The Power of Solitude (Part II)
Greg had his moment of glory once – a moment which proved to him the impact of unleashed autonomy. Namely, he was asked to evaluate a database used to collect clinical data of all pregnant women treated in the city’s public sector. He was aware about that intranet marvel, because each meeting’s agenda sported a point dedicated to it. However, apart from hearing vague announcements (“Everything is going well!”; “The recent coding glitch has been fixed, bravo!”; “We have extended the network to the northern suburbs, hurray!”), he had never had a chance to see even a screenshot of the program’s interface.
The gentleman making those electrifying revelations eventually retired. With his exit nobody had anything to say about the mysterious database, so its item on the agenda was suddenly greeted with dead silence. Over the next two years or so, the superiors had grown to be somehow uneasy about the utter lack of virtual news and initiated a hunt for the departed chap’s successor. The choice fell on unfortunate Greg, who was regarded as a “computer fundi”. (In South African jargon, “fundi” signifies a dude with some dexterity. The word is usually applied in phrase “computer fundi” but not, surprisingly, in other combinations, like “sex fundi”, “rollercoaster fundi”, “building foundations fundi” etc.). Well, familiarity with software other than email, MS Word and mobile apps promotes one to the ranks of world-class IT gurus.
He was rebelling, begging and crying, though his protests had a bang comparable to a mouse fart in the sandstorm. Brutally pressurised, he received an abstract command “to check on the thing”, especially to explore “the utilisation of the thing”. It seemed to emerge that there was no uniform, concrete vision concerning the damn thing apart from an ambiguous prophecy, passed from generation to generation, that it had been set up for amalgamating medical data for scientific purposes.
Fuzziness of opinions surrounding the impenetrable online store of data, together with fear of bytes, worked to Greg’s advantage: he did not get any explicit instructions or protocols to follow. The only target was to fill in the gaps at the meetings with some rant apropos “the thing”. He was let out on a field of limitless alternatives on how to handle the dilemma. Being goodhearted by nature, he made a secret pledge to honour the trust bestowed upon him and to move mountains in order to turn “the thing” into a practical tool.
If anybody remotely knew Greg’s diligence (proportionate to the thoroughness of top NCIS agents), as well as genetic incapacity to identify limits of his authority, the task would never be awarded to him. He sent emails, made phone calls, paid visits, ran tests, interviewed programmers, dug up old information. His findings painted an astonishing picture, summarised below:
- The software and framework had not been upgraded for years and started to show incompatibility with the modern operating systems.
- Due to low bandwidth, ancient PCs plus ultra-slow processors, the interface loaded for ages (up to one hour!). The same, switching between modules of the program required patience of a chess player.
- Many of the accumulated details were subjective to a health worker’s assessment (nurse or doctor) and a medical facility’s diagnostic abilities (clinic, smaller hospital, academic unit). Due to floods of patients, which were overburdening staff, the particulars of medical interventions were quite often recalled from memory. Was it this? Or that? Um, ok, this!
- To nourish the binary abyss, Department of Health had employed an army of data catchers. That crew had neither medical nor nursing education, so they spent time on deciphering scribbles pre-prepared by professionals. Knowing the clarity of doctors’ handwriting, one could observe the final effect: guessing, i.e. stuffing the database with corrupted information at the outset. However, most of the working hours of data catchers dissipated on gawking at computer screens, while waiting for the system to either open or jump to the next dialog box.
- Retrieving anything from the records was subjected to a procedure. Greg thought that he would simply sit down, press a few keys and voilà – the machine would spit out the looked-for statistics. How gullible he was! Data extraction was guarded by IT Department, to which one had to draft an email with specific request and then wait a few days for answers. The process was contradicting the role of web technologies. It resembled a situation when passengers, after buying bus tickets, were politely advised to walk on foot to destination.
- Greg inspected some basic stats, juxtaposing figures from paper registers versus totals discharged from the expensive cybernetic device. The aberrations reached mouth gapping proportions – up to fifty percent!
- Amazingly, there was another database running parallel to the one scrutinised by Greg. It was amassing demographic details from all expecting mothers who moved through the government health facilities. The system was outsourced from a private company and was flawless: systematically updated, installed on state of the art servers, based on a renowned programming code, backed by a dedicated team of experts, fully integrated within all public sectors, fast, reliable, user friendly. As it was utilised for accounting purposes, its performance had to be sure-fire.
All those factors resulted in massive discrepancies between entries originating from various sites. (Digital spreadsheets, based on 0 or 1 principle, cannot detect and correct indistinctness. Therefore all submitted data must be consistent, regardless of the source. To achieve that, one carefully picks values appropriate for collection – they must be resistant to personal knowledge, preferences or caprices. Height, age, skin incision technique, delivery mode etc. are definite entries, whereas iris colour, indication for operation, or even diagnosis are equivocal inputs. That is why researchers, to attain credible interpretation of intended experiments, precisely define outcomes, inclusion and exclusion criteria etc.)
Greg also examined how many queries had been transmitted to the IT Department in the past decade. The answer was six (not six thousand or six hundred – just plain six), including Greg’s three.
Greg stealthily visited that business to learn what he had suspected: it was enough to add one (quite cheap) module to that program to do what the program investigated by Greg was believed doing. Such a module (accessible by an extra tab) would be a smart manoeuvre because essential patients’ data were already there (there was no need to duplicate them).
It was a disaster… The primarily noble idea of compiling clinical material had expanded into a multimillion dollar monster, which was pilling up terabytes of trash. Greg could not comprehend how something, which was doomed to fail at the inception date, ever came to existence?! It could not be repaired, utilised in any way or even sold on auction.
