Today's article may seem like a Classic WTF-- but only if you were at Penguicon.  If you were there, you got to hear me do a live reading of these article during The Daily WTF: Unplugged. And if you weren't there, then here's your chance to read it in today's The Daily WTF: Unplugged: Plugged Back In. I'd like to thank the fine folks at Penguicon for having Alex and I as guests. The entire convention was a blast!

Oh, and apologies in advance if you're hoping for a Frist. Someone in the audience already called dibs on that.


Comic Sans: The Completion of the Universe


Official reading copy of today's article. And yes, forum-dwellers, it is in Comic Sans MS

Ms. Kelly never wore heels.

In the two years that Hubert had known her, her fashion had always been sensible shoes, everyday-is-casual-Fridays, and her blond hair was always tied back because she had better things to do than to bother with it. The first time he'd met her, if she hadn't been wearing a visitor tag, he'd have mistaken her for a fellow high school student. He'd been volunteered to fix the library's computers for extra credit. Fixing meant cleaning off spyware and gum, and popping the key letters back into their proper order. He didn't mind, though. It gave him a chance to use the computers alone.

And he would have used them alone for the rest of his life, if Ms. Kelly hadn't shown up dragging a handcart overloaded with boxes of printer paper.


"Do you need help?" Hubert had asked out of habit, despite himself.

"Yes, thank you!" she'd replied. She struggled to pull the strained handcart around the corner. "Is that back office available?"

Hubert eyed the closet-with-a-desk, wanting to say no. He'd cobbled together a PC from broken bits generously "donated" by local companies, and been hoping get permission to use the space as a work room. But neither the time nor the librarian's mood had never seemed right to ask for a favor.

"I suppose so," he conceded, though she was already wheeling the creaking cart towards the room.

"Thank you. I'm Ms. Kelly, by the way" she said, "I'm consulting in-school for an educational initiative."

"I'm Hubert. I'm-- umm, a student." He hefted the first box off the cart, and dropped it onto what was not to be his desk. "That's a lot of paper. What are you doing?"

She smiled widely. "Bringing together people who can help each other."

"Oh. Ok. How?"

Ms. Kelly huffed as she dropped the next box by his. "I've come up with a collaborative learning system that pairs students in need with peers, based on compatible timetables, courses taken, and so forth. But I have to collate them and index and match them up… uhg. The short answer is: a lot of printing."

Hubert tossed another box onto the ever growing pile. "Why don't you use a computer for that?"

Ms. Kelly stopped mid-lift. "Computers can do that?"

Hubert froze. He should just shake his head, and lug the boxes like he was asked. Ms. Kelly obviously had a system in mind, and besides, she'd already bought the paper. He glanced between the office that should be his, already half-full with too damn much paper, and an exhausted educational consultant, looking back at him with hopeful eyes.

"Yeah," he said, "I can show you…"


Hubert knew just enough to get Apache to barf up HelloWorld.php. He made a few changes, and had a text box populating a MySQL data table. Ms. Kelly nearly hugged the monitor.

They built Peer Education Network together over the summer… talking designs, mocking UI, and building the prototype itself. Hubert learned as he went, and despite anti-patters, like 'What's an inner join?', they got PEN up and running for the start of the school year. The only issue they faced over the year was when the usage chart on the admin dashboard overflowed. The system was a success.

Ms. Kelly talked to the librarian, and got Hubert's Franken-box / server moved into the back office, along with a oscillating fan that kept both him and PEN cool as they worked.

PEN quickly because a popular resource. By the end of the year, they had user feedback, suggestions for improvements, and even teachers volunteering to supervise study groups and to provide course material to tutors. As the current school year started, there was ample room for improvement and expansion. Hubert and Ms. Kelly met every day during last period to work on PEN.

Except for today.


Her shoes tap-tap-tapped, booming through the otherwise silent library, emptied of the normal throng of students and study groups and peer tutors. Last bell had rung long ago. She was late, and Ms. Kelly was never late.

And she never, ever wore heels.

Ms. Kelly pulled up a chair to the door of his office.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she started, "but I do have some good news."

