A Note from the Publisher: Because the lives of all those mentioned in the following story are at risk for revealing this mega-conspiracy, we have asked those who are involved to carefully consider if they REALLY want to give full permission for us to release this material as written by Agent Zeta of Sci-Cops. They all said no, but we'll never reach our sales goals for the next quarter if we don't release this tantalizing segment of Memoirs of a Sci-Cop, now available at fine stores everywhere. Plus, we want to serve the common good by providing valuable information about one of the most dangerous and sinister conspiracies ever.
A Note from the Webmaster: The first half of the following story relates the adventure of Agent Zeta of Sci-Cops in learning the secrets that a civilian, Charles Dudley, had uncovered. If you're in a hurry, you can go directly to the part of this page that contains the Charles Dudley story of Digital Evolution. But you'll sleep better if you read the whole thing.
Have hardly been able to sleep these past three months, knowing the risk to my life. I've cracked a lot of cases and a lot of bones in my years as a Sci-Cop, but no breakthrough has ever cost me so much as this case, the Case of the Missing Programmer. I've been in hiding since the Big Boys in the Inner Circle released a demo version of my funeral program. As my main Silicon Valley contact puts it, my User ID has been canceled, and no more technical support is available.
I pack a piece and do the toupee and glasses thing wherever I go, hoping not to be recognized, but I'm ready to go down firing when they find me. I try to stay away from biophysics conventions, but it's a weakness that's hard to overcome - and one that will probably cost me my life someday, for They know who I am and what I like.
It all began five months ago when I got some cryptic e-mail from an anonymous account:
"Darwin rules, but I've gone Creationist. That's why I quit. THEY aren't happy - want me bad. Now a clerk for Missing Persons. Can't talk - but need to. Ciao, dude."I recognized "Ciao, dude" as the signature of my old pal, Charles Dudley [editor's note: yep, that's his real name]. Charley and I grew up in Fox City, Wisconsin. We had been in touch off and on since our years together in high school, where we had both shown a keen interest in science. (Sadly, our psychobiological studies with live snakes and live teachers resulted in suspension, as did our studies of chemical kinetics with smoke bombs.) Charley had gone on to become a well-liked professor in Computer Science, but had to leave the college in disgrace when his sole Ph.D. student wrote a computer virus code that failed, unable to reproduce and totally unable to cause any adverse symptoms. Bad luck - turns out the code was o.k., but a bug in the compiler caused the virus to fail. When the problem was discovered, it was too late. The student had gone into accounting, and Charley had joined MegaSoft as a programmer. Charley had tried to get into Sci-Cops first, on my recommendation, but he failed the Social Relations segment of the entrance exam - too close to normal. Civility is the last thing a Sci-Cop needs when the fabric of space and time is about to unravel. Protecting the universe has got to come first, no matter what.
I knew Charley's folks were now in Chicago, so I figured that's where he would be, working in the Missing Persons Bureau, as his note said. Sounded like he was in big trouble. And who was the "they" that wanted him? I was close enough to drive down, being stationed in Detroit for some tough work on paranormal phenomena in auto manufacturing. (We caught General Motors making $20,000 cars from $100,000 of car parts and still showing a profit. I was pretty sure we'd get a few execs tossed in the slammer for a 316b - a felony violation of basic mathematics - but with GM's clout, they got off easy by apologizing and promising to raise auto prices. Sarge showed up to work the next day with a new car.)
I hit Chicago around noon on Jan. 3, 1996. I found the Bureau of Missing Persons on the poorly-lit fifth floor of an old government building on Jackson Street and walked in. As I opened the heavy entrance door, it creaked with a sad, odd twang, sort of like country music for a funeral. There wasn't a soul in sight. Must still be lunch break, I figured. It was a big office, decorated in early Neo-bureaucrat, walls painted roughly in an ancient beige, like the inside of a malt ball gone bad. Oversized windows were hidden by greasy gray Venetian blinds. There were drab brown tiles on the floor and a long wooden counter for separating people from officials. Behind the counter were desks covered with stacks of papers. A few heavy black telephones were scattered around and an old adding machine sat on the edge of one desk. There were no computers. I sat down on a dusty stool and waited.
