Thursday, February 25, 2010

Subsidiarity: a view from fiction

Since some of our esteemed readers have commented on some curious extensions from Subsidiarity (and Law and such things) to big-name people in literature, I hope you will find some delight in my giving you a little taste of Subsidiarity in some modern fantasy fiction from a little-known Chestertonian lunatic. I am saving my long post for next Tuesday, the tenth anniversary of Subsidiarity... I hope you will join us for the celebration. There will be cake.

--Dr. Thursday.

(Yes, that picture is the REAL Control Room, where you could actually WATCH Subsidiarity in action!)

[At Joe's interview at a certain cable TV company, Al is explaining the work done by the Operators in the Control Room...]
Al pulled the tape from the deck. “We get the tapes from Traffic on one of these carts.” He indicated the three-foot long set of shelves on wheels next to him. “Each tape comes with a slip telling us what spot ID they assigned to the tape. That’s how we tell the machinery to store it, once it’s encoded.” He handed Joe a small slip of paper.
Joe glanced at it, nodded, and handed it back.
Al looked at it again, then typed on the keyboard. “Next, we’re supposed to watch the spot through, just to check in case there’s a problem with the tape – but usually we just start the encoding and check everything as it encodes...” He rocked a control back and forth, looking for the “mark-in” point where the spot actually began. “Unless the slip tells you otherwise, they’re all 30 seconds... though we have to adjust a little, but you’ll get all that detail when it’s your turn.” He typed some more, then pressed the Play button. The TV monitor showed rows of SUVs, while rock music played from the headphones. “Sorry,” Al said, flipping a control – the music blasted from speakers hidden within the console, and Al turned down the volume. “It can get noisy in here.”

Joe shrugged, peering curiously at the screens. “I guess so – but that band sounds great... some local group?”
“Yeah; I’ve seen them live,” Al told him, “All the Reamur spots use them – they’re good.”
As the spot finished, the screen read “Reamur Automotive, Route 30 and Lexington.” Standing by one of the SUVs, a cute little girl smiled and waved.
“Anyway – you watch your levels – brightness, color – you said you’ve used this kind of scope? and the audio. We check the skin color – we had ones where it looked like all the actors were from Mars – and the lipsync, so it don’t look like it was a Japanese overdub.”
“OK,” Joe nodded. “Sounds easy enough.”
“It is, until you do a hundred in a row,” Al moaned. “And we’re not done yet. After the encode is done, we play back the MPEG, just to check.” He clicked the mouse a couple of times, and the spot began to play again. “You really get a second chance to see if everything is correct. And I always check the spot ID another time, too – because the machinery records who does the work.”
The spot finished, and Al nodded. “This one looks good.” He clicked the mouse again. “All done; now the computer takes over, and I can mark this one finished.” He initialed the tape slip, and put it back on the cart.
As Joe nodded again, Al leaned over and pointed up at the big screens. “And if you look up there, on the second screen, up near the top – see it says ‘MPEG sending 05081242’ – you can see this spot is already going out to the Field.”
Joe stared up at the screen. His eyes opened wide. “That’s fast. How does it know what it’s supposed to do?”

Al shook his head, chuckling. “They call it subsidiarity... we’ll explain it to you.”
“What’s... sub... what you said?”
“Sub-SID-i-arity. It’s some kind of software. You’ll meet the guy who did it, he’s crazy. He says it was invented by a pope.” Al rolled his eyes.
“And what about those eyes that go back and forth? Did the Pope do that too?”
“No, but that’s from the same guy – he does all our software – but at least that makes sense. He put the Latin up there on the screens, too.”
“Latin?” Joe asked nervously. “What’s that for?”
Al scratched his head, picking up another tape. “Don’t worry about it, Joe. If you had to be bilingual, Jeff would have told you.” He snorted, and put the tape into a deck.

[Joe has started work, and Jeff, the supervisor is explaining things.]

“In each headend we have some machinery – special computers called ‘inserters’ which do all the work of playing the spots, and inserting them into the proper network. They work off of a list of instructions called a ‘schedule’. Traffic sends us the schedules, and calls us when they are ready to be sent out. We go into the computer room, then press a button, and the machinery sends them to the Field – to the inserters of each headend at all those places on the map.”
Joe nodded. “But that’s just the instructions, right? What about the spot?”
“Good question, Joe. Every day, usually in the afternoon, someone from Traffic comes in with a cart full of tapes. That’s where you guys come in. You encode them – Al will go over that later – and the machinery sends the spots out where they’re needed.”

