Obsolescence

Photo by Chirag Shah

Photo by Chirag Shah

I am implementing the algorithms for a new valve regulator subsystem. The old subsystem has been identified as sub-optimal in its regulation of hydraulic pressure. Therefore, it is obsolete. When a system is obsolete, it must be replaced. It is an important task, so I must not make any mistakes. That is why I am in the office at 6:15am. Early in the morning is the time of day when I can attain the highest level of productivity. The second hand of the clock scrapes against the minute hand as it passes.

93 employees work on my floor. By 9:30am I will know if there are still 93 or only 92. When all my colleagues are here, some of them chat. I try not to get distracted, but sometimes it is difficult. At those times I listen to a CD on my headphones. In my desk drawer there are three CDs. I play each in turn so they don’t become boring. My favourite has a man and a woman standing back-to-back on the cover. They are both glamorous and the man is wearing sunglasses. The woman is leaning back with her head against the man’s shoulder. Because she is shorter than him, the cover is slightly asymmetrical. When I put it on my desk, I like to turn it just a tiny bit to compensate. The music is exciting and sometimes when I listen to it, I tap my foot.

There is no need to listen to music now, because there is no one here and no conversations. The people in the marketing department are the worst for having loud conversations. They speak on their mobile phones, and I can tell that they are making personal calls even during work hours. This is against policy. Some of them have more senior positions at the company than mine. It would be inappropriate for me to tell them to stop. Because I don’t tell them, the words clutter on my tongue and I have trouble thinking. I have trouble maintaining the high standard of efficiency that is expected of all employees. That is when I put on my headphones.

There is a clicking noise from the kitchen that I recognise as the sound that the electric kettle makes when the water has reached boiling point. I had switched on the kettle so that I could make myself some tea. I drink tea because it helps me to concentrate.

I get up from my desk and stretch my arms above my head. I have been sitting still for 34 minutes and my neck is stiff. There is a closed-circuit television camera on the other side of the office. I am smiling at the camera because a smile can lighten up the day of the people around me. Although there is no one physically present, the security guard at the desk downstairs might be watching me on his monitor. It changes view every 30 seconds. Since there are 30 floors, and one camera on each floor, the 30 seconds in which I am shown on the screen occurs every 15 minutes. It is now the time when I will be visible on the screen, for another five seconds.

I continue smiling for five seconds. Then I go to the kitchen and choose my second-favourite mug. I prefer it over the others available because it is the largest, and therefore requires refilling less often. My favourite mug, which is missing from the cupboard, is not quite as large, but tapers at the brim. This design, by reducing the tea’s surface area, keeps it warm for longer. I pour boiling water into my second-favourite mug, and wait 10 seconds before taking the tea bag out again. When I add the milk it forms an oily pattern on the surface. I stir the tea to remove the oily pattern. After I remove the spoon, the tea continues to spin, and the spiral formation of the tea’s surface is like a whirlpool. I remove a fruit fly that has been submerged in the tea. The fruit fly must have seen the tea rising on all sides, and then it was too late and it drowned.

Yesterday, I was stirring my tea in the kitchen, when I heard Michael from Sales talking on his mobile phone. He had his back to me and was talking quietly. When he speaks to a customer he has a loud and joking style of speaking. It is hard to understand him. He speaks fast and sometimes he winks as if he is telling a secret, even if what he is saying is known to everyone. This time he did not use his loud and joking voice. He spoke almost in a whisper. I tried not to listen because it would be eavesdropping. He was blocking my way out of the kitchen. I could not help hearing what he said into his mobile phone. He said that the writing was on the wall. He said that he was a rat on a sinking ship, and he gave a little laugh. The little laugh was not like the loud and joking laugh when he speaks to a customer. It was quicker and shorter. He said that DNI’s solutions shat all over ours because they were faster and cheaper and better. Then he turned and saw me and he made a hissing noise. He said into his phone that he would have to talk later. I walked past him with my tea and I smiled, to lighten up his day. He did not smile back.

Now, I am again walking back to my desk with my tea. I look at the algorithms of the hydraulic subsystem. It is difficult to focus on the problem. Even though there are no distractions, I am working at only 70 percent of my usual rate of productivity. I keep remembering Michael’s voice. Sometimes Michael says things that are the opposite of what he means. After that he grins. Michael had his face turned away when he said that DNI’s solutions shat all over ours. I could not see if he grinned, or not. When Michael arrives at work today, I will ask him if he was joking about DNI. DNI is our main competitor and its products are inferior to ours. That is because its staff do not share our commitment to excellence and proven, results-based methodology.

It occurs to me that the fault with the subsystem may have a deeper cause. In order to locate this cause, I print out a structural diagram of each of the subsystems. I spread the diagrams out on the desk.

