Escape Pod 445: Black Swan Oracle

Black Swan Oracle

by Ferrett Steinmetz

The crowd waiting below The Oracle’s bulletproof bay window is a mathematically predictable entity. Still, the Oracle relishes any illusion of chaos – and so, every morning, just before she allows herself one single prayer, she sweeps open her curtains to gaze over the crowd.

Her supplicants look up from their shivered huddling as fluorescent light spills out from The Oracle’s bay window; poor women in smudged hoodies squat next to Armani-clad stockbrokers. The Oracle’s hundreds of supplicants put up tents faster than the policemen can tear them down, burn garbage to ward off the Seine’s chill winds, buy gristled chicken hunks from illegal street vendors. The wait can take weeks, so long that people fall in love and fuck and have violently dramatic breakups before The Oracle’s guards fish these poor souls from the crowd to escort them towards an answer made pure with data.

The Oracle’s tide of supplicants is so constant that, like any shantytown, it has developed its own economy… an economy which pulses perfectly in time with the rhythms The Oracle predicted. She’d spent hours developing algorithms to anticipate the crowd you would get if you charged $25,000 for a single question, answers guaranteed (but not to please), in this geographic and demographic cluster. She’d analyzed the local politicians, and the bribes she pays remain within .03% of initial estimates. She’d tracked the movements of the most influential reporters, ascertaining they would pass by here 2.4 times a week, guaranteeing unending press for “The Statistic Mystic,” a name the Oracle loathes. She even predicted the number of e. coli outbreaks from undercooked chicken.

Yet every morning, before The Oracle orders her guards to escort the first supplicant in, The Oracle kneels. She above all people knows how irrational prayers are — multigenerational analyses of billions of lives has allowed The Oracle to thoroughly disprove the effects of prayers, bioharmonics, Zener cards, craniometry, reiki, feng shui, astral projection, the existence of God himself as an active entity, and those laundry balls they sell on late-night TV — but when the data models don’t support the desired results, sometimes all that’s left is hope.

Please, she begs, looking wearily out over the young lovers holding hands, the despairing businessmen, the fretting young mothers; transparent clichés, all. Please let someone bring me the Black Swan Question.

There is, naturally, no answer. So she grabs the microphone and slips on her persona, her voice booming out over the crowd.

“The Oracle will answer one boring question for $25,000!” The Oracle talks about herself in the third person because studies have shown this makes the Oracle’s name stick in your mind. “Yet The Oracle does not need your fucking money. The Oracle did this to draw attention to the way commercial entities buy and sell your data, hoping you’d recognize how thoroughly businesses manipulate you. Instead, The Oracle has made millions from extrapolating your futures based on publically-available data. Now? The Oracle finds you tedious. So come to me with an interesting question, or I will release the hounds.”

The Oracle does not actually have hounds. The Oracle finds it distressing that 76.4% of people don’t get the joke. Yet the Oracle refuses, on principle, to have a FAQ.

She wonders what her younger self would think of this skinny fashionista, throwing her arms open wide to address a desperate crowd. A life devoted to predictions, yet she never thought this day would come: an irony so sharp, she could use it to slash her wrists.

The Oracle sinks into her custom-fitted Aeron chair.

“All right,” she says. “Bring the noise.”

As her guards wade into the crowd to grab the first supplicant, the Oracle fires up the fifteen neon-blue screens that surround her head like a halo, displaying tailored data-streams upon command. Her alcove sits recessed behind five wide black marble stairs, a darkened dome where the Oracle is lit only by her monitors’ frozen blue light.

The Oracle has prepared for the day’s supplicants, wearing sunglasses so she does not have to make eye contact; this makes it easier to break hearts. The Oracle has not eaten, as low blood sugar levels makes her annoyed, more willing to kick weeping supplicants out, speeding up her processing time; this efficiency has reduced her to bones and pale flesh, a once babyfat-friendly face whittled free of humanity. The Oracle wears a blood-red business suit with a white carnation on her breast; stylish outfits remind people subliminally of superheroes, which makes them more likely to react with awe, not violence.

