Ross M. Miller
Posted June 17, 2004
I usually eat lunch in the first-floor
cafeteria so that I can keep up with things around Alaska. On
this day, preoccupied with the Lowell trip, I took lunch back to my
office. Unlike most corporate labs, Alaska’s “management” is not
segregated from the “workers” in a plush ghetto, but each cohabits
with one of the tribes in its longhouse. My office—the same size as
any other—was in Quarktopia.
While I ate, I reflected on the events that had
brought me to this point. I was surely among the more disillusioned
Alaskans. My earliest memory is of my father keeping me up all night so
that I could witness what he kept saying would be “the greatest moment
in man’s history.” He had to rouse me several times, but I was awake
to see Neil Armstrong hop down onto the moon. I grew up with dreams of
greater possible explorations, but they have yet to materialize.
When I learned that mathematics was involved in
bringing Neil Armstrong into my home and could keep similar signals out
of the hands of the enemy, I became interested in math and found that it
came easily to me. At the age of six, I spent hours developing my first
secret code only to have my father crack it in under a minute. By the
time I was eight, I was writing codes that neither he nor any or his
friends could crack. This game I played with my father—I’d create a
code and he’d try to crack it—is what got me hooked on mathematics.
My recognition that the making and breaking of codes
could be viewed as a game with three players—sender, recipient, and
interceptor—was at the core of much of my game theoretic research.
Most people think of a code as successful if the sender can get the
message through to the recipient without the interceptor cracking it.
The famous Navajo code talkers used during World War II are a prime
example of this approach to encryption. The problem is that the
interceptor knows that something is going on and knows that he doesn’t
know what it is. I solved this problem by developing codes that allowed
the sender to bundle several messages into the same transmission. The
recipient would be able to decode the true message and the interceptor,
after considerable effort, would receive a misleading message intended
for his consumption.
My disillusionment began when I got involved in a
research project at JPL—NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Caltech
operated JPL for NASA just as GFF operated the original ALASKA for DARPA.
While JPL had its own workers (who were all employees of the federal
government), it drew heavily on Caltech’s faculty and students for
technical expertise. What I saw at JPL was truly horrifying and the
blame fell squarely on NASA. Their bureaucracy had drained the creative
juices out of all but the most stubborn scientists. Anyone who spoke up
about an “engineering
issue” was fortunate if the most that happened was that he was
ignored. I could figure out why so little had come of my dreams of
After lunch, I sent off a flurry of e-mails and went
back to the lodge, where I had one of the few permanent quarters. I
stuffed some things into a travel bag. At half past three, the front
desk called and said that a car was waiting in front of the lodge. Alice
had offered to send one of the hive’s cars up to take us to Boston,
but I politely declined and requisitioned one of our own.
We were all good to go on the dot of four. Assuming
the paternal role in this enterprise, I drove. Tara, the second-tallest
member of the group after me, sat in the front passenger’s seat. She
was, by default, the expedition’s mother despite being the youngest
and only superficially maternal. I handed over Roland’s binder and
dubbed her the designated reader. Randy and Zero, our surrogate
children, sprawled out in the back seat with the sanitized laptop
computers between them. Zero had plugged the machines into an adapter
connected to what at one time would have been the cigarette lighter.
“I hope you leave me with some juice to drive this thing,” I said to
him as we loaded the last of the luggage into the trunk. Zero kept
working and ignored me.
The foliage on the drive from the lodge to the main
road was just approaching its peak. Plentiful rain at summer’s end had
made this year’s colors especially breathtaking. A few miles down the
road, Randy spoke up, “Doc, I’m thinking that we’ve got to be
careful. You never know what this trip is really about. I read somewhere
that a few years ago when the Mighty Quinn was working the deal to sell
the North Carolina office furniture business to the Danes he conducted
what were supposed to be environmental-impact assessments at every major
GFF business. He turned the whole company upside-down so that he could
look inside the furniture business without arousing suspicions. While no
one figured out what he was doing until after the deal was announced,
rumors swept the company that he was going to liquidate everything.”
“I remember that,” I said. “They’re a sneaky
bunch. When dealing with the hive it’s impossible to be too
“So how should we play this?” Randy asked.
“Until we learn more, we have no choice but to act
like we’re taking everything at face value. It’s obvious that Lowell
is doing something wrong—not necessarily illegal, unethical, or
immoral—just wrong. It’s not clear why anyone, much less Roland,
thinks that we can help. This all smacks of desperation to me.”
but not serious, your kisses drive me delirious,” Randy sing-songed a
few times until Zero elbowed him.
