Dear Dave

Friday, 21 September 2007

The List

Dear Dave,

Any news yet? I take it Squiggly has decided to stay put for a while longer. How overdue does she/he have to be before the midwives break out the dynamite? I seem to remember that Fraser was nine days late and, the more time dragged on, the less likely it seemed that he would ever be born. It was crazy but life went into limbo as we waited impatiently for him to do the only sensible thing and come out quietly with his legs up. He wasn't having any of it, however. When he finally deigned to appear, he was facing the wrong way and had to be dragged out by the head. (A pattern of life we seem to repeat in some form on an almost daily basis).

Marie was even more awkward. She was determined to stick her toes out first just to test the temperature. Nothing would persuade her otherwise and she had to be yanked out through the emergency exit. Stubborn drama queen? My little girl? Never...

Lewis, at least, turned up on time and without much palaver. If anything, he was a little too laid-back and easy-going. He might have been born even more smoothly if he'd bothered to fight his way out of his protective bubble. But no. He wanted to be born in his own private water-bed. He likes his comfort, that one.

Anyway, good luck and best wishes to Liz. Remember to make the midwives do whatever she wants and try your best to get her whatever she asks for (unless it's sharp and pointy and she wants you to stand close by).

Things are sort of going OK here. Sarah had her redundancy 'hearing' at LBO yesterday - the one where she had to explain to the two managers who fired her why they were wrong. This was, obviously, never going to go well but we were pinning our hopes on the third member of the Inquisition who was supposed to be an impartial manager from another department. No one told Sarah who it was going to be until the day, however. She phoned me straight away when she found out. It was Gerald, my old boss from when I worked in the IT department. This was not good news.

"What do you know about him?" Sarah asked.

I grimaced, glad that she couldn't see my face. "Dinosaurs find him old-fashioned and he can't really see the point of women."


"Yeah, I'm sure they'd have pensioned him off years ago if he hadn't rigged up half the code so that only he knows how it works. Not that even he really knows, half the time."

"I need you to be more encouraging here," she said.

"Sorry..." I didn't know what else to say.

There was a silence punctuated by swamp sounds. "What's that squelching noise in the background?" asked Sarah.

"Marie." I glanced over from my seat at the kitchen table to where the girl was stomping around in slime, her trouser legs rolled up as high as they would go. "I've got her doing foot painting."

"Is that wise?" said Sarah, somewhat agitated by this news.

"Almost certainly not, but she's really getting into it. I think we're going to need some more pink paint."

"I like pink!" shouted Marie, gleefully, and jumped up and down.

I wiped a fleck of paint from my glasses. Then I had an idea. "Yeah, er, what would happen if, for some reason, Gerald couldn't make it?"

"I don't know. It might say in the formal notification they sent me..." There was a rustle of paper as she searched around. "Yes, it has a get-out clause. 'If the named arbiter cannot attend the consultation meeting, then his or her deputy will attend as replacement. In this eventuality, all duties relating to the meeting will henceforth transfer to the replacement.' Which, I presume, means it's up to the deputy to make decisions and do the paperwork. Do you think Gerald will want to delegate?"

"Nope, he wouldn't dream of passing up the chance to look official and exert some power. Who's his deputy, though?"

"I'll check the org chart..." There was another pause. "Looks like someone called Morag Chandler."

This was much more promising. "She'd be good. She's fair, doesn't tolerate nonsense and bites the heads off fools. She'll be more than up for a fight with Steve and Scott. You want her."

"And how am I supposed to arrange that?" asked Sarah.

"Leave it to me," I said.

This didn't come across in the manly and reassuring way I'd hoped. "What? What are you going to do?" Sarah sounded anxious.

"Woh, calm down," I said. "I just think I can get Rob to keep Gerald out of the way for a few hours, that's all. I'm not going to turn up and send the kids in with water balloons and dung bombs."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, not unless they actually fire you, anyway. Keep on with your preparation for the meeting and I'll see what I can do. Speak to you later. Love you."

"Love you, too. Just don't do anything silly, OK?"

"OK. Bye."

