Call of the Chirp
Hex was in a mood. That is to say if proto-thinking devices, not evolved from recognisable sentient life (and in his time Ponder had encountered Gollums, things from the dungeon dimensions and Corporal Nobby Nobbs) was capable of throwing a strop, then Hex was doing it. Annoyingly it always seemed to happen when The Arch-chancellor was present. Like Hex knew. Ponder gazed down at the quilled output in the hope it would change. Husk error 114 ## & Bad input!
"No Luck?" Ridcully laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I'm sure you will figure it out. I have great faith in you Mr Stibbons, 6.4% of the University's budget to be exact."
Ponder aimed a kick at the nearest ant column.
"Now now, dear chap there is no need for that."
"Actually Arch-chancellor we often find if, er, we boot the system it works more efficiently."
"OOK." Ponder's most trusted assistant was staring hard at the recently installed input device rigged up to Hex, while also finishing a mid-morning banana.
"You think if we increased the tension in the wire leading from the coconut to the outer cortex the vibration will flow at a more readable rate?" said Ponder
"OOK," the Librarian replied."
"Worth a shot, one of you fellows fetch something suitable from the Alchemy lab (Wizards had naturally perfected the art of turning base metal into gold centuries ago, and now spent a lot of time making sure non Wizards never found out how) someone else go and prepare the next blue tit.
Light moved slowly across the Ramtop grasslands. It had been late in starting out and figured there was little point in rushing now. Oozing over a rock it bounced dramatically off Nanny Ogg's silver plated teapot and into the eye of Magrat. A Magrat who seethed. Oh on the outside she was calm and serine, at one with nature and the cosmos, just like the girl in the pamphlet, only without the cleavage and impeccably kempt hair, but inside Magrat boiled like the blackened kettle spitting over the campfire. If you were going to convene a coven at full moontime, it had to happen at Midnight. Simply had to. Not at half past ten the next morning with a further wait for Granny to get herself sorted. It was folklore, it was tradition, it was, well magical. But Nanny had said there was no sense in freezing your bits blue in the dark and that was that. Magrat sipped at her herbal infusion and watched Tiffany count six sugars into Nanny's Mug. That was another thing. Now she no longer had to make tea, she kind of missed the duty. The girl never got her herbal brew right, Gods – she was slowly turning into Granny.
As if to emphasize the point of mid-morning starts Nanny yawned. "Phew I hardly got a wink of sleep last night. Blooming blue tit was tapping on my window all night, like some demented dervish."
Granny Weatherwax was quiet for a moment, "your window Gytha, that's interesting."
"You'd have thought it would want put its head under its wing," continued Nanny, "not keep on knocking itself senseless on some folk's bedroom window. They've never been the same since they all learnt how to get into milk bottles overnight."
"That happened in the city first," Tiffany said, "Ankhmorpic Resonance they call it."
"You mean," scoffed Granny, "that someone with access to a printing press happened to see it and they happened to live in Ankh Morpork."
Tiffany was bright enough to spot the difference between useful learning and a cantankerous old woman venting, expect perhaps when they both happened at the same time. "That's a very interesting way of looking at it," she said calmly.
"Thieving without a licence I call it," Nanny chided, "I should ram a stone lid on the bottle, that'll show 'em. Best bit of the milk's the top. I don't pay Ernie Sidebottom for milk just to keep birds fed at breakfast time."
"You haven't paid Ernie Sidebottom for milk since you helped his mother-in-law get over a fever." Magrat pointed out.
"I knows that but it's the principle that counts, right?"
"Shall we start?" Tiffany asked, "I trust everybody has read the agenda I quilled out and left at your cottages, I gave yours to Shawn Ogg, Magrat."
"Agenda, all the things we need to cover in a clear and logical order."
"But what about all the important bits," demanded Granny, "The ones nobody's thought of yet, except for me?"
"That comes under Any Other Business."
"Well that's alright then. So get on with it, I've something I need to do later"
"I thought you'd left me extra paper for the privy," mumbled Nanny Ogg.
Ponder watched nervously as a new bird tapped on the piece of suspended coconut shell. Beside him stood the Arch-chancellor, Bursar and Lecturer in Recent Runes, while the Librarian sprawled in the sun by Hex's output hatch, half way through his third packet of peanuts.
"Would you mind explaining the whole 'Chirp' idea one more time?" said Runes
"It's simple man," Ridcully shouted, then just in case he had not understood it either added, "Mr Stibbons will lay it all out in a basic form."
"The bird taps on the coconut shell in a certain pattern," said Ponder, "Hex then translates the code into words and writes it out."
"Yes but how does the bird know what to tap?"
Ponder shifted uneasily, "Low level magic. The message is the automatically put in the brain of the bird closest to Hex through the neural net. Long term there must be a better way of doing this, I just haven't thought of it yet."
"Nonsense," Ridcully retorted, "It's a splendid use of dumb animals."
"Only that when we get this fully running there will be lots more messages flying around…"
"So. No human ever remembers anything that doesn't concern them," said Ridcully, "why should blue tits be any different?"
"What about the clacks people?" asked Runes.
