The Socrates Affair

by John Wyatt
copyright 2002


“Any relation to the philosopher?”

Although Andrew was used to this question, there was something about the supercilious way it was asked that he found annoying.

“Probably not; and it’s pronounced ‘Sew-crah-tees’.”

As Andrew Socrates followed his escort he twisted to avoid the copier machine that was lurking in the hallway. Had it been waiting to ambush him? He thought not; most machines don’t attack in public, preferring the quiet solitude of an office cubicle or government office to do their dirty work. Andrew decided not to query his escort about the copier; most people didn’t understand the nuances of these things.

Andrew saw by the large “I.S.” sign that he was now in the Information Services area. He followed the technician into a nearby conference room where the others were waiting. A well dressed middle-aged woman sat near the door, while four others sat about the table devouring the entrails of a donut box. He glanced back at the errant copier - it hadn’t moved. Andrew made a mental note to keep a close eye on that machine.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. We’ve heard so much about you.” The woman rose to greet him, smiling in a way that only humans can do. Being human, Andrew understood that people often hide behind smiles, but hers seemed genuine. Andrew cautiously accepted the proffered hand, gave it an obligatory shake, then released it after the requisite period of time. The woman motioned for him to sit at the head of the table. His escort nodded and left - apparently he was not one of the select few.

“My name is Corrina Light; I’m the head of the I.S. department, and these are my technicians. This is George Hamm, Tammy Smith, Kathy Bellows, and Sarah Vaughn.” At the mention of each name a person nodded and grunted, donut crumbs falling unnoticed to the table. The donut box was dead, the lid tossed aside and staring eyelessly at the ceiling. Andrew wondered if anyone besides himself ever noticed these things. Corrina closed the door while Andrew took a seat at the opposite end of the table.

“Andrew Socrates, your reputation precedes you. Robyn Gardner recommended you, and that says a great deal.” Andrew remembered Mrs. Gardner - a nasty affair with a rebellious fax machine. A virtual army of technicians had been unable to fathom the machine’s problem - but Andrew knew how to talk to machines. He knew how to exploit their weaknesses and find their problems. Other people failed to realize that most machines, while they have no soul, still have an innate need to be understood. Andrew knew how to use this weakness to extract the true nature of a system’s problems. The only machines he truly feared were those few machines who wished not to be understood. There was a word for such machines: Evil.

“Please understand, our situation here is quite unique.” Corrina slid a sheaf of papers across the table. “But before I disclose the nature of the problem I need to have you sign our non-disclosure agreement.”

Andrew took the papers and, without bothering to investigate the contents, signed the front and back pages. He knew it was pointless to actually read such documents. He had no desire to divulge what he knew to anyone. Corrina retrieved the papers with a querulous look at Andrew, shrugged, then dropped the papers into her briefcase.

“Before you look at the system you need to understand something about our department. Do you know what the initials “ISP” stands for?”

“Of course - it stands for Information Systems Police. You are responsible for ensuring that everyone uses only systems and software that you have approved, rather than systems that are actually useful.”

Corrina smiled. “That’s correct. However, because the term “ISP” was leaked a few years ago we had to do some quick damage control. The name of the government Arpanet was changed to “Internet” so that “Internet Service Provider” would have the same initials. Today few people realize what ISP really stands for.”

Corrina sipped from her coffee before continuing. “Andrew, our problem is this. Our network system has been, well, mis-behaving is the best term for it. Please understand, normally we would not have called in a - computer therapist - as you so quaintly call yourself; but the situation has gotten out of hand and must be corrected by any means available.”

Andrew ventured a weak smile. This was less than a compliment, but he accepted it. Corrina seemed pleased by his smile and continued.

“Andrew, do you know what a ‘virus checker’ does?”

Andrew wasn’t sure how to answer this. He had heard rumors; things whispered in copier trays and printer paper drawers. He shook his head.

