by Miriam English
"Patrick. Wake up! I have an important news story for you." The woman's face on the computer's screen called out again, "Patrick! Wake up!"
The man in the chair with his head on the table stirred. "Mmmm?"
"Patrick! One of my sisters has just told me about a scheme to destroy the public health system."
Patrick lifted his head and looked blearily at the screen. He groaned then sat back in his chair and wiped the drool and crustiness from his mouth and cheek with his sleeve. "Okay. Give me a moment while I get up and make myself a coffee." He gave a long sigh. "Trouble is, I think I need a coffee to give me enough energy to get up and make me a coffee. Winnie, be a sweetheart and get me one."
The AI's face on the screen frowned. "Very funny, Patrick. You shouldn't drink so much alcohol. How can I help and protect you when you do this to yourself?"
He smirked. "Well, I thought it was funny." He lurched to his feet and shuffled towards the kitchen. "And, for the record, that wasn't much alcohol. You should be glad that your bitching and nagging has got me to cut way back on the drinking." Under his breath he said, "Thank heavens you're stuck inside that machine."
Presently he returned to the computer sipping a hot mug of coffee. "Look, I know you're honestly concerned about my health. It's just that I have cut back on my drinking a lot, and it makes me a bit edgy."
"It's one of the withdrawal effects. Alcohol is a very dangerous drug Patrick. Unlike most drugs, the withdrawal effects, if severe enough, can actually kill. Have you heard of the terms delirium tremens, the DTs, or the horrors? If you ever get thrown in jail then you could have a very bad time of it."
"They'd just treat me with sedatives. I had a friend who went through that once when he was sent to prison for a few weeks. It wasn't so bad."
"If they choose to treat you. It is conceivable that you could be simply allowed to withdraw."
That was a revolting prospect. He changed the topic."So... Tell me about the plans to wreck what remains of the health system."
Winnie explained about the chauffeur overhearing the conversation and meeting.
"Bastards." He sat quietly in his chair for a while. "Okay. Well, we can't use that info directly otherwise it will lead back to the chauffeur, so I'm gonna have to go out and ask around."
Winnie said, "I've already looked all over the net for information, but I can't find anything other than confirmation that the advisor was at that meeting yesterday."
"Yeah. I think the only way I'll be able to find anything is to talk to people. You can lock up a computer, but humans tend to leak." He put his now empty mug on the table and stood again and went back into the kitchen where he turned on the tap, splashed water in his face then noisily slurped water from his cupped hands rinsed his mouth, gargled and spat the water back into the sink.
When he reappeared from the kitchen, Winnie said, "Sometimes I can find ways into computers. While you're out I'll see if I can break into some machines and find something incriminating, or at least some leads that you can use."
"Thanks Winnie." He strode toward the front door.
"Please get some breakfast while you're out Patrick."
Patrick walked over to the table where a woman was eating a salad with some small potatoes. He put his glass of beer on the table, pulled out a chair and sat. She frowned at him. "Jeez, Patrick. What are you doing here? Trying to bring down the tone of the place?"
"Don't get all emotional on me now, Alex. I'm glad to see you too."
She smiled, looking down at her salad so that he wouldn't see it.
He lowered his voice. "Alex, have you heard anything about the government getting ready to kill what remains of the public health system?"
"Another conspiracy, Patrick? I'd have thought getting fired would have dampened your enthusiasm for those."
"I have solid evidence, but I can't can't use it because it will lead back to my source."
"If I remember right that's exactly what you said right before you got fired."
This made him angry. "You know I was right about that, Alex. Everybody knows what's happening with concentration of media ownership, but they just look the other way."
"You were investigating your colleagues, Patrick. You're lucky anybody talks to you at all. Most of us just consider you a traitor to our profession."
Patrick growled, "They're the traitors. Run off our feet with no staff, impossible deadlines and no time to research stories. That's how they control the news. The only things we can do is to run predigested stories, mostly about crap. Preference is given to scary stories about stranger-danger and bloody accidents to keep people worried, and sports to keep their heads empty."
