If you own a computer, clap your hands

Copyright Dr Alan Solomon, 1986-1995

I woke with a start - it was still dark, but my alarm was going off.
Wait a bit - that didn't sound like my alarm.  It was more of a
tinkling sound.  And what was this pale blue fluorescence?  As I
groggily fought my eyes open, I realised that I was looking at a pale
blue human female, about six inches tall, with wings ...  Wings?  Six
inches?  Suddenly I was wide awake.

"You've got to help us" said the fairy.  Naturally, I assumed that all
this would go away quite soon, so I grinned and said "What's the
matter?".  "We need your professional advice", she said, and pointed
to a huge pile of gold on the floor.  I started taking her a bit more
seriously then.  Well, of course, I'm not a fool - I know all about
fairy gold and what happens to it at sunrise.  But there are still a
few who don't, and if I could foist it on someone else in return for
real cash before dawn, I might never need to wonder which model PS/2
to buy.

I put my dressing gown on - Titania looked remarkably female - and sat
cross legged on my bed, while she explained the problem.  "We've got a
personnel shortage", she said.  "We need to computerise in order to
handle the volume of demand." Demand for what, I wondered, as I put on
my carpet slippers and followed her out of the house and into the
garden.  She ducked into a part of the shrubbery that I'd never seen
before, and opened a door in the beech tree that I could have sworn
couldn't exist.  I pointed out that I was much too large to get into
there, but she merely waved a black rod with a star on the end, and I
found that I wasn't nearly as large as I had been.

We went down a helical (sometimes miscalled spiral) staircase, and
emerged in a large room, full of people rushing madly to and fro.
Well, not actually people, as such, not quite.  "This is the Hall of
the Mountain King", said Titania.  She beckoned over a fairy, and
introduced me.  "This is Thalassa", she said, and I tried to unglue my
tongue from the roof of my mouth.  Thalassa smiled, and suddenly my
tongue came unglued, and it was all I could do to stop it falling out
of my mouth.  "Thalassa will explain the problem to you," and I knew
that wishes did come true.

Thalassa showed me round.  All the way round the walls were mirrors,
with fairies shoulder to shoulder at the mirrors.  At first, I assumed
that it was just fairy vanity, but then I realised that these were
magic mirrors and in each one, I saw a different view.  The view kept
switching in each, and the fairies were writing notes on bits of
paper, which they were giving to fauns.  The fauns were running with
these to a large central complex, and Thalassa took my hand and led me
there.  Have you ever been taken by the hand by a beautiful fairy?  I
can recommend it.

As we got close to the central complex, I could see that it consisted
of a mass of rubber tubes, rising from a central area, and spreading
throughout the Hall.  The fauns were taking their pieces of paper to
these tubes, pushing them in, and then blowing down the tubes.

Next, we followed one of the rubber tubes as it snaked through the
Hall, down a corridor, and into another huge room.  In this room, sat
rows and rows of fairies at wooden desks.  Pieces of paper kept
emerging from the many tubes, and were being carried by pixies to the
fairies at the desks, who were beavering away nineteen to the dozen.
Unfortunately, I still couldn't see the point of all this frantic
activity.  I asked Thalassa to take me back to the Hall.

I went up to one of the fairies at a mirror, and asked her what was on
the pieces of paper.  "Wishes", she said, without breaking off what
she was doing, and making it quite plain that I was interrupting
important work.  I asked Thalassa what she meant.  "Wishes, wishes"
said Thalassa, as if repeating a word explained it.  "What exactly do
you mean, wishes?" I asked.  "Well," said Thalassa, "You know -
wishes." You often get this.  Everyone develops their own jargon for
the particular field that they're in, and assumes that everyone else
knows all the words.  Accountants probably think they`re talking
English when they speak of credits and debits, and statisticians
probably thing that the phrase "standard deviation" is in common use.
But all these jargon words have two things in common;  the
practitioners are completely unable to explain them in English, and
the ideas that are really important and very commonly used, are the
ones that get jargon words.  So I could see that I had to get to the
bottom of what these "wishes" were.