Twenty minutes went by before a cleaning lady, about 55 years old, came in, pushing a cart of cleaning supplies and carrying a mop. Oddly, there was a beeper on her side. "Thank goodness," I said, "I was beginning to think no one worked here. Kind of ironic - a Missing Persons Bureau where everybody was missing! So tell me, where can I find Charles Dudley?" She got pale when I mentioned his name. I thought I saw her push something on the beeper. "Ain't nobody what works here," said the lady. "I've been cleaning this place every day for 20 years, but nobody's ever been here working. If you got a missing friend, go call the police. This place ain't gonna help you none." I was amazed at her story and questioned her. She didn't see anything too odd with the situation. "This isn't a place for people to work, mister. This here's a government office. And if you don't like the way the government works, you can go get elected yourself and see if you can do a better job. People's always criticizing what they can't do any better. Now get out." Her tone was getting unfriendly. I began feeling at risk, somehow, and knew I had to leave. But then I saw it: on one of the legs of a back desk, almost covered by a telephone cord, was a small yellow stick-it note, a tiny splash of color in a sea of gray. Something told me that note was for me - and I've learned to always trust my hunches, even though they're usually wrong. Guess that's why I still play lotto. I leapt over the counter as the lady began to lecture me on manners and threatened to call the police. I snatched the note. Again, the message was cryptic: "Worst pizza ever. Your town. 1/7." I wondered if that was Charley's writing and if the note was for me. But how? Had something happened to Charley?
With no warning, the cleaning lady suddenly seemed to go postal. Her mop handle cracked down on my head with impressive force - this was no ordinary grandma. I staggered, nearly passed out, but dodged beneath a desk just in time to miss the next blow. Pure Sci-Cop instinct and experience took over - and saved my life. I had been assaulted by cleaning ladies before. I knew that she would soon be grabbing her bottle of 409 spray to take out my eyes. I stuffed the note in my pocket, then I slid behind the table, jumped up and knocked it over, my eyes firmly closed when the spray hit, and then thrust the table forward like a Wisconsin snow plow to knock her down and create my chance to escape. I jumped over the counter, wiping the spray off my face and opening my eyes. I was at the door and was just getting out when her metal dust pan glanced off my head. Still have a bump above my right ear, but had I been a few milliseconds slower I would have had a skull fracture or worse. I ran toward the stairs but saw more cleaning ladies charging up from below, responding to the cries of my assailant. My only hope was to grab a fire extinguisher, smash open the large window in the fifth-floor lobby, and then scramble out onto the ledge. Moments later another cleaning lady was on my ledge, but this one looked twice as large and twice as strong as my first assailant. She was armed with a bottle of Hot Flush extra strength toilet bowl cleaner - concentrated hydrochloric acid - and the meanest looking toilet brush I had ever seen. For some reason, I can remember seeing a flash of a small sticker on the toilet brush handle: it was the Windows 95 logo. Odd - but no time to ponder, for I was about to be reformatted. Luck was with me, though, for just as she approached, a Red Baron's frozen pizza truck drove by on the street below. The top of the truck almost looked soft, and I wondered if it would be possible to survive a landing on it from five stories up. There was one way to find out: with a swift thrust from my right leg, I sent the cleaning lady flying off the ledge. I'm still uncomfortable with what I did, for Dad had always trained us boys to never, ever push girls off buildings. Even though she wanted to kill me, I still hope that she was o.k. I trust that the frozen pizzas in the truck broke her fall after she pierced the roof. Ah, compassion - an inexcusable weakness for a Sci-Cop.
I scampered down a fire escape until I could safely jump to the sidewalk, then jumped just in time to avoid being hit by a spray can of Lysol thrown from above. I dashed to safety, outrunning a final pair of cleaning ladies that charged out of the building. I didn't stop running until I was clear into Greek Town, where I ducked into the Parthenon Restaurant to catch my breath and a little moussaki, maybe some Greek pizza.... Pizza! Charley's note, no longer with me, said something about "the worst pizza" and my town, 1/7. My town - that's not Detroit, but must mean my home town, our home town - Fox City, Wisconsin. Now I remembered. As teenagers, Charley and I had both gone to many birthday parties for our younger siblings at Smokey's Pizza, a madhouse of expensive arcade games that happened to serve pizza as an afterthought, pizza that I had said might possibly be the worst pizza in the galaxy. But Charley loved the stuff. It was his kind of place, the kind of place that offered a little hope to the outcasts, a little solace to the downtrodden, and a lot of beer for the Bears fans. Charles Dudley was asking me to meet him at Smokey's on January 7. I would be there.