Herbert shifted in his seat, glancing over at the PEN server. If the news was good, why did she sound like she was about to tell him how his goldfish had made friends with the toilet?

She continued. "You know that the principal is switching schools at the end of this semester?"

"Not really," he shrugged dismissively.

"Well, she is. She got offered a nice position at a nearby board, thanks certainly in part to PEN's success."

"Yeah, well, she kinda owes that all to you," he said, "PEN was your idea."

"Yeah, well, that's the thing, Hubert. She does recognize the hard work that's gone into PEN, and the resounding success it's brought to the student body. She wants to implement a version of PEN at the new board-- and she's asked me to work on it."

Hubert was confused. How would she find the time in her already packed schedule to work at two schools? Unless-- oh.

"You're leaving?" It was more an accusation than a question. "Why?"

"This is going to be a district-wide rollout," she said. "The chance to make a positive change on that scale-- it's an opportunity I can't pass up, and I hope you won't either. I've already arranged a part time position as a technical lead for you."

"I already am technical lead on PEN," he shot back, "Our PEN!"

Kelly sighed, slumping in her chair. A stray lock of hair slipped from her neat bun. "Hubert, the very foundation of PEN is bringing together people who can help each other, and that's exactly what is happening right now. Principal Selene was a major, MAJOR supporter of the system. None of this would exist without her. That she's willing to continue to support it, even after her career's reaped it's benefits-- that's beyond rubies. I've put in way too much work into PEN to risk it all on the new principal's whim."

Hubert stared straight down at the desk. "PEN's just as much my hard work as it is yours. The only difference is that I'm not willing to just abandon it for something shinier."

"You might not have a choice, Hubert." Ms. Kelly sighed and stood up, smoothing down her suit. "I have a meeting tomorrow with the new principal. You should be there."


Principal Walter Theodore Filmore, was a tall, thin man who oozed dullness. He gazed at them through steepled fingers, nodding in a way that was neither positive, or agreeable.

"The truth is, Ms. Kelly," he interrupted, putting down his copy of the spiral bound presentation. "I'm not really enthusiastic about wasting time and money throwing computers at actual problems, hoping they'll all get solved 'digitally'."

Ms. Kelly flipped to the next page on her own copy, turning it around for him to see. "But that's the great thing about PEN. It's already a proven success-- not by solving problems, but by together people who can help each other. The GPA of PEN users spike an entire point on average. Every D level student that has ever enrolled has risen to at least a B+."

"Yes, I flipped through the charts," he said, pushing the folder back. "You know what I see? The numbers are exactly the same from the previous semester, and the one before that. There's no improvement."

She shot Herbert a look, a single eyebrow giving a single twitch. She reopened the folder and flipped to the next page. "As you can see, tracking students year to year shows that the grade retention is…"

Principal Filmore flipped the folder shut, slamming it about as hard as anyone can slam a softbound book. Ms. Kelly snatched her fingers away.

"You can discuss academic exercises as long as you want-- on your own time. That is your job, apparently." He put both the folders away in his desk drawer. "But this is the real world, and in the real world, success is measured in change. Your project has reached a plateau, and I will not have my name attached to a failure."

"I understand fully." Ms. Kelly said politely. She shot Hubert that same look, then smiled at the principal.

That was it? She was leaving? Hubert clutched his copy of the useless report. "No, you can't just cancel it like that!"

The principal fixed him with an over-the-rims stare, then spoke to Ms. Kelly. "Who is this, again?"

"Hubert," she said hastily, "He's PEN's technical lead and student liason. He has been a huge factor in the project's success."

"Continued success," Hubert emphasized. "There are still a ton of students using the system, and I have new features planned to bring in more!"

The principal shrugged dismissively. "Traditionally, Ms. Kelly, a consultant does not rely on students to do her work for her."

Ms. Kelly spoke before Hubert could. He caught the stern look from the corner of her eye. "Thank you for your time, Principal Filmore," she said with an empty smile that wasn't hers.

The platitude, combined with the business suit-- she'd never looked more like a consultant.

