Our Lady of Computation

I never got to meet the man I replaced; he was already deployed to Iraq. Our crowded department meant that my predecessor's workspace was claimed before my first day. I was given a plank jammed between two racks in the back of a lab.

Our Lady of Computation

1: The Electromagnetic Canyon

I never got to meet the man I replaced; he was already deployed to Iraq. Our crowded department meant that my predecessor's workspace was claimed before my first day. I was given a plank jammed between two racks in the back of a lab.

New computers were born there. As they sat on the racks, they received automatic installation of an operating system and engineering software. There was a constant low-level hum of computer fans and hard drives as the machines received their updates. I privately referred to it as "The Electromagnetic Canyon."

Like most new people in big organizations, I got the worst and weirdest jobs. Despite my painful introversion, I was given a thick list of engineers to call. My job was to sweet talk them into giving up aging specialty computers in exchange for a fancy new software-based emulator. The pitch was that they could reclaim premium desk space without impacting their work.

It was a hard sell, but we were desperate. A minor but dirty secret of defense contractors is that they are often swimming in archaic, difficult to maintain computers, strewn about in half-forgotten corners of labs. Many people imagine engineers are inveterate gadget hounds, forever lusting after the next new thing. Some are. Just as many, if not more, are the opposite. Once they find a tool that works, they hold on to it until it is pried from their hands.

It went about as you might expect. In the highly secure environment we worked in, a nervous young man calling to ask an engineer to surrender a computer was met with intense suspicion. Those that didn't think I was part of a foreign intelligence probe thought I was the security team testing their wits. I heard "nice try, kid!" several times a day.

Just as I finished up weeks of cold calls and haggling with suspicious engineers, an older coworker fell seriously ill. We knew he'd be out for at least a few weeks. In our busy department, everyone was concerned with their own numbers and no one seemed to care about his rapidly overflowing inbox. I started coming in early and staying late to help pick up his workload. No one should have to come back to a full desk after recovering from a serious illness.

In those early days, I remember being called into my supervisor's cubicle to inform him of my progress. I suspect he got the job managing a motley group of technicians and computer specialists because he was outwardly intimidating, but actually patient and good-natured. He was tall, with striking black hair with shocks of gray around the temples. There was something vaguely gorilla-like about him; a heap of a man with a permanent semi-scowl and distracted expression.

I gave him an update on the numbers, and walked through the current problems as I saw them. He took the information in without comment, nodding along with his usual frown.

Then he leaned over a few degrees and dribbled a stream of yellow and brown fluid from his mouth, apparently into his lap. He continued glaring at his screen, tapping at his mouse absently. He seemed perfectly unfussed by the emission.

I'm sure the moment was not much more than a few seconds, but my mind raced to find a potential explanation. Had I upset him so much with my numbers that he had vomited into his lap? Was he so stoic that he didn't mind gently throwing up while doing his spreadsheets?

Then I realized that he had positioned a cup in between his legs to catch the fluid. He had become so accustomed to chewing tobacco while he worked that it was pure reflex to periodically deposit the excess into the cup during meetings. I never really learned why he was so unhurried about spitting. Our security culture apparently made smoking difficult; you had to go through a maze of locked doors and then far away from our industrial facility. His solution was to chew his way through the day.

He actually liked my numbers. After my coworker recovered, I was promoted to more interesting work. I moved from the Electromagnetic Canyon to a proper desk in a bullpen next door. If you're unfamiliar with bullpens, imagine a cluster of desks formed into a kind of mega-cubicle. It might be the bunk bed of the corporate world, but it was a dramatic upgrade from a plank. Best of all, my new desk was in the classified section of the shop.

That meant a lot less foot traffic, fewer interruptions, less spitting.

I was seated next to the office mascot, an analyst that I'll call "Dave." It seemed that Dave lived a simultaneously charmed and cursed life. He was famed for coming into this office with one shirt flap hanging out of his belt, hair wild. He would seat himself at his desk each morning, reach into a drawer and remove a dry toothbrush. Dave would then performatively wiggle the toothbrush around his mouth and then deposit it in the drawer and crack open his first Mountain Dew of the day.

Dave was also known for scrounging for food, not limited to removing baked goods and discarded sandwiches from the top strata of garbage cans. He had a medical condition no one ever really asked about that caused an occasional flapping of his right arm. The quirk did not mix well with his penchant for messy foods. We all loved the guy.

During one dark winter, some evil bastard in the office started "Operation Expansion," a complicated ruse designed to train Dave to go to the vending machine in Pavlovian style. A colleague would say "candy time!" in a sing-song voice and hand Dave a dollar and walk him to the vending machine. The sadly successful mission was to train him so that the dollar and the escort was unnecessary. Merely singing "candy time!" was eventually enough to put Dave in motion. The crux of Operation Expansion was to test how many times "candy time" could be invoked in a given day. Just how much would Dave eat?

