07 December 2005

Santa's New List

Santa’s sitting in his office proudly reviewing a press release about how his operations have finally entered the twenty-first century with the launch of a new NASA-style mission control computer system for making his list and checking it twice.

Just as he is about to put his seal of approval on the release he sees a note slide under his door and hears someone running down the hall. When he reads the note it turns out to be a hand written warning that there could be serious problems with the new computer’s integrity.

Santa is very concerned because he has invested immense amounts of time and energy in this system and hates the idea that he might deliver coal to the wrong stockings. He decides to head to mission control to check on the system directly. Upon arrival he can tell things are not going well.

The Chief Mission Control Specialist is going through an emergency check list on all systems. The young elves who run this elite space-age operation took the 60's NASA geek image seriously so over their green tights they wear white button down shirts with pocket protectors in the breast pocket. Every elf in the room has visible sweat rings emanating from their armpits as they are all frantically pushing buttons to double check every single system or running around to manually cross check the data. There is constant low level din punctuated periodically by shouted reports to the Chief Mission Control Specialist that a particular system is "A-Ok" or "30% operational" or whatever.

Santa puts on his best game face with a warm and reassuring smile of concern as he checks in with his Chief-Elf-In-Charge. But, his Chief-Elf-In-Charge is red-faced and looks like he's about to pass a kidney stone.

Santa figures he’s seen it all, so he plays it cool. "What's the situation, Sparky?"

Sparky, the Chief-Elf-In-Charge is a young 500 years old and has only been at this job for a few years since the last Chief-Elf-In-Charge (who was over 1000 years old) quit in protest as soon as the list checking computer system was approved. So, Sparky takes a deep breath after his Chief Mission Control Specialist finishes giving him a quick status report.

"Well, Santa, it looks like we've got a problem."

"Is that right, Sparky? Is it the computer?"

Sparky replies, "Well, sir, it may not be the computer. We're currently running every diagnostic in the book and several that aren't because the data that we're getting is, um, bizarre."

"What do you mean by 'bizarre,’ Sparky?"

"Well, sir, when we decided to develop the computerized list checking system the programmers were ecstatic that they would have a chance to work with real world systems instead of the usual gaming stuff. So, they decided they should collect real time data to accurately capture the actual complexity of day-to-day living and then run that data through a few well chosen culturally correct morality filters to sort the data and then crunch the resulting numbers to arrive at a clear and appropriate decision about who should receive coal in their stocking instead of presents. Everything was fine until they went to test the system last month.

"What they found was that the system seemed to work very well, except for one small glitch. You see when they do this kind of initial systems test they compare their test output decisions with a control set of data from the old system..."

"Sparky, cut to the chase."

"Well, sir, the old elves from the List Checking, Twice Bureau pointed out that while the computer did a good job with stuff like your basic lying, cheating and stealing, it was completely missing the ability to detect when children would say one thing but actually do another without an outright lie."

"Since hypocrisy is so much more subtle than lying, it had been overlooked in the original design so the input systems had to be redesigned and the programming reworked, which put everything badly behind schedule so when they launched the whole system this morning they went live without having tested the hypocrisy sub-system thoroughly."

"So, you think there is a problem with the hypocrisy sub-system?"

"Well, not exactly, sir."

"Come on, Sparky, I'm a very patient man, or so the legend has it, but you're pushing it aren't you?"

"Sorry, Santa, Sir, I just can't believe the data we're getting."

"So what's the data, then?"

"Well, the programmers for the hypocrisy sub-system had to come up with a way to quantify the hypocrisy in a way that would allow them to calculate each transgression, so they asked the old elves in the List Checking, Twice Bureau for how they dealt with hypocrisy.

"The old elves told the programmers that when they judged hypocrisy it was important to estimate the relationship between the hypocrisy of the society and the hypocrisy of the individual. 'It is a fact of human nature,' they said, 'that the individual cannot be expected to have any less than their fair share of the hypocrisy of the whole society.'"

"Yes, I remember back in the day how it was such a guessing game, at best." agreed Santa.

"So, you see, sir, this means that our computer has to calculate not only the hypocrisy of the individual, but the hypocrisy of the whole society, in order to be fair. And we now have the advantage, for the first time, of calculating a precise ratio. And true to form, the list team came up with a brilliant solution and also discovered that the burden of hypocrisy is a weight on society."

Just then the Chief Mission Control Specialist Elf ran up to the Chief-Elf-In-Charge and frantically whispered a report in his ear and showed him a series of printouts that were on the clip board in his hand.

"Ahhhh, I see.... Ohh? But... Uh-huh," said the Chief-Elf-In-Charge as he heard the report. Finally, he turned back to Santa with a dire look on his face. "I'm really sorry to have drawn this explanation out, but I think it is very important for you to understand the situation completely and I have just gotten the final report on the computer diagnostics."

"And?" said Santa.

"Sir, the computer is working fine, even better than expected actually."

"But, you say that as if it’s not good news?"

"No sir, that means that our data is correct and that the number of people who are saying one thing and doing something different this holiday season is rising extremely fast. The trend is so strong that the whole of human society is going to implode as soon they reach hypocritical mass."


Anonymous said...

Hi Don! Great Santa Story -- ooh, I'll have to send you my poem about the computer at work entitled "Templates". I'll figured out how to use our elctronic medical record by using it as a glorified typewriter: real people don't actually fit into templates. Won't fit in this little box (ok, I realize it might be a big box) so maybe you got email?
Katy Ottaway

Anonymous said...

hypocryical mass... LOL

Anonymous said...

Happy Holidays Don! Your story, adds to mine! Jean Wood

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great Christmas story. I'm going to take it with me to share with my family.
Esther Conway