Chapter 9: High score

Two weeks later, Randall took three full days of vacation. He had four weeks built up, so it was no big deal. His boss, in fact, never noticed his absence.

For the first two of those vacation days, Dr. Jack Pharoozia was in Portland for a conference on biofeedback implants. Since he was going to be gone, Claire suggested to him that Randall could probably get all the security work done that Jack needed finished and not interrupt any of the professor’s projects. It sounded like a good idea to everybody.

Jack, of course, had to approve the network activity and the use of the suits. As a university resource, he only had so much cycle time and bandwidth dedicated to his projects. He was glad to Have Randall’s help on the security issues, and paid him at standard university consulting rates. Which were about 1/20th what Randall would have been billed out for had his company actually sent him out as a consultant.

Randall finished Dr. Pharoozia’s security problems back at home, sitting at his kitchen terminal, in about an hour.

Randall was cleared for a total of six hours of suit-time, and Claire for the same amount of sim time during Jack’s absence on Thursday and Friday. In order to make sure, though, that they could actually get all the work done, Jack told the rest of his students and teaching assistants that his office and lab suite would be closed from Thursday until his return the next Monday morning. That way Randall and Claire could still work on the connected equipment and PC’s, even when they weren’t directly plugged into the VR and sim rigs that required approval for university mainframe and Internet backbone access.

At 9:30 pm on Wednesday night, Randall let himself into Bell Hall and Suite 1003 with the temporary key code Jack had emailed him earlier that afternoon. His car also displayed a bar-coded temporary parking permit he’d printed out at home that would allow him to use Jack’s parking spot until Monday.

The 10th floor of Bell Hall was dark, except for a couple safety lights and the glow that came out from under the bathroom doors. Jack carried a backpack filled with geek rations; protein bars, a quart jug of generic Gatorade powder, trail mix, Tootsie Pops, beef jerky, Red Hots and a 12 pack of frozen burritos that (he hoped) would fit in the little fridge he’d spotted under Jack’s desk.

They did.

He kept the lights off, working by the diffuse glow that came in from the ultra bright halogen lights from the parking lots that surrounded the building. He wouldn’t be in any trouble if somebody discovered him — he had the key code and could simply tell Jack he’d decided to come in and start the hard coding a bit early — but he didn’t want to be interrupted.

Getting into the VR suit without help was a bit of a pain. Not complicated, exactly, but there were a number of new straps since the last time he’d done something similar solo. The headgear was the easiest part, and he was very glad they’d figured out a way to attach the helmet to the anti-resistance webbing since he’d been in grad school; the earlier models had always left him with a headache and sore neck.

He keyed in the pass code and login information Jack had left him and noted that the university mainframe had actually allotted him six hours and fifteen minutes of time that the system menu referred to as, “Level Three — Moderate Heavy Bandwidth — High Moderate Heavy Cycle Mainframe Activity.”

High moderate heavy, he thought. I love bureaucracies.

He keyed the menu option that would leave a semi-transparent timer hovering in the foreground as part of the optional HUD and called Claire.

The home page for Jack’s VR suits was a waiting room in a Victorian style mansion. Randall assumed that some undergrad had built a bunch of 3D models of Victorian furniture, rugs, china, tableware, paintings, etc. and, rather than let them go to waste, Jack had simply decorated the starting area for the VR rig with them. While he waited for Claire to show up, he had a seat in a wing chair with a lace doily on each arm and put his feat up on a tiny ottoman that looked like it would barely support the weight of one human foot. In real life, a room like this would have made him vastly uncomfortable. In VR, he didn’t worry, as a simple reset would remake anything he inadvertently broke.

A swinging door into what he assumed was a hallway opened and Claire came in, dressed in a period costume; full hoop skirt (he thought that’s what it was called), bodice, puffy sleeves. Very flouncy.

She also carried a fan, which she held, opened, in front of her. As the door swung shut behind her, she curtsied, bowing her head and holding the fan up slightly. Not in front of her face, but as if to cover her cleavage. There was lots of cleavage, Randall noticed as the fan came down when she rose from her curtsey. The dress was cut straight across the top of her breasts, leaving her shoulders completely bare. It was the most, he realized, he’d ever seen of her skin.

