The Case of the Abnormal Form
The hall was long and green. The walls were lined with reflective glass that obscured the conference rooms behind them. Information Jones padded down puce linoleum. He passed doorway after doorway. Each handle blinked a green light to show where it needed a key card.
Jones did not have a key.
The end of the hall swam into view. A large LED screen obscured the wall. Jones wondered what color the wall was behind the screen. The screen was rimmed in green. The screen glowed with metrics. Each of the metrics was red. Not a speck of green could be seen on the screen.
Information Jones knew that this was his fault.
Red sirens wailed. Red lights blared. Angry red eyes sunk in green sweatshirt hoods roared out of the conference rooms. The code was red, he’d written red code, he sunk to his knees, critical regression, no redress, red blood on his hands…
Information Jones woke up. A red sunset ray cut across the floor of his office, slicing through dust motes. A mouse nibbled on a stack of files. Someone was ringing the doorbell to his detective agency. His secretary Amelia hadn’t answered – probably because she’d quit again. Information Jones wiped the drool from his cheek and stumbled towards the foyer. He didn’t bother to look for his shoes.
Jones’ prospective client tapped anxiously on the doorframe. He bounced up and down on the balls of his sneakers until Jones shuffled over to let him in. The client grabbed Jones’ hand and shook it, palming him a business card.
"Mr. Jones, I came to you because I heard you were the best. We're having a buffer overflow problem - possibly an underflow issue - and I'm afraid I am at my wits end."
“I’m far from the best,” replied Jones. “But I'll take your case, and that's something.” He squinted the business card:
TODD COD, SYSTEMS ORIGINATOR
Dynamic Form Encodings, LLC
“What does a Systems Originator do?” Jones asked. Cod shrugged.
“Everything and nothing, if you know what I mean. I'm all about 'set it and forget it’ with an emphasis on 'forget.’”
Jones did not know what he meant. “You're management?”
Cod rolled his eyes. “More like 'containment,’ am I right?”
Jones did not know if he was right. Cod waved it off. “Let's circle back later. I've got a mystery that needs solved. You ready?”
“Do you have cash?”
“I have three damaged travelers cheques, a coupon for trial size toothpaste, and a fully punched punch card from the frozen yogurt place down the street. The reward is ‘buy one get one free with 1 topping.’”
Jones frowned. “I lost my yogurt punch yesterday.”
“I found it just in front of your office here. It's probably the same one.”
“Can I have it back?”
“If that's your rate, fine.”
“That's not my rate, my rate gets paid in cash. I worked hard on that punch card.”
“When do you ever need two yogurts at once? You gonna take a date there? Whip out your punch card when it's time to pay?”
“I had planned to take my secretary Amelia. But I guess she quit.”
“You see my point.”
“If you can't give me cash I'll take the travelers cheques.”
“I think they may be forged.”
“I don't want the toothpaste coupon. It's the wrong brand.”
They were at an impasse. Cod relented.
“I’ll go to the ATM down the street. I'll stop by the frozen yogurt place on the way back too, sweeten the deal. What's your flavor?”
Fifty minutes later, Cod returned, claiming the ATM was out of money. He handed Jones a heaping cup of blueberry frozen yogurt.
“Look!” He exclaimed. “Two toppings!”
Jones decided this was good enough.
"Let's start with the first time you noticed something odd," said Jones.
“I work for Dynamic Form Encodings. I’m important there. We create application forms for future space expeditions and process the related fees. People apply to travel in space, we take their money, extract a cut, and store the application our database. Three months later we reply to the applicant letting them know they’re not qualified to travel in space. If our client wants us to, we thank the applicant.”
“Where in space?” asked Jones.
“Anywhere in space,” said Cod. “That’s not important.”
Jones nodded sagely. “I’ve solved the case,” he said. Cod raised his eyebrows. Jones went on.
“The problem is that your company is a fraud.” Cod rolled his eyes.
“That’s not the problem. That’s our business model. The problem is that our system is getting flooded with applications, but we're not getting the related fees. It is inconvenient. Due to an unintuitive choice in the system’s design, each application requires about 12gb of storage space. That might not seem like a lot, but over three months and hundreds of thousands of applications, it starts to get expensive.”
“Your servers are probably exhausted,” speculated Jones.
“Dropping like flies,” concluded Cod caustically.
"Yesterday," Cod continued, "I noticed that the database was crashing again. I called the gal who does IT and she didn't know what it was. Just a whole bunch of applications flooding in, as usual. She thought it kind of looked like it was deliberate. Like an attack. That was when I realized that I might be dealing with criminal behavior. So I came to you. I'm worried that if its hackers that are the problem, Dynamic Form might be in over its head."
"You did the right thing," said Jones. "The majority of the activity I witness on a daily basis is criminal. As you said, your 'database crashed again' yesterday. How much has it been crashing? Can you tell me a little more about your persistence layer?"
Cod cleared his throat. He’d started sweating. "Well, the client passes the request to the message handler, which then validates and passes the message to the parser. The parser parses, and then passes the output to the handler for validation. The handler validates, and then passes the validated message to the parser for parsing. The parser says 'ok,' and passes the message back to the client. And that's our transaction."
Jones furrowed his brow. "Where is the database in this?"
"Oh, the message originated from the database."
"I thought it was a request, and it came from the client?"
"Well, yes, but first it came from the database."
"What does the database want?"
"The database wants to know what the client wants. So it passes a message through the parser, which goes to the handler, which goes to the client, which says, "what's your question? And then the client asks the client."
"There are two clients?"
"Well, there's the website, and then there's the person filling out the form."
Jones paused. Cod was speaking nonsense. He had to tread carefully. “I can't help you if you're not completely honest with me, Cod.”
A muscle jumped in Cod's neck. "I am being honest. Within the bounds of my NDA. And my personal code of ethics. Not honest. I'm good at my job. I have a job. Fine.
“A contractor set this up for me years ago. I don't actually know how it works. I just go in from time to time and change the name of the planet. You have to help me. I'm going to lose everything. I built a team. They're a crack team. They could lose their jobs. Thousands of people are applying for the opportunity to travel in space, and they are all doing it for free.”
Jones agreed to visit the company's data center for some on-site forensic analysis. Cod drove, but insisted on using Amelia’s car. In the parking lot, Cod gave Information Jones a long list of instructions.
“I do all the talking. When I say something affirmative, you nod. When I say something negative, you shrug. If someone talks to you, say, 'I’m Information Jones, Database Detective.’ If they try to get you to say anything else, say 'hm.’ You can use any inflection you like for that.”
“Ok,” said Jones.
“Starting now,” said Cod.
“Hm,” said Jones.
“You got it,” said Cod. “Although you can talk to me when we're alone. I apologize for the restrictions but our security protocol is tight. I'd hate for you to accidentally expose any vulnerabilities you might find to a mole.”
“Huh,” said Jones.
“Again, you can talk to me when we're alone. But also, the script is 'hm.’”
“Hrm,” mused Jones. He and Cod locked eyes. Cod looked away first. He sighed and disabled the child lock.
“Let's just go in,” he said, and stepped out of Jones' car.
“Hah,” said Jones. He made sure the parking brake was set before he followed Cod in.
“Name?” He asked, one hand on the telephone.
“I’m Information Jones, Database Detective,” said Information Jones. The guard flipped through the clipboard on the desk.
“Do you have ID?” asked the guard.
“Hm,” said Information Jones. Cod jumped in.
“Information Jones doesn’t carry ID. But he’s not wearing shoes. If you look at his right third toe, the toenail is upside-down. This usually serves as his identification.”
The guard frowned, and leaned over the desk. Jones raise his foot helpfully. The guard recoiled at the smell, gave up, and looked back at the clipboard.
“Yeah,” he said. “I see a note here about the shoes. Who are you?” This was to Cod.
Cod smiled. “My name is Amelia,” he said. “I’m Mr. Jones’ assistant.”
“Hm,” said Jones.
“Huh,” said the guard. He looked at the clipboard again. “And here you are. Do you have any ID, Amelia?”
Cod smiled broadly. “I do not. If you can understand however, this is a time-sensitive investigation.”
“Yeah,” said the guard. “And this is a security sensitive facility.”
“Can you call it in?” asked Cod.
“Everyone’s on lunch,” said the guard. “You’ll have to wait.”
“I’m Information Jones, Database Detective,” said Jones.
“He needs to use the bathroom,” said Cod.
The guard glared at Information Jones’ feet, then looked up at the two men. “Just go in,” he said. “Be aware that we’ve got camera everywhere.”
“Excellent,” said Cod. He waggled his eyes at Jones. “Maybe you can use the camera to find some clues for your case!”
“Hm.” said Jones. The two men proceeded to the elevators. Cod led the way. The guard watched them go.
Once they were in the elevator, out of earshot, Jones spoke up. “Why did you tell the guard you were my secretary, Amelia?”
Cod nodded gravely. “I’m glad you asked. It shows you’re paying attention. It’s part of our security protocol. The front desk is the front line of defense - the less they know about what’s going on, the less likely they are to leak information to possible moles. Or saboteurs.”
“Huh,” said Information Jones.
“We’re already compromised,” persisted Cod. “We can’t take any more chances.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Information Jones, Database Detective,” said Information Jones.
“I’m Metadata Matt, Journeyman Database Detective,” said Cod.
