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By Joel Klebanoff

Losing It

I peruse the online editions of many general and IT-specific news media, not to mention hardcopy editions of my regular newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a weekly news magazine, The Economist, to try to come up with proper topics for this space. (I'd much rather use improper topics, but MC Press won't let me.) On September 22, 2006, a number of the online sources ran a story about 1,137 laptop computers that had gone missing at the U.S. Department of Commerce over the years since 2001.

With so many different media outlets reporting the same story, I knew there had to be a press release involved, so I went to the Department of Commerce's Web site. I was right. According to its September 21 release, "The Department of Commerce today announced information from its recent Department-wide reviews of missing, lost or stolen laptops  …" I guess I've been writing for too long because the first thing that came to mind was, "missing, lost or stolen?" Wouldn't "missing or stolen" or "lost or stolen" suffice? The difference between "lost" and "missing" escapes me. At best, it's a rather fine line.

Mental editing is an occupational hazard. I probably shouldn't mention it at all because I'm much better at catching superfluous words in other people's writing than in mine, so you'll likely find an overabundant plethora of instances in my prose, but never mind because that has absolutely nothing to do with what I want to talk about this week.

The press release went on to say, "Based on the review in response to the public inquiry, the Department determined that within its 15 operating units for the years 2001 to the present, out of over 30,000 laptops within the Department's inventory over that time period, 1,138* were either lost, stolen or missing." There's that "lost, stolen or missing" a second time. I guess once wasn't enough for them. And we'll ignore some of the punctuation and other issues I have with that sentence.

What's with the asterisk? It refers to a footnote in the release that says simply, "Due to an editing error, the correct number should be 1,138, not 1,137." Huh? The press release never mentions that the wrong number had been released earlier, so someone reading the new release without seeing the articles written using the incorrect release would likely be rather confused, but that's not what bemused me. "Due to an editing error, the correct number should be …" How can an editing error cause the number of missing computers to increase by one? Don't tell me that someone lost another laptop while editing the press release. Exactly how could that happen? Did overly energetic editing cause it to fly out from under the editor's fingers and into outer space? I think what the editor or writer meant to say was not that the correct number is something different due to an editing error, but rather that due to an editing error the incorrect number was reported previously. However, again, never mind; that's the writer in me talking, and it still has nothing to do with what I want to rant about.

Much more important than the wording of the press release is the fact that the computers were lost or stolen, but the aspect I want to try to understand first is why the Department didn't know about those missing laptops until a public inquiry forced it to do a review. That doesn't seem possible to me. What's particularly surprising is the fact more than half, 672, of the missing computers were from the Census Bureau. How could they lose that many computers and not know about it fairly quickly? Excuse me if I'm wrong about this, but isn't the Census Bureau supposed to be rather skilled at counting things? Its excuse was that "during the last five years [it] has used over 20,000 laptops." Oh, well, that's OK then. After all, it lost only 3.36% or so of its computers. I guess that means that if we lose track of 3.36% of our income when we send in our taxes, the IRS or, in my case, the Canada Revenue Agency, won't mind, right? (Author's note: I bear no responsibility for any jail time you may serve as a result of following this advice.)

What's disturbing is that those lost computers weren't empty. According to the press release, "249 contained personally identifiable information." But don't worry your pretty little head about that because "access passwords, complex database software, systemic safeguards and/or encryption technology significantly limit the potential for misuse of data on the laptops." Significantly limit the potential—doesn't that just give you a warm, fuzzy feeling about your private data? Hey, I've got a better idea. Why don't they try a little harder to not lose the computers in the first place?

Oh, wait. Maybe that data protection was not as complete as first claimed. The release goes on to state that, of the 246 Census Bureau laptop computers that contained some degree of personal data, 139 were either only partially encrypted or had no encryption. Huh? What were all those comforting words about data protection earlier in the press release all about? More than half of the missing computers with personally identifiable data on them were either not fully protected or not protected at all. Are you feeling lucky?

Here's the thing that I really don't understand. Even in a department where the counting skills might not be the keenest, let alone in the Census Bureau, how could it lose that many computers and not realize it for the few years that passed until someone from the public asked the department to check?

I can't get the following scene out of my head. Bert, a government manager, sticks his head out of his office, sees his shadow, darts back into his hole, and hibernates for six more weeks. Then, after again poking his head out, he says, "Cynthia, would you step into my office for a minute?"

A startled Cynthia wakes up, walks into Bert's office, sits down, and resists the urge to nap. Bert says, "I'm a bit confused." Bert doesn't notice the smirk on Cynthia's face and continues. "I have here your request to buy a replacement cutting board for your office. Why do you need a cutting board at all, let alone a replacement?"

