IF YOU OWN A COMPUTER, CLAP YOUR HANDS

Copyright Dr Alan Solomon, 1986-1995

I was fast asleep, dreaming of a sorting algorithm that would blow
Quicksort out of the water, when a small tinkly sound woke me up.  I
reached for my alarm clock, but it didn't seem to stop, so I heaved my
eyes open, and bleared at the world.  Then I shut them again, because
obviously I was still dreaming, and it's always best to do that with
your eyes shut.  The tinkly sound continued, so I stuck one eye out of
the covers and had a look around.  It was still there, tinkling.  And I
just had to be dreaming;  the alternative was too horrible to
contemplate.  Well, what would you think if you saw something that
glowed blue and tinkled, hovered on gossamer dragonfly wings, and looked
like a six inch human female?  That's right - it's funny farm time.

But this figment of my imagination didn't go away, and then she
fluttered down to land on the pile of Apricot Files I keep for those
nights when nothing else will send me to sleep.  Well, I've seen
stranger sights (you must remind me to tell you some time what I found
at the North Pole) and I've learned that nothing is as dangerous as a
closed mind, so I said "Hello".  "Hello", she tinkled back.  "I suppose
you're called Tinkerbell", I said.

She folded her wings and looked cross.  "Yes, and you're Peter Pan, I
suppose." Um.  I suppose I deserved that.  Start again.  "No, I'm Doctor
Alan Solomon." "Yes, I know", she said.  "that's why I'm here." I could
see that I wasn't doing very well.  Suddenly I saw what was wrong.  The
only small human females I know are my daughters aged 4 and 6, and I was
treating this small human female like one of them.  I decided I'd better
start treating her with a bit of respect.  I got out of bed and put on
my dressing gown and slippers.  "Can I get you anything to drink?", I
offered.  She smiled, and said "A drop of honey-and-brandy would be
rather nice".

We sat across the kitchen table drinking coffee (me) and honey (her),
and she started to explain why she'd come to visit me.  Her name,
apparently, was Titania, and she was the queen of the little folk.
There was trouble in Fairyland, and only I could help.

"Tell me what the problem is", I asked, swinging into my role as a
professional consultant.  "The fairies aren't working hard enough, and I
need some way to motivate them better.", said Titania.  I was quite
surprised.  For a start, I hadn't realised that fairies worked at all;
I thought life was just one long shindig in Fairyland.  I suppose this
is a common effect;  life always looks greener on the other side of the
fence, and people often think I'm asleep when actually I'm deep in
thought.

"But I'm a computer consultant", I said, "What you need is a
psychologist".  "Yes," she said, "I tried that, but the trouble is, as
soon as they see me they start mumbling about alienated realities.  And
anyway, I thought that we'd computerise everything, and that would mean
greater productivity."

Well, I can see where she got that one - she's been reading Apricot
File, and believing Dave Langford.  Computers don't increase
productivity, they just foul up your business so badly that you have to
spend a fortune on consultants to sort you out.  Still, I mustn't
grumble, I suppose - it keeps the kids in Care Bears and My Little
Ponies.

"So what I've come to ask you, is which computer should I buy?" Oh no,
not that one.  Women come up to me at parties, strange men phone me in
the middle of the night, old ladies accost me in supermarkets, and they
all have the same question - which computer should I buy.  Well
actually, that's an exaggeration - sometimes there's another question,
which starts off "My printer doesn't ..."

My problem is, I haven't worked out how to deal with it yet.  For a
while, I took it seriously, and sat down in the middle of Sainsbury's
for a four-hour consultation, or spent hours advising some dewy-eyed
female that the F1E would not be all the computer she ever needed.  But
then I got older and wiser, and started charging people for advice, so
at parties I'd come back with "I'm thinking of buying a car - what would
you suggest I get", or "I'm thinking of baking a cake - what ingredients
should I buy." But people didn't understand the sarcasm, and would start
explaining the difference between a Ford and a Toyota, or why I should
avoid sultanas.  So I'm still looking for a snappy comeback to "Which
computer ...  ", and if anyone knows one, I'll trade it for the line I
use when people first hear about my Doctor handle, and start describing
their symptoms.  It works a treat.  All you have to say is "Take off all
your clothes."