“Thanks for turning off the Antmusic channel,” I
said to Zero in the rearview mirror.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Randy said. “You
might get the Beastie Boys.”
Our pace picked up as we reached the Northway and
headed south. A few miles past Saratoga Springs I said, “We’ll be
making a brief detour ahead.”
“A casino?” Randy beamed hopefully. “There’s a
reservation only an hour out of our way. Just hang a right at
“No such luck. Remember, I’m retired.”
“A guy can always dream.”
“No,” I said, “we’re stopping at the old lab
to get a different kind of cards—identification cards—so that
we’ll appear legit.”
“It’ll take more than an ID to do that. I’m
still waiting for my SAG union card.” Then I thought I heard him rap,
“Too legit to quit,” but was willing to ignore it, as was the rest
of the car.
The old lab was a few miles off the Northway on the
west bank of the Hudson River. No one else in the car had ever been
there although they had all heard stories about it. Randy went back to
work on the laptops while Tara took up the conversational slack.
“A few Pulsars mention the place from time to time,
just how old is it?”
“It started out almost a century ago on the other
side of the river at various locations in and around Troy, but it moved
here right after World War II. They razed an abandoned mill and built it
on the land. Before that, folks say it was a tribal burial ground.”
“That sounds exciting. Does it have an ancient curse
“It might as well have, but I never saw any ghosts
there, just summer interns lost in its three-dimensional maze of
hallways and stairwells. Hey, with the audit team poking around, who
needs aboriginal spirits?”
“That’s another thing,” Tara said, “Just who
or what is this audit team?”
“They’re Mike’s creation,” I replied. “They
go from one GFF business to the next working on projects that advance
Mike’s agenda. They aren’t auditors in the traditional
sense—whenever GFF has the occasional accounting issue, like
misallocating funds for a government contract, someone other than the
audit team always finds it. When you get right down to it, the audit
team serves as Mike’s spy network. And in exchange for feeding
information back to Mike, they get first dibs on the juiciest jobs in
“Oh wow, spies,” Randy said from the back. “Can
I sign up?”
“You can’t. No one can. The audit team tracks
everyone in GFF’s numerous training programs and invites the top
performers to join them. Of course, a spy network that’s already blown
its cover isn’t much use to anyone.”
“Why hasn’t the audit team visited Alaska?”
“I guess for the same reason that we have to go pick
up GFF IDs. Although on paper we’re all GFF employees—we get every
GFF benefit except that we receive a share of our patent income in lieu
of stock options—we’re treated like we work for the Defense
“How’s that possible?”
“Friends—excuse me—a friend in high
places. Soon after the lab opened, restricted areas were cordoned off
for classified research projects, of which the original ALASKA was the
largest. When Roland took it from merely being managed by GFF to being
owned by it, he never bothered to change its security status on GFF’s
books. The audit team may have a lot of things going for them, but a DoD
top-secret security clearance isn’t one of them.”
“I hope you don’t mind my asking,” Tara said
hesitantly. “How did you get one?”
“While drug use and assorted shady activities are
automatic disqualifications, gambling isn’t, at least as long as it
doesn’t get one in legal or financial trouble. And by taking a leave
of absence from Caltech for research purposes, I didn’t even have a
hole in my employment record.”
“That’s a clever twist on the
I-was-just-doing-research excuse. But getting back to Alaska, you’d
think that someone at the hive would have figured things out by now.”
“Not really. In a company that is bigger in dollar
terms than most countries, we’re small potatoes, especially compared
with the old lab. As long as we don’t create a blip on GFF’s balance
sheet—and I make sure that we don’t—no one cares.”
We could now see the old lab a half-mile ahead of us.
Even with manicured grounds and a setting that inspired an entire school
of artists, it had none of Alaska’s beauty or elegance. It was a
hodgepodge of interlaced buildings—from solid brick in the forties to
steel and glass in the eighties—that stretched a mile from one end to
I drove up to the guardhouse in the middle of the
entry road and rolled down my window. A voice with a vaguely
subcontinental accent spoke to me from a small metal speaker: “Are you
visiting the Research Lab on business?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Place your driver’s license on the metal tray and
look into the camera, please.”