"You wouldn't approve my requisition for a television for my cubicle," responds Cynthia. "I hate missing my soaps, so I'm going to spend my own money to buy a TV and install it above my desk, but I can't afford it right now. I'd want one of those big plasma screens. To save money, I've started bringing my lunch rather than going to the cafeteria. I prefer to cut my sandwiches in half before eating them, and I don't want to risk damaging my desk. The problem occurred when I was slicing an exceptionally crusty sandwich. I brought the knife down so hard that my old government-supplied cutting board broke in two. That would have nicked my desk quite badly if I hadn't been using the board, so I need a new one to continue shielding my desk. I'm very careful about safeguarding government assets. That's just the way I am."

"Did you ever consider cutting your sandwiches at home and bringing them in pre-sliced?"

"What a great idea! I never thought of that. I guess that's why you're the boss."

"Well, never mind. What perplexes me is that I've never authorized the purchase of a cutting board before, and I've never seen one around the office. What does it look like?"

"It's black, about 13 inches wide, 10 inches deep, and an inch or two thick. The really cool part is I can swivel it open. Inside, there's a keyboard and a screen that I can use to calculate the calories in my lunch. It's got the word 'ThinkPad' on it, whatever that means. One of my coworkers called it a laptop, but I couldn't understand why. I certainly wouldn't want to cut my sandwiches on my lap. That would be dangerous even with a cutting board."

"You should have reported your coworker immediately and, by rights, I should reprimand you. Section 789, paragraph 42 of the department's sexual harassment directive expressly forbids the workplace use of the word 'lap' or any derivative due to the possible sexual overtones. Against my better judgment, I'll let it go this time.

"Getting back to the matter at hand—sorry, Section 742, paragraph 23 forbids the use of the word 'hand' coupled in the same sentence with any other body part, such as 'back,' even when, in context, the word is not intended to mean a body part. I guess we're even. What I meant to say was, returning to what we were discussing, I can't authorize a replacement cutting board. What I'll do instead is approve the purchase of a television for your cubicle so you won't have to buy your own and you can afford to go out for lunch again. How would that be?"

Cynthia leaves smiling. Pleased with how well he dealt with what could have been a very sticky human resources issue, Bert decides to tackle another problem before taking his afternoon nap. He asks Simon, another of his subordinates, to come in.

"Simon," Bert begins, "I've been checking the records, and I noticed that you haven't sent me a single report, memo, or email for…let me see…" Bert looks through the many tall stacks of paper on his desk and comes up with an answer. "Yes, here it is. Eight months, seven days, four hours, and (looking at his watch) 23 minutes. I'm sure you're aware that the standard for employees in my department is a daily minimum of 14.27 pages of paper, or the electronic equivalent, averaged over a five-day workweek. Why haven't you submitted anything in more than eight months?"

"I lost my computer."

"You lost your computer? Good God, Simon, why didn't you report it to anyone in all this time?"

"I use a computer only to create paperwork and nobody ever reads it anyway."

"Well of course nobody reads it! Don't be silly! I have a human resources budget for paperwork creators, not paperwork readers. Plus, I have funds for new disk drives and filing cabinets every year. If I don't fill them, the powers-that-be will cut the department's budget next year. We wouldn't want that, now would we? I'll get you a new computer, but I have just one question: What have you been doing all this time?"

"You'll be very pleased with me, Bert. I haven't wasted my time at all. Not one little bit. I've been doing an inventory of office supplies. So far, I've only been able to check a couple of items, but did you know that we have 1,732,342 paper clips, divided among 239,978 boxes? What I found particularly shocking is that there are 37 unaccounted for—37 paperclips that is, not boxes. I think we have to face up to the fact that someone in the office is stealing paperclips. I've lost all faith in humanity because of this."

Simon pauses, stares at the ceiling and, after a few minutes, looks back at Bert and resumes talking. "Sorry to leave you hanging there, Bert, but I have this weird feeling that there's something else I meant to tell you that's slipped my mind for the moment…what was it?…it must have been trivial…oh yeah,  I remember now. There are also 1,138 computers that have vanished, disappeared, or gone astray or that have been lost, misplaced, mislaid, stolen, pilfered, purloined, thieved, or abducted by aliens."

Bert, losing his temper for the first time in his career, screams, "That's appalling! I can't believe it! Thirty-seven paperclips, you say? You realize we're going to have to call in the police, don't you?"

Obviously, I don't believe that scenario is particularly plausible, so I was at a loss to come up with an explanation for how that many laptops could go missing. Then I found it. I went back to the Department of Commerce Web site and looked at the mission statement posted there. One of the eight elements in the Department's mission is "Ensuring effective use and growth of the Nation's scientific and technical resources." So that's it. If you lose 1,138 computers, you have to replace 1,138 computers, and that will help to ensure the effective growth, if not use, of the nation's technical resources. Case closed.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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