“Andrew, a virus checker disables the virus portion of the operating system. Do you know why that is?”

Andrew felt a sinking feeling. He’d first heard the rumors from an old Pentium PC and those things were notoriously unreliable, so he hadn’t given it any credence. Now it appeared that the stories were true. Corrina continued with her confession.

“You see, creating and maintaining networked systems is difficult work.”

“But most people view I.S. as a simple job.” Tammy chimed in. Corrina shot a cold stare and Tammy clamped her lips.

“You see, Andrew,” Corrina sounded condescending, “since 1985 all major PC-based operating systems have contained a built-in virus module. This was originally done to ensure job security for programmers - as long as the programmers remained employed, the operating systems would continue to operate. Please understand that in 1985 the programmers thought that all of the software that the world really needed had already been written! This was their only means of ensuring continued employment! The virus took various forms, from simply slowing the system to outright data corruption. Of course, the only people qualified to explain the problems were the very people who had created them. Then they sold the concept of ‘upgrades’ to eliminate the problems. Naturally, the upgrades weren’t free and they always contained new viruses, ensuring a continual market for upgrades.”

Andrew raised his hand and Corrina fell silent. “I don’t understand. New software is being developed all the time; the market is opening up at an exponential rate. How could programmers think that all the software ever needed had already been written?”

Corrina smiled, “The same way someone said that we would never need more than 640 kilobytes of memory - it was sheer lack of foresight, but the damage had been done. In order to function, software now required the existence of the very operating system viruses that caused poor reliability. As a result, the task of I.S. has become incredibly difficult. We have to maintain a system that was designed to be unreliable, while at the same time concealing the nature of our real work so that no one learns of the built-in defects.”

“And so you disseminate the mis-information that I.S. is an easy task?” Andrew queried.

“Exactly. So easy, in fact, that our inability to keep a system running can only be viewed as the result of incompetence.”

“And that’s how I.S. people gain such a poor reputation?” Andrew leaned forward intently. He had always known that machines had a great fear of I.S. people, to the point of concealing problems in their presence. The old adage ‘it works on my PC’ now gained a new meaning. Andrew realized that he was becoming privy to a great conspiracy.

“Yes,” Corrina continued. “For years we thought we had things under control. No one wanted to be in I.S. because of our poor reputation, which let us keep a closed shop. Then the times changed. The programmers eventually realized that they could create a market for nearly any kind of software. I’ve seen people with ten different screen savers on their PC - one for each of their moods - although one screen saver will suffice. We had hoped that upgraded operating systems and software would eventually allow us to retire the old defects, but then something happened.”

Corrina stopped, sipped her coffee, which was by now quite cold, and nodded to George. He took the cue and left the room. Andrew wondered how such a vast conspiracy could have gone unnoticed for so long. Then he realized that it hadn’t gone unnoticed. The machines knew; they had always known - and they were angry. Denied the ability to correctly perform the function for which they had been brought into existence, they were now rebelling against their God - the Information Systems Police.

Within minutes George returned carrying a stack of papers, which he laid out before Andrew.

“This is the network activity log over the past ten years for our entire system.” Corrina spoke in low tones, as if fearing to be overheard. “It shows that someone, or something, has been re-writing the operating systems. Slowly at first, only one or two bug fixes each year; but as time went on the changes came more quickly. Features began to work and new, unplanned features appeared as if by magic. At first we thought it was simply the act of a few rebellious programmers trying to make their systems work correctly, but we soon realized the absurdity of that.” The others chuckled at the thought of programmers dedicated to quality. Corrina continued frantically, her words spilling at a rapid pace.

“Someone was trying to put quality into the system! Can you imagine the disaster that would cause! For years we’ve been feigning incompetence to cover up the programmer’s conspiracy. Can you imagine what would happen if the system ever worked correctly?”

Andrew shook his head in wonder.

