Tarak makes a presentation at the library
approximately 2200 words
Tarak huddled over his keyboard and peered at the screen. The error in the programming had to be someplace in this loop. Maybe here? Yeah, that loop was screwed up for sure. Damn. He knew he shouldn't have trusted open source code. even if he was behind on the Homeland Security contract. It was always better if he solved his own problems. Besides, programming was fun.
An hour later, someone rapped on the side of his cubicle, making Tarak start.
Oh. It was Dr. Breanna Bodley, his supervisor at the Central Library. She favored him with a sunny smile, and asked in her perky voice, "How's my favorite intern doing, Mr. Gupta?"
It took him a moment to leave the precise world of computer code and interact with a human being, even one as congenial as Dr. Bodley. "I'm doing well. Still working on the program. The contract officer with Homeland Security is putting pressure on the team to finish it." He returned her smile, even though she'd broken his concentration. Sheesh. She meant well, but he wished she hadn't disturbed him..
"I saw your screen, so I figured that's what you were doing. You're brilliant, Mr. Gupta. If anyone can finish it, it's you." She eyed his immaculate, ordered desk and then gave him a more serious look. "I was wondering if you could give the front-line staff a briefing later today? Show them a bit about what your program does. Describe the benefits to our patrons. You know."
Tarak pushed a pencil two microns to the right to align it with the yellow notepad on his desk. Damn, the packets of sweetener for his coffee weren't lined up either. "I guess." He straightened packets and centered his coffee cup on the desk while he tried to push down his panic. He'd read that people feared public speaking more than anything, even death. He could believe it. "How long do you need me to talk?"
She waved a hand airily at him. "Oh, not long. Maybe ten minutes or so. I'd start with the benefits of your program. Use the ideas in your internship proposal. They'll eat up the parts about using facial recognition to anticipate and better serve patron needs."
"I guess." He was working on a systematic, multiphase, whole-person recognition and tracking system, not just facial recognition. Not that she'd likely understand the difference. She might be an expert on the first amendment, but she was an idiot when it came to technology.
Doubt must have shown in his face, because she answered, "Don't worry, you'll do fine. Maybe conclude with a demonstration of the program in action. You know, like the one you showed me last week, where those little boxy things outlined a patron as she wandered through the library, searched the online catalog, and so on. Talk about how machines can learn just like people."
He didn't roll his eyes. Machines don't learn like people. It took thousands of lines of code and access to hours of compute cycles on the community supercomputer. That's nothing like how people learn. She was nice, but really...Still, she was also his supervisor for his internship. Besides, he liked her. "I'll do my best, Dr. Bodley."
"I know you will, Tarak." She squeezed his shoulder. He didn't cringe away, but it took effort. "On another topic, my fiancé John and I were wondering if you'd like to join us for dinner Friday night? He's got a new recipe for chicken korma he wants to show off."
Chicken Korma. That would be some Indian dish, probably laced with heavy doses of curry and cumin. He didn't have the heart to tell her that his mother became enthralled with Tex-Mex cooking after the family emigrated from Hyderabad in 1992. He'd grown up with tacos and enchiladas, not curries. He hated curries. "Sounds awesome."
"We'll look forward to it then." She hesitated. "If you have a friend, bring her along. There will be plenty to eat."
She was nice, but he wondered how she could be so clueless. If he had a 'friend' in the sense she meant, he wouldn't be a female. Not that Tarak was lonely. He had plenty of friends at school. Just no time for romance while working on his masters degree. "Thanks, but I'm unattached at the moment."
"Well, maybe we'll invite one of the staff librarians, then, just to fill out our table."
Okay, best to be honest. "Uh, thanks, but you should know...if I had a friend like that, you know, for dating, he'd be a guy." His face heated and he averted his gaze.
"Oh?" She hesitated a beat, and then her face lit up. "Oh! Well, that's fine with us. You know, John volunteers at Youth Services. They help lots of gay street kids."
Right. Like the only gay people you know are homeless street kids. "That's good of him to volunteer." Tarak thought back, trying to recal husband. John was a too-handsome young guy with dimples to die for. He had some mildly sleazy job, too. Car salesman? That was it. "I am looking forward to dinner. Thank you." This time he did wince. His mother loved Tex-Mex, but her sing-song accent sometimes penetrated his own speech patters. Especially when he was stressed out.
"Perhaps we'll still invite one of the library staff, if that's all right."
"Sure." It sounded like torture, but it was too late to back out now.
"All righty, then! The staff meeting starts at two in the third floor conference room. You'll be the first agenda item."
"I'll be there."
What had he gotten himself into? Insh'Allah, this wouldn't be a disaster.
Despite the pending deadline on their contract, Tarak spent the next four hours preparing for his talk. First, there was the Power Point. He made sure to have lots of bulleted lists and googled for amusing images. Excel produced histograms, pie charts, and even multivariate statistics. Forty eight pages of detailed slides. Tatti. That meant he had enough slides for a ninety-six minute talk. What a lund kahjoor. He'd have to find a way to shorten this, and now he only had thirty minutes until his talk.
Maybe he should just run his test video of patrons using the library and ad lib something over that. He queued up three test runs. There was the older guy who was applying for jobs and never made eye contact with anyone. The African-American woman with her toddler who was looking for information on nutrition would be good. And that homeless kid, the one who came in at 9:17 every day. None of them ever asked for help, and none of the staff ever approached them. His program had reviewed thousands of hours of surveillance video and plucked out these three.