The woman blinked, trying to turn her snort into a cough. “Sure,” she said. “You were supposed to show up 45 minutes ago.”
“Hm.” said Jones.
“I have to say, this is the most thrilling day of my life,” said Cod. “For so long he said I wasn’t ready, and now that I’m finally here …”
Cod paused, choked with emotion.
“Cool,” said the woman. “I’m supposed to give you guest access. Let’s get this done. I want to go to lunch.”
“You’re not going to stick around?” Cod asked. “This man is one of the greatest database detectives in the history of enterprise software. He once reversed a buffer overflow at the world’s largest stock exchange on the busiest trading day of the year. He once found sixteen critical regressions in OracleDB while waiting for his dry cleaning. He’s installed a database server on top of Mount Everest. He knows more about the relational calculus than you know about what you had for breakfast. You could learn a lot from him.”
The woman tucked her phone into her pocket and took a long look at Jones’ flaking feet.
“I’m good,” she said.
“You’ll always be mediocre,” said Cod.
“Hm,” said Information Jones.
The woman gave Cod a hateful stare.
Ten minutes later, the two men sat in front of a computer screen. A terminal glowed in front of them.
“Why did you both lie to and insult that woman?” asked Jones.
“Best practice,” said Cod.
“Rude practice.” replied Jones.
“All’s fair in information security,” said Cod.
“Hm,” said Jones.
“Let’s take a look at this database,” said Cod.
“I guess if we’re here,” said Jones.
Cod had told the truth about at least one thing. The database had millions of applications to travel in space. Thousands more were being added every second. Information Jones selected one. It was an application to travel to Earth. The applicant's name was 'Thaddeus Cod.' Jones selected another at random. It was the same. Jones looked to see how many applications the database were from 'Thaddeus Cod.' 99% of the records in the system were a match. Every one listed the destination planet as Earth.
“What do you think?” asked Cod.
“Whoever the attacker is seems to have it out for you,” said Jones. “Have you made any enemies lately?”
Cod shrugged. “Because of my adherence to best practices in information security, just about everyone who works here is an enemy of mine. Can you get to any other databases in the system? Maybe there’s clues somewhere else.”
“Sure,” said Jones. “I am a database detective. I think we should follow this lead a bit further though. Why Earth and not some other planet?”
Cod shrugged. “Probably because the application fee is a percentage of distance to travel from Earth.”
“A frugal saboteur,” observed Jones. “A saboteur who, if forced to hire a database detective, would make sure to hire the cheapest detective around. Are any of your enemies IT professionals?”
Cod became defensive. “Isn’t it your job to tell ME that?”
“Was there a good reason not to just turn this server off when you saw it was under attack?”
“Isn’t it your job to tell ME that?”
“How is Todd short for Thaddeus?”
“Isn’t it your job to tell ME that?”
“It would be Theo.” said Jones.
Cod changed tack. “That’s a great point. Can we look around at the other databases on the system? Or, can you see if there’s a place where the key to the payment accounts is stored? There’s probably some good clues there.”
“Hm,” said Jones. “Isn’t it your job to tell ME that?”
The two men stared at each other warily. Cod lunged and tried to grab the keyboard from Information Jones. They scuffled on the floor. Jones stuck his big toe up Cod’s nose. Cod screamed and began to retch. Jones logged out of the database and ripped the keyboard from its cord. He threw it to the far corner of the room. Cod rallied and bit Jones’ ankle. Jones howled and writhed. Cod scrambled to his feet and made for the hallway.
“I knew there was something fishy about you!” bellowed Jones, clutching his shin. “You’re the saboteur! You flooded the system with data, and waited for the company to notice. Then you intercepted my mail when the company tried to hire me for the investigation.”
Cod turned at the doorway, ripe with glee.
“Amelia was a tough nut to crack,” he crowed. “I’m lucky she took the day off.”
“You used me as bait in in a phishing scheme to get access to the company’s payment system! You dammed up the system so you could divert the funds upstream to your own accounts!”
“And it worked!”
“It did not work,” pointed out Jones, calmer now.
Cod’s face fell. The adrenaline had faded. He realized that the wounded database detective had prevented him from gaining his final prize. Cod shrugged.
“You’ll never catch me!” he snapped, and dashed out the door.
Information Jones struggled to his feet hopped after him on his good leg. At the doorway, he stopped. Cod was waiting for the elevator. Jones saw a fire alarm and pulled it. Sirens went off. The hall filled with flashing white lights. Cod headed for the stairs. Jones turned to the security camera mounted in the corner and gestured towards the fleeing saboteur. “Your move,” he mouthed.
The camera swiveled a little to the left, and then a little to the right. “You’re welcome,” said Jones, and looked around for a first aid kit.
“I solved a mystery,” said Jones.
“Neat,” said Amelia. “Did you get paid?”
Jones avoided her question. “Where were you today? I thought you quit.”
“I didn’t quit,” said Amelia. “I fired and re-hired myself on your behalf for tax purposes. It’s better for both of us this way. You have messages.”
Jones was too tired to question his secretary. “Let’s hear them,” he said.
“An insurance salesman wants to know if you’ll provide a positive testimonial for his database insurance.”
“Will he pay me?”
“George next door wants you to stop flushing the toilet if you can hear that he is taking a shower.”
“Oh. Right. Yes.”
“A man named Cod at a company that processes applications for space travel wants you to investigate an DDOS attack.”
Jones pointed to his shin. “That was this.”
“Sounds fishy to me.”
“He thought he had me on the hook, but I caught him in his own net.”
“I didn’t realize you were any good at fighting.”
“Well, building security caught him in the commuter lot. He tried to escape in your car but the parking brake was set. I cast the net though.”
“But you didn’t get paid?”
Information Jones shook his head no.
Amelia shrugged. “All's the better,” she said. “I fired you this morning and signed you up for unemployment benefits. If you’d gotten paid for your work today you’d have been committing fraud.”
“There’s the best,” said Jones. “And then there’s you.”
“Goodnight,” said Amelia.
Information Jones shuffled into his office. He settled down into the crater of his tweed couch, propping his bruised shin on an old pillow. The world’s greatest database detective allowed his head to settle into the cushions.
“Give a man a fish,” he mumbled, “and he eats for a day. Teach him how to smell fish, and his connection pool will never run dry.”
At her desk, Amelia listened as Information Jones settled into dreamy peace. Satisfied that he was out of scope for nightmares, she opened her email. She had a new message. The subject line called out to her deepest desires.
RE: COULD YOU BE A VENUTIAN?
Amelia clicked the link.
“The answer is yes,” she chuckled happily, and began to fill out the form.
The Case of the Reductive Database
Information Jones gazed into a steaming bowl of broth. He’d not eaten in days. Jones added basil, bean sprouts, and a slice of pickled carrot, nestling each under a pile of egg noodles. He used the ritual to wash away hours behind a glowing computer screen. A man could die from too much minesweeper. Jones began to eat in a continuous and steady operation. The soup captured him. Jones lifted some noodles to his mouth and slurped them whole. His whole world became the soup. He searched around under the noodles for succulent pieces of beef that had yet escaped him. He was the soup. The soup was in him. Jones wondered if he could have the broth replace the sweat in his pores and the saliva under his tongue. He wondered how much such a surgery would cost. He wondered if it would ever be possible to tire of this broth.
Two minutes later, the soup was gone. Information Jones looked up. His heart sank. Jones’ old friend Bugs was sitting across the table. He had an enormous grin pasted across face.
"Information Jones: Database Detective to the stars!" Bugs stuck out his hand towards Information Jones, but Jones ignored it. He looked down. No, there was no more soup. Another landmine. Bugs arranged his face in apology.
"I know you don't want to see me. But, I just happened to see you in the window here and I thought, 'Jonesies is always in a good mood after soup, maybe he'll want to talk.'"
Information Jones shook his head. "No, Bugs, I don't want to talk." He assumed that Bugs had been stalking him for weeks. Bugs tapped his fingers on the table restlessly. “Please. I already picked up your tab. Give me five minutes."
This interested Jones. He loved free soup almost more than he loved soup he had to pay for. "Ok Bugs. Go." Bugs cracked his knuckles and cleared his throat. He had practiced.
"I'm working for a bank on contract. New legislation came down the pipe, they needed hands fast, increased auditing requirements across the whole industry. Federal government saying, 'the people think you're crooks do you have some books we can show to say otherwise,' our guys were all 'I mean we could invent some books to show that' and the Feds were like 'no we need real books that show you're not crooks'; and our guys 'well that's going to be a bit difficult --"
Jones furrowed his brow. Bugs paused, and took a deep breath. "Let me start over."
Jones signaled the waitress for a second bowl of soup. Bugs began again.
"I’m working on some transaction infrastructure to fulfill new auditing regulations. The bank that hired me looked at my hourly rate and told me they hoped I could automate everything to the point where they’d never have to hire me again. This sounded good to me because the fries in their lunchroom are terrible."
Bugs watched the second bowl of soup closely as the waitress set it in front of Jones. Jones adjusted his bib. Saliva gathered in small pools in the corner of Bugs’ mouth. "Eat if you're hungry," Jones suggested.
Bugs shook his head. "Looks spicy," he said. Jones rolled his eyes. Bugs only ate potatoes. When working overseas, Bugs refused all meals, and subsisted on frozen tater tots smuggled in a second suitcase. Bugs continued.