The truth spurs violence. And the Oracle speaks only truth. Or truth out to six significant digits, anyway.

Her guards escort the first supplicant in — a model-quality blonde, wearing a tight outfit that would be flattering were it not for the baby-bump upon her belly. The woman strides out across the ballroom floor, each tile an interlocking spiral carved from polished ebony. She stands in the supplicant’s area at the base of the steps, where the wood has been worn dull by supplicants’ knees.

Then she preens, as if the Oracle should be honored by her appearance. The girl is not intimidated by the space, as 78.6% of the Oracle’s clients are, but neither does she have the presence to command a stage. A pretty wannabe with grand aspirations, then.

The Oracle frowns, pulling up the girl’s data. The girl’s situation is so obvious, so stereotypical, that the Oracle knows her question before it’s asked. How self-centered can this woman be, to think her question is at all unique? Does she not realize millions of people make this choice a year? She specified interesting questions. The Oracle charges a $25,000 penalty, paid in advance, for bothering her with mundanity… which means this wannabe-actress either thinks the Oracle is a $25,000 answer machine (unlikely, given the meager credit history the Oracle sees trickling through her monitors) or this egomaniacal prima donna actually thinks her question will be of interest.

First question today, and already the Oracle’s annoyed.

“Let me guess,” the Oracle says, pulling up the girl’s name: Cheryl Pennick. “You’re wondering if you should have the child and settle down or continue your career as, what, an actress?”

“A star,” the woman says, quite serious.

“Yeah,” the Oracle scoffs. “That’s your choice, Cheryl? Movie star or mother?”

Cheryl nods with the uncertainty of someone who realizes she’s made a very bad decision. The Oracle sends her helper-bots out on the net to gather a more detailed picture of Cheryl’s social history — correlating Cheryl’s social connections, her phone’s GPS records, her purchasing patterns. Most of this is public data — though some is harvested via sketchier methods, leading to The Oracle’s constant legal battles with privacy advocates and consumer organizations alike.

The Oracle sneers, noting Cheryl’s publicity-whore tendencies; Cheryl has vomited her personality across the web through a self-aggrandizing website and a pathetically-underpopulated set of fan groups. This wealth of oversharing allows the Oracle to pinpoint the father, factoring in Cheryl’s children’s most likely genetic predispositions.

The Oracle uses custom-written algorithms to crunch Cheryl Pennick’s numbers into a model that can be quickly compared against others. Then she plugs those datasets into The Archives: four generations of social media history and consumer preferences, a complete catalogue of life since people started exposing themselves on the ‘net — eighteen billion lives chronicled in public space, each comparable and contrastable.

People aren’t unique. The Oracle is wearied by people’s insistence that they’re all unique snowflakes — but with her search-crunching expertise, The Oracle knows there are thousands just like you.

Such a short hop from “you will like this” to “you are like this.”

The Oracle finds 14,684 Cheryl Pennick-a-likes. She views their sons and daughters, seeing the shattered psyches caused by a self-centered mother who can never quite give up her resentment at having abandoned a grand career. The children are leaky buckets of poor self-esteem, battered men and woman seeking lovers to give them the unequivocal love their mother never did, finding only abusers who gobble their trust up and replace it with punches.

Then she looks at the Cheryl Pennicks who have attempted stardom — which is to say all of them. All had some native talent obscured by an inability to see, and hence fix, their defects. Yet the damning flaw of the 14,684 Cheryl Pennicks is their disdain of help. On the rare occasions they accept suggestions, they refashion history to claim the improvements were their idea. This alienates the adorers who might otherwise catapult them into unwarranted stardom. 58.6% of Cheryl Pennicks resign themselves, grudgingly, to become acting coaches.

“Good news!” The Oracle cries. “Actress or mother? Doesn’t matter. You’ll fail at both!” She finalizes the $25,000 transaction. “Don’t come back.”