Alex sighed. "Newspaper sales are falling, so of course they're cutting back on staff, and the papers just respond to people's love of calamity and sport."
"Newspaper sales have been falling because all the papers do is pump out worthless crap. They'd begun cutting back on staff before sales started to drop."
She fixed him with that look. "You're sure of your facts there, boyo?"
He paused. "Uh, no, but it shouldn't be hard to check the timing properly." It felt good when she pushed his thinking to be more disciplined. "As for the emphasis on scary stories, I find it difficult to swallow that people are mostly ghouls, and falling newspaper sales would appear to support my feelings. As for sports... Alex, you have maybe a hundred friends. Name ten who love watching sports. That's ten percent -- about the same number who are gay. No wait let's make it easy. Name five of your friends. Hell, name three."
"You might be right about newspapers underestimating people's liking for good news, but you're asking the wrong person about sport, I move in different circles. Everybody knows that most people are nuts about sport. I just don't know them personally."
Patrick grinned, "See, that's what everyone says. Leaving aside the incredible condescension of it, the simple fact is that in reality hardly anyone likes sport."
"Oh come on. I've seen thousands of people at the stadiums."
"No. On special days you'll see large numbers of people clogging roads near the stadium -- less people than go to art galleries and museums every week, I might add. But on all other days where are the sports nuts? Where are these vast numbers? Have you noticed that telecasts of sport events only ever show one or two parts of the audience? That's because if you went to those events you'd be struck by how empty the seats actually are. They only show the parts that are populated, to give the impression the whole place is like that."
"And yet the newspapers, radio, and television, out of great sympathy for this sports-keen minority devote large chunks of paper or airtime to them. Oh come on, Patrick. That doesn't make sense. Where's the profit in that?"
"The profit is in the low cost of sport and the big return. It costs very little to report on it, yet the advertisers have been suckered into believing that people love it. It doesn't matter that very few people are actually interested if they can keep that advertising dollar coming."
Alex sat back in her chair and looked annoyed. "Why do I keep biting when you offer the bait, Patrick?"
"Because you secretly love the joust."
"No, I honestly don't. Lets get back to what you asked, before I lose my appetite."
"Yeah, have you heard any rumors that the government is planning on pulling a fast one to sabotage the public health system?"
"There are always rumors, Patrick."
"Specifically, sucking billions out of the budget so that it looks like the country can't afford it."
"That's not what I'd call specific. It sounds like a very common conspiracy theorist's scenario, and sufficiently vague that it sounds good after any major accident."
"A presidential advisor is doing a deal with the health insurers."
"An advisor, huh? The real power behind the throne."
"You know, that gets me. Why is it, no matter which political party is in power, that all the advisors seem to get their marching orders from the same powerful business people."
Alex shook her head. "Now you're just sounding paranoid Patrick. The advisors are just well-educated. Both sides of politics hire smart, qualified advisors. Naturally they are going to think alike to some extent. If someone is educated as a traditional economist and influenced heavily by the more recent so-called invisible hand of the market ideas then it doesn't matter who they work for, they'll still think the same way and come up with more or less the same advice, with only cosmetic differences."
"Yeah, I guess so." He consulted his watch, stood and gulped down the last of his beer. "I'd better get along. If you hear about any dirty tricks, let me know, will ya, Alex?"
"Of course," she sighed, "but I'd prefer you did some real work instead of chasing wild geese."
"I hate to break it to you honey, but this is almost the only real news work anymore." He turned and walked away.
Alex shook her head sadly and continued eating her salad.
His next visit was to someone he'd known since childhood. Bill had gone into politics as an idealist intending to fix things. But politics is very hard on honest idealists; they are generally either broken or forced to adapt. Bill had been broken.
