VirileMail - Chapter 3[edit | edit source]

The 95 Percent Solution[edit | edit source]

Main office building for Antler Network Services.

I actually got a good solid six hours of sleep for a change. When I got to work Saturday morning I told Fred that Erin was going to hire two new network administrators and that I was being shifted to a new project.

Fred told me that he had gotten an email from Dave warning him to expect Brad Emphrone early on Monday.

I reminded Fred that Judy had promised to be in by 8:00 on Monday. “The three of you should figure out which shifts you will each have.” We both knew that Judy would probably want to go back on night shift because it meshed with her husband’s work schedule and allowed her to spend days with her son.

I handed Fred a draft of a job description for the permanent network administrator. “Let me know if you have any suggested modifications.”

Fred read the job description right then and said, “It might be tough getting someone with experience for what they pay us.”

I had not told Fred about my impending pay raise. “With this new project getting under way, there seems to be a new flow of cash. This might be the time to suggest that you, Judy and the new hire all get a boost in pay over what we have been getting. You and Judy now have experience, and if they want to hire someone with experience, the company is going to have to pay more.”

Fred went to the door, ready to leave. He turned back, with a little grin on his face. “Check the system diagnostics log. I left you a note.” With that enigmatic line, Fred left for home.

Rather than do as Fred suggested I continued my usual routine and I checked the webcam image files. There were two more roach sightings. Then I watched the custodian enter the server room the previous night. He went right to the back of the room and was out of sight for ten minutes. Then he came back into view of the camera, pulled the suction hose down from its ceiling mount and began vacuuming all of the equipment racks. Finally he vacuumed the floor then went around setting insect traps in all the corners of the room.

I went to the server room and tried to figure out what the custodian had done in the back of the room behind the server racks. I found that he had spackled shut the hole in wall. I picked up one of the insect traps and saw that there were two bugs stuck in its adhesive.

I went back to my desk and checked my email. Chloe had sent the new project members a first draft of a report on plans for completing the project. I started going through the report and filling in what I knew about the new software and its incredibly heavy memory and CPU requirements. Chloe had written into the report that we would need new hardware for the project to keep the new software from draining computing resources from other company operations.

I was surprised by Chloe’s estimate of how much new hardware would be needed. She was recommending that we roughly double the equipment now in the server room. I started plotted out the growth in computing resources that had been devoted to the new project over the past two days. As I started to review the data, I was astounded by the amount of computing activity being driven by the new software and originating from the IP address of the team in the Czech Republic. Over night there had been a rapid rise in their demand for RAM, disk space, and CPU cycles.

I stared in disbelief at the network diagnostics. During the past three months we had gradually increased from an average of 35% resource utilization to nearly 40%. At peak times we approached 75% utilization of available CPU cycles. Fred, Judy and I had tentative plans sketched out for a new hardware upgrade in about six months. But now, with the new Czech software up and running, we were at a constant 95% utilization of CPU cycles.

At first I thought there was a bug in the system diagnostics. Normally CPU utilization changed with time as various clients of our network services placed demands on the system. But for the past seven hours, the diagnostics showed a steady 95% CPU utilization. I set up a plot of resource use by the VirileMail software and saw at once what was going on. Computer resources for VirileMail exactly varied with all other resource use, keeping total CPU utilization at 95%. That meant that the team in the Czech Republic was monitoring available resources and matching their demands to what was available.

My heart started to pound. There was no way anyone outside of our facility could know what our available computing resources were. We had been hacked! Somehow the Czech team knew what they should not be able to know.

I pulled up the network administration log and saw the note from Fred: “System resource use has gone into the red. Chloe says this was approved by Geisler and that we should accelerate plans for purchasing new hardware.” Why had Fred been so subtle about warning me? This was not a trivial matter.

I went back to my computer and sent Chloe an email:

“There is something strange going on with the VirileMail software. The company site in the Czech Republic has been relentlessly maxing out our computing resources for the past seven hours. Did someone give them administrative access to our network? Fred left me a note saying that Geisler approved this. Is that true?”

After sending the email, I set about trying to detect a new admin account on our network. Unless it was some cleverly hidden hack, there was no new admin account that would allow the Czechs access to our system diagnostics and resource utilization reports.

Don’t sweat it[edit | edit source]

I was still sweating and searching for evidence that we had been hacked when Chloe came into the room. She had a mischievous grin on her face, “I got your email,” She said happily.

I eased back in my chair and wiped sweat off of my brow. I could tell from the look on her face that she had an explanation for what was going on. I mumbled, “We need better communication around here.” Chloe came over and looked at the system diagnostics on my monitor. I pointed at the redlined CPU utilization, “According to specs, any persistence above 75% CPU utilization is cause for an immediate addition of more CPUs to the network.”

