Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Julie Rubicon (facebook.com)
784 points by ISL on Mar 23, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 131 comments

Post is fiction. Spoilers follow.



When I started reading this, I didn't realize it was fiction. When I got to the point where the protagonist left the end-date off a query and saw a spike, I thought it was going to be explained by falsified data and lead into a (real) accusation of providing fraudulent metrics to advertisers. It wouldn't be the first such accusation. But it turned out to be a science-fiction story with unexplained time travel in it. Oh well.

Spoilers precede too. Much more enjoyable to start reading not knowing it is fiction. Glad I RTFA first for once :)

I read 2-3 paragraphs into this and then thought, hmm, maybe I should check the comments first.

Thank you.

For once I'm glad I didn't read the comments before reading the story. jimrandomh comment would have spoiled it.

Edited to add a spoiler warning. My apologies to anyone I spoiled the ending for.

Not effective. Your spoiler is telling us that it's fiction. The delight would have been in that surprise realization, not the nitty-gritty details of the story.

Does it help that "Crossing the Rubicon" is a metaphor for crossing a point of no return?

I've never heard that before, so it didn't tip me of.

I did think the PIG abbreviation was too good to be true and decided that I didn't want to read it if it wasnt anything to do with real life internals

You're supposed to put the spoilers after the spoiler warning.

Sure but if you saw a "Spoiler Warning" on something, you would know that it's fiction.

You can always just say:

"Read the article FIRST and then come back to read the comments. . . . Spoiler alert. Post is fiction. Yadda yadda."

If it were real, why would it be posted on Facebook itself? That was my first clue, anyway.

Still a good short read IMO.

So that it would self-fulfill the prophecy and Julie would be safe instead of headline news for some terrible reason.

I've read similar story before (Fallout 3 "Number Station" short internet story), so the it became very obvious the first time "data from the future" was mentioned ;-)

Fiction or not, this is similar to an actual story of (ex)-fraud researchers at Capital One[1], who (ab)used their access to credit card transaction data in order to infer whether target companies' quarterly earnings would be below/above expectations, and then traded on that knowledge.

However, in the actual story, there was no "black box" to query, the ex-employees wrote all the complicated queries themselves.

EDIT: They turned ~$150K into ~$2.8 MM USD over about three years, before being caught, mostly through options trades it seems.

1. http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-01-23/capital-one...

It sounds like a retelling of this story from a decade ago.

But then on September 6, 1997, something quite extraordinary happened: the graph shot upwards, recording a sudden and massive shift in the number sequence as his machines around the world started reporting huge deviations from the norm. The day was of historic importance for another reason, too.

For it was the same day that an estimated one billion people around the world watched the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales at Westminster Abbey.

http://www.rense.com/general62/bbox.htm http://noosphere.princeton.edu/ https://science.slashdot.org/story/05/02/12/2344224/random-n... http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=print_...

I forgot how impressive http://noosphere.princeton.edu is, quite a bit of work. Science or quackery, it gives me an xfiles "i want to believe" feeling.

it is still running, here is the data chart from monday http://noosphere.princeton.edu/data/eggsummary/2016/summary-...


There is a spike just after the Paris 20151113 attacks. I wonder if there will be a spike in the 20160322-23 data. For some odd reason the data just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks 8-9 January 2015 is gone. There are more gaps. https://www.heartmath.org/research/global-coherence/gcms-liv...

Can someone explain why this is illegal (besides any data/privacy breach within Capital One)?

It's in the article:

'The "misappropriation theory" holds that a person commits fraud "in connection with" a securities transaction, and thereby violates § 10(b) and Rule 10b-5, when he misappropriates confidential information for securities trading purposes, in breach of a duty owed to the source of the information. ... Under this theory, a fiduciary's undisclosed, self-serving use of a principal's information to purchase or sell securities, in breach of a duty of loyalty and confidentiality, defrauds the principal of the exclusive use of that information. In lieu of premising liability on a fiduciary relationship between company insider and purchaser or seller of the company's stock, the misappropriation theory premises liability on a fiduciary-turned-trader's deception of those who entrusted him with access to confidential information.'

