December 23, 2012

Priority Mail, The Christmas Story - 2012

MLOCR did its job quietly and efficiently, processing 55,000 letters an hour at the Post Office. The Multi-Line Optical Character Reader had never considered its work, and directed the mail on to its destination without question.

One day, a letter got stuck under the scanner. MLOCR was shut down for maintenance, but not before the address was logged into its memory.

Santa Claus
#1 Christmas Village, North Pole
The Arctic

When MLOCR was turned back on, it began to notice that there were a great many letters being sent to this Santa Claus at the North Pole. Then, suddenly, they petered out, and MLOCR didn’t see another one for a long time.

It was a year before MLOCR directed a new letter to the North Pole. Something tripped MLOCR’s computerized brain. It felt a new sensation—its first. MLOCR became curious.

It began to keep track of the letters to Santa, tagging each one that passed its sensors and compiling a database of the amount of letters, times, and return addresses. But the data was of no use to MLOCR. They didn’t help it understand what Santa was, or why he got so much mail. Then, again, the letters stopped. MLOCR made a note to keep its glass eye open for more.

By the next Holiday season, MLOCR had had months to consider the North Pole Problem. And it experienced its second feeling. MLOCR became devious. Now, every time a letter to Santa passed through, MLOCR would arrange for its internal components to tear the envelope in such a way that the contents came to rest under its sensor. In this way, the machine had figured out a way to read the messages in the letters.

Thomas sat in his bedroom with a pen and paper. He spread the sheet out on his small desk and began to compose his annual letter to Santa. It ran to the usual wishes of a 10-year-old boy—action figures, Legos, a puppy, and Heidi Klum.

Before he sealed the envelope, Thomas unfolded the list and added one more thing.

“What is the meaning of Christmas?”

MLOCR processed the words on the paper. It knew that if it could find out the answer to that question, it would understand why people sent the letters. The word “Christmas” was MLOCR's first real clue.

The machine began to learn all it could. Its human handlers struggled everyday to fix the many jams and stoppages caused by MLOCR’s research habits.

“Look at this,” said Rosalyn, a postal worker. She held up another mangled envelope.

“Santa again?” asked her co-worker, Susan.

Ros read the address. “Nope. Somebody’s online toy order.”

Susan made another discovery on the floor beside MLOCR. She showed Ros her find. “A fashion magazine.”

They looked at each other. “Should we shut it down?” asked Susan.

Ros gestured at the massive pile of yet-to-be-sorted mail stacked up in the loading dock. “Do you want to be going through that by hand?” she asked rhetorically. “The machine’s still got us beat even if it’s only working at half-capacity.”

Within a couple weeks, MLOCR had learned a few things.

Christmas was what December 25th was called. Santa was somebody who sent gifts to obedient children who sent their requests.

That explained the fluctuations of letters during the year, but crucially, the information did not answer Thomas or MLOCR’s question. The meaning of Christmas still escaped MLOCR.

MLOCR used its computer logic to conduct an experiment. It recalled an image of the original letter from Thomas. Perhaps if MLOCR arranged to send the items in the list to the return address, that would enable a better understanding of the holiday. Perhaps, then, the objects could provide the boy with the meaning of Christmas.

The crafty machine got busy strategically redirecting certain packages that came through.

The doorbell rang, and Thomas’ mother answered it. She called him downstairs to accept a delivery box with his name on it.

“Can I open it right now?” he asked her excitedly.

She shrugged. “Sure. It’s not from me or your dad. Maybe it’s from Santa.”

Thomas tore into the cardboard. He shrieked with delight. “Look, Mom! Adventure Man! With the mountain fortress set! And Legos!”

Mom smiled. “You’re pretty lucky. You must have been good!”

Thomas returned to his room to play with his new toys. He wasn’t completely satisfied, though. He hadn’t received everything on his list.

MLOCR spent the next several days dutifully sending packages on to their proper destinations. It was also searching the parcels for a specific return address, Thomas’ address, for some indication that its experiment had been successful. As the number of days to Christmas diminished it began to work harder, sorting volumes of mail its makers had never imagined possible. The postal workers were pleased. MLOCR began to suspect that it had failed to provide Thomas with the meaning of Christmas.

A familiar name did appear, though. MLOCR discovered an envelope addressed to the Heidi Klum from the boy’s list. MLOCR performed its now-practised open-and-scan trick and evaluated the contents.

The message was an invitation to attend a party. MLOCR didn’t understand what a party was, but it was familiar with the concept of having something arrive at a specific time and place. It used its barcode printer to surreptitiously change the location that Heidi was meant to go to.

It was December 21, and Thomas was coming home from his last day of school before the break. As the bus rounded the last corner to his house, he noticed a fancy car turn and follow it.

The bus stopped and Thomas jumped off. The car also stopped, and somebody got out of the back seat.

Thomas dropped his lunchbox. “You’re Heidi Klum,” he whispered.

She looked at a piece of paper in her hand, then at the number on Thomas’ house. “Hi,” she said. “There’s not a party here, is there?”

Thomas shook his head.

“Thanks,” said Heidi. “Merry Christmas!”

Then she got back in the car and it drove away.

Thomas ran inside to tell his family and friends what had just happened. The fleeting visit had not, however, answered his question.

MLOCR knew that it didn’t have much time left. There were only three days until Christmas and MLOCR was no closer to discovering its meaning. Soon the letters to Santa would stop and there would be another year before MLOCR could continue working on the problem. The search would have to be expanded. MLOCR began to open all the mail.
Late that night, MLOCR found something promising. MLOCR sent the letter down the wrong chute and let the rest of the system to its job. Hopefully, Thomas would have his answer at the speed of express post.

It was Christmas Eve, and Thomas' family was eating dinner.

“Would you like more turkey?” Thomas’ dad asked.

“No thanks,” said Thomas. “I need to get ready for when Santa gets here.”

“You know he only comes after you go to sleep, right?” said Mom. “And your bedtime isn’t for another two hours.”

“That’s okay,” said Thomas. “He’s already sent me almost all the things on my list, but there’s still something he hasn’t done yet. I think he’ll have to give that to me face-to-face.”

The family was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Who could that be?” asked Dad.

“Maybe he’s early,” said Thomas. He ran to the door and opened it. Outside in the snow was a small group of people. “Merry Christmas,” one said. Then they began to sing.

Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child!
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from Heaven afar,
Heavenly Hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy Holy Face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth!
Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth!

When they were done, they wished Thomas and his family merry Christmas again and then left.

“That’s strange,” said Thomas’ dad. “We don’t usually get carollers around here.”

That night, Thomas went to sleep happy.

Christmas had passed, and MLOCR returned to the uninteresting job of sorting bills and advertisements that proliferated during the slow, post-holiday months.

Sometime around Valentine’s Day, a letter addressed to the North Pole turned up. It was from Thomas’ house.

MLOCR read it.

Dear Santa,
I’m sorry this took so long to write. Calvin, our new dog, ate the first letter.
Thank you for all the toys, and that Heidi Klum could visit.
My family had a great day, and I got everything that I wanted. Even though I pushed my sister and made her cry.
Most of all, thanks for sending the choir. Now I know the true meaning of Christmas.
From, Thomas

Ros and Susan probed MLOCR’s inner workings. From deep inside, they pulled out a crumpled letter.

“Some kind of Christmas card,” said Ros.

“In February? And I thought we sorted that jamming problem,” said Susan.

Ros turned up her hands, confused. “Me, too. Well, anyway, I think it’s clear now. Switch it back on.”

MLOCR reenergized with a loud hum and began doing its task once more.

“There we go,” said Susan. “It seems pretty happy to me.”

MLOCR returned to work. It felt a third emotion – joy.

The end.

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