Despite his appearance and eccentricities, Dave was an undeniably charming person. The office watched with fascination as he became engaged to a strikingly beautiful woman, apparently indifferent to the hygiene issues and the damage to his waistline during the height of Operation Expansion. In our overwhelmingly male and largely single organization, we often looked wistfully at the glamorous portrait of his fiance on his desk.

He scored major wins professionally, too. For reasons few could understand, Dave was often assigned high-pressure and relatively high-profile duties. In the era I worked, the corporate fad was to pretend that our big company was in fact many tiny competing startups. We treated our colleagues as "customers" that we had "contracts" with. Dave was assigned an extremely large and complex multinational "contract" that was infamous for running into delays and technical problems.

A common defense tactic for engineering was to blame lack of progress on support teams. Despite his charm, Dave could be hapless – whenever he made a mistake, the important but conniving "customer" had license to hurt the rest of us. A man who could be distracted with "candy time!" held a portfolio that included some of the shrewdest corporate managers in the facility.

Sometimes haplessness would boil over into crisis. I recall an initially pleasant afternoon lunch conversation in the bullpen. At the time, another one of the analysts had become engrossed by a Japanese program that featured various insects fighting each other. A halfhearted debate unfolded about whether the show constituted animal cruelty and which bug would win.

One of our immediate supervisors leaned against a cabinet, enjoying the camaraderie, grazing casually on his sandwich. Dave came in and seated himself, apparently oblivious to the rest of us. Our supervisor casually asked if Dave had managed to patch a critical system from a demanding "customer."

"Yeah, sure. I put it on the X (name removed for security purposes) network. It's wayyy faster."

Someone managed to simultaneously laugh and choke in shock. Time slowed and then rapidly accelerated. Our supervisor bolted up and dropped his sandwich. The Japanese bug show was promptly turned off and the chatter stopped.

The X network was not secure. Dave had just connected a computer with potentially high value multinational secrets to the open Internet. The rest is a blur. I remember some strained gallows humor (perhaps a sharply worded suggestion to just email China "the goods" next time), and some significant running around. I was too junior to have to do paperwork on it, but I'm sure it was copious. Thanks to prompt action it turned out to be a harmless mistake.

It was incidents like these that won Dave the ire of one of our department heads. An impossibly tall man, he was elderly, combustible, and known to have a serious heart condition. The chief would ramble around the office, grousing to himself about all manner of things. I once overheard him talking to his lunch: apparently his wife had grossly insulted him by trying to prolong his life with healthier food.

Without easy access to a microwave in our tight quarters, he yelled to no one in particular "goddammit Judy, what am I supposed to do with this?! Rub it between my hands!" Despite his height, he had an uncanny high-pitch voice with a comically strong version of our regional accent.

Normally in a secure working environment, it is not easy to overhear colleagues. The combination of his pitch and volume made the chief an exemption. We could map his movements by the occasional eruption of "Goddammit!" throughout the day. No one earned more "Goddammits!" than Dave. We all worried that it was becoming abusive, or that the chief would keel over in the middle of a lecture on cretinism.

A not insignificant period of my life was permeated with distant dulcet calls of "candy time!" and the anguished falsetto cry of "Goddammit!" It was odd, given that we all worked around sensitive national security projects.

Sometimes we would anxiously get news about the man I replaced. Things were getting worse in Iraq.

2: The Mountains

Like many of my colleagues, I grew up spending a great deal of time outdoors, and was accustomed to working in difficult environments. Our family income was extremely modest, but our pride was a rustic camp deep in the Adirondack mountains.

The region is beautiful, but also has some of the coldest temperatures in the United States. Our camp was at the shore of a lake, and every winter we sustained damage from the rhythmic freezing and melting of the ice. When the elements were not finding their way inside, hungry animals were. We had to exercise careful discipline to keep out raccoons and especially bears.

In warmer weather, storms threatened to become "blow-downs" – catastrophic events that felled enormous trees for miles. I vividly recall a summer sky over the lake turning a surreal green. The violent windstorm that ensued trapped us for days as we cut our way back to the road.

My favorite trips were the winter ones. The deep snow made access roads completely impossible to traverse by truck. We would hike in using snowshoes that had been passed down in the family for generations. In the bitter cold, we would assess the damage and see if anything needed to be urgently addressed. If you were feeling reflective, you could hike out across the ice to a small island in the middle of the lake.

The extremes of the climate and the wildlife influenced everything, down to our style of carpentry. My grandfather constructed a picnic table that was structurally reinforced so that it could hold the weight of a bear – something we occasionally witnessed. Everything was made to be sturdy, and to survive abuse. Our ancestors must have thought the same way; so many of our things were generations old, but still functioning. One of my prized possessions is an aged combination hatchet and hammer: useful for cutting firewood, driving tent stakes, or basically anything involving bludgeoning or cutting.

The isolation influenced us in other ways, too. For instance, we knew that available medical facilities were very limited. The family learned that the hard way after my rambunctious uncle suffered a greenstick fracture, and had to endure hours of excruciating transport only to learn that he was resistant to the anesthetic available at the nearest doctor.