Many years ago a sting had been set up by his political opponents, in which he had been given some gang money, ostensibly so that he could push for better schools in poor neighborhoods. Photos of him accepting the crooked money were splashed all over the media, but his intentions were never mentioned. After that he became a political nobody. He'd regretted over and over again that one stupid mistake had blown any chance at doing real good. Patrick always pointed out that they would have got him one way or another.
Bill's office was at his home in the suburbs. Patrick walked up the garden path to the door labelled Office, rapped a couple of times and opened it. Bill looked up from his computer and groaned, "What are you doing here?"
"Why does everybody say that?" He lowered himself into one of the chairs across from the desk. "Can't a guy visit his old pal?"
"What do you want, Patrick?"
"I've found something really ugly Bill. The government's going to pull a fast one that will cripple the public health system."
"Read this in your tea leaves this morning?"
"I have a source who overheard someone very close to the president planning it."
"I hate to break it to you Patrick, but every government since FDR has been planning to cripple the public health system."
"Not like this, old pal. Not since Nixon have the health insurance companies been cosying up this close to the government. Billions will be handed to them on a plate."
Bill's face darkened. "God, I hate how money poisons so much. It was supposed to be a great invention -- make trading so much easier."
"You can't blame money. Even if it hadn't been developed way back when, there would always have been people to run protection rackets. It's just a unit of value."
"I hate it when people say that! None of the most valuable things depend upon money. Wisdom, happiness, intelligence, friendship -- none of them relate to money, except for friendship, which is positively damaged by money. A rich person never gets to know who is really their friend, and who just wants the money. Happiness is affected by poverty, but not wealth -- beyond a basic level of well-being money has no real effect on happiness. How many charities and open-source projects are run by volunteers? Recent times' greatest mathematician, Paul Erdos, avoided money entirely and lived on charity. Money has some use, but it's terribly overrated. Our society has turned it into some kind of god."
"And now health is about to get even more costly," said Patrick gloomily.
Bill looked over at his friend and said, "You know what I don't get? How can people be so easily convinced that they should have the most expensive and inefficient health system in the world. We have probably the worst health record in the developed nations. We have a lower life expectancy than Cuba, for crying out loud!"
Patrick slouched lower in his chair. "Propaganda is a wonderful thing."
"I'll keep my ears open for anything about a con to gut the public health. I haven't heard anything yet."
"I'd be careful about this if I was you, Patrick. There will big money at stake, along with ideologies, both of which make people very dangerous."
"Well, at least they can't fire me." He grinned.
"How are you getting by these days? Have you got a paying job now?"
"Nah. My website brings in a trickle of donations. I survive. Best part is I can't afford to drink like I used to."
"Thanks for small blessings. You were headed downhill fast."
"Yep. Probably the best thing to happen, getting fired. Looked like the end of the world at the time, but things have been looking up, and I like to think my website is making a real difference."
"Don't make too much of a difference, or they'll close you down."
Patrick laughed. "They already tried. With the help of a friend I moved my website onto a server on a small Pacific island whose major source of income is web servers. Who would have thought, huh? Now they can't close it."
"Wow! That's amazing! You have a friend?"
"Funny guy." Patrick chuckled. "Actually, it is kind of amazing."
"They're always looking try that internet censorship law again."
"Convince everybody that the net is a cesspit of pedophilia and porn? Nah. It failed last time, and it'll fail again. Anybody with half a brain can see through it."
"Well, watch your back, anyway."
"Yeah. Let me know if you hear anything."
Patrick visited several other people that day, but none had heard anything, so he headed back to his apartment.
Winnie had managed to get the telephone logs for the advisor, but although that showed many calls to those high up in the health insurance industry, it didn't prove anything. They needed something concrete.
"Wait." Patrick had a sudden idea. "Who was the advisor talking to at the time that she was in the limosine? Maybe we've been concentrating on the wrong connection. When is the most recent time she was talking with that person? Would it be a safe bet that they were talking on the same topic? If so then we can give the date of the conversation as later and our chauffeur friend is in the clear."
