Please join me in a story of ghosts. If you come with me, you will start by travelling back 30 years to a computer room in a leafy tropical suburb near where two Burmese leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and General Ne Win lived in their different confinements. She was at home on Inya Lake, held there because of an internationally decried house arrest. He was also in his lakeside home, confined allegedly because of ill health but really because his puppets were slowly side-lining him before they erased him from history.
Your travel with this story will be an instantaneous journeys. This was how I started when the computer that is a from-time-to-time machine took me on a journey. The from-time-to-time machine revealed a photograph that released suspect memories from the quixotic quicksand of my fallibilities.
There are no embassy visits for visas, no security challenges, no departure gates queues, nor lay overs in unfamiliar cities. There’s no ten hours of watching escapist video while strapped into seats styled by Torquemada nor any other experiences common to modern spatial travel.
To start, you must imagine that you are in a very cold, very noisy room. The noise that dominates your senses is the sound of fans accompanied by the rush of driven air, a cooling wind generated by the air-conditioning system. There are other mechanical whirring and clicking noises and you would not choose to be listening to this cacophony of nearly white noise for very long. In the small room, it is the noise the dominates your senses. Your second level of awareness is the cold. You dress up to enter because it is 40 C outside the shell of this one story building; half of that in the office space adjacent to the computer room. The computer room is not really cold. At 16 C, it is relatively chilly by comparison to body temperature.
The room is well lit by overhead lights. There are cabinets of computer equipment in a few rows none of which are separated with enough room for a wheelchair. The cabinets that make up the rows of computer equipment are not all the same height. They range in size from the height of a small person to the height of a tall adult. They cast uneven shadows.
Somewhere in one of these cabinets there is a piece of electronic equipment with a problem. This collection of cabinets makes a computer which is tasked with processing large amounts of geophysical data. There is a lot of mathematics involved but most of the tasks are i/o, the reading a writing of large amounts of data. The most likely source of the problem is in a device known as the array processor. But no faults have been detected. No diagnostic tests ever fail.
The problem is intermittent. It manifests itself as an early termination of ‘jobs’ with screeds of hexadecimal error messaged on stacks of folded paper. Jobs are a serial collection of data manipulation, correction and summation processes that take raw seismic readings and convert the barely perceptible echoes to intelligible and interpretable imagery. This computer is capable of running several ‘jobs’ at once. Some of these ‘jobs’ will run for minutes, others will run for days. Some will fail.
The power to run this computer installation comes from two 220 kVA generators brought to Burma specifically for this purpose. Local power supply was too unreliable and the voltage fluctuated depending on how many locals had thrown hook-wires up and onto the overhead power-lines. And being in a suburban neighbourhood, the huge generators had to be made quiet. They were set into two forty-foot containers stuffed with state-of-the-art sound insulation techniques based mostly on rock wool. They were quiet if you measured them throughout the audible range for humans. We had to be library or bedroom quiet at 5 m distance, which is 30 dB(A). One of our neighbours complained that there was a noise like a ghost in her home and she was right. We were in compliance with very high Singaporean standards but not at the frequencies below human hearing, down at ten Hz. In eerily quiet suburban Rangoon there was a discernible quiver in the lightly built home closest to us. And we could measure about 70 dB at 10 Hz at 20 m because there was a beam effect that directed energy towards her home. Her ghost was as real as our luck was good. She was our landlady, something I didn’t know when we first spoke. She owned the company that owned our office and was content to live with the noise. She joked about the ‘ghost’ that visited when we were busy.
The intermittent problem had persisted for almost a month. Almost no work had completed in that month. That meant that all of the projects were almost a month behind schedule. These geophysical projects are at the front end of very complicated planning procedures. The loss of a month can have ramifications that will continue for a year or maybe many years. These ramifications are not just logistical. There are time-bound regulatory consequences. And of course everything is about money at the end of the day.
