March 01, 2004



Chapter 16

Part II

Chapter Sixteen

Iím sitting at a table in a conference room, with a cup of coffee, a notepad, and a pen. Iíve been given a half hour to think over my decision.

I like these conference rooms at Labs. The chair backs are a little higher than what we get downtown.; the cushions are a little cushier.

Even the coffee is good. Peggy told me that every other floor actually has an espresso machine, but we were on the wrong floor. It wouldnít occur to them that to somebody from the downtown office, taking an elevator ride or climbing some stairs in order to get a cappuccino would be well worth it. We do that anyway: six floors down to the lobby, out the door, down the street to Seventeenth, turn right, two more blocks to Starbuckís. A jaunt down one floor wouldnít even register as a trip.

Thereís a knock at the door. I glance at my watch to verify that my half hour isnít up yet.

Nope. Iíve only been in here for about 10 minutes.

I rise to answer the door, but it opens before I can. In steps a guy who I think Iíve seen before. But I canít quite place him.

"Hi, Emmett," he says, taking a seat across the table from me. Heís got a big smile on his big jowly face. I know Iíve seen him somewhere.

"Hi," I say, and study him for the obligatory two seconds. "Iím sorry, but have we met?"

He shrugs.

"Hard to say."

"So," I continue, "are you with the MITE project?"

He smiles

"I have a sort of loose affiliation with it."

"Well, you seem to have the advantage, here. Iím Emmett Hamilton."

He shakes my hand, his big grin still in place. He has one of those almost-too-firm handshakes ó the kind I guess they teach in MBA school.

"You can call me Rick. We donít have much time here, Emmett, and we need to get right down to work."

"Yeah. Work?" Iím not being quite as articulate as I would like. I return to my seat and take a sip from my coffee.

"Yes, work. I need to walk you through your options on this Two-Box Experiment before you give your answer to Peggy."

I make a mental note:

    • He calls her Peggy, too.

Thatís odd.

"Wait a second. I donít see how you guys can send somebody into a room to think over a decision, and then send somebody else in there to tell him how heís supposed to decide."

He just sort of shrugs.

"Hey, Iím not going to tell you how to decide. You pick. I just want to make sure you understand what the different options imply."

"Why?" I spit the word out as a challenge.

"You want to make the most informed and intelligent decision you can, donít you?"

"I want the 24-month package."

"Of course you do. Therefore you will do what?"

"Iíll choose Box B alone."

"Why?"

I sigh.

"If I do that, it means that the computer predicted that I would. Which means that Iíll get the 24-month package." I sense thereís something wrong with this line of reasoning even as I form the words.

"So whatever you do, thatís what the computer predicted you would do?"

"Thatís how it looks to me." No, waitÖ

"So you really have no choice at all."

"What?" I glare at him. "Of course I have a choice. I can choose B alone or A & B. And whichever I choose, thatís what the computer predicted."

"Let me ask you a question, Emmett. Do you think thereís a separation package in Box B, or do you think itís empty?"

"I think itís in there." Nobody is going to shake me from that. No way.

"So then what happens if you pick A and B?"

"Well, thenÖI get both."

Thatís right, isnít it? If theyíre both in there, and I pick both, then I get both.

But wait.

"But wait." I scratch my head. I scratch my arm. Why do I itch all of a sudden? "If theyíre both in there, and I pick both, that means the computer made an incorrect prediction. Peggy said if you pick both, you only get A."

"Thatís right."

"Well, how can that be? Peggy said the computer has only been wrong once out of a thousand times."

"So? Maybe that record is about to become twice out of a thousand and one." Rick isnít smiling any more. He looks very serious. Grim, even.

"I mean, really. Wouldnít you rather get the package plus the $5,000 than just the package on its own?"

So here is the actual test. At long last. Now I understand.

Theyíre trying to see how greedy I am. Of course.

I can pass this, no problem.

"No, no," I say very slowly and deliberately. "The package alone will be fine. I donít want anything more than just the package."