Oh, duh, it explains it in the article: "misappropriation" insider trading

The employees involved here broke the law by obtaining the information. However, if they had simply gone to a hedge fund without telling them where they worked, and said, "here are our predictions of these stocks, if you like the results, pay us and we'll give you more predictions," the hedge fund could have traded on it and that would not have been illegal for them to do because they had no knowledge of the actual source of the information.

The employees stealing the information would have still been liable. But had they simply accepted payment from the hedge fund in Bitcoin and not revealed their true identities to the hedge fund, they would have been much harder to find and prosecute.

The answer is right in the article linked:

"People have asked me if this is insider trading and, you know, sure it is? (If the allegations are true, I mean.) This is not "classical" insider trading -- trading or tipping by an insider at Chipotle or whatever -- but rather "misappropriation" insider trading..."

Possibly something to do with privileged information. Keep in mind that even things such as intent may get you on the wrong side of the line*

* example: you post a trade but you don't intend to execute it but instead hope to fool the market, then you cancel the trade and switch to other direction. forgot what that's called exactly

Usually I read comments on HN before the article, but there were no comments when I saw the link, so I went straight to reading it.

What a bizarre piece. How long did it take everyone else to realize it was fiction? For me, I did not realize until the very end -- and even then I still wasn't sure. It could just as well have been written by some delusional non-technical employee at Facebook.

> What a bizarre piece. How long did it take everyone else to realize it was fiction?

Longer than it would have taken if I'd never worked in analytics.

I doubt there is anyone who has ever worked on analytics software who doesn't have stories about articles with negative page views, impossible traffic spikes, or data from the future. (And in fact Facebook's APIs are some of the worst offenders for producing garbage data.)

The flatness before and after the huge spikes (for Adidas/Vernix/VW) and the fact that the plot goes back to pre-spike levels also suggest that this is not real data---though I thought of that after realizing it is fiction.

Yup yup. I think this is one of those cases where knowing a little about the topic can throw you, because (a little too much drama aside) it does feel remarkably authentic.

I started to wonder if it was real around the point that it theorized without explanation the predictive powers of the in house tool and I was pretty convinced it was fiction about the point where they were going to start a company within a company using bitcoin.

Using Facebook internal data to trade in ways no one can match isn't far fetched. Makes me wonder if Facebook should pivot to be a hedge fund based on signals no one else has access too.

I've wondered that before as well. Same for Google. Both companies have absolute treasure troves of data that could certainly be used for trading signals.

Interestingly, the data could be equally effective for building actuarial models and selling insurance to customers (I believe Google has stated an interest in this in the past).

Does anyone know what the SEC implications would be for a company using its proprietary user-generated data as trading signals? Is there any precedent?

> Both companies have absolute treasure troves of data that could certainly be used for trading signals.

Here's what Eric Shmidt had to say on the subject:"There are many, many things that Google could do, that we chose not to do. One day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try to predict the stock market. And then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that."

Given that the posts can be from folks that work in the company Facebook would be trading stocks for, that would count as insider trading.

That's if you use insider information. That's only one kind of signal that Facebook has access to. There are signals that aren't based on insider information that FB could legally trade on.

Information that other people don't have access to isn't by definition insider information. It's just stuff others can't or haven't figured out.

As long as they agreed to let Facebook use the data by signing up, then no, it's not insider trading.

When she started the repetition of 'championships..'; for some reason it seemed too doctored to be part of real story telling.

The references to the Facebook offices are all a little bit off. For example building 20 is engineering, it wouldn't make sense for the author to go there for a walk without a good reason.