I explained to Titania that I'd have to understand more about her
problem before I could make any recommendations.  "I suppose I'll need a
LAN", she said and I knew that there was BIG trouble in fairyland.  "I
never pre-judge", I said pompously, but I was thinking that if I ever
saddled these little people with a LAN, I'd never be able to sleep
soundly again.  "It depends on a lot of things." "So what do you need to
know?", she asked.

That's a hard one to answer.  When you go into a business to make
recommendations, you need to know a lot about it.  But what you need to
know, varies from business to business.  The truth is, I didn't know
what it was that I needed to know.  This is usually the case, but if
you're looking at a candle-stick-maker, at least you have a vague idea
what he does before you start.  Hands up anyone who knows what fairies
do for a living?  I needed to go "on-site" as we say.

"I need to visit your premises", I explained.  "No problem", said
Titania, and waved a black rod with a rusty star on the end.  "Wait a
min...", I began, but before I could say it, I found myself standing in
the middle of a field of shoulder-high toadstools.  Titania seemed to
have grown, and was now nearly as tall as me - I looked again, and
realised that she hadn't grown - I'd shrunk.  I had another look;  don't
let anyone tell you that fairies are sexless - this one was definitely
female.

John Darling started it, and Arthur Dent brought it off beautifully.
But take it from me, a dressing gown is just not a practical garment,
and I soon began to feel the chill.  My slippers weren't waterproof, and
as I squelched after Titania, I began to wish I'd worn something more
practical.  Still, it could have been worse - sometimes all my pajamas
are in the wash.

She ducked into a particularly large and poisonous-looking toadstool,
and I followed her.  We went down a spiral staircase for ages, and
eventually emerged in a large room that looked like a gigantic British
Telecom switchboard.  There were complicated plug-and-socket consoles
all round the walls, and fairies were running back and forth from the
console operators to a complicated arrangement of wires and pulleys in
the middle of the room.  The wires ran overhead about six inches from
the ceiling, and disappeared through doors.  And suddenly, I remembered
Harrods twenty years ago, as I watched the canisters flying up and down
the wires, presumably containing sales orders and invoices.

"What's going on here?" I asked.  "This is the Wishing Well", she
answered.  Fairies were rushing around in all directions, far to busy to
talk to an interloper.  Titania beckoned imperiously, and a fawn ran up,
panting.  "This is Doctor Solomon - he's here to help us improve our
productivity.  Show him around, and give him any explanation he wants."
Titania turned to me.  "I have to go now - when you're ready, come and
talk to me about your recommendations." "Er,", I hesitated.  "We haven't
agreed on, er, um..." It seemed wrong to talk about cold cash in
Fairyland, but we consultants have to think about such things, otherwise
the supply of Care Bears and My Little Ponies will dry up.  "Payment
will be as much gold as you can carry", she said, and momentarily Greed
replaced Lust as my number one problem.  I reckoned I could carry at
least 80 pounds, and at $600 per ounce, that meant a lot of cat food and
Vim.

I watched her move regally through the crowds, and with a sigh, turned
to my new guide.  "What's your name, then?", I asked.  "Puck", he said.
"Of Pook's Hill." With all these lovely fairies around, I have to get
saddled with an ugly, weird-looking fawn called Puck.  Oh well, I wasn't
here to enjoy myself.  "OK, Puck, what's going on here."

He started to explain.  "The wishes come in on the switchboards..." "The
what?" I said.  "Switchboards", he said.  "No, before that", I said.
"Before what", he said.  Just my luck.  Not only an ugly Puck, but also
a thick Puck.  "Start again", I said.

He gave me a look like I was stupid, and I knew that friend Puck and I
were not going to hit it off.  "The wishes come in ..", he said slowly
and distinctly.  "What wishes?  What do you mean?", I said.  "The
wishes, the wishes", he said, as if that explained it.

You often get this failure to communicate.  Computer people use computer
jargon to people who don't understand it, but accountants use accounting
jargon, and solicitors give words very non-standard meanings, and here
was this flatulent Puck who thought that anyone who didn't understand
his jargon had to be an imbecile.  "Show me one of these 'wishes'", I
asked, and he went and got one for me.

What he actually brought back, was an order form, just like you'd see in
any organisation.  Written on the form was the customer's name and
address, an order number, and a space for the order itself.  But I've
never seen an order like it.  It said, "I wish this rain would stop."