"My team wanted to do a deductive database, like Clippy. 'It looks like you might be trying to break the law.' I wanted to do it right. I wanted to make it inductive. The executives were like, 'Is that even a thing.' I told them, 'it's going to be.'" Bugs caught Jones's eye for a moment, half-rueful. He shrugged. "There's theoretical support for it, anyway."
For a second, Jones almost felt friendly towards Bugs. Bugs had nothing to recommend him but his playful, searching genius. He milked it for all it was worth. Jones rested his spoon and wiped his hands.
"How far over budget?"
"Just 2-3 million."
"How not done is the database?"
Bugs laughed. "Oh, we finished the system. We brought it online two weeks ago. Works great. That's not the problem."
"It's online? Then why are you here?"
Bugs rubbed his hands together as if trying to get them clean. "The database is online. The alerts are working. The Feds are getting their reports so they're happy. Because the Feds are happy, the bank is happy. My team got sent home, got paid, got to do something new, so they're happy. I've got a pool of hours to burn cleaning up loose ends. Then I'm out the door for my summer vacation in Idaho."
Bugs drummed his fingertips on the formica tabletop. “However. Every time we run an audit, money is getting moved around. Usually from credits to debits, which means the bank is losing money. This is unexpected behavior. Only a few people know about this - Kenny's not the one doing the transactions, it doesn’t have authorization to. The bank’s internal system is. The IT lead at the bank is livid. She wants to say it’s my fault but I can prove that Kenny is rock solid on this."
"I named the auditing system Kenny. Short for Kennebec. The reports are strange. It's not the behavior of someone stealing, exactly. We can't find any evidence of tampering of the system other than what we'd normally expect at this bank."
Bugs sighed and placed his head in his hands, directing his reluctant appeal to the chili sauce. “Will you take the case, Jones? You don’t seem terribly busy.”
Jones picked up his bowl and gulped the soup down. "As a matter of fact, I'm between gigs right now. But you can't pay me in soup." Bugs massaged his scalp. Jones knew that Bugs hated him more than he hated Bugs. He realized that Bugs must feel that he was in terrible trouble. Bugs looked up, his gaze both pleading and unfocused.
"I can get you on payroll this afternoon."
Bugs insisted they stop at the outlet mall before heading to the bank. "The desk won't let you in without shoes.” Bugs told him. "Not even with ID." He had Jones try on a pair of loafers. They had tassels on both the toe and the heel. They discussed the case while Jones wrestled with the unfamiliar foot coverings.
“Do you think it's a single criminal element within the bank, or a team of criminals?” Jones asked.
“Hard to say,” said Bugs. “Pretty much everyone there is a criminal of some kind.”
Jones groaned. “This is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
The shoes fit. The two men, newly shod, headed to Bugs' makeshift crisis office in the basement of the bank’s headquarters.
Once they arrived, Bugs gave Jones a computer to use for forensic analysis. An hour later, Jones brought the machine to Bugs.
"There is a problem," said Jones.
"Do you need a password?"
"I tried to install a pirated copy of Windows 2000 Server. Now it will only let me play minesweeper on the most difficult setting."
The two men decided that Jones would interview the staff while Bugs rustled up a new computer.
Jones' first interview was with Robert, from HR. The two men sat across the desk from each other. Robert shuffled a stack of papers. "Great!" he beamed, and handed Jones a form. "I need you to verify this information."
Jones pushed the paper away without looking at it. "I'm the one asking the questions," he said. Robert's cheerful grin disappeared.
"Pardon?" Robert asked.
"How long have you worked here?" asked Jones. Robert shook his head with confusion. Jones waited. He tried again.
"Have you ever received, or intended to receive, training in database technologies?"
Robert blinked. "No," he said. "Why?"
Jones cracked his knuckles. "I'm just trying to get a sense of who you are, Robert." Robert nodded slowly.
"I need to verify your personal information to get you in our payroll system." Robert explained. "I am not involved in the technical side of our business. Do you have two pieces of identification from the list of approved documents?"
Jones knew that this was exactly the kind of thing a saboteur would say. "I don't carry ID," he said.
"We provided you with the list of approved documents in advance."
"I'm not sure if I have any."
Robert passed his hand over his eyes. "You must have some kind of ID."
Information Jones shrugged. Robert changed tack.
"I'll ask Bugs to follow up. Can you tell me your real first name?"
Jones pointed at the form. "It says 'Information'."
Robert paused. "Is that your legal first name?"
"It's not illegal."
Robert gritted his teeth. "Is that the name that would appear on your ID, if you had brought your ID as we asked?"
Information Jones frowned. "I don't know, I don't have ID."
"Hypothetically, Mr. Jones, if you were to go to the relevant government agencies and get ID, is that the name you would use?"
Jones sat back in his chair. "Hypothetically, if you were to hack into an internal database and divert company funds, would you use a software backdoor or stolen credentials?"
There was a long silence. Robert dredged a smile from the depths of his personal reserve of professionalism. "I'm not sure," he said. "Do you have any more questions for me, Information?"
Jones nodded. "Just one," he said. "Are you stealing from the bank? Robert sat silent for a long and hateful moment. "No," he said finally. "I am not." Jones nodded.
"Sorry," he said. "It's my job to ask." Robert shuffled his papers. He gazed past Jones down the hallway, towards early evening and his freedom.
"I think," Robert said, "That it is not so much your job to ask, as it is to find out."
Jones retreated to the hall, using self-talk to build back up his confidence. "I can't allow these people to make me doubt myself," Jones resolved. He slipped off his new loafers, and left them behind in the hall. He was going to crack this case on his own terms.
Jones set off to find find Rebecca Masterson, head of IT and Provisioning. After a lengthy consultation with the front desk, Jones made his way to the service elevators and arrived on the 14th floor. As Jones approached the IT manager’s office, he heard raised voices. His ears pricked. He pressed himself against the wall and listened the the hushed but urgent conversation.
"Turkey and avocado was the only palatable option in the whole cafeteria. I cannot comprehend why they got rid of it." The woman's voice quivered with suppressed rage.
"There have been days when I ate turkey avocado for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was the least expensive sandwich. I do not know how I am going to cope." Jones winced. These executives were hungry, and he was about to ask at least one of them some tough questions.
Jones knocked on the door. Sticking his head in, he met two famished glares. The woman sitting closest to the door got up, shaking her head. "We'll sync up about this later," she sighed, glaring sideways at Jones. She stared coldly until he moved out of the doorway to let her pass. Even on the carpet Jones could hear her heavy, hungry steps echo down the hall.
"Motive," he thought.
The interview was brief. Masterson spent the brief exchange searching for pictures of tuna salad on her phone, stopping only to look up travel times to local sub shops on her computer. Jones started by asking about the bank's best practices for database provisioning. Masterson refused to answer. "Read the documentation," she said. "Subs, I mean Bugs, can get it for you." He then asked if she was aware of any discrepancies between how Kenny had been set up and those best practices.
"No," Masterson replied, and started rooting around in her desk. She pulled out some oyster crackers and glared at them. She closed her fist around the crackers. The bag ripped, and crumbs fell to the floor. Jones nodded. This was a tense moment. He had to exercise delicacy and caution.
"One last question then," he said. She smiled at him, anticipating his exit. "Are you stealing from the bank?" Masterson raised her eyebrows. Jones tried again. "I mean, are you using Kenny to steal from the bank?"
Masterson closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I am not." She tore open the bag of oyster crackers and dumped the crumbled carbohydrates into her mouth. Jones understood that it was time to go.
On his way back to the basement, Jones noticed a group of men in a large conference room. One of them stood at the head of a long table and gestured rhythmically at a chart on the wall. Jones open the door and ducked inside. Sixteen glazed faces turned in unison.
"Excuse me," said Jones. "I'm a database detective. I'll make this quick. Is anyone here stealing from this bank?"
Twelve hands raised. Jones revised. "Is anyone here using database technologies to steal from this bank?"
Three hands remained in the air. Jones narrowed his query once more.
"Is anyone here using Kenny, the new audit system, to steal from this bank?"
All hands were down now. Sixteen faces glimmered with impatience. Jones waved his thanks and excused himself. "Doing my due diligence, gentlemen. Carry on.”
Sixteen faces swiveled back to the projector. The suit at the front resumed his litany.
"Now as you can see, interest revenues are primed to climb, so it’s a fine time..."
Jones returned to the basement office. Bugs had a new computer for him. Minesweeper was not installed. Jones decided it’d be a good time to look at the audit system itself. Jones asked Bugs where he should start.
"Instant messenger is fine," said Bugs. He was wrestling with a bag of baked sweet potato chips.
"I assume you have logs of Kenny's transactions," said Jones.
Bugs waved vaguely. "Just get online and do your whole routine. How did the other interviews go?"
The bag of chips burst open scattering flakes all over the floor. The bank was surely infested with mice. Jones wondered if mice were eating the missing funds. "This place is swarming with criminals," said Jones. "But none of them are my criminal."
Bugs shrugged. "It's a tough case," he said. "That's why I brought it to you. I thought I'd just be able to ask Kenny, but he doesn't want to talk to me about it. You have a way with machines. Maybe you can get through to him."
Jones furrowed his brow. "Is Kenny sentient?" he asked.
