Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It is cold. It still tastes blah.

The closest I've ever come to killing myself was about 15 years ago,
when I worked for the Federal Government. I was a computer programmer
in the Cash Systems Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
They were building EROC, the East Rutherford Operations Center, a
computerized and, more importantly, roboticized
bank vault, using warehouse technology. Banks like Citibank or Chase
would call into our AS/400 computer with a request for, say, $100
million, broken down into $50 million in 20 dollar bills, $30 million
in 10s, and $20 million in 50s. The computer would search its database
until it found a currency storage container that contained $50 million
in 20 dollar bills, $30 million in 10s, and $20 million in 50s. It
would then dispatch a robot (and, if necessary, the overhead robotic
crane) to that specific container in the vault/warehouse. The robot
would take the container to the loading dock, where the armored car
from Chase would be waiting to take their $100 million. This was
pretty amazing high tech stuff for 1991.

My boss there was
Vidkun Quisling. (Those of you with a taste for history will know that
his name couldn't have been Vidkun Quisling, and it wasn't. I just
wanted to use the name of a despicable weasel, and Quisling fit the
bill.) Quisling was a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain, and you
know what they're like when (1) they get a bit of freedom and (2) a bit
of power. He was the classic case of a person raised in an
authoritarian regime -- overbearing to those below him, and a total
suck up to those above.

One day I pointed out a problem in the
database specifications (the database specification he had designed, I
should add). He was using two digits to represent the year, but if
EROC was supposed to work "well into the 21st century", we would need
to use four digit years. Essentially, I discovered in 1991 that we
were going to have a Y2K problem. I thought I should bring it to
someone's attention. I thought maybe I'd spared us from having a huge
problem. I thought maybe they'd think I was a hero.

Instead, my
discovery set Quisling off on a personal campaign to destroy me. I had
questioned his ability as a database designer! I had flouted his
authority! I was acting outside the area of my competence! I was
causing trouble! Most unforgivably, I was right, and he knew it. I
must be destroyed.

From that moment, I was subjected to what we
now call a Hostile Work Environment. When I handed in clearly labeled
first draft computer programs (the ones with the bugs in them), he
treated them as if I were handing in finished code with mistakes, and
berated me in staff meetings. I was given impossible-to-meet
deadlines. I was given tasks that really were outside my skill set. I
was denied use of the staff lounge. I was retroactively made to
reimburse the government for all the times I used the late night car
service, on the grounds that I had no reason to work late. Each
quarterly review I got was worse than the one before.

This was
in the middle of the 1991 recession. The NY Times help wanted section
for computer programmers had shrunk to a few columns. Computer jobs
were impossible to get. I was locked into thinking that I couldn't
leave, and
stuck in a place I couldn't stay. I was 26 and my hair was turning grey.

day we got a memo from the editors of the Fed's internal newsletter.
They were looking for articles written by ordinary Fed staffers. If we
had anything to say that reflected on life at the Fed, we should drop
them a line to discuss it.

I had an idea to write an article
about this new thing called a computer virus, and how it could attack
your computer. I pitched it to the editor, he loved it, and I wrote it
up using the official Fed rules regarding computer virus infections.
It was a funny and informative piece called "How to Practice Safe
Hex". Throughout this ordeal with Quisling, I had still managed to
keep my sense of humor.

The article came out and Quisling hit
the roof. He called me into his office and told me I had seriously
jeopardized my career at the Fed with this ill-advised move. By
writing this article I damaged the reputation of the Cash Systems
Division! Did I think I was some kind of writer? Maybe I shouldn't be
a computer programmer, then. He demoted me one grade level and
officially put me on disciplinary probation.

That night, as I
waited at the edge of the platform for the 4 train in Union Square, I
realized how peaceful everything would become if I merely took one
giant step forward just as the train pulled into the station.

that settled it. I quit at the end of the week, even though I didn't
have another job. Fortunately I only spent about a month unemployed.
Anything would be better than staying at the Fed and literally wanting
to die...


About a week ago, a very
good friend and fellow worker from those years attended a fancy dress
function at the Federal Reserve's executive dining room. Who does she
run into but Vidkun Quisling! She doesn't like him because of what he
did to me all those years ago, but she can't manage to avoid him. She decides to turn the
tables and exact some revenge for me.

She manipulates their conversation
so that my name comes up. Quisling remembers me, of course (everyone
remembers me for some reason.) She gets Quisling to ask how I'm
doing. She exaggerates and says that I am an important technology
journalist. She slowly lists my credits for him: Contributing Ed at
Wired Magazine, Contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine,
Popular Science, Scientific American. NPR commentator. She exaggerates
to the point of lying and says I play a major role on
PBS's Wired Science.

Through this all, Quisling is listening
with a look of honest delight on his face. When my friend finishes,
she gives him a smug look that demands "What do you think of Patrick
now, tough guy?"

Quisling says "That is just magnificent. I
always knew he had talent! Remember that story he wrote about computer
viruses? That was so funny! And smart! Just like him! I still have
the article!"

Friday, November 9, 2007

Paranoia recipe #282

Read from the first half of Stephen King's "The Stand" while on a long New York City subway ride in November.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis from New York City

If everything goes well -- a big IF -- on the late afternoon of
December 6th those of us who live in the New York area will have the
chance to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis lift off on its last mission
to the International Space Station.

is scheduled to lift off at 4:31. Fortunately for us, December 6 is
when the sun sets the earliest here in New York City, at 4:27 PM. The
shuttle will become visible from New York at around 4:42PM, just as the
sky is getting dark. If weather conditions are right we'll see a bright
starlike object -- glowing both from reflected sunlight AND the exhaust
from its rocket engines -- zoom across the deepening twilight sky from
the southwest. The shuttle will arc across the southern sky and then
head southeast, reaching an altitude of about 8 degrees (about two
extended fists) above the horizon. If all goes well we might actually
see the shuttle's engines cut off! The whole thing takes about 90
seconds from first visibility to last.

If people are interested
I'd like to get a group together to see this. We'll need a place with a
great panoramic southern view. I'm thinking maybe the beach/boardwalk
at Coney Island, or Columbia University's Rutherford Observatory (if we
can convince them to open it), or even the middle of the Brooklyn or
George Washington Bridge!

There are dozens of things that can
prevent us from seeing the shuttle fly past New York. The launch might
be postponed -- as much as a day will screw things up for us. The
launch can be aborted that day, anywhere up to 30 seconds before
ignition. The sky could be overcast. The sky could be perfectly clear
except for a cloudbank over the southern horizon. All these drawbacks
are risks we have to take -- having seen the shuttle fly past New York
before, I'd say the view is worth it.

Let me know if you are interested!