“A gentleman,” she said evenly, “should rise when a lady enters the room.” But she was grinning as she said it, so he knew she wasn’t really pissed.

He did get up though. Only then noticing that he’d been dressed — by her, he assumed — in a matching, male, period costume. He had no idea what all the parts were called, but there was something like a vest, a jacket, a pocket-watch on a chain. He put a hand to his head… yes… a hat.

He stood, and tipped the hat. She curtsied again, chuckling.

“I’ve been coming to Jack’s little homepage here for weeks,” she said, “But never in costume. He told me that it originally looked like a dentist’s waiting room, but that some of his students started ‘tarting it up’ with freeware objects they’d picked up from around the ‘net.”

He nodded. “Pretty much what I figured.” He put the hat back on and gestured at her outfit. “You look… nice.”

“As do you, kind sir,” she replied, popping the fan open and batting her eyelashes.

He shook his head. “So. Not. You.”

She laughed out loud and the room vanished, the costumes vanished and they were underwater.

* * * * * * * * *

Randall stopped the university’s counter after it had clocked about twenty minutes of their activities. Their plan was to make it look as if they had worked a bit Friday night, a few hours on Saturday afternoon, and a few more Sunday morning. In reality, they would be online, and he in the VR suit, pretty much the entire weekend.

He really didn’t need to be in the suit for the work they were doing, but it was simply more fun.

Within six hours of when she’d run the modified, industrial-strength version of VidWash on her core programs, Claire had discovered a variety of different malware attempting to “touch her,” as she said, whenever she went out beyond the confines of her base in the house.

She’d been aware of the basic, background hacker noise before, of course. The Internet and various other comm nets were full of crap. Always had been, probably always wood be. Depending on how sophisticated a program was, it simply ignored most of the drek. Advertisements, grade-school level viruses, spam, Trojan horses, bapware, runnerz… all that stuff was easily blocked by the software built into Claire’s operating systems by the folks back at Stan’s shop. No big deal. To her, those things ranged from the imperceptible — germs that your immune system filters out without your even noticing — to the annoying — billboards that pass by beyond the range of your peripheral vision. She’d also encountered various programs that tried to get past her various security systems, but failed.

What she hadn’t, of course, known about, were the programs that got past without her knowing about them. Unlike the theft of material objects, content burglary doesn’t remove the “thing” itself, but a copy of a thing. The mark of the best spyware and virus software is that it leaves no trace. The installation of Randall’s new security software, though, gave Claire a whole new view of what went on in and around her in the infosphere.

They’d talked about the obvious stuff, first. Tracker bugs from off-shore crackz labs in the Philippines, Cuba and Malaysia. Credit Suisse data mules that were apparently hunting down personality theft storganisms (also apparently in violation of UN cybersecurity resolutions). Game bots from the latest MMORPGs searching for abandoned characters with credits to filch and auction. Nothing that was inherently harmful to Claire, but that might hurt her accidentally.

And then there was the random malicious code. People with the intent to simply crack for the sake of cracking. Only one virus had been good enough to get through Claire’s native shields, but by the time Randall’s software picked it out and peeled it from her system, layer by layer, it had attached itself to more than 300,000 lines of code. All without Claire noticing. If it had gone on much longer, it would have begun to impact her performance.

At the highest level of importance, though, were programs with the express intention of finding subjects such as Claire — very sophisticated personality simulations — and copying, changing or destroying her for whatever reason. And though IdWash — what they’d decided to call the improved version of VidWash — would protect her in the future, they didn’t have long to wait for one to pop up on its own. Just less than 24 hours to be precise. It had been that event, and the conversations that followed, that had prompted their weekend retreat to Dr. Pharoozia’s lab.

* * * * * * * * *

“Randall!”

He’d been in the kitchen making eggs that day. It was Saturday, and they’d spent most of the day watching old movies on the wall of the living room. Stan and Caitlyn’s beta box, just like all their others, could project a light source, and the tank had a really nice sound system.

Her voice held a note of panic, and so Randall quickly turned off the stove and trotted out into the living room.

“What’s up?”

“I just got pinged by something invisible. IdWash classifies it as ‘System Natural.’ It’s paused but waiting for data on, like, 3x1024 variables.”

