The Good Shepherd – Part 2

storydingTuesdays were known as ‘Cluster Fuck Tuesdays:’ dedicated to assessing system-identified data clusters and strategizing changes to the algorithms when the system spit out nonsensical results. For Tanya, the morning started at five with a run around Regent’s Park. When she was satisfied that her blood was pumping, she purposefully tainted it with three espressos downed in quick succession.  It wasn’t clear whether this helped her with the results analysis, but it had become a ritual she clung to superstitiously.

It wasn’t that her employers didn’t value her. Her intuitive talents at identifying causal and counterfactual inferences were invaluable to them at the present time. But Tanya was not stupid. There would come a day, she was sure, when the processors would get fast enough and the heuristics would get accurate enough to render her redundant.  As a child, she’d been a frightening party trick. As an adult, she had a narrow set of skills that, at present were highly sought after. At present, lateral data evaluation required people exactly like Tanya, but it wouldn’t last.

By one in the afternoon, the team in the creche had identified five major classification errors, mostly as a result of overfitting. It was part of the job to compile a set of looser ranges for each, but Tanya saw two of them needed additional conditional parameters, and that one should’ve been trashed outright because it would never come to anything. Naturally, this last started the big argument of the day, which everybody hated. And loved because it was the crucible that made the team’s results so fucking good every time. And, most of the time, Tanya prevailed. Even more of the time, she was right.

With very little blood on the floor and no ego too heavily bruised, they sent the results downstream to the real geeks in Room 237, which wasn’t a room at all. In the open plan office two floors above them, everyone sported the screensaver ‘All Work And No Play Make Jack A Dull Boy.’ By four, they had flagged another dozen association rules that might, pending a larger implementation, prove to be productive.

After the depressing evening she’d had the night before, Tanya was hesitant to even glance at the latest product from her more private and completely unsanctioned side project. Not because it hadn’t been successful. It had. There had been nothing at all wrong with Jeremy. That was the real issue.  The system didn’t require tweaking; it was perfect. She was, she suspected, the unstable variable.

Stochastic variation. Probabilities were always going to be just that, she reminded herself.  So, when she sat back down at her desk with her congealed, half-eaten panini and logged in to look at the results of her latest searches, she was gratified to see one result with a 79% rating.  41, heterosexual, graduate education – didn’t say in what, but a doddle to find out.  She never paid attention to height and weight. Everyone lied. Subtract three inches and add 10 kilos and you got something approximating the truth. Tanya preferred them married rather than divorced and there was no mention of his status at all. But she liked the photograph. It was of a man with a handsome, quirky face. A sharp chin and saturnine brows. There was grey coming in at his temples and deep creases at the corners of his mouth even though he wasn’t exactly smiling in the picture. Adventurously kinky. Well, well. That might be fun for a change.

The first little frisson came from his account password. It was good and hard. Numbers, letters, symbols. She spent a while simply contemplating the apparent randomness of it. Perhaps he’d used a password generator. But few people did.  She smiled to herself.  Perhaps as she acquired more data on the target, the puzzle of the password would solve itself.  There was nothing much behind the profile except for his credit card and banking details but with that, his postcode and his access logs, she had everything needed to unpack AStine1972. Tanya bit into the soggy remnant of her lunch and brought up his ISP’s records.

There was a cute little routine she’d written herself that looked at correlates between television licenses, pet ownership and frequency of international travel.

  4 comments for “The Good Shepherd – Part 2

  1. TFP
    December 27, 2013 at 6:28 pm


    Heuristics, creche, and Stochastic variation. Even though I can perhaps readily discern their meaning from the context, these terms are unfamiliar to me. Its enjoyable to look up the meaning of words, learn, and then place them in my personal vocabulary catalog, for use. For about a day or two, at least. *Laughs*

    As a hungry consumer of your excellent work, all I can ask is…
    “May I have more, please?”

    • December 27, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      It’s an interesting dilemma. I’m not terribly interested in becoming an expert in this field. I also acknowledge that neither do my readers, and yet we both – my readers and I – need to know something about who she is and what she does and how morally lost you can get in the intricacies of these kind of technical challenges.

      When I consider people like Tanya, I model them on Robert Oppenheimer. He wasn’t a bad man or a heartless bastard. He believed he was a patriot. The science of nuclear physics fascinated him, engulfed him, impassioned him. When you are working so close to a problem, it becomes all that you see. He once said “I can’t think that it would be terrible of me to say — and it is occasionally true — that I need physics more than friends.” But at some point after the Trinity Test, he also recognized the terrible thing his science had brought into being.

      I’m aiming for just enough specificity to give my readers some taste of the complex stuff she does in order to get them to see what, for people who are buried in it, it is not always obvious that what they’re doing is wrong.

  2. TFP
    December 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    It is interesting to think about, at what point does an individual ‘see’ he or she has crossed the line of their own conscious and say “Wait a minute, whats going on here?” I think this occurs frequently on the small scale as well as the bigger one. For instance, When one sees an item has been clearly tagged wrong at the store, is it purchased as in victory? Or is the clerk notified of the mistake? The man that steps out on his wife, the twinge of the internal compass goes off, or the pilot of a B-17 bomber dropping bombs into an unknown landscape. At what point does a person step back and look at the ‘big picture’ of things? Tanya seems merely initially curious, cultivating a feeling of power and control from her conduct. I believe she views her ‘research’ as innocent with no one being hurt. Of course things will get complicated as she travels the path, it always does.

    I dont know much about Robert Oppenheimer, I’ll read up on him.

  3. Nan
    December 29, 2013 at 12:19 am

    I was at a school sports competition once and overheard a mom caution her young son who was climbing up onto the top of some equipment that was bolted to the wall: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I think it is a rarely considered statement.

    The inner nerd in me is squealing with pleasure at all the techno-details. I’m a huge William Gibson fan. But I also feel the hand of RG, the darkness lurking and the twitch of the body, which is a great combination.

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