I did as was told. Several seconds later the voice
said, “Thank you. Please follow the signs to the visitors’ lot. Then
proceed up the stairs to the main lobby. Your host will join you
I didn’t need to follow any signs; my nervous system
still remembered the place. It looked like nothing had changed in the
eight years since I had ticked off the last item on the departure
The lot was deserted and I took the space closest to
the building. Tara and I led the way with Randy and Zero trailing behind
and kicking up leaves as they went. The lab was built on hilly terrain
and arranged on multiple levels. We had parked below the lobby and on
the same level as the many of the grungier labs.
Just as Tara and I reached the stairs, the two glass
doors on the lab level suddenly flung open and two middle-aged men in
safety glasses burst through them and sprinted out of the building and
toward the employees’ parking lot. Dozens of others followed quickly
behind. My first thought was that something terrible must be going on
inside even though in all my time at the lab I had never heard of a
single bomb threat or other untoward incident. When I looked at the
faces of the men as they raced by, they weren’t panic-stricken;
indeed, many of them were smiling. I asked Tara what time it was and she
said, “Five o’clock . . . sharp.”
We waited first for the stampede to subside and then
for Randy and Zero to catch up. Randy whispered to me, “It’s always
gratifying to see a motivated workforce,” on our way into the lobby.
“When I worked here,” I said back to him, “the
parking lot was still half-full at seven o’clock and it’s not
because anyone was forcing us to stay. It was almost like Alaska.”
There was a desk with a phone in the corner of the
lobby, but no receptionist, just a sign that said: “Wait here for your
escort.” The lobby looked the same, only dustier. I figured that
during our wait, I could give my colleagues a quickie tour.
“Here’s the inventors’ hall of fame,” I said
as I led them to the right. “It takes fifty patents and the lab
director’s signature to get your face plastered here. There’s Roland
in his younger days. I forgot that he used to have a moustache. He drove
an Alfa Romeo Spider back then, too.”
“These guys are fossils,” Randy said. “Lots of
people inducted in the fifties and sixties, but I can’t find anyone
who got in during the last ten years.”
The tour continued at the rear of the lobby. “As you
might have guessed,” I said, “everything you see was either itself
invented here or incorporates something invented here.” Randy shook
hands with a robot arm, Zero looked at the vintage electronic equipment,
and Tara admired the aircraft components, the largest of which was a
propeller made from one of several alloys that Roland had cooked up in
“Isn’t there any new stuff?” Randy asked.
“There’s some over here,” Tara said, “but it
looks mostly like they made trivial improvements to their existing
products by using someone else’s technology. So that’s really not
new, is it?”
Before any of us could respond to Tara, the door to an
elevator at the end of the lobby opened and a familiar face wearing a
white short-sleeved shirt with collar open and skinny tie askew
“Doc, you old dog,” the face said. “I couldn’t
believe it when Roland told me you’d be coming by. And I see you’ve
brought some new blood with you.”
“Hey, John,” I replied. “What are you doing
here? I thought you jumped ship years ago.”
“Me, too. But I’m in administration now. I look
after personnel, security—all the stuff that doesn’t involve
research. We’re doing a lot of outsourcing these days. The guys
working the security checkpoint you drove through are stationed at our
I introduced my old friend John Munger to Tara, Randy,
and Zero in that order. John had not aged well. The years had expanded
his waistline and claimed most of his hair as well as an inch or two of
what little height he brought with him from MIT. Considering what he
must have been through, he was uncommonly cheery. As a student, he was
one of the best chemists to come out of Cambridge; as a researcher, he
was a disaster. None of his string of failures ever seemed to be his
fault. Back in Vegas, we would call John a hoodoo—a guy who attracted
bad luck and was to be avoided at all cost.
“So,” John said, “you guys need to be fixed up
with IDs. Follow me to the HR office. I’ll have them for you in a
John used the ID card that hung around his neck on a
lanyard to get us through the “Authorized Lab Personnel and Their
Guests Only” door and led us down a long corridor. Little had changed.
The walls were still institutional pastel yellow. Shiny steel canisters
of liquid nitrogen a few inches taller than John still stood sentry
every hundred feet. The same old chemical stench wafted through the air.
The instrumentation in the laboratory bays had not changed appreciably.
John and I chatted as we walked while Tara, Randy, and
Zero tagged wordlessly behind us.
“Things look the same as ever around here,” I
“Physically, yes. But a lot has changed.”
“The whole place is run differently. We’re on the
front lines of Alpha-Omega.”
“No, it’s a business process—really a whole new
way of thinking—for giving GFF’s customers what they want.” John
pointed to a poster tacked up on a bulletin board. Across the top it
said, “Alpha-Omega” in large letters and below it in smaller
letters, “The Beginning and the End of Quality.”