“Oh, yeah,” Joe grimaced, trying to remember that strange word. “Sub-something, right? Al said it was invented by the Pope.”
Jeff laughed. “Subsidiarity. Yeah, I forget how the Pope comes into the picture, but when you meet the Doc, you can ask him about it, if you have a free hour or two. But that is how it happens. We don’t have to do much, just make sure PUMP keeps running. PUMP is the most important part of the system – it pumps the stuff out to the Field.”
“How does it know what it needs?”
“The machines in the Field tell it what they need, and PUMP figures out what to send next, then sends it. Normally you don’t have to worry too much about that. One of the screens will tell you what has to be encoded next...” He clicked with the mouse. “This one – but see, there’s nothing needed at present, except for those two, they’re not due for five days yet.”
“OK, so these headends get the schedules, and ask for what spots they need, and we encode them, and PUMP sends them.”
“That’s most of it. Every hour they send back logs – the record of what was played – for the previous hour. That’s how we do the billing – the logs go to Traffic, and they take it from there. Just about the only other thing to know is how the spots play. The networks send a signal called the ‘cue-tone’ – it’s four beeps, like on a touchtone phone – and a few seconds after that, depending on the schedule, our spots play. That third screen shows the time for the last cue for each network – the newest ones are at the top.”
“Why are there two columns?”
“Redundancy. We have all kinds of checks, and protections, and extra stuff built in to guard against problems. And when things go wrong, we get e-mail – the third computer from the end is usually set to the Control Room e-mail where we get any problem reports, and where we write our own log of activities. Like for example, the portal at WILD went down during the night...”
“The what at where?”
“The portal is the special inserter which talks to us here, over the satellite. WILD is the headend in Wildwood, New Jersey – see over there, W-I-L-D, just off the east coast? Freddy the Field Tech got in early this morning, went into the Tech Shop where Paul does the building and testing of our inserters, got a new portal, and drove down to the headend in Wildwood. He’s out there now, pulling out the old one and installing the replacement. Once he’s got it all connected, he’ll call in, and Al will dial in – he connects to it over the phone lines – to make sure everything is running correctly.”
Al nodded. “Yeah, and more than likely you’ll get to see that subsidiarity at work, because when they put in a new inserter, it’s empty of spots. So once it wakes up, it looks to see what it needs, and then asks for it.”
“So this PUMP has to send out every spot in the schedules? Won’t it take all day?”
“Nope,” Al smirked. “That’s what makes it so great. First it checks with the other inserters in the headend, and gets whatever it can from them. Only if it needs spots that aren’t anywhere at WILD, then it asks PUMP for those.”
“Oh, I see – that is clever. Must be complicated. No wonder it took a Pope to come up with something like that.”

[Many weeks later, Joe finally gets to ask "Doc" about the system...]

The chores were done, everything was green and Doc was still busy. Joe got himself some coffee and sat down at the console. “How are you finding the overnights, Joe?”
“Not bad. Kind of quiet.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been in late, and in early, when I had to prepare, like this,” he pointed to the computer. “About five minutes and we can trigger. You have any questions I can deal with in five minutes?”
Joe smirked; now was the time to ask. “Sure... is that long enough for you to explain this sub-thing that PUMP does?”
“You mean explain Subsidiarity – in five minutes?” the Doctor laughed. “That’s a real challenge. Let’s see.” He grabbed a scrap of paper and started drawing the diagram Joe had seen in the handbook. “Here’s a leaf. As you know, that’s just a computer with some Carina playback cards, and a big hard drive. It’s connected by a little network to two other leaves and a portal. The portal is similar, but it can talk to HOME over the satellite. Sooner or later the engine can’t find a spot it has to play, and so it will...”
“No, I understand that. I’ve seen it work. But what is the idea behind it? And where does the Pope come in?”
The Doctor chuckled. “Oh, that’s what you want to know. Well, the word comes from a division in the ancient Roman army, but even Moses used the idea. The idea started with a document written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, and there’s been more since then. The mnemonic is OPAL: order, purpose, ability, limitation. It’s the idea that a collection of people, having a common purpose, works best if it’s arranged in an orderly manner, avoiding interference, according to the various abilities and limitations of its members. Communication is key: when someone needs help, he must know how and where to ask for it, like this: in any given organization, a company or a club or even a system, each individual has a ‘superior’ who is to assist when an appeal is made. So in our system, when the leaf needs a spot, it appeals to its superior, the portal. And when the portal needs a spot, it appeals to PUMP on HOME, and when PUMP needs a spot, it shows up on WATCHER and appeals to you to do the encode. You encode the spot, then PUMP sends it to the portal, then Ferry sends it to the leaf, then the engine gets it, and all is well. There’s more, but that’s the short version. Whew.” He look at his computer. “Good, it’s done now. Just one more task to finish, and then we’ll be ready...” He started typing again.
“Thanks, Doc,” Joe replied. He had a feeling that Doc had barely begun an explanation, but perhaps he’d go into more detail another time.

* * * * * *

[The above was excerpted from Joe the Control Room Guy by Dr. Thursday, soon to be available at any Quayment bookstore. And yes, Doc did go into more detail elsewhere, but the adventure comes when Joe applies Subsidiarity to complications in real life...]

What - you scream - no Chesterton? Oh, I saved that for the end, so you would be sure to read everything. You know, you get your dessert when you eat your vegetables, hee hee. Here you go:
To have such an institution as a Christmas is, I will not say to make an accident inevitable, but I will say to make an adventure recurrent - and therefore, in one sense, to make an adventure everlasting.
[GKC ILN Dec 20 1913 CW29:602]
Yes, Gilbert, I have done so - or at least I have tried. It is, was, and has been, well worth the effort - a real adventure. You think I could keep quiet about it? No - I'd like you to enjoy it too. At least this way you get a taste of it. (The funny thing is that GKC's words apply to things like Christmas and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as well as to the daily tasks of life, even in the real high-tech world. But then we can expect that: "Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation." [GKC TEM CW2:308])

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