“Relax, Joe. Daniela knows what she is doing. She told me that they would not take us over 95% CPU utilization. Have we gone over 95?” She was leaning close to me in order to get a good view of the monitor and should have been able to see as well as I could that the company’s network had been right on 95% for the past several hours. Her hair looked like she had put some kind of microglitter on it and she smelled nice too. Still, she had dark bags under her eyes and I guessed she had gone home just long enough for a shower. Her calm manner was a good sign. All the anxiety and fear drained out of me.

Chloe looked into my eyes and I felt like maybe she could read my mind and see in my eyes that I was smitten with her. I finally replied to her question, “No, we have not gone over 95, and I’m damned if I can figure out why. Dr. Gajduskova’s team is somehow exactly matching their use of our resources to what is available. They should not be able to do that.”

Chloe again looked at the monitor and I gave her time to assimilate the large amount of data on the system resources report page. I looked at her mouth and could see a frown forming. She said, “In the middle of the night, Fred warned me that resource use was climbing, but….damn! Is this correct?”

I traced my finger along the plot of CPU use again. I explained, “This plot shows CPU utilization. It has been at 95% for hours.”

She straightened up and started pacing. After a minute she looked at me. “Damned clever AI. Somehow it is intelligently using almost all of our resources without maxing us out and degrading system performance.”

She was right: the new drain on our computing resources was being controlled in a responsible way. But what could be using so much computing power? Not some silly email software package. “Look, this is supposed to be a piece of client-driven software. A user tries to write an email and the built-in AI makes suggestions for what to include in the message. Gajduskova’s team would have to be a bunch of robots to keep their resource demands matched so close to what is available.”

Chloe shook her head. “They must be using a buffer. They must have a backlog of demand for CPU cycles and as we have excess capacity, they send over more code to crunch.”

Chloe’s suggestion made sense; there really was no other explanation. “I agree, that must be what they are doing. But I cannot see how they know when we have excess capacity. That information should only be available to system administrative accounts. There are two of those. The one we use day-to-day and a backup.”

Chloe shrugged and sat down. She took off her shoes and started massaging one of her feet. She always wore running shoes and white tube socks. “Brian mentioned that he was helping Gajduskova’s team interface with our network. You better ask Brian if he set some system resource data pipe for the Czechs.”

I almost said, “But Brian does not have the required authority to access our network’s CPU usage level,” but I stopped myself. For all I knew, with the holes I had in my recent memories, I could have set up a feed of our CPU usage level to Gajduskova. “I’ll do that, and I’ll send you my additions for the project report.”

Chloe slumped back into her chair. “Thanks.” Her eyes shut and her mouth hung open in a strangely slack-jawed way. She mumbled, “I’m going to crash for a few hours.”

I figured she meant she would be heading home to catch up on sleep, but I watched with fascination as her chin sank to her chest and she started to snore. I’d heard of people falling asleep while walking down the street, but I’d never seen someone drop off to sleep so fast.

There was a cot in the main conference room that staff used sometimes when working late to meet deadlines. I went and got the cot and wheeled it to my office. Chloe hardly woke up when I pulled her off the chair and put her onto the cot. I was shocked at the feel of spine and ribs as I held her torso. The only significant flesh on her was in her legs which I had frequently admired. I’d heard that she ran long distance races.

Chloe started snoring softly and I spent another half hour trying to figure out what was holding CPU utilization right at 95%. Finally, I gave up and called Brian’s cell phone number. After half a dozen rings, Brian opened the connection. He sounded half asleep, “What?”

I regretted waking him up. I asked, “Did you set up some way to supply Gajduskova’s team with our system resources status?”

His reply came without hesitation. “Of course not. I don’t have access to that information.”

I could tell that Brian was mad at me for waking him up to ask if he had done something he could not have done. I tried to explain what was going on and added, “Chloe suggested that I ask you what you have been doing to help Gajduskova’s team use our network.”

Brian moaned, “Oh, man. Is she going to be some sort of meddling manager?”

I said, “Sorry to bother you. Good night.” I broke the phone connection.

What was the point of asking Brian? I couldn’t trust his memories any more than I could trust my own. Suddenly I didn’t care about 95% CPU usage. My new boss had been told about the situation and she didn’t seem to care. I was off the hook. I had work to do. I was going to polish the job description for the new network administrator position and send it to Erin. Then I would work to contribute what I could to the project report Chloe had been ordered to produce.

