Sunday, February 27, 2005

Make me one with everything

“Make me one with everything” Margret said to the phone operator, and a week later it arrived on the back of a truck; a Mell Computer desktop PC loaded with all the options. Margret unpacked it, laid out all the parts and put them together according to the poster that came neatly folded on top of the bits and pieces. Although it cost much, she was expecting—and received—quite a mediocre beige box PC with as much zing to it as the lemonade dispensed from the office vending machine. A few days after she's started using it, the CD burner stopped working and she had to call technical support.

Margret had experienced technical support before and here's what she knew: 1) it was routinely outsourced, 2) the company that took the calls was paid per call, not per problem solved, and 3) the technicians were under pressure to end the call within twelve minutes, and would say anything to make you hang up. Turnover was insane in help-desk departments, and the chap you get on Monday may have quit and been replaced by the time you call back again on Wednesday. All this meant the support you got from a typical beige-box PC maker would only help you accidentally, and served as the first step in a process that had to include harassment, threats and letters written on a lawyer's stationary. Which is why Margret wasn't expecting her first call to Mell to turn out the way it did.

“The media auto-detection was turned off by your buddy list program upon installation, rendering the CD burning program without means to tell a blank disk has been inserted. One must open the control panel, click on the CD icon and check 'Auto-detect media'”

“But I haven't even told you I installed a buddy list!” Said Margret, in awe.

“Ma'am, you have just received an instant message, and we heard it chime.”

Margret put down the phone and tried what the technician told her to do, and seconds later the CD burner began to work again. “You guys are amazing,” she exclaimed, and hung up.

The little icon for the buddy list program was blinking steadily in the corner of the screen, indicating a waiting message, and Margret clicked on it to open and see what it was. “Hello, marge1812. We are pleased to assist your needs” it said. The sender was Anantamati-11, and his profile indicated he was in India. Ah, not only outsourcing but offshoring, too—how typical of Mell. But how had they known what her buddy list ID was?

At dinner, Margret told her friends about Mell's technical support, and by the end of the evening her napkin was scribbled with five unsolved problems her eating companions had experienced in the past, something of a list of posers Margret could throw at the Indian fellows under the pretense that she was suffering them herself. The next afternoon she picked up the phone and dialed their number, looking to find something that would trip them up.

“Hi! Uh, my computer won't connect to the internet anymore,” she said, having unplugged its modem just in case they tried beeping her buddy list again.

A faintly accented voice replied, “one must reinsert the cable into the modem.”

“Uh... I did that,” Margret said, referring to her napkin. “I've also replaced the modem, and the drivers, and I've formatted the hard drive and re-installed the operating system, and I've had the phone company test the line, and I've updated the firmware, and I've removed the network card.”

“Ah, I see,” and there was a contemplative pause. “Respectfully, ma'am, John's telephone carrier is using robbed-bit signaling on a copper trunk line that services the connection between himself and his Internet Provider beginning at 6:31PM when he arrives home from work. The solution is to wait until 6:53PM, when there is a window of 75 seconds during which a new call will be routed on an alternate trunk that uses fiber optic switching.”

Margret slowly placed the handset back on the receiver and took a glass of water to calm herself. When she tried again a few minutes later, she gave Mary's problem next.

“Okay, my friend's computer crashes every time she saves this one large Word document and then checks her email, but not when she saves her Word document or checks email separate from each other, or when she saves a different document, or saves a document in any other program.”

“Her hard drive has a timing error which manifests itself only when Word saves files longer than 42 megabytes, because it does so by appending changes onto the end of an ever-growing file instead of replacing the file. Her email client's code will have been stored in virtual memory, and the act of checking mail summons these instructions from the disk's store. However, the timing error causes the device to report the delivery of the data a millisecond before it is ready, leading to a crash. The solution is to open Word's preferences and turn off the fast-save feature.”

Margret then tried Steve's problem. “Computer crashes every day sometime between noon and 1PM, but never the exact same time.”

