the people saying it are only in their teens. I remember how ignorant my parents were when I was a teenager and how much they seemed to have learned somehow by the time I was 25.”
They grinned back at him and Jasper said, “Just sell it to the policy guys. We can always sell it to the computer geeks for ourselves. Our contact information is on both sticks.”
Oddly enough, Martin had little trouble convincing the Payers of the usefulness of the proposed software. Naturally, the Payers wanted to have their own people check out the details to be sure that it wasn’t all pie in the sky. The Payers had been very concerned about the same problem and were actively seeking solutions. The fact that a solution for this particular problem would also solve a host of problems for others in addition to the Payers was but dimly perceived by any of that group. We’re not sure about The Others.
Previous: Chapter 23
Next: Chapter 25