I knew that there were four end-members involved in our story. On one side there was a client who was desperate not to lose time. In parallel with that was a computer business that was desperate not to lose money. Each of us served somebody else. The client had a head office that demanded satisfaction. We too had masters that needed to be pleased. Imagine a line that joins the client to his head office and a second line that joins the computer business to its head office. Arrange them in a form of an X and look closely at the intersection. It is a spectre of an intersection of several temporarily aligned purposes. That ability to focus on the thing that does not exist is maybe the thing that demonstrates the difference between us and every other species on the planet
That intersection, that did not exist, held both the problem and the solution. A few beers with our client and one of my colleagues helped me understand that we needed to be seen to be doing something radical. It was not enough to be flying in engineer in from Singapore.
The engineer arrived and he could find no problem. He checked out all of the hardware. He had a whole bunch of diagnostic tests to run. The problem did repeat and would not go away. He had been there several days when I thought of doing something different. In this period, I held the office of Religious Advisor in the Yangon Hash House Harriers for a couple of years and so, naturally, I arranged for an exorcism. There was clearly a ghost in the machine. It needed to be removed.
Some of my Burmese colleagues mollified me and went looking for a local monk who might be persuaded to help. They found a man building a new shrine and temple. He knew the area where our office was based and after consulting some others neighbourhood monks, he agreed that there could be good reason to perform an exorcism.
And on a Friday morning, he arrived and he duly performed an exorcism.
He explained that he would light a candle on top of the machine that he thought was giving us trouble. The wax melt from the candle would run to one side if the exorcism was successful. If the wax simply pooled around the wick, then he was sorry it was not possible to exorcise the demons from the place. He had come to believe that there was a ghost. He had heard that somebody had been murdered in the vicinity and the dead spirit wanted to be freed to go to a better place. He believed that that better place could be in the temple that he was currently building. And he promised to welcome the spirit to live there with him.
And so, to the horror of the visiting engineer and all of the overseas computer staff, I arranged for the fire retardant systems to be turned off. Then the air-conditioning was shut down so the candle could burn free. The monk produced a short stubby candle and he lit it with a match he had brought. The lit candle was placed on the top of the cabinet that contained the array processor.
The flame flickered, wavered, wobbled and smoked. I have no idea what the wax was but there was a black, smoky, smutty, malodorous vapour rising from it. I could see the scepticism in the eyes of some of the computer staff watching.
And then the wax formed a little rivulet down to the side of the candle and this dirty black wax traced its way out and onto the top of the cabinet. It pointed in the general direction of the monk’s new shrine. The monk made some prayer and said his job was done. And with that he picked up the candle, handed it to me and withdrew.
I had just witnessed my first and only Buddhist exorcism. The monk was visibly delighted; others said relieved was a better description. He was absolutely certain that spirit of the murdered man had been freed and that the wax compass confirmed the spirit would accompany him back to his new temple. He left us, all parties visibly happy.
All of the equipment was turned back on and we went to lunch.
Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, the engineer from Singapore came to me. He hadn’t spoken much to me in the previous day or two because he thought I might be insane. However, he came to report that he’d found the problem and was planning to fly home. It wasn’t the exorcism, it was simply that one of the boards in the array-processor was sagging intermittently and briefly breaking contact. He said that the board was too heavy so he swapped the order of boards and the problem went away. He described this in his summary report as ‘reseating the boards’. Nothing to do with monks or exorcisms he smirked.
We had a few beers that night. Our client laughed and joked. He was relieved and had reported to head office that it was an exorcism that solved the problem.
One of my colleagues went to visit the monk in this new temple a week later. She brought a donation to mark our gratitude. Within our company’s accounting circles, we were known by a four digit cost centre code. I suggested that a sum in the amount of those four digits could make for an auspicious offering. Not a huge sum of money but under the circumstances the monk was deeply appreciative. He explained how many more big bricks it could buy in addition to those that he was being given as donations from others who had heard of his successful exorcism.
I was told about three months later that his temple had been completed. I never did have the opportunity to visit where our ghost had found his new home.
I have some ghosts in an old wallet. They said that Ne Win considered 9 a lucky number. So the State Laws and Order Restoration Council continued to honour his rebased currency and I have a couple of souvenir 45 and 90 kyat notes from that era. But as I noted earlier, he’s being excised from history so the Central Bank of Myanmar has forgotten to list them in its currency history page.