The smile returns: well, a milder version of the original. "Relax. Nobody is testing you to see how greedy you are. And Iím not trying to talk you out of anything."

How does he do that?

Are you a mind reader, Rick? Hello? Hello? Are you picking up on the fact that I think youíre an enormous asshole?

No.

I must not allow myself to be distracted. I want that 24-month package, damn it.

"All Iím doing is trying to help you understand what your choice means. If you want to pick Box B, thatís fine. Picking Box B alone means one of two things."

Rick stands up and turns around to the whiteboard. He finds a working black marker and writes DESTINY on the board.

"Do you believe in Destiny, Emmett? Maybe you pick Box B because you sense that you are destined to do so. Picking it proves that your sense of destiny is correct, so it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. More importantly, receiving the two-year package proves that the computer accurately predicted your behavior. You really donít have a choice, although you seem to. The handwriting is on the wall."

He underlines the word DESTINY.

"Is that the way it works?" he asks.

"Beats me. Whatís the other choice?"

"Fair enough," he says. Next to the word DESTINY, he writes OUTCOME MECHANICS. He underlines this phrase and turns around to face me. He gives me this look like Iím supposed to say something.

"Iím not familiar with that term," I tell him. "Is it something like quantum mechanics?"

"Very good, Emmett. The quantum view of reality allows you to assume the role of the manager of the outcome. Since no one knows what the computer predicted, the contents of Box B are a mystery similar to the contents of the black box in the story of Shrödingerís cat. Are you familiar with Shrödingerís cat?"

"Iíve heard of it."

"Explain it to me."

"All right."

Luckily, I know this stuff. I have cable.

"A guy puts a cat in a box. Somehow heís rigged the box so that thereís a fifty-fifty chance that the catís dead. I canít remember how, but itís a Wile Coyote setup with a piece of radioactive material, a Geiger counter, and a cyanide pill. Anyhow, looking at the box from the outside, you have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead."

"And?"

"And what? Thatís all I know about it."

"But is the cat dead or alive?"

"You canít know that until you look."

Wait. Thereís more. Iím remembering what I read about this thing. Or, okay, what I saw on the Discovery Channel about it.

"Oh. I take that back. Actually, the cat isnít dead or alive until you look. Thatís right. It is only one or the other when you observe its state. Until then, itís neither."

"Neither and both. As the physicists say, the wave function has not been collapsed"

"Right. Whatever."

"And do you accept that as an accurate description of the way the physical universe operates?"

"Thatís hard to say. I guess if the physicists say itís true, it is. On the other hand, somebody was just telling me that all scientists are liars."

I sit back in my chair for a moment to ponder this.

"So what youíre saying is that my 24-month separation package both is and is not inside the box. And when I look, that will determine whether the quantum computer placed it in there."

"Very good."

"So then how does the computer predict what Iím going to do?"

"Maybe in saying that the computer Ďpredictsí behavior, all weíre saying is that it has somehow managed to establish conditional quantum responses. If you pick Box B alone, the wave function collapses one way. If you pick A and B, it collapses the other way."

"What do you mean Ďmaybeí? Donít you know how the thing works?"

"No. Not entirely. To tell you the truth, I donít think anybody does."

That strikes me as odd.

"Wait. Not even Bryce understands it?"

"Donít make me laugh, Emmett."

I think about all this for a moment.

"So by outcome mechanics, you mean that I determine the contents of Box B depending on whether I choose one or both boxes."

He nods.

"Yes. Of course, itís even more difficult to grasp this idea than it is to grasp the idea of the computer making accurate predictions. At least you can picture the computer putting the offer in the box, or not, as it sees fit based on its prediction. But in the conditional quantum example, what is the computer doing? It canít put the offer in there, and it canít refrain from putting the offer in there. Itís just like the cat whoís neither alive nor dead."

I take another sip from my coffee. Cold.

"Peggy said that the programming language for the quantum computer is paradoxical. Now I understand why. What youíre saying is that this whole test is set up so that what I do now, in the present, determines what the quantum computer did in the past."

"Possibly. But do you really believe that?"

