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Machine of Death Entry, "Corporate Negligence" v. 0.1

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I'm going to take a crack at the iterative/interactive writing model. I'm working on several stories for the Machine of Death project, which is my first actual attempt at writing fiction for publication. I've had the occasional technical article show up in some places like NewsForge. As you might imagine, I'm have some trepidation about it. Since I'm already concerned about that particular experiment, I see no reason to not expand this to incorporating this into another experiment- namely, Oort-Cloud.

What I'm including here is a very VERY early version of a story. Mostly, it's a sampling of the ideas I want to work into a story set in the MoD world. Here's what I'd like to know- which ideas in here are really worthy of more exploration and expansion, and which aren't? What should stay, what should go? Who do you want to know more about? As I expand the story and add to it, I'm going to maintain a changelog- and that changelog will be linked up properly so as to let people already familiar with the story jump right to relevant sections.

My goal is to have a working 1.0 version of this tale by next Tuesday (so as to include it in my Story of the Week project). This particular post is a "Feedback Only" release, and as such is:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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CORPORATE NEGLIGENCE
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CHANGELOG
v. 0.1 Initial draft release. A basic exposition of the core featureset of the story, released on Oort-Cloud only for early "alpha" phase feedback.

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"Explain to me, exactly," Greg Jones said with the deliberation of a thunderhead moving up on the horizons, "why sales are dropping?" He stood at the head of the boardroom table, dark against the glare of the projector. On the wall behind him glowed a graph showing sales figures over the past six months- a steady upwards climb was terminated in by a sharp precipice.

Around the table, VPs of various departments looked askance at each other, trying to hold out so that someone else would open their mouths first, and hence draw President Jones's wrath onto them. "Sir?" Chairs creaked as everyone in the boardroom turned their gaze onto VP of Marketing, Alexis Patterson. "Look," she moistened her lips with her tongue as she fought for the right words to explain this. Around the table gazes turned from concerned to hungry, sharks smelling blood in the water. "That sales spike was a lie- a myth. That wasn't our real sales."

Greg Jones laughed menacingly. "Oh, _really_?" He stalked around the table, hands jammed into his pockets in a faux casual gesture until he was directly across from Alexis. "The shareholders definitely think they're real sales. And they're going to be very concerned when the dividends for this quarter are nonexistent."

"It was a bubble!" She exclaimed, the emotion in her voice signaling the end of her career in this boardroom. A few quick breaths calmed her down, and she continued, in an even tone of voice, trying to smooth over the social error in her outburst. "It was a bubble," she set her pen down on her notepad, a bit too roughly, in an attempt to stop fidgeting with it. "There was nothing in the market like the Machine. But the problem is- no one needs to use it more than once. The revenues from the doctor's office sales have been pretty static the entire time, but you'll notice the real drop was in publicly consumable Machines. I..." she started to lose steam, before powering up again and making it over the rise. "I've been warning against this from the marketing side for months," she reminded the table. "There's no future revenue possibilities- all you're going to get is this spike, and it's all downhill from here. I recommend we take the money we've made and recapitalize it into a different investment." A puff of air at the end of the sentence indicated that she was finished, and possibly in more way then one.

"Unacceptable," Jones said when she finished. "I understand the practical realities, but any VP of marketing worth anything should be able to make people buy things they don't need again and again and again. If you can't do that, we'll find someone who can." He glanced around the table, looking for more feedback.

Alexis slammed her pen down again, this time intentionally to draw the focus back onto her. "Look, you stupid ass," she said, rising from her seat. Standing, Alexis was surprisingly tall, built more like a mediocre transvestite than a wilting flower. She angled her gaze down towards Jones. "You're asking the impossible and you're wasting the shareholder's money while you do it. The Machine is an broken business model and the only way to fix it is to find some way to make the predictions something that changes each time somebody takes the test."

Silence descended on the room, and Greg Jones's thundercloud burst, his slack jaw a momentary burst of sunlight . Alexis, certain of her fate, began gathering her things. "Miss Patterson, I do believe you can keep your job. R&D- what's the feasability of Miss Patterson's suggestion?"

The VP or R&D shrugged. "What suggestion? We don't know how the damn thing works- just that it does. What, exactly, am I supposed to change to make it randomize?"

"I think I can repeat my original comment to Miss Patterson, Victor," Greg threatened, "this is a merely technical problem that I am certain you can rectify. And now that Miss Patterson has shown us the basic suggestion, I'm certain we can develop a few spinoffs- if it gives you a varied prediction every time- what could this mean?"