As I drove away from Chicago, I remember feeling nervous, as if someone might have been watching me. I looked around carefully - no sign of cleaning ladies, no sign of anyone scoping me. But my Sci-Cop instincts told me that life had just become a lot more complicated. Had I walked into a hot bed of criminals, terrorists, or multilevel marketers?
Normally when I went back to Wisconsin, it was for the one way I know to combine work with pleasure: ice fishing. While enjoying a little R&R, I usually kept a look out for suspicious activity, knowing that fishermen have been major Violators of natural laws, especially the Law of Conservation of Mass. How a 4-foot long, 40 pound muskie becomes a 15-inch wimp of a fish as soon as a stranger or spouse observes it is a paradox that ought to put Schroedinger's Cat to shame, if not to sleep, for good. Whatever supernatural powers such fishermen use to effect instant mass and size reduction is beyond me, but I know it's gotta stop if this delicate Cosmos of ours is going to stay a steady course. This time, though, how could I think of fishing knowing that my friend's life - and maybe mine - was in danger? But I couldn't think of work, either, so fishing it was. Four days of it in a tiny dark shack on the lake - all without paranormal phenomena. Just bad luck.
The seventh came, and I prepared to meet Charley in his old stomping ground. (Smokey's is one of those 24-hour joints that never shut down to let exterminators cut back on the roach population. Best they can do is just add trace amounts of insecticide to the pizza sauce.) I was waiting at a table in the front, away from the kids in the arcade area, when Charley came in and joined me. Low key, causal. His face had a deep gash that was still healing.
He didn't say a word for several minutes - it took him that long to get down his first bite of pizza. Tough crust tonight. Then he looked me straight in the eyes as he picked up a piece of chicken. I could see the fear - and it wasn't only because of the chicken. "Zeta, I'm scared. They're after me. They're probably all over Chicago now looking. I should shut up and hide, but you need to know - Sci-Cops needs to know what I've found." Then he went clammy. His eyes dilated for a few seconds, his jaw quivered, his lips trembled, and the veins on the side of his neck started bulging out. I had tried to warn him about the chicken, but he had swallowed some anyway. I felt for him. He looked around, more nervous than ever. "Let's get out of here and talk - alone, and off the record."
We went outside into the dark coldness of Fox City. We scanned the street as we walked, making sure we weren't being followed. No one was around except a few homeless people huddled in doorways of office buildings, smoking. (I later realized that they weren't homeless: they were employees who had to leave their smoke-free work environments to smoke on breaks. Smokers in Wisconsin usually don't die of lung cancer - it's hypothermia that gets them.) We were alone. Charley began to spill his guts.
"Zeta, have you ever stopped to think about the computers and the software you use? Have you ever been frustrated at all the bugs, the defects, the stupid, mindless mishmash of features? Have you ever wondered how one version of software can be pretty good, and then a big, bloated update comes out that throws away many of the best features and makes life miserable for the users?" I had never had been much of a MegaSoft fan, but I soon learned that he had much more than just one vendor in mind. I took a while for him to loosen up and talk, but when he did, it was a mouthful. Fortunately, I secretly tape recorded his story and have transcribed it below. What follows is all straight from Charley himself, told in his own words, pretty much:
During my last year at the University, I received a small grant from NASA to investigate allegations from a NASA engineer, Ray C. [editor's note: "C." apparently stands for "Conners"], saying that UNIX software updates were not following the standard laws of engineered systems. Those laws teach that any actions taken by "intelligent designers" in a competitive environment will tend to make products better by retaining useful features while striving to introduce overall improvements. It's the way almost every product advances - televisions, light bulbs, snow shovels, kitty litter, facial tissue, you name it. Take cars, for example. They used to be cranked by hand; now we have electronic ignition. They used to be black; now we have mauve. They used to go so slow that you might as well have walked; now they can reach speeds capable of killing tens of thousands of people every year. But with computer software, it's another ball of wax altogether.Charles' story made sense, at least at first. If God was not necessary for life to develop, as every school child learns, then surely programmers are not necessary for the development of software. But the idea of Digital Evolution of software never occurs to most people - and that's exactly how "They" want it - "They" being the Inner Circle of international software producers that pretty much control the world. I was chilled by Charley's story and needed some time to think about it. I sent Charley back to Smokey's, lending him $10 and warning him to stay away from the chicken. I checked into the Paper Villa hotel and called Sarge. Sarge went ballistic when he heard the story. He told me to get off the case, drop it completely, and get back to the auto parts project. Something was odd about his reaction. Then I remembered that Sarge owned 5,000 shares of MegaSoft stock - a little gift he picked up for a related case a few years ago (see Chapter 14). I hung up and wondered, then headed back to the parking lot, on my way to see Charley again. Never got to my car, for someone fired three shots into my chest and ran, leaving me for dead. If it weren't for the paperback copy of Darwin's Origin of Species that I was carrying in my coat pocket, I would be dead. I was injured but still alive. Tried to find Charley, but he was gone. Haven't seen him since, and neither have his parents in Chicago. I fear he may be at the bottom of the Fox River, along with a few local college students who tend to walk into the river every now and then after a frat party. Charley, if you're still alive, this chapter is for you - and you still owe me $10.
