Monday, May 14, 2018

Query 1.12B: Down the Rabbit Hole

“Right this way Mr. Py.” The secretary spoke with immaculate professionalism as she escorted Py through the antechamber of what was ostensibly a floor dedicated to the happiness and placation of a titan of industry. Py was brand new and still he’d heard stories that Cain could, and would, in times of ire, dispense projects and deadlines of an odious nature to anyone who dared molest his sage agendas. So, it was with some trepidation that Py stepped closer to the large, wooden doors.

“Just Py.” He replied politely, his eyes wandering over the field of corporate artifacts, glistening like the stained glass of gothic cathedrals, each depicting a victory or miracle in the history of Vergeron. Every piece a testament and inspiration to what one could achieve as part of a magnanimous whole. The items meant to raise spirits, motivate every person to be kind, generous, and, of course, profitably productive.

“I’m sorry?” The secretary asked, the salt and pepper curls of her hair bobbing in time with her steps as she tilted her head to the side, never slowing her pace.

“Just Py.” He replied passively, his interest shifting to the large doors and the uncertainty behind them. “Not Mr. Py.”

“My apologies.” She said with sincerity, wasting no time as she opened one of the large wooden doors. “Right this way.”

“Thank you.” Py nodded graciously as the assistant closed the door behind him.

The office was immense, bigger than any ten combined that Py had ever found himself in. It was impossible upon entering the space not to fixate on the man in the big chair, resplendent as the light of Delphi touched his shoulders. The windows behind him invisible, opening to a wide and spectacular view of the city below.

“Py, good to see you ‘on the outside’. How’s Vergeron treating you?” Cain rose from his throne and moved around the latest model light-desk to extend his hand in greeting, which Py quickly took.

It felt like his first time meeting the man. The scenario of Cain’s previous visit was somewhat obscured by Py’s own delirium. He was unsure if the man before him would align with the dream-like creature of his recollection. Py felt he had built a rapport with Cain, their parting warm and friendly, but it seemed a risky assumption to make when approaching what Py had recently discovered was one of the most prominent figures in Delphi. Perhaps something more formal...or not? Either could work he supposed. Or be offensive? Politics were not Py’s favorite thing in life. The need for decorum seemed to him directly proportional to the difference in the price of any two vestments appearing in a room. At this point, probably about $2,000 worth of decorum was appropriate.

Ah… Split the difference. $1,000 worth of decorum.

“The coffee's great. Never runs out. A lot like the paperwork. Based on the number of forms I’ve had to sign, HR has you guys bent over a table.” Py released the hand and Cain took a step back to lean on his desk.

“Yes, well, turns out lawsuits are expensive. That paperwork is our magic talisman Py, making inconvenient people disappear.” Cain seemed to be joking, teeth flashing in a winning smile. People often used hyperbole for the purpose of humor. Cain seemed to find more humor in honesty, the more brutal the better. “HR aside, how’s the work? Interesting? Demanding? Boring? Come to mention, what the hell is it?”

That same informal comfort was still there, still so strange. Py had thought he must have imagined it. He didn’t warm up to people often, but whether because of masterful manipulation, or some kind of ethereal kinship he felt with the man, Cain was just downright likable.

“I’ve attended several meetings and been buried in email. I spent three hours the other day listening to people argue over how much beer should be drunk in the new film The Awkward Adolescence of Pennywise the Clown. I’ve answered a lot of questions about how much I like sneakers, or how deeply I feel about breakfast burritos. To be perfectly frank, I’m not sure which items are the most relevant to my work?”

Cain gave a small nod. “We’re not really sure either. That’s part of the puzzle. Tell me...what do you know about the big data principle?” Cain’s tone had changed with the question. There was something behind his eyes now, a hunger so familiar that Py wondered why he couldn’t place it.

