Flossie or the Tractor?

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5420 Netherlands Avenue, Apt. B-31 Bronx, NY 10471

Well, Bud Jr. certainly got my money's worth out of his college education. What he does mostly is spout sixty-dollar words he picked up from those silk-tie friends of his and tell me how I should modernize the farm like his'n. 'Modernize myself right into bankruptcy like your high-roller pals' is what I always say to that, which shuts him up awhile.

Me, I'm getting on, but I keep my end up just fine. Can't say the same for old Flossie. She's not as young as she used to be, and she just can't pull the plow the way she could back when. Used to was she could start off half an hour after the rooster crowed and go till noon without stopping, and then put on the feedbag and then go on past sunset without hardly a whimper. But lately it got so I had to think about putting the old girl out to pasture.

Me and Flossie been together a lot of years, so at first it like to broke my heart to think about it, and we just kept on keeping on. But every chance he got, Bud Jr. kept whining I ought to at least get into the 19th century even if I didn't believe in the 20th, and the least I could do if I didn't want to buy one of them newfangled computers to count the cornstalks was get me a air-conditioned tractor like his'n. Me, what I always says is, if you have to have an air-conditioned tractor, then the next thing you know you'll want a colored TV.

But Bud Jr. takes after his pop in a couple of ways, and I guess I mentioned this and that problem with Flossie once too often because the next thing I know, he traipses in the front door with this little suitcase. He says I been shilly-shallying long enough (except he used some sixty-five dollar word) and with the help of this here computer I'll make my decision once and for all. He plugs her in and fires her up and plunks me down in front of this little green Martian TV.

This isn't even Greek to me, but Bud Jr. learnt all about this stuff in some school or someplace. He says this is called Light Year, which only reminds me of the drought of '37. 'It is a decision-making system,' says he.

'Something like a coin with heads on one side and tails on the other,' says I.

'Watch the screen,' says my unamused offspring. I believe I forgot to mention I am Bud Sr.'

The first thing that shows up is a little box that says ALTERNATIVES at the top. Then he types in Flossie at the top and Tractor right underneath. Those are my alternatives, no two ways about it.

He fiddles with the keys and the next thing I know there's a screen with the word CRITERIA on the top of it. I would of guessed that was either a town in Kansas or a disease, but Bud Jr. looks at me very patient-like and tells me what it means.

Then he says to tell him what is important in making this decision. 'Give me a for example,' says I.

'Well, take Initial Cost,' Bud Jr. says. 'You've already got Flossie, so she's free. A tractor will cost you, say, ten thousand.'

'Not if I don't get one of them fancy dudes with the factory air, it won't.'

'We don't need to worry about the price till later,' says he. And he types Initial Cost on top. Then he moves down a line, and types in Upkeep.'

'How about Resale Value?' says I.'

Bud Jr. looks at me as if he's about to bust a gut with pride. 'You're starting to get the hang of this, Pop.' Pop is what he calls me when his defenses are down.'

'I'm just playing along,' says I. 'What about how much work you can do in a day?'

'Very important. We'll call that Output.' I ask him why not just call it how much work you can do in a day, and he says that won't fit into the little box. Maybe all them seventy-dollar words come into the world on account of the easy way to say it don't fit into little boxes on green TVs.'

Anyway, we type in Dependability, and Loyalty, and Sentimental Value, and Attitude. Then I think of something else.

'Put Aggravation in there,' I say. 'Flossie has been aggravating me something fierce lately.' Bud Jr. gives me a look, but he pecks it in.

So then he says it's time to give these things weights. 'I haven't put Flossie on the scales in a long time,' I say, 'but she don't weigh as much as no tractor.'

Bud Jr. gives me a dirty look and says he don't mean that kind of weight. What I'm supposed to do is pick a number from 1 to 100 to tell the machine how important each category is. One hundred is real important, but 30 is not-so-very. I give 80 to Output, and 70 to Upkeep all the way down to 20 for Sentimental Value. You can't plow with no sentiment.

Next Bud Jr. says we have to pick a mode for each one. Pie a la is the only mode I ever heard about, but Bud Jr. says we got to figure out whether we want to compare numbers, or words, or pitchers. I don't have the foggiest, so I tell him to try a little of each flavor.

Then the next thing we have to do is fill in the blanks like on one of them contests nobody ever wins. First we have to do the ones with the numbers, but before you can do that, you have to decide what's most desirable and what's least desirable. You would think a thinking machine that's supposed to help you decide could decide for itself that when something costs you ten thousand smackers it's less desirable than if it costs you zip, but Bud Jr. says no, you got to tell it, which we do.