“And what do customers want?” I asked.
“No surprises,” John answered. “Starting here,
in the labs, before we even begin to work on a new product, we build
consistency into it.”
“To make it consistently excellent?”
“No,” John said. “Just consistent. Research has
determined that customers prefer reliability to additional
functionality. Back when you were here, we spent too much time trying to
make what we thought were better products and not enough time listening
to the customer.”
“So how do you listen to the customer?”
“That’s the job of GFF’s individual business
units, it’s not like we’re running focus groups here. In turn, they
tell us what type of research they’re willing to fund.”
“So the money to run the place comes from the
businesses and not from the hive? I remember that Mike was making noises
about doing that.”
“Right. Well he did it and now all the money goes
through the Alpha-Omega process before it gets to us. By the way, I just
became an international grandmaster.”
“Congratulations. I didn’t know you played
“I don’t,” John said. “International
grandmaster is the highest rank in the Alpha-Omega program. Master is
the right below it and at the bottom are the experts.”
“Are all of GFF’s businesses using Alpha-Omega?”
“Eventually they all will. That’s the plan. It
takes a while to roll it properly out to the new acquisitions. They’re
talking about doing something out at the cable network next quarter. And
many of GFF’s customers have initiated their own programs based on
“Is this Alpha-Omega something that Mike dreamed
“No, not really. It didn’t even start at GFF. One
of our big suppliers, Samsara Tool & Die, came up with it. Mike saw
it, sent out a memo, and we were off to the races. Now he can’t stop
talking about it and acts like he invented it. We’ve been using it for
several years, though it’s only really picked up steam in the last
two. I’m surprised that you haven’t heard about it.”
“I’ve heard of Samsara,” Zero piped up. “We
used to buy a lot of test equipment from them. I’ve got one of their
The human resources office was at the end of a long
corridor. John opened the outside door, which still had “Personnel”
written in gold leaf on it, and led the four of us into a room with a
chair, a white backdrop, and a digital camera cabled up to a computer.
Randy went first. John snapped the picture and flipped the monitor so
that we all could see it.
“We can touch it up a little,” John said as he
laughed, pressed a few keys, and made Randy look like a member of the
Blue Man Group.
“That’s a print,” Randy said, but John restored
Randy’s face to its normal flesh tone before producing the card. It
was a standard white plastic ID card with picture in front and magnetic
stripe on back.
“You’re next,” John said to Zero. Zero cared
neither about how he looked nor for John’s comments about his name.
The camera was almost able to reproduce the colors in his shirt.
Tara took more time. It wasn’t that she required a
reshoot, but that John was fussy about getting her to look “just
right.” Her ID picture was a work of art. But then how could it not
be? She had a smile to die for.
I went last and with the least fanfare. We were about
to leave when Zero said, “Has anyone seen my card?”
Randy joked, “You’ve lost it already. You’re
always losing things.”
“That’s okay,” John said, “It’s easy enough
to purge that one and make you another.”
It wasn’t that easy. When John tried to delete
Zero’s card from the system, it crashed and we had to wait as John
rebooted the computer. I glared at Zero so that he wouldn’t brag about
how his systems never did that.
John finally got things working, created Zero’s new
card, and led us through the labyrinth and back out to the lobby. We
found our own way to the car. It was not until we were a few miles down
the Northway that anyone spoke.
“What a troll!” Zero said.
“I was thinking more along the lines of
homunculus,” Randy added.
“I found him kinda cute,” Tara said.
“Go back and tell him that,” Randy replied.
“It’ll make his day.” Then he asked me, “What was he on?”
“An antidepressant of some kind.”
“How do you know that?” Tara asked.
“I knew the old John and that wasn’t him. He had
his faults, but he was a cynical freethinker. He’s probably about to
qualify for early retirement and is just biding his time. What’s more,
he’s usually easy to read, but today I found him opaque.”
“How’s that?” Tara asked.
Randy interjected, “Prozac, Zoloft, Ecstasy, you
name it—it’s all kryptonite to Doc. Keep enough serotonin pumping
through someone’s brain and it masks their normal reactions.”
“Yes,” I said, “they’re a lot worse than
mirrored sunglasses when a serious player ingests them. Fortunately,
when a chump takes an antidepressant, all it does is make him happy to
throw his money away.”
The thought of mirrors reminded me to glance in my
rearview. That’s when I saw Zero nonchalantly wielding a knife.
Copyright 2004 by Ross M. Miller. Permission
granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250
words or less provided a citation is made to RiggedOnline.com.