POPPA NEEDS SHORTS
Given valid data, you can reach completely wrong conclusions.
But given a wrong conclusion, you can still get a right answer!
WALT and LEIGH RICHMOND
Illustrated by John Schoenherr
Little Oley had wandered into forbidden territory again—Big
Brother Sven's ham shack. The glowing bottles
here were an irresistible lure, and he liked to pretend
that he knew all there was to know about the mysteries
in this room.
Of course, Sven said that not even he knew all of the
mysteries, though he admitted he was one of the best ham
operators extant, with QSOs from eighteen countries and
thirty-eight states to his credit.
At the moment, Sven was busily probing into an open
chassis with a hot soldering iron.
"Short's in here some place," he muttered.
"What makes shorts, Sven?" Oley wasn't so knowledgeable
but what he would ask an occasional question.
Sven turned and glared down. "What are you doing
in here? You know it's a Federal Offense for anybody to
come into this room without I say so?"
"Momma and Hilda come in all the time, and you don't
say so." Oley stood firm on what he figured were legal
grounds. "What makes shorts?"
Sven relented a little. This brother had been something
of a surprise to him, coming along when Sven was a
full ten years old. But, he reflected, after a few years
maybe I should get used to the idea. Actually, he sort of
liked the youngster.
"Shorts," he said, speaking from the superior eminence
of his fourteen years to the four-year-old, "is when electricity
finds a way to get back where it came from without
doing a lot of hard work getting there. But you see,
electricity like to work; so, even when it has an easy
way, it just works harder and uses itself up."
This confused explanation of shorts was, of course,
taken verbatim, despite the fact that Oley couldn't define
half the words and probably couldn't even pronounce
"I don't like shorts. I don't like these pink shorts
Momma put on me this morning. Is they electrics, Sven?"
Sven glanced around at the accidentally-dyed-in-the-laundry,
formerly white shorts.
"Um-m-m. Yeah. You could call 'em electric."
With this Oley let out whoop and dashed out of the
room, trailing a small voice behind him. "Momma,
Momma. Sven says my shorts is electric!"
"I'll short Sven's electrics for him, if he makes fun of
your shorts!" Oley heard his mother's comforting reply.
In the adult world days passed before Oley's accidentally
acquired pattern of nubilous information on the
subject of shorts was enlarged. It was only days in the
adult world, but in Oley's world each day was a mountainous
fraction of an entire lifetime, into which came
tumbling and jumbling—or were pulled—bits, pieces,
oddments, landslides and acquisitions of information on
every subject that he ran into, or that ran into him.
Nobody had told Oley that acquiring information was his
job at the moment; the acquisition was partly accidental,
mostly instinctive, and spurred by an intense curiosity
and an even more intense determination to master the
world as he saw it.
There was the taste of the sick green flowers that
Momma kept in the window box and, just for a side
course, a little bit of the dirt, too. There were the patterns
of the rain on the window, and the reactions of a cat to
having its tail pulled. The fact that you touch a stove one
time, and it's cool and comfortable to lay your head
against, and another time it hurts. Things like that. And
other things—towering adults who sometimes swoop down
on you and throw you high into the air; and most times
walk over you, around you, and ignore you completely.
The jumble of assorted and unsorted information that is
the heritage of every growing young inquiring brain.
In terms of time, it was only a couple of weeks, if you
were looking at it as an adult, until the next "shorts"
Oley was sitting peacefully at the breakfast table, doing
his level best to control the manipulation of the huge
knife-fork-and-spoon, plate-bowl-and-glass, from which
he was expected to eat a meal. Things smelled good.
Momma was cooking doste, and that to Oley smelled best
of all. The doster ticked quietly to itself, then gave a loud
pop, and up came two golden-brown slices of doste.
Dostes? Oley wasn't sure. But he hadn't really begun
paying too much attention to whether one doste was the
same as two doste or what, though he could quite proudly
tell you the difference between one and two.
Out it came, and fresh butter was spread on it, and in
went two shiny white beds, for some more doste.
Little Oley watched in fascination. And now he reached
for the tremendous glass sitting on the table in front of
him. But his fingers didn't quite make it. Somehow, the
glass was heavy and slippery, and it eluded him, rolled
over on its side, and spilled the bright purple juicy contents
out across the table in a huge swish.
Oley wasn't dismayed, but watched with a researcher's
interest as the bright purple juice swept across the table
towards the busily ticking doster. Momma, of course,
wasn't here, or she would have been gruff about it. She'd
just gone into the other room.
The juice spread rapidly at first, and then more and
more slowly, making a huge, circuitous river spreading
across the table, first towards the doster and then away
from it towards the frayed power-cord lying on the table.
It touched and began to run along the cord. Not a very
eventful recording so far, but Oley watched, charmed.
As he watched, a few bubbles began to appear near the
frayed spot. A few wisps of steam. And then, suddenly,
there was a loud, snarling splat—and Momma screamed
from the doorway. "That juice is making a short!"
The information, of course, was duly recorded. Juice
It was a minor item of information, mixed into a
jumble of others, and nothing else was added to this
particular file for nearly another week.
