Thursday, November 07, 2013


Lisa and original Macintosh

The trouble with computers and computer systems is that they have to interface with humans all the time.
University of Chicago Law School

In 1981 I was transcribing manuscripts onto an early computer at the U of Chicago Law School (Sunstein and Scalia were there but not Obama) and doing my own seminary work on a red Selectric I bought from the female black minister of The Prayer Tower.  It was the dawn of the computer age and we were actually working at stations in a glassed-off room connected to machinery in the basement, taking turns since there weren’t enough machines to go around.  If something went wrong, results were strange.  For instance, a person who tried to print out his thesis found it arriving with every line shortened by one character until the line length was down to only one character wide.

Heart Butte School, Blackfeet Reservation, Montana

In 1989 I was teaching at Heart Butte School when the superintendent was very proud of scoring eight of the original Macintosh computers, the cute little boxes with the window.  He bought two printers for the entire school and no software nor any of the direct wiring necessary for the them to communicate with each other.  (No wireless then.)  He himself, plus his close buddy the athletic director (normally an administrator but cooling from some certification problem), worked on Apple IIe’s.  They had their own printers but would not share them.  It turned out that what the superintendent had actually bought was an inventory that was about to go obsolete, relieving a female friend with a computer business from getting stuck with the drop in their value.  Anyway, the kids and I loved that little machine and treated it like a publishing plant.  No one else used them.

By the summer of 1991 I had been fired from Heart Butte and bought the first computer I could afford, a LISA.  This went with me to Portland where Robey Clark (a former student and later standout NA educator) showed me how to get onto the Internet and how to appear to be an Indian (“just say you’re from Browning”) so I could participate in conversations about Native Americans.  That’s when I became Prairie Mary. 

Portland, Oregon

Between 1993 and 1999 I was working for the City of Portland as a clerical specialist, in part doing database entry for the Bureau of Buildings.  To escape a miserable boss, I transferred to the cashier counter in the Permit Section.  The cashiers at the time were the woman I called “the Texas Mermaid,” (story elsewhere), and the late-in-life divorced wife of a minister, whom I replaced.  Neither one of them could balance the day’s work nor remember the safe’s combination.  The permits and the fees had to be entered in three different computer systems because no one knew how to make them interface.  The bright idea hit the entirely too innovative bureau head that all would be well if we had a new software system.  

Rather than pay for “proper” experts, an in-house guy who claimed he could do it went to work.  Triple costs and total confusion later, the cashier’s booth was full of little piles of money with hand-written notes attached by rubber bands, a lot of checks un-connected to permits, and spots of salty tear splashes where the in-house guy railed at us for incompetence.  Finally we just assumed that anyone who needed a permit that week had paid for it.  Then -- by accident -- a small, intense woman trained in a German bank (she was married to a Marine sergeant stationed there) was hired and restored order.  We were all sent to a corporate training school to learn how to handle documents in Windows -- if you could keep the system from crashing.

Marias Care Center

By 2000 I had moved back to Montana and was hired to be the ward clerk for a nursing home.  I was the only person interviewed who had had any computer experience.  Things were okay for a month; then the computer expert (very much the same kind of guy the City of Portland computer expert was) talked the clinic into a new software system.  He couldn’t really understand how it worked because he never visited the actual floors where patients were treated, knew nothing about the drugs we were supposed to monitor, and couldn’t get the print-out system to work accurately, confusing the nurses so much that they refused to review the printouts as they were supposed to.  Most of them were “visiting nurses,” some from Canada, working on a gypsy basis a few days at a time.  Luckily I was fired after five months, too soon to have killed anyone though everyone was old, vulnerable, and dying.  I was offered the job of social support, which meant mostly calling bingo.  I declined.

But by now you will understand why I am not scornful and blaming about Obamacare’s start-up snafu’s.   This amusing article explains why sometimes there’s more safety in poorly functioning tracking systems -- if there’s no complete system, it can’t be used to capture the information.  I’m very aware that “official” and “expert” inability to understand  the “masses” means that there are always blind spots where the atypical and innovative can take refuge.  We all benefit in the end because “experts” are NEVER expert -- they’re all Oz.  Computer code -- like human genome code -- mutates all the time.

Beyond that, part of the reason we get so angry when computer systems go wrong is that they are so mysterious and even uncontrollable.  Another reason is that none of the systems is free of human input at every level, from design to encroaching obsolescence. Computing is a streaming system and the computer is only an access gizmo, an evolving technology that means my early manuscripts on square plastic “discs” are now inaccessible.  I’m glad I back up important stuff on paper, though my little office is crowded by 3-ring binders.  On the other hand, this constantly morphing stream means that I must also also upgrade my conceptions, my skills, my competence, or be kicked to the curb.  It’s not a matter of knowing stuff:  it’s a matter of vision.  This is what I learned from Tim and the boys because that's the way they live -- hurtling.  ("Hurdling?"  Oh, yeah -- that, too.)  The HIV virus already knows this, survives through it.  Know your enemy.

People who put out big amounts of money want a solution to be “once and for all,” a magic stop-action silver bullet, final wooden stake, inexhaustible energy source.  No such thing.  Life is a dance, not a statue.  To see money in terms of a counted amount is a mistake: it is a process as much as anything else.  What will the money DO, what pipelines does it pass through, what is the effect on the pipelines and what maintenance will that require?  Physics and physiology both tell the same story:  keep moving.  What seems solid and “real” is only organized energy.

This is as true of a nation’s health as anything else: hazards like smoking come and go; sources of stress; food sources and contaminations; disease vectors; chemical pollution; genome glitches; child rearing standards; the ages of the first pregnancies of mothers and the amount of support they and the new child get -- all of it matters and not all of it can be captured by any computer system at all.  But what we do for the “least of these” is what makes real change.  Hoarding money is a public health problem.

1 comment:

Rebecca Clayton said...

I've been amused by all the discussion of "the ABA website." I was involved in a big project in the early 90's, and I learned what you and lots of other people learned about the divide between what we need and what we get.

Have you ever read anything by Ellen Ullman? She's a liberal arts major who became a programmer, then a quality assurance entrepreneur, then a writer. I've bought her books on amazon for 1 cent plus the price of shipping, but you can read several of her (years old) essays on if you're interested:

She's actually written a novel about a big computer programming project, titled "The Bug." I don't read many novels anymore (at least not anything less than 100 years old) but I found this very interesting, and very much in line with my experiences. This was a relief--I've always felt that someone ought to document these things, and I really didn't want to be that someone.