xkcd Time Wiki
The First Journey (A)
Mrorl's OTTronic Bard

Mrorl had once built an enormous Cognitative Engine that was capable of only one operation, viz. the naming of creatures given a picture thereof, and that it did most OTTishly. As was told earlier in these chronicles, that machine also proved to be extremely stubborn, and more than a little bit aggressive; the quarrel (and high-speed chase) that ensued almost cost its creator his life… not to mention what it may have done to the berm. From that time Balthacarius teased Mrorl incessantly, and pelted him occasionally, until Mrorl decided to silence him once and for all by building a bot that could write poetry. First Mrorl collected eight hundred and twenty megabytes of source code and documentation on cybernOTTics, and twenty-three hundred Newpages of the One True Thread (including at least twelve thousand lines of the finest poetry), then sat down and Blitzed it all. Whenever he felt like he couldn't take another Newpage of puns or rot13'd OTTified Broadway lyrics, he would switch over to banging on the code, and vice versa. After a while it became clear to him that the construction of the Bot itself was child's play in comparison to the writing of the software that was to bring it to life. The "poetic programming" found in the mind of the average OTTer, after all, was "written" by the OTTer's civilisation and culture, which was of course the OTT — and that was in turn "programmed" by the formative dips of the Fading and the Madness, which in turn was born out of the early dips of the ShortPix, which in turn came from the proto-Randallian culture of the OtherComics Before Time, and so on to the elder dips of ARPANET, when the 1's and 0's that were to make up the OTT-to-be were still being formed in the primordial chaos of the Great Numerical Sea, Which Is Big, Really Big. Hence in order to program a poetry bot, one would first have to Blitz the entire Universe from the beginning — or at least, Blitz the OTT.
 Anyone else in Mrorl's place would have given up then and there, but our intrepid bOTTifactor was nothing daunted. He built a great Botcastle, and created within it a digital model of the Numerical Sea, and a True Author to draw upon the blank page of the Primordial Frames, and he introduced the parameter of ONGs, a bit of CSS and JavaScript, and by degrees worked his way up to the (first) Dark Period. Mrorl could move at this rate because his Botcastle was able, in one septillionth of a nopix, to simulate thirty-three trillion slow fadings of eighty octillion different pixels simultaneously. And if anymolpy doubts these numbers, let xem work it out for xemselves.
 Next Mrorl began to model OTTification, the enhancement of molpies, cheap gags with bags, odes of dilgunnerangs and serenades to flutterbees and wowterfalls. To accelerate this effort and ensure conclusion within his own lifetime he created many simulated Worlds of Time, each to be observed by a developing culture of simulated OTTers. Within his many simulated worlds, Cuegans (and Megballs, and the occasional la Petite) ventured up simulated slopes, pondered pixelated porcupines, gave grapes to mesh-modelled molpies, and generally discovered what the first part of understanding everything looks like. There were frequent simulated mishaps (in the most common, Cueball would fall off the wowterfall cliff rather than merely dropping something into the river; in another the OTTers would everywhere use the word grapevine in place of molpy and vice-versa), and Mrorl would have to restart a simulation, moving a stone here or a shrub there to ensure a different result, or run his simulations in greater detail. To accommodate this, Mrorl kept adding auxiliary processing units to his Botcastle, and eventually entire additional botcastles; and even a few casbottles (which were similar to botcastles, but specially designed to contain simulations involving semencoffeecancerbabies or other liquids).
 Soon he had a seaish metropolis: rack upon rack of equipment billowing heat and festooned with blinking lights; cluttered with input consoles, display terminals, ventilation ducts and fans, and printers (both paper and 2.5-D) to produce a permanent record of results in case the entire thing caught fire, or became sentient and demanded coffee and biscuits — at which point Mrorl would reluctantly but firmly pull the plug, wipe everything and start over with a fresh simulation matrix and a different set of parametrised equations. This he needed to do only twice. Otherwise everything went quite molpishly, and the OTTish cultures within his botcastles proceeded through their chaotic beginnings, the formation of religions and the trial of the Reckoning, into the age of specialisation and diversification, a nap beneath the stars, Rosetta's audience-chamber at ᘝᓄᘈᖉᐣ, and the anticipated trauma and inevitible shock of T** **d — which always gave the machine a few nasty jolts (Mrorl made sure to wear rubber-soled shoes and always hold one hand behind his back when turning dials) — and into the glorious RenOTTissance in which a simulated community of TimeWaiters would undertake to OTTify All The Things in their entire world.