I stared at the form, wondering what goods or services the customer must
be after.  I run a mail order company myself, and I can tell you we get
some pretty weird requests.  But as I looked at more orders, I could see
that they were all like that.  "I wish he'd hurry up", and "I wish I
hadn't eaten that." Then I realised what they were - they were wishes.

Okay, okay, I know I should have worked it out sooner.  Don't forget
that when I go into a company they immediately start bombarding me with
the shorthand expressions that they use, and I always have to get them
to slow down and explain.  This consulting business seems to consist
entirely of stepping into buckets of paste - the trick is to make sure
you're wearing wellies.

Anyway, now I realised what was going on.  The fairies were in the
wish-granting business, and now that I knew that, a bigger mystery
immediately presented itself.  I've never seen a business that ran out
of altruism, so since no-one was paying for the wishes, why were they
doing it?  You might think that this was none of my business, but it's
my experience that you can't really help a client until you really,
fully understand the business, and if there are any major mysteries, you
haven't understood it yet.

I asked the fawn Puck.  He said that fairies grant wishes because that's
what fairies do, but I knew he was wrong.  You often get that sort of
answer - I hear things like "We're in business to provide a service".
Nonsense.  You're in business to make a profit, and providing a service
is a means to that end.  But lose sight of the end, and you wind up
losing your business.  I decided I'd ask Titania, when I next saw her.

I took a closer look at the switchboards.  The fairies manning (I
suppose that should be fairying) them were being deluged with calls, and
were scribbling the orders onto pads as fast as they could.

I could see that they were simply missing a lot of the calls, because
they couldn't write the name, address, birthday and wish fast enough.
And then there were a whole bunch of Wishrunner fairies who did nothing
but grab the wishes from the switchboard Wishgetters and run with them
to the dispatching contraption of wires and pulleys (I think the last
one I saw was at Harrods, just after the war).  They had to put the wish
into a cylinder, put the cylinder on the correct wire, and pull the
handle that worked the spring, which sent the cylinder flying along the
wire.

I got faithful Puck to explain it to me.  "We work by countries;  the
wishes are going to the country specialists".  This made sense - after
all, a wish for good weather in the Sahara has a completely different
meaning from a wish for good weather in England.  We followed one of the
wires down a corridor and into the Room of the Spanish Wishbringers.
Inside, hundreds of fairies were frantically waving their wands to and
fro, in a desperate attempt to keep up with the flood of orders.  One
fairy dashed out carrying a canister - "Probably the wrong country",
said Puck.  He explained that a lot of wishes got misdirected, some
because in the frantic rush of orders, they were sent to the wrong room,
but mostly because these days, a lot of people were not in their home
countries, and Fairyland's information was rather out-of-date, as there
was no time to spare to get it current.

I was horrified.  The whole system was a total shambles.  I have never
seen a business that was so badly organised in my life.  They used
manual systems where a computer was obviously better - they didn't even
know where their customers lived!  Judging from the Harrods contraption,
the last time they'd equipped the business was fifty years ago.  It
isn't often that you see an administration system so ripe for change,
and it isn't often that it is obvious what was needed.  But this one
stuck out like a sore thumb.  "You need a LAN", I said.  I never thought
I'd say that and mean it.

That evening, I was summoned into the royal banqueting hall, to dine
with the Queen.  Everyone was dressed magnificently in silk and brocade,
adorned with flowers and bedecked with jewels.  I began to wish that my
dressing gown wasn't quite so old, and my slippers weren't quite so
disreputable.  Titania was the loveliest of all, wearing a gossamer
creation in midnight blue, and I can tell you that fairies are quite
definitely female, and I can't think how the slang term got started.
She sat me down next to her, and I tried to think beautiful thoughts as
she leaned towards me and asked me about the Wishing Well.

"All your problems will be solved by a LAN", I said, conscious of the
sarcastic remark that I usually made when I heard this line.  "We
replace the wires-and-cylinders with a centralised file server, and each
switchboard Wishgetter has a PC at her desk.  When the wish comes in,
the PC searches the database for the wishers name, address and birthday,
and puts it up on the screen.  The Wishgetter accepts or amends it, keys
in the wish, and then goes on to the next one.  Each Wishgetter will be
able to handle at least five times as many wishes, because of the time
saved by not having to write down the wishers details." I looked at her
- she still seemed to be listening, so I went on.