After carefully observing them for some time, and tracing the chain of causality that has led to the inefficiency that I need to solve, it becomes evident to me that the problem is significantly more serious than I initially supposed. As well as operating inefficiently, it could in certain circumstances be hazardous to customers. Given a scenario in which the equipment is operated at or near maximum intensity, while simultaneously maintaining a low electromagnetic differential in the thermic regulation unit, pressure in the hydraulic valves will build up gradually in such a way that the safety override will not be activated. This pressure would cause an explosion that might rupture the fuel tanks. Rupturing the fuel tanks on even the smallest of our units could be extremely hazardous to customers. It would compromise our commitment to excellence in providing safe, effective and robust solutions to our valued customers. The potential adverse effects to the market reputation of the product line are extremely severe!

My fingers are trembling when I place the mug on its coaster. The coaster is made of aluminium. It was given to me at an engineering trade show two years ago. Because the mug is shaking in my hand, it rattles against the coaster. To fix the problem, we must make a number of deep structural modifications in the software, and changes must also be made to the hardware in at least seven components. Changes to software are relatively inexpensive, but hardware changes mean that production must stop, new blueprints be drawn up and sent to China, and the whole production process restarted. I estimate a minimum time-cost of five months to solve the problem. Also, all the units in the basement level, awaiting final configuration and software load before distribution to retail, must be scrapped. There are over 400 units.

It is getting close to 9am. I had planned to surprise my manager with the extra progress I had made in the early part of the morning. Instead, the only news I have for him is that we will almost certainly be set back five months in the race against DNI to get our next-generation system to market. This is not the first time I have given him bad news. When I told him that the cooling system did not meet the statutory safety regulations, his face went red and blotchy, and he shouted for a long time. That piece of bad news only took 10 working days to solve. This one is much worse.

To estimate the loss that the company is likely to sustain, I use my second-sharpest pencil and a sheet of the recycled paper that shows our sincere aspiration to contribute to the protection of the natural environment. Based on the total producing cost of a range of replacement units, in addition to the manpower required to refactor the software and create new blueprints for hardware production, losses to the company are likely to reach approximately $13,275,433.84. That is not including potential legal action against us for late delivery in breach of contract. It is definitely the worst piece of news I have ever had to tell him.

People are arriving in the office now. Some of them say hello to me as they pass by on their way to their desks. I do not respond. I am trying to think of a way to solve the problem without making hardware changes. If I had noticed it before the components went into production, it would be have been easy to fix. As I examine the diagrams, I see that modification will be required in a greater number of components than I had initially realised. My first estimate of the time loss was too optimistic; a minimum setback of six or seven months seems more likely.

—Cheer up, Michael says as he passes, might never happen.

I stand up immediately and follow Michael over to his desk. His desk, usually cluttered, is almost bare, and he is putting the last items into a bag: a snow-globe, a digital photo-frame. —Good morning, Michael. I’d like to ask you something, if you have a moment?

Michael is grinning at me. —Go ahead. I’ve got all the moments in the world.

—I overheard something you said yesterday, and I must apologise. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on your conversation.

—What? Oh, that was you, wasn’t it, in the kitchen. No biggie, dude. Doesn’t matter who knows it now!

—What is it that doesn’t matter who knows it?

Michael folds his hands behind his head as if he is leaning on them. —I’m gone. I’m a free man! Best of it is, they paid me out straight away. Because of all the confidential stuff, you know? Conflict of interest.

—You resigned? So it’s true: you do believe DMI have better products than ours? Will you go to work at DMI?

—Yep. Everyone knows they’re better, says Michael, returning to the packing-up of his desk things. Difference is now I can admit it.

Usually, when someone says something inaccurate about the company, I correct them. Because of what I have just discovered, I know that what Michael said is actually correct. He is right, though, for the wrong reason. No one but I knows that the product launch is to be set back five months. I tell Michael that I wish him the very best at DMI, and walk back to my own desk. By 9:30am, Michael has left, carrying his bag of desk things. I wish him the very worst at DMI.

I work at my desk all morning. I do not pause for lunch. I keep trying to find a solution that does not require hardware modifications. The problem is deep-rooted and by lunchtime I am no closer to solving the problem.

I begin to wonder if I am the best person to solve the problem. It occurs to me that the first instance of an algorithm that contributed to the problem appeared three and a half years ago, soon after I started working for the company. I print out the structural diagram again, and this time I highlight all the parts I developed myself, or to which I significantly contributed, in yellow. I prefer to use the colour yellow because it is the ink that is used least frequently. This is more economical because it decreases the frequency at which cartridges have to be changed.

After studying the diagram for some time, I see the big picture. My manager sometimes tells me to try to see the big picture, and not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. When I see the big picture, I have to hurry to the bathroom. I vomit in the toilet and a little bit on the floor. The vomit tastes sour and it also hurts my nose and throat. I wipe up the vomit that spilt on the floor with nine squares of toilet paper.

