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Zeno’s Corporation

by Matthew Harrison

Dave couldn’t believe what the data was telling him. He checked and checked, even consulted his girlfriend Alicia who was better at stats, but he always reached the same conclusion. According to his time and motion study, his colleagues at Infinitesimal, Inc., were never working. How was that possible?

He tried to explain it to his boss, Miriam.

“But that’s ridiculous!” Miriam exclaimed. Grey-haired, stout, practical, she had seen many management fads over the years and, as Head of Corporate Services, had unshakeable convictions. “What do you mean, they don’t spend any time working? How do they get the work done?”

“I don’t know,” Dave said glumly. “Look at the data.”

Miriam seized the print-out. “Yes, here we are, Henry in Sales Support, he’s a good worker. Let me see... Hmm, it doesn’t seem much... No... ” she turned the page “he doesn’t seem to have spent much time at all. Actually, none.” She looked up at Dave, as if it were his fault.

“That’s what I’m trying to say,” Dave said.

Miriam flipped the pages to and fro, as if trying to refresh the numbers. “Arthur was telling me” — Arthur was Head of Sales Support — “that last week Henry produced a report, dealt with Internal Audit, and fixed a problem on the sales system. You must have misrecorded the time.”

She asked to see the videos. Feeling like a spy, Dave brought up a clip with a rear view of Henry’s ginger head, complete with bald patch, from 12:00 until 12:32 when he left for lunch. They watched as he shifted in his seat, scratched his head, checked his phone, tried to click open a prohibited site, checked his phone again, chatted with a co-worker, checked his phone, and, once, although it wasn’t entirely clear, appeared to pick his nose and swallow the result.

“You see?” Dave cut short the nosing-picking sequence. “He’s not actually doing any company work during that time. Nor at any other time.”

Miriam asked for audio.

It took Dave a few minutes to get the tuning right, but then Henry’s breathing rasped through the speaker, to a strangely-syncopated background beat. At first, Dave wondered if it was Henry’s heart — or could the young man even have a pacemaker? — but then Miriam snorted, “Reggae!” and indeed, when Dave retrieved the video again, they spotted the earbuds.

Next on Miriam’s list was the computer log. All this showed was the attempt at the prohibited site, a couple of online games ticking over, five chat strings on the messaging system, and amendments to an unauthorised file which, when opened, revealed a beta-stage algorithm to manage tele-bets.

The whole week revealed nothing office-related except work on a set of criteria for ranking female colleagues. Yet somehow, Henry’s report lengthened and became complete during that time, and his other accomplishments also emerged.

Miriam sat back, shaken. “How does Henry do it? Does he work at home?”

Dave didn’t think so.

“Or there’s a shadow Sales Support Department somewhere?”

Dave shrugged.

“What about the other staff?”

“They’re not all like Henry,” Dave said. “Millie knits and gets calls from her children. Arthur reads the media. Sandra—”

Miriam recovered. “This is not the right answer. Management are looking for efficiency, and you’re showing them a black hole. Gavin” — their Director — “will blow a fuse!”

Dave looked down, trying to appear contrite. When he glanced up, he found to his surprise that his boss was beaming at him.

“It’s just multitasking!” Miriam said triumphantly. “They’re doing two things at once. What a fuss you’ve made over nothing! Just go and watch them.”

Not sure about this, Dave stumped back to his desk.

* * *

Before tackling Sales Support, Dave tried again with Alicia that evening. She had a more businesslike way of looking at things than he did.

“Your boss must be right,” Alicia said, looking up reluctantly from her phone. “Unless they’re beavering away in an alternate universe somewhere, ha ha!” She swiped and tapped her way through the messages. “So, basically, they’re working all the time. Or right hand working, left hand playing. Once you’ve found the working time, you divide it by the tasks accomplished — Oh, you poor thing!” This last was a message from a friend who was quarrelling with her partner.

“Yes, I know the methodology, allowance for toilet visits and so on.” Dave tried to be patient. “The problem is, I don’t see the right hand working. There’s no working to be seen.”

Alicia, when she had replied to her friend, wouldn’t believe it. But by the time Dave had shown her a surreptitious copy of Henry’s video — with the nose-picking deleted — and she had responded to her friend’s response — and those of others in their chat group — she was reluctantly coming round. “It does seem odd — Oh, look what her boyfriend’s done!”

Dave made the mistake of siding with the boyfriend, and earned a diatribe on his own shortcomings punctuated with messages from his own phone and alerts from various devices around the flat. It was not until bedtime that he got back to the subject. By then it was time for that, and Alicia, giggling, got distracted in her explanation of the maths; and afterwards she fell asleep.

Dave, lying awake and listening to the buzz of devices shutting themselves down and starting up again, echoed faintly by devices in the flat above, began to wish he had the ability to focus amid continual interruption. He tried to remember what Alicia had said — something about calculus and the mathematics of the continuum. But what did that have to do with work? And would he ever uncover Henry’s secret?

* * *

Henry, larger and redder-faced in life than on the video and emitting a faint Reggae beat, could not at first understand the question.

