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Author Topic: EP445: Black Swan Oracle  (Read 1345 times)
eytanz
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« on: May 05, 2014, 06:29:10 AM »

EP445: Black Swan Oracle

by Ferrett Steinmetz

read by Amy Robinson

This story was originally published in the What Fates Impose anthology

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Boxless
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« Reply #1 on: May 06, 2014, 10:48:24 AM »

Interesting story. The oracle is, in fact, her own worst enemy which is what drives her inexorably towards suicide. The funniest part of it is that her frustration over being unable to find the question she cannot find an answer to is completely unnecessary. All she needed to do was ask her own system what the black swan question is. Either it will lead her to the question or she will find that that is the question.
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Listener
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« Reply #2 on: May 07, 2014, 07:01:11 AM »

I enjoyed the story, although I didn't expect the ending. It went from a story about her looking for the black swan to an ending about how she knows she'll never find it before she dies. But the last bit -- "but then you'll never know" -- is the clarion call for anyone who does something because otherwise they'll never know if the answer is X or Y.

As someone who works in digital advertising, it's a constant wonder to me just how much information is publicly available (or purchase-able) that people refuse to admit that they're sharing, or that they even know is out there. I mean, the Doubleclick LSO alone...
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skeletondragon
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« Reply #3 on: May 07, 2014, 03:16:05 PM »

Throughout this story, I kept thinking "STATISTICS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY". I mean, I see how the story is about how data mining betrays a lot more about yourself than you might think, combined with a more traditional "character knows how they will die" storyline. Okay. But the oracle's "system" breaks pretty much every rule of predictive models, mathematics, and how complex the world is.  And then the story just never really pulled me in. Talk about "nothing happened, no one changed". The Oracle starts off contemptuous of humanity and almost resigned to her death. Then she stereotypes and verbally abuses some people. Finally she ends up...contemptuous of humanity and almost resigned to her death!
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #4 on: May 07, 2014, 07:21:00 PM »

Based on Skeletondragon's comments I'd say this story falls into the same category for me as the last one, EP444: Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes. Nothing happened, no one changed... but all in a really interesting way. Whether or not this is the way statistics work, I really enjoyed the Oracle's exploration of how people will turn out based on their past choices/experiences/actions. Is all entirely plausible? Probably not, but it sure engaged me.

I did find the ending a little disappointing as I wanted to know what the Black Swan Question would be. I had hopes that it would come up by the end of the tale, and instead got the, "We'll never know..." (cue eerie music). I think part of the reason I wanted the question to show up was to see what Ferrett thought the unanswerable question would be. I do really like Boxless's suggestion that asking about the Black Swan Question IS the Black Swan Question.

Still, as with most of Mr. Steinmetz's stories, overall I quite enjoyed this one.
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hansv
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« Reply #5 on: May 08, 2014, 01:05:19 AM »

Yes, indeed. I agree, though this might be seen as another "nothing happened" story, it did so in an interesting way. The story ended to abruptly to my liking, I would have loved to hear either the black swan question or that the Oracle finally manages to wrest herself away from...herself(?).
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bamugo
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« Reply #6 on: May 09, 2014, 08:28:16 AM »

I like this story. I thought the reading was top notch too. Plot resolution and real statistics aside, I think this story is more of a character tragedy - the curse of Cassandra - that sort of thing. More modern myth than straight up sci-fi. I was reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's fantastic story "The Last Question", in which generations of ever more powerful super computers ponder whether or not entropy can be reversed. Because that question in Clarke's story served for humanity (and post-humanity) the same purpose as the Oracle's much-desired Black Swan Question.

The Last Question is about the fate of the universe. Black Swan Oracle is about fate on a more personal, individual level. None of the supplicants (particularly the actress or writer) could really garner any advantage or change their fates with the information the Oracle is able to give them - because our own natures write our fates. Just as the Oracle's writes hers.
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hansv
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« Reply #7 on: May 09, 2014, 09:59:51 AM »

Wasn't "the last question" by Assimov? (I seem to real MultiVac being mentioned?
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AM Fish
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« Reply #8 on: May 10, 2014, 09:59:40 PM »

hansv, thank you for that, happy to learn about the MultiVac.  I loved Black Swan Oracle though I agree with skeletondragon's comment.  Statistics do not work that way but then again, hey, people don't turn into roaches or rhinos or elephants for no reason.  And how does warp drive work, anyway?  I especially liked her conversations with the monks and her inability to be anything other than what she became.
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slic
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« Reply #9 on: May 11, 2014, 04:04:20 PM »

Ya I came out of this story a bit different than most posters.
I liked the story.
I do agree that the author should have consulted a math teacher/professor and learnt the terminology, but the idea of predictive algorithms is well known.   

I didn't see this as a "nothing happened" story.  It took it until near the final sentence, but I think the Oracle saw into herself with the line "but you'll never know".  As a master of determinism, she was waiting for the right dataset to prove to herself wrong, a clear example of the strange paradox of the human mind.  But I saw that line (which I thought would have been a better last sentence) as her epiphany.  She won't kill herself, and that changes her odds.

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TheFunkeyGibbon
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« Reply #10 on: May 13, 2014, 07:56:18 AM »

I'd say that this was a well written and well read story that I enjoyed, but the Oracle already knew that...

While the quality was clearly there and I could feel that is was believable and rooted I disliked the fact that it was another 'non-ending' story. Like the Oracle herself I sometimes crave resolution too and far too many short stories end on an open ended, non-resolution. It is wearisome and unsatisfying.