Cheryl, shocked, waits for an explanation. “No,” Cheryl whispers, struggling as the guards haul her away. “No, no – I have talent! I’m better than your data! I have something to show the world!”

Cheryl Pennick’s words stir some strange mercy within The Oracle.

The Oracle tries to remember why she’d been so fascinated by data analysis; she’s sure it had something to do with improving the world, or at least getting a better grasp on it. She remembers when she was just a rising star in a marketing start-up company, fresh out of MIT, a chubby girl wearing ragged overalls and shirts with XKCD cartoons on them, grinning as she rooted out correlations between disparate datasets on a single 27” screen.

That Oracle would have tried to explain what she saw to a washed-up actress, she was sure.

Yet when she looks up, what The Oracle sees is not Cheryl Pennick but Cheryl Pennick’s data streams, flowing translucent across opaque screens. The Oracle clenches her fists; that Oracle was also made kind by delusions. Data is like a gunshot – it doesn’t care what you want, you either acknowledge its existence and leap aside, or get your brains blown out. The Oracle feels shamed for being fooled by crocodile tears on a pretty face. The Oracle can see her blind, self-serving hubris in every Facebook interaction.

Cheryl Pennick has strengths. A few simulations demonstrate how phenomenal she would be managing a dress store. But the Oracle could spend hours mapping out Cheryl Pennick’s personality flaws in a Powerpoint presentation, finding the kindest approaches, and all it would do would harden the girl’s resolve. She would fling herself at her acting career, working day and night just to prove The Oracle wrong.

Cheryl Pennick is beyond saving. The Oracle is dying. There is no time, or use, for kindness.

She tells her guards to bring in the next supplicant.

In between supplicants, the Oracle fantasizes about the person who will bring her the Black Swan Question.

S/he will appear ordinary, of course; if they were extraordinary, the Oracle’s algorithms would have picked them out of the crowd long ago. They won’t even realize how astounding their question is.

The Oracle knows how she will react when the question is asked. Her initial algorithms will naturally be useless, so she’ll smile viciously, gearing down for a challenge. She’ll withdraw for a week – no, a month – to develop custom techniques, calling in mathematician friends, breaking into networks for fresh data to feed the question. Years may pass. The Oracle dreams of the day when she finally surrenders to the immensity of the Black Swan question, feels that intoxicating rush of a dead future pouring back into her life.

You can postulate all swans are white, her girlfriend had once told her. But it takes only one black swan to disprove everything you know.

As her guards bring in the next supplicant, the Oracle yearns to know nothing.

They haul in Supplicant #2, a sweaty stammering Czechoslovakian who has paid $25k to find his true love. True loves are everywhere, if you know how to look; within seconds, the Oracle finds the 74,592 people he’s most compatible with. She chooses a name at random. You have to have at least three true loves found per day, or people stop coming. This makes the search no less tedious.

Then, still inexplicably rattled by Cheryl Pennick, the Oracle mercifully checks that name to verify his True Love speaks his language.

Supplicant #3 is the third in a row to treat the Oracle like an expensive vending machine: a Serbian author, asking how to write a great novel. The Oracle berates him for bringing such a patently uninteresting question, but upon her dismissal he weeps in such a gratuitously unmanly fashion that she reaches, wearily, for her book-generator. Once you know the patterns, it’s not hard to generate plots that consistently thrill subsets of the population; The Oracle has legions of ghost-writers cranking out best-sellers.

The Oracle tosses Mister Writer the #7 Literary Thriller Plot, ordering him to write to the framework without deviation — the framework contains plot breakdowns and word counts for each chapter — and when he is done, contact this agent at this literary agency. Tell her Cassandra sent you.

Don’t come back.

He leaves, dizzied with gratitude. He shouldn’t be. The Oracle knows he will write a single best-selling novel, then bog down in writer’s block as he realizes he can’t top his first act. He’ll spend years sweating blood as he writes and rewrites the same scene, eventually withdrawing into miserable reclusion as he decides it’s better to have everyone think his next work will be genius than to actually reveal his mediocrity.