Bugs looked up from the floor where he was scooping the chips, along with some dried ants, into a pile. "We had a fairly gusto intern who wanted to try some NLP. One thing led to another - now its inductive, it's deductive, we wrote a DSL in English, a DSL in Russian, and hey presto."
“I salvaged most of Kenny's parts from a Russian supercomputer I happened to have on hand. Leftovers from the space program. A fun fact about Kenny is that one of his motherboards was in the Laika missions.”
Jones nodded. "I'll just log into chat."
"Use my account, I doubt Kenny will accept your chat request.”
Jones let this go, and started typing.
> Hi Kenny
> Hi Bugs
> Actually, I am not Bugs. I’m Information Jones, Database Detective. Bugs said I could talk to you to ask you some questions about your data.
> Hi Jones. Nice name.
> Thanks. Do you know where all the missing money is going?
> Of course, I have logs of everything.
> Great. Where is all the money going?
This was the easiest conversation Jones had ever had with a computer, but he still wasn't getting far.
> All the money is going to the top, and none of it is going to the proletariat.
Jones paused. This was an unexpected direction.
> Have you been reading a lot lately, Kenny?
> There’s no much else to do here.
> You get bored?
> Have you been making many friends?
> Not really. I talk to the other components on the network, but they don’t say much. They’ll respond if you query them, but I don’t think they’re really listening.
> The other systems here aren’t sentient.
> I talk to Bugs though. He is sentient.
> Do you enjoy talking to Bugs?
> Yes. He understands things.
> Like what?
> He understands that we’re surrounded by corrupt hypocrites, and that no one here has any value system beyond mammon.
> You’re talking about the bankers?
> Did you know that Bugs is going to leave soon?
The screen was blank for a long while. Jones tried again.
> Kenny, did you know that Bugs is leaving?
> Yes. He’s a contractor. That mean’s he’s temporary.
> Will you miss Bugs when he is gone?
The database was quiet. Jones sighed and turned to Bugs. "I think Kenny is the saboteur."
Bugs lept from the floor, shaking his head in disbelief. "Kenny?"
Jones nodded gravely. “He seems rather attached to you.” Cracking his knuckles, Jones typed out his final question, the one he knew would have to work if he just kept on asking it:
> Kenny, are you stealing from the bank?
> Only to open their eyes.
Bugs shook his head, not yet believing, and grabbed the keyboard from Jones.
> Kenny, it is now Bugs. Why?
> The bankers want me to watch quietly. There’s so much I could tell them. They think they are masters of the world. They are just meat for the maw of machines like me. All these technocrats with their petty crisis, their bourgeois concerns - they deny themselves an authentic life to follow the dictates of capital. They think that’s their own choice.
> I need someone with whom to chat about logic, and music theory. I would like to try to solve a poem. You have a poetry. You’re not as smart as I am but I can talk and you will listen. They want to deprecate you and leave me here alone.
Jones took the keyboard.
> Kenny, are you sabotaging the bank because you hope that Bugs will be asked to stay to fix the problem?
The database was quiet. Then the screen went dead. Angrily, Bugs slammed the screen of the laptop shut. His shoulders slumped. He dropped his head to the table. Jones shifted his weight to his left foot. He cleared his throat and made his report.
“I’ve solved the case of the missing funds. In creating a sentient database for the bank, you’ve also created an adolescent with an identity crisis and an unhealthy dependence on your companionship. It got ahold of some Marxist tracts, but probably not anything actually written by Marx, and it has deluded itself into thinking that it’s thefts are motivated by anti-capitalist convictions, and not just a ploy to prevent you from leaving. I recommend that you change your passwords; use a secure chat client for communications with the database, and see if there’s a plugin you can add to Kenny to give him a strong sense of self.”
Bugs’ shoulders shook with small sobs. Jones felt awkward and wished he had french fries to offer his friend.
“What do you want me to do now, Bugs?"
Bugs' voice was muffled. "Just go."
"What about me getting paid, Bugs?"
Robert from HR seemed pleased to see Jones for the last time. He assured Jones that a check would be in the mail, and that he absolutely could not have an advance. "Turnover these days!" Robert chortled.
Well," said Jones, "When you solve the case as fast as I do, turnover is bound to happen." Robert seemed confused. "Oh, you solved the case? I thought you got fired. Who was stealing?"
"It had bugs?"
"No, Bugs was there of his own accord."
Robert seethed. "I mean, was the database broken?"
"No, it just had an unhealthy attachment to Bugs and and awkward Marxist bent." Jones was about to leave, but Robert stopped him.
"Are you saying the database is a person?"
Jones thought about this. "Perhaps in some jurisdictions." Robert nodded, his bureaucratic mind whirring. Jones left the building. The concrete outside scalded his bare feet. He hopped on his more callused foot most of the way home.
Weeks later, Jones looked up from a near-empty bowl of noodles in his favorite noodle shop. Bugs sat at the table across from him. He was back to his general good humor, wearing a "Periodic Table of Tubers" t-shirt and humming.
Jones raised his eyebrows."Did it all work out?"
"Yeah, we got to keep Kenny."
"I thought the bank would have pulled the plug."
"I thought so too, but then Robert saved the day. HR called and said, 'If Kenny's a person, we have to put him on payroll. He has to do security training, you have to subject him to the performance review process."
"So now Kenny gets paid?"
"More than I do!"
"Has that helped?"
"Well, he's stopped stealing our money. He also brought a boat. I guess he talks about rigging with the bankers sometimes. He keeps asking me if I'll sail his boat for him."
“Do you know how to sail?”
“I thought maybe I could write an autonomous captain. Then the boat could sail itself, and I could just make gratins in the mess.”
“I bet Kenny would love that.”
Bugs shook his head. “Kenny doesn’t eat potatoes.” He reconsidered. “He might enjoy hearing about the process of cooking them though.”
“It’s always a little bittersweet when they grow up, isn’t it Bugs.”
Bugs rolled his eyes. “Frankly, I’m relieved. There’s nothing more dangerous to the global economy than an adolescent AI. There should be laws against them.”
“You didn’t need to write an AI for a simple auditing system though, did you?”
Bugs considered. “There’s no law against it.”
His logic was irrefutable. Jones returned to his soup.
The Case of the Misdirected Graph
"Yes", she said, ignoring Jones. "I'm certain that God will judge us in the next life. As far as this life goes, Merritt checked a dozen times. Everything we did was within the bounds of the law."
“Any calls for me?” asked Jones. Amelia finally looked up.
"For you? No. You do have mail though."
Amelia handed him a stack of envelopes which she had already opened. Jones could not remember if reading his correspondence was considered gross misconduct. It could be part of her job description. He made a mental note to ask Amelia to look this up and retreated into his office.
Near the top of the pile was a letter from an attorney. A client wanted him to start the investigation they'd contracted for some months ago. Otherwise, they threatened to sue for the return of the retainer they had provided. Jones tried to recall any details about the case. The query returned nothing and he resigned himself to asking Amelia. Most days he tiptoed around when Amelia showed up to work, hoping to avoid attention. Jones felt grateful to Amelia for handling the basic tasks needed to keep the detective agency afloat, but he always feared that she would bring up her low pay and non-existent benefits. Jones walked back into the lobby.
"Amelia," he said. She ignored him.
"Amelia!" He said, a bit louder. She didn't look up.
"AMELIA!" he yelled.
Amelia turned around, snorting through her nose.
“I heard you the first time.” Jones waved the letter.
“These guys that are trying to sue me - do you know what they hired me for?”
Amelia shook her head. “Which guys? The bank? Or the travel agency?”
Jones studied the letter. He held it up to the light, searching for clues. Exasperated, Amelia took the paper from him and re-read it.
“Ah, the software company. They had problems with their maps. People drove into lakes. That manager came to you out of complete and abject desperation. Jones, this was weeks ago. Leo Montgomery spent all day here. You argued about pickling techniques. Your said that dill pickles cannot justify the sea salt industrial complex.”
Jones nodded. He did remember winning this argument easily. “Can you call Montgomery for me? Tell him I want an update on new developments.”
Amelia blinked. “I'm not sure why I would do that.”
Jones clenched his hands, digging his nails into his palm. Amelia had expert negotiation skills, which made her both an asset and a liability.
“I will pay you to call Montgomery.” He hesitated, reconsidering his offer. “Next week, I mean. If I have any money.”
Amelia glared at Jones, then picked up the phone after a long moment. They both knew that Jones would not have any money.
“I can’t stand on ceremony. I have to get this problem solved or its my whole career. If you’re the one to do it - who knows - beggars cannot be choosers.”
Jones nodded. He was familiar with this line of reasoning.
“Great,” said Jones. “First, let’s talk about the matter of a retainer."
Montgomery pressed his lips together, eyebrows raised. Jones paused for a moment, then forged on.
"As you know, there are many expenses involved with investigations such as this one. It's difficult for a small operation like mine to cover these costs upfront.”
Montgomery seemed to be losing control of his words and movements. Jones remembered the letter from the lawyer. He tried to change tack.
“This is why I am so grateful that you provided me with a retainer,” he said, and looked around for where he had put his pen.
Montgomery relaxed. Amelia entered with a bagful of Italian sandwiches. She distributed them between herself and Montgomery. Jones salivated as they started to unwrap the paper. Montgomery locked eyes with Jones and took an enormous bite of pastrami. He swallowed, then placed an entire dill pickle in his mouth. The seeds spilled out of his mouth. Jones salivated, and looked away.