On the way back to my desk, some of my colleagues returning from lunch ask me if I am all right. I do not tell them that I have ascertained that my contribution to the company has been a net negative. I tell them that I am fine.

I sit down at my desk and look at the diagram. I stare at it until I can see it even when I close my eyes. There is no way around the six months it will take to rectify the problem. In six months, DNI will have released the next generation of their solutions. We can never catch up. I press the back of my fingers to my forehead and it is hot. All the thinking I have done today has given me a headache. I need to have a clear head to decide what to do. I take two soluble paracetamol in a glass. The tablets fizz in the water, getting smaller and smaller. By the time I drink it, they are just an alkaline taste in the water. Seeing the tablets dissolve has given me an idea. I pick up my pencil and begin to do the calculations that will turn my idea into a plan.

My manager leaves at a quarter to six. He smiles at me and tells me not to work too hard. I have not told him about the problem or the defective hardware or the six months. I am not going to tell him about it. I tell him that I will be finishing soon. This is true.

I wait until the office is mostly empty before getting into the lift. Instead of going to the ground floor, I continue to the basement. There is no one down here, and it is very quiet. I hear my breathing, and it is quick. I must calm down if I am to carry out my plan effectively. There are hundreds of units stacked in rows. They are all brand new and the light gleams on their aluminium surfaces. They do not look like they are defective, but I know they are. I adjust the remote-control pickup on each machine so that they all respond to the same frequency. Usually the frequency is set to a different level in order to avoid a scenario in which a single remote command is executed by multiple machines. This is to ensure reliable service and customer satisfaction. In my mind I am calculating the next time the basement will be shown on the security screen. The camera is located centrally on the ceiling in order to show as much of the basement level as possible. Just before the time when the view switches to the basement, I stand behind a small forklift. I wait there for thirty seconds without moving. After that I go to the next machine and set its remote-control pickup frequency.

When the frequency for every machine is set, I take a remote control box and plug it into an Ethernet socket. I adjust its control frequency to the same as I have set for the machines.

Configuring all those units has taken me a long time. It is 6:56pm by the time I take the lift up to my office. Everyone has left. I sit down at my desk, log on to our offsite servers, and delete each one of our backups. With all the backups gone, all the knowledge of the company is contained within this building. This will make it possible to carry out my plan. Since we are unable to catch up with DNI, our company is obsolete. When a system is obsolete, it needs to be replaced. DNI will be our replacement.

Using the network to operate the remote control, I bring all the defective units in the basement out of standby mode. Immediately after that, I switch off all their lights, raise their operational intensity to maximum, and adjust their thermic regulation units to a level that will minimise the difference in charge. These are the conditions that will trigger an irreversible feedback overload. I use my authorisation as a senior engineer to trigger a maintenance lockout, so that no one can stop the process. Then I go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea.

I do not usually take sugar in my tea, but this time I put in two spoons. There should be enough time to brew the tea properly before the defective units reach critical levels. The units are stored close together, so that after the fuel tanks of the first few have ignited, a chain reaction will take place, and within a matter of seconds the entire stock of defective units will be exploding. This building was not designed to withstand a detonation of such force. It will be destroyed. With the backups deleted, destroying the building will effectively end the company. Our company has always prided itself on doing whatever it takes to make customers happy. Our customers will be happier buying products that are not defective. I will have corrected the problem by using the defect itself to eliminate the company. I will also have compensated, to the best of my ability, for my own negligence in allowing the defect to occur. Other employees may go on to find useful employment elsewhere. Maybe some will go to DNI, like Michael. I should not go to DNI. I have identified the problem with the company and it is me. I am a net negative.

When I have finished stirring my tea, I return to my desk. The warning signals on my console rise up towards the critical point. I put my headphones on, and switch on my favourite CD. Usually, I listen to my CDs in rotation, and it is not the turn of my favourite CD. I am listening to it anyway. The whole building is starting to vibrate. I can feel it through the surface of my desk and the soles of my shoes.

The security screen downstairs will just have switched over to my floor. The guard might be looking at my face, if he is not attending to the warning lights that will be going off on his desk. If he realises what is happening, he might be able to get out in time. In case he does not, I smile at the camera. I smile at the camera to lighten up his day.

Joshua Mostafa

About Joshua Mostafa

Josh grew up in Brighton and North Wales, and studied at London and Sydney, where he co-founded Inna Riddim Records, an independent label specialising in bass music. His writing has appeared in Island Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Overland online, the LA Review of Books, Sketch, Time Out Sydney, ArtsHub, Momentum, The Drum, Otoliths, Echoes magazine, and various other publications. He is currently writing a novella.

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4 thoughts on “Obsolescence

  1. Amazing. The tension was built up perfectly. A poignant statement of life today, realities, priorities and where we get lost along the way! Compact and excellently written!

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