“Lunching colleagues use coffeepot in adjacent room. When heating element turns off, a minor electrical surge induces a magnetic field in the extension cord Steve has wrapped around the steel leg of his desk next to the computer. The solution is to unwind the cord.”

The omniscient Indian friend on the other end of the phone line placidly answered all of Margret's questions, until she came to the last. This one had been given to her by Adam, who taught computer science at the local university. His problem wasn't a technical support issue, really, but during the flow of the dinnertime conversation it seemed a funny thing to add to a list of ponderables; what if you gave them a problem you knew was impossible to solve? Adam had reassured Margret that this one was the worst of the bunch, unsolved since 1936 when it was invented by one of the earliest of all computer scientists, and mathematically proven to be unsolvable.

“Okay, you shouldn't get this one,” Margret said shakily, her pulse rapid. “Given an algorithm and its initial arguments, determine whether the algorithm, when executed with these arguments, will halt or continue running forever without halting.”

The unruffled advice-giver spoke at once, his voice flowing like liquid. “One must first ask, what is an algorithm that will not run at all? Seek first a program that has no errors in design or syntax, but for which no input can coax it to run, and you will have an anchor from which to find those that can run forever. For this perspective gifts one with the ability to see beauty in that which conforms to the ideal state of halting, and that which does not. Upon seeing any new algorithm for the first time, one will instantly know if it is beautiful.”

“But you're not supposed to be able to answer that!” Margret complained, “that's the Halting Problem, and it's been unsolved since 1936, and it's been proven that you can't solve it!”

“Meditation will help you see more clearly. You must first learn how to remove all thoughts from your mind, the way one would take the furniture from a room, until only understanding remains. You may wish to participate in the Vipasana, I can help you find a meditation center close to you.”

“No, this can't be right, I—” and Margret knocked her can of Coke off the desk as she reached for her Rolodex to find Adam's phone number. She stood up quickly with a pained expression as fizzy caramel water splattered her new white dress. “Shit, how on Earth will I ever get this out?”

“Applying club soda to the affected area, followed by a warm wash with regular detergent, will remove the stain.”

“Oh shut up, you!” Margret spat, and hung up before she ran to the bathroom.

Margret didn't call the Mell Computer support line for several weeks, but during that time she saw that others must have made the same discovery as she, because everyone she knew had now purchased a Mell computer and had their hotline on speed-dial. She overheard cell-phone conversations on the train, in queues and restarants that made her head spin.

“How can I get health insurance for my family without paying more than I did when I was single?” Or...

“Where can I find a 2-bedroom apartment on the East Side of Manhattan for $800 a month?” Or...

“How can I make the girl I want dump her boyfriend and go with me without knowing I did anything?” Or...

“How can I prevent methanol from crossing over to the cathode of a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell?” Or...

“How can I prove that every even number greater than 2 can be written as the sum of two primes?” Or...

“How can the evident mass of the universe be explained without dark matter or a negative cosmological constant?”

Anantamati rose from the lotus position as his mentor and leader entered the chamber of wisdom impartment. A switchboard of blinking lights, each one representing another call in the queue, beckoned him to come back and help its distant but inquisitive souls. Anantamati bowed respectfully, “what news of the construction, teacher?”

Vasubandhu bowed in return, “good news, my student, the temple is completed, the road from the foot of the mountain is paved. We have no more need for western money, so I come to liberate you from these duties so you may return to your studies and meditations.”

“Truly wonderful!” Anantamati said, and waved a signal to the other monks seated in the chamber. One by one they completed the calls they were on, removed their headsets and turned off their switchboards. “I shall convey our regrets and farewells to dear Mr. Mell.”