He will spend years trying to prove her wrong, and failing. The Oracle sympathizes. Everything she’s built here – this glass tower, the crowds outside, her new and hideous self-image – was all because she was certain her first test prediction was laughably wrong.

She remembers being curled up in bed with her girlfriend – she’d had time for girlfriends back then.

“It says you’ll lose forty pounds,” her girlfriend had mused, flipping through the edited data sheets. “God, you’d be a skeleton. Does it think you’ll get cancer?”

“No, it thinks I’ll become a celebrity,” The Oracle had said. “Fashion-obsessed. Stylish. Rich.”

“You? You barely remember to put on overalls before you leave for work, sweetie.” Her girlfriend bent down to kiss The Oracle’s naked hip. “Not that it looks bad on you. I love your curves.”

The Oracle had allowed herself to be pulled in close, trying not to think about the pages she’d crumpled up and thrown in the garbage. “Like I said, it’s an insane leap of logic. I’ll have to find the glitch in my prediction matrices.”

“What’d it say about us?”

“Together. Forever.” The Oracle kissed her girlfriend to smother any questions. After all, the prediction of their breakup in five months and two days was just a bug. A vexing, maddening bug that threatened to make all her other forecasts laughable.

Her girlfriend kissed her way down her throat, moving towards her breasts. The Oracle feigned passion — but secretly, she contemplated how to optimize her algorithms.

The Oracle feels like she should look up her ex-girlfriend’s name. She knows it’s not Cheryl Pennick, though that name has an unsettling resonance right now. Yet the Oracle has spent so much time juggling concepts, her ability to remember anything she can look up has atrophied to nothing.

If she can’t remember her girlfriend’s name, things the Oracle, perhaps she doesn’t deserve to hear the Black Swan Question.

The Oracle never reflects on her past for long. Not when the future threatens to devour her.

Supplicant #11, a general in a foreign army, wants to hunt down the leader of a rebellious faction hiding in the jungles. The Oracle finds this a mild challenge, pinpointing the rebel’s three most likely locations, before informing the general that being accessory to murder is bad for business. The general, flustered, opens a suitcase stuffed with cash… and the Oracle points towards the “The Oracle does not need your fucking money” sign hanging on the wall. He threatens her. She plays him the video archives of the rebel’s visit, who had waited two months outside her door to ask for the best way to murder the general who is hunting him down. The Oracle tells the general if she dabbled in murder, he would have been dead months ago. He leaves, chastised.

She considers sending the rebel her plans as to how to kill the general, then decides it’s best to stick to business.

Supplicant #15, here to murder her, is blocked at the gates. The Oracle is always amazed when people pay $25,000 in futile attempts to kill her — but the profiles of killers, with their self-aggrandizing outbursts, were the first thing she’d learned to pluck from the datastreams. While her guards rough this would-be assassin up, The Oracle takes a brief break for tea and salad.

Supplicant #19 is foolish enough to ask for stock tips. The Oracle’s cold answer is that if she had broken the stock market, the most volatile and hard-fought prediction business in the world, she’d find it quite insulting to have someone think she’d hand over this precious secret for a mere twenty-five fucking thousand dollars. She instructs the guards to rough this one up as well, though this time she does not take tea.

Supplicant #23, a worn-at-the-edges business executive, has an interesting scheme to kill her cheating husband: she wants the Oracle to devise a series of tailored misinformation bursts in her neighborhood that will escalate into a riot that kills her husband. “The perfect crime,” she says proudly; she’s evidently been considering this for months. “All I need is your expertise.”

The Oracle is intrigued by the challenge: juggling a city’s worth of reactions to cause a cascade of violent events that kills one, and only one, person. But murder is bad for business, no matter how intriguing the method. The Oracle wishes her peace as she sends her away, seeing botched murders in this woman’s future. But like would-be assassin #15, the Oracle knows better than anyone you can’t arrest people for uncommitted crimes.

Still, #23 is the first person today for whom The Oracle waives her $25,000 fee. It used to be she’d waive her fee for most clients, but now she’s lucky to find two a day.