I grabbed a faun as it rushed past (I suppose another faun can tell
whether a faun is male or female) and read the piece of paper.  "I
hope it stays fine", it said.  Eh?  I read another one - "I could do
with a cup of tea".  Were these some sort of code?  The next one said
"I wish I could afford that", and then the penny dropped (I'd better
explain the derivation of that phrase - it goes back to
pre-decimalisation days, when the drop of a penny would open doors).
These were wishes.  Yes, all right, in retrospect, that's exactly what
Thalassa had said, and I felt a right prune for not twigging sooner.
I suppose I should have realised that fairies grant wishes, and that's
what this whole organisation was doing.  "Why do fairies grant
wishes?", I asked Thalassa, but she gave me a look as if to say that I
was a complete wally, and said "Because that's what fairies do." And
because I felt so silly, I broke one of the cardinal rules of the
consultant, and didn't probe down into the root of the client's

Thalassa brought me back to Titania.  "You can see the problem - we
can't process the wishes fast enough," said the Fairy Queen.
Something was nagging at my subconscious, but I could certainly see
that everyone was rushing around madly.  "We miss about 99% of the
wishes, because we just can't handle them all.  There are just too
many humans, and they're getting more and more, and just too few
fairies, and we're getting less and less.  Can you help us?"

I looked at the situation.  The wishes were gathered by the magic
mirror fairies, and given to the fauns.  The faun sorted then
according to location, and blew them down the appropriate tube.  The
tubes brought the wishes to the country rooms, where they were
examined by the fairies for contradictions (you can't grant a
rain-wish and a sunny-wish in the same place, for example), and if
everything was OK, the wish would be granted.

Well, it was clear what these good folk needed - a network.  That
would mean that the fauns could be redeployed, and if the
wish-examination could be automated, that would free up more fairies
for magic mirror duty.  I won't go into the details of my design, but
Titania approved it, and I set about implementing it.

The first problem was getting hold of the necessary computers.  We
needed quite a few, you see, as there were about a million fairies
altogether.  Plus, all we had to pay for them was fairy gold, and I've
already explained the problem with that.  But Thalassa and I solved
all the problems, and we soon had the necessary computing power.  By
the way, if you've been wondering why there has been a shortage of
certain models of Amstrad PC, and why the Bank of England is having a
Gold Crisis, now you know.

I set about stringing cable to replace the rubber tubes, setting up
Config.sys files and writing the necessary software.  In the
wish-granting rooms, we replaced the decision making process with an
AI system, and instead of the fairies waving magic wands to grant
wishes, we used small robot arms.  I had terrible trouble persuading
the wish-granting fairies to retrain as wish-takers, and when they
found that there wasn't room for them at the edge of the room and
they'd have to have their mirrors in the middle, there was nearly a
mutiny.  The fauns were no fun, either, once they realised that there
was no place for them in this scheme of things, but I explained that
the software would probably need enhancing, and that I'd train them as
programmers.  Actually, they made hopeless programmers, as they simply
couldn't think logically.  On the other hand, I know lots of
programmers that can't think at all, so perhaps the fauns will do
all right.

Eventually, everything was ready, so we set up a grand opening party.
I spruced up my slippers a bit, and tightened the cord on my dressing
gown, and everybody else dressed up to the nines.  Thalassa looked
magnificent, of course (it certainly helped having her around when I
was buying the computers), and Titania looked as regal as you would
expect.  She made a speech, all about the new era, and how wonderful
it would be for all fairyland, and pulled the big red switch that
powered everything on.  A million Amstrads booted up, the file servers
started spinning their disks, and in the country rooms, a million
robot arms flourished their wands.  Everything seemed to work just
fine (not being completely dumb, I had actually tested it beforehand)
so I set about getting completely legless on honeydew.