"You can still grow PEN," Hubert said, leaning forward so he wouldn't have to look at her. "There's a whole presentation-and-lecture module I have designed. And--" he hesitated, but kept himself from looking at Ms. Kelly, "-- you can open it up to neighboring schools. Maybe even make it a district-wide rollout! All the other schools will experience the same level success, and it'll all be thanks to a system developed at our school." He waved his hand between him and the principal, and specifically not at Ms. Kelly.

The principal glanced down at the document, leaned back in his chair, then looked back up at Hubert. "Son, even if I wanted to expand your project, how could I, when I don't even have someone to run it?"

Hubert caught the leading tone of the question. Subtle as it was, it hit his ears like a ton of printer paper. How could Ms. Kelly have missed such an obvious hint? Ms. Kelly didn't want to risk her project on the principal, but really-- the principal didn't want to risk himself. And why should he? He wanted a champion for the project-- but he needed action, not words.

"You can put me in charge of it, sir," Hubert said, sitting up straight. "I'm practically running it on my own as it is. I know the system inside and out."

"I'd have to put you on the books as a consultant," the principal said, smiling now, "and you'd be responsible for project's budget. But if you're willing to do that, then you do offer an interesting solution."

"Anything to bring together people who can help each other," Hubert said happily. He sat back, and finally looked over at Ms. Kelly. She still wore the same smile, but with a hint of something else that Hubert didn't recognize, nor did he care to.

PEN was his, now, and there wasn't anything Ms. Kelly could do for him-- or about it


The replacement head secretary-- a personal friend of the principal-- couldn't find this semester's student data.

"The old secretary buggered up everything," she told Hubert, throwing her hands up in defeat. "It's going to take me forever to rework the filing system here. You'll have to come back later."

"I kinda need the data now," Hubert said, fidgeting with the USB drive. PEN was already a week behind schedule for this semester. "Linda always had them on her computer."

"It's broke," she frowned at the PC.

Actually, it was unplugged-- but 110 volts didn't help the situation at all. He had to walk the secretary through logging in, accessing the database, exporting a CSV and, well, everything. At least he got to hear all the 'great stories' about her and Principal Filmore from all the schools they'd worked at together before his big promotion.

He noticed none of the stories involved work.

The rest of the week didn't fare any better. As soon as PEN was online, it instantly filled up. Hubert noticed that, strangely, hardly any of the incoming students had the academic record to qualify for the program. Schools from all over the district were, indeed, using PEN-- as a dumping ground for their less than desirable students. Hubert started to withdraw unqualified students, only to have them reinstated via a personal override by Principal Filmore.

Many of the teachers who had volunteered as study group supervisors pulled out, citing 'prior commitments', and taking all their notes and lesson plans with them. Those that did show up got instantly assigned by PEN to supervisor the large influx of students from other schools. And even those teachers stopped coming after the "visitors" incited a Code Red lockdown.

Hubert spent more and more time in his office alone, struggling to keep up with the system. He didn't have time to add new features, so things that PEN couldn't do automatically, he had to address manually. And all the things that HAD to be done manually-- well, they just weren't getting done at all.

Anyone who had ever helped him with PEN stopped coming around-- and one day, he found out why.


Less than a month into the first semester, Hubert arrived to find a dark, quiet and disgustingly clean office. He raced to turn the power back on to the PEN server. As the machine choked itself back to life, he frantically rifled through the drawers, looking for the spread of paper and stickies that were his development notes.

"Ms. Finklestien," Hubert called out to the head librarian, in a panic. He bolted out of the office, and found her in the study area. She stood, arms cross, wrinkled frown fixed on a group of 'visiting' students. They slouched about, books closed, whispering to each other while casting glances up at the stern librarian.

"Was someone in my office?" he asked. "My notes are gone and the computer was off."

"Library offices are not meant for students and their silly little websites," she replied stiffly. "Your papers are in the student drawers where they belong, and library computers are turned off at the end of the day."

"But those were my development notes!" he exclaimed, visions of his meticulous organization in ruins. "And that isn't just a computer, it's the main server! It can't be turned off."

"Those are the library rules, and as long as you a responsibility of the library, you will follow the rules."