"You leave them to me, I've a way with diplomacy. Besides they are trade, we Gentleman are Wizards."
"Yes Arch-chancellor. But I don't see this as being competition, you need a thinking machine to decode for a start, and apart from Hex just a few students have built very basic ones, only 8 mounds big. That's why the messages have to be 140 characters max."
"You didn't tell me that," sulked Ridcully, "How can we make messages longer?"
"Break it up into little bits," said the Bursar suddenly, until now everybody had forgotten that he was there "Like Nanny used to do with distressed pudding and custard…. Woo Woo."
"That's an idea," cried Ponder, "An array of tits… Oh stop giggling Bursar, all with a chunk of the final message, yes that could work."
There was a whirling sound from hex and a slip poked out of the hatch. Ponder snatched it up
"If U cAn reaD this then it's worked LOL" he read, "Ye Gods, we've cracked it."
"LOL?" enquired Runes.
"Shorthand for Laugh Out Load, It's to show what you've written is a joke."
"And what, may I ask is the good of a joke that you have to tell people is a joke after they have read it?"
"Oh I don't know," replied the Arch-chancellor, "that has definite uses. You can be as rude as you like in the message but if you put LOL at the end it doesn't count. Like having your fingers crossed."
Nanny Ogg knocked on Granny's cottage door for the show of things, then kicked it open with her shiny red boot. "Anybody home?"
At least that was what she was about to say, Granny Weatherwax sitting in a rocking chair with her back to the door answered the question before it had even been asked.
"Yes I'm here Gytha Ogg, and I'll thank you to respect other folks' privacy." Nanny checked that the sign reading "I Ate'nt Dead" was not propped up in the place she'd seen it yesterday and talked light and fast. "I've bought some plumb brandy with me, and biscuits. Just in case you were feeling a little tired."
"You know I'm not one for drinking."
"It's to keep your strength up. Practically medicine, at least I take it three times a day after meals."
"In that case, just a small one."
"I'll join you. Bottoms up!"
They sat each side of a small fire that glowed in the grate even in early summer. Everything in the cottage was spick and span and over the chimneybreast a clock ticked comfortingly.
Nanny gulped down the fiery liquid, when it came to Granny you just couldn't pussyfoot around, you had to put your hand into the briars and prey it came back out almost un-scratched.
"What did you learn from the birds then?"
"Who's to say I have? You come here plying me with drink, casting nasturtiums about nilly willy."
"Because, we've been playing Cripple Mr Onion enough years for me to know when you holding something back." Nanny replied.
"You only win when I lets you!"
"I saw your face on the heath, you had one of those blighters at your window last night too, didn't you?"
"What if I did?"
"And you've been 'borrowing' to find the truth. You keep doing that and one day you will not come back."
"Gytha Ogg, you are a first class witch and can do things that I, um, I never had the time to learn. But I am the most powerful borrower this side of Slice, and beyond, do not teach me my own business."
"Borrowing's dangerous, as slippery as the Dancers at Hogswatch."
Granny spoke slowly and deliberately. "I know. I borrows, that is all. And I always puts back what I take, where I found it, unlike some people I could mention."
"I'm sorry about that, but I told you I'm going to buy you a new jam making pan at the next market."
"Just make sure you do, and that it's a good one, proper dwarf cast from Llamedos."
"But what did you discover from borrowing?"
"Never you mind. Let's just say you won't be disturbed in bed tonight." Granny closed her eyes, she was fighting an urge to go into the garden and peck for worms.
"Coo, chance would be a fine thing," said Nanny. "You know, I've always thought it odd that all the blue tits learnt the milk bottle thing at exactly the same moment, whatever young Tiffany might say."
One of Granny's eyes opened. "It was a hard winter that year. Alright?" Nanny hummed happily and untunefully.
"Why do you need a new jam saucepan, you never make any? People give you pots of the stuff every season."
"Stands to reason, I needs a new pan so I have one to lend to you the next time you comes asking for it."
There was an insistent knock on Ridcully's office door. Reluctantly the Wizzard stuffed the book on butterflies he had been thumbing through into a handy drawer and rearranged the papers on his desk.
"Arch-chancellor, there's been another message through Hex."
"Oh good work Mr Stibbons, you really have got to the nub of this."
"But we didn't send it," squirmed Ponder, "and it seems to be for you." He pushed the slip of paper into the no man's land of desk, as if it were about to explode.
Ridcully this is Weatherwax Do not repeat DO NOT go messing with nature for fun No good will come from it. Carry on there will be trouble LO
"Oh." He said.
"Exactly," replied Ponder, but how did…."
"Some things are better not examined man. The Bursar's laundry for one. I think we had best put this whole Chirp business on the backburner for a while. I'll set up a sub-committee to examine the medium to long term strategy, with reference to the impact of any further practical investigations in this field. Preliminary findings to be reviewed, say next Grune.
"Yes Arch-chancellor. Though I must say it's strange how the message tails off mid-sentence. I expect Weatherwax meant to say LOL and ran out of characters."
"Yes," said Ridcully, "that's probably it."