“I know companies have been hoarding data on every aspect of life,” Py lectured with his matter of fact mannerism, “tracking what we watch, what we buy, where we go, how long we stay, crawling the IoT to see how often we water our lawn, or do our dishes. Even private data has been released to companies with the proper clearance. The government has been paying military contractors to intercept and scan our correspondence for evidence of terrorism for years. Now, these same contractors are authorized to scrub the information and sell it to civilian institutions. With specific regard to marketing, since I’m told that’s what you do here,” Py’s voice now dripping with sarcasm, “the exploitation of cognitive bias has been refined to an art, generating billions of dollars in marketing revenue. Actually, several laws have been passed banning some of the marketing techniques derived from big data research, sending many once profitable companies scrambling to find new methods of generating revenue.

Cain gave another nod as Py concluded his oration. “That’s a pretty good summary,” Cain confessed, “and if I’m honest, we've had our fingers in all of these things. But I personally believe that this is just the surface of what big data can teach us. We need you to help us quantify the problem. For us it’s a money game. You’re right, marketing was hamstrung a few years ago when our corporate lobbying met a particularly idealistic administration. While we were busy fighting each other, the government blindsided us with detrimental legislation. In hindsight a good old fashioned oligopoly would have been effective, but that wasn’t the fashion of the day. Under the ‘Federal Reconstruction Act’ many antitrust laws were nullified. Companies had incentive to crush competitors. Part of that was the development of brutal marketing tactics to ‘encourage’ brand loyalty. An arms race to command the consumer will.”

Cain stood up from his casual position against the desk and walked over to gaze out at the impressive cityscape.

“That race is still underway and I have a strategy to establish complete and total market supremacy for years to come. Legislation often trails innovation by decades, and if properly circumvented we can run unchecked and unopposed. In a word,” Cain glanced back at Py,“ complete and total victory. Vergeron’s board hasn’t bought into the idea yet, but you Py, you are the seed from which this strategy will bloom. Now, what do you know about dark matter?”

Py was a little surprised by the non-sequitur, but was happy to talk about something other than marketing.

“It's a hypothetical construct that astrophysicists have theorized in order to explain the behavior of the observable universe,” Py replied. “Discrepancies in the way the universe expands, as one example.”

“Dark matter can’t be seen, touched, or tasted,” Cain added with an almost mystic flair. “We have no evidence of its existence except for the indirect observation of how objects move around it. Yet some scientists believe that dark matter and dark energy constitute as much as 96% of all matter and energy in the universe. We’ve had amazing success predicting what shoes people will buy, or what potato chips they’ll eat, but we’ve had almost no success predicting more interesting behaviors. We can’t predict when a burglar will break into a house. We don't know when a terrorist will start a shooting in a public place, or even how a jury will rule in a murder trial. In fact, we find that almost 96% of our predictions on the world at large fail. We call this behavior dark behavior. It’s behavior we can’t explain, perceive, or predict. And I personally believe that understanding this dark behavior will lead to the next breakthrough in the study of the human condition. What we’re looking for are people who can help us see past the current barriers in the big data scenarios, decode dark behavior and make this the most profitable company in the world.”

Cain had mentioned ‘dark behavior’ briefly during their first meeting in prison. Py hadn’t really latched on to the concept at the time. Honestly, it had felt like business speak, flashy words without substance. Comparing unpredictable behavior to dark matter was the worst kind of false equivalence. It was like those people who said ‘everything is relative’ in casual conversation, letting Einstein validate their bullshit pop psychology. Still, Py decided to let it slide for the moment. Cain seemed to be having fun, so what the hell.

“That’s all a little… broad. Can you give a more specific example?”

Cain whipped around, as if waiting for Py to say that very thing. It was then Py recognized what was in Cain’s eyes...obsession.

“Last November, Vergeron had five candidates scheduled for inauguration. This was not an unusual year, no indication that the opposition had anything unorthodox or unaccounted for in play. Every candidate Vergeron has sponsored for a position in the past decade has secured that position. Not one single candidate won this year. It goes without saying that we have investigated this from every angle: bribery, extortion, hacking, gerrymandering, we’ve even studied subjects for the after effects of brainwashing, or post hypnotic suggestion. Yet we have nothing to explain the sudden and aberrant behavior of thousands of people deciding to do...something different! A large part of Vergeron’s business comes from government spending. We invest money in candidates to ensure that funding comes to us and not our competitors. Needless to say the forfeiture of five seats represents a huge financial loss for the company. We can’t allow this trend to continue, but we currently have no actionable recourse.”