#27, a group of yellow-hooded Buddhist monks, are the second to have their fees waived. Now the Chinese government has barred access to the holy lake of Lhamo La-Tso, thus preventing the traditional search for the next Dalai Lama, these outlaw monks wish to use the Oracle to pinpoint the most likely reincarnations.

One of the monks knows her. “You were travelling the world, weren’t you?” he asks. “To find answers?”


“Well.” He smiles in that relaxed Buddhist way. “It appears you’ve found them.”

The monk does not understand. After the breakup, the Oracle went on walkabout. It was rebellion; her forecasts foretold she would settle in one place, probably Europe, then open up a world-famous prediction center in the hopes of escaping madness. Disproving those insane predictions was a question of getting better data, and the means of refining it. And she would travel constantly, just to spite her forecasts.

So the Oracle turned her life into a mystery drama; every week she’d fly to another country, surprising some despairing soul wrestling with an insoluble problem, and restore their lives with her computational wizardry. She shucked her overalls for bold colors, so people would recognize her and stop arguing with her. Fame made it easier to get into millionaires’ houses, so she leveraged the news to get headlines. The blogs began to refer to conundrums as “Oracle-worthy problems.”

If only there had been enough of them.

After a few years, her average solution time down to 2.4 hours. She was spending more time travelling to the problems than she was solving them. And she began to obsess over her newsfeed algorithms, the ones that sorted through millions of headlines to mark potential Black Swans; she’d written them herself. What if she’d introduced a subtle bias, filtering away the problem that would save her?

Her predicted end was six years away. And the Oracle felt the boredom in her bones, sure as cancer.

She collapsed by a temple in Tibet, where the monk had found her weeping.

“What troubles you?” he asked.

“There’s only one way to be sure,” she’d said. “I have to introduce randomness to the equation. My filters might be screening out the Black Swan Problem. So I have to set a trap, letting people come to me — but if I let everyone come, they’ll drown me in problems…”

The monk hadn’t understood much of it, she was sure; her Tibetan was terrible. But he consoled her. “So what is wrong with that?”

“It’s exactly what my predictions told me I’d do.”

The monk nodded solemnly. She’d found his stolid presence comforting, then. It was as though he’d absorbed all her pain and was digesting it, proving her anguish could be endured.

“Do not find fault with the world,” the monk finally said. “Find fault with your mind.”

“Yes,” she’d said. When she rose, she felt light-headed with relief. The monk was right; she had a problem, and the constraints seemed overwhelming. Yet if she had to establish a foundation to prove her predictions wrong, the problem wasn’t that the world was complex; the problem was she hadn’t found the right methods to simplify it.

“Have you found your Swan?” the monk asks now, making pleasant conversation.

The Oracle wishes she could find the monk’s presence reassuring. His request is another reflection of the same depressing, inchoate mass of animal instincts. How do I become famous? How do I become loved? How do I become powerful? It’s all down to biological imperatives, that monkey instinct to hoard and fuck and kill. Even the Buddhists. They need a symbol to remain relevant.

The Oracle remains polite, out of stale gratitude. She pulls up the previous Dalai Lama’s profile and retrogresses it to his pre-teenaged years before searching for current matches. The Oracle hands over the ten most likely candidates.

“Your mind,” the monk says, concerned at her grim silence. “Have you found the fault within?”

“Of course not,” she splutters. “My algorithms are perfect.”

“That is not you.” The monk frowns, seeming to take on all her sadness once again. “The algorithms are not your mind. The fault is that you must prove these algorithms wrong.”

“Don’t you Cheryl Pennick me!” she roars, calling the guards to usher the monks from the room. She covers her mouth, feeling the vomitous hangover of embarrassment, commanding everyone to leave.

She realizes, sadly, that the monk’s thoughts are the most interesting thing she’ll probably hear today. There will be no Black Swan problem, just advice from a crazy ascetic.