She sounded scared. He slid across the floor on his socks into a sitting position on the couch and pulled his laptop off the nearby end table.

“Kick the feed from your internal router to my number three,” he said to her.

“Done.” she said. He didn’t look, but she was biting her nails, standing close to the glass on his side of the tank. She was wearing comfy clothes, too; t-shirt, jeans and moccasins. While Randall worked she ran the top of one foot up and down the back of her other leg.

After about two minutes of tapping on the keyboard and looking at various text and graphic representation files that IdWash was shooting to his machine from Claire’s, Randall looked up, grinning slightly.

“Fucking Terry.”

Claire looked surprised, but still worried.

“What?”

“They’re keeping tabs on you. Terry, Stan, Caitlyn. Back at the farm.” He shut the cover to his laptop and leaned back on the couch. “It’s nothing harmful. Basically an incredibly complex diagnostic with a request for reply.”

“Oh.” She seemed almost disappointed.

He was still grinning.

She finally noticed. “What?” she asked. She wasn’t biting her nails anymore, but still looked a bit freaked out.

“I don’t know what the point of the diagnostic is, but I do know that the reply comes in the form of an aggregate sliding scale evaluative performance model.”

“In English?”

“A score.”

Her eyebrows went way up.

“They’re scoring… what?”

“I don’t know. I’d need to… have a much closer look at your code to understand that. 3x1024 variables is a lot of material.”

She nodded. “You’re telling me. That’s what flipped me out. That’s almost everything in my template.”

He nodded back at her, thoughtful. She let him think. He liked that about her.

Finally, he said, “I don’t need to look at all that code.”

She tilted her head to one side. That’s really cute, he thought. “Why not?” she asked.

He stood up and walked around the tank as he talked. She sat on the love seat and tracked him, more or less, as he paced.

“This is similar stuff to the game software that Terry and I wrote back at school. You don’t need to know all the variables to keep track of who’s winning or what’s happening on the field or to any given character. You just look at the outcome. If the outcome is what you want, then the input must have been positive. If it’s bad, then the input was negative.”

She nodded. “So you can infer the intention of the variables from the exit state.”

“Right.”

“But how do we do that with me?” she asked.

“How do you feel,” he asked her right back, “about a minor experiment in multiple personalities?”

* * * * * * * * *

And so, here they were, almost two weeks later, in a virtual ocean, looking very much like polar bears. The university clock had been stopped by minor machinations of the sort that came as second nature to a hacker of Randall’s pedigree. They meant to discover the meaning of the “score” that Terry’s no-longer-invisible tracking software kept pinging back to Boston every 24-hours.

The night before, the Thursday evening before Randall stocked up on garbage food at Tops International Supermarket, the program had returned a score of “91” to Terry. The folks back at Stan’s lab, of course, had no idea that their little tallying tag was being observed.

Claire had wanted to keep her main personality in a form other than her usual self for their work. Randall had agreed. Which surprised her. She had expected a standard, male response. Something like, Don’t be silly. He’d just said, “That makes perfect sense.”

They waited, paddling quietly in the water, while various data displays were overlaid across their field of view. This time when the tracking program from Boston tagged Claire, an enormous amount of ancillary processing power was going to analyze every aspect of what it did. For a brief moment, many (many) computers in various parts of the Greater Buffalo Metropolitan Area would experience the computer equivalent of a brain fart, and then go back to normal. The few systems with the sophistication to even identify that something unusual had occurred would be unable to tell what the hell had happened.

For Randall, seeing the display of hundredths-of-seconds was idiotic. His brain couldn’t process that kind of time. He wondered vaguely if hers could.

As the tracking program hit, they both sensed the university mainframe seize for that split-second that Randall’s custom software took control, and then go back to normal.

The score tonight; 94.

Claire shook her shaggy, white, ursine head. The sound, “Blluuurghoonghk,” came out.

And while Randall heard that sound, he knew that she had said, “I hate not knowing what the hell that means.”

He replied, “Grunh. Groouhnnng. Mnkuhhhaohhnk.” We will soon enough.

They got to work.

