Sunday, July 28, 2013

X Files

Long years ago, when internet in India meant 56 kpbs dialup connection from BSNL with a screeching connecting tone, the most frustrating part of surfing was the ubiquitous screen displaying HTTP 404 error - File not found. As years went by, thanks to increased resilience and redundancy in servers and, in recent times, mindless caching by Google, that message has become a thing of past. It was after joining the Government, I started seeing this annoying message again. However, this time it was not on my computer but on the faces of my staff.  Two things that are always required and never found in an office are staff and files. I heard about crucial files going missing, but it is only after I started working I realized that missing of files is a very secular phenomenon that cuts across the barriers of age and importance of the file. Any file can go missing. Even that which was on your table 20 seconds ago can get Houdini-ed*. Such shocking disappearances that often you wonder if the sight of the file moments ago was due to hallucination or hypnotism or hangover. May be that explains why the most famous magician of the land was called Sorcar.
Upon observing the events that followed, I discovered that there was a symbiotic relationship between the disappearances of files and staff. First, the files disappear. Then, the staff disappears under the pretext of searching for them and you are left alone answering threatening calls from your boss about the file. During those hours of distress I deduced that the mathematical probability of a file to disappear is directly proportional to the urgency of its requirement raised to the power of importance assigned to it by the boss. I have also pondered over why these files disappear. While this could easily pass of a topic for JNU research scholars, the most common reason is careless handling. Files get passed around between offices, officers and staff as casually as dishes are passed around in a potluck dinner. A file could be in my office or my boss’ office or even his boss’ office. Everyone who wants to look into it takes it like a book from the shelf of a public library and then discards it on the nearest available table. The only hitch here is that there is no librarian. That is where the file surreptitiously sneaks away from the official glare and thereafter begins to hitchhike its way through the maze of cupboards, compactors, corridors and  sometimes even hops on to cars and goes away to another building altogether. In the meanwhile everybody, and their uncle, in the office of the file have comfortably forgotten about it and in due course most of them would have got transferred. And that is how many a file has attained nirvana from the confines of office.
Then there are cases of partial disappearances. These are what I call as doppelganger files. Since the original file is temporarily unavailable, an interim file gets created, which invariably never gets merged into the main file. So after sometime both files keep going around and keep receiving documents on first-come-first-serve basis. Just that different officers see different versions of the file. Though it might sound like cases of mistaken identity in Bollywood potboilers with hero performing twin roles, in office it is anything but amusing. Such ghost files are more dangerous than missing files since they have selective information on which you invariably end up taking wrong decisions.
For the staff, nothing could be more euphoric than to discover a file to be missing. You would be told that a file is missing only after a week since you first call for it. After that, another week would be spent searching for it. And another week would be spent reconstructing it. So for three whole weeks the no one is working on the file, out of which one week is spent officially outside office on the plea of searching for it. All this would be while you are having nightmares over the approaching deadlines.
It is not that we do not have a File Management System. We have a very sleek, rugged, eco-friendly, portable and cost-effective File Management System which runs even without power. It is called the File Movement Register, a hardbound book whose pages deliriously hang out and which would fly away under the impact of the mildest sneeze from the person holding it. It is supposed to record all inward and outward movement of files. But the ingenious staff ensures that only outward movement is recorded. So that at any given point of time when you call for a file, you will be promptly shown the register as proof of unavailability of the file.  While it would appear as if majority of the files are on a permanent sojourn, some even extending for years, in reality some of them could be acting as the fourth leg of the chair in which your clerk has his daily siesta. Strangely, in due course, the register takes its given name too seriously and self-propels itself to the vast area of nothingness where all the files disappeared. I have thought of having a Meta movement register but gave it up thinking it will also meet the same fate.
The menace of missing files was sought to be contained with the aid of computerized File Management System supported by a powerful search engine. Informed sources told me that the most ambitious project that is currently undertaken by Google is to build a search engine to search for files in a Government office. It was also learnt that the algorithm is structured around the one that is used to search for the largest prime number. It has also a module to predict the possible deviant paths a file might take before it is lost into vacuum for which algorithm was borrowed from those used to simulate the Big Bang Theory. Despite such brilliant cutting computation, when the beta version of the software was actually tested, it failed miserably. After a detailed analysis, it was learnt that tracing of files in a Government office required intuitive fuzzy logic algorithms of the order which could predict the mood swings of women.  That was when the developers concluded they were chasing a mirage in sub Saharan Africa without the aid of a GPS. So that put to rest quietly a project which in the history of computer science could have overshadowed 3D simulation of nuclear explosion and search for extra terrestrial life and we resigned to our fate of living with missing files and moving registers.

*Courtesy Wicked Witch of Worcester