"The computer running the file server can then route the wish to the
appropriate Wishbringer Room, automatically taking care of details like
the wisher being temporarily abroad.  In the Room, each Wishbringer has
a PC that is linked to a centralised wish server.  The wish is queued on
the wish server machine, which holds the wish until there is a free
machine to display it on.  As soon as possible, the wish is displayed,
the Wishbringer executes it and presses the Enter key, or refuses it and
presses the Esc key;  either way, that signals the wish server that the
wish has been processed, and can now be deleted."

"It sounds complicated", said Titania.  "No, not at all", I said.  "A
standard LAN will handle it, using dBase III+.  And the fairies that are
released from Wishrunner duty can become productive Wishbringers, we we
gain both ways - the volume of work needed to process each wish is
reduced, and there are more fairies executing wishes." "Brilliant", said
Titania, "do it." "What?", I said.  "Yes, do it," she said.

I'm not used to that.  Usually you prepare a written proposal in
multuplicate, committees get set up to examine your proposal, it takes
three years, everybody has to have their say and add their three
ha'pence, the plan gets twisted and watered down, and by the time you
see the end result, you're horrified to think that you had triggered it
off.  I wasn't used to "Yes, do it".  I guess I haven't worked for
Royalty before.

Of course, it wasn't that simple (it never is).  Each Wishgetter and
each Wishbringer had to have a PC, and had to be linked into the LAN,
and all this had to be planned, organised and installed.  There are six
billion people in the world, and they make an average of ten wishes per
day.  Fortunately, most of them can be refused, as they conflict with
someone else's wish, and in some cases a load of wishes can be batched
up and executed as a block wish (especially the weather wishes).  But
those 60 billion wishes still have to be dealt with, one way or another.
I calculated that Wishgetters and Wishbringers would be able to deal
with 2000 wishes per day, so we would need about 30 million of each.
But there were only about 3 million fairies altogether, so we would
still be underperforming by a factor of 20.  Still, with the current
system, only about half the fairies were working productively, and could
handle a maximum of 400 wishes per day, so my system would be ten times
better that the old one.

We had to buy the 3 million PCs.  That's a story in itself - there are
not many organisations that can supply that kind of volume.  In fact
there's only one firm that has that kind of manufacturing power.  A lot
of people wondered why IBM's profits stumbled so badly last year, and
most analysts assumed it was the impact of the cheap clones on IBM's
volume.  In fact, volume was way, way up, as you now know;  the reason
why their profits were so bad was that we paid them in fairy gold - it's
a hard life in the hardware business.

It wasn't easy setting up the LAN, either.  I ran head-on into the
limitation of 64 machines on a single LAN, and I needed to hang
3,000,000 on it.  But there's more than one way to skin a cat, and some
of them give you quite a lot of usable fur.  I LANed the machines
together in groups of 64, and then hooked each file server into a
Super-LAN, so that I had network of 4096 machines.  I connected the
SuperLAN fileservers together into a SuperDuperLAN of 262,144 computers.
Even this SuperDuperLAN wasn't enough, of course, and I needed to
network six them together into a machine I called the Master Server.
That gave me the necessary 1.5 million Wishgetters workstations;  in the
Wishbringer rooms, it wasn't necessary to go to such lengths, and I
could get away with SuperLANs in most cases, and I only needed a
SuperDuperLAN for the Chinese and Indian Wishbringer Rooms.

You can imagine the problems we had with the Wishrunners - they didn't
like the idea of retraining as Wishgetters or Wishbringers at all, and
Titania had to use all her persuasive powers to avert a strike.  And the
Wishgetters said that they didn't like the new system, and kept trying
to sabotage it by feeding in wrong information.  Only the Wishbringers
were pleased with the new arrangements, as it made their jobs more
important.

I use the old wire runs to string my cables, and I used good old twisted
pair - none of this newfangled optical stuff for me.  What I say is, if
you can't put a voltmeter on it, it isn't really trustworthy.  And
anyway, the fairies all glowed so much, an optical link wouldn't have
worked.  I needed a lot of hard disk to store all that data, but that
was easy - I just put a couple of the CORE 260 megs in each machine, and
that gave me a total of 780 terabytes online (a terabyte is a
1,000,000,000,000 bytes).  All that hard disk needed backup, and we
decided to use the traditional method, as it is cheap, fast and nearly
100% reliable.  But we improved on it, since the data base was so
important;  instead of as usual just crossing our fingers and wishing ,
we had a leprechaun standing by at all times to bring good luck.

