“Life Bytes”

ATSF's technosoap for the digital millennium in twelve chapplets

Chapplet 6

Round and round ... chasing the deadline

Meg just didn’t know how she was going to finish the marking in time. It was all very well Tom having work crises but somehow any crises she had didn’t seem to count. She had managed to get part way through another script despite the continuous beat through the floor boards. Then the doorbell went. Just as well she was expecting it or she might not have heard it.

“Hello—Ada,” she said relieved she could recognise the ladies apart.

“Come in. I think I’ve found them. They must have slipped down at the side of the sofa when you were here.”

Ada looked bemused as she stepped inside and was met by the wall of what appeared to be intense jungle drums.

“Daughter!” shouted Meg pointing upward as if that was all the explanation needed.

The cats had emerged to scrutinise the visitor at the doorway and had instantly recognised the possibility of more munchies from their firm friend, Ada. They were all over her as she cooed and petted them on her way to the sitting room.

Meg shut the door behind them screening out the worst of the racket.

“Teenagers!” she tried in mitigation with a half-smile but half-gritted teeth.

“Precisely,” retorted Ada loudly over-compensating for the booming around them.

“Now, your keys,” Meg uttered looking quickly around the surfaces and picking up a cushion to put it back on the sofa.”

“I had them ... here,” she said bemused as she stood in the last place she could remember jiggling them at the cats. They were nowhere to be seen.

Meg threw the other cushions into place.

“Ada, sit down there. I must have taken them into the dining room. That’s where I went next. Just hold on a sec.”

Ada put her head on one side and looked at her in the same way that Seran did. In fact Seran sat next to Ada and took up that same pose. Dipity was nuzzling Ada’s side near her coat pocket.

“Traitors!” Meg said inwardly and smiled politely at the group as she turned on her heel.

As she passed through the hall an extra unidentifiable noise on top of the booming stereo attracted her attention momentarily, but she kept on track for the dining room.

“I’m losing my mind ... lowly ... but ... surely!” she thought to herself. She didn’t have any recollection about the keys after waving them at the cats. As she glanced over the chaos of marking on the table, they were nowhere obvious. She half-heartedly started raising a few of the scripts.

The girls left Brid’s bedroom and ran down the stairs - in high spirits from the sound of it. The booming suddenly grew much louder as they went into the kitchen.

“Ah! Maybe, just maybe ...” Meg glanced at the marked scripts she’d flung on the top of the large offending monitor box.

As she reached out towards them there was a piercing long high-pitched shriek and a few choice expletives from one of the girls she couldn’t quite make out which one - followed immediately by loud gasps of uncontrolled laughter the type where you know the people are bent over laughing so hard they can’t breathe properly.

She hesitated for just a split second and thought Ada would certainly not be used to this sort of going on. She’d have to shut them up. Really they should be past this sort of carry-on. Surely Faith wasn’t the type, she was thinking as she swung round to go out the open door.

Ada was in the opposite doorway. The cats were half-hiding behind her feet but still peeking out at the goings on. Ada looked aghast. As Meg swung round the door and looked towards the kitchen, the noises changed eerily to be in time with the beats from upstairs. She saw strange unrecognisable beings performing weird dances flicking things away from themselves up into the air.

“Double sh ... sh ... shhhhhht!” she mouthed to herself. The whole kitchen appeared to be full of soap suds that were rapidly decanting into the hall helped by beswathed Faith and Brid.

Tom was increasingly amazed by The Terror’s ability to sum things up, be highly decisive and annoyingly right. He had taken command as soon as Ivana, one of Tom’s team members, had indicated the clients had arrived. Tom was in no position to take alternative action. The Terror had stated what he was going to do and how he was going to ‘save’ the situation. He had issued directives and galvanised the team into action. He had assigned responsibilities. As The Terror walked towards the door to go off to his machine and get some software to load on the demo machine, he turned to Tom and said,

“You’d better go and meet them. You can bring them straight here but don’t start to demo the application till you get the nod from me—about 5 minutes should do it—and all the video will be working.”

Tom tipped a mock salute at The Terror’s retreating back, took a breath and headed along the corridor in the opposite direction. Amanda was at the reception with two of her team that Tom recognised but with an older man he didn’t.

“Ah Tom, sorry about the delay. This is Giles Thornby, our Marketing Director. We’ve just been at another meeting together and once he heard about us moving on here, he leapt at the opportunity to see the production side of our kiosk. He’s got a special interest in it and wants to be convinced it’s working. Hope you don’t mind.”

Tom wondered if he was going to start climbing the walls there and then. He was hardly focusing straight and he felt slightly light headed. The beaming quizzical smile on Jan, the receptionist’s face, came into focus behind Amanda and Giles.

“Ah ha! Well, then. Good to meet you,” he stumbled.

“Tea? Coffee?” he recovered.

“No, nothing thanks. We’re swimming in coffee,” Giles said forthrightly gripping Tom’s outstretched hand. “Let’s get to it. This way?” He added starting to go down the corridor.

Amanda exchanged a raised eyebrow look with Tom before following.