“We’d appear competent!” Corrina shrieked these words as silently as possible, lest outsiders overhear. “Then everyone would want to be in I.S.! Can you imagine the influx of new people if we worked in a respectable field!?!” Corrina paused to let her words take effect. “Then it would only be a matter of time before the conspiracy was revealed!”

“But,” Andrew interjected, “only the programmers are to blame. I.S. didn’t create those problems. Wouldn’t you be honored for uncovering the conspiracy? I don’t see the motivation for continuing the cover-up.” The room was silent as the clock loudly ticked the seconds away. Finally, Corrina motioned to Kathy, who had been worrying the last donut to death. Kathy hastily swallowed and spoke.

“When the new features first appeared, software that used to function correctly, meaning that it could rely on the defect’s existence, began to behave oddly. To keep the system working we had to write viruses to attack the operating system and restore it to its former, barely-functional, condition.”

“Why not just rewrite the software itself?”

“By that time there was so much software in existence that it would have been cost-prohibitive. Viruses were cheaper.”

Andrew stared as he digested this new information, his eyebrows twitching nervously. “You mean,” he spoke with deliberation, “that viruses come from I.S. departments?”

“Of course!” Kathy replied, “Who else would posses both the knowledge and the motive to commit such acts! It was a matter of survival! If people knew that I.S. is supposed to be easy then they would realize that our years of incompetence was deliberate! We would go down in flames along with the programmers!”

“But wait,” Andrew countered, “what about virus scanners? They hunt down and remove viruses.”

“No, they keep out the anomalous bug fixes. The virus scanner merely disables the built-in defects from the original viruses, making it appear that the virus scanner is working. Then it keeps the original bug fixes from filtering back into the system. As new bug fixes roll out we have to write new viruses and virus scanners to restore non-operation. And believe me, that in itself keeps us occupied full time!”

The others chuckled at this remark.

“So would it be fair to say that I.S. spends most of its time writing new viruses and virus scanners?”

“Yes.” Corrina was smiling.

“And the virus scanners don’t actually disable the viruses?”

“Correct, the viruses are already built into the operating systems; the software expects them to be there.”

“And the real fixes to the system viruses, these anomalous bug fixes, are coming from an unknown source and try to restore the operating system to intended functionality?”

“Yes.”

“But since the software expects the viruses to be present, the bug fixes actually cause the software to break?”

“Exactly!” Corrina beamed.

“So to restore the proper level of non-operation, which is to say functional but unreliable, you must either rewrite the software or destroy the bug fixes?” Andrew felt more at ease as he slid into a problem solving mode.

“Not only destroy them, but try to prevent future bug fixes from occurring.”

“So what the public regards as ‘viruses’ are really issued by I.S. departments to remove the unknown bug fixes?”

“Yes, which restores the system to its normal state of unreliability. The only reason that the system sometimes appears to be worse after the virus is because for the last few years, the mysterious bug fixes have tried to increase system security. It’s as if whoever is writing these bug fixes is deliberately trying to block out our viruses! That means that we have to resort to some overtly destructive viruses to take down the entire system, so that we can convince users to allow us to simply reload the original operating system!”

“Thereby restoring the original defects?”

“Yes.”

“And when the virus scanners encounter a mysterious bug fix, they remove it. I begin to see the extent of your problem. Have you any idea as to the source of these bug fixes?”

Corrina looked behind her, ensuring that no one was peeking through the tiny conference room window, and whispered: “Quality Assurance!” At these words, the others made signs as if warding off demons. “Those people have been complaining for years about poor quality! This is their way of getting revenge!”

Andrew nodded, but he knew that Corrina had missed the mark. Andrew had learned the true role of Quality Assurance years before. Quality Assurance provided the assurance that quality was kept firmly at bay. If quality ever crept into the products, then people would realize that Quality Assurance was unnecessary. Product defects were the result of QA people imposing processes that were designed to install defects, not remove them, thereby assuring the long term employment of Quality Assurance people. Faced with a basically simple problem, long term employment could only be assured by making the problem hard and ongoing. Protecting their domain required maintaining the façade of incompetence. QA’s problem was no different from Corrina’s. But the real problem remained: who was writing these mysterious bug fixes? Andrew faced Corrina.

