Pecking Order - By Brian Law

His retirement party was a low-key event in keeping with his own personality. Nothing fancy, no punch lines, just solid talk from solid folks, and then it was all over, just like that. They handed him his plaque and the curtain had come down. He looked over to his wife who sat quietly in their car next to him as they drove home, neither of them saying a word, the plaque held firmly in her lap.  

He’d worked with the same agency for almost forty years ever since his graduate school days at Ohio State. His skills as a computer programmer catapulted him into the center of one of the most important projects the agency ever embarked upon. And when he retired, he was the project’s acknowledged expert. It was his baby and leaving it behind was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, especially since he could never, ever talk about it to anyone, not even his wife.  

In its earliest stages, the project was an “After Action Analysis” tool intended by the agency as a method to help determine why some operations went wrong while others were wildly successful. For each operation, all known events along its timeline were entered into the computer program which then identified the most likely ‘event’ that caused either failure or success of the entire operation. The results were eye-opening.  

They found that ‘events’ as seemingly innocuous as whether an operative lit a cigarette at a given time or a minute later were determinative of the operation’s outcome. And even more unusual, when they put in events that surrounded the operation, but were not directly linked to it, such as unrelated nearby automobile accidents or nearby domestic disturbances, these also could play a large part in an operations result.  

For years they struggled to understand how these seemingly small or disconnected events could have such a large impact on the agency’s operations. As they expanded the scope of events they input into the program, they were even more surprised to discover that events that happened at the same time, but in different cities or even different countries, had similar impacts.  

At the time of his retirement, they were working on identifying how outside events that occurred even weeks before their operations began might have an effect. The preliminary results were both exciting and disturbing. He was beginning to believe that ‘everything’ was interconnected, that the agency could control only a small fraction of events that might affect an operation, and that failure or success was perhaps a predetermined conclusion of any operation.  

He got up early the next day and without waking his wife went downstairs to his study. Closing the door, he went to a secret hiding place in the floor and extracted a copy of the current program he’d surreptitiously removed from the vault at work. It was time, he thought, to determine just how his retirement might affect the agency’s next operation. Would a simple change in personnel in the IT Section be a meaningful event going forward? He had mixed feelings, but high hopes.  

The program was huge and took a few minutes to load into his computer. He had the latest version, so it had all the current events loaded into it. All he had to do was code-in his retirement and the name of his replacement. It took a few moments to accomplish this as he sat back and waited.  

His wait was rewarded with the following message:  

Impact of Event 4039-94A: Negligible  

Probability: High-99.9%  

Input Next Event:  

He sighed, half expecting what he’d just read, half expecting the opposite. But he was resigned to the program’s conclusion. As he sat there thinking, he heard the upstairs’ toilet flush and knew that his wife had just arisen.  

On a whim, he typed that event in as ‘Event 4039-95A, Wife Flushes Toilet Upstairs’ and waited. The result came quickly:  

Impact of Event 4039-95A: Critical to Success of Operation  

Probability: Medium/High-75.0%  

Input Next Event:  

He smiled and headed for the downstairs bathroom, leaving the computer program running. ‘Let’s just see,’ he said to himself, ‘ just who’s more important around here.’  

End

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