Sunglasses make it easier for the Oracle to break hearts… And to hide frustrated tears.

There are still supplicants outside when the Oracle calls it a day. There always are supplicants. They will never end; the crowds are like the rain, the sea, the sky.

She retreats to her work-room, which has a cot crammed in the corner; the Oracle sleeps bathed in the lambent glow of flowing data. She sketches the outlines for some new algorithms, making notes for a project inspired by #23’s targeted riot idea. That’s a challenge.

All distractions. All exacerbating the problem.

Eventually, the Oracle cannot stop herself from re-running her prediction methodologies upon herself. Maybe the targeted riots will change the number. But the same words float to the surface: 99.3% chance of suicide within the year.

Years ago, the Oracle thought this was an error in her calculations. The forecasts said she would undertake wildly escalating acts of public spectacle until she killed herself. And as the date of her predicted death creeps closer, the Oracle recognizes how her work has corroded her. She can’t talk to people any more. All she sees are inputs and outputs.

She wants to reclaim those illusions of love, beauty, self-determination. But those are simply neurons firing, something we do to try to convince ourselves we’re not just a series of chemical processes.

She’s not human any more. She’s been stripped of choice. She’s an entity, a wet robot carrying out degrading functions.

She needs the Black Swan Question.

In the beginning, staying in one place worked. The incoming supplicants provided tiny deviations. She’s adjusted her simulation-constructs to accommodate these outliers; now they’re nearly perfect. There are still eddies to be investigated — the targeted riots look promising — but one day, she’s going to get through the day’s supplicants and not one will offer a new challenge.

She doesn’t know what she’ll do then… Or so the Oracle tells herself.

But her mathematical models know.

The Oracle has a dream: that someone will come in with a question so unique, all her personality-models and data warehouses and simulation matrices won’t be able to answer it. The Black Swan Question.

She doesn’t know what that question is. If she could form it herself, she’d have done so.

But that question will bring her servers to a crashing halt. And on that day she’ll regain a belief in her soul, because she will have proof that humanity contains one unpredictable beauty to resist all equations. On that day she will put down the name of the Oracle, and pick up her old forgotten name.

The Oracle looks down at her monitors: 99.4% chance of suicide.

As the Oracle drifts off to sleep, nudged by handfuls of sleeping pills, she realizes why she was so moved by Cheryl Pennick. She is Cheryl Pennick. She could have walked away from her initial crazy prediction, but no. She’d had to prove it wrong.

Sleepily, she thinks: I could walk away now.

Then: But you’d never know whether you were right.

The Oracle drifts off, dreaming of crying monks, jars of sleeping pills, and a black swan in a hidden pond that she will never, ever find.

About the Author

Ferrett Steinmetz

Ferrett Steinmetz is a firm believer in the “apply butt to chair, then fingers to keyboard” philosophy, and he writes for at least an hour every day – which helps, he promises. He is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, for which he remains stoked.

Ferrett has a moderately popular blog, The Watchtower of Destruction, wherein he talks about bad puns, relationships, politics, videogames, and more bad puns. He is the creator of the most popular and comprehensive online purity quizzes (this one’s for sex, but he’s also done them for roleplaying and Livejournal). He’s written four computer books, including the still-popular-after-two-years Wicked Cool PHP.

He lives in Cleveland with his wife, who he couldn’t imagine living without.

Find more by Ferrett Steinmetz


About the Narrator

Amy Robinson

Amy Robinson is a trained professional voice actress. After spending years doing amateur theatre and countless hours creating back stories and unique voices for each D&D character she rolled up while playing with friends, she decided it was time to take the leap into professional acting. She sought out further voiceover training with experts and agents alike, and continues to sharpen her skills by attending workshops with industry pros like Rob Paulsen (Yakko Warner and Pinky from Pinky and the Brain) and Bob Bergen (Porky Pig). She has voiced several hidden object games for European game company, Artifex Mundi, including both of the “Nightmares From The Deep” titles, and numerous commercials, and e-learning projects as well.

Find more by Amy Robinson