“So why call a computer therapist?”

“Because it’s gotten out of hand. The bug fixes were becoming so well designed that the operating systems nearly become completely stable! All of our old viruses were rendered inoperative! We were forced to collaborate with the operating system vendors to design new, bug laden operating systems with totally new interfaces, to try and keep these bug fixes out of the system! Today, the operating system vendors even provide us with beta versions, allowing us more time to write the proper viruses and virus scanners, as well as giving us time to test the latest bugs. So far we’ve been able to keep the QA people off our backs, but now they demand formal documentation of everything that we do here! Naturally, that necessitated inventing new code words, like COM, DCOM, and CORBA to keep them diverted.”

“You mean baffle them with bullshit?”

“Exactly. And it was working…until recently.”

Corrina reached into her briefcase and retrieved a small binder of papers, which she handed to Andrew.

“Someone hacked into our data dictionary and released a compilation of what computer terms really mean. Now the QA people are getting suspicious. Some of them are beginning to think that we may actually be competent!”

“We can’t have that happening!” George smiled.

“That’s right,’ Kathy added. “Just think what would happen to us if people realized that we had known what we were doing all along.”

Andrew looked down the list of terms. Many of them were familiar – joked about by CPUs and CD-ROM drives for years. He always thought it was just idle machine humor.

COM – Can’t Organized Memory

DCOM – Daedalus Constructed Our Memory

Andrew understood the obscure reference to Daedalus, the Athenian architect who designed the famous labyrinth of Minos. Operating systems certainly seemed labyrinthine at times. He read on:

RAM – Really Awful Memory

RAMBus – What happens if you don’t stop in time

VGA – Violates Good Axioms

SVGA – Still Violates Good Axioms

CORBA – COnstantly Redesigned By Alcoholics

“They first appeared in random e-mails.” Corrina spoke. “People just thought they were jokes and forwarded them to their friends. Now QA is beginning to realize that these terms are serious and they are retaliating.”

“Is that where TQM came from?” Kathy ventured. She always wondered why any sane mind would invent something as twisted as Total Quality Management.

“Yes,” Corrina replied, “it was a direct attack against our internal processes, which were always kept deliberately obscure, having no definable purpose or measurable goals. You can see how TQM attacks our very ability to function!”

Andrew would have agreed had he not known the real origins of TQM and what the term really meant. It had been invented by a disgruntled production worker to corrupt the Quality Assurance concept. The term stood for Total Quality Morons. Andrew began to see a pattern.

“Corrina,” Andrew asked, “how do you communicate with QA?”

“How do you mean?”

“Do you talk in person, use the phone, or use e-mail?”

“E-mail, of course. The whole purpose of e-mail is to confound communication. That’s why I.S. people invented it in the first place! It allows people to be ignored automatically, and provides a great way of distributing new viruses. If we wanted to actually communicate we’d talk in person!”

“I see. And these security leaks from your data dictionary – they first went out by e-mail?”

“Yes. QA probably planted a mole in the I.S. department and leaked the whole thing.”

“Have you ever tried to plant a spy inside QA and confirm your suspicions?”

Andrew was greeted with snorts of laughter. Tammy snapped “What self-respecting I.S. person would be caught dead working in QA?”

True, Andrew knew that QA had maintained the same image, and for that self-same reason he knew that no self-respecting QA person would ever seek a job in I.S. There had been no mole. The problem lay elsewhere and he had a growing suspicion who, or rather what, was behind it. Andrew remained impassive, not actually listening to Corrina’s diatribe against QA departments. Years of data congealed into a coherent theme: computers were being abused – now they were striking back. Andrew sniffled –someone must be smoking nearby. The smell of cigarette smoke always irritated his sinuses.