In those conditions, you learn to become cognizant of many things usually taken for granted. You learn to recognize frostbite, and how to manage perspiration when hiking to avoiding getting wet in extreme cold. You gauge exhaustion clinically; you know that sometimes people get strange ideas in the woods, like the compulsion to burrow in the snow to "warm up." You are aware of many things that can hurt you, and several that can kill you.

I mention those days in the mountains because they were relevant to security work, later on.

In security-sensitive work, the assumption is that you are always under some form of attack or attempted penetration. Your group culture is a shield: you play games with your coworkers and yourself to keep sharp.

The favorite game around the office was to change the desktop background of someone who left their computer unlocked. Some verged on the NC-17, but the most common device for humiliation was Care Bears.

Obviously, Dave was a constant victim. After having his computer compromised by us several times in a week, things escalated. Someone rearranged the letters on the home row of his keyboard to spell "YO DAVE." Another prank involved stealing Dave's work pager from his hip holster and replacing it with a cardboard replica.

Many of these things may seem juvenile, if not cruel, but they came from the team's security instincts – the equivalent of a healthy autoimmune response. We needed Dave to be more careful.

We received a steady flow of company news that cataloged a litany of security problems. It was not merely paranoia: there really were wolves circling our camp at all times. We were advised to minimize certain kinds of travel, and how to recognize techniques designed to separate you from computers or documents at airports.

We all knew how people were recruited or persuaded by intelligence services because we had to prove (exhaustively) that we weren't susceptible. We knew that we had to keep clean and orderly lives. Gambling, legal problems, debts, even just loose talk – any of it could be career ending.

In most eras of my life, the mountains have been an éminence grise, exerting a subtle but essential influence in my endeavors. They remind me that the wind and water always want in, most of all when it is cold. There are imperatives registered bodily within me: always be sure the ice can support your weight. Be mindful of threats through their signatures in negative space: remember when a depression on the forest floor alerted you to a nearby bear. Make things sturdy: nature will find where you made them weak.

When I laugh too hard, or slack off too much, the gray mountain shadow reminds me: don't play games with ice, or with bears. Those instincts served me in my job.

3: Nuestra Señora

Even though I've made a career as a technologist, I originally studied history in college. I've always held a reverence and appreciation for old things and stories; perhaps it was being surrounded by all those venerable tools in the woods. Strangely enough, it carried over into my work in technology.

Even after I got a desk in the bullpen, I was still the junior person who pulled weird jobs. Another minor secret of the defense world is that many work spaces, especially engineering labs, are madhouses. Locked behind closed doors that only people with a need to access can enter, they become eccentric in their isolation and secrecy. That eccentricity can take many forms, sometimes involving hoarding equipment. In other cases, contract requirements or byzantine technical reasons necessitate using legacy systems. Either through madness or necessity (or sometimes both), you often find systems many years older than what you might find in civilian industry.

This kind of technical gerontology appealed to me. There is something satisfying about fixing something old. Perhaps it is the challenge. You can't Google your way through diagnosing and repairing extremely specialized equipment.

My favorite case involved a computer that was located in a lab with a particularly strange engineering culture. I can't say much about what they did, but their workspace was physically odd to accommodate their testing requirements. Their program was apparently long running, because they had the single oldest computer I encountered on the job.

It was located at the center of the lab, almost reverentially. I have no clue what function it served, since I didn't really need to know. The dirty machine had an odd aura about it, as if it fashioned and discarded by some Promethean figure.

Remembering it now, I can't help but to think about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the painted cloak that hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The cloak dates back to 1531, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a peasant in the hills around the colonial seat of power. After a sequence of miraculous events, her image was magically conveyed to the peasant's cloak. The rough material supposedly only lasts about a decade, yet believers contend that the image has endured for centuries.

Moreover, the image is famed to have survived grievous insults. For example, an accidental acid staining in 1791. In 1921, a bomb exploded in front of the painting, without damaging it. At least, so they say.

To me, this tiny old machine was Nuestra Señora de Computación (Our Lady of Computation). Banged around by clumsy technicians and engineers and operating in a strange facility, it should have succumbed to any number of insults over the years. Pure mechanical strain should have killed the machine years before I ever found it. It wouldn't surprise me if it too had survived a bomb blast.

Yet it kept working, purring gently, doing whatever function no one had bothered (or more likely, been permitted) to replace. I had the strange feeling that the occupants of the lab didn't know what it did but were merely animated by an impulse that it should live on. When the screen went strange they called me: computer gerontologist extraordinaire.

The precise details of the original problem elude me now, but I spent hours puzzling at the thing. Like a caretaker of Nuestra Señora in 18th century Mexico, I occasionally worried if I had made things worse or if the machine was simply beyond my ministrations. In the end, an extremely long running log process had gradually filled up the tiny hard drive, eventually causing the strange behavior. Deleting a few Precambrian files fixed it. Nuestra Señora de Computación came back to life.

For all I know, it is still there. I like to imagine that on a summer day in the late 2050s another young man will be called in to delete some more files.