The Complete Stories (Page 54)

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"Of course that’s what I’m trying to find out. Think of it this way. It’s not just that jokes happen to be old. They must be old to be enjoyed. It’s essential that a joke not be original. There’s one variety of humor that is, or can be, original and that’s the pun. I’ve heard puns that were obviously made up on the spur of the moment. I have made some up myself. But no one laughs at such puns. You’re not supposed to. You groan. The better the pun, the louder the groan. Original humor is not laugh-provoking. Why?"

"I’m sure I don’t know."

"All right. Let’s find out. Having given Multivac all the information I thought advisable on the general topic of humor, I am now feeding it selected jokes."

Trask found himself intrigued. "Selected how?" he asked.

"I don’t know," said Meyerhof. "They felt like the right ones. I’m Grand Master, you know."

"Oh, agreed. Agreed."

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"From those jokes and the general philosophy of humor, my first request will be for Multivac to trace the origin of the jokes, if it can. Since Whistler is in on this and since he has seen fit to report it to you, have him down in Analysis day after tomorrow. I think he’ll have a bit of work to do."

"Certainly. May I attend, too?"

Meyerhof shrugged. Trask’s attendance was obviously a matter of indifference to him.

” Meyerhof had selected the last in the series with particular care. What that care consisted of, he could not have said, but he had revolved a dozen possibilities in his mind, and over and over again had tested each for some indefinable quality of meaningfulness.

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He said, "Ug, the caveman, observed his mate running to him in tears, her leopard-skin skirt in disorder. ‘Ug,’ she cried, distraught, ‘do something quickly. A saber-toothed tiger has entered Mother’s cave. Do something!’ Ug grunted, picked up his well-gnawed buffalo bone and said, ‘Why do anything? Who the hell cares what happens to a saber-toothed tiger?’ "

It was then that Meyerhof asked his two questions and leaned back, closing his eyes. He was done.

"I saw absolutely nothing wrong," said Trask to Whistler. "He told me what he was doing readily enough and it was odd but legitimate."

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"What he claimed he was doing," said Whistler.

"Even so, I can’t stop a Grand Master on opinion alone. He seemed queer but, after all, Grand Masters are supposed to seem queer. I didn’t think him insane."

"Using Multivac to find the source of jokes?" muttered the senior analyst in discontent. "That’s not insane?"

"How can we tell?" asked Trask irritably. "Science has advanced to the point where the only meaningful questions left are the ridiculous ones. The sensible ones have been thought of, asked and answered long ago."

"It’s no use. I’m bothered."

"Maybe, but there’s no choice now, Whistler. We’ll see Meyerhof and you can do the necessary analysis of Multivac’s response, if any. As for me, my only job is to handle the red tape. Good Lord, I don’t even know what a senior analyst such as yourself is supposed to do, except analyze, and that doesn’t help me any."

Whistler said, "It’s simple enough. A Grand Master like Meyerhof asks questions and Multivac automatically formulates it into quantities and operations. The necessary machinery for converting words to symbols is what makes up most of the bulk of Multivac. Multivac then gives the answer in quantities and operations, but it doesn’t translate that back into words except in the most simple and routine cases. If it were designed to solve the general retranslation problem, its bulk would have to be quadrupled at least."

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"I see. Then it’s your job to translate these symbols into words?"

"My job and that of other analysts. We use smaller, specially designed computers whenever necessary." Whistler smiled grimly. "Like the Delphic priestess of ancient Greece, Multivac gives oracular and obscure answers. Only we have translators, you see."

They had arrived. Meyerhof was waiting.

Whistler said briskly, "What circuits did you use, Grand Master?" Meyerhof told him and Whistler went to work.

Trask tried to follow what was happening, but none of it made sense. The government official watched a spool unreel with a pattern of dots in endless incomprehensibility. Grand Master Meyerhof stood indifferently to one side while Whistler surveyed the pattern as it emerged. The analyst had put on headphones and a mouthpiece and at intervals murmured a series of instructions which, at some far-off place, guided assistants through electronic contortions in other computers.

Occasionally, Whistler listened, then punched combinations on a complex keyboard marked with symbols that looked vaguely mathematical but weren’t.

A good deal more than an hour’s time elapsed.

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The frown on Whistler’s face grew deeper. Once, he looked up at the two others and began, "This is unbel-" and turned back to his work.

Finally, he said hoarsely, "I can give you an unofficial answer." His eyes were red-rimmed. "The official answer awaits complete analysis. Do you want it unofficial?"

"Go ahead," said Meyerhof.

Trask nodded.

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Whistler darted a hangdog glance at the Grand Master. "Ask a foolish question-" he said. Then, gruffly, "Multivac says, extraterrestrial origin."

"What are you saying?" demanded Trask.

"Don’t you hear me? The jokes we laugh at were not made up by any man. Multivac has analyzed all data given it and the one answer that best fits that data is that some extraterrestrial intelligence has composed the jokes, all of them, and placed them in selected human minds at selected times and places in such a way that no man is conscious of having made one up. All subsequent jokes are minor variations and adaptations of these grand originals."

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