We work out all the numbers for Cost and Upkeep and Resale Value, and then it's time for Output and Dependability. These come with lines on them that go from Most Desirable to Least Desirable, and you move an X from one end to the other or somewhere in the middle.

The thinking machine can't figure out that the work a tractor can do is closer to Most Desirable and the way Flossie is going she's nearly off the other end, so I let it know. And as for Loyalty, a tractor isn't going to run off on you and disappear for awhile because it's taken a shine to some other tractor, so the Xs on that one come out pretty much the same way.

Then we get to the Verbal ones. You get to pick from a list of words like Maximum, Extreme, High, Moderate, Low, Minimum, and Absent. I figure any machine would probably give me Moderate Aggravation, but the way Flossie's been carrying on lately, Extreme is the only score I could give her on that one. For Attitude I could pick from Fantastic, Good, Fair, Bad, and Terrible. I figure a tractor will have an OK attitude, but by now I bet you can guess how Flossie come out. When it come to Sentimental Value I give her Maximum at first, but the more I think about it she ends up down at Moderate. That still beats out the tractor.

According to Bud Jr., MBA, as it says on that business card of his with the writing you can feel, it's time for RULES. Me, I don't know any that apply here except maybe the golden one of do unto other people before they do unto you. But Mr. Educated says the only kinds of rules you can apply is simple ones like if Aggravation is too high, the machine can knock somebody out of the running. I say Flossie would lose right away if we made up a rule like that, which doesn't seem fair, and the long and short of it is we skip the rules part.

Then the next thing Bud Jr. says is 'Watch this!' He moves the little light over the word EVALUATE, and the next thing I know, up there on the screen is two long bars, one for Flossie and one for the Tractor. The one for Flossie is a trifle longer. It says out of a possible 360 points, Flossie got 183 and Tractor got 169.

Cut off my nose and fry me for a catfish! I suddenly get this oystery feeling in the back of my gullet. 'Well, if your machine don't lie,' I say kind of glumlike, 'I guess I'm stuck with Flossie.'

'Not so fast,' says Bud Jr., who looks kind of upset but not half as much as me. 'This is where the computer really comes in handy.' He presses key and up come some more little bars, one for each thing we rated Flossie on. 'See, Pop, now the computer will let you play what-if.'

'What if I just kick you and it out of here right now?'

But Jr. gives me one of those 'I'm trying to be patient' looks of his. 'Dad, this is scientific. Now, look here. Maybe you want to change the weights of some of these factors.'

He uses his finger to point to a couple of the little bars, and then I get the gag and go along. 'Poor Flossie did pretty bad on Output. You know, I guess that's more important than your old man thought. And that Sentimental Value mush? Well, we shouldn't let sentiment stand in the way of making these here scientific decisions, should we?' We make a couple more changes and Bud Jr. types 'em in and presses more buttons, and guess what?

It's Tractor over Flossie 177 to 165. 'You know, that recount was slicker than the way Mayor Delp stole the election.'

But I got to admit the machine done its job. The minute I saw Flossie win, I felt terrible. I would of done anything to change the score, and that's what I did. Still, it's like I said at the beginning: You can do the same if you just flip a coin. When you start rooting for heads, you know what you really want to do.

Well, to make this story short, Bud Jr. went home and printed everything up on some gizmo of his, and that very day I booted Flossie out the gate and found myself a nice tractor with good rubber on the tires and a seat that rattles your kidneys like it ought to and good old country air instead of the factory kind. I told Bud Jr. thanks for helping me cheat, but he said I actually done right anyway on account of the computer got fooled in the Aggravation department and gave more points for Extreme than for Low, and when he fixed it Flossie came out on the bottom even before we played 'what-if.'

Well, the computer was right. I been a happier man than anytime in my 49 years of married life since I divorced the old girl and bought the tractor and I don't have to buy no golden anniversary present neither.

You'd think Bud Jr. would be tickled pink, which he was at first. But now he says I should of kept Flossie after all, because the computer didn't add up no alimony payments and lawyer bills, which would of tipped the scales the other way.

Personally, I think the old girl's what's got him ticked. She moved in with him now that he needs her rent to make the payments on that air-conditioned tractor, and for the life of me I don't know why, but she's running around now with a smile on her face and about 20 years off her age and some lunk in a funeral suit from up to town, which Bud Jr. thinks is no way for the mother of a MBA to behave.

I tell you, the old girl and Bud Jr. would never admit it, but me, I wonder if Flossie just might of 'what-iffed' that computing machine in the first place.

This article originally appeared in the January 28, 1986 edition of PC Magazine, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.