by P.R.Banks

There is nothing more frustrating than winning a competition.

How? Well that requires a little explanation. Acorn have a yearly show called, immaginatively, "Acorn World 95" for this year. (Can you guess which bit of the name changes from year to year?) And given the rise in importance and stature of the Internet of late they had a section in their web pages about the show. Standard stuff detailing who would be at what stand and what products were being previewed and launched.

Interesting to me and other Acorn afficionadoes but most of the rest of the universe [1] really doesn't care so I won't bore you with the gory details. However one page was a competition that could be entered by anyone over the net. Now not being able to physically attend, and as a result feeling slightly left out of the event, I decided to give it a whirl.

The puzzle was a montage of images, all combined from various web pages that the competition organisers had sourced and then blended. Stunningly the competition was called the same thing as what it was, namely Montage. I sometimes wish Acorn would let the creativity I know they have for choosing names come through a bit more. [2] Still the competition was a simple one in the doing, a little more tricky in the acheiving.

The montage was turned into an mage map that you could click on, you then had to click on the right spots, not the URL it sent you to, and then tell them the URLs through a handy dandy form that was provided on the page. Correct entries would then be selected randomly from for a winner or winners. Again all fine and dany.

But the big detail left out is exactly what you have won. The best description they give is some 'ART merchandise'. At the time this didn't worry me. The competition is sufficiently accesible that anyone can enter succesfully provided they have sufficient determination to keep clicking and a degree of methodicity. Or you could try cheating [3] if you had the technical skill.

So I fully expected that there would be hundreds to thousands of successful entries and that wondering about exactly what the prize was would be pointless because I wouldn't stand a chance of winning anything. But while I didn't expect to win I am also cognisant of the fact that if you don't enter the competition at all you guarantee your chances of not winning anything. So seeing as it was a fairly simple puzzle to work on, and could be successfully combined with doing other work, I set to it.

After finding two of the five URLs wanted a pattern started to emerge that suggested where to look for the next ones. Finding up to four of them because quick with this and the last one took a bit longer and a more carefully application of my theory about the placements. Eventually I had five URLs and I slapped em into the form, filled out the other details and then performed the mental equivalent of fire-and-forget technology.

Imagine, given my expectations, the surprise when this morning an email wandered in from someone at Acorn. This by and of itself is not a remarkable event, they are generally a nice bunch there and I chat with some of them from time to time on various things. It is a cause for interest though and I quickly cranked up the appropriate software to read the message. The surprise was fairly large and for a moment I revelled in that. But then I had to ask myself the question.

What had I won?

Of course I didn't know. The email didn't clarify either. So now, having replied with the extra details they wanted, I have to await the answer. And it is driving me mildly batty, quite possibly this is the source of my newfound delection for footnotes. [4] It isn't that I can be patient either, normally I can. It is just the being patient about something I don't know about that is the problem.

Like the time I waited for a job for over four hours. I was happy to be patient then because I knew what I was being patient for. As it turned out my patience was rewarded that time because I think the employer felt somewhat guilty. It was either that or the wild glint in my eye as I prepared to rend him limb from limb. But this waiting for something is different. My fevered imagination is hoping for all sorts of wild things when I probably won a coffee cup. [5]

So here I am, I know I have won something but the unknown-ness of it bugs me. It is like a bill that I know is out there, an insurance claim directed against me. I know it is coming, that much is certain. But I don't know how much it is or when it will be required to be paid. In an age of puzzle solvers it would be easy to say that it bugs me because it is unknown and I like knowing things.

But that isn't what bugs me, it is the effect these things have on my life that bugs me. I am at a nexus point of more than usual significance. That by itself is not bad, a nexus point is a point of change - which I don't fear. The problem is that I like to be the one making the choices at nexus points. That way the outcome, be it good or bad, on my life was always my decision, and something that I can learn from.

But this competition isn't. Several non-trivial outcomes hinge from it, ways in which I could benefit friends and family. And I am not the one choosing... [6]

[1] This is of course a trivially true statment. Consider the only place in the universe where we know, or at least strongly suspect, intelligent life resides. Namely the solar system. A functional requirement for something to care is that it be animate and sentient. For the sake of argument lets subscribe to a Gaia- esque whole planet is alive type of thinking and say the Earth constitutes the alive segment of the solar system - the bit that does the caring.

Now Gaia types will probably argue that the other planets are alive in their own way and do sorta care, but unfortunately I don't. So they can keep quiet for the rest of this footnote. At any rate the Solar System organisation has this curious 99:1 ratio that crops up in it.

So when you first look, on the largish scale, at the solar system you meet the first instance of the ratio. Which is that about 99% of the mass of the system is contained in the Sun. Of the remaining amount 99% of it gets clumped in that planetary monolith called Jupiter. The left over, some 0.1% of the mass, gets spread amoung the planets.

Necessarily the Earth has a mass less than 0.1% of the solar system. Ergo the majority of the solar system is not caring in any form whatsoever. This argument can be easily expanded to cater for the rest of the universe with a few simple postulates. Most of them centering around what we call life and sentience.

Naturally things get slightly trickier for me if life is discovered elsewhere in the solar system, but only if it is on the Sun. Afterall assume every other planet has life on it that is sentient and we use our gaia-esque system to exclude their mass from the solar systems. Of course this leaves us with the Sun being unihabited and still holding the draw cards on 99% of the available mass. Which still, to me, qualifies as most of the mass.

Of course science fiction writers have been postulating the possibility of life on a stellar object for sometime now. We just currently have no idea how such life would work, or even if it could work at all. So I feel fairly safe in the assumption that the sun is uninhabited. If it isn't then my argument is completely stuffed, as it currently stands.

I suppose I could nit pick about types of caring and sentience then...

[2] Acorn, like alot of computer companies, choose project names for their developing computers and software projects. Things like 'Milk' (mid life kick), 'Coffee', Brisbane, Melbourne and Medusa. Names that conjour up places, people and events. Names that could give the product a bit more personality and character.

Instead the more standard computer talk names pop out at the production stage. Things like 'A4', 'A5000', 'RPC600 8M210HD'. These names are good stock codes for inventories but they lack a certain charm and vigour the pre-production names did.

[3] Image maps work by returning a fixed URL with two co-ordinate pairs tacked on the end to the server. The server will then respond back with the URL that that point leads to. For a programmer with the time knocking together something that simply does a linear search through an image map is fairly trivial.

In this case I didn't do this because I primarily didn't have the time (and I haven't messed with TCP/IP protocols much so there would be a learning curve involved upping the time significantly) and because I figured it would be wasted effort anyways with the low chances of winning even with the right URLs found.

[4] Depending on how this article looks once I HTML-ise it I might keep with this format. Footnotes are a wonderful way to go off at a side tangent for a while yet keep the clarity of the ramble flowing smoothly in the main body of the text. Not actually having to tie to the side tangent tightly into the body of the text can be so liberating.

Of course it is also something of a cheat. Part of the art of a good ramble is linking the differing topics and ideas together into a congruent whole. Hmmm, well we shall see in a few days which style wins out. Or if I comprimise on a mix...

[5] This is in fact about what I have won. Just to be completely ungrateful I was vaguely hoping it would be something a little more useful to me, like an MPEG card or something. Nothing quite like looking the gift horse in the mouth.

[6] This is, of course, an old complaint about the lack of choice one has over one's life. A while back I was quick to learn that even my most daring and original ideas had pretty much universaly been either thought of or encountered (or worse yet, countered!) before.

Philip R. Banks
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