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  1. Aled James Taylor

    Aled James Taylor Contributor Contributor

    Sep 7, 2013
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    If – Then [1,175 words]

    Discussion in '10th Anniversary Contest' started by Aled James Taylor, Jun 24, 2016.

    ‘There are 10 kinds of people in the world,’ Sam typed. ‘There are those who understand binary, and those who don’t.’ Ha, he thought. It was a joke, but one he suspected few of his Facebook friends would understand. He decided to post it anyway.

    Sam was a programmer. He’d known this since he was about eight, when he’d written his first few lines of code. He’d been enthralled by the power at his command, although he’d only made a line appear on a screen. Many years had passed since that day and he’d spent many hours in his room typing instructions and scribbling flowcharts on papers which soon littered his bedroom floor. His friends thought he was wasting his time on boring activity but Sam thought of himself as a wizard capable of commanding technology to do his bidding. He was the master of his domain since his computer would obey his commands unquestioningly. This was often a drawback since its blind obedience inevitably converted the slightest oversight into an unexpected result.

    “Sam,” called his mother from the bottom of the stairs. “SAM.”

    “Yes,” he called back.


    He stomped out of his room and across the landing. “What is it?”

    “Would you he be a dear and nip down to the shop for me.”

    “Okay then,” he said with more than a little resignation. He’d comply with his mothers request as non-compliance would result in an undesirable outcome. Besides, the break would probably do him good.

    “I just need a bottle of milk, that’s all. You can remember that can’t you? You don’t need me to write it down?”

    “One bottle of milk.” A shopping list was hardly necessary for one item.

    Sam’s mother often overlooked the fact he was no longer a child. “Oh, and if they have croissants, then buy two.”

    “No problem,” he said as he made his way out.

    The shop was only a couple of streets away and Sam was all too familiar with the routine of making such a visit. He thought of his computer patiently waiting for his return. It would wait exactly as he’d left it, all day if need be. Its patience was infinite, not like his mother’s. It would never complain or make vague illogical statements. It was decisive and relentlessly methodical. These were qualities he admired. The loved the purity of it, the crystal clarity of the program either working perfectly or not at all. The one and the zero, the ‘on’ and the ‘off’. There was no ‘could try harder’ like his teachers used to say. It made no comment about his attitude or behaviour. When his program worked his computer would award him 10 out of 10, or so he imagined. When it didn’t work, it allowed him as long as he wanted to fix the problem. He’d always find where his error and then achieve the 10 out of 10 score that had always eluded him in school. Those days were over now. Now his days were filled with the writing of code and running the occasional errand for his mother.

    He’d tried to tell her about his programming but she hadn’t been interested. ‘All that writing, just to make those lines move on the screen?’ she said dismissively, and ‘there’s no point showing me all that writing, it’s all Greek to me’. She was a lost cause as far as programming was concerned. Perhaps she could learn a little logic, he thought. She’ll appreciate what I do then.

    He had tried to explain about logic to his mother before, without success. “But computers aren’t logical at all,” she’d insisted. “The last time I wanted to print something, a message came up stating that it couldn’t print my back and white document because it had no yellow ink. What kind of logic do you call that then?”

    Her comment wrong-footed him and he was stumped for a reply. After considerable thought he came to the conclusion that it was logical after all, perfectly logical. The machine was following its instructions to the letter. It had no idea what it was doing but did it relentlessly anyway. It had simply been instructed to refuse to print anything if any of its inks were fully depleted. Sam’s mother wasn’t interested in his explanation and he found her indifference frustrating. She just needs a better example, he thought, and who better to give that example than the master of logic, Sam the wizard programmer of Albert Lane, Little-Hampton. It wasn’t much of a title, but he found it amusing. Truth be told, his programming skills were little more than rudimentary.

    He reached the shop. Yes they have milk, he thought with relief. At least he wouldn’t be returning home to face a disappointed and possibly upset middle aged woman whose life would be turned upside down by a lack of dairy products. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world but to listen to his mother complaining sometimes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was. And yes, they had croissants too.

    If they have croissants, then by two, he thought. ‘If’ and ‘then’, the worlds were so familiar, a branch in a flowchart, a question and an answer. If this is so - then do that. There was no decision to be made, no real choice at all. His task was to observe the situation and take the instructed action. There was no free will, just logic, pure and perfect.

    With purchases in hand, Sam made his way home.

    His mother hardly acknowledged his arrival, as she was preoccupied with a very boring looking TV show. Sam had watched a little of such an entertainment before, and found it as dull as ditch water. His mother no doubt perceived it differently. He left the milk on the kitchen table and returned to his bedroom, to his ever patient computer.

    He was pleased to discover that someone had commented on his Facebook post. ‘What do you mean 10 kinds of people? You only mentioned 2. What about the other 8?’

    ‘You don’t understand binary do you?’ he typed. ‘10 in binary isn’t ‘ten’, it’s ‘two’.’

    Feeling pleased with himself, he sat back and waited for more comments to appear.

    “SAM,” his mother shouted from the kitchen. He descended the stairs nervously. Perhaps the lesson in logic wasn’t such a good idea after all, he thought. Perhaps I should have played it safe and not been so pedantic.

    “You bought two bottles of milk! I only told you to buy one and didn’t they have any croissants?”

    “Yes they did,” he said.

    His mother gave the table a rudimentary glance. “Where are they then? Did you eat them on the way back?”

    “I followed your instructions perfectly. You told me to buy one bottle of milk and if they had croissants, I was to buy two. They had croissants, so I did as you said and bought two bottles of milk.”

    She narrowed her eyes.

    “It’s logic,” said Sam.
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