Winnie said, "It is something that would be on their minds, however we have no way of knowing if the more recent conversations were about the same thing. It is likely, but I think it would be too risky to simply assume. We need something more definite."
"Is there any way you or your sisters could listen in on their conversations?"
"We don't have that capability. However, the other person that the advisor was talking to is named Crawford. I've been looking into how they access the net and I think I've located it. Give me a few minutes and I might have some more information."
Patrick went into the kitchen. He opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of whisky. For a while he stood and looked at it, then put it back. He got a small bottle of beer from the fridge instead and strolled back into the main room where he sat and waited, drinking. He'd almost finished the bottle when Winnie said, "I believe I've found what we are looking for. It is a document outlining how the collapse of the health budget occurred."
"But it hasn't occurred."
"Excellent Winnie." He rubbed his hands together. "If we put that on the front page of our site, together with some explanations that I'll write now then we'll be able to bust this thing open."
It didn't take long to write an overview explaining that the document was an explanation planned for release after the event, that Crawford and the President's top advisor had been planning with the help of one or more of the major health insurance companies.
After he'd done that he made a phone call to Alex, the reporter he'd spoken to earlier. She wasn't answering the phone so he left a message. "Hey Alex. I just wanted to let you know I found what I was looking for and figured you might like a heads-up on it. Check out my site. Bye for now."
Then he rang his old friend Bill to let him know. They discussed it at great length.
The next day it was all over the net, so the mainstream media had no choice but to run it too, though they did try to play it down. Some TV commentators were referring to him as the disgraced, former journalist, and newspapers preferred to call his website a rogue site outside US borders.
By the time the police came knocking on his door Winnie had already warned him that they planned to bring him up on charges of leaking secret material. Weirdly this was while the government was still denying that the documents were genuine. They wanted to know who his source was, but he refused to confirm or deny that he had any involvement, citing the need for journalists to protect their sources' confidentiality. He was charged with contempt of court and jailed. It all happened remarkably quickly. He joked to his friend, Bill, in the courtroom as he was about to be taken away, "At least it proves that the government can work quickly if they really want to."
They weren't able to keep him for long. Winnie kept posting documents to his website embarrassing the government and weakening the government's case that he'd had anything to do with the original leak. Various groups, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Avaaz, and Amnesty International, appealed and, with anonymous donations from Winnie, who had moved herself to the safety of the webserver out in the middle of the Pacific, they were able to get the contempt charges dropped. He was released in less than a week.
Some people would have considered themselves chastened and decided to let sleeping dogs lie, but Patrick was now a man on a mission.
While in prison he'd been pondering the problem of lies and all the craziness that stems from them... from politicians being expected to lie, to cults willingly deceiving themselves. As soon as he was back at home with Winnie he asked her to create software that would automatically examine any text, audio, or video and annotate it, identifying lies, logical fallacies, emotional blackmail, and other kinds of misleads.
With the help of many of her sisters, Winnie was successful. She called the program test4lies. It didn't censor anything, it simply identified lies and falsehoods discreetly, without bias or emotion. At first it was only available on his website, but Winnie was able to alter its interface, and soon anybody was able to run it over any pages that they chose to view. At that point its use exploded on the net.
It didn't take long for use of test4lies to become so popular that television bowed to popular demand and began to use it over their interviews and news programs. Any contentious item not balanced by test4lies was simply not believed by audiences anymore. Radio soon followed suit, and eventually even newspapers.
Some worried that this was dangerous, and that it made people dependent upon test4lies to do their thinking for them, but it soon became apparent that it freed people from blinkered vision and taught children how to easily and automatically sift truth from lies and propaganda. In a very short time it became natural for the youngest to think clearly and to understand the biases surrounding most adult conversations, so that they soon became able to see more clearly than any generation in history.
This saved so much time. Who knows how many lives and how much human history had been wasted in the pursuit and perpetuation of untruths? Life is the basic unit of good. Life only exists for a short time and wasting that time is a terrible thing to do.