I suppose you're thinking that anything that complicated couldn't
possibly have worked?  Well you're wrong;  it worked perfectly, first
time, and ran as smoothly as silk, and never broke down.  LANs *do*
work, in fairyland.  Unfortunately, it didn't seem to make the situation
any better.

I was summoned into Titania's office, and she was not pleased, not
pleased at all.  "It's as bad as ever", she said, and I had to agree.
The Wishgetters and the Wishbringers were as overstretched as ever, but
they were still dealing with only 3 billion wishes per day, out of the
60 billion total.  To put it another way, we were still losing 95% of
the wishes, and that was not very good.  I had an idea on how to handle
that, but first I had to restore client confidence.

With a theatrical flourish, I produced a bundle of paper.  The Master
Server maintained statistics on the wish flow, and I showed Titania that
we were doing much better than under the old system.  True, we were only
handling 5% of the flow, but in the old days, 0.5% was the average
score.  "I agree a score of only 5% is inadequate, but I've already
improved performance ten fold, and if you give me a chance, I'll do even
better." "How?", demanded the Queen.  So I explained to her.

Since the Wishgetters were now only needed to key in the wish, we could
aim at automating this process;  then we could retrain them as
Wishbringers, and capacity would be much greater.  "How?", she asked.
"Instead of writing down the wish, we sample the sound, digitise it, and
store it in a compressed form.  Then we transmit the wish over the
network to the appropriate Wishbringer room, where the digitised sound
can be reconstituted for execution by the Wishbringing fairy."

I could tell that she was impressed.  I embroidered the idea a bit more,
as clients always like things to sound complicated, otherwise they feel
that they're not getting their money's worth, but I was going to use
off-the-shelf hardware and software, and I knew it would be quite
straightforward.

We installed the digitisers, and retrained the Wishgetters.  The Wishing
Well was now strangely silent for the first time in centuries;  the
Wishrunners had long since been redeployed as Wishbringers, and now the
Wishgetters had gone.  Puck and I strolled through the Wishing Well, and
I saw a tear roll down his cheek as he remembered how it had been for
all those thousands of years, and how it would never be the same again.
"Cheer up, Puck old fellow", I said.  "You'll be a Wishbringer, now." "I
failed my registered Wishbringer exams", he said, sadly.  Only fully
qualified personnel were allowed to execute wishes, for obvious reasons.
Puck wasn't up to scratch, and now faced redundancy.  I thought about
all the other fawns and fairies that were in the same boat, and for the
umpteenth time wondered about this "progress" that computers were
supposed to bring.  But then I remembered an old saying.  A bulldozer
replaces a dozen men with spades, but don't sympathize too much with the
spademen;  remember that each of them replaced a hundred men with sharp
sticks.

My tour of the new facilities took me into the Spanish Wishbringer room,
and here I saw immediately that I had overlooked something important.
Or rather, I heard that I had overlistened something important.  It was
pandemonium.  There were too many machines synthesising too much speech
in too small a space.  Each Wishbringer had turned up the sound in an
effort to hear better, and the result was a stentorian cacophony.  I
couldn't even hear myself think in this din, so I hurried out.  If you
ever wondered what happened to last year's cotton crop, now you know -
cotton wool is the best sound absorber I know, and it worked a treat.

Between doubling the Wishbringer staff, and improving their performance
by using voice, we had achieved a 200% improvement in wish execution.
That was really excellent, but it meant that we were still losing about
85% of the business, as Titania kept pointing out.  I hate it when
clients are never satisfied with what you give them - I'd put in two
technically superb systems, and still she wasn't satisfied.  She kept
rabbitting on about those lost wishes, until I told her I'd have another
think.

My first idea went down like a lead balloon.  I suggested we route all
wishes via Wishdealers, so that anyone wanting a wish would have to trot
along to his local friendly dealer, and the dealer would then forward
the wish to us.  I explained that this would staunch the flood of wishes
down to a trickle, but Titania was horrified, and said that that was the
last thing she wanted.  "We have to keep the wishes flowing", she said.
Something was nagging at the back of my mind - something I was supposed
to be doing or saying, but I couldn't quite remember what it was, and
since I don't carry my Filofax in my dressing gown, I couldn't do
anything about it.

