There are only 10 types of people in the world. Those that understand binary and those that don’t

Torturing Data for Pleasure


The meeting began late and the presenter spent the next five minutes dinking around with the video projector as it appeared he was a proponent of displaying his ideas with banality as his paint brush and the derivative-rich content as his canvas. Charley had arrived on time, in fact a few minutes early, and watched the assembled content with wasting each other's time and demonstrate impressive non-listening skills. The meeting was how Charley's Monday morning started and if this was any indication of the future, Charley was going to have a long, dull day and an overall annoying week. As a pragmatic soul, Charley stayed busy in identifying internal attempts to assuage this torturous waste of time but as the minutes ticked past, he felt himself losing both strength and enthusiasm. To mitigate this claustrophobic torpor, Charley fantasized about being a plumber and dealing with the here and now; not slowly dying in a meeting room amongst the ones who had already surrendered.

The argument between truth and accuracy was the bane of Charley's existence at both work and in personal relationships. He did not have an issue with overt liars and he did not demand full and total disclosure of topics under discussion. He just wanted people to stop positioning stories, spinning asteisms and personal anecdotes in which they are the helpless victim and thus, without accountability. Cursed with outstanding listening skills, Charley would endure bombastic politicians refusing to answer straight questions or non-denial denials by a variety of individuals in leadership positions until their total responses forced him to ignore the event by either turning off the television, closing the window or just walking out of the room. The media was not much better; talking heads just talking to other talking heads; all living examples of Macbeth's narrative of a telling by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. To make matters worse, if they needed to be worse, data was also not a safe refuge as statisticians or politically-aware colleagues would torture the data until it rolled over and acquiesced in a variety of ways which implied one thing and disguised the rest. Since the beginning of time, people always liked to cover their asses and confuse the unengaged because telling truth to power is hard but if one adds a few pie charts, you are halfway home before you start. Charley had the unfortunate title of Data Custodian and as such, got pulled into every meeting which dealt with nouns, especially nouns that included numbers. While no one knew what he did, everyone invited him to everything because data is data.

When Charley got roped into these clusters of egotistical fantasy, he knew the game and resulting dance of playing fast and loose with the truth all under the faux justification of accuracy. If the numbers are bad, play with the y axis to diminish the visual gut-punch. If the numbers are good, manipulate the same axis to make the data seem to be achieving ecumenical plateaus of brand identification smeared with self-actualization and insight marketshare. Charley stopped asking questions long ago; it was not out of professional courtesy from one liar to another, it was the exhausting and long-winded responses that said nothing, fostered ambiguity or suffocated any nearby insights. It was just more words on top of words... yammering on as long as it was necessary. So many people use meetings for their own personal agenda: justification for failures, an opportunity to emphasize their particular genius or requesting more resources due to an inability to manage or finally paying attention because it is now in their self-interest to do so. These meeting monsters would set the agenda, dominate the discussion, concoct revisionist history falsehoods and position themselves as either saviors or victims: whatever the direction the winds were blowing that day. Today's offenders was one of the worst; Jack Wooden, the enthusiastic owner of all things good and the circumstantial victim of all things bad. He used biting insights and fault finding as his twin saxophones, as blame-fueled Armageddon was his melody.

The advent of skunkwork data analysis, facilitated by the powerful spreadsheet software, allowed anyone with some free time to learn how to manipulate things for both good and evil but as we all know, evil is the best motivation for anyone learning something under the guise of enlightenment. Once the first graph was created, the creator paused to appreciate the output but then re-focused their time and effort to make the information slant more towards their intentions or eventual desires. And as spreadsheets because ready for prime time presentation material the creator learned to punish the data by playing with ranges, colors, titles, legends and anything else that would allow them to call a pile of data something that was something completely different. It was always a mystery why more people did not initially manipulate the source data instead of just telling the truth. The human condition reacts poorly to the illusion of general quantitative sanctity but the fact remains that it is far easier to play with facts until you position them in a way to do your bidding and then make numbers behave in a manner to support your current but always mercurial position.

The challenge with supporting evidence is that the person in a position of power will imply they actually understand but due to ongoing and never-ending timelines, the opportunity for contemplative thought and deep reads are non-existent. The game forces any presentation more than one page to jam all the qualifying language and faulty justifications on double-digit page numbers with full confidence that they will go unread. Get your point across on page one or in the worst case page two and sit down. There is no value in wasting people's time with the truth; they have their minds made up and it would force a patient and apolitical discussion which would take days to digest. It was far easier to re-purpose an old slide deck, add a few charts which best displayed their current thoughts and toss in a detailed summary slide which was neither a summary or detailed by anyone's definition. Charley sighed; this was going to be a long day. As the assembled group hunkered down yet again for a long and dry diatribe on all things which were not Jack's fault, his eyes attempted to close but he knew that Jack's reedy and whiny voice would act like an ice pick to both his the pinna and the external auditory canal, then cruelly funneled to the tympanic membrane to make it vibrate deeply within his soul. He hated Jack Wooden; the SmartArtŪ Nazi of all things evil and transitional.

Charley was from the Binary School of Truth and Accuracy: things were true or false and resulting calls to action supported the truths garnered from the truth which was harvested from a mature and honest exchange of ideas. He had heard of several horror stories in which the act of mendacity creates such a toxic environment of falsehoods that the presenter and the attendees consciously or unconsciously decide to abandon all attempts at honest discourse and spend the meeting positioning and justifying their individual oblique inactions. Charley shudders to think what would happen if these groups were in charge of the Normandy invasion and concluded if PowerPointŪ was around in June 1944, the entire world would be currently speaking German. As a result of his epiphanies of circumstances outside his control, Charley kept his calendar full of false appointments and other commitments which made it actually impossible to schedule him for meetings. He did not lie but using the same truth/accuracy dynamic, he did not mark himself out of the office using as a clumsy lie. That was personally insulting and showed a lazy cowardice so he worked within the systematic belly of the beast and hid in the bright light of the great wide open. He created a calendar that if challenged, he would easily be vindicated as he knew he could rely on a small group of like-minded professionals to be his meeting beards and allow both participants to logroll meetings back and forth for mutual protection from the dark side.