Round about two in the morning, I passed out - honeydew is strong
stuff unless you're accustomed to it, and I made a determined effort
to become accustomed in one night.  Round about seven, I was awoken
rudely by Titania.  "Listen - it doesn't work", she said.  I listened
carefully, and heard nothing.  No Amstrad fans, no spinning disks, no
swishing wands, silence.  I prised my eyes open, and stood up,

The first thing I checked was the power, and sure enough, it was off.
Did I mention how I powered this network?  I sent a couple of fairies
out to tie fairy lines to the National Grid;  those pylons carry a lot
of power, and that was what I needed.  Fairy lines are very slender,
but immensely conductive, so they would invisibly steal electricity
from the CEGB.  At first, I thought that the CEGB had got wise, and
cut us off, but when I got outside and saw the melted overhead power
cable, I realised that the power drain had simply been too much.

"What now?" demanded Titania.  Computers don't work very well without
electricity, and this kind of Amstrad doesn't work on batteries.  "Can
you make electricity?" I asked Titania.  "No," she said.  Apparently,
the technology is too recent for there to be a decent body of magic
around it, and computers are even more recent - fairy magic can't come
near them.  I briefly thought about a million Honda generators, and
then I thought about the logistics of the petrol to drive them.  For a
second, I even thought insanely about windmills.  "Without
electricity, we can't use this network", I said.  I have to say in my
defence, I've never been in a situation where electricity is an issue.
Titania gave me a look like thunder, and I expect you can guess what
it's like to have a Fairy Queen give you a look like that.  I expected
to be turned into a small green frog any minute.

In an emergency, I can think quite fast.  Moreover, my subconscious
stops playing silly psychological games with my conscious, and the two
start co-operating like they should.  In this case, my subconscious
shoved up to my conscious two things that had been bothering me for
some time, but which I'd been too busy to deal with.  The first was
this.  How do fairies make more fairies?  Thalassa seemed to have all
the necessary equipment (although I hadn't examined her as closely as
I would have liked), but there didn't seem to be any pregnant fairies
around.  More to the point, there weren't any male fairies.  The
second question I had unanswered, was why do fairies grant wishes?  In
my experience, people don't do things for purely altruistic reasons -
there's always some hidden motive that means that they get some
benefit out of an apparently philanthropic gesture.  So, what benefit
did fairies get out of granting wishes?

Titania explained.  Fairies don't make more fairies.  A fairy springs
into existence spontaneously when someone claps their hands and says
"I DO believe in fairies." And this explains the wish-granting.  The
more wishes get granted, the more likely people are to believe in
fairies, and the more likely they are to clap their hands and say the
necessary words.  Modern life had meant that children were having the
fairy stories replaced by My Little Pony and Care Bear stories, and
fairies were getting a very raw deal.  As a result, the fairies were
dying out, and what I though had been a simple administration-reducing
exercise, was actually a last-ditch fight against extinction.

If only I'd followed my nose, and found out what the real problem was
in the first place.  Every consultant worth his salt knows that when
you're called in to a problem, you get presented with all sorts of
distractions and red herrings, and your first job is to find out what
the real problem is.  On the other hand, not many consultants get a
distraction like Thalassa.  "I know the answer - I know what to do" I
shouted.  "What, tell us" cried several fairies at once.

"You're wasting your time going for the children," I explained.
"Children today are very cynical and untrusting.  They have to filter
out all the garbage that the TV throws at them, and as a result, no
child will ever believe in something that he can't hear, see and
touch.  We have to aim for an audience that is still willing to
believe anything it is told, people whose optimism is still triumphant
over their experience.  People who are really gullible, who buy things
that don't work and think it's their fault that they can't make them
work, and then come back for more.  We have to go for the computer

So here's what I want you all to do.  Open all your windows and all
your doors.  Clap your hands as hard as you can and repeat after me,
as loudly as you can:

"I DO believe in fairies".