The group of students burst into a fit of giggles, cut mercilessly short by a sharp "SHH" and a glare.

"I don't understand. PEN's always operated out of the library!" That glare turned on him. His own voice dropped to a near whisper out of habit, and fear. "It's never been a problem before."

"And it's never been funded by my library's budget before. My entire budget."

Hubert nearly asked who was responsible for deciding PEN's budget-- but the words died in his throat when he realized he was the answer.

"Now if you'll excuse me, since I cannot afford books or supplies, I'll just pass my time babysitting troublemakers." That last word was loud enough to be heard by the group of students, but was unequivocally aimed at him.


Principal Filmore reclined, his back to Hubert. He stared out the window at the newly planted tree that stood where the Special Needs students' vegetable garden had been.

"I don't see any issues with that budget arrangement," the principal said with a mild shrug. "Your project has always been attached to the library."

"Only out of convenience," Hubert stated.

"Yes, very convenient that they benefit, while Special Projects has to pay. It's time the library to be responsible for your expenses."

"But PEN is a special project!"

"No, PEN is a miserable failure." Principal Filmore turned around. "You have no support from the staff, no educational resources, and the students are just using it to goof off."

"But you changed my budget--" Hubert swallowed hard as soon as he said the word.

The principal frowned. "You were this project's leader. Maintaining the finances was your responsibility. I did you favor and found you money, despite razor-thin budgets this year. Frankly, Hubert, I'm disappointed. Not surprised, of course. You should be frying burgers like I did when I was your age, not fumbling through things that are beyond your capabilities. No mind, though. I'll arrange for a proper technician to oversee the hand-over and shut down of the project."

Hubert slumped, his face flush, feeling like he'd been caught trying to take apart a TV with a sledgehammer and a blindfold. He'd put in all this hard work, and now no one in the school would have anything to do with him. PEN was as good as dead, and it was his doing.

He was ready to leave, but the principal kept talking. "Thank goodness I saw this coming months ago, and had a Special Project in the works. I'm sure it'll be a resounding success, especially compared to such a dismal failure like yours. It's just the sort of project a future Superintendent needs to stand behind."


Hubert cleaned out the desk that wasn't his, and shut down the library's computer. He gathered up whatever documentation had survived the Student Drawer. He handed them over to the new educational consultant-- an old friend of Principal Filmore-- who promptly shoved them back into the drawer.

"I'll try to deal with that junk when I get back from vacation next week," he said, and left.

Hubert slumped in the chair, and alone in the empty back office, and sat in silence. There were no study groups, no whirring servers-- not even the click of click of heels.

He picked up the desk phone, not caring a damn for the library rules on outbound calls, and dialed a cell number he hadn't called in a long time.

"Ms. Kelly speaking."

He sighed. "It's Hubert."

"Hi Hubert!" he could hear the smile in her voice, and that only made him feel worse. "How's things going?

He wanted to tell her everything that had happened-- to shout and rave and yell about the unfairness of it all. He could explain in excruciating detail how the principal had tricked him into helping him ruin PEN for his own gain.

But two things were painfully evident to Hubert-- that he'd volunteered himself, and that there was only one thing he needed to say to Ms. Kelly.

"You were right," he said. "I'm sorry."

"I appreciate that, Hubert," she said, "I'm sorry you had to go through it. I wanted you to see why you should avoid people like Principal Filmore-- but it wasn't fair of me to just give up and dump all that responsibility on you."

"Because it's beyond my capabilities," he sighed. "That's what he said, too. And he's right."

"What? No! Hubert, once you've proven you can do good work, and you've come together with people who know you can do good work-- there isn't a damn thing the Principal Filmores of the world can do about it."

"Except destroy it."

"Which is why we leave those people to kick things over in their own little sandboxes, while the rest of us get actual work done together. Chalk this up to a career experience, learn from it-- and come help me get this damn website online before I have to do murder a forest."

Hubert did just that. He worked on the new PEN throughout college and beyond. And when he was ready to move on to a new experience, he was hired on the spot because he came with excellent recommendations. In fact, of all the experiences he's had so far in his career-- having to interview for a job has never been one of them.

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