“The stalling button was turned off in this game!” thought Tom as he trudged along the corridor wondering what he could do for a few minutes that wouldn’t seem ridiculous.

The Terror was back pounding away at the keys and didn’t look up as they entered the room.

Tom’s circulation suddenly seemed to stop. He’d just remembered that Justin expected to be in on this meeting. He decided he couldn’t face that at this moment and wasn’t going to remind him. Justin would be unbearable with someone of the importance of Giles suddenly appearing from the client company. Added to that, there was still the possibility the video sections would fail in front of them all. There was enough for him to juggle as it was, he decided.

“I think everyone knows one another except for Giles, Rhythm’s Marketing Director who is joining us today. This is my team - Ivana and Greg over there, graphics, and ... Joel, programming and .... the ... the ... Ttt ... Terr ... if ... ic wizard here—just joining us temporarily for his video skills ...” Tom gushed with bravado desperately trying to remember The Terror’s real name.

Ivana mouthed “Peter” at him as if he were a 4 year old. He forgave her since she was the only one who was attuned enough to recognise his dilemma.

“PETER!” he announced loudly with a flourish. There was just the slightest hesitation in the steady clatter of the keys as The Terror squinted a look upwards with a half-jerk of his head towards the Rhythm team.

“So, well ... I’ll just summarise what we expect to cover in this progress meeting,” Tom continued, praying silently for the ‘nod’ from The Terror.

Tom noticed Giles taking a breath and recognised he’d have to launch into something to stop him asking a question.

“Right! In a nutshell—and extremely quickly—so that we can get on with the demo,” he speeded up his speech by 100% not allowing Giles to slip in.

“The kiosk was performing well in all the functions—and let me see—I think there are about ... eh ... 200 different types of action ...”

“234, actually,” chirped Ivana,“ counting the different interactions within the glossary,”

“Ah! Appreciably more than I thought then, thanks Ivana. And, ...” Tom continued seeing Giles open his mouth, “... this represents a complex framework ... probably the most complex we have had to work on so far, isn’t that so Joel?” said Tom looking for support from Joel who didn’t appear to understand his expected role to extend the conversation flow as a stalling technique.

“Er ... rrrr, yes ... probably,” said Joel weakly then stared at the floor embarrassed.

“Certainly more complex than similar interactive information stations such as Classic Choice ... or... Tune-IN. They’d be considered serving equivalent markets, wouldn’t they?” Ivana launched to Tom’s rescue aiming her question straight at Giles and Amanda.

“Thank goodness I’ve got one empath on my team,” Tom thought breathing a sigh of relief as Giles took the cue and sailed into the conversation on his expertise.

“Umm ... ummm, well, yes, and no is the answer. They are not direct rivals since they serve different market segments but they are trying to offer a similar service, umm, create new customers and well, frankly, they sell more music. It is true that we can learn from their approaches and see how they line up with their users. But our users may behave very differently because their life profiles will not match those of the listeners of other types of music, um, ... in the main, that is,” mused Giles almost to himself. Tom winked appreciably at Ivana as Giles continued.

“Now, umm, matching market segment needs is what will make the difference to this kiosk succeeding. It’s a combination of art and science, you see.” Giles beamed at Ivana who looked a bit abashed.

“Quite so. And that’s just where we can help,” jumped in Tom. “This kiosk’s framework is driven by the very specific needs of the users. They will range from the naive to the expert in terms of the subject area. Because of this and what they will want to get from it, we have taken great pains to arrange and classify relevant information so that each one will be able to get the right information at the right level.”

“Oh, yes, interesting. I’d like you to point that out as you go through the demo. But as you mention naive and expert, isn’t this as true for the use of the technology as it is for the knowledge of the content?” Giles offered knowingly.

“Undoubtedly,” agreed Tom profusely, “that’s where the interface design expertise comes in matching ease of use with the right level of information. A certain amount of expertise will help set some of the right directions. But in this new electronic market we need to refine our understanding of what the users want...”

“Precisely, ...” concurred Giles whose interest was captured. Tom felt this enough to relax a little knowing that The Terror should soon have cracked the problem.

“... and that was why we asked for the trials with real users so that we could check and adjust the system according to the findings,” Tom worked in ingenuously knowing that Giles would know nothing about the trials, with good reason.

“Trials?” queried Giles looking at Amanda. “I haven’t heard about the trials.” Giles was not amused and Tom felt a pang of regret having set Amanda up.

“Originally, the concept of trials was put forward but they were rejected by us because of the extra cost and time they would take against the moving marketplace where our rivals were ahead.” Amanda said tersely looking straight at Tom.

“Yes, I see the dilemma but I’d have probably argued in favour of trials. Who’s decision was this?” Giles sounded concerned.

Tom sneaked a glance at The Terror who had stopped hammering but was occasionally hitting the kiosk touch screen. “Testing the video pieces?” wondered Tom. “Fingers crossed that’s it,” he thought distractedly.

“Bev’s decision," Amanda grudgingly acknowledged, “... but in consultation with the team and CK,” she added loyally.

