The Northern Spy
A Finger in the Plot
"Hey Professor, how's it going?"
I barely glanced around at the visitor who'd wheeled a spare swivel chair behind mine and was now staring over my shoulder at my Northern Spy column.
"Hi, Nellie. Don't you believe in knocking?"
"Is Billy Graham a Baptist? Besides, your door was open."
She did have a point. Students, secretaries, and janitors tend to wander through my office at random. The only ones who knock are other faculty, and that term will never describe Nellie Hacker. She calls academics 'piles higher and deeper'.
"You haven't been by to talk for a while."
"You keep me so busy chasing around with a sword in that sixth novel you just finished I ain't had much time for palaver."
"The Builder isn't quite finished, Nellie. It needs several rounds of editing before it goes to the publisher, probably later this year." I carefully refrained from commenting on what might happen to her in The Throne, which will be the seventh volume of The Interregnum, my series of SF novels on choices in technology deployment.
"Same deal as usual?"
"Same deal. Anybody wants to edit chapters, plots, or the whole book just has to ask. Best is 'eyes for eyes' where I swap edits with another writer."
"Plot's set?" She looked grim. Ah, so this was why she'd stopped in. Since having been my secretary once upon a time, Nellie felt free to critique my stories. She especially didn't like surprises.
"Only minor changes now, Nellie."
"Well if you ask me, rehabilitating a major criminal while killing off a main character is a bit much. I don't like you dragging that meek little thing Tiffany into the thick of things, I don't like what you done with Mike and to Lucas, and I'm especially irritated that my friend Mara went over to the bad guys."
"And became Mara MacCarthy? Essential to the story."
"Some people aren't going to like you doing alternate history around Noah's flood, either."
"Ah, but one of the points of an alternate history is to shed light on the real one--such as pointing out that the ark could easily have taken an additional few hundred people."
"Well, I said my piece." She grimaced slightly, and changed gears so fast she almost lost traction on her mental corner. "That Safari 4 you got idlin' over in the next window? Some dumb interface changes, but I found a website claims it's wickeder fast than any other browser. Typical Apple. They enter a category, and it ain't long before they dominate." Nellie never stayed on one subject long.
"Ahead of you on that one, girl. The reference is already at the end of the column. Camino wasn't listed on the site so I tried the benchmark with it and got speeds barely one seventh as good as those of Safari 4. That's running a 2.5G quad G4. Odd, that, Camino once having been reputedly the fastest Mac browser."
I switched the screen focus to Safari. "Speaking of the web, Nellie, here's a site that ought to interest you and your nerdy friends."
"Impress the Kamikaze Cracker Colleens? Take some doing. Whatchyer got?"
"A search engine, sorta."
"Best be a load o' jam in that 'sorta'. Search engines are yesterday."
"Ah, but this one works on pre-analyzed data, using Mathematica as its engine."
"So that's what my good buddies at Wolfram have been up to lately. Plenty of midnight oil burning over there."
"Interesting irony using the term once used for useless melting pot sludge to describe a company whose mission is making really useful software. Wolframalpha.com is your site for this one--a computational knowledge engine all set to do your math, analyze stats, tell you all about data that's already been or can at your command be analyzed."
She chuckled. "Truth don't do much for the melting pot model of society, do it?"
"Not when you know that sludge rises to the top, no."
"Hmm." She bent past me, nearly elbowing me out of the way to read the site's fine print. Money and finance, math, chemistry, geography, physics, engineering, and stats. Seems the right target audience. I'll buy that."
"Don't need to, kiddo. It's free. Just use it."
She got out what appeared to be a smartphone and bookmarked the site.
"Interesting looking box. Appears to be an Apple product," I commented, trying to get a better look.
She covered it with one hand, finished up, and shoved it back into her belt pouch. "You didn't see that," she snapped.
"At least not until 0900 June eighth," I appended. "How'd you get one?"
"They wanted us to test security."
"How'd it do?" I was impressed. The KCCs charged via a vacuum hose connected to a client's bank account for their testing services.
"The Cupertino boys are getting better. Took a half hour longer than the last model to unlock."
"Thirty two meg, faster processor, tetherable, more features, a large screen option?" I pressed.
"Forget it. For now, this is strictly three monkeys zilch."
"Ah yes. Hear nothing, see nothing, speak nothing. Well, I wouldn't want to start a rumour, anyway."
"Nice sentiment. The rumour mill is so overloaded, water buckets are flying off in all directions. Pretty soon it won't grind corn nohow. Wanna know my theory?"
"You want to tell me and I have no objection to hearing it."
Nellie looked askance. She always claimed she' disliked Jane Austin, but protocol called for her to ignore such quotes, otherwise she'd be admitting she had large chunks of Pride and Prejudice memorized.
