Belmont Club

The Revenge of Arithmetic

The first thing a database developer learns to fear is data corruption. “Data corruption refers to errors in computer data that occur during writing, reading, storage, transmission, or processing, which introduce unintended changes to the original data.” If left unchecked, data corruption eventually renders a database completely useless; not only useless, but harmful.

A useless database only fails to give you answers. A harmful database actually gives you consistently wrong answers. This was exactly what happened to the Veteran’s Affairs, according to the Washington Post.

About two years ago, Brian Turner took a job as a scheduling clerk at a Veterans Affairs health clinic in Austin. A few weeks later, he said, a supervisor came by to instruct him how to cook the books….

This is how it worked: A patient asked for an appointment on a specific day. Turner found the next available time slot. But, often, it was many days later than the patient had wanted.

Would that later date work? If the patient said yes, Turner canceled the whole process and started over. This time, he typed in that the patient had wanted that later date all along. So now, the official wait time was . . . a perfect zero days….

But all this was apparently a secret to Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, perched 12 levels above Turner in the VA’s towering bureaucracy. Somewhere underneath Shinseki — among the undersecretaries and deputy undersecretaries and bosses and sub-bosses — the fact that clerks were cheating the system was lost.

The Post’s David Farenthold says VA corruption began with the Republican Warren Harding, who nominated his poker buddy, Charles Forbes, to head the agency in 1921. Forbes, however, was a scoundrel. Harding, on being tainted by the scandal, apparently took things into his own hands, if one may pardon the pun, in the most politically incorrect of ways.

Eventually, Forbes was caught. The president was unhappy. In 1923, a White House visitor opened the wrong door and found Harding choking Forbes with his bare hands.

“You yellow rat! You double-crossing bastard!” Harding was saying, according to historians. When he noticed the visitor, he let go of Forbes’s neck.

But the damage, Farenthold seems to imply, had been done. A “culture of corruption” had taken root in the VA and it lingered like a miasma in the corridors — the Washington Post story goes on to say — until the reformer Bill Clinton arrived to clean house. He would banish the culture of corruption by instituting The System.  Clinton appointed Kenneth Kizer to exorcise it with computers, performance measurements and regulation.

Seventy years after Forbes was gone, the place was still wrapped in that red tape.

That was clear on the day that Kenneth Kizer — a reformer appointed by President Bill Clinton — arrived at the VA’s health service.

“I had to approve reimbursement of a secretary . . . purchasing a cable for her computer. I think it was something like $11 or $12,” Kizer said. There was a form. He had to sign it personally. “Here I’m running this multibillion dollar organization with — at that time — 200,000 employees. And I’m having to approve reimbursements for somebody.”

Kizer set out to change that. He cut back on staffing at VA headquarters in Washington and at regional headquarters. He cut out layers in the chain of command. And he embraced the idea that statistics could allow the agency’s leaders to peer around those middlemen and see the bottom from the top.

In place of the clerk approving the reimbursement, Kizer substituted the System. But somewhere along the line Kizer forgot the Primitive. Somewhere deep down in the foundations of his 12 story bureaucracy, after you got past the shiny front end, some relay clicked, some bit was flipped or someone typed something that all made it work.

But whereas Forbes knew the whole edifice to be founded on the corrupt Primitive, Kizer’s shiny machinery elided that fact under 12 layers of bureaucracy. The statistics oozed out of the layers, anonymized, disinfected by its passage through software until it landed on the administrator’s desk.

The Primitive was forgotten. And so were the ghosts. The fact was that somewhere in the VA the “culture of corruption” had survived the fumigation. Because it was everywhere and nowhere to begin with. The Star Trek universe gave us perhaps the best description of the culture of corruption. It works like the Borg Mind, which is a property of the collective.

The Borg Mind is sometimes known as consensus. The Washington Post’s story described it in action: how clerks “zeroed out” waiting times because they were expected to. The more clerks zeroed out the waiting times the truer the lie became. The falsehood gained momentum till faked waiting times became the official truth. The lie became the narrative while the brute fact became a lie. If you flip enough bits at the level of the primitive, the whole system state in its entirety flips. In that vast anthill, no individual clerk could run counter to the narrative. “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated”.