Oley was playing happily on the living room floor that
night. Here there was much to explore, though an adult
might not have thought twice about it. Back in the corner
behind Momma's doing bachine a bright, slender piece of
metal caught Oley's attention. Bigger on one end than the
other, but not really very big anywhere, the sewing
machine needle proved fascinating. As a first experiment,
Oley determined that it worked like a tooth by biting himself
with it. After that he went around the room, biting
other things with it. Information, of course, is information,
and to be obtained any way one can.
The brown, snaky lamp cord was the end of this experiment.
Oley bit it, viciously, with his new tooth, and had
only barely observed that it had penetrated completely
through when there was a loud splat, and all the lights
in the room went out.
In the darkness and confusion, of course, Oley moved
away, seeking other new experiences. So the cause of the
short that Momma and Poppa yakked so loudly about was
never attributed to Oley's actions, but only to "How could
a needle have gotten from your sewing machine into this
lamp cord, Alice?"
But the sum of information had increased. Neatles
stuck into lamp cords had something to do with shorts.
More time passed. And this time the file on shorts was
stimulated by Poppa. The big, rough, booming voice had
always scared Oley a bit when it sounded mad, like now.
"Alice, I've just got to have some more shorts!"
Poppa was rummaging in a drawer far above Oley's
head, so he couldn't see the object under discussion. But
all he already knew about shorts—the information passed
in review before him.
Shorts are useful. They help electrics to work harder.
Shorts you wear, and they are electrics.
Wires are electrics.
Shorts can be made by juice.
Shorts can be made by neatles, that bite like teeth.
Poppa needs more shorts.
But Oley wasn't motivated to act at the moment. Just
sorting out information and connecting it with other
information files in the necessarily haphazard manner
that might eventually result in something called intelligence,
although he didn't know that yet.
It was a week later in the kitchen, when Momma
dropped a giant version of the neatle on the floor, that his
information file in this area increased again.
"Is that a neatle?" Oley asked.
His mother laughed quietly and looked fondly at her
son as she put the ice pick back on the table.
"I guess you could call it a needle, Oley," she told him.
"An ice needle."
Oley instinctively waited until Momma's back was
turned before taking the nice neatle to try its biting
powers; and instinctively took it out of the kitchen before
starting his experiments.
As he passed the cellar door he heard a soft gurgling
and promptly changed course. Pulling open the door with
difficulty, he seated himself on the cellar stairs to watch a
delightful new spectacle—frothing, gurgling water making
its way across the floor towards the stairs. It looked wonderfully
dirty and brown, and to Oley it was an absorbing
phenomenon. It never occurred to him to tell Momma.
Suddenly above him the cellar door slammed open, and
Poppa came charging down the stairs, narrowly missing
the small figure, straight into the rising waters, intent,
though Oley couldn't know it, on reaching the drain pipe
in the far corner of the cellar to plug it before water from
the spring rains could back up farther and really flood
the cellar out.
Halfway across the cellar, Poppa reached up and
grasped the dangling overhead light to turn it on, in
order to see his way to the drain—and suddenly came to
frozen, rigid, gasping stop as his hand clamped firmly
over the socket.
Little Oley watched. There was juice in the cellar.
Poppa had hold of an electric. Was Poppa trying to make
the shorts he needed?
Oley wasn't sure. He thought it probable. And from the
superior knowledge of his four years, Oley already knew
a better way to make shorts. Neatles make good shorts.
Juice don't do so well.
Suddenly, Oley decided to prove his point: Nice neatles
probably made even better shorts than other neatles—and
there was a big electric running up the side of the stairs—an
electric fat enough to make a real good shorts. Maybe
lots of shorts.
Raising his nice neatle, Oley took careful aim and
plunged it through the 220-volt stove feeder cable.
Oley woke up. The strange pretty lady in white was a
new experience. Somebody he hadn't seen before. And
there seemed to be something wrong with his hand, but
Oley hadn't noticed it very much, yet.
"Well, my little Hero's awake! And how are you this
morning? Your Momma and Poppa will be in to see you
in just a minute."
The pretty lady in white went away, and Oley gazed
around the white room with its funny shape, happily
recorded the experience, and dozed off again.
Then suddenly he was awakened again. Momma was
there; and Poppa. And Sven. But they all seemed different
somehow this morning. Momma had been crying, even
though she was smiling bravely now. And Poppa seemed
to have a new softness that he'd seldom seen before. Sven
was looking puzzled.
"I still say, Pop, that he's a genius. He must have known
what he was doing."
"Oley," Poppa's voice was husky—gruff, but kinder
and softer than usual. "I want you to answer me carefully.
But understand that it's all right either way. I just want
you to tell me. Why did you put the ice pick through the
stove cable? You saved my life, you know. But I'd like
to know how you knew how."
Little Oley grinned. His world was peaceful and wonderful
now. And all the big adults were bending and
leaning down and talking to him.
"Nice neatle," he said. "Big electric. Poppa needed
This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction January
1964. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.