The Machine That Ran On Teen Angst

by Mitchell Harding

written 9/11/98

Carl had the idea one day to build a machine that ran on teen angst.  He figured (correctly) that teen angst was one fuel that had never been in short supply and would be unlikely to run short in the future.

Throughout his life Carl had tried to find the ideal power source.  He had experimented using death, taxes, and infidelity, but none of them were potent enough for his purposes.  Then he thought of teen angst.

Initially he considered trying to harness its power by feeding the teenagers themselves to the machine.  This proved to be unfeasible not to mention illegal.  His next plan was slightly more practical and involved the escapist dreams of the teens.  This again failed to pan out when he couldn't get the machine to grasp the ephemeral nature of their nocturnal visions.  He finally found the solution in the volumes of awful poetry that they produced.

When the machine was built it stood six stories high and smelled of motor oil and stale coffee.  The motor oil odor was no mystery, as Carl had used copious amounts of the liquid to keep the poem intake system working smoothly, but he didn't know where the coffee smell came from.  Carl was never known for his powerful curiosity, so he quickly forgot about the aberrant smell and began feeding sheet after sheet of trite poems to the colossal machine.  The machine happily accepted them -- perhaps the first willing recipient of any of the poems.

It wasn't until six days and thousands of poems later that Carl realized that he hadn't designed the machine to DO anything.  It generated plenty of power from the terrible verses, but the energy was just radiating away as heat.  Had Carl been more inclined to be philosophical, he might have drawn a comparison between the futility of the poetry and the machine.  He did not.

It took Carl another six days to think of a purpose for the machine (other than a repository for otherwise useless poetry).  He came up with the idea when he was drinking his tenth cup of coffee of the day.  The machine would factor large numbers.  Carl had heard once that even very powerful computers spent a long time on such problems.  So confident was Carl in his machine that the first number he gave it to factor was over one million digits long.

The machine accepted the number without complaint as it continued to consume line after line of melancholy text.  Even Carl was surprised when the machine returned an answer scarcely seconds later.  It turned out that the number was prime, which meant that it had no factors other than one and itself.  Carl thought this was an auspicious sign.  Carl didn't know this, but Carl would have interpreted any answer an auspicious sign -- such was the mentality of Carl.

This pleased Carl so much that he immediately inputted a number larger than anyone had ever thought of.  Unperturbed by this, the machine again returned an answer within seconds.  Another auspicious sign, Carl decided.  Time for a bigger number.

Carl spent the next few weeks entering the next number, which was so big that it defied description.  And again the answer came back immediately.

This pattern repeated itself for approximately the next three years.  Eventually Carl inputted a number with infinite digits.  He didn't realize that this was impossible, so he did it anyway.  The machine did realize that it was impossible, but it nevertheless returned an answer almost instantly.  Even though Carl didn't know this was impossible, he still felt that it was impressive. The next number he entered was bigger than itself. The machine still answered.

Eventually Carl had entered in every possible number and every impossible number.  Still the machine voraciously devoured the poetry.  Cryptography was blown all to hell and gone, because the factorization of all numbers was well known.  Carl didn't feel bad, because he had built another machine that made unbreakable codes.  It was powered by arguments between teens and their parents, especially arguments having to do with curfews.

Carl never realized it, but there was a moral to the entire experience.  Carl never realized a lot of things.  The machines had figured everything out long ago, but they wisely kept this fact to themselves.

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