"Personal predictors! One per person. Throw a limiter on so it's disposable and needs to be replaced ever ten uses."

"'Premium' predictions where we take a few and average them using patented algorithms!"

And so on- the suggestions flew from the board, even if Alexis collapsed in her seat silently relieved. Poor Victor though- she hadn't exactly intended to make an enemy of him. Every once in awhile, he glanced in her direction, right before throwing out a technical objection to the ideas that were flying about the room. She had done him the disservice of whetting their appetites for advancement, and he knew his department couldn't deliver. It wasn't a mere technical problem- nobody knew how the Machine worked- it was one of those accidents of manufacturing that couldn't be easily replicated or analyzed.

----

"Fuck me," James Trent said as the word came down from above in a carefully typewritten memo nailed to the door of the lab like a set of theses. The good news- R&D was getting money. The bad? R&D was going to need to work for it. "Shit on me," he added as he kicked open the door to the R&D lab. The lab was tiny, cramped, poorly lit and understaffed. Why the hell did they need an R&D department? A Machine that predicted your mode of death was an incredible advancement! They'd be millionaires! Fantastically rich! The R&D department was more of a formality, more of an afterthought- every big company marketing a product needed an R&D department.

"Sex and shit? Not for me thanks, but try putting an ad on Craigslist." Fellow lab rat Kevyn Bright stumbled in behind him, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the poorly lit laboratory.

"No, seriously," Trent wadded the memo up and chucked it over his shoulder at Bright. "They want us to change the design of the Machine."

"New form factor?" Bright bobbled the catch and had to scoop the ball of paper from the floor. After reading the memo, he spat his own string of curses. "They don't have the foggiest idea what they're asking, do they?"

Trent shrugged as he fell into a chair before an aging computer console. Piled around the desk were the various constituent components of the Machine, the innards exposed for their "research" and some basic tinkering. It was a struggle closer to that of Sisyphus, but at least they got a paycheck out of the deal. "They're management," he said it like a curse, "what the hell do they know on the best of days?"

Above the computer was taped a photograph of the first Victim, as Trent liked to call her. Young, pretty, and eventually crushed to death by the steering column of her car when a head-on collision drove it through her chest. He didn't know her name- she had a simple case number scrawled into the bottom edge of the Polaroid and the prediction: "Corporate Negligence". A subsequent investigation determined that proper safety precautions had been ignored and her death was the result of poor manufacturing- an investigation spawned by the ongoing research into the Machine.

All that had happened before Trent was head of the project, before he even worked for the company. Back then, all Machine related research was built around the work of Gary Young- who, ironically died of old age, as predicted by the Machine. He was the inventor, but his notoriously poor documentation and his poor understanding of what the Machine actually did left them all groping in the dark. With the initial success, there was very little emphasis on improving the Machine- which meant Trent spent his time tinkering and generally goofing off.

Bright pulled up a stool so that he was facing Trent, and shrugged heavily in his bulky sweater. "Okay- so what are the big problems with what they're asking?" This was his first sally in what was sure to be a long brainstorming session. They had these conversations every day, but rarely did it focus on work, and more often it was their analysis of "Star Trek" versus _Star Wars_, what physical principles could be used to replicate a light-saber, which edition of _Dungeons and Dragons_ was superior and the best weapon with which to survive a zombie outbreak. This incredibly nerdy conversations evolved into a surprisingly advanced Socratic dialogue, so that when it came time to analyze an actual complex and practical topic, they were surprisingly well equipped.

"Well, the obvious- we don't know what the hell we'd need to do to make that happen. But there's already complaints from a lot of sources- skeptics and the religious claim we're a sham, that the predictions are general and interpretable enough as to allow room for any death to be accounted for. If we add in a randomizer type thing, that's just gonna feed that fire. Even if we could figure out a way to randomize it." Trent ran a hand back through his hair, which fell back according to the whims of gravity, cascading into his eyes.

Bright nodded, considering the situation. He absently juggled the scrap of memo between his hands, rustling in rhythmically. "Okay, okay. But people are dumb, right?"

"A million businesses have minted money on that very premise," Trent drawled sarcastically.

"So let's lie. Take the output of the Machine, run it through a thesaurus, a couple of algorithms. Build it like a Furbee."

"Excuse me?"

"Y'know those kids toys from a few years back? Everyone thought they had some sort of AI or someshit? That was all bull- it had a few simple expressive gestures, and people just thought it was more intelligent than it was. I saw an article in Wired or something about it."