Tom thought he ought to come to the rescue as Amanda had been a good project manager for Rhythm and fair towards him in his role.

Giles was just about to add something when Tom interceded.

“Lots of firms don’t go with trials because of the market pressure. It is a chicken and egg situation. The timing for launch is important and we have jointly worked hard to identify the information that will be trapped as the users interact with the system. With this information we can build a clear pattern of usage and refine the system. So the concept of trial has not been lost completely but has been collapsed into the roll-out and refine stage. I think that’s how we’ve solved the dilemma and held onto the idea of the kiosk being user-centred. Wouldn’t you agree, Amanda?” Tom beamed at her.

“Ummmm. Yes, that’s right. It’s been collapsed without compromising the launch time,” reinforced Amanda a little less frostily

The Terror coughed. Tom looked over at him and saw a half-nod.

“Well, we’d better see it in action then and see how you’ve met the challenge,” Giles directed.

“Exactly what I was just about to suggest,” said Tom calmly with a Cheshire cat smile “But one of our Directors wanted to be here and so Ivana, could you check with Justin if he still wants to participate? Thanks”

Meg recovered enough to battle her way through to hit ‘Stop’ on the washing machine.. She picked up an incriminating plastic bottle that was left on the top of the machine and waded back to the hall door where the two girls and Ada hovered.

“Oops. Think I’m for it!” whispered Brid.

Meg pointed at the words “Hand Wash” on the plastic bottle.

“Ahhhh! We, ... urrr, ... I ... thought it was fabric conditioner,” floundered Brid. She screwed her face up in mock pain. “Well, the jeans were stinking of bleach and I thought conditioner would help. I’m sorry ... really, Mum.”

Ada and Faith were trying to waft the suds back towards the kitchen but were fighting a losing battle.

“We have to create a draft through the kitchen to the back door,” volunteered Ada. “Have you got a fan?”

The cats weren’t sure what to make of the situation and had retreated half way up the stairs peeking at the proceedings from a safe distance through the banisters. They glanced backwards occasionally wary of the thumping music wafting down on them from above.

“It’s broken,” said Meg resigned.

“Well, we’ll have to improvise” perked Ada taking charge. “Come on girls—Faith, open the back door carefully and check that any wind is in the right direction before you leave it open. Bridget, we’ll need a single bed sheet ... quickly now ... and turn that racket down so we can think! Meg, have you got a garden hose?”

The three of them didn’t stop to question and carried out their orders mechanically waiting for the next.

The single bed sheet was used between Meg and Brid like a bull-dozer to gather, trap and propel the suds out onto the patio. Faith duly tried to hose the suds down with the garden hose fine spray to disperse them. Once the greater mass was out of the kitchen, brushes, cloths and mops were employed. Meg started to drain the washing machine manually causing new puffs of suds that the others marshalled out the door. Finally she retrieved the jeans, hand-rinsed them, rinsed the machine out twice causing flurries of more suds and got the jeans on spin without further disaster. Ada made some tea for all of them recounting similar past kitchen disasters as they all sat round the kitchen table.

The cats recognised a new munchie opportunity and sidled in on the act. Dipity was the first to jump on Ada’s lap purring loudly. Seran headed for Brid as the next soft option.

“Quite an eventful day for you, dear, ...” said Ada tickling Dipity under the chin. Meg prayed she wouldn’t mention the fire brigade. “I’ve never had anything to do with the fire brigade, myself.”

“Mum, what’s this? Did you have the fire brigade out? Why?” Brid said sounding miffed that she’d not been let in on such eventful news.

“It’s nothing really, and Brid, there hasn’t been a moment since you got in, has there?”

Expectant silence descended and all eyes were on her. She took a large breath and collected her thoughts for as short a summary as they’d let her get away with. She had this premonition that Brid would probe every detail unmercilessly.

“Ummm. Dipity hid in a delivery man’s van and made a run for it at the next drop-off stop. He ran up a tree and wouldn’t come down so the fire brigade was called in. That’s all there was to it.” She lied, the claw marks on her back throbbing.

Brid started to say something but noticed her mother’s narrowed warning eyes

“Ah ... umm ... that Dipity never learns. He’s always in one scrape or another. He was locked in the garden shed for hours last summer while we ran everywhere and started writing ‘Lost Cat’ notices for him. He was asleep, quite contented on the felt used for lining hanging baskets, remember?” she said animatedly to Meg.

“Oh you rascal, ... you ... rassscallll, ... ” chuckled Ada tickling Dipity even more. “Now, dear, I really must go. Keys?” Ada added expectantly while slipping a couple of munchies from her pocket to a compliant, malleable Dipity.

“Keys! Yes.” Meg seemed to awake from a trance and leapt to her feet. She’d been eyeing another chocolate biscuit fully convincing herself that the day warranted a whole packet of them.

Tom juggles meetings while Dipity juggles papers. The next prestadigitationary episode is more fun than the Mongolian State Circus’ famous performing felines ... cued-up and ready to roll in 'Life Bytes'. Tell your friends.

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Life Bytes is written by Santa Fe and Sanity Claus