As a result, he kept a secondary calendar, which was not shared, to allow him to do his job but had to continually work out further and further on his primary calendar to keep an enthusiastic long-range meeting planner from nabbing an open spot on his usually impregnable schedule. When he slipped up due to other priorities and the meeting landed in an available spot, Charley accepted it as vanquished boxer and accepted that momentary defeat but steeled himself to make the calendar even stronger the next time. His philosophies were many but when he lost out and had to attend meetings, he did it without hope or agenda as he was already captured by the rules of the jungle. While he wanted to implode with disappointment, he was going to do it on his terms and take this momentary setback to make himself better. Charley had no interest in obtaining a pyrrhic victory with the intent of showing unenlightened the true value of truth by holding himself to a separate standard; he just wanted to get out of the room. This day was no different as he was afraid of actually suffocating due to Wooden's ability to suck the life-force and brain-nourishing oxygen out of any room he haunted while his slug trail of pomposity would remain long after the meeting careened to another non-screeching halt.

The first few minutes of Wooden's meetings were the worst; an agenda was rumored to exist and the pause before the storm felt like an electroencephalographic green field in which all things were possible and calls to action would soon come clear. Charley always hated himself after realizing each meeting was the same and the early, nacient nature of a meeting's beginnings fooled him in a similar way to Charlie Brown and the football. Maybe this would be the time in which civil discourse and a collective desire would merge to resolve a quantifiable issue to the collective satisfaction of the assembled. Charley felt his heart sink when Wooden walked in front of the video projector, oblivious to the bright light and sixty-point Ariel fonts covering him in an odd and disturbing cloak of words. Wooden did this all the time; stand in front of the only valid attention point and then would begin to talk. While there was a ghoulish curiosity about how he could stand the projector's bright light without any noticeable discomfort or anxiety, the novelty wore off quickly. Charley moved his pristine legal pad to the side and unclicked his pen and laid it perpendicular to the table. He was trapped again and the next hour was going to take at least a week off his life.

An audible sigh happened to his left and he was pleased to see Ingrid do roughly the same thing. They did not dare make eye contact; any raised eyebrow or whispered snarky remark ran the risk of breaking the stoic facial expressions and cause even more pain through dismissive stares from Wooden. This meeting was bad enough but no one wanted to get their balls or ovaries busted by this annoying toadie.

"I heard that sigh," muttered Charley.

"I can't help it," said Ingrid in an equally hushed tone. "I got trapped again and while I can only blame myself, this is torture."

Charley non-verbally agreed but had to stop the life-giving whisper campaign because it was high risk and not worth the wrath of the wooden idiot.

"You started it with your subtle pouting," whispered Ingrid. She had no intention of backing down; she was going to make Charley play whether he liked it or not.  Charley adjusted his sitting position; moving a few inches away from the sound source. Ingrid was right; she was of like mind but still had a beating heart for compassion and the pursuit of good. His heart was ripped out years ago but a thanks to a litany of jargon-spewing executives that viewed meetings as deliverables and embraced vagaries as gospel from some elusive deity. Their complete lack of depth and wisdom soured Charley against most executives but Ingrid's hopefulness was slowing melting his stone heart.

The meeting continued and Charley seemed to float over the din and allowed himself to think about today. This meeting was a car wreck which would continue past its agreed stopping point forcing attendees to make non-verbal apologies as they got up to attend their next meeting but Wooden would always look at them feigning surprise that people would have to leave his meetings on time. Charley never attempted it because there was no sense in standing out in a sea of exhausted colleagues so he sat next to the wonderful-smelling Ingrid and got comfortable; it was the meeting from Hell but at least he found a friend.

Once the meeting ground to a halt and Jack Wooden had left, Charley realized it was time to make a move out of survival. These meetings continued to get longer and less focused and no matter his role, real or assumed, their continuation would eventually be the cause of his death. He needed to create some diversion which would allow him enough of a diversion where is physical presence would not be required. Charley kept pondering this epiphany and decided it was time to create a data dashboard of all things quantifiable and use that programmatic panacea to shine a light away from him and into the dark pool of big data. This pool would give him camouflage, concealment while at the same time, give the time stealers an online tool to assign blame. Charley smiled and thought "press a button, solve your problem" would allow him to disappear. After sketching out some ideas, he reached out of several of his database allies and pitched them the idea to remove themselves from the intermediary role of data interpreter and allow the abusers of time and responsibilitiy a new path to slither down without taking anyone's time.

"I like the idea" said Dez. Dez was a database administrator without peer and realized Charley was hunkering down for a disappearing act. "We can create a standard tool that would provide valid data to the end users but it would not stop there; people are not looking for  pure data; they are looking for data that they can manipulate into submission to do their bidding."

"I do not care what they do with it," said Charley, "the evil will overcome any attempt at consistency and fair dealings. I just want to have some peace and quiet and not be pu
lled into their political posturing or their unsubstantiated ejaculations based on flawed logic or convenient assumptions based on the transitive properties of the small minded."

"So, what does that mean."

"It means I want to make a database for assholes."

"Sure. You could have same yourself some time and said that in the first place."

"We are going to need some help."

"Lets call them up; time is literately wasting."

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