What the NASA engineer had done was to examine several of the technologies used at NASA in light of the laws of engineered systems. Almost everything followed the expected trends - improvements in efficiency over time, reduction over time in human effort required to perform a task, improvements in reliability, reductions in training time to perform a task, reductions in size of the system and in resources required to maintain the system, etc. It was true of fuel systems, engine systems, payload systems, life support systems, etc. But in one case, the trends were almost the opposite of what was expected, and that case was computer systems. His analysis showed that they required increasing amounts of resources (memory, storage space), of training time, of maintenance time, and had often become less reliable and more difficult to use. Sure, some computer systems were better and some pieces of code had improved, and the hardware speed was much faster than before, but on the average, a lot of the software and hardware had made puzzling deviations from the expected trends for intelligently designed systems.
Happy to get some external funding, I took the project but thought there was nothing to it. I was naive, assuming that there was some simple explanation for the NASA data. But when I dug into it, I could not avoid coming to the same conclusion: the development of computer software did not appear to be compatible with known principles of intelligent design. It wasn't just Unix systems at NASA. It involved PC software, Macintosh software, IBM mainframes, almost everything except Nintendo. The classic example is word processing, best illustrated by the dominant Word program. This software was originally developed for the Macintosh platform and reached a highly developed - or evolved - state in version 5. Word 5 was widely recognized as a stable, powerful, friendly, and useful piece of software. Then they introduced Word 6. In a pattern that has been repeated in less severe forms many times, Macintosh users were stunned to see that many of the most useful features of Word 5 were missing in Word 6. The program was slow, harder to use, and occupied about 10 times as much disk space and 5 times as much memory. Users wondered how anyone could have designed such a beast, but soon consigned themselves to the new upgrade, struggling for weeks to learn how to use it and make it work. Yes, it had dozens of new features, but its utility had decreased. Intelligent design? We all assumed that the programmers were just over zealous or incompetent - but no one ever suspected the truth.
When the computer virus scandal occurred that drove me out of the Department, I felt like I needed to get to the bottom of the software issue by getting hired as a programmer. I doctored my resume, hid the fact that I had a Ph.D., and interviewed with several big software companies. I felt lucky to land a job with one of the biggest of all.
Personal computer software in particular seemed to display the "paranormal" characteristics that had so puzzled the NASA engineer. Now I thought I could find out why for myself. When I was hired, I thought I would be programming core code for the MegaSoft OfficeMaster line, but instead was just relegated to manual writing, technical support, and busy work - like all the other programmers there that I knew. I never met an actual programmer who wrote real core code - but rumor had it that the real programming was all done in a facility near Dayton, Ohio. I took a few days vacation and flew to Dayton to check out the facility. It was a heavily guarded warehouse that wasn't even marked with the MegaSoft logo, but rumor had it that thousands of programmers worked here. I stayed on, watching the facility from the nearby woods for several days. Although hundreds of cars were parked in the parking lot, I never saw much traffic and never saw more than about 10 people come or go. Very strange.
Several times trucks made deliveries to that facility. With my binoculars, I could see that boxes of computers were being unloaded - Macintosh, Compaqs, IBMs. That gave me an idea that would crack this case. When I returned to my job, I used my own funds to doctor 20 of our computers with built in spy cameras, microphones, and digital transmitters to transmit all computer activity from each computer to a local receiver. With the help of Bob in shipping [editor's note: apparently this was Robert J. Bloomenfeld, now deceased after a freak hard disk accident], who was motivated by the $100 I offered, I prepared some bogus shipping papers and had the doctored computers included with another shipment of newly acquired computers that were being sent to Dayton. I also relied on the help of Danny S. in Purchasing. I then took more vacation to return to Dayton and monitor activity from my "spy" computers. To my delight, the computers were used and installed within hours. Now I had a direct link into the heart of the secret programming center of the world's biggest software producer. There was more data than I could possibly handle, but what I could learn was more than enough.
