Ed Driscoll

International House of Krell Machines


It’s a cute New Yorker cover this week, but in reality, the main problem with the Obamacare Website isn’t that it’s running on a TRS-80 server controlled by Atari joysticks and programmed via 8-inch floppy disks and Zip Drives, with Obama phoning in suggestions on Gordon Gekko’s cell phone, but that because it’s socialized medicine, it has to draw upon so many other government computer systems. And those legacy systems really do seem like they’re running on TRS-80 servers with 8-inch floppies, as this post at Power Line spotlights:

The front end technology is not the problem here. It would be nice if it was the problem, because web page scaling issues are known problems and relatively easy to solve.

The real problems are with the back end of the software. When you try to get a quote for health insurance, the system has to connect to computers at the IRS, the VA, Medicaid/CHIP, various state agencies, Treasury, and HHS. They also have to connect to all the health plan carriers to get pre-subsidy pricing. All of these queries receive data that is then fed into the online calculator to give you a price. If any of these queries fails, the whole transaction fails.

Most of these systems are old legacy systems with their own unique data formats. Some have been around since the 1960′s, and the people who wrote the code that runs on them are long gone. If one of these old crappy systems takes too long to respond, the transaction times out.

Amazingly, none of this was tested until a week or two before the rollout, and the tests failed. They released the web site to the public anyway – an act which would border on criminal negligence if it was done in the private sector and someone was harmed. Their load tests crashed the system with only 200 simultaneous transactions – a load that even the worst-written front-end software could easily handle.

When you even contemplate bringing an old legacy system into a large-scale web project, you should do load testing on that system as part of the feasibility process before you ever write a line of production code, because if those old servers can’t handle the load, your whole project is dead in the water if you are forced to rely on them. There are no easy fixes for the fact that a 30 year old mainframe can not handle thousands of simultaneous queries. And upgrading all the back-end systems is a bigger job than the web site itself. Some of those systems are still there because attempts to upgrade them failed in the past. Too much legacy software, too many other co-reliant systems, etc. So if they aren’t going to handle the job, you need a completely different design for your public portal.

A lot of focus has been on the front-end code, because that’s the code that we can inspect, and it’s the code that lots of amateur web programmers are familiar with, so everyone’s got an opinion. And sure, it’s horribly written in many places. But in systems like this the problems that keep you up at night are almost always in the back-end integration.

And the problem isn’t isolated to America. “If you think the Obamacare IT screwup is bad,” Michael Barone recently noted at his Washington Examiner blog, “then check out this story from Britain’s Independent:”

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service is going to abandon a $17 billion information technology system that was being rolled in over a 10-year period.The Independent account suggests that big universal governent IT systems just can’t be made to work. The alternative, apparently, is to have smaller, locally sourced systems which can to some extent communicate with each other. Here’s the critical passage from the Independent:

“Instead, local health trusts and hospitals will be allowed to develop or buy individual computer systems to suit their needs – with a much smaller central server capable of ‘interrogating’ them to provide centralised information on patient care. News of the Government’s plans comes as a damning report from a cross-party committee of MPs concludes that the £11.4b programme had proved ‘beyond the capacity of the Department of Health to deliver’ .” This was not a partisan conclusion: the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is Margaret Hodge, a member of the Labour party.

And I had previously quoted last week from Red Plenty, the 2010 book by British author Francis Spufford, on the Soviet Union’s attempt to organize their top-down economy in the 1950s around a giant first generation mainframe system:

For much of the 80 years during which the USSR was a unique experiment in running a non-market economy, the experiment was a stupid experiment, a brute-force experiment. But during the Soviet moment there was a serious attempt to apply the intellectual resources of the educated country the Bolsheviks had kicked and bludgeoned into being. All of the perversities in the Soviet economy. . . are the classic consequences of running a system without the flow of information provided by market exchange; and it was clear at the beginning of the 60s that for the system to move on up to the plenty promised so insanely for 1980, there would have to be informational fixes for each deficiency. Hence the emphasis on cybernetics, which had gone in a handful of years from being condemned as a “bourgeois pseudo-science” to being an official panacea.

The USSR’s pioneering computer scientists were heavily involved, and so was the authentic genius Leonid Kantorovich, nearest Soviet counterpart to John Von Neumann and later to be the only ever Soviet winner of the Nobel prize for economics. Their thinking drew on the uncorrupted traditions of Soviet mathematics. While parts of it merely smuggled elements of rational pricing into the Soviet context, other parts were truly directed at outdoing market processes. The effort failed, of course, for reasons which are an irony-laminated comedy in themselves. The sumps of the command economy were dark and deep and not accessible to academics; Stalinist industrialisation had welded a set of incentives into place which clever software could not touch; the system was administered by rent-seeking gangsters; the mathematicians were relying (at two removes) on conventional neoclassical economics to characterise the market processes they were trying to simulate, and the neoclassicists may just be wrong about how capitalism works.

At Reason magazine yesterday, Scott Shackford goofed on the theme of “Top Men” that has become an Internet meme for looming government disaster thanks to the iconic ending of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg’s beloved Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Such is the nature of a technocracy. What you want is not as relevant as what select government experts believe you need. During the hearing, when asked her opinion about the state of the individual insurance market prior to the Affordable Care Act, Sebelius declared that she didn’t believe there was much of a real market because it wasn’t regulated, there weren’t enough protections, and consumers were on their own. She is absurdly wrong about the regulation of the individual insurance market, but beyond that, her response illustrates the technocrat’s perception of the marketplace. In the midst of her obfuscated answers, there is a shining moment of honesty, and she probably doesn’t even think the statement is remotely controversial. It’s not a marketplace until the government authorizes it and monitors it.

“Top. Men.” It’s a reference to dialogue from Raiders of the Lost Ark that has become a sarcastic meme for skeptics of technocratic rule. At the end of the movie the recovered Ark of the Covenant is handed over to military intelligence. Indiana Jones is assured that “top men” are looking over the dangerous artifact. When Jones presses for more information, he’s bluntly assured, “Top. Men.”

The two words, presented as two sentences, have been repurposed to mock official incompetence disguised as authority. Because the Obama Administration’s very foundation is a massive embrace of technocratic progressivism, they’re an easy target as pet projects go awry. Who is going to fix the mess that is HeathCare.gov? Top. Men.

One reason why it appeared that we really did have “Top Men” in World War II and the early days of NASA was that those two projects (war and in the case of NASA, the moral equivalent of war) were incredibly difficult nationalized tasks designed to reach simple, easily understood  conclusions: Smash Hitler and Tojo, and land a man on the moon. Nationalizing the healthcare industry is bottomless and never-ending. Assuming that the GOP can’t stop Obamacare in 2017, as the above story from England illustrates, we will be shoveling money into our equivalent of the giant Krell Machine from Forbidden Planet for decades to come.


Click to enlarge. But warning: it just keeps getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger and…