Programmer at Large: Can we not?

This is the latest chapter in my web serial, Programmer at Large. The first chapter is here and you can read the whole archives here or on the Archive of Our Own mirror. This chapter is also mirrored at Archive of Our Own.


“I think that went well, don’t you?

I let out a huff of frustration.

“What on the ground was that about?”

Sam cuddled up closer into a two person conversation stance.

“Brian is just a bit… sensitive about the subject of sex. Not sure why. Their profile says they have a high disgust reflex, but I’ve never been sure if it says that because of the sex thing or whether it’s the reason for it.”

“OK, but call me off consensus here, but wasn’t that just straight up rumour mongering? We’re not supposed to do that, right? What am I missing?”

Sam grimaced and (check tagging) looked uncomfortable.

“There are… special cases. Sex is one of them. Kimiko could legally challenge Brian about this if they wanted, but without that Brian is technically within socially acceptable bounds, though they’re being a bit gauche about it.”

I called up Kimiko’s social graph into a shared workspace and highlighted ties that had risen and then fallen. Brian was connected to about a third of them. I switched it to timeline mode and the pattern was even clearer.

“Gauche? Look at that. This isn’t gauche, this is practically aggression!”

I was getting mood warnings again, and Sam was stroking my back in a calming manner.

“Arthur, calm down. This isn’t your problem.”

“How is this not my problem? This is a clear social breakdown on the ship! Those are everybody’s problem! It says so right there in the charter!”

“Look, it’s complicated.”

“That’s what people always say when they think the rules don’t apply to them!”

Sam grimaced again and shook their head.

“Ugh, Arthur, I can’t do this right now. I’m sorry. I’m not angry at you, and I understand why you feel this way, but this is a much higher effort conversation than I have the capacity for at the moment. Can we drop it?”

Sam and I have had more than a few conversations like this, and they probably could tell how this one was going to go.

The problem was that it was hitting right at the core of the things I find hardest about shipboard society.

The goals of our charter are mostly worthy, and the rules it defines are mostly a fair way of achieving those goals. It’s not perfect, but nothing created by humanity is. We’ve learned that the hard way.

The official rules are sometimes very hard for me to follow, but I accept their legitimacy and where I struggle too much I have software to help keep me on track.

But then there are all the unofficial rules, which are impossible to keep straight because nobody knows what they are in any formal sense, they just somehow magically know how to follow them. Every time I ask people to explain, we just both get frustrated – they tell me things they want to be true, and I get mad because they obviously aren’t.

And when the unofficial rules override the official rules you got this sort of completely hypocritical situation where people just said “it’s complicated” and can’t really explain why.

But it wasn’t Sam’s fault the ship was like this, and I could definitely understand not feeling able to talk about it. Even if it wasn’t basic courtesy, I’d respect that.

I was glad they had clarified they weren’t angry with me though.

I took a deep breath, pulled myself together, and nodded acceptance.

“Of course. Sorry I got carried away there, but this stuff… gets to me.”

“I understand. It gets to me too sometimes.”

“It’s fine to not talk about it, but then I need to not talk right now. I think this is going to be on my mind for a while and I’m probably not going to be able to stay off the subject.”

“That’s fine. Do you want to go? Or should we hang out together quietly for a bit?”

I hesitated briefly, but the need to show Sam that I wasn’t angry at them won out.

“I don’t need to be anywhere, and the company would be nice if you’re still willing.”

“Of course I am! And I’ve got plenty of quiet things I can get on with, so this works well.”

“Great.”

We shifted around a bit so we weren’t directly facing each other and could each have a hand free to work with.

The first thing I did was drop a note in Kimiko’s inbox saying I’d like to talk to them at their convenience. I flagged it as low-urgency but mildly important. Their status showed as busy at the moment, so they wouldn’t get the notification until later.

The second thing I did was start calling up social network diagrams.

Kimiko was indeed poorly connected to a lot of the rest of the crew. They had the obvious contacts in the biology sections, and there was a fairly densely connected group of about fifty people that they were part of that didn’t have any obvious reason for the connection.

I guessed that was probably the sexual subset of the crew, assuming Brian hadn’t simply been wrong or lying.

The network structure here was weird. The group was much more densely connected relative to its external connections than a group this size should be. It looked a lot like a clique or a minority interest group, and we weren’t suppose to have those. I looked up the various group metrics to see why it hadn’t been flagged.

Apparently the answer was that it consistently sat just under the alerting threshold on every single metric – slightly too large to be a clique, slightly too small to be a minority interest. The standard clustering algorithms all cleaved the group roughly in half, though they didn’t agree on which halves. Average group centrality was low but not quite low enough to be worth a flag. And so on – we have about ninety social unity metrics and this group managed to just avoid alerting on every single one of them.

If I’d found a system in the plumbing like this then I would have immediately flagged it up for review. It’s in the nature of difficult systems to push right up against the alerting boundaries, and often it’s a sign that you need a new alerting metric.

Properly that was exactly what I should have done here too: The rules don’t distinguish systems made out of humans from systems made out of machines. If you see anomalous structure you should flag it for review.

But I had a nagging feeling that doing that here would be… bad. I resolved to wait until after I talked to Kimiko, and raised the importance level of my request to meet slightly, while still leaving it as non-urgent. This had clearly been going on for a while, and just because I only found out about it now didn’t make it suddenly urgent.

The whole scenario left me feeling intensely uncomfortable, but on the plus side I’d found my own little exception to the rules to be hypocritical about. Maybe I was starting to understand the rest of the crew after all.


Next chapter: Does that work?

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  1. Pingback: Programmer at Large: Didn’t you notice? | David R. MacIver

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