The History of Magic
in the 21st Century

A novel by Brandon Starr

Now, a new fiction story--"The Voice of Cassandra"

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Saturday, April 30, 2005
Voice of Cassandra, (thirty-three days before)

     Cassie pointed to the files.  “In fact, many of them wouldn’t be insurable at all, at any price.  Instead, over the years, there is probably several billion dollars’ worth of insurance policies from the customers in these drawers.

     By the way, because we have health-related files on premises, you can’t leave the hall door unlocked or allow anyone in unsupervised.”

     “Got it.  How can I help you?”

     “Well, I was thinking about that.  There’s a project I’ve been meaning to get started.  A new database has been set up, giving medical researchers and others access to bare-bones death information—who, when, cause of death, location, and age at death.  I’d like you to go over all the clients, one by one, and determine whether they’re alive, and if not, how soon after their Cassandra reading they died.  We’re going to make a database to see exactly how accurate she is.”

     “How long has…she been active?”

     “We just passed the five-year mark.  So we’ll learn about the one-year and five-year levels.”

     “But even the heart-attack guy only had about a two percent chance of dying in the first five years.  We’ll need to run into the law of large numbers to get any sort of accurate picure.”

     “Fortunately, there are plenty of customers.  Also, I want you to start with—“ and here she rolled over with a practiced push to the drawers, and pulled one out all the way, “the anomalies.”  She ran her finger over some files, and stopped with her hand on one with a pink tab added.


     “Mmm-hmm.  Every once in a while, we get an answer back that’s so odd, we give it to the insurance company and they basically throw up their hands in frustration.  Mostly it has to do with high chances of dying very soon, which ties in perfectly to your project.  Though some of them are regarding high odds of a strange cause of death, like ‘violence, accidental or otherwise.’”

     And this’ll keep me from learning much about how Cassandra actually works, Erica thought.  “Okay.  I’ll set up a database, because with each customer having a different set of odds, we’ll need some fancy math to see if she really checks out.”

     “Excellent.  Computer sci major, I saw?  Going to double in math, by any chance?”

     “Minor.  Though it’s pretty easy to get to a math minor from a comp sci major.  I wanted to round my education out with some humanities.”

     “Fine.  One of my focuses in my math studies was statistics, so we can work on that together once you’ve got our database up.”

     “Statistics.  Is that why you were helping Mr. Liber on the Voice of Cassandra?”
     “Partly.  Plus, I knew him from way back.  Plus…” she trailed off.

     Erica decided to wait her out.  She’d read once that in negotiations, the first one to talk loses.  She had a hunch there was something being negotiated here right now, inside Cassie’s head.

     “Plus, you might as well know, I was a doctor.  A medical doctor.  But not any more.  I lost my license while consulting with Jim, so he moved me over and I became a permanent part of the project.”

     “I’m sorry to hear that.” Erica felt her cheeks flush.  She hadn’t expected such a personal confession.  Maybe negotiations weren’t her thing.

     “It’s okay.  I’m past it now,” Cassie said.  “You’d find out eventually, anyway.  There are enough people around the building who know.”

     Erica found herself eager to get off the subject.  “Can you show me how to enter a customer’s information and so on?”

     Cassie looked over at the Voice of Cassandra.  Then:  “Sure.  Tomorrow.”



(Thirty-three days before)


     Erica had slipped into a routine.  She had learned how to enter the customer’s information, but mostly she worked on the death database.  She was getting very little that she might put into a report for Peter Wharton.

     “Cassie,” she said on this morning, “Why can’t this program be duplicated on a regular computer?  It seems pretty straightforward to me.  Find causes of death, form them into ever-more-accurate pictures of the likelihood of death.”

     “Because it’s a quantum computer,” Cassie said simply.

     “I understand the language is different.  But why not take a look, and maybe be able to translate it back into standard silicon languages?”

     “Schrodinger’s cat,” Cassie said.

     “Schrodinger’s cat?  The physics thought experiment?  The cat is neither alive nor dead until you look at it?” Erica asked.