Chloe. She was sleeping under an air vent and I could see goose bumps on her legs. I went to the conference room and got a blanket. After covering her with the blanket I went back to pounding my keyboard.

When I looked up again Chloe was watching me. I said, “Good morning.” I looked at the clock on my monitor and saw that it was 2:00 in the afternoon.

Chloe sat up and stretched. “What are you working on? You were typing away like a maniac.”

I looked back at what I had added to the project report. Somehow, as I had typed I had become fully conscious of all that I had done in the past few days. All my work on the new project still seemed like a dream, but I understood what I had done. The strange thing was, I had no idea how I knew it. Since Wednesday, it seemed like I had learned more about computer science than I had in four years of college. But where had it come from? It had all just flowed out of my fingers and into the keyboard.

And with my recovered memories, I thought I knew how Gajduskova’s team was able to monitor the available computing resources of our network. I now remembered that I had set up a direct feed of the server network’s CPU cycle availability right into the VirileMail software. What happened after that, I was not sure. I checked the network’s disk allocation table and saw that the VirileMail software now occupied over 50 terabytes of disk space. Somewhere in that ocean of code there must have been a routine to send the CPU cycle availability back to Gajduskova’s team in the Czech Republic. I started wondering what kind of software development team they must have had in place at their end to be able to push our network’s resources so hard.

Chloe put her hand on my shoulder and shocked me out of my line of thought. I looked up at Chloe and saw that she was still looking at me in awe. I placed one of my hands on hers and noticed that the tips of my fingers felt bruised and swollen. I looked at my finger tips then back into Chloe’s eyes. I realized that I had not answered her question. “I’ve been adding details to the project report.”

Chloe shook her head like she was trying to clear it. “It all came back to you didn’t it.” The way she said it, it really wasn’t a question. She knew.

I realized that she must have gone through the same thing over night while drafting the project report. I knew it was not normal for people to unconsciously do complex work and then remember it like a dream. Somehow, the knowledge that Brian, Chloe and probably everyone on the project was affected in the same strange ways almost made it seem normal and acceptable.

Chloe still had the blanket around her shoulders. She pulled her hand away from mine, neatly folded the blanket and set it on the cot. She pulled a second chair over to my side of the desk and read what was displayed on my monitor. I watched her as she read some of the additions I had made to the project report and I noticed that the bags under her eyes were no longer quite so swollen as they had been earlier.

After a while she turned her head from the monitor and looked at me. She said, “You don’t have any training in this kind of database programming, do you?”

She had gone right to the heart of the matter. A “meddling manager” might irk Brian, but I felt pleased to finally have a boss who could understand my work. Erin had a masters degree in management and was almost clueless about technical computer matters. Months earlier, when I had first noticed Chloe, I’d looked up her Ph.D. dissertation and had been surprised to find a 300 page description of how to wire up a 2,500 kilometre long superconducting supercollider to an array of solar collectors that would cover the entire surface of the Moon. An appendix outlined the robotic factories that would be needed to manufacture all the needed components on the Moon.

I sat there wondering where my new knowledge of database design had come from. The work I had done on the VirileMail project had no foundation in my schooling or past work experience. Chloe touched my arm to knock me out of my revere. I tried to answer her question, “I did my senior thesis research project on a database structure for an expert system, so I know something of the subject. But I’d say, nobody has training in this kind of database programming.” I really could not explain how I had done what I had done, but at the same time it seemed like it had come to me as naturally as breathing. I smiled self-consciously but Chloe did not look at me like I was crazy.

Chloe bounced out of her chair and started her pacing again. I was learning that she was a person who did her best thinking while moving. I wondered if that was why she was a runner. Did her brain only hit on all cylinders if her motor control systems were fully active? I sat there watching her sock-clad feet doing a strange little slip-turn each time she changed the direction of her pacing. After a minute of silence, she started out quietly, haltingly. “What if this new software is….smarter than we think? Maybe...what if it not only anticipates the needs of someone sending an email...what if it anticipated our needs?”

I waited for her to complete her thought but she stopped pacing and looked at me. I realized she was waiting for me to offer a comment on her speculations. I could not believe what she seemed to be saying. Could a piece of software on our server teach me advanced database programming? Could an expert system or any kind of AI program teach a person anything, let alone advanced computer technology? No, unless I was blocking out more memories, I had not gone through any kind of teacher-student interaction with the new software. I had simply known what to do to get the software running on our server array, and there was no way I should have been able to do so. Well, I reasoned, grasping for any conceivable excuse, if my memory was really shot and I could not remember a few missing years of my life, years of advanced training and experience in database design, then maybe I could have done what I had done with the VirileMail software.