"Very well, then. My theory is that iSteve has most of the rumours intentionally planted both to try out new ideas and to confuse the truth."
"You think he should eschew obfuscation?"
She ignore that sally too, pointedly looking around my office. "Got anything new to talk over with your reader this month?"
I ignored the slight, certain I have at least two. "Logos sent me a copy of their new Bible software product for the Mac, but it'll be one or two columns hence before I can write intelligently about it."
"If then," she grunted dyspeptically. "Any preliminary thoughts?"
"It's a large library of books and texts with a customized manager/search engine. Fits somewhere below Accordance in the serious scholar's pecking order, costs a fortune for the full package at over $600 (though you can start at under $300), uses a third party library manager, and has an arcane installation procedure, but does look like a slick product. Cut the price some and it could be a killer package."
"Thought something like." She picked up a pile of loose paper. "You printing out FAQs from the web now?"
"Special case. That's the ninth 'paper' edition of the Tekserve technical FAQ for trouble shooting Macs and the Mac OS by David Lerner, Aaron Freimark, and Jazmin Hupp. You can either download this version as a PDF eBook, or check out their website for the longer and more detailed FAQ from which this version is condensed."
Nellie flipped through the sixty-some pages, stopping occasionally to check an answer. "Good stuff. Generally gets it right."
"They should. Tekserve runs a Mac service and repair shop. They probably use this as their technicians' manual."
"Nice of them to give up a pile of business by letting people do their own troubleshooting. They might not have to take their computer or drive in to them. Course, they could bring it to me." She grinned, and it reminded me of a shark I'd once seen.
"True, but not everybody lives in the Big Apple." My unspoken addendum was "and nobody should ever give Nellie Hacker their hard drive."
"Speaking of worms, what do you think of conflicker now? All blown over?"
"Not exactly, Nellie. The concept has proven useful enough to the black hats to continue work on hardening such worms against security boffins like you. I think it's a dress rehearsal, and we'll see more and trickier. I still wouldn't rule out government involvement in the whole thing."
"They ain't got a chance."
"I hope not, girl. But what would happen if one of your KCCs went over to the other side?"
That gave her pause for thought. "If'n any one of about forty people," she began cautiously, "what I ain't saying if I know any of 'em well enough even to pass along the Mexican flu, was to switch hats, the whole Internet would die in a week."
"Shut it down how long, you think?"
"She looked at me like I'd said the dumbest thing. "Permanent, at least until he or she got locked up behind a door with no key. Even that couldn't stop some of us."
"Apple fix most of the security holes and other problems you found in OS 10.5.6, by the way?"
"Not bad. A few people with nonstandard mods got bit a little on the 10.5.7 install, but most people will find joy, even if they don't know what it saves them from. Snow Leopard will be better though--sounder foundation."
I didn't comment. We're both under non-disclosure on that one for a little while longer. Instead I dredged out my regular monthly topic. "I see where Apple has year over year doubled its smartphone market share to almost 11%.
"Think iSteve's gonna become the gorilla of the next generation?" The quintesssential free spirit, Nellie constantly worries about monopolies and their potential to tie her hands.
"Not until he learns some bad habits of his own. Besides RIM's Blackberry increased share, too, so it may become a two horse race."
"Depends on whether Jim Balsillie, the high mugwump over at RIM, gets too distracted trying to scoop the Phoenix Coyotes from the bankruptcy courts and move them up to the True North Strong and Free. Won't be to Hamilton, though," she mused, "'cause the league can't allow a move to wipe out the Buffalo franchise."
"Well," I noted, restoring the strayed topic with a new faceoff, "some of the old crocs are feeling the pinch while Apple flies high over its piles of money. Last report, HPs revenue slid 24% on desktops, 13% on laptops. Then you've got Microsoft and others laying off even as Apple captures more market share with each passing month."
"GM and Chrysler versus the imports, with the names changed to protect the guilty. It's dŽjˆ vu all over again seeing the word 'beleaguered' in front of 'Motorola' and 'Palm' all the time instead of 'Apple'. Well, unlike your novels, it's apparent who will win and who will fall on a sword."
I chuckled. First she complains about my plot complexities, then says they're too obvious. She was fishing for plot information of course. But I was the non-discloser this time, so I spun round a conversational corner of my own. "By the way, any of your friends involved in this new Russian project to clone everything Apple under the sun?"
She scowled. "Told them they ought not. Sell those things outside Mother Russia where there're real copyright laws, and iSteve will eat their shorts with torts in the courts--unless he's just going through the motions against the cloners and actually wants the attention they bring."
"Is this a new conspiracy theory of yours?"
"Nah. But if he was serious about stopping cloning, he'd chip his own machines and run the OS against that chip. Done right, it might stop most people."