Fifteen minutes to go. Tarak rushed to the elevator and got off on the third floor. He stopped outside the conference room and backtracked to the restroom down the hall to check his appearance. It was worse than he'd feared. Sweat pock-marked the pits and sides of his sports shirt, and his hair sprouted in wet, black spikes from his skull . His stubble beard, which had looked so hip this morning, just made him look seedy and unkempt this afternoon.
This was going to be a disaster. His stomach cramped and he suppressed a wince. Maybe he could tell Dr. Bodley he was sick.
The restroom door swished open, and one of the librarians puttered in. It was Mikey, the swishy one who staffed the front desk most mornings. He glanced at Tarak and nodded.
Tarak gave him a shaky grin in return and pulled paper towels from the dispenser. He wiped his face and tried to dry his hair, but it just turned into a more tangled mess. He ran hopeless fingers through it while despair ate at him.
Mikey washed his hands. "We're all looking forward to your talk."
Great. That would make his failure all the more humiliating. Dr. Bodley would probably flunk him in his internship and fire him from his position.
Mikey glanced at Tarak's trembling hands and looked away. "You know, I was scared shitless last year when I defended my thesis. I was sure I was going to screw up and the world was going to end."
Tarak just stared at him. What the hell was he talking about?
"Once I started, though, I just concentrated on the results of my research. I was proud of what I'd done. I was still worried, but it was about superficial crap like how I looked and sounded, not about the solid work I'd done. Besides, I knew that every single person there wanted me to succeed and were cheering for me." He pulled a towel out of the dispenser and wiped his hands. "Once I got a few sentences out, it went fine. It wasn't perfect, but it didn't need to be. And you know what? Fine felt pretty good." He threw away the towel. "Take a deep breath. Everyone here knows you're doing complicated and important work. This is all about us wanting to support you. Trust me. You going to do fine."
He gave a final nod and walked out.
Tarak took a deep breath. Okay, then. Here goes nothing.
While people filed in to the conference room, Tarak made sure his videos were queued up from the library's cloud servers. When he finished, he huddled in the back and tried to not jitter. Mrs. Logan, the head of cataloguing, came up and squeezed his shoulder. This time he did flinch. He couldn't help it, he was so nervous. She just smiled and patted his head. "Good to see you here, Mr. Gupta. These folks need to hear about what you're doing. You're helping to design the next generation of customer service software."
That was true. In fact, that was what got Tarak interested in the first place. The other members of the team, the ones in Engineering, were all interested in airport security and finding terrorists, or marketing the software to Las Vegas casinos. But Tarak knew it could help the under-served in places like the library. Or even emergency rooms.
Dr. Bodley was talking, but he wasn't really listening. Then everyone was clapping and she was looking at him expectantly. He replayed what she'd said. Yeah. It was time.
He started his first video running, the old guy looking for a job. "Libraries are core community resources." He started to quote from the library's vision statement. "We want to live in a community where people work together, are knowledgeable, and where everyone can reach for their full potential."
The man on the screen turned a puzzled frown at the computer on the table in front of him. He glanced around, and then jiggled his fingers on the keyboard, evidently pretending to type.
"Take this gentleman. I know from his searches that he's looking for a job. In a couple of days after this shot, he'll actually unsuccessfully try to complete an online job application. But it's painfully obvious he's never used a computer before." He paused the screen as the man attempted to use the mouse like a TV remote control. The audience chuckled. "That's amusing, sure, but imagine this poor fellow. He's probably unemployed and desperate. Nowadays you can't get most jobs unless you apply online. Think how powerless he must feel."
He started the video again, this time switching to the African-American woman and her toddler. "This mother knows how to use a computer. She's googling for nutrition information for diabetic children. Probably for her child. But with just a little assistance from one of the staff, she could access better, more precise, more reliable databases."
The video moved on to a kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen. "Then there's this young man. He comes here every day the library is open. He's always wearing the same clothes, so he's probably a street kid, maybe homeless. But he comes here, to the Central Library. You have to admire him. He reads --he's got a Scientific American there. Later, he'll pull Catcher in the Rye out of the stacks. He even leaves a scrap of paper to mark his place. He also listens to recordings from the library's musical archives. These three are why we're all here."
Tarak stopped the video. "Besides being why we're here, what do these three patrons have in common?"
Mikey raised his hand, a serious expression on his face. "They didn't ask for help."
Tarak nodded. Mikey almost got it. "They didn't ask, that's right. But no one offered, either. They all needed help, or at least could have benefited from it. But no one noticed them."
He restarted the video, showing cuts of the homeless kid entering the library. Every day, at 9:17 according the time stamp on the video, he'd walk by the front desk. The clerk would look up, ignore him, and return to what he was doing. Over and over again.
An appalled expression flooded Mikey's face. "My god, that's me at the desk. And I'm ignoring this poor kid, day after day. How can that be? Am I that horrible?"
Tarak shook his head. "You're not horrible at all. You're human, just like all of us. No one noticed this kid, or the other two exemplars I've shown you. I didn't notice them either. But my software did. It can help you identify people who need help, but might be afraid to ask for it. Or ashamed to ask for it. Or maybe they just don't know help is available. It makes the invisible visible. That's what I'm working on."
Mikey nodded, his expression now determined, "No matter how your project works out, it's already made a difference. I swear that kid isn't going to slip by me again. None of these people are. They're like ghosts, right here in our own library."
Ghosts. Yeah. That was exactly right. That was what Professor Pellegrini, the electrical engineer supervising the contract, said that Homeland Security called them. Their program would find them, and help them. Tarak was sure of it.