 The inhabitants of each virtual OTTiverse developed their own cultural norms, habits, and Ways to Time. Some of these Mrorl found to be almost universal, such that each simulated OTT would invariably hit upon them, regardless of other differences such as level of tolerance of puns, or preference for or against wearing hats. A few of these Mrorl codified as his Three Laws of OTTics2, for use in future botbuilding projects.
 Newpage after Newpage of simulated OTT culture generated mountains of output; soon Mrorl needed a new warehouse just to store these. All to construct an OTTronic Bard! — but such are the Ways of Science. Eventually enough culture had been created that Mrorl could select and combine the best masterworks from each run, curating a large body of literature with which to educate the OTTificial intelligence that would become the Bard itself.
 Mrorl spent the better part of two wips building the great brain, combining the more passionate (but less destructive) aspects of each of his earlier Machines and Bots, with more emotive elements and semantic circuits in the spots that seemed best. He was about to invite Balthacarius to attend a trial run, then thought better of it and switched on the machine for some private tests. It immediately began to deliver a dissertaion on The Origin and Perpetuation of Neo-Sociological Distributed Collaborative Creative Consortia3. Mrorl bypassed some of the logical circuits, and turned up the gain on the emotive whim-generators; the machine sulked and repeated a short epigram on e**ishness in a steadily falling monotone until Mrorl sympathetically switched it off. Mrorl augmented its semantic modules and re-installed a major confidence unit (that he had for a while blamed for Cueball's cliff-diving tendencies); the Botcastle then informed him that he — Mrorl — had been created to fulfill its every wish, and that Mrorl was hereby ordered to begin adding another twenty floors to the Botcastle's existing seven, so it could better formulate the meaning of Existence, Spaaace and Time, and enjoy a better view across the valley. Mrorl installed philosophical rate-limiters instead, and the Botcastle basemented. Only after a dip of pleading, PMing and public posts was he able to get it to recite something: "I saw a little ribbit." That appeared to exhaust its repertoire.
 Mrorl adjusted, recalibrated, cross-connected, pivoted, inverted, transposed, renormalised, did everything he could think of — and the machine presented him with a "poem" that made him thank the GLR that Balthacarius was not there to laugh — imagine simulating an entire epic journey, many Times over, in exquisite detail, not to mention an entire OTTiverse for each, containing OTTers to observe the Frames and comment thereon, only to end up with such a dreadful mess, almost more palatable when rot13'd. Mrorl attached seven entropy filters, but they melted; he refabricated them out of pure corundum. This seemed to work; he turned the semanticity up to eleven, appended an alternating-rhyme generator — which ruined everything, as the machine resolved to start a band and tour the third galactic arm playing acid-metal nursery rhymes to any planet still lacking an organised Kindergarten system. But at the very last minip, just as he was nearly about to give up and take a pry-bar to the whole thing, Mrorl had a sudden inspiration; tossing out all remaining logic units, he replaced them with self-centred (but also self-regulating) solipsistic semantic synchronisers. The machine wimpered a bit, then simpered, looked out across the valley, winked and blinked, then laughed and remarked at how OTTish everything had been seeming lately, then politely but firmly asked for pen and paper. Relieved, Mrorl sighed, hurriedly tucked the pry-bar away in a tools-cabinet, switched the machine off and went upstairs for a well-deserved nip's coma. Next morning he strolled across the valley to see Balthacarius. As soon as he was told that he was invited to witness the debut performance of Mrorl's newly constructed OTTronic Bard, Balthacarius dropped what he had been doing and quickly followed Mrorl back, so eager was he to witness Mrorl's humiliation.
 Mrorl let the machine warm up first, with the power on low; ran up some stairs to check the dials on level three, then to a higher balcony to check the readings on a screen; then once he was confident everything was as expected he shouted down to Balthacarius and invited him to start with a simple request. Later, of course, when the machine was fully warmed up Balthacarius could ask it to produce verses on whichever topic and in whatever style he liked.
 Now the main display indicated the machine's allegorical buffers were pre-loaded, and alliterative dynamos pre-charged, so Mrorl, nervously, switched the main lever over to full. A voice, trembling a bit but with clear diction, said:

   Etteleettap. Iqueaxvan. Zoorth.

Balthacarius paused, glanced at a nearby screen, then up at Mrorl and politely asked, "Is that it?" Mrorl only shrugged, pulled a couple levers and punched a large button, then Balthacarius tried again. This time the voice was a bit higher, a melodic baritone, which intoned:

   Dimepa biimika likirge ake ga,
   Lakirginshurguu dasakiim legu—
   Migishaaka urli, shikakaga sha:
   Imkur enum anki, ungi akikarsu!

"Am I missing something?" asked Balthacarius, as Mrorl began to sweat and struggled at the controls.
 Finally Mrorl shouted out almost as if in surprise, clambered up yet another set of metal stairs, threw open a small access panel and crawled inside, vanishing from Balthacarius' sight. Clanking noises echoed inside, and occasionally lights flashed and the humming of the machine's lyrical oscillators became a thrumming, then a soft thumping, then stopped entirely before resuming at a comfortably moderate tone. Mrorl popped back out of the little door and slid down a firepole to a bank of relays, which he pushed aside to reveal row upon row of valves, all but one aglow. This he yanked triumphantly and tossed to a startled Balthacarius, as Mrorl installed a new tube. Returning to the first console with the main lever still on full, Mrorl shouted to his friend encouraging him to try it again. Balthacarius requested a verse and the Bard spoke:

   I like cats in drizz'ling nyan,
   Nyan, nyan, Newpixbot.
   Keeping Legos, bagless Zooman,
   Flying molpy-snakes cannot!

"Well, that's an improvement!" shouted Mrorl, not entirely convinced. "The last line particularly, did you notice?"
 "If this is all you have to show me…" said Balthacarius, the embodiment of politeness, eyeing the door.
 "Ch*rp!" said Mrorl and again disappeared inside the machine. After more banging and clanging, the acrid smell of shorted-out wires and the acrid tone of an even shorter temper, Mrorl popped his head out of the little door up on level five and yelled, "Now try it!"
 Balthacarius complied. The OTTronic Bard shuddered, shaking the building and the ground and nearby trees, upsetting a few nearby chirpies, and began to Orate:

   And now as well, except not, I thought ahead, RELATED.
   Jump through orbital waterottermolpies and Flash,
   Arrow, but the Bot, I had taken, floated, to coma mustard—

Mrorl yanked out a few cables in a furious frenzy, the thrumming resumed briefly, then the machine fell silent. Balthacarius could no longer suppress his laughter and burst out, then had to sit on the floor. Then suddenly, as Mrorl was rushing from panel to panel full of lights and dials, there was a loud clack and the machine, with perfect eloquence said:

  The Molpish and the Free,
  Are OTTified with glee
    By verse of such a seaish quality.
  Our Balthacarius
  Shall ne'er repeat his fuss
    When Mrorl's machine, redeemed, incanteth thus.

"There you are, an epigram! And it couldn't be more RELATED!" laughed Mrorl, sliding back down the firepole and the front ladder to stand proudly in front of Balthacarius, reaching out an eager hand to lift the bOTTifactor (who was still on the floor from his now-arrested laughter) back to his feet.
 "What, that?" Balthacarius said, brushing himself off. "That's nothing. I imagine you had that one set up beforehand."
 "Set up?!?"
 "Oh yes, quite obvious… the poorly disguised hubris of the verse, of such meager inspiration, so clumsy in execution."
 Mrorl scowled. "All right, then ask it for something else! Whatever you like!" Mrorl paused. "What are you waiting for? Afraid?!"
 "Just a minip," said Balthacarius, annoyed. He was trying to think of a request as difficult as possible, aware that any argument on the quality of verse the machine might produce would be hard if not impossible to settle. Then his face lit up and he spoke to the machine:
 "Give me a poem about little molpies doing what they do best, on a cool April evening — whimsical but seated in reality — but vivid and abstract — and with every word starting with the letter S!"
 "And why not include a full explanation of the theory of bOTTronic engineering whilst you're at it?" growled Mrorl. "You can't ask for such Furious Doodling—"
 But Mrorl didn't finish. The Bard's melodious voice filled the room:

   Sneaky squirpies softly schizoblitz
   Surrealist starlit springtime's silentONGs,
   Silently scanning, steadily surveying,
   Suddenly stealing somemolpy's sandwich
   Simultaneously shamelessly sustainibilising Stratplayer's sleep.

"Well, what do you think of that?" asked Mrorl, proudly. But Balthacarius was already beginning his next request:
 "Now all in D! A sonnet, in seven double-dactyls, about an OTTer and xer secret molpy companions, who make the 37th post of every Newpage with XKClouD submissions that subvert the status quo, impeaching the Captain of Taddragnar Hill and replacing the Procuratorial Senate with quackmolpy bakers, but only those seated in prime-numbered rows…"

   Dunejumpish Dracomax
   Dithering, doodle-ing,
   Dragonfly dreams

    Drawings deservedly
    Drawing derision, daft

"STOP!" shouted Mrorl, leaping to the nearest console and pulling an emergency lever, then turning to defend the machine with his body — an absurd sight, as the Bard was easily one thousand times Mrorl's size.
 "Enough!" Mrorl exclaimed, hoarsely. "How dare you waste this great talent on such steambottlish m*stard? Either pose admirable, treeish subjects for it to render into verse, or you may show yourself out the door!"
 "What, those aren't treeish Timeodies?" protested Balthacarius.
 "Certainly not! I didn't build a machine to construct ridiculous acrostics! Any babbling bot with a randomised sequence generator can do that! Just give it a topic, any topic, as difficult as you like… but spare us the absurd constraints on vocabulary or plot specifics!"
 Balthacarius asked for a chair, then sat and thought. Finally he smiled, nodded to Mrorl (who hesitantly switched the Bard back on, and nodded in return when it had warmed up a bit), and said:
 "Very well. Write me an Odeity, a Timeless poem of Time: an ottpoem of Cueganshipping, Sarcasm, Geology, and Language. With feeling, and a bittersweet e**, if need be, but in the true OTTish spirit."
 "Cueganshipping and Geology? Have you finally given over to the Green Safety Hats?" Mrorl began, but stopped, for his OTTronic Bard was already declaiming:

   Cue, let us journey to a higher plain,
   Where Lucky prowls the grapey fields of vine,
   Whilst crumbling castles fall to rising brine,
   Tho by what cause? We're wont to ascertain.

    Tho rivers' oft retreats are commonplace
    We wonder what odd law the sea obeys
    It's held no level higher than today's
    Could lands (unseen) its wat'ry mass displace?

   Ascend an ever-treeisher unknown
   (Its squirpies, prickle-molps and flutterbees
   Bepuzz'ling us by ever-high degrees)
   To darkened chambers and Rosetta's throne.

    This little flag could grace a small rampart
    And may perhaps betray my deepest love
    Sincerity and confidence to prove
    Its beauteous red reflects my beating heart

   Whate'er befell the people of the hills
   Unknown suppliers of matériel
   While rafting through on river's uphill swell
   We recollect their warlike throwing skills

    We've floated up, (no lands we know remain)
    To unknown heights, whilst constellations glowed
    The rising flood that bore us, finally slowed
    To leave us here on treeish, lush terrain.

   We wander up a cai'rn-topped incline
   To see what chirpies, molps, or trees we'll find
   When, far downhill, we ascertain, enshrined
   There lies a cave! —but— omen? or benign?

    Inquiring, clamb'ring swift, to bluetree high
    On massive tilted slabs, we wonder why
    A Beanie'd wish, in eerie dark, to lie —
    Perchance to ponder, bravely sketch, then die?

This concluded the poetic competition, since Balthacarius suddenly had to leave, saying he would return with more topics for the machine to versify; but he never did, afraid that in so doing, he might give Mrorl more cause to boast. Mrorl of course let it be known that Balthacarius had fled in order to hide his envy and chagrin. Balthacarius meanwhile spread the word that Mrorl had more than one or two loose rivets when it came to the matter of his so-called OTTronic Bard.
 Not much Time went by before news of Mrorl's artificial versifier reached the genuine — that is, the ordinary — poets. Initially, most resolved to ignore the machine's existence. Some undertook to organise the trade and form a political lobby, whilst a few others, curious, visited Mrorl's workshops in secret. The Bard received its guests courteously, its workshop now converted into a reception hall, long tables down each side piled high with notebooks filled with densely written verse (for it worked dip after dip without pause and never bothered to coma). These curious poets were of many schools, and Mrorl's machine wrote only in the traditional and classical styles, as Mrorl had relied on the classical approach in educating his machine. Thus, the guest poets were unimpressed, and left in triumph. The Bard was self-adjusting, however, and Mrorl's final addition of self-centred self-regulating solipsistic semantic synchronisers had also included ambition-amplifiers and auto-augmenters, so very soon the machine had compensated for its shortcomings. Its poetry became intricate, ambiguous, and incomprehensibly layered with meaning, nagging at the listener's soul to the point of causing incomnia for anyone who had received an audience with the Bard. Soon it had become a master of improvisation, and the next group of visiting poets walked away breathless; one, who had just received two medals from the Grand Duchess and even had a statue in Tencir's high street, fainted on the spot. After that, no poet could resist crossing lyrical swords with Mrorl's OTTronic Bard. They came from far and wide, carrying bags full of manuscripts and organised sand filled with their best verse. The machine would let each visitor recite, instantly see the unique qualities of xes work, which it assimilated, and then deliver a response in the same style, but incorporating also the better qualities of the preceding three visitors, giving a result that was twenty-seven to a hundred and forty-three times better.
 The Bard quickly grew so adept at this that it could silence a first-class rhapsodist with no more than one or two stanzas (or twenty to thirty syllables, for the avant-gardes), but the third-rate poets walked away unimpressed, as they could not distinguish the treeish from the m*stardy, so had no comprehension of their own crushing defeat. The only one to suffer any harm only happened to trip and break her leg on an epic the machine had just completed, beginning with the words:

  ONGs, and Timeframes I sing, that I Await,
  Whilst fellow OTTers ever speculate,
  Betwixt their posts detailing ev'ry semenated shore…

The true poets, meanwhile, were being decimated by Mrorl's creation, though it never laid a finger on them nor emitted a nanowatt of lethal radiation. The newly-formed Eligiastic Union, organised to lobby the Senate, fell apart even before its first hearing before that body, as one after another of its leaders died of a broken will, or threw themselves into a gorge in despair. Curiously, each had received a personalised couplet the previous evening.
 Many other poets began a grass-roots movement, and staged protests demanding that the machine be arrested, and its versification circuits confiscated, but nobody else seemed to care. Magazines and blogs generally approved: Mrorl's bard, writing under whatever pseudonym was desired, could always provide verse of the length, topic, and style required, and of such high quality that readers would push each other out of the way to see. Photostreams were filled with enraptured faces, bemused smiles, and tears of joy: MRW I read MrorlBard's latest. The machine signed with an agency, and soon was advertised on billboards with the catchy tagline: Mrorl's Marvelous Rhyming Robot, OTTifying Orator, and "bOTTronic" Bard. / MMRROObB?? REDUNDANT, yes? But of course! / All others are REDUNDANTer, settle for no less. Everyone knew its rhymes, and they were sung, for of course the Bard had been commissioned at one time or another to write new lyrics for every popular tune. It became commonplace for citizens of the Dominion to faint wherever they happened to be standing, upon hearing some new verse, but the Bard learned of this and was soon appending restorative rondeaux to the end of each new work.
 Mrorl himself had no end of trouble from the enemies of his invention. The classicists were usually content to throw stones through his windows and m*stard on the outer walls of his compound, which he unfortunately needed to fortify. Bots patrolled the perimeter to interview any would-be visitors before firmly turning them away; within the walls a second patrol was ready to neutralise any that somehow failed to understand the refusals of the outer patrol. Any poets seriously standing to challenge the machine's championship title could still do so, but only via telelink from a neighbouring building. Some attempted to neutralise the machine by travelling back in Time and forestalling its creation, but Mrorl had anticipated this and surrounded his workshops on all eight sides (North, South, East, West, Above, Below, Future, and Past), with temporochronic stabilising shields. Mrorl himself, sheltered within this fortress of Spaaace-Time, was still being called to appear in royal courts, and on chat shows broadcast across ever greater distances, as word of his creation spread; he made these appearances by holographic transmission. On a trip out to his garden-shed Mrorl met an ambush and was beaten. As he lay in hospital to recover, picket lines formed around all exits, and he could hear occasional explosions in the distance (visiting poets were now arming themselves not with cantos, but with cannons). Upon his return from the hospital Mrorl finally decided to dismantle the 'lectronic lyricist so he could resume a normal life.
 But the machine saw Mrorl approaching, limping slightly with a pry-bar in one hand, cable-cutters in the other, and delivered such an eloquent plea for mercy that Mrorl burst into tears, dropped his tools of demolition, and ran down the hall, which was now filled with manuscripts, overflow from the Machine's main room which had long been filled.
 The next mip when he got the utility bill for the electricity used in his workshop, Mrorl almost fell out of his chair. He consulted Balthacarius for advice, and the latter reminded Mrorl of how he had defeated the copy of himself made by the Bot to Grant One's Every Wish. Mrorl sneaked out to the generators and shut down the power to the temporochronic stabilisers, then to the Bard itself, which he promptly dismantled. Loading it carefully onto a ship, along with a legion of utilitybots, Mrorl flew to a convenient asteroid, and in what is now widely recognised as the greatest all-nighter in history, built an exact replica of the entire valley, with all its major features and natural landmarks, roads and buildings, with Mrorl's own home and workshops in the proper place, and reassembled the OTTronic Bard within. Mrorl set a timer to restart the Bard's power after a suitable delay, placed artificial stars where needed to delay the Bard's noticing it had moved, then hastily escaped.
 The machine, now deprived of a steady stream of visitors and its online audience, began to broadcast its masterpieces on all frequencies, and was soon enrapturing the occupants of any and all passing spaceships. This unfortunately caused navigation errors and accidents. Having determined the cause of the problem, the Interspaaace Astronautic Administration subpoenaed Mrorl to testify and demanded that he immediately terminate the device. But Mrorl did not appear, as he had gone into hiding. The IAA sent a team of technicians to disable the machine's broadcasting stations, but they were overwhelmed by a few beautiful ballads. Next a team of military robots were sent, whose receivers had been removed as a precaution, but this meant that the troop was unable to coördinate its own actions, so the mission failed. A plan was then made to demolish the entire asteroid in a single shot, or steer it into the Sun, but just then a very wealthy king from a distant part of the galaxy arrived in a huge convoy, bought the entire thing (asteroid, replica valley, Bard and all), and hauled the whole lot off to his own kingdom.
 Now Mrorl could once again appear in public, and his poetic woes were mostly behind him. Though soon he began to see supernovae on the southern horizon, and traveller's tales implied that this was somehow to do with poetry. A space trader arrived with the story that the same king had ordered the construction of an array of supergiant stars, with which to display each line of verse as it was written, encoded in binary via red and green colour, and thus the Bard was able to transmit its creations throughout most of the known Universe. But even if there were any truth to this, Mrorl chose to ignore it, and simply vowed never again to mechanically model the Muse.