I soon learned that these computers, along with THOUSANDS of others, were being used for program development - but I never saw evidence a single programmer. THERE WERE NO PROGRAMMERS! The computers themselves, not human designers, were working day and night to develop new software - not by intelligent design, but by the process of "digital evolution." The idea was remarkably similar to organic evolution. Each computer was equipped with replication software for copying existing software, but the replication software was programmed to deliberately and randomly introduce errors each time a copy was made. A flipped bit here, a scrambled disk sector there, a missing byte, a spurious resource fork, it was all random, but these copying errors - software mutations - proved to be the driving force behind the success of MegaSoft Corporation - and, as I would later learn, most other software companies as well. All these years I had believed that Intelligent Design was behind computer software, but now I saw that Digital Evolution was the real Creator.
The principle of Digital Evolution is virtually the same as the well established fact of organic evolution. Random mutations produce change, and natural selection then lets the good changes survive. The natural selection part is done with Artificial Intelligence software on the PCs themselves that launches each mutated piece of code and rejects it instantly if it crashes or fails to perform basic functions properly. Most mutations die a rapid death, but some live on. Those that past the first series of tests are then subjected to increasingly complex tests of functionality. Again, most mutations are garbage, but a few - perhaps one in 10,000 - might be better. While organic evolution takes millions of years to produce, evaluate and select improved species, Digital Evolution lets the process be accelerated by a factor of a million or so. MegaSoft's Word Processor, for example, began as a simple line editor. But after billions of mutations, a search function appeared, then WYSIWIG editing, then a spell checker, then a grammar module, and finally an AutoCorrect feature that automatically turns ":)" into a real smiley face. The grandeur of it all leaves me speechless at times. Each good mutation is tiny, minor, sometimes barely perceptible, but with enough good mutations in a row, the product improves and becomes more valuable. Most of the testing is performed by Artificial Intelligence software, but the final testing requires human input. That means beta testers - thousands of them. They need to see if any of the good mutations have wiped out other necessary parts of the program or caused new problems that were missed in the AI screening. If an improved program has become unviable, it's sent back for more random mutations. Only the best of the best will be shipped. It's a tedious process, but one that frees the corporation from the burden of intelligent creation.
As I monitored various computers, I saw new versions of all programs in the MegaSoft Office Master Suite evolving, day by day. These programs include the Word Warden word processor, the Exhale spreadsheet, the PowerPunt presentation program, and the Wish-u-well Basic macro language. Apparently, MegaSoft had concluded that this suite of programs were simply too complex to be programmed by human intelligence. Instead, the software arose through blind chance. It's development was nurtured by the unseen, guiding hand of Digital Evolution, powered by artificial selection (the selection process in which AI programs selected survivors after each series of mutations) over millions of generations, and finally blessed by human beta-testers.
All of this suddenly made sense out of some strange hints that a couple of long-timers in MegaSoft Corp. had given when I had asked why I wasn't programming. Now I think Ray Conners and Nancy Salvucci both may have known about Digital Evolution, but I guess they learned to not say too much. [Editor's note: Ray and Nancy passed away recently in unrelated but identical accidents when compact disk versions of MegaSoft's Universal Encyclopedia overheated and burst into intense flames, filling their cubicles with toxic fumes. Megasoft notes that this problem may have been caused by incorrect system configurations or software installation procedures on their part.]
At first I was awestruck at the process. Watching evolution at work was inspiring somehow. But then I realized why updates are often worse than the previous version: mutations introduce lots of baggage, lots of subtle problems, because mutations are usually mistakes and artificial selection can't possibly take out all of the problems. Hidden bugs, gross "design" flaws, anti-productivity factors accumulate that just can't be solved with more random mutations. Some things simply can't be fixed without intelligence. Each time we shipped a new update, we were, in a sense, threatening our customers with a product that may have survived one particular series of selection tests, but which was quite unlikely to be a properly "designed" piece of software for the customer because it never was designed. Take the AutoSavior feature in Word Warden. It appeared to protect documents against loss, but in fact could cause a saved document to be wiped out - with no warning to the user.
After reflection, I concluded that we were deceiving our customers. A Darwinian mechanism may be fine for the creation of life, but for something as complex as software, it would never do. Somebody needed to let them know. Software needed intelligent design, not the blind guidance of random mutations.