My second idea I didn't even bother to mention.  Only a tiny percentage
of the wishers had modems, and the thought of all those wishes trying to
get down a BT line made me fall about laughing.  And anyway, there's a
six month waiting list for BT lines into Fairyland, so the bulletin
board idea was a non-starter.

But my third idea was nothing short of brilliant - we would automate the
last remaining part of the process.  I used Turbo Prolog to write an AI
system that would identify, classify and sort the wishes;  the hardest
part was to go from the digitised sound to an understanding of the wish.
Full speech recognition is way beyond the state of the art, but wishes
are by their nature very simple;  most of them were things like "I wish
I had more money" or "I wish he'd go away".  So the usual problem of
fitting the speech into context didn't apply, and I got up to a 90%
recognition rate.  The 10% that my AI system couldn't handle would be
passed on to the registered Wishbringers, and that 10% would be within
their capacity - at last we stood a chance of handling all the wishes.

I used fairly simple robot arms, controlled from the PCs that were
already installed in the Wishbringer rooms.  The arms needed freedom of
movement in all three axes, in order to make the complex passes and
gestures with the wand that would execute the wish, but it didn't need
any kind of feedback, and it is the feedback robots that cost a fortune.
I was very pleased with this system - now all phases of wish processing
were automated, and the fairies would be able to cope.  Improvements in
the speech recognition software would lead to a better hit rate, and
therefore to a lower percentage being passed over for manual processing,
so there was even scope in the system for growth in the flow of wishes.
Titania approved the design, and Puck and I organised the installation.
Eventually, it was all complete, and ready to be started up, so we
arranged for a Grand Opening Ceremony, at which Titania would throw a
switch that would load the wish recognition systems into the PCs, and
power up the robot arms.

The great day dawned.  All the fairies were really excited - at last
they would be liberated from the 24 hour days of drudgery that
Wishbringing had become.  We used the old Wishing Well for the ceremony,
as it was the only room that was big enough to contain 3 million fairies
(everyone wanted to come).  Great rows of trestle tables groaned under
the loads of food and drink;  the elves had partitioned off the
Wishgetter PCs so that they were out of sight, and decorated the room so
that it had a really festive look.  There was a big brass band playing
stirring music, and everybody was dressed up to the nines.  Even I made
an effort;  I pinned a daisy to the lapel of my dressing gown and
spruced up my slippers a bit.

Titania made a speech.  You know the sort of thing, and I'm sure you've
heard it a hundred times before, so I won't repeat it here.  It was all
about brave new eras, and opening vistas, and paths to the future, and
all pulling together, and how everyone was a vital cog in the great
machine that was Fairyland ...  I got quietly sozzled on mead, and
wondered what I'd inflicted on these defenceless little folk.
Eventually, Titania stopped mixing metaphors and the band played a
fanfare.  There was complete silence, a roll of drums, and Titania threw
the golden switch.  Nothing happened.

In this sort of situation, you set up a big flashy throw-bar switch, and
run two obvious wires from it, but if you know what's good for you, it
isn't actually connected to anything.  There are so many things that can
go wrong, like some fool throws the switch too soon, or the wire breaks,
or something, and then you have to go up on the podium in front of six
million eyes, and start fiddling around with screwdrivers.  No, the
golden switch was a dummy, and that cretin Puck had fallen asleep at the
real switch.  I struggled through the crowd to where he was snoring,
woke him up with a crisp clout on his left ear, and while he was
wondering who'd chucked the thunderbolt, I pulled the real switch.  Lots
of impressive whirring, clicking and buzzing sounds started coming from
the Wishgetter PCs;  all perfectly fake, but there had to be something
to show the assembled multitudes that something had happened.  In the
Wishbringer rooms, I knew that wands were weaving their complex
patterns, and all over the world, wishes that formerly hadn't a chance
were now coming true.

The party went on all night, and into the next day.  I hadn't realised
that fairies could be such swingers, but wow, when they let their hair
down, they really let it down.  And they really had something to
celebrate - Titania's speech may have been the usual boring management
up-and-at-'em gung- ho speech, but I really had liberated Fairyland, and
how many people can say that?