It resembled a project of erecting a ship by a bunch of random people: this one brought an old door, another one two metres of steel wire, that one donated second hand kayak, somebody offered to knock the boat together, but by the end the construction could not float, so they left it standing in the yard. There was a beautifully described yacht on the paper, nonetheless in reality it constituted a piece of junk.
As an exemplary civil servant, Greg summed up his scary findings in a four page letter, attached comparison tables with references (names, telephone numbers, citations from textbooks), recommended to shut “the thing” down before any more cash, manpower plus hopes are squandered and posted documents to all decision makers, including VIPs in provincial headquarters. Then he watched the next instalment of the movie “Saw”, brushed his teeth and went to bed.
While falling asleep he was thinking about how strange the world was: all magazine sensations pertaining to illegal frauds were negligible in contrast with money-sucking, dysfunctional, yet legally approved software.The conundrum exceeded his brain’s capabilities.
A nuclear bomb would triggered less panic than Greg’s honest correspondence. His inbox got swamped with declarations of war from various individuals, many unknown to Greg. IT-squad insisted on urgent assembly of EVERYBODY, quoting great disgust with Dr Greg’s speculative allegations. Some Head of Something was pressurising for immediate withdrawal of baseless theories. Greg’s boss implied that communiqué was surely a spam, which calmed the charging pack down, until Greg rectified that it was not a spam, inciting thus a new wave of aggression.
In the climax of exhausting email crossfire, Greg pleaded with all aggressors to read what he had written. He underlined that no accusations, directed at anybody in particular, had been made in the report. It was merely a frank synopsis of his mission, distributed in good faith.
Next week brought a summit, prepared by IT pros. Conference room was equipped with three laptops, two projectors (one as a backup), massive screen, surround sound system, air conditioners, even blackboard. Guests were tripping over bundles of cables. Greg was treated with utmost respect – they almost carried him on shoulders like a triumphant, showering with tactful compliments, dishing up sandwiches, providing coffee, confidentially chuckling.
Greg did not understand why he had been lifted on the pedestal of adoration. The explanation was effortless for more accustomed with a phenomenon of power play. In his naivety Greg figured out that alarming everybody would speed up termination of an uneconomical database, but people fused with the system perceived those steps as a demonstration of Greg’s hush-hush collusions. They were mistaking Greg’s audacity for consent that originated somewhere in the highest echelons.
There was an introduction, given by a decisive-looking guy, listing all advantages of the disadvantageous program. A commotion followed: a few lads were setting up gear to stage a presentation titled “Database in action”. After an hour of switching USB connectors, rebooting computers, swearing and frantic phone calls, all guests realised the obvious: “the thing” did not have any intentions to fire off, moreover to exhibit any assets. The national telecommunication provider was instantaneously blamed, although all other imaginable websites were loading fine.
It took two years (during that time, bogus data had been uninterruptedly collected) before the final (special) meeting was organised to deliberate how and when “the thing” would be shut down. Greg proposed to pull the plug immediately – an indigestible suggestion, because insinuating bona fide prior sluggishness of management. Therefore cries erupted for “the thing” to be “phased off”. It was one of the multitudes of clichés, usually employed during moments of uncertainty, and meant absolutely nothing.
How can one “phase off” a damaged car tyre? By replacing it with a brand new, just slightly inflated tyre, and increasing the pressure by ten kilopascals a week, to give the chauffeur a chance to adjust his driving style?
How can one “phase off” a relationship?
Tom had gathered enough of courage to disclose his feelings to Betty. After the evening TV show he decided to strike. He initiated, “Honey?”
“Yeees?” – answered Betty flirtatiously, expecting erotic adventures. She passed him the sweetest smile.
Tom hemmed. “I think we are not meant for each other…” he said in a rather sad tone.
“What?!” – Betty exploded. “Are you suggesting that we should break up?! How can you do that to me, after all my sacrifices?! I tolerate your smoking, your ridiculous mother, your loud munching at the table! I pick up your dirty socks daily, do your washing, pay our rent and… And everything! After all of that you dare to announce your dissatisfaction?! ‘We are not meant for each other’ – blah, blah, blah!” Betty lost her cool, raging ferociously.
Being a model gentleman, Tom sat by his girlfriend’s side, hugged her and whispered, “Calm down, Honey! I am not such an asshole. I have an idea,” his voice gained some enthusiasm.
Betty felt a glimmer of hope. “What kind of an idea?” she asked through tears.
“Instead of a brutal separation – you know, moving out tomorrow, cutting ties, not talking to each other and so on – I think we must simply phase off. A kind of a step by step split,” he continued passionately, inspired by his wisdom.
“Oh, wow!” exclaimed Betty with interest. “You mean to break up over some time, My Love?”
Tom stood up and started to pace. “Exactly!” he carried on, more and more excitedly. “Let’s say, we will phase off over the coming year. We will decide on how to control the death of our relationship. We will iron out all minute details, Honey!
“For example, with each coming month we will decrease the number of sexual intercourses by one per week. You understand? Only five intercourses per week in August, four per week in September and so on. Also, I will bring in my new girlfriend, starting from October – at first only once every two weeks, but gradually increasing the frequency, so you can get used to her and me cuddling with her. Who knows, maybe you two will become good friends?!”
Betty was amazed. “What a gentle way of breaking up you designed, Tom!” she applauded. “I have just thought that I could phase off offering oral sex! The same, I will wash dishes less frequently, gradually withdraw from playing pool with you, or stop squeezing out your blackheads!”
Tom rubbed his hands. “Fantastic! We are on the same page! Let’s phase off!”
Betty jumped up, swirled around and clapped. “Phasing off it is!”