Chloe’s idea sounded like the ultimate way to design a software tutorial. Could going through the process of installing and trouble shooting a computer program serve as a training algorithm for users of the software? Rather than try to answer her unanswerable questions, I tried to imagine a way to get back to basics and try to find the foundation upon which all these mysteries had to rest. “Could we call Dr. Gajduskova and ask what capabilities were built into this software?”

Chloe bent over the second computer on my desk, logged in, and brought up a PDF. She pointed at the screen. “These are the technical specifications for the software that we got from Daniela.” I could see that the document was not in English. Chloe said, “I sent this to a firm that does technical document translation and paid for a Czech to English translation. They told me its not really written in Czech. They guessed it was some kind of invented language using the Cyrillic alphabet.“

I realized that during the past two days it had become second nature for me to confront blocks of the Cyrillic text in the VirileMail code and send it to Janek for translation. Now that I thought about it, I could not think of a good reason why Dr. Gajduskova would have her team develop the VirileMail software using an invented language. Was doing so part of some kind of high security system for preventing industrial espionage? Chloe and I locked eyes then started laughing. After half a minute of hysterics I wiped the tears from my eyes and said, “None of this makes any sense does it?”

Chloe shook her head. “Gajduskova must be a genius.”

Could genius be contagious? Could a genius computer software engineer make artificial intelligence software that worked so well that it turned its users into geniuses? I started laughing again. Chloe was grinning from ear to ear. I asked, “We can rationalize anything can’t we?”

Chloe nodded. “I’ve started noticing that myself. Everyone on this project has been so...agreeable.”

I had to agree. I reflected on our conversation of a day earlier, “You really surprised me yesterday. You were making the point that I was full of shit when I was claiming that I had only started learning about VirileMail on Friday. I gave some lame excuse and you bought it… stopped asking questions and trying to make sense of the crazy things that have been going on”

Even before I had closed my mouth, Chloe said, “Don’t sweat.”

I immediately said, “Right.” Then I was confused. “Huh?”

She seemed to think about what she had said. “I meant, ‘Don’t sweat it.’ We’ve been too busy.”

“Right.” I knew that was what she had meant. “With so much work to do in so little time, we have been willing to take any excuse that allows us to get back to work and not to question what is going on.”

Chloe said wistfully, “It’s a manager’s dream.”

I started thinking about all the software that was available to monitor employees, like the program Chloe had used on Friday to pull up a record of my work activity. What if this VirileMail software did more than monitor? What if it gave users the proper feedback to make them want to work? Like Pavlov’s dog salivating, what if this artificial intelligence software could train us to be workaholics and never argue with co-workers?

Sitting there next to Chloe with her eyes locked to mine, I started examining my own mind and motivations and I knew that I would do anything for Chloe. I knew I had a crush on her, but could that explain my behavior? No, it went beyond Chloe. I had spent days letting Brian get away with …crazy (why avoid the word?) behavior. Given the gaps I had discovered in my own memories, Brian must have been doing the same for me.

Chloe said, “Well, thanks for your input on the report. I better start on my second draft. I’ll probably have to pick your brain so I can have a chance of understanding how you and Brian got this software running. It’s such a huge and complex mass of code… you really understand it?”

All I could do was shake my head, no. Rationally, I knew I should not be so accepting of this bizarre situation, but there was something that kept shifting my incredulity out of my thoughts and replacing any doubts and worries with more neutral thoughts.

Chloe adjusted her chair so it was as close as possible to the second computer on my desk, sat with her legs crossed and knees locked in the spaces under the arms of the chair and started reworking her report. Without looking at me she said, “Send me your additions, Joe.”

I sent her an email with my contributions to the report and then I sat there for a minute watching her type about 200 words a minute. Finally, I realized how strange THAT was. Then I realized that whenever we had started to notice how strange anything was about our behavior, we always just dropped those concerns and moved on. I sat there trying to focus my thoughts on those concerns and keep the strangeness of what had happened to us clear in my mind. As I struggled to do so, I could hear my pulse in my ears and I felt beads of sweat on my face. I said, “Don’t sweat.”

Chloe kept typing like she was possessed and added, “it,” to seamlessly complete my sentence.

I grabbed my spinning head and forced myself to keep thinking about how strange this project was. I moaned, “Don’t sweat it.” Chloe seemed not to hear me and she just kept typing like caffeine-powered stenographer. The rattle of the keyboard seemed to become a form of music to accompany what was like a chant in my head: Don’t sweat. It. Don’t sweat. It. Don’t sweat. It.

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