But if so, why did the Borg Cube explode just now? Because there is in every system, even the Federal Government, a parallel apparatus is always in effect which one can call Reality. We forget that it exists, but it is there in the background, like some top level object to which we barely pay attention. Whenever the variance between the narrative and reality becomes too large, the narrative loses. The top level object throws an error and the narrative is garbage-collected. The Borg Cube, however powerful, can never ever beat Arithmetic. The 12 layers of the VA fought the law of addition and the law won.

So it is no surprise that Eric Shinseki and Jay Carney’s resignations were announced today. They were, after all, the faces of a  narrative that is no longer tenable. That’s how bureaucracy fixes things. It never admits to a fault, but simply executes mass update queries until the System is brought into tolerable concordance with Reality. But the primitives all remain. And the process of corruption begins again until forgotten Reality steps in. The Borg, though scattered, will slowly regain their strength, until the next time.

Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of the way data corruption works is the Korean War memorial that was just unveiled in Yoctangee Parkway in Chillicothe, Ohio. It is laughably wrong. “Donald Darby is a former Naval intelligence officer … quickly spotted a Gulf War-era tank, a Vietnam-era machine gun, F-16 fighter jets that weren’t produced until the early 1970s, Kevlar combat helmets first used by soldiers in the mid-1980s and a Huey medivac helicopter that wasn’t used by the military until several years after the Korean War ended.”

A Kevlar helmet here, an M1 tank there, a UH-1 in the corner, a few F-16s thrown in and pretty soon you have imagery that appeals to people whose understanding of history is derived entirely from the movies. Hell, it looks like war doesn’t it?

But as another person interviewed for the article said, “I don’t see what the big deal is.” Clearly, not nearly as big a deal as forcing the contractor who supplied the monument to return the fee. Korea has been called the “Forgotten War”. The System’s answer to this is to forget that we’ve forgotten.


A Product of the System

How can we be so cavalier about the facts? Perhaps one of the worst things about the “post-modern” age is the pervasive belief that lies are harmless, that in other words the truth doesn’t exist; merely something you create by issuing talking points, faked memos and bogus facts. We are taught it is endlessly malleable and smugly told you can explain away an attack on a US consulate in Benghazi by blaming a video produced in LA.

All the right people believe truth is fake, but interestingly enough the lie never extinguishes the truth. Rather, by pushing against reality, it compresses a spring which sooner or later will give up its energy in an explosive way.  Kicking stuff down the road doesn’t make it go away, it simply stores up the junk in the top shelf of the hall closet. One day you open the closet and …

The Obama administration would do well to realize that it isn’t the pathetic GOP they have to worry about, but Reality. Reality exists, and that spring is wound up about as far as it will go, and then Reality is a b***h. Everyone learns this in the end. Max Planck once sadly observed that progress was rarely made by comfortably extending cherished routines but through “acts of desperation”, seemingly achieved against our own will. We learn because we have to. The only difference is that the intelligent would rather learn it sooner than later.

Even when an administration lies, it must itself know the truth. Of all the side-effects of falsehood, none is more dangerous than self-deception.

In a recent interview with NPR, president Obama spoke of his policy in the Ukraine as a success. “The fact that Crimea …  was annexed illegally does not in any way negate the fact that the way of life, the systems of economic organization, the notions of rule of law, those values that we hold dear, are ascendant, and you know, the other side is going to be on the defense.” Does he really believe that? Or is that for public consumption.

It is one thing to lie, knowing the truth.  It is quite another to lie, not caring. An actor may play Napoleon and still be sane but when you stop knowing it is just a role then it’s time to worry.

Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.

A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior
Sea of Shadows
Empire of Secrets Pb
Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin
The Last Caliphate
The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014
Patient Safety in Emergency Medicine
Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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