Also, if you've ever analysed any traffic the graphs are clearly fake. Trends don't decay that quickly. And the normal levels would have waves due to seasonal changes, weekends and so on. Type "VW" into Google trends to see what I mean.

Totally agree on the graphs, but the office references are bang-on. The roof of building 20 is built for strolling around and poring over hard problems. It's a 3 minute walk from the rest of campus and they have cold pressed juice up there. The MPK20 reference set a perfect scene.

I realized it was fiction when querying after today's date produced a spike that completely matched reality. If anyone can do this, they sure as hell won't do it by omitting an end date in a query.

Right. I was initially credulous to the idea that there is data in the system after the present, thinking, "Holy crap! That means that some other department in Facebook consists of chatbots which have randomly woven themselves into peoples' lives and have advance-scheduled chatter!"

But once it was like, "hey, we're predicting the outcome of a sports game before it happened based on this" then it's like "ooh, this is a cool fake story which just took a turn towards the supernatural, I get it..."

At first I thought it was plausible their internal reporting system had some sort of bug that just happened to "predict the future" by accident. But yeah, it's just entertaining fiction :)

The first tip-off for me was that it was hosted on Facebook. If this were somehow real, there's no way it would stay up on Facebook's own servers for more than 15 minutes.

I'll also eat my shoe if there's a single person with the legal name "Julie Rubicon" in the world.

You may want to consider masking the shoe flavor with BBQ sauce. :) Google Trends reports that people have been searching for Julie in bursts over the last decade. It's interesting to say the least: https://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=julie%20rubicon&cmpt...

> I'll also eat my shoe if there's a single person with the legal name "Julie Rubicon" in the world.

It doesn't seem impossible. I mean I'm not having a ton of luck but there are references to some people that may legally have the name[1].

[1] http://instaliga.com/lil_jeep_babe_

Startup idea: delicious steak and bacon sandals.

Have a big mouth? Put steak where your mouth is!

As soon as I read the fellow employee name, Julie Rubicon.

I'm embarrassed to report that -- for just a moment -- I had a chilling thought. I thought I was about to learn that we are digital copies of ourselves living in a full-earth simulation carried out by some future facebook. Facebook! The horror... :(

I checked my calendar--nope, not April 1... And kept reading.

I realized it was fake in the first paragraph thanks to the cheesy, melodramatic hook:

"The last thing I want to do is write this down, but I’m doing it anyway, partially because people ought to know what’s happening with the things they post here, but mainly (like 99%) because of Julie Rubicon and the spike."

Oh, I've just discovered a world changing dark secret brewing in the heart of Facebook. I'd better tell the world! But first I must build some... suspense!

If it had turned out to be real, I'd thank the whistleblower right after I slapped them for being a twit.

When he said "Julie Rubicon" was someone's real name I had my first doubt; "isn't 'Rubicon' some mythical thing, then how can it be someone's last name?"

wasn't yet sure but I started to pay attention, noticed extra "woolly" style of writing (not bad btw, just another marker), the bit where he said it was a neural network that accidentally started preducting the future sealed it.

For me it was until the sports part. User chatter has nothing to do with future victories and the bookies would have priced in anything the public knows. Then it occurred to me that this sort of thing was hugely illegal and I noticed the facebook.com URL - no way FB would be hosting some insiders blowing a whistle like that. At that point my suspicions curdled and I checked the comments.

I got skeptical as soon as the PIG group was mentioned. I don't think any company would give one of their groups such an unfortunate acronym in real life - it would be bad for the morale of the people who worked there.

(If there was really a PIG group in some company, I'd imagine that their work space would be known as the "PIG pen", not the "PIG pod".)

I didn't pay attention to the url when I opened it. As I was reading, when I realized the implications of the story I looked and saw it was facebook.com. At that point I figured it was a hoax / fiction as it wouldn't have remained posted that long if it were true.

I was suspicious when every prediction was perfect and I figured it out after it started talking about the stock market. Read much more like fiction at that point.