Cain spread his hands and Py half expected him to bow.

“So… that’s what I’m doing?”

“No. Not at all. Without the boards buy-in we can’t let an untested criminal near our political machine. We have to work you up to that. Thus,” Cain swept his hand before him in a grand gesture, ”marketing.”

“I see,” Py began, absentmindedly rubbing his chin, his eyes drifted out of focus, “so it’s a research position then?”

“After a fashion.” Cain, finally unwinding the fine print. “There’s research involved, but you’ll need to produce results on a predictable basis. Our clients pay for results, not academia. Lucky for you, we have the single largest data store in the history of man and the capability to process it.”

Cain had delivered an exuberant performance and now was ready to yield the floor. He turned to Py with what appeared to be genuine interest.

“So, having heard all that, what’s your initial strategy?”

Py stood for a moment in silence. It seemed polite to let the air settle after Cain’s litany, even though he already had an idea of how to proceed.

“It sounds like you have everything you need and can’t find what you want. I’ll need to narrow things down. I think I’ll start filtering problems by how much their worth to the company, some ratio of expected gain to reported earnings. From there, filter out projects that failed due to run-of-mill human deficiency: manufacturing defects, the things that are inherent to ‘behavior of the masses’, something along those lines. I’ll have a better idea after I’ve crawled the data. I’ll need some scripting or AI assistance. I’m not sure how long it will take me to build all the tools?”

“We have a new system under development that may be able to do some of this work for you. I’ll arrange for you to meet Dr. Whitechapel. He’s the project lead. I think they call it Alice.”

“What’s it used for?”

“Nothing at the moment. Another problem that needs solving. Speaking of, I do have one specific project that requires attention. A subsidiary of ours, the news outlet NYC, is getting crushed by a competitor, Hearst Communications. Much like our election woes, we have no leads. The marketing group is stumped. They're convinced it’s some sort of witchcraft. We need to figure out what’s really going on and turn it back on them. I consider it something to ease you into your new position. Dark behavior or not, solving this would go a long way to convincing the Board of Directors that my approach is sound.”

“It feels like you’re putting a lot of eggs in my basket.”

Cain’s face split into another wide smile. “I’m not. You are but one path to victory. Only fools approach a problem from a single angle. Now, information on the project is already in your email. You just have to find it. With that in mind, I suggest you meet with Dr. Whitechapel. I’ll upgrade your security credentials to give you access to his research area.”

“Do you want to schedule meetings on this project?” Py asked, his own experience telling him that people in power loved nothing more than good old fashioned oversight.

“I’ll be sure to ask for you randomly and at my own personal convenience. I will, however expect regular project updates submitted electronically.”

Cain moved back around the light-desk and took his seat. While Py hadn’t been directly dismissed, this was clearly curtain call. Py turned and started heading for the door.

Before he could exit, Cain said one last thing.

“I expect great things from you Py. Do keep your nose clean. I’d hate any project you’re on to be interrupted by something as silly as incarceration.”

This was the second time Cain had ended a conversation with a threat, bundled up neatly with terms, conditions, and a generous smile. Py’d never feared the prospect of getting fired, the yolk of financial instability probably had less hold on him than the average person. Perhaps a steady stream of respectable positions had created an unrealistic sense of security. This was very different. Five years of clean living with the threat of returning to prison at the hands of an ambitious man with unilateral thinking. A man Py didn’t know well, and all of this punctuated by a new found respect for the ‘amenities’ of prison life.

With all of these thoughts boiling in his head, Py shuffled out the room, the full force of his situation settling like a ton of bricks. Py had to work, not just because it was expected of him, but because the all consuming nature of it was something akin to solace. It was possibly the only comfort he would find in this strange, sprawling cage.

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