The obvious unspoken addendum was that it wouldn't impede her and the KCCs, so I didn't comment further.
At this point, Nellie finally got past her temporary and uncharacteristic politeness long enough to officially stare at my hand. "Speaking of getting stopped, what's that on your finger? It's nearly as big as your whole hand, and yer typing even more weirdly than normal tryin' to not hit four keys at once or rest yon superfinger on a key long enough to hammer out forty characters."
"A bandage, as you can well see. It's not as if you haven't applied dozens by now, considering you have medical credentials of a sort in my novels."
"But, covering up what kind of mistrake of the sort you say you never have?"
"I moved one hand putting something out of my way, and due to my greatly advanced age, lost track of my body image. Unfortunately my left hand traversed the space where my right was already holding an extended utility knife sporting a brand new blade."
"About six centimetres long, down to the bone in places. Only five stitches. Don't worry Nellie. The Lord of Heaven willing, I'll live to write you into the next novel. Maybe." Whether I also wrote her out of it was another matter. I still had to script the second battle of Glenmorgan, and she was a leading candidate to lead the Royalist troops for Alfred Dennison. And, as politicians and marketers know as well as generals, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. See also the Spy's third law.
She nodded. "Besides, like you always say--a little pain never hurt anyone. I suppose if you'd cut it off, you could've just become a more major character in your own novels and got a dose of regrow from Mara to get it back."
"I appreciate your compassion and sympathy."
"How'd you make out at the hospital?"
"Four hours fifteen minutes. I had to wait for their only suture bed to come free. When it did, they hurried me in a little."
"Drip on their floor to convince them?"
"No, I meant the previous guy had cut his finger right off, and when they moved him, they hadn't yet taken away the ice bucket to the surgeon from the shelf adjacent my new bed."
"Typical Canadian socialist hospital messup. Make everybody the same and the average care we all get is lousy."
"Is that better than the system to the south of us where the rich pay for premium service so the law of averages applied to a scarce resource necessarily dictates some others get the same service as we do, but the rest get little or nothing--don't sick when you're poor or you die?"
She pondered a while before responding. "The high tech industry sure don't work so. Competition makes it better."
"That's because the physical product is so cheap numerous manufacturers can compete at all levels on better functionality and design for more market share and thus profits."
"I see. And neither health system has any incentive to improve--not in Canada because the government pays it all, and not in the Excited States because the insurance companies do. There's a structural monopoly."
"Exactly. The lower the level of service a hospital provides, the less the cost, creating a disincentive to better service in the pursuit of increased profits. The patient isn't the customer, so can't use choice to drive the system as she can with technology. Any new money that goes in is likely to find its way into more and higher supervisor salaries, not individuals' health."
"So," she concluded for me, "the real analogy to our free market system would be to allow hospitals to make a profit, but only by keeping people from getting sick or injured in the first place, and when they do, by being abler to show they effected best practice healing. Think it could ever happen?"
"Maybe on one of my alternate earths, but not in our lifetimes here, Nellie. Oh, by the way." I decided to drop the bomb I'd been saving in retaliation for some of her earlier comments. "How old are you, girl?" She liked to think of herself as a teenager.
She must have guessed something like that was coming, because she scarcely hesitated before dulling my thrust. "Depends on whether you use the version of me from these here columns or the inconsistent one in your novels. I was a sassy teenager, call me sweet seventeen, in An Apple for Nellie, written before the first Northern Spy column back in October 1983. That makes me forty-three and counting. But the me in the novels was born September 15, 1975, so I'm nine years younger than my other self."
"Might be a cousin in an alternate universe."
"Hey, you and I know there have been several Nellies who worked for you over the years, either as secretaries or manuscript reviewers. So maybe as your the call goes out for more volunteers to help edit the latest one, my character, who's a composite of us all, will continue to change."
"Nellie Pan grow up? I don't think so."
She didn't mind the slam. It was all part of our give and take over the years. Some people after all, count their true friends by the number of people they can insult and be insulted by with impunity. We chatted a while longer about other things, and she left. But I'll see her at least in the next book, if not sooner.
Oh, and one more thing. The Spy will be on a low technology vacation from June 3-13, so the next column may be little more than a rehash of how all the rumours turned out in truth. Until then, we remain...
--The Northern Spy
Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.
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Browser Benchmark: http://www.tekserve.com/service/mac-faq/TekserveMacFAQ9thEdition.pdf
Wolfram's Engine: http://www.wolframalpha.com/
Logos Mac Bible Software: http://www.macbiblesoftware.com/
Tekserve FAQ: http://www.tekserve.com/service/mac-faq/
Tekserve FAQ (PDF version): http://www.tekserve.com/service/mac-faq/TekserveMacFAQ9thEdition.pdf