I hung up and then immediately phoned Rob, my friend who still works in the IT department at LBO.

"I need you to do me a favour," I said, once we'd exchanged pleasantries.

"Sure. What is it?"

"I need you to distract Gerald for the rest of the day. I need you to use the List."

"You what?" he spluttered but then lowered his voice. "Why?"

I explained about the hearing whilst trying to keep Marie on the paper and away from the clean laundry.

"I don't know," muttered Rob, when I was done. "There's not much still on there. It's been eight years and I've had a few close scrapes since you left. What if something happens and I..."

"Come on. You must be able to do something. I gave you the List in the first place."

"It's not like you wrote it," he said.

"Well, I added to it. Have you added anything to it? Look, I really need your help. What do I have to do here? You want me to lose to you at Mario Kart or something?"

"Not really. I tell you what, you could be best man at my wedding. How about that?"

I sighed. "I'd rather just sit next to the buffet and get mildly drunk while enjoying not having the kids around, if that's all right?" A terrible thought crossed my mind. "You're not inviting the kids, are you?"

"I might do, at this rate," he said, sounding peeved. "Aren't you supposed to say, 'Congratulations'?"

"Oh, yeah, sorry. Congratulations! Now, about the List..."

"Only if you agree to wear a kilt and stand at the front holding the rings."

"I have to wear a kilt!? Have you seen my knees?"

"Hang on a minute while I pencil your children onto the guest list."

"OK, OK, I'll do it," I said, caving in. "I can't believe you're holding me to ransom over this. I am so giving you crystal sherry glasses as a gift."

"That's OK. You're getting novelty cuff links as a thank you present."

"Cheers... Now, the List!?"

The List takes the form of a battered and yellowed notebook and has had a mythical status within the technical division of LBO since back in a time when making an automatic calculation involved turning a crank handle. It has been passed secretly down through generations of prospectless techies, hidden from management and any that show aspirations to be promoted to the dark side. Sometimes it has disappeared from view for years, only to be rediscovered in moments of greatest need. It has come to the rescue of many a hapless engineer and some say, that if the List is ever used up, then it will be the beginning of the end - hot desking will become mandatory and internet access will be denied, new development will cease and all that will be left is bug-fixing...

Once upon a time, the List was in the care of my mentor. He gave it to me when he left the company. I, in turn, gave it to Rob when I left. It records all the subtle technical faults in the system that senior management is entirely unaware of but that would strike fear into their hearts if they were ever informed. By suddenly 'discovering' one of the problems on the List, an engineer can distract attention from a different disaster that's much more their fault. Of course, there is a price to be paid - all the problems are difficult, dull or time-consuming to fix. The List is never to be used lightly. It saved me on one occasion, however. When a race over my cubicle assault course led to myself, several co-workers and a vending machine falling out a window, the List ensured we got away with only our minor injuries and several weeks of database migration. It was a close thing.

More famously, LBO was years ahead of the game on Y2K because my old mentor needed to divert his superiors while he hunted around for the portion of fish and chips he'd lost in the internal workings of the primary mainframe. That incident has become legend.

I started suggesting entries from the List that Rob could use. "How about the Conduit Issue?"

This is one of the items on the List that is situation dependent. The password and access security on the LBO network is very tight. The data, however, travels totally unencrypted between buildings using cabling that runs only a few feet underground. This fact would obviously be a cause for concern whenever it was pointed out, but is liable to create much more panic amongst senior management if they look out the window and see a couple of shifty looking workmen poking around under a manhole cover. Rob keeps Virgin Media on speed-dial just in case of such a fortuitous circumstance being required.

"No time," replied Rob. "I'll never get a maintenance guy out here before this afternoon."

"You're right." I wracked my brains. "How about the NeverDay Accounts?"

In the early '80s, LBO introduced a thirty year savings plan. Not many people took it up and it quickly died a death. No one would remember it at all if it weren't for the five customers who signed up on the 29th February 1984. Due to an error in the code, their interest calculations have been somewhat inflated and they now own the company. On the plus side, there's another error which means, since 2014 isn't a leap year, the policies will never mature and the customers will never be paid. If the accountants ever find out, however, there'll be pandemonium enough to cover over almost any other catastrophe. (And, yeah, it could be fixed really easily but, unfortunately, that module of code got re-used and now forms part of almost every system in LBO. Testing nothing else got broken by the fix would take forever).