All in all I like Ferrett's work here but implore that endings are sought in future writing.
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meggzandbacon
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« Reply #11 on: May 13, 2014, 09:28:25 AM »

Yes Asimov wrote the Last Question.  He apparently said it was his favorite story. Drabblecast did an amazing production of it for their 200th episode years ago, I highly recommend it even if you've read the story before. Also has a huge cast that all do really well including Phil Rossi, Frank Key, Cheyenne Wright, Mur Lafferty, Steve Eley and others.  Such an awe-inspiring, thought-provoking story... it never leaves my mp3 player.

http://www.drabblecast.org/2011/03/11/drabblecast-200-the-last-question-by-isaac-asimov/
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hansv
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« Reply #12 on: May 14, 2014, 12:11:29 AM »

Yes, thank you "TheFunkeyGibbon" that's what i have been trying to say before, "i crave resolution and far to many short stories are open ended" says it better than I did...
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danthelawyer
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« Reply #13 on: May 15, 2014, 01:09:42 AM »

Wow, I really liked this one until I read Skeletondragon's comment. Now I'm really not so sure!  Shocked
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Tango Alpha Delta
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« Reply #14 on: May 15, 2014, 07:56:17 AM »

Throughout this story, I kept thinking "STATISTICS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY". I mean, I see how the story is about how data mining betrays a lot more about yourself than you might think, combined with a more traditional "character knows how they will die" storyline. Okay. But the oracle's "system" breaks pretty much every rule of predictive models, mathematics, and how complex the world is.  And then the story just never really pulled me in. Talk about "nothing happened, no one changed". The Oracle starts off contemptuous of humanity and almost resigned to her death. Then she stereotypes and verbally abuses some people. Finally she ends up...contemptuous of humanity and almost resigned to her death!

...and even if you're like me, and you don't notice any of these factual flaws about the story, instead just taking it at face value...

If The Oracle simply doesn't kill herself (which is entirely up to her no matter how many 9s are after the decimal point), doesn't she become the Black Swan she was looking for? It's not like the appointed moment will arrive, and the maths will rise out of her monitors, take physical form, and drag her screaming into their realm of streaming numbers, is it?


Of course, I've never been one to go for strict determinism, so maybe I'm projecting.  Smiley
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skeletondragon
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« Reply #15 on: May 15, 2014, 10:49:21 AM »

It's not like the appointed moment will arrive, and the maths will rise out of her monitors, take physical form, and drag her screaming into their realm of streaming numbers, is it?

No, you've hit the nail on the head. Predictive models only display probabilities, and they work best on large scales. For the case of an individual person, even if you could know their entire genetic code and their medical history and their family's medical history, you STILL wouldn't be able to say for certain whether or not they'd get cancer in their lifetime, let alone whether they'd commit suicide or be a bad parent. I can't think of a situation where knowing their online shopping history would give you enough information to definitively predict their future. Especially the Oracle, who created the system, should know both that it can't have 100% accuracy, and how she could alter her behavior to decrease the likelihood of her demise. She just needs to change the inputs to her model.
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Windup
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« Reply #16 on: May 16, 2014, 12:13:08 AM »

This story sucked me in and dragged me along so well that I didn't even notice the abuse of statistics until Skeletondragon brought it up.  I heard it as a metaphor for the effect the kind of predictive power granted by "big data" analytics has on the people and institutions who wield it.  And thinking about that put me in mind of the quote:

A fake fortuneteller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should
be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.
-- R.A. Heinlein
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matweller
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« Reply #17 on: May 16, 2014, 08:47:05 AM »

That's why they call it science fiction, friends! Cheesy
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Iamthelaw1979
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« Reply #18 on: May 16, 2014, 12:42:15 PM »

Loved this story. The underlying Buddhist philosophy struck me: reaching goals can't fulfill us. We can't find peace through knowledge, nor can we find it through attaining something we desire. All that desire eventually leads to despair. And in the end, we are pretty much the same as everyone else, whether we think we are or not.
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« Reply #19 on: May 19, 2014, 09:26:36 AM »

I liked MOST of the story.  The idea of someone who is skilled in data mining using Big Data to become an old-school prophet is a neat one. Futuretelling always has some interesting wrinkles, such as how she tried her best to avoid the future she saw but ended up walking right into it anyway. 

Am I the only one who thought that the character DID find the Black Swan Question, the one her Buddhist friend asked.  Okay, so I don't remember exactly what the question was, but it was something about questioning her motivations, yes?  And what does she do--she kicks the guy to the curb, tells him to get the hell out.  Because, like so many seeking truth or enlightenment she's not willing to exercise the flexibility of mind and sacrifice of control to accept the thing that's right in front of her.  She doesn't want the truth, she wants the tranquility of mind that she imagines the truth will give her.  But you don't find tranquility of mind by obsessively seeking something, you find tranquility of mind by striving for tranquility of mind.  To take her tactic toward that is like trying to find Buddhist enlightenment by buying products on the home shopping channel--the path does not even go in the same direction as the goal, let alone having any chance of reaching it.

She also had an extremely flawed method of trying to find an enlightening question.  I would've thought she would've had a solid background in Game Theory, but it doesn't seem that way because the way she set up the rules only people who can generate huge amounts of disposable money can request her services.  So you're generally going to end up with people like multibillionaires for which that amount of money is a paltry sum, or you're going to end up with desperate gamblers who are throwing the money in the hopes of getting a return on their investment to make more.  Those aren't the gruops that I would expect a profound and unprecedented question to come from.  If she'd asked me I would've suggested she talk to some philosophers, monks, recluses, hermits, people who devote their lives to charity (like Mother Theresa if she were alive) because those are going to be the people most likely to not fit your consumerism-based predictive models. 

Overall, I thought the story had a lot of promise, and I thought it was very interesting, but I was hoping that it would go somewhere in the end other than her continuing to wallow in self-pity at her own situation.  But that didn't happen.  Her rejection of the question given right to her is a telling moment but I was hoping for a moment of change in the story .
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