Trent considered that idea, and as the idea settled down on him, his smile came back. "Do you smell that?" He looked around, wide eyed. "That's the smell of being able to blow 90% of our budget on fun toys because we don't need to spend much to implement your idea. To the whiteboard, Robin!" he called out dramatically, stabbing a finger in the air, before anticlimactically moving to the whiteboard to sketch out some design ideas.

----

The turnaround time was a week. A flurry of rather vitriolic communications flew between Victor in R&D and Alexis in Marketing as the implications of the design 'improvements' became clear. As Victor became more confident of success, the exchanges became more polite, more relaxed and informal. By Thursday, he was working on positioning Alexis as his next mistress, because the success that his team had pulled out was nothing short of stunning.

"Allow me to demonstrate," he opened the board meeting. Greg Jones was, uncharacteristically, sitting at the head of the table, giving up his normal Colossus-like posture and VIctor had the floor. Behind him were two identical version of the Machine, resting on their own tables. "First, may I ask, who here has taken the test before?"

Everyone's hand went up. "Oh," Victor was somewhat surprised.

"Our HMO requires it," Greg explained. For the benefit of the rest of the board, "His wife works for the state and he gets her benefits."

"Yes, yes. They don't have that sort of requirement," Victor said. "No, that's good though. It makes for a more compelling demonstration. Could I have a volunteer then? Alexis?" He motioned for her to come up.

Reluctantly, she stood. "I'm not comfortable taking the test in front of anyone," she admitted, trying to hover near her seat and not move to take the test. "If it's okay... I'd like to..."

"Oh, just take the damn test," Greg barked, shocking her into action.

Despite herself, she stumbled to the front of the room. In a flash, Victor had her finger against the testing surface and a moment later, grabbed the slip that came from the output tray. Listlessly, she grabbed at it, trying to reclaim it before he read it aloud, but already she knew the cause was lost. In clear block letters was written the word "Syphilis". Her eyes were teary as she stared down at Victor, mouthing the word "Please". Uncomfortable, Victor coughed once. "Actually, this won't make a terribly good demonstration," he said; his eyes lingered dangerously on Alexis, as if he could keep her away with force of will. "Could I... um, have another volunteer?"

"Cowards," Greg growled; his anger cascaded across the table and dropped onto the floor at their feet like a large weight. "I'll do it." A quick prick of the finger and a moment later, the results printed out. "Heart Attack" was clearly printed on the slip.

"Ah, that's perfect," Victor replied. "This one will make a good demonstration. Our esteemed President is headed for a heart attack- but as we all know, that's not a good guarantee. The Machine is somewhat... well, perverse, right? Maybe my second, modified Machine can give us more information. Another finger, if you please?"

Instead of a short slip, this time, the Machine spit out a long chain of responses. "I've set it in demo mode," Victor admitted. "It's going through and generating as many possible responses as it can come up with based on the initial prediction of a heart attack." As the paper tape began to pool on the floor, he scooped it up and began reading it aloud. "Heart attack; coronary; arterial blockage; corporate negligence; poor diet; bad health; stress; broken heart; medical malpractice; the FDA..." he started to trail off as the responses got more and more puzzling. "There's, ah- a certain degree of randomness in this whole thing," he admitted lamely, ready to hear cries of "Charlatan".

"Thats... that's _amazing_," Greg admitted. "That's fantastic- every time, it's going to give them a random response like that?"

"As many as it can come up with," Victor replied, secretly relieved. "There's between 5 and 500 responses for most possible deaths, or so my research boys tell me."

"What's going to be the cost of implementing this globally?" the VP of Finance asked.

"Incredibly cheap, actually," Victor said. He fired up a Powerpoint slideshow and moved into the next phase of the presentation- the technical details boiled down into childish phrases that non-technical people could understand. Even worse- Victor didn't understand the technical details himself. The exercise of the blind leading the blind devolved into near gibberish- but one glowing point stood out. The randomizer was not, itself, part of the machine. It was an add on, a separate product that could generate its own revenue stream. That was something people understood, and Trent, who had written the proposal, knew that was the selling point.

----

Nicely done. I was

Nicely done. I was immediately sympathetic to James and Kevyn, the lab rats. And their solution was darkly hilarious.

I suspect this story is especially funny to those of us who have worked corporate.

Now _that_ is a very cool

Now _that_ is a very cool idea. It hadn't even occurred to me that the market for The Machine is/was very limited. Huh.

Also, how embarrassing for Alexis -- though it does raise the question of why she neglects to be treated.

What wouldn't people write about?

Yeah, the "Syphilis" thing is going to go- at least the name of the disease. That scene is going to carry a lot more power with some unnamed threat of humiliation.

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