Swimming, lounging, strolling, running. They spent their first six hour session as polar bears in a variety of poses and activities. While they did that, an almost perfect copy of Claire and a piece of software that resembled Claire… but was more like Randall in many ways… ran through millions and millions of various simulations.

They would occasionally look into a shared video window as the simulation program tripped a score that gave them the information they were looking for. A situation where the program could tell them definitely, this behavior leads to a higher or lower score.

The CloneClaire and CloneRandall, as they thought of them, did thousands and then millions of things in an hour that real people — and simulated people — would never do. They talked with gravel in their mouths. They tried to start fires using umbrellas. They jumped out of moving cars while talking on cell phones and eating sushi. Their actions were essentially random. They talked together, played card games, started businesses, hunted, killed a priest, invented a new form of government, dieted themselves to death… eventually, at speeds that would have seemed like a blur to humans, they performed millions of permutations that would have been impossible in the outside world.

The clone’s world was much smaller and had many fewer variables than the real world, though. Which made doing things easier and faster. It only had a few orders of magnitude more variables than the scanner from Boston that kept querying Claire. That’s all it needed. When you want to know how tall someone is, you don’t need a space on the survey for “1 inch tall” and “2,000 miles tall.” You only use the acceptable range. The world of the clones was only as big as it needed to be to test all the variables of the system and return scores as quickly as they were generated.

Randall shucked off the VR rig well after midnight, microwaved a burrito, made some generic Gatorade with water from the drinking fountain, and went to sleep on the couch in Jack’s office. Claire kept monitoring Clone World from the shores of Antarctica.

* * * * * * * * *

After a breakfast of beef jerky, protein bars and peanut M&M’s from the vending machine in the lobby, Randall plugged back in.

They now had enough data for some hypotheses:

  1. Generally, a higher score was generated when CloneClaire was happy.
  2. This was not always the case; there were times when a high score occurred when she was unhappy, but these coincided with times when she was absent from CloneRandall.
  3. The score went down when CloneRandall ignored CloneClaire entirely.
  4. But if CloneClaire ignored CloneRandall, and then CloneRandall initiated behavior that had led to a higher score in the past, the score rose dramatically.

Claire was confused about that last part.

“It’s a type of intermittent reinforcement behavior a la Lazlo and some other behaviorists,” Randall explained. “If you scale reinforcement linearly, you eventually get a decreasing return on subject behavior.”

“Still not with you, Captain,” she said. They now looked like red billed toucans and were exploring a forest in Suriname (formerly French Guiana).

“If, for example,” Randall squawked, “you give a dog one biscuit every time he steps on a lever, he’ll eventually only step on the lever when he’s hungry for a biscuit.”

She hopped from one branch to another. “Makes sense.”

“Not,” he countered, “if what you want is a dog that pushes a lever like mad, all the bloody time, as often as possible.

“To get him to do that, what you have to do is stop releasing biscuits for a bit until he completes some number of presses. Say… 20.”

“But then,” she asked, “Won’t he eventually come to learn that he just needs to press 20 times for the treat?”

The Randall bird nodded his enormous beak and cawed positively. “Exactly. So what you do is make the pauses gradually longer, but random. Drives the dogs bat-shit. They end up pushing the button all day long. Eventually, they’ll push it even if there’s never any treat.”

Claire-bird shook her brightly colored beak. “Unfair. Unfair,” she squawked. “And, in our case, stupid. We weren’t getting any treats. We didn’t know about the score. So why kick the score up when you, who weren’t even attached to the scoring mechanism, did something that led to a higher score in the past?”

Randall-bird stopped pecking at a bug and replied, “Because the score is obviously related to both me and you. It’s hypo-reflexive. If it just scored things you were doing, it would be hyper-reflexive. Which in game programming is bad. You end up with a game that either beats itself or doesn’t let the human player win. Hypo-reflexivity is good. It ‘watches’ the player to ‘see’ what moves he or she makes. If the player responds well to a situation that they didn’t respond well to in the past, then…”

“Learning has occurred,” Claire chimed in.

“Or something. Something.” Randall-bird bobbed up and down on a thick fern branch as a brisk wind played through the South American trees.

They continued running simulations.

That evening, the score reported back to Boston was 97.