     “Right.  You can’t look at the qubits in this computer without altering them.  Try to look at the “program,” and what you’ll get is a dead version of it.  Regular computers have bits that are on or off.  Here, though, it can be any number from zero to one, with varying degrees of probability for each bit depending on how the program is working.  But if you stop the program to look at it, it’s a little like…hmm.  Let’s say you have a full-color picture.  But for some reason, the only way you can look at it is in black-and-white—not even gray.  Either it’s white or black.  Suddenly a picture that would be full and vibrant is blotchy, impossible to make out details on.  It’s even more extreme than that, but you get the idea.”

     “Yeah.  So, no looking at the program without destroying it.  Talk about black-box technology.”

     “That’s pretty much it.”

     “What happens if there’s a power outage?”

     “There are multiple power backup systems and surge protection.”

     “Yeah, but if it happened?”

     “Jim said that if it should ever be unplugged, that it would start over from the beginning, but it would learn even faster than the first time.  That idea always blew my mind.  How can a program learn better if it gets started over?  If it keeps nothing of its old program, how can it evolve even faster?  If this is true, then shouldn’t we turn it off and on regularly?”

     “Wow,” Erica said.  “That is a brain-bender.”

     They worked in silence for a while.

     About an hour later, Cassie said, “Huh.”

     “Huh what?” Erica asked from the file drawers.  She was writing down info on customers to look up from the main computer.  Since there was only one regular computer plus Cassandra, they had to share.

     “Cassandra’s information request form is different.  Way different.”

     “How so?”

     “It’s only a half-page long.”


     The form, Cassie had explained at some point, kept evolving over time, presumably as Cassandra’s models evolved.  It started out about eight pages long, and over time had increased in length.  Recently it was twenty pages long, and asked for details about all kinds of aspects of the customer’s life, down to hobbies and former places of residence.

     “All Cass wants now is name, social, and address.”

     They just looked at each other a moment, and then at the new, extremely bare page.

     “I think Cassandra’s getting her information from somewhere else now,” Erica said.

     “Obviously,” Cassie said.  “Jim said part of the evolutionary logic included information on falsehood and unreliable sources of information.  So whatever info she’s using, she thinks it’s at least as reliable, or moreso, than information given straight from the client.  Woof.”

     “Cassandra uses the Internet to connect with databases and so forth, right?” Erica offered.


     “Do we know which ones?”


     “Do they change over time?”

     “Before today, I’d say I don’t know.  But now, I’d have to say that must be right.”

     They just looked at the page.  “I wonder what the insurance companies are going to think of Cassandra’s new form,” Cassie wondered aloud.

     “Assuming they still get good info, they’ll probably be relieved.  I mean, do you want to ask a multimillionaire to fill out twenty pages of extremely personal data?”

     Still, the page held their eyes for quite some time before either of them were able to get back to work.




(Twenty-nine days before)


     “Thanks for meeting with me, Erica,” Peter said.

     They were back in his office again, on a Tuesday morning.

     “Are you finding your internship interesting?” he said it by way of pleasantry.

     “Oh, yes, very,” Erica said.

     “And anything you want to report to me now?”

     Erica thought.  She considered telling him about the shortened Cassandra forms.  “Nothing that you don’t already know, sir.”

     “Please, Peter.”


     “That’s fine, then.  Are you getting along with Dr. Knox?”

     “Very well, I think.”

     “Very good.  How’s her daughter?”

     “Daughter?  She hasn’t mentioned her.”

     “Oh,” Peter said, but without any discernible emotion.  “Well, she’s a pretty introverted person, really.  I wouldn’t worry about it.”

     “Okay,” Erica said.  She felt embarrassed, and yet couldn’t figure out why.  It wasn’t her fault if Cassie hadn’t decided to share her personal life with her.  It didn’t reflect badly on her internship.  Did it?

     “Hopefully, you’re considering some items to include in your report,” Peter said.

     “Of course,” Erica said.  “It’s a really amazing machine.  I wish I could dive into the program, but the way it’s set up, you can’t look at the program without destroying it.”

     “Yes, I know,” Peter said.  “Too bad about that.  But that’s yet another reason we need to know all that we can.  I’ll let you go,” he said, and pushed back from his desk a little.

     Erica took the hint, and went to work.

Posted at 03:29 pm by brandonstarr


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