Thatís a fair question. Do I believe that geniuses at WorldConneX have invented some kind of time machine?

"Hell, no. The thing is either in there or itís not. When I look, Iíll know the answer. But I wonít have made anything happen."

"And the quantum computer? How did it make so many accurate predictions?"

"I donít know. I suppose they made some shrewd guesses. Like Peggy said, those work profiles or whatever. They might be gilding the lily about how accurate theyíve been. But anyway, they have been wrong. At least once."

"Yes. And what happens when theyíre wrong?"

"WellÖ"I have to think about this for a moment, and frankly Iím tired of thinking. "It depends. If the computer thought I would pick just B, and itís wrong, and I pick bothÖI get both prizes."

"Prizes?"

"Whatever you want to call them."

"Sure. And what about the other scenario?"

"Okay. If the computer thought I would pick both, and I pick just BÖand the computer is wrongÖthen thereís nothing in B. I get nothing."

Nothing!

But itís only a one in a thousand chance.

Yeah, but who are you going to trust?

Nothing!

Those lying bastards. I knew this was too good to be true.

Quantum computer my ass.

They show you the check in box A because they know youíre going to pick B alone and then you get nothing. Thatís what this thing is really all about. "Mixed Incentive Test Exercise." Itís some crazy HR thing; itís Performance Management gone bonkers. They want to demonstrate that they can show somebody a check for $5,000, give them the opportunity to take it ó seem to be fair about the whole thing ó and then have the subject walk away with nothing.

Of course, the word "incentive" should have given it away. No doubt, theyíre on the verge of implementing some vast new "benefit" program in which everybody gets strung along thinking theyíll get one good thing or another. And in the end, they get nothing. They choose to get nothing.

Nothing!

"So what youíre saying," I conclude, "is that I should pick both."

"I said nothing of the kind," he responds sharply.

"Yes. I have to pick both. Most likely, the computer knew I was going to pick both, and there is nothing in B. But if I just pick B, it could have made a mistake and then I get nothing. Or I could take both, and it makes a mistake and I get both. But I canít run the risk of getting completely skunked."

"Well, thatís one way of looking at it. Hereís a question for you ó when they were making their prediction for which box you were going to pick, do you think they knew that you and I were going to have this conversation?"

"Iím pretty sure Peggy knew, if thatís what you mean."

He picks up the eraser, and seems to study the board carefully for a moment.

"Peggy doesnít know me, Emmett. She has no idea Iím in here. Nor does anybody who had anything to do with programming the quantum computer."

"Well, why are you here, then?"

He erases the words he wrote on the board earlier.

"Let me give you one more scenario, Emmett. Maybe the whole thing is a trick. Maybe they put something in both boxes for everybody, but your co-workers are too afraid to try. Theyíre all too ready to believe that a computer can predict their every move. So they just pick B like the sheeple they are."

"Be sure you pick carefully," he says, placing the eraser back in the tray.

He looks at me for a long moment, sizing me up.

"Look deep, Emmett. You have to look deep. It isnít easy for guys likeÖyou, but you have to give it a try."

Before I can think of a response, he opens the door and starts through it. Then he turns and looks at me again, pausing just for a moment.

"Look deep, Emmett," he says for the third time, "The answer is in the stillness. Itís been there all along."

"The what? Stillness?"

"Make a good choice, Emmett. And whatever you do, donít forget to be happy."

He nods, he turns, and then heís gone.

As the door closes behind him, I suddenly realize what it is thatís been bothering me about Rick. I knew he looked familiar. He looks like my Uncle Dave. My Dadís brother. But thereís more. Yes, he does look like Uncle David, but he looks a lot more like somebody elseóGrandpa Emmett.

Good old Grandpa Emmett. My favorite grandparent. The man I was named after.

My Momís father.

Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Aaargh! I shouldn't have started reading this thing until it was done--it's driving me nuts.

Posted by: Virginia at December 3, 2003 11:16 AM

And this is my website.

Posted by: Chris Smith at August 1, 2004 08:20 PM
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