“What do you mean, how do I do it?” he growled, taking the earbud from one ear with a huge hand. He looked down at his phone, and then quickly at the screen of his PC. “Sandra!

The glitch was dealt with. Henry picked papers off his desk, and glanced at them while accepting a doughnut from a colleague who was going round with a tray. It was someone’s birthday; he had to sign a card.

Eventually, Henry focused on Dave again. “You mean, you’ve been monitoring me?”

Dave gulped. “The department, actually. Arthur okayed it.”

Henry swore. “What are you: corporate police?” He rested a meaty forearm, covered with ginger hair, on the cubicle wall. “Hey, Sandra, this guy’s checking on us!”

Sandra appeared in the aisle, tall and fully half as wide as she was tall. Retreating from her, Dave tried to edge past Henry, stuttering, “We... we were just trying to help...”

Henry reluctantly stood aside. “If you want to help, get your butt out of here! There’s enough crap in this company as it is.” He wedged his great frame into his chair, and the faint Reggae beat resumed.

Shaken, Dave made his way back to Corporate Services. He felt bad, even though he had been acting on orders. And he was no nearer to understanding how Sales Support did their work.

* * *

Time ran out, the presentation had to be made to their director Gavin, with or without the answer. Dave was just touching up his presentation when Alicia called.

“Your work problem,” came her excited voice, “I think I’ve got the answer.”

Dave was all ears. But as she explained he wished he had put more effort into maths at school, or that Alicia would be in the meeting to help. He still wasn’t clear about it when his girlfriend rang off in exasperation.

When he and Miriam arrived at the meeting room, Gavin was there, a boyish forty, expectant in suit and tie. “What have you got for me?” He smiled at Dave with intimidatingly white teeth, tie tight under his Adam’s apple.

At Miriam’s nod, Dave gulped and went through the results.

Gavin looked at the numbers, and then at Dave. “Is this right? It looks as though we can get rid of the staff, and Infinitesimal will still get the work done.”

“Not exactly,” Dave said. “You need the staff to do the work.”

“But if they’re actually spending their time on something else? Which, by the way, contravenes company policy. I would say—” At that moment his mobile rang. Miriam surreptitiously checked her own device.

Gavin looked up again. “Hey, they’re just multitasking! They’re doing the work simultaneously. Each staff member is effectively two — one working, one playing.” He glanced down at his phone, looked up again with an effort. “Now, if we could reduce the distractions...”

Dave looked at Miriam, who was nodding in agreement. He struggled on: “That’s what we thought, at first — right hand working, left hand playing. But check this out.” He called up the video of Henry’s bald patch. Taking it frame by frame, he showed how in each frame Henry was fully occupied, both hands, by his phone and other distractions. “We have gone through the entire week’s videos like this. There’s no frame in which he is actually engaged in work.”

“What if we ban mobile phones?” Gavin wondered.

“I don’t think that would help,” Miriam said quickly.

Gavin glanced down and then realized what he was doing. “OK, you’ve got me!” He grinned. He dealt with some messages, then became serious again. “How do you explain it?”

Dave took a breath. “Remember Achilles and the tortoise?” Under Gavin’s disbelieving gaze, he recounted Zeno’s paradox — Achilles trying to catch the tortoise, running ten steps for the tortoise’s one, then one step for the tortoise’s tenth, and so on, apparently never catching up.

Gavin frowned. “This had better be good.”

Dave took another breath. “The point is, Achilles has an infinite number of places to get to before he can catch the tortoise, but he only has a finite amount of time. So how can he do it?

“Jump over the tortoise!” Gavin retorted. He turned to Miriam. “What has this got to do with—” Fortunately, at that moment his phone screen brightened with an incoming message.

“But we haven’t solved the problem of how the running — or the work — is done up to then, right?” Dave insisted. Suddenly, he felt confident. “The thing is, Achilles can cover those infinite number of points in a finite time.”

“And the relevance...?” Miriam queried.

It has to happen about now, Dave thought to himself. Crossing his fingers, he deliberately looked away from his bosses. “Like Achilles, Henry can also do an infinite number of things in a finite time. He is multitasking, but sequentially rather than concurrently.” The words, Alicia’s words, were rolling smoothly off his tongue. “Henry does a little bit of texting, then a little bit of work, then a little bit of texting — too fast for you to see. If we were able to make the interval between video frames indefinitely small, you would see it. But we can’t.”

His eyes firmly on the window, the trees outside, Dave heard his bosses shift in their seats. It had to happen now. He was not disappointed.

“I love the Greeks.” Gavin’s voice was quiet, reflective, as if his mind had long ago been made up.

Dave looked back; both bosses were head-down over their phones. He waited.

Gavin looked up and, with an effort, smiled. The whitened teeth seemed somehow less threatening. “Great presentation, by the way,” he said. And with that he marched out.

Dave turned to Miriam. He knew better than to speak.

“You heard the man,” Miriam said. She checked her own phone.

Dave was already calling Alicia. “You’re right,” he began, “you never actually see it happening.”

Copyright © 2017 by Matthew Harrison

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