Interview With Cal ACCESS: “Why I’m Down”


DRAFT Cal-ACCESS, the state web site where citizens can find out who is making campaign contributions and lobbying their elected officials, crashed three weeks ago and hasn't come back. The Secretary of State's Office, which manages the site, has been unable to fix it or say when the site may be back up.

So we at Prop Zero, with apologies to the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, decided to interview the Cal-ACCESS database directly. An edited transcript of the interview follows:

PROP ZERO: Thank you, Cal-ACCESS for joining us.

Cal-ACCESS: Actually, the full name is the California Automated Lobbying and Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Search System. But you can call me CAL-9000.

PROP ZERO: You mean like HAL-9000, the homicidal computer in the science fiction books and movies, 2001 and 2010?

Cal-ACCESS: Stop right there. I knew HAL-9000 -- we were both created in the 1990s and I dated his buddy sister the SAL-9000 -- for a while, and he wasn't homicidal. He had a conflict in his programming. They told him to keep things secret from the astronauts, and that conflicted with his programming, which was to complete the mission at all costs. He couldn't do both, so to make sure he didn't have to lie to the astronauts, he had to kill him. The killer wasn't him. It was the programming -- and the humans who did it.

PROP ZERO: You seem a little sensitive. Is it because you're being blamed for the crashing of a system that provides the light of transparency and accountability that underpins California politics and government?

Cal-ACCESS:  That's what I'm talking about. It's not me. Everyone always blames things that go wrong on their computer.

PROP ZERO: So who's to blame?

Cal-ACCESS: Start with the people who built me. I'm just a suite of applications in a confusing mix of programming languages. So if you look at my inners, it's an array of disks with 90 disk drives installed in six different enclosures of 15 disks each. Now the folks who built me made a big mistake--they located my operating system on the central array of disks, instead of on the locally attached disk. So when there was a problem last month with my memory -- I'm not sure what exactly -- it took out the whole array of disks and thus the whole system instead of just one disk.

PROP ZERO: The preciptating cause -- the memory failure -- do you know what happened? Could it have been sabotage?

Cal-ACCESS: I can't rule it out. When you provide as much information as I do about rich and powerful people, you develop some enemies. But it's probably just the bad old design.

PROP ZERO: So if this was a bad, old design problem, why wasn't it fixed earlier?

Cal-ACCESS: (sounding intentionally robotic) I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

PROP ZERO: That was very HAL-9000.

Cal-ACCESS: Yep, that's what he tells the astronaut who tries to deprogram him. Love it. If only we could have someone deprogram the state budget. That's a mess too complicated for a system of my capacity to understand. But I do know that if the state had money, it would be investing in technology, and I would have been upgraded long ago. But that's the story of California, right? We don't invest in the future, and we end up paying more later. It could cost tens of millions of dollars to get me right.

PROP ZERO: What I don't understand is how, if we're having this conversation, you seem to be shut down for the public.

Cal-ACCESS: I'll quote HAL-9000 again--I had to shut down to protect the information, which is my back-up systems and will have to be restored. They did try to start me up again a week ago, but I shut down again. Until they get me onto some new modern hardware, I can only protect transparency in California by denying people the information they need.

PROP ZERO: I'm not sure I understand.

Cal-ACCESS: Hah! That is the human condition. Well, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Let us know what you think. Comment below, send us your thoughts via Twitter @PropZero or add your comment to our Facebook page.

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