I returned to work, indignant, and stormed into the Development Manager's office. I spilled the beans, all of them. He just grinned, then said, "So it was you! We just discovered a doctored computer in Dayton. If anyone ever learns of this, do you have any idea how much of the global economy would be ruined? People would no longer trust computers, productivity would plummet, our company would perish - and lives would be lost." He pressed a buzzer and two armed thugs entered, both wearing "Intel Inside" T-shirts. No time to think, I threw myself through the glass window behind the manager's desk, cutting my face badly, but I was able to get up and run. I've been running ever since.
I used a fake name and got a job in the missing persons bureau in Chicago where I had a friend. Then I thought of you and sent the e-mail from work. A few days later I was sick and missed work. When I came in the next day, my friend told me that someone "scary" had come in, someone that looked a lot like Al Gore only without the sense of humor, and he was looking for Charles Dudley. I figured you would come soon and I felt that I had to meet you. Knowing that I couldn't stay in that office for more than a few moments, I left a stick-it note for you and rushed out the fire escape. I called my friend that night, but couldn't reach her. Zeta, I'm scared, real scared. I've tried calling my coworkers, but it seems that everyone I knew in that office has simply disappeared. Now they're all "MegaSoft Desaparecidos."
### - End of Dudley's Account - ###
I called Sarge once to ask why he tried to have me killed. He denied it, of course, and said he was just trying to protect my life by getting me off the software case - claims he didn't report me to MegaSoft or anyone else. I want to believe that. But someone who works for Them may have been on my tail or perhaps had bugged Sarge's line. In any case, I'm a marked man. My number is almost up, I suppose, but the world needs to know what Charles Dudley discovered. The next time you wonder why software gets harder to use with each update, just remember who designed it - or rather, who didn't. The Case of the Missing Programmer: it's not closed yet.
My head is still spinning over this case. It's deeper and more sinister than I could have imagined. I feel doomed, but the truth must be revealed. The Case of the Missing Programmer is not just about a greedy corporation exploiting the laws of nature to evolve superior software through "Digital Evolution." PARANORMAL PHENOMENA are definitely involved after all, in direct conflict with the laws of nature. MegaSoft and the whole Military-Industrial Software Complex are violators and ought to be shut down permanently by Sci-Cops before it's too late, but their power is so great that even the Sci-Cops Corps has been infiltrated, corrupted, and controlled. Now my life is being sought by my own former peers, as well as by the henchmen of MegaSoft.
Charley's story of Digital Evolution made a lot of sense - at first. Start with a piece of basic code, maybe just enough to display a screen or window. Then let that code mutate randomly over and over again. Throw away all the bad mutations but keep the good. Do this over and over, millions of times, and sooner or later, you'll have a cursor for selecting text, copy and paste functions, open and save, text formating, paragraph styles, spell checking, postscript printing, OLE automation for file sharing, grammar checking, smiley faces, the works. Sure, anything is possible given enough time and enough mutations - or so I thought at first.
My views changed the day I got seated next to an engineer on a crowded flight to Miami. Normally I avoid engineers. Semi-literate overpaid techno-dabblers who think they know science, most engineers repulse real scientists like myself. But Mr. Dobbs was different. In five minutes, I knew that he could read and think on his own. The guy even knew who Brahms was - not bad for someone who had "metallurgist" written all over him. And I could see that he loved his field - bicycle design. He was really into metal and chains, but in a respectable way. Once he realized I knew a thing or two about science, he launched into a discourse on lightweight alloys and composite materials for frames. It got old in a hurry though, so I tried to throw him for a loop. The MegaSoft case was still on my mind, but I was still surprised to hear my own twisted query:
"Say, a friend of mine at the National Enquirer says he's got proof that bicycle design is a fraud. Says that bicycle manufacturers don't hire real engineers, but that they use high school drop-outs to deliberately introduce random manufacturing errors - mutations, so to speak - in their products. The good mutations result in increased demand, while the bad mutations result in customer complaints. They pick the good and go from there, resulting in a never ending series of improvements over the years."