I was woken up next day by a grim-faced Titania shaking my shoulder.
Fairies were running around in all directions.  There were Wishgetter
fairies fairying the consoles, writing wishes on scraps of paper and
passing them to Wishrunners, who were frantically racing out of the
Wishing Well and back again.  "You're fired", she said.  "What's wrong?"
I said.  She showed me, and I blenched.  Something had gone wrong in the
Wishbringer room, and the robot arms had been granting the wrong wishes
to the wrong people.  Can you imagine getting someone else's wish?
Completely inappropriate people had been falling in love with each
other, igloos were melting in the hot sun, thin people were getting
thinner and fat people fatter, and the increase in the money supply was
threatening to cause a world financial crisis.

"We've ripped out your computers, and we're back to the old manual
systems", she said.  And they didn't have their Harrods machine, so the
Wishrunners were having to carry the wishes for miles to the
Wishbringers, and they'd binned the order forms, so they were using any
scraps of paper they could find -the chaos was total, and they were
servicing maybe a tenth as many wishes as they had before I'd got there.
I felt awful.  It isn't often that I fail as badly as that.  And then
the thing that had been nagging at the back of my brain surfaced.

"Titania, just answer me one question".  She looked at me the way a
Frenchman looks at a plate of fish-and-chips from a Happy Eater.  "Why
do fairies grant wishes?"

Her expression changed;  now she looked at me the way you look at
someone who has just formatted his hard disk by accident.  "Because if
we didn't, people would stop believing in fairies".  "Why should you
care whether people believe in you or not?" "Because every time someone
stops believing in fairies, a fairy dies.  And it's got so bad now, that
only a few, very young children, in very backward countries still
believe in fairies.  In the old days, there were billions of us, but now
we've almost died out."

I should have discovered all this before, I know.  The only excuse I can
offer is that the technical problems were so interesting, I had become
completely blinded to the primary rule of consulting - find out what the
real problem is.  "But surely the fairy birth rate must compensate for
the death rate - can't you just have more baby fairies?"

Titania explained the facts of life to me.  Fairies don't have babies.
They don't have some essential piece of equipment - she didn't go into
details.  The only way that you get new fairies, is when someone claps
their hands, and says out loud "I *DO* believe in fairies", and means
it.  So you get a few each Christmas, when the pantomimes run, but
hardly any during the rest of the year.  And the fairies were slowly
becoming extinct.

Now I could see that I'd been tackling the wrong problem all along.  The
real problem wasn't to make more wishes come true, it was to protect the
population of Fairyland against suspension of belief.  Granting more
wishes wouldn't actually help, in fact, as people would not realise
where their good fortune was coming from, and put it down to the deity
in whatever religion they believed in, or to a rabbit's foot, or good
planning and judgment by themselves, or a four leaved clover.

I explained this to Titania, and she nodded glumly, "What else can we
do, though?" she asked.  "Marketing", I said, "Targetted marketing.
You've got to sell yourselves, and you've got to do it to the most
receptive market segments." "You mean the young children", she said.
"No", I said.

Young children today are *very* sophisticated.  They're into Care Bears,
and unicorns, He-man, and My Little Pony.  Fairies are very old hat, and
no self-respecting child would believe in anything as unlikely as a
fairy.  My two kids explain it like this.  "Care Bears aren't real,
Daddy, they're just pretend".  And if the mighty International Care Bear
Manufacturing And Marketing Company Incorporated can't dent their
armour, what chance do fairies stand?  "So who should we target?", asked
Titania.

I thought about gamblers, and their fond belief in luck.  I thought
about economists, and the way they believe sixteen impossible theories
at once.  I thought about politicians, and the way they can instantly
believe anything that it is expedient to believe.  And then it struck me
- I didn't have to look any further than my own nose.  Anyone who has
bought a computer is by definition gullible.  Anyone who owns a computer
has swallowed so many unlikely stories that they would have no trouble
with another one.  Anyone who is a habitual user of a computer is a
living demonstration of the triumph of faith over adversity.  "We go for
the computer users", I replied.

So here's what I want you all to do.  Stand up now, and look the world
firmly in the eyes.  Clap your hands once, hard.  Put your hand on your
heart, and repeat after me, clearly and loudly - "I *DO* believe in
fairies".