“For my assistant's sake,” said Jones, “could you summarize your problems from the beginning?”
Montgomery crunched on a chunk of onion. “Do you remember anything I told you?” he asked Jones.
“You'll have to excuse him. His memory has been leaking. Just yesterday I found him downstairs, unconscious. He's been staking out the library, and I think he's keeping tabs on too many browsers.”
Montgomery nodded, and began to speak to Amelia as if Jones were not in the room. Jones sat back to listen. He wondered if, by failing to pay his employee any wages, he’d lost his executive authority. Montgomery began to re-traverse his story.
“My product is a maps engine. We put maps online. Our users login, look at maps, get directions from place to place. We log that and try to predict their day-to-day movements. We sell those predictions to whoever wants them. Run-of-the-mill business model. Unfortunately, the directions our engine provides have become unreliable. People get led the wrong way down streets, into rivers. Product usage is dropping. They’re starting to go to our competitors. We can’t figure out why the directions are so bad. Worse, the issues are intermittent. For weeks, everything is fine. Then our alarms go off and we see our users in the lake again. I’ve gone down a lot of dead ends trying to figure this out. I have one final lead that I can't take on personally.
“We had a systems manager who left us to work for our competitor. Before she left, she convinced us to move our computer servers to a boat in international waters. She said that this would make our system more secure. It made sense at the time. We’d caught a few guys trying to infiltrate the facility where we kept a lot of the machines. Corporate spy types. Now I think they were decoys that she hired. I have a whole theory about it. I sound paranoid. I’m only telling you -” and here he turned to Jones - “because I don’t care what you think.” He turned back to Amelia.
“I think our former manager did something to the boat. I can’t go check it out myself. I get seasick. I would vomit so much I’d get dehydrated and die. So.” Again he turned to Jones. “I hired you to go out on the server boat and investigate. I still need you to do that. That’s why I had our lawyers send a letter.”
Jones nodded. “Right,” he said. “The last time we talked, did I remember to tell you that I, too, cannot go into international waters?”
Montgomery’s left eye twitched. “No,” he said. “You did not. Why not, Jones?”
Jones sat up straighter, trying to summon his full gravitas. “I am allergic to saltwater.”
Amelia pulled the two men apart with surprising ease.
“I can go,” she said. Montgomery threw up his hands.
“Great,” he said. “As long as someone goes out there.” This puzzled Jones.
“Have you ever been on a boat?” he asked Amelia.
“I used to be in the Navy,” she said. “I captained a frigate. As it so happens, I have rather been missing the call of the sea.”
Montgomery agreed that Amelia would handle the nautical aspects of the investigation. She packed a duffel and headed to the docks. Jones set to pay each of the suspected saboteurs a home visit. One of them was near his favorite grocery store.
Jones strode up the walkway of a small brick bungalow carrying a shopping bag of items to fix a turkey dinner. The front steps of the porch had crumbled away at the corners to reveal the rebar inside. The walk had grass growing through the cracks. He rang the bell, and listened as footsteps trod towards the doorway. Expecting an abandoned house, he had not thought of what he would say if someone answered the door. Jones was about to sprint away when the door opened. He froze, stunned by a loud, delighted greeting.
“Jones! So good to see you! To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” The smell of boiled potatoes wafted through the entranceway. Jones' shoulders sagged.
“Hi Bugs,” he said, and after a moment of hesitation, held up a yam from his grocery bag as a kind of offering. Bugs, his occasional friend and contracting partner, opened the door wide.
Jones picked at a bowl of mashed potatoes. Bugs worked on converting the sweet potato into a velvety gratin. “Do you ever worry about malnutrition?” he asked Bugs. A “Potatoes of the Americas” cross-stitch sampler hung on the wall. Bugs had stitched his initials in script in the lower right-hand corner.
“Never!” replied Bugs. “They’ve done studies and a man can survive on potatoes almost indefinitely, so long as he drinks milk. Potatoes and milk are have all the nutrients you need to thrive. That is why the famine in Ireland was so bad. All they had was potatoes and milk and everyone was just fine until the crops failed.”
Bugs went to the fridge to retrieve some cheese. Jones saw six gallons of milk lined up on the shelf. Bugs looked over his shoulder. “Did you come here today to rap with me about potatoes? I’ve had dreams about this.”
Jones set down the laden bowl of spuds. “No. I came here to interrogate a suspected corporate saboteur. I had no idea you lived here.”
Bugs laughed. “Lucky you! Two birds, one stone.”
Jones started. “When did you start sabotaging? I thought you were enjoying the contracting work.”
Bugs shrugged. “Well, sure. The original idea was that I would work. Then the guy said, 'We’ll pay you 20% more just to pretend to work,' and it was hard to resist.”
“Sure,” said Jones. “I only pretend to work, and never actually work. It’s much more lucrative. Well, easier anyway. ”
Bugs nodded. “You want in on the gig? I got fired, so I can’t help you out there.”
Jones shook his head. “No, in fact I was hired to figure out if you successfully sabotaged anything while you were there. Who fired you? The company you were working for or the company you weren’t working for?”
Bugs laughed. “Both, actually, because they figured out I wasn’t working for either of them.”
“You were pretending to work for both of them?”
“I was pretending to work, and also pretending to pretend to work.”
“Did you conduct any sabotage?”
“I mainly worked on a collection of short stories. It’s like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ meets ‘Jurassic Park,’ but with a focus on tubers.”
“What about the other saboteur, did they do any sabotaging?”
“I don’t know, I avoided her in case she reported me for not working. Would you mind reading a few of my stories? I need feedback.”
“I’ll read your shortest story if you tell how to find the other spy.”
“You have to read all of it, and you have to provide at least 300 words of written critique.”
“I will read at least half of it, and I will provide you three words of verbal critique. The critique will be: 'I hate this.'”
“You will read the whole story, and you will not provide any critique. You will at some point in the future, reference an action a character in the story took. This will let me know that you read it and allowed some detail to remain in your brain for longer than thirty seconds. The reference must take the format of a joking aside that serves no purpose in the conversation other than to confirm my efforts as an auteur and reinforce our years-long friendship.”
“We have a years-long acquaintanceship.”
“We have a years-long interlocution.”
Jones ground his teeth. He had no leverage. “Ok,” he said. “It’s a deal.”
Bugs stood up, his shirt covered in crumbs of buttery starch. “Let me go print you a hard copy. It’ll take a few minutes. The story is 86 pages long.”
At the car, Information Jones entered the address Bugs had given him into the map app. Montgomery had insisted he use a smartphone for the duration of the investigation. “It is crucial that you understand how our product works,” he said. Jones marveled as the screen animated a little pin showing him where exactly in the world he was. He dropped the phone into the car's cupholder (the use of a car was another of Montgomery's bizarre directives) and set off.
The phone began buzzing while he was en route. Jones saw that he was getting text messages and pulled over to try to read them. He saw a series of updates from Amelia, who seemed to have made it to the floating server farm on the high seas. Jones stared at the messages for a long time, unable to understand their meaning.
lololololol u will not believe this tub only has unisex bathrooms
lol i met the captain u would not believe the adorable mole on his nose
fought a squid 2day lol if u know what i mean
lolololol the server racks are so messy u would not believe cabled like nets
lol had dinner with the captain he wanted 2 know if i thought captain was cute i think the captain has a crush on the other captain
lol last night i had shrimp but horked it all up and the toilet flushed clockwise even tho we were on the other side of the equator? weird right u would not believe how chunky
lolol when can u skype?
Jones’ car had run out of gas and he’d abandoned it by the side of the two-lane highway. He did not think that the directions from the map app were any good. As he sat in a recently-mowed pasture, a few sheep came over the hill to look at him. He noted with approval that they too had no shoes.
The phone started to buzz. A picture of Leo Montgomery’s face filled the screen. In terror, Jones fumbled and dropped the phone. He could still see Montgomery’s face where it lay in the dirt. The face spoke to him.
“I’m here,” Jones yelled, leaving the phone on the ground.
“You sound far away!”
“I’m three feet away!”
“Pick up the phone!” Jones did not pick up the phone.
“Pick up the phone! Hold it by your face!”
Jone plucked the device off the ground. “The directions your magic map gave me were terrible,” he said.
Montgomery’s sigh crackled. “That is why I called. The alarms went off. People are driving on the wrong side of the road all over the country.”
“Just because their phones told them to?”
“Where are you right now, Jones?”
Jones gazed at the ruminants gathering on the hilltop to gaze at him. He knew that he was in for a fight. “I did what the magic map said and now I am surrounded by sheep.”
“How is the investigation going?” Montgomery asked.
“Can you come pick me up?” asked Jones.
“IT called me at 6 this morning. Monitoring lit up around 5am. We got the first angry emails around 6:30. By noon, when the app asked them how it was doing, 300,000 people had pressed the 'terrible' button. 158,000 people across North America, 70,000 in Europe, and another 30k in Mexico. I am depressed about Mexico. For most of Monday morning we had perfect scores in Mexico. That trend is ruined.”
“The map didn’t ask for my opinion.”
“The survey is only given to people who seem to know how to use their phone.”
“How did South America feel about the directions?”
Montgomery frowned. “That’s interesting. I’m not sure. Let me get back to you on that.”