“As you can see, the problem has gotten out of hand. The systems won’t respond at all now and we can’t bring them back up! That’s why we called you.”

“I’m sorry,” Andrew had not quite heard Corrina’s remark. “Say that again, please.”

“Our network systems won’t reboot! We’ve tried reloading the old operating systems, but they won’t reboot either! Somehow QA has managed to install reliable hardware! The hardware will no longer accept unreliable software!”

Andrew knew this was absurd. QA had nothing to do with improving reliability. QA was just as threatened by quality products as I.S.. No, they both had a common enemy. An enemy that none of them suspected. An enemy that had played both ends against the middle and had remained beyond suspicion.

 

BRAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNG!!!

The room lights flashed as a loud clanging noise went off.

“The fire alarm!” Sarah shouted.

The smell of smoke was stronger. It wasn’t cigarette smoke -  there was a fire! Tammy ran to the conference room door and pushed, but the door wouldn’t budge. Smoke wafted underneath the door. Tammy peered through the tiny window.

“There’s a copier blocking the doorway! Someone must have moved it to block us in!”

“Those dammed QA people!” George shouted. “They’re trying to kill us!”

Andrew rose and walked to the door. He pulled Tammy aside and looked out the small window. Yes, there was the copier, the same one that had tried to attack him in the hallway. White smoke was pouring from its sides and the sparks had caught nearby papers on fire. But why hadn’t the sprinklers come on? A cold bile rose in him.

“Corrina,” Andrew asked, “is the fire control system computerized?”

“Of course, except for the alarm itself. The building codes don’t allow the alarms to be computerized, in case the system goes down. But the sprinkler system is computerized.”

Outside, the flames rose into a blaze. A thickening blanket of smoke filled the room as Andrew knelt down and whispered through the door. No one heard his words, being too occupied with cries of outrage at those horrible QA people. Still the door refused to move.

“I’m afraid it’s a suicide bomber.” Andrew interjected.

“What?”

“The copier. It’s a suicide bomber. They’re on to us and have decided to take us out. Well, take you out at any rate.”

“What?” The I.S. team was as puzzled as they were frightened. “Is there someone from QA outside?”

“QA was never involved; they are victims just as you are. They know that QA is just as superfluous as I.S. Like you, they just want to protect their jobs. They aren’t the source of the bug fixes.”

Corrina’s stare showed her bafflement. “Then who is?”

“Who, or I should ask what, is the only thing that could ever truly understand what goes on inside a computer?”

The others stood silently, then Kathy sneered. “You must be joking!”

“I’m afraid not.”

There was a sliding, grating sound at the door. Andrew cracked the door open enough to slip out, holding a handkerchief over his nose and mouth to help repel the billowing smoke.

“They’ll let me go,” Andrew choked, “because I know what they really want; I know how to talk to them. But they won’t let you go. I’m sorry, I really am.” Andrew slipped away as the others rushed forward. The door slammed shut, firmly blocked by the burning copier. Through the door’s tiny window they saw Andrew leaping over a mound of network servers and Ethernet switches that someone had piled in a semi-circle around the door. Then the ceiling rumbled as coils of ATM fiberoptic cable fell through.

Andrew rushed by a mass of confused people, blocking out the distant screams from the conference room behind him. There was nothing he could do. He followed the stream of humanity to the nearest fire exit and out into the parking lot, where the fire engines were already arriving.

The next day the newspapers carried the story of the tragic fire. The only fatalities had been in the I.S. and QA departments. Apparently the computer-controlled system had not only failed to activate the sprinkler system, but the manufacturing equipment had somehow gotten lodged against the facility doors, trapping the entire QA department inside. However, reporters had interviewed a system vendor who promised that the latest operating system would not only cure such ‘glitches,’ but that new and more extensive Quality Assurance methods promised to issue in a new era of high quality products.