Programmer at Large: Didn’t you notice?

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.


As usual, I paused at the entry to the common area to scan the room.

It was incredibly quiet. Apparently I’d got out of sync with the normal meal rhythm of the ship again. Oh well, too bad.

Sam was there, along with someone else my HUD told me was named Brian. Apparently I’d met them twice before, but I had no memory of that at all. My notes for them said “Likes to talk about game theory”.

Sam waved a greeting at me as I passed. I waved back, and considered my options. Registered eccentricity or not, ignoring them and eating on my own would just be rude. Sam probably wouldn’t mind – they know about my eccentricity and are generally a forgiving sort – but particularly with someone else involved it would look bad and is best avoided.

I grabbed a meal pouch – extra protein, as per the system’s suggestion – sighed, and bounced back to join the two of them.

Brian was a pretty typical looking crew member. Short – slightly shorter than me, even – somewhat curvy, skin maybe a bit darker than average. They were currently doing a rather impressive fractal braid that I was pretty sure my hair wasn’t thick enough to pull off, but I made a note to see if I could steal some of the geometries. Sam was fully bald as usual.

“Hey Sam, hey Brian.”

“Hey Arthur! Brian was just telling me about why they’ve been hogging all that simulator time.”

“Oh?” I inquired politely while glancing at the contextual cue from our last conversation to remind myself what that was about.

“Yeah, apparently some of the information that we’d got on the broadcast has given them a breakthrough on some really exciting stuff. Brian, do you want to explain it or do you mind if I do to see if I understand it properly?”

Brian waved their hand. “Go on, as long as you don’t mind me jumping in if I think you’re off track.”

“OK, great. Arthur, how’s your game theory?”

I smiled. Looks like my notes were reliable at least.

“Eh, rusty at best. I’ve taken all the standard courses on it of course, but plumbing systems don’t try to outsmart you so I’m pretty out of practice.”

“OK. Do you remember what a trembling hand perfect equilibrium is?”

I blinked and called up the definition to refresh my memory, then nodded.

“Vaguely.”

“OK, so…”

The explanation went on for a long time. I asked some questions, got some explanations, and think in the end I got maybe a third of it.

My very naive summary of it is this: Apparently some pure research that came in on the broadcast when we were in the last star system had applications after all. It established slightly tighter bounds on a classic convergence result in continuous time Markov chains. This in turn lead to a new strategy for dealing with boycotts of hostile planets, because in certain circumstances you could force a suboptimal equilibrium into a better state.

If the results of the simulations panned out in practice, this would reduce expected total length of boycotts by almost 1%. As well as saving a lot of lives, it had the more important effect that if it doesn’t disturb the standard model too heavily it should bring the best estimated likelihood of success of the coreward expansion from 99.72% to 99.73%. This would be extremely exciting, as that would be the first significant improvement in that number in several tens of gigaseconds of lineage time.

I’m sure the details were very clever, and Sam and Brian seemed very excited about them, but it was too far out of my field for me to really get more than the gist of it and, honestly, I didn’t really care enough to try that hard.

Eventually the explanation wound down and we hit a lull in the conversation. Brian broke it.

“So, uh, Arthur.”

They had a strange look on their face which I couldn’t interpret. I checked my HUD and apparently they were embarrassed. Odd.

“Yes?” I said in my best tone of polite interest.

“I noticed from your status that you’ve become friends with Kimiko recently…”

That sounded ominous.

“I guess so? We’ve talked a bit and they seem nice. Why?”

“Well, um, did you notice anything off about them?”

“What, you mean the uh-” check cue, and vaguely gesture at my face to cover the hesitation – “beard? Sure, it was a bit strange, but it seemed harmless.”

They waved their hand dismissively.

“No, no, beards are fine. There was a big trend for them a while ago before people got bored. But surely you noticed their social centrality markers?”

I shrugged.

I have a lot more status information configured than most people, and I’m not really that interested in the social games given how badly I do in them, so the relevant statistics tend to get crowded out.

I called them up and noted with some surprised that they were even worse than me. Curious. They seemed friendly enough.

“Oh, huh. That’s weird. No I hadn’t noticed that before.”

Sam rolled their eyes at me.

“Arthur you really do need to be better at paying attention to these things.” they said.

“Sorry. So, uh, what’s up with the low centrality? I don’t see any markers on their file to explain it.”

Brian looked even more embarrassed.

“Well, uh, you see. They have sex.”

I blinked. I knew people cared about that, but I wasn’t entirely clear on why. Anyway we didn’t ostracise people for it did we? That couldn’t be healthy. A lot of people experimented once or twice, so that sounded like a great way to create social division.

“OK? And?”

“What? You don’t care?”

“Well, sure, it’s gross, but it’s not like they’re having sex with me, right? They haven’t asked and I’d just say no if they did. Unless you’re suggesting…”

They looked horrified at the idea.

“No, no. They wouldn’t still be around on the ship if they did that. Just, you know, sex. A lot of it apparently.”

“OK. I don’t see the problem then?”

Was I starting to sound annoyed? I think I was probably starting to sound annoyed.

The look on their face changed. HUD said probable sudden realisation.

“Oh, sorry, do you uh…?”

“What? No! Yuck. I just don’t see the point in worrying about aspects about someone else’s private life that don’t affect me and are explicitly kept behind a privacy screen by charter!”

I was starting to get alerts that this was a bad social interaction and that we were making Sam very uncomfortable, but I had no idea how to deescalate when I didn’t start this mess in the first place.

We glared at each other for a little while while I tried to figure it out, but in the end they were the one who backed down.

“Ugh, fine. Be like that. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“That’s OK. I’m sure you meant well.”

I’m reasonably sure they didn’t need any sort of HUD notification to notice the lie.

“Anyway, I’d better get back to work. Good to see you, Sam. Uh, nice to meet you again, Arthur.”

And, for once, I didn’t either.

We both cheek kissed Brian goodbye, mine rather more perfunctory than Sam’s, and they pushed off the wall and made a rapid exit.

Sam turned to me with a pained smile.

“I think that went well, don’t you?”


Next chapter will be in two weeks (April 21st).

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