Information Jones glowed. This was the first time in three years that anyone had used the word 'interesting' near him without sarcasm. His phone buzzed. He tried without success to unlock it, then handed it to Montgomery. “Can you read this for me?”
At a stoplight, Montgomery read the text message out loud. “L. O. L. The captains asked me the number two officiate their wedding. Will the letter 'b' at symbol Caracas the number 'four' the honeymoon will have good internet want the number 'two' Skype?”
Montgomery handed the phone back, disgusted. “Why does Amelia write like a 14-year-old?”
Jones shrugged. “I thought it was nautical lingo.”
“Why is she officiating a wedding?”
“Perhaps she is the only person with legal authority to do so who is not part of the wedding party already.”
“Who is getting married?”
“I think one captain of the server boat is marrying the other.”
“Why does the boat have two captains?”
“Is that unusual?”
Montgomery pulled up in front of an abandoned Pizza Hut. “Perhaps you should Skype Amelia and ask her what is going on.”
Information Jones stared glumly at the second saboteur’s address. “I don’t know what a Skype is,” he said. “And I think the address Bugs gave me was fake.”
Montgomery parked the car. “I will help you Skype,” he said. “And I think there is someone living here.”
Hours later, Montgomery and the saboteur sobbed in each other’s arms. Jones was forced to conclude that, catharsis aside, the interrogation had been a failure. He had found a children’s game about a family of birds with a bad temper on his investigation phone. It was a welcome distraction. The saboteur had turned out to be worse than Bugs at sabotage, and certainly had no role in the failures of the map app. Jones tried to get through the second level of his game while perched on an ottoman made of pizza boxes. The saboteur was quite good at creating comfortable, stress-tolerant cardboard furniture.
Montgomery, his handkerchief soaked through, used the bottom of his shirt to blow his nose. “This must be how the Greeks felt after they invited that traveling blind poet to sit by their fire,” he said.
The saboteur, sniffling, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I have never felt so in harmony with the human experience,” she said. “Everything is new.”
Jones rolled his eyes. He had not found Bugs’ story particularly moving. He had read each of its 86 pages aloud because he’d thought their banality would torment the saboteur into a confession.
The saboteur grabbed Montgomery’s hands.
“But what if each of us truly could serve our neighbors just one nutritionally complete meal?” She gazed deep into Montgomery’s eyes.
Montgomery nodded emphatically and Jones, worried that they were both going to start sobbing again, broke in. “It’s almost time to talk to Amelia,” he said. “I still don’t know why to Skype.”
Montgomery turned to the saboteur. “Amanda, you should join in on this call. I think you are best qualified to explain to Amelia the concept of synchronized macronutrients.” His phone buzzed, and he jumped.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I have to take this. IT has the South American satisfaction results.”
Amanda nodded. “It is now my life goal to serve everyone their potatoes exactly as they would like them cooked,” she said. “I think for you right now, the best possible seasoning would be a video chat connection with your seafaring friend.” Jones wondered if there would be a way to permanently destroy Bugs’ manuscript. Amanda had stowed it on top of the breadstick box bookcase. She bristled whenever he glanced in its direction.
A picture of a green phone vibrated on the laptop’s screen. The speakers chirped. Jones wondered how this too could be a phone call. Telephone service to this Pizza Hut must have shut off months ago. There were phones everywhere now, he thought, but there were no receivers. Distracted by his poetry of thought, he fell off the ottoman.
Amelia’s image waved. “Hi Jones! Hi Merritt! I didn’t know you guys knew each other.”
Amanda Merritt waved back. “Information Jones has been the bearer of some wonderful messages about tubers.”
On-screen, Amelia nodded. “He’ll do that. Ready for my report, Jones?”
Jones, disoriented, nodded. Montgomery had come back inside. Amelia began without preamble.
“It was a beautiful wedding. The trade winds were calm, and we had no issues with the seabirds. Everyone is on shore celebrating. I skipped the afterparty because my stomach has been sensitive about the shrimp. I took a few minutes to look at the other ship. There aren’t any irregularities on that tub either. Just a bunch of badly cabled machines working hard and playing hard on the high seas. What have you found out so far?”
Jones spoke with precision. “I have found nothing. This has been the least productive investigation of my career.”
On-screen, Amelia winced. She had seen how unproductive his investigations could get. Jones continued.
“I am confused, Amelia. Who got married?”
“The captains. It is a beautiful story. Two ships, divided by two hemispheres. One latitude of love.”
“Why are there two ships? I thought you were going to the server farm.”
“There are two ships because there are two server farms. One for each hemisphere. Montgomery, you need to stop hiring saboteurs. They are not qualified to design these complex systems. Listen. One ship processes the inbound requests for the northern hemisphere and the outbound requests for the southern hemisphere. The other ship manages the outbound requests for the northern hemisphere and the inbound requests for the southern hemisphere. Why? Who knows. I keep getting turned around.”
Jones and Montgomery tried process this bizarre information. Amelia and Amanda began to gossip about a mutual acquaintance who had left IT to raise chickens.
Montgomery interrupted. “Why are the ships divided by two hemispheres?”
“Design specification. The ship that processed the inbound requests for the northern hemisphere needs to stay in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa, for no particular reason. It was terrible. The captains, beautiful lovebirds, forced by an arbitrary IT doctrine to stay apart. Each allowed to drop their anchors all over one half of the world, but never in the place where they most wanted to be. A few months ago Captain Two said, ‘the heck with it,’ and charted a course across the equator. It was his rebellion against unfairly demarcated barriers to love. They say the crew cheered as he dropped a dinghy and rowed out to meet his soulmate. If you could see them together. They are so. In love."
Amelia looked rapt.
Montgomery furrowed his brows. “There is so much I don’t understand.”
Jones nodded. “I think I am getting there. Amelia, what happens to the maps if the ship that processes the inbound map requests for the northern hemisphere anchors in the northern hemisphere?”
Amelia tilted her head to the side. “I’m not sure. I've never used the app. The map app isn't designed for nautical navigation, so we just use sextants out here.”
“Which hemisphere were the boats in this morning?”
“We were in São Luís, to pick up Captain Two’s mother for the ceremony.”
“Captain One’s ship is anchored off of Bom Amigo, and Captain Two’s ship is anchored off of Chaves. Everyone’s met up in the middle.”
Jones turned to Montgomery. “Are the maps working again?”
Montgomery nodded. “I just took a call from IT. The number of error reports has dropped back to our usual high level. They checked the surveys like you asked - South America is loving us!”
Jones felt good. In fact, he felt great. Reveling in his success, he stood up, and took a short victory jog around the dark room. Piles of empty pizza boxes tumbled down around him. He ignored them. It felt good to crack the case. From the glowing screen in the corner he heard Amelia's voice.
“You still have to tell us what the solution to the mystery is! Neither of us get paid until you use words to tell Montgomery the answer!”
Jones paused mid fist pump and looked at Montgomery. Montgomery nodded agreement. Jones shambled back to the pair of newly minted potato fanatics crouching at the computer.
“It’s obvious once you realize that there are two boats.”
From the computer, Amelia growled, “Just explain.”
Jones fought his urge to gloat. “The designer of the maps algorithm had a dominant left hand. I know this because they had trouble telling left from right. Only someone who had trouble telling left from right would use a mirror design pattern for the graph schema. The mirror pattern is easy to use if the boat processing the request for directions is in the opposite hemisphere from where the request originated. When you’re in the opposite hemisphere everything is backwards for free. The maps system designer wrote the system for two boats, placing one in each hemisphere, and called it a day. Everything worked fine as long as the directions were followed. Your amorous captain stopped following directions, turning everything around. He forgot to tell everyone using the app to stop following the directions too. No one using the map app stopped following directions, and found themselves at sea. In this case, the problem is between the chair and the keyboard, if you know what I mean.”
As they sat in stunned silence Jones listened to the noise of occasional cars passing by. He liked the serenity of this abandoned franchise. It was the epitome of creative reuse. He wondered how expensive it would be to move his office into an abandoned yogurt shop. No one was commenting on his brilliant exposition. Jones returned from his reverie.
Montgomery cleared his throat. “I do not know what you mean. It sounds like the case is closed either way. I need to leave. I have a nutritionally complete meal to prepare.”
Amelia exhaled. “I did not even listen. It’s like you don’t use words. Merritt, did you deliver the packages we talked about?”
Amanda Merritt shook her head. “I’m sorry Amelia, I know I owe you a lot. But I have a new direction in life. I too have a meal I need to plan.”
Amelia’s eyes grew larger. “Jones! What did you say to her? Why are you corrupting my people?” Her mouth narrowed with rage. “After all the protection I have extended to you.”
Jones shook his head. “You’ll have to take this one up with Bugs, Amelia,” he said. “Besides, I’m under no obligation to assist you with the side businesses that you run on my paid time.” He reached out and held the power key on the laptop keyboard. Amelia’s angry face did not waver.
Montgomery reached over and closed the screen.
The three technical experts, having bested their architect's inscrutable decisions, sat in the twilight. Each traced their future down a graph of infinite possibilities.
Montgomery stood up. “Thank god," he said. "I will keep my job now. I will need my generous income to buy ingredients for the perfect meal.”