It was a year later, and Margret was on the last leg of her journey, although what a backbreaker it was going to be. Her native guide had given up and fled down the mountain two days ago, the last of her Sterno fuel had run out, and now all that was left of her rations were some dry crackers and cold beef jerky. She made drinking water by packing snow into her tin cup, then cradling it to her chest, holding her hands over it and breathing onto the ice crystals until they melted. Earlier that morning she'd torn her coat on a sharp, jaggy rock, and now she had to hold it together with her quickly freezing hands.

She'd begun at Mell Computer in the days following the shutdown of the hotline, and after making friends and earning the confidence of a nervous bachelor accountant, she gained access to the company records and found the first of many contacts in India through which the computer maker had used to locate and hire the call center firm. Armed with only a few names and phone numbers she flew to Bangalore and set upon the trail like a bloodhound with a whiff from a handkerchief. Now she was in the Himalayas, freezing, starving, aching, and weak.

The road up the mountain was paved with giant stone slabs, hewed from the foothills and lugged by beasts of burden up the dizzying incline. The winter snow that grew thicker as you neared the summit had pasted them over completely, and now the only way to get up was by picking your way along, slab by slab, first scraping the snow out of the way, then digging an axe or a pick into the gap between the stones and using that as your purchase to climb up one more. Margret had lost most of her climbing equipment in the past week, and was now reduced to using a flattened-out sardine tin and a broken digital organizer.

Her last seconds of consciousness in that bitter cold brought her within sight of the temple; a breathtaking affair cut into the side of the mountain, merely a few hundred feet from the summit, and with spaces for springtime gardens laid out either side of it. Its roof was inlaid with gold, and as the sun's reflection shimmered off the mighty beams and tiles it appeared to come alive and wobble hypnotically before her. As the strength in her cold legs and weary knees gave out, she could hear the sound of the bell chiming.

A procession of monks found her and gathered her up and carried her limp body into the temple. Setting her beside a fire they brought her hot tea and vegetable soup, helped her to revive back into the waking, and gave her a saffron robe to replace her ruined clothes. In time she was able to stand and walk again, and at her request they brought Anantamati to see her.

They exchanged smiles, salutations and respectful bows with each other, then sat with their legs crossed on the exquisite handwoven rugs. To Margret, Anantamati was a young and handsome man, of smooth features and kind expression. He spoke exactly the same way he had before on the phone, with a voice undisturbed by stress or uncertainty or the anxious whine of someone who'd like to quit his job if only there were anything better in the tech industry these days. In his presense, it was as if even the molecules of air were soothed and reassured, told to be calm by a person who was in tune to the fundamental wavelength of the universe, the source of infinite wisdom, and therefore could not be wrong.

“It is so good to see your face, Margret,” he cooed. “Never before has anyone sought our humble temple here in these mountains.”

“You have no idea what it took to find you,” Margret said, “is it true what they say, that you can feel the vibrations of a butterfly's wings in a meadow in Montana?”

“Yes, this is true,” Anantamati replied, “the meditation techniques of our mentor and leader, Vasubandhu, even gift me with the sensitivity to hear the wind blow the tiny little hairs on its head.”

“And that you can see even the most complex folding patterns of proteins, and tell what shape they will form, and what purpose it will serve once folded?”

“All that and more, yes. We have tapped into the source of infinite wisdom, a layer of knowing that exists at the interface of consciousness and unconsciousness.”

“And that's why you can answer any question that's asked of you?”

“Yes, dear Margret. Why, is there something you wish to ask?”

Margret's lip trembled as she stared into the deep brown eyes of the handsome south Asian man seated across from her, an oracle in saffron robes. A proxy for God Himself. She spoke with meekness and awe, “Okay, well... see, I'm trying to send an email attachment to a customer who's company uses Microsoft Exchange, and it won't go through.”

Anantamati took on a sad expression, “I'm sorry, I'm afraid I can't answer that question for you.”

Margret's eyes bulged, and she sputtered. “But why? I thought you could answer any question!”

“Dear Margret, I can answer even the question of life itself, but your 90 days of free technical support have elapsed. But thank you for visiting, and please have a nice day.”


Post a Comment

<< Home