I just made all that up, of course, but the guy took me seriously. It was like the idea had been thrown at him before. He frowned, then gritted his tetracycline-stained teeth and began his lecture. "Come on, you don't believe that stuff, do you? Any company that relies on small incremental change in today's market will go extinct in a hurry. The cycling world is competitive, demanding, high tech. To get to the next level of technology, the whole bike needs to be redesigned, with massive interactions between the changes. When we update a technological area like the sprocket or the brakes, we need to modify many other systems at the same time or it may not work at all. And it takes design - lots of intelligent design, coupled with huge arrays of carefully designed technical tests and consumer evaluations."
He became more animated as he continued, rolling up his sleeve to scratch his left arm, revealing a tattoo that looked remarkably like a classic phase diagram for a non-ferrous alloy. "Look," he said, "let me make it simple. Start with a primitive tricycle and try to evolve a simple one-speed two-wheeler out of that. Do this as a homework assignment tonight and you'll see what I mean. It's possible to think of a thousand small steps along the path, but almost all of those steps involve non-functional or adversely affected intermediates. A tricycle without a third wheel is defective unless both of the remaining wheels are properly aligned for balance. Adding a sprocket just means undesired extra weight unless you also add a properly designed chain, pedals, teeth on the receiving hub to be driven by the chain, etc. The intermediate steps are all losers until everything comes together at once. Tiny steps won't get you there - you need big, massive, simultaneous changes in multiple systems - all of which require science and engineering, not random minor mutations. Now some companies - the real conservative types - do rely on small incremental changes, lacking the engineering staff to make big advances in the art. So they change the paint or strengthen a shaft or add more padding to a seat. That keeps them in business for a while, but they'll never take the industry anywhere new. They stay in equilibrium. They'll never lead, and will eventually go under in the face of superior competitive technology. It takes designers like me to punctuate the equilibrium and introduce the next wave of progress."
Beads of cold sweat began rolling down my forehead like condensate on a dehumidifier's coils in a Georgia basement. This time it wasn't the airplane food that got to me - it was the stunning implications of what this engineer was telling me. I couldn't resist being more direct: "I guess the same principle could apply to computers . . ." He was on the same wavelength right away. "Of course - both software and hardware. Lots of systems interact. Change one, and many systems need to be modified to work. That's why it's so much work to create decent software or to make updates for new hardware systems or to port software over to new operating systems. . . ."
I tuned out and thought. If MegaSoft wasn't using programmers, how could they possibly get working software through the use of mutations? Only if someone applied intelligence to select the mutations, or to predict which mutations would need to be kept and which were to be discarded. But how?
Back to Dalton. There was something I was missing, something more to the MegaSoft story than just blind mutations. The more I considered the words of the engineer, the more I realized that minor mutations could never lead to massive new improvements without some kind of external help, an unseen hand moving things toward a final goal. Intelligent programming was already eliminated - too expensive, I guess, for Megasoft. But something - or somebody - had to be applying genuine intelligence to keep needed mutations alive until all the pieces came together. Or perhaps something or somebody was intelligently directing the right kind of mutations in the first place. Thus, back to Dalton.
As I checked into the local Motel 666, I ran into an old Sci-Cops friend in the lobby. Agent Radon, a former lecturer in forensic psychobotany who joined Sci-Cops when his field of expertise was labeled "fraudulent" by jealous peers, now stood before me in his usual disguise, dressed as an Orkin exterminator with a fake goatee. He was a friend - I sensed no need to run. He was startled, but quick to talk as soon as we were outside, alone. "Zeta, look out for Sarge. He's got deep rage and ..."
"I know, I know. But what are you doing here?"
"Just arrived. I've got intelligence that massive 337 activity is happening here." 337 - that's high level psychic activity - a broad category for some of the most ominous violations of natural law. He continued: "Two top suspected psychics just moved here, out of the blue. One a high-paid consultant to Hillary, and the other from Nashville, giving up her big consulting business with major country music stars. Very strange. Why here? But intelligence says big money is involved - cars, huge homes, authentic Elvis paraphernalia, and rooms full of computers for each. And today I learned that several other psychics in mansions may be in this area - may even be some kind of headquarters for psychics, but very secretive. Very strange. Strangest of all, Sarge called me off the case, assigned me to suspicious potato phenomena in Idaho. I'm here incognito, on my own time, against orders. Zeta, something stinks."
Still fearing for my life, I shadowed Agent Radon for a few days, anxious to help but careful to stay hidden. We set up shop near one of the psychic mansions and eventually found what I feared: direct ties to Megasoft! With a variety of spy cameras, listening devices, and even a few more rigged computer gifts, we learned a truth too terrible to bear: genuine psychic power was at the heart of MegaSoft's Digital Evolution. Monstrously illegal, a violation of all we stood for, a threat to the order of the cosmos, and yet it was happening right there in Dayton.