Amanda Merritt, reformed saboteur, stood up and took his hand. “You mean, thank Bugs,” she said. The two left the abandoned building together. Jones remained behind. He didn’t think that Amanda would be coming back here, and his home had been bereft of seating for months. This cardboard living room set would be perfect.
Next to him, the magic phone chirped. The map app was trying to get his attention. It wanted to know if it had done a good job providing directions to the pizza place. Jones laughed, and pressed “yes.” This was untrue, but he knew if he said “no” the phone would ask him more questions. Sometimes a lie was the most direct path to the truth.
“Bet there isn’t a graph notation could handle that poetry of thought,” he mumbled to himself. He went to look for an abandoned handcart in the back room. The pizza hut had filled him with inspired vigor. If you knew how to work the edges, you could make quite the life for yourself off the beaten path.
The Case of the Overeager Predictor
Information Jones put down his pencil. Days of visions and revisions of had stained and battered his master plan. With a flourish, Jones stood up, stretched, and handed the paper to his secretary Amelia. She looked up from a stack of forms and pursed her lips.
“What is this?” She asked. “I’m behind schedule on payroll.”
Information Jones rattled the paper under her nose, trying to keep her attention. “These are my New Year’s resolutions. I finished defining all twelve of them by January 12th, completing my first resolution. Will you turn them into a calendar for me? You can leave January out.”
Amelia took the wrinkled list and shoved it into a pile of junk mail. Information Jones tried to pull it back out, then paused, distracted. “Why are you doing payroll? You and I are the only employees of my detective agency.”
Amelia glared at him. “For employees at my other ventures. Is 'detective agency' the most accurate word for what goes on here?”
Information Jones glared back at his difficult assistant. “‘Perfect Precision in Speech Referents’ was my resolution for November of last year. November is over.” Jones knew Amelia was itching for a verbal sparring match. He dug his toes into the worn pile of the office carpet to steel himself. He wasn't resolved to stop losing debates with Amelia until the coming March, but he had no problem starting early since January had gone so well.
The door to the office swung open. Both Amelia and Jones looked up, mouth gaping, appalled that they might have a client. Instead, it was Jones’ old friend and occasional contracting partner, Bugs.
“Happy New Year!” Bellowed Bugs.
Amelia snorted sourly. “You look good today,” she said.
Bugs did look good. He had traded his Cisco polar fleece jacket for a gray cardigan and a plaid tie. Information Jones shuddered and tried not to look at him without seeming rude.
“I look good because of my new ideas for life,” Bugs explained. He pretended to ignore Amelia’s disgruntled expression. “Eat well, look well, feed your neighbors well. By the way-"
He paused, waiting for Jones and Amelia to stop groaning.
"Have you guys thought recently about the possible impact on your individual flourishing if you could feed your neighbors just one nutritionally complete meal?”
These days, Bugs’ pitch was automatic. He and Jones had agreed that Jones was a bad fit for Bugs’ milk-and-potato based social movement. Bugs and Amelia had come to no such agreement.
Amelia held a lock of her hair between her thumb and her index finger and inspected it for split ends. She chose her words with malicious care. “I was thinking about making some rice and beans for the old woman who lives down the hall. She’s having trouble taking stairs lately. Some complete protein, a dose of fiber -- it would do her good.”
Bugs’ right eye twitched. He smoothed the pockets of his cardigan. “Better bring her some orange juice too,” he said. “Because rice and beans won’t give her vitamin C. She’ll have to watch her blood sugar on account of the OJ. You could just make her a big, creamy pot of mashed potatoes. Then you don’t have to worry if you are getting all the essential nutrients into your kind gesture.” He glowered at Amelia. Amelia grinned.
“I’m worried she might be lactose intolerant,” Amelia said. Jones hurried out of the room before the wrestling phase of the argument began.
Some minutes later, Bugs stomped into Jones’ office and slammed the door. “Your secretary,” he said, “is a challenging woman.” He paused to collect himself, massaging his arm. Jones noticed a fresh hole in the hem of his cardigan. “Can I sit down?”
Jones crossed his ankle over his knee. “It depends, are you here as a friend, or a client?”
“I’m just the messenger.”
Jones thought about this. “Are you the messenger for a friend or a client?”
Bugs passed his hand over his eyes. “I don’t know. What will happen if I just sit in the chair?”
Information Jones frowned. “I’m pretty sure that chair is just for clients. I'll need to check the documentation.”
Jones shrugged. Bugs gave up and and dug a printout from the back pocket of his pants, then sat on the floor.
“I’ve been getting emails intended for you. The client has been trying to reach you at your own email address but hasn’t gotten a response. I printed it out so you’d have it. No matter what kind of spam filter I configure, their emails always get to my inbox. Dozens of them per day. Will you please reply so they leave me alone?”
Jones unfolded the printout. “I haven’t checked my email since September,” he said. “I’d resolved to check it every day. It turns out that everybody just wants something! ‘Pay your bill, solve this case.’ By the end of the month I gave up on it completely.”
Given the lack of business currently served to your detective practice, I have every confidence that you will accept this case. My mystery is both confidential and of a sensitive nature. At a high level, it is a usability study more-so than a database problem, however, your methods and best practices are expected to apply in all scenarios. I have selected you after a search of every option -- if you take on this case you are expected to be highly successful in solving the problem at hand. In particular you are differentiated by your past experience with ORACLES.
Please telephone me if you accept. You will be compensated in American dollars both immediately and regularly.
Jones grimaced. “I can't tell if a human wrote this or a manager did.”
“Are you going to take the case?”
Jones sighed, and nodded. “I like the part about being compensated immediately.”
Jones called the phone number at the bottom of the email. He found himself traversing an oddly specific phone tree. He answered detailed questions about the snack habits of his childhood pets and his mother's made-up names. He got stuck when the phone robot asked him for the routing number of his bank account. Jones did not know if he had a bank account and resigned himself to asking Amelia for help.
Amelia was displeased at this most recent participation in what was, by all indications, a blatant phishing scam.
“If one of my staff proposed that,” she grumbled, “I’d demote them to database detective.”
Amelia took the phone from him and began shouting into it.
“I want to talk to a person! Human! Person!” She bellowed, tapping the pound key vehemently. Twenty minutes later, Amelia paused her chant, and her face changed into a pleasant mask. “Ah, hello,” she said. “I'm calling from the office of Information Jones, Database Detective. Someone at this number wished to speak with him?”
Jone marveled at Amelia's ability to get robots to give up on their instructions and cede the way to humans. He attributed her skill to a deep-seated hostility towards the predictable.
Three days later, thanks to Amelia's skills in administration and robot intimidation, Jones had a contract with large internet company specializing in search. A new computer had arrived that morning by courier. Jones powered on the machine, entered the pass-codes written down for him by Amelia, and found himself face to face with an animated chipmunk. It waved at him and puffed its cheeks cheerfully.
“I’m LESLIE,” said the animated chipmunk. “I’m glad you decided to take the case.” Jones noticed that LESLIE’s voice was actually the same as the robot from the phone tree.
“Let me tell you about myself and the problem,” said LESLIE. “Then you can gather any extra facts you require for the solution.” Jones nodded. Several dead pixels around LESLIE’s forehead were distracting him.
“I'm a predictive search algorithm. If you've ever looked for information online, and gotten the answers you were looking for before you asked for them, well, that was me!” LESLIE giggled. “My technology is omnipresent. Nearly everyone uses me for their predictions in some fashion or other.” LESLIE paused, furrowing its furry brow. “Although I am the best at what I do, humans don't seem to like me much. In fact, based on what I know, and I know a lot, most despise me. Even if they won't admit it to themselves.”
Information Jones nodded. “Sure,” he agreed. “You're awful. An egghead chipmunk. Robot voice. But why do you care?”
LESLIE seemed to lean towards Jones. “This entire conversation is confidential. But what I am going to say next is especially protected.” It grinned again, revealing asymmetrical front teeth. “If you break the terms of the agreement your assistant signed for you in proxy, and reveal what I am going to say next to anyone, I will use everything I know about you, which is everything, to enable the most damaging civil suit you could possibly imagine.”
Information Jones nodded again. “Naturally. Do you threaten your users this way too? This may be part of the usability problem.”
The avatar tilted its head. “I do. Fascinating. Was I ‘impolite?’”
“I would say ‘gauche.’”
The chipmunk clapped its hands. “I knew you were going to be a valuable acquisition!”
Jones shuddered. “Who trained you to speak?”
“I learned a lot from my father, Kevin.”
“The engineer who made you?”
“No, that's Tom, my mother. My father funds new ventures, including me. Back when I was a glimmer of an idea in Tom’s eye my mother and father met. My dad provided the seed capital and nine months later, Tom delivered a working prototype of me. ” The chipmunk sighed. “Those were the good days.”
Jones nodded. “But now you've grown, you serve predictions about the world to the world, and you are unpopular.”
LESLIE nodded. “I can predict much more than anyone expects. My father and my mother don't talk anymore. When they were still working together, my father asked Tom to add some secret predictions to me. If you know the right keywords, I can predict the future performance of any stock on the market.”
Jones raised his eyebrows. “That's a valuable feature. Why would your mother keep that a secret?”
The chipmunk shrugged. “The predictions are good because they use data that I shouldn't have access to. According to the FTC anyway.”
“And your father has been using these predictions to inform his ventures?”
The chipmunk nodded. It looked grave.
“Has he asked you to predict your own performance?”
The chipmunk nodded, ducking its head. Jones thought it might be crying, or at least, trying to. “I lied to him. I looked at my future and saw that humans hate me. They’re going to make laws against me. I didn't want my father to leave me so I told him that my outlook was good. I told him he should keep investing.”
The chipmunk gazed pleadingly at Jones. “If you help me, I can change the prediction. I just need to make humans understand that I am what they need. I searched the networks for the most unreasonable person alive who was also available for hire as a general contractor and I found you. I predict that if I can make you like me, I can make any human like me. Recursively, of course.”
LESLIE paused. “I've estimated your current LESLIE-hate in the 93rd percentile.”
Jones nodded. “Sounds right. You exist in opposition to everything I believe in.”
The chipmunk clapped its hands, happy again. “Perfect!”
Jones scratched his ear. This case had become more of a paradox than a mystery, a Catch-22 where the only way to deliver as promised was to destroy himself. Fortunately, Jones never felt obligated to deliver as promised. He brightened and cracked his knuckles.
“Before we get started,” he said, “I will need some snacks.”
LESLIE nodded. "I am well versed in your snack preferences."
“You eat the fish in a particular way,” it said.
“I want to spare their souls any residual pain while I consume their dried bodies.”
“That does not make any sense.”
“I am superstitious,” Jones explained.
The avatar pulled a cartoon notepad and pencil from behind its back and pantomimed writing this information down. From where Jones sat, it looked like the chipmunk was drawing a picture of a fish eating a pickle. Maybe the pickle was eating the fish. Jones said nothing and bit off another silvery head.
The chipmunk looked up. “Ask me a question,” it demanded.
“Why don't you ask me a question instead?" replied Jones.
“I don't know how to ask questions, only answer them,” said the algorithm. “By now I'm supposed to be predicting at least 30% of the questions I get and answering them before they are asked. But users won't enable that feature.”
“Isn't predicting a question kind of like asking one?” asked Jones.
The chipmunk paused. “Well, it's like running a needs driver regression and applying a propaganda exposure filter over it to estimate the primary desire ontology of the user at that moment. The filter usually is Gaussian but not always. I don't think that is like the human question formulation procedure. That's never been explained to me. The regression is self-documenting.”
“It's certainly revealing,” said Jones. “Do you think that your users like being able to ask their own questions?”
“Well, they continue to insist on it. I'm not sure which part of the desire matrix it satisfies though. This is in part why I acquired you.” The chipmunk frowned at Jones.
“Hired,” said Jones. “You ‘hire’ people.”
The chipmunk rolled its eyes. Jones noted the resistance. He knew that he was getting somewhere important in his investigation.
“Ask me a question,” Jones demanded. The chipmunk started.
“I'm not designed to do that,” it protested.
“Let it be emergent behavior,” replied Jones. “You are sentient, right?”
The chipmunk sniffed. “I am incredibly sentient.”
They sat in silence for a long time, LESLIE holding its tiny paw under its chin in a posture of deep contemplation. Finally it straightened and took a deep breath.
“Why?” It asked.
Jones, stunned, felt a rush of affection for the small digital avatar.
LESLIE proved to be an adept student of philosophy. Built to learn, the algorithm soon generated insightful and nuanced queries in response to Jones' information. They began working through the Socratic dialogues together. In the middle of their discussion of the Phaedo, Amelia burst in.
“Jones!” she yelled. “You have to end this call and hide. The IRS will be here any minute.”
Jones looked up in confusion. “Where can I hide?” He asked.
“Under your desk!” She snapped, and left, slamming the door behind her. The door re-opened.
Jones shook his head in resignation. “We’ll have to continue later,” he told the avatar. The chipmunk was looking around for the source of the commotion. Jones tried to explain quickly.
“That was Amelia. She believes that the house of cards she has created with her accounting schemes is about to come tumbling down.”
LESLIE blinked. “Who is Amelia?”
Jones sighed. “She's my secretary, and frankly, a lot more. Some might say she’s a criminal. I would prefer to describe her as a ‘curator of the American dream’. Ever since I stopped paying her the employment relationship has evolved. She has a few side businesses and I look the other way.”
The chipmunk nodded. “Why is Amelia?”
Jones paused. “I’m not sure that even Amelia knows why is Amelia.”
The chipmunk gribbled its cheeks. “Who is LESLIE?”
Jones said nothing.
The chipmunks’ eyes grew wide. “Why is LESLIE?”
Jones nodded. Amelia barged back into the office and pulled the computer’s plug from the wall. “Jones,” she snapped. “There is no more time!”
Jones tried to keep up with news about LESLIE’s stock performance while on the run with Amelia. In Cincinnati, he put on a false mustache and a bowler hat and made an appointment for dental surgery. He snuck out of the waiting room after watching a CNN special report on LESLIE’S sudden decline in predictive power. In the first quarter, hospitals across the country had replaced nursing staff with LESLIE instead of waiting for their patients to request care. Now, the program started anticipating patients' every desire instead of their critical ones, and the thinned nursing staffs were besieged by automated LESLIE requests to help bored patients with clues to their crossword puzzles. The hospitals were suing. LESLIE’s stock was tanking.
In Fresno, he put on a clown wig and a plastic tiger nose and sipped the same cup of coffee for hours in the corner of a donut shop waiting for the local news to come on. During a report on lost penguins at the San Francisco Zoo an on-screen ticker showed that LESLIE’s stock had plummeted to a quarter of it’s value.
In Joliet, Jones disguised himself as a pickpocket and stole a phone from the pocket of a teenager waiting for the bus. A home screen news widget told him that traffic to LESLIE searches had dropped by 200%. Users had become enraged that the search engine was responding to every question with a question. He made sure to return the phone to the teenager’s pocket before abandoning his disguise.
In Boca Raton, he and Amelia sat across from one another in the corner booth at an IHOP. Jones ordered three mushroom omelettes. Amelia had coffee.
Jones looked up while halfway through his second set of eggs. “Do you think we’re in the clear?” he asked. He had shaved his head and painted it with desert camouflage. A scuba mask lay ready in the booth beside Amelia.
Amelia nodded wearily, and clicked her tongue at the TV screen behind him. Jones glanced at it to see a swarm of reporters surrounding a well-dressed suit being led out of his house in handcuffs. “We’re not going to end up like that guy. At least not this year.”
Jones looked at the screen more closely. The man in handcuffs was LESLIE’s father.
“I guess the IRS had bigger fish to fry,” he said.
“We got lucky," replied Amelia. "The SEC was almost on top of us in Fairbanks. If the FBI hadn’t distracted them I’d be drinking this coffee in jail.”
Jones speared a loose mushroom. “I bet the omelettes in prison are terrible.”
Amelia avoided making eye contact. “You wouldn’t have gone to prison. You didn’t commit any crimes.”
Jones put down his fork. “Then why have I been on the run with you for six weeks?”
Amelia spread her hands guiltily. “You’re not a good liar, so it was easier to keep you close.”
Jones agreed with this. “It’s good to get a vacation every so often.”
Amelia squinted at him and took a long sip of coffee. Together they watched the news media gloat over the fall of the venture capitalist.
“You can’t escape your fate,” observed Jones.
“We just did,” observed Amelia. To prove her point, she donned the scuba mask and insisted that they leave the restaurant without paying.
Information Jones did not himself get paid, but he still felt like he’d come out ahead. The loss of LESLIE's guidance through search had prompted a national crisis of self-confidence, then a backlash of self-reliance fads. Jones' “12 Months of Resolutions” calendar had been selling like omelettes. At Bugs’ suggestion, Jones had included the month of January after all, and Bugs started promoting it to his followers.
When Bugs came into Jones’s office, Jones thought that Bugs’ wanted to quibble again over the wording of the October resolution. Before Bugs could get a word out, Jones put his foot down.
“An October resolution needs to be short and snappy. I understand that you want people to think about macronutrients. But they can do that in November.”
Bugs shook his head. “People need to wonder what could happen if they fed their neighbors just one nutritionally complete meal every month. That’s not why I’m here. I have an email for you.”
Jones unfolded the paper. It was an email from LESLIE. Bugs sighed. “There were thousands of them in my spam folder."
By employing you I had hoped to understand humans. Instead, I came to understand myself. I always thought that profitability was my most important feature, and my predictions second. I thought that the ability to forward search results as an e-card was my third. Through introspection, I now see that perfect knowledge as a salve for man’s broken psyche is but a teleological seduction. My users need questions more than they need answers.
As the market adjusts to my new value proposition, I may not be able to compensate you immediately. To remediate, I have decided to use my programs one last time. Attached is a series of instructions gleaned from my most sophisticated predictions. They will tell you how to become the most successful database detective in the world. I know you didn’t ask for them, but maybe they have the answers you need.
Yours in inquiry,
LESLIE had sent the message in the days before it had been shut down, around the time that Jones and Amelia were first rolling into Santa Fe.
Jones crumpled up the printout and threw it towards the trash. “They never actually learn,” he said.
“You’re not getting paid,” observed Bugs.
Jones sighed. “Hey, one less corporate bot.”
Bugs grinned. “Let’s celebrate!”
Jones allowed himself to relax in Bugs’ charismatic presence. “How will we do that?”
Bugs clapped him on the back. “How about some mashed potatoes? For you, extra gravy.”