When it mentions Volkswagens, if you see a spike, how do you know it's in favor or not for them. After this it seems completely ridiculous.

Actually it was mentioned in the post: "I told Julie it had to be something terrible. I mean, a car company? We’d run reports on the launches of new vehicles, lots of them. They never looked like this."

So they knew it wasn't about a new car model, but some negative event.

At first, I expected it to be a setup for a joke about crossing the Rubicon. Or something something ides of march.

As soon as they divulged exact numbers concerning search terms and emoji usage.

Worth noting that Robin is also the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore [1] that others around HN would probably find pretty enjoyable. I thought it was quite fun.

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._Penumbra%27s_24-Hour_Books...

Yep! I'd recommend reading the short story, skipping the novel:


I felt like the book was mostly filler added after the popularity of the short story.

Ha -- the short story was, sorry to say, not that popular ;)


Popular enough to turn it into a book? :)

Well, maybe it was because I'd read the story before (and really enjoyed it) so I couldn't get the same enjoyment from the book.

Anyway, good work and keep writing.

Yes, it all seems like a very creative marketing scheme.

Interesting, I will check it out. Thanks for the reference!

+1 on this, a great book

I enjoyed it, though less than Ready Player One which has a similar vibe. I was amused that my Google-employed friend docked it a star for showing Google as a nerdy utopia which she did not feel began to accurately reflect the truth of the company.

Interesting! It was the exact opposite for me. Couldn't get through Ready Player One, but couldn't quite put my finer on exactly why.

The writing is poorer in RPO, but the exuberance and energy of the story itself made that not matter for me.

I'm "technical" and "hands-on", yet I was gullible enough to believe the story, IM-ed it to my wife, and was surprised when she hadn't panicked like I did.

I read way too much science fiction. Back to work now!

Kind of relieved though.

Sigh I did the same, sent her the link as I was reading the article halfway.

Once I finished, when they repeated the name Julie I scrolled up, came back here and boom, fiction. lol

"Published on the day Julius Caesar was murdered 2060 years ago, after crossing the Rubicon. Julie Rubicon. Nice touch."

Nice piece. When I saw that first from-future graph, I thought Facebook is faking their data. As they are known for faking page likes.

same. when i saw this line:

'I spent the day haunting the roof of MPK20, feeling jangly and nervous, staring out across the bay.'

i thought it was about her confronting the ethical dilemma about whether she should rat out on her employer or not. it feels more likely you would accidentally disclose your fake data generator than your future predictor.

Yeah that's what I suspected too.

No matter what you query, you get a convenient spike right around your time of interest – that must be nice to show clients!

Providing super-duper proprietary info to their biggest advertisers that no one else has and no one else can verify? Absolutely!

I think the HN audience will "see through" this story, but anyone who isn't familiar with the current state of neural nets/has read the many pieces fortelling the future of AI might just find it plausible. I really liked the writing style.

The first graph immediately looked too fake. Spike after an event would follow something like a log normal distribution, rather than sudden spike and day after back to normal. What's more, the world is not equally using the internet. The uneventful graph should follow something like a sin wave, with the highest point 2x higher than the lowest.

It is a fun story and one that comes at the question of "how much data is too much data and is too hard to resist?" Something that anyone who has worked in a popular Internet facing application has to come terms with. I found 'Manna'[1] a more compelling emergent AI story, but the data as predictor aspects of this story have their own particular flavor.

One of the things that immediately flashed it as fiction for me was that the graphs had all the same shape, which if you've ever looked at trend graphs you will see they might all have a similar outlier quality to them but they build and sustain in different ways.

At Blekko (a search engine company) we did an interesting study on query traffic to see if you could "predict" the "hallmark" holidays based on search queries. The idea was that holidays like Valentines Day come up, people start thinking about plans or gifts before that, could we advise an advertiser when the "peak" planning session was so that they could maximize the impact of their advertