Stupider Than Fiction

The late Frank Zappa once opined that the dominant force in the universe was not entropy but stupidity. The veracity of that assertion can hardly be better
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The late Frank Zappa once opined that the dominant force in the universe was not entropy but stupidity. The veracity of that assertion can hardly be better illustrated than by the story I am about to relate.

This report reached me via our industry's greatest news outlet: the Anaheim Hilton bar during the Winter NAMM show. I was having drinks with Scott Wilkinson and a few software types whom he had introduced me to, when this tale came out. As you will understand, I assumed it to be colorful, drunken fantasy until shortly thereafter I encountered an executive of the company in question who not only didn't deny the story but, amazingly, had no objection to my printing it. I asked if he'd put that in writing, and he laughed that he would. It wasn't really necessary, though, since the event happened years ago, and any nondisclosure agreements in force then had long since lapsed. The first draft of this column named names.

Somehow, EM's attorneys got wind of this and informed me that they didn't care if I'd convinced Abraham Lincoln to write his Gettysburg Address backward in Esperanto — there would be no names attached to the story. So the names have been changed to protect the guilty, but the rest of the story remains unaltered.

With that said, here it is:

There have been many odd devices and features in the history of audio, but possibly the most bizarre one I ever encountered was the Insults feature on the original SSL 4000-series mixing consoles. While working with the console, the automation system frequently spewed very British insults onto the display. These were clearly concocted in a “one from column A, and one from column B” fashion that sometimes resulted in repeated words and such.

Some of my clients were vastly amused by this, while others asked me to turn it off, generally because they found it a distraction. I personally thought it wonderful that such a thing existed, but I could take it or leave it. Benny Hill always left me feeling much the same way.

SSL was watched closely by other console manufacturers, since their early products were smash successes that broke new ground. Some bright person, whom we will call Flipfinger McThumbbutt, working at a company he'd cofounded that we shall name MongrelMix, decided the Insults feature humanized a potentially scary product for users (remember, computers were new in those days), and it was an idea worth expanding on.

Marketing meetings were held, focus groups convened, and a draft plan concocted. This plan called for an advanced software engine that generated a wide variety of insults, ranging from jokes about the user's mother to, obviously, his or her technical competence.

A test session was held with the members of a well-known, fast-rising hard-rock group, who were vastly amused, while the sessions stretched to nearly double the length they would otherwise have been. Clearly, studios were going to love this system.

It was at that point that the idea just plain went off the rails.

McThumbbutt and his team figured that if mama jokes were good for a giggle that slowed sessions to half-time, bigger insults would make sessions last forever. McThumbbutt's partner — we'll call him Lefty Leglifter — was uncertain about the idea from the start and became downright disenchanted when he saw the first version, which issued ethnic slurs, gross toilet insults, and hardcore sexual misogyny.

The feces hit the rotating blades when, at an in-house test session, the console computer made comments about things Leglifter's wife was doing with McThumbbutt. An argument broke out between the two that degenerated over a week into a shouting match. It got physical, with Leglifter hurling console modules to the ground and jumping up and down on them, and ended, finally, in a simple fisticuffs brawl between the two men.

Once bailed out of jail, they broke up the company. McThumbbutt went on to a successful career in music video, while Leglifter jumped into telemarketing with some marketing whiz kid. All went well for Leglifter for quite a few years, until the advent of e-mail and the day his wife and new partner began enthusing about an idea called “spamming.”