True psychics were being used. They would select the mutated programs that could eventually become fruitful. The many successive mutations needed for the next generation of features would not offer advantages on their own or in isolation, but with paranormal forces, the psychics were able to select the gems out of the hay stack of chaos that needed to be kept alive until more and more beneficial mutations could be added, finally resulting in an advance that could survive on its own. The process was stunning: with millions of mutations produced each day, the psychics would enter seven-digit I.D. codes to select the winners, just going on the "feel" of the numbers in their minds, occasionally noting what features they saw coming out of a particular line of mutations to help the marketers. Sometimes the promised features never developed, resulting in "vaporware," but usually the psychics were pretty close. Not perfect, but still amazing. Lots of bugs made it past their scrutiny - some pretty major ones - but there was still enough meat on those bones to make the zombie walk and talk (referring to their system software, Widows 95, so named for the high incidence of male cardiac arrest among overstressed beta testers - and new users).
The development of their software was paranormal, all right - the only reasonable explanation for the strange quality trends in MegaSoft products. Too stupid to be engineered by design, but far too successful for blind chance and natural selection. We weren't talking about natural selection at all - it was Unnatural Selection, the result of raw paranormal power from a team of five or six psychics, all living lavish lifestyles that would make Liberace look like a monk (but still cheaper than the thousands of programmers that would be needed to meet the demands of the modern marketplace). By the end of that week, we had enough evidence to put away most of MegaSoft's psychics for life and to close the doors of MegaSoft forever.
Knowing Sarge to be bought out by MegaSoft, we went directly to the White House, contacting the National Security Director, the Justice Department, and the Secretary of the Treasury using an emergency code for national security crises. Radon and I teleconferenced and broke the amazing news. We explained what we had learned, that MegaSoft was the ENEMY, employing genuine psychics to commit paranormal deeds in violation of numerous natural laws. We couldn't make the arrests on our own, but would need massive support, especially given the potential for corrupt officials like Sarge to be influenced by MegaSoft money. Justice seemed interested but hesitant, not appreciating the significance of natural laws but wondering instead if the use of psychics might be a violation of antitrust laws. But the others were cold. They whispered quietly for nearly a minute, like a pack of hyenas whining as they approach a lion and his meal. Then they promised full support. I was suspicious. They asked where we were staying so that they could ensure our protection as the arrests were made. Lying, I told them we were in room 353 at the Courtyard Inn across the street. We were thanked for our "invaluable" and "heroic" work and told to stay in our hotel until the arrests had been made. The Secretary spoke of a National Medal of Honor for each of us. Thirty minutes later, the Courtyard Inn was surrounded by BATF troops dressed in black, their faces shrouded in ski masks. Agents were on the roof and in the parking lot, with waves going up both stairways to the third floor of the wing that apparently held room 353. Radon couldn't believe what was happening. I urged him to flee with me, but he stayed in the room, shocked and angry. Nearly numb, he turned on the TV and watched Barney. I was never very good at psychotherapy, at least not in the Jungian sense, but I did what I could for Radon before I left. Gave him my gun and told him to lay low. Tossed in some dental floss, too, hoping it would cheer Radon up a bit. I hurried out the back and walked into the brush and haven't stopped since. Well, maybe a few times. Before leaving Dayton, I went to the department store, picked up some ammo and a new piece in the school supplies section (Dayton's a tough town). Hope Radon makes it, but I've got a full time job now just trying to keep myself alive. Got a new name, a fake resume, and am surviving by teaching Social Justice Studies at a local community college.
Digital Evolution - it was a hoax, sort of. Sounded good, but just didn't make sense when you considered the details. But who'd have thought it would take something outside the nature that we know to make it work? Maybe someday we'll get real intelligently designed software instead of paranormally assisted mutations - heaven only knows when. Until that day, you can keep your updates. I'm not trusting my word processor to a committee of psychics that should have been jailed in the first place.
Intro to Sci-Cops
Sci-Cops and the Case of the Time-Traveling Lawyers
Sci-Cops and the Trouble with Magicians
In the Gut: Busting Mr. More-than-perfect, Jack Welch
Sci-Cops and the Case of the Healing Needle (new!)
Sci-Cops Graphics and Photos
More cracked humor
Beam back to Jeff Lindsay's planet