"NeverDay is overkill," said Rob. "I'm not taking the flak for uncovering that."

I could see his point. "OK, then, the Name Jumbler?"

When a customer's name is entered into the system it is stored surname first, followed by first names. Each of the elements is separated by a space. John Edward Smith becomes Smith John Edward. This makes it easy to list customers alphabetically by surname. When the system retrieves a name, it looks for spaces and re-arranges the name back to the right order. Letters would be sent to John E Smith. This works great almost all the time. However, the designer had obviously never met anyone with a hyphen-less double-barreled surname. John Edward Smith Jones gets stored as Smith Jones John Edward but comes back as Jones John Edward Smith. Every time. That's got to be annoying for all LBO's punctuation-phobic customers.

"That's maybe underkill," said Rob. "Gerald's not going to care. How many customers with hyphen-less double-barreled surnames do you think we have?"

"It's not the number; it's the importance," I said, becoming impatient. Sarah's meeting was fast approaching. Marie was also running out of paper. "There are a few high-profile special cases. See if Her Royal Highness, Princess Enid, Duchess of Anglesey, is still a policy holder."

"What? Hang on a minute. Have you got a policy number?"

"It's on the List."

"I'll need to get it out from behind the air-vent cover. I'll put you on hold..."

"Wait! No..." It was too late. I was subjected to fifteen minutes of Brahms and irritating reminders that my call was important.

Eventually, Rob came back on. "Right, got it."

"What were you doing?" I hissed.

"It was still in the air-vent in my old cubicle. I had to go buy doughnuts to lure people out of the room before I could get to it. I told them it was Rupert's birthday."

"Who's Rupert?" I asked.

"I dunno. I'm making this up as I go along."

"And no one queried?"

"Who queries free doughnuts?" said Rob.

"True. You might want to add that to the List as another potential security risk."

"Yeah, hadn't thought of it like that," he said. "Where's this policy number then? Oh, got it. Just hang on while I call it up... Right... OK, they put 'HRH' in as her title so that's fine but, oh, they tried making 'Duchess of Anglesey' her surname which means the system thinks her first name is 'of' and they left 'Princess' in there, which makes her initials... Oh, flip..."

"Yep, she gets letters addressed to 'HRH of APE Duchess'."

"Gerald will go ballistic," said Rob. "I still don't see how it's going to keep him out the way, though. He'll get someone else to sort it."

"No, he won't. Check out the name storage and retrieval modules - his name is all over them. He'll lock himself in his office and spend the rest of the week hacking up a solution."

"But there is no solution," argued Rob, forgetting to whisper. "All the data's compromised. Even if he changed the code, someone would have to go through about five million customer records to check which ones are knackered. Not that it'll be possible to tell with some of them without contacting the customer. It can't be fixed."

"His pride will make him try. Go tell him."

Rob subsided. "All right, all right. But your speech better be good."

"I'll start writing it now. Well, as soon as I've got the pink footprints off the telly. Things got a little out of hand while you had me on hold."

"Good luck with that."

"You, too."

I hung up and set myself to scrubbing a small child and various appliances. There was nothing else I could do.

Sarah phoned me a few hours later. The List had worked its magic. Gerald had been unexpectedly detained by a technical crisis and Morag had been unceremoniously ordered to the hearing. Apparently, she was fuming before she even arrived and was looking for a fight. Sarah's manager, Steve, was pretty quiet through the whole thing. (His wife, Deborah, still needs my help, so she's been advocating for Sarah ever since the redundancies were announced). Steve's manager, Scott, however, was as smug and annoying as ever and Morag told him where to go.

She even drew diagrams.

It's going to be another couple of weeks before final decisions are made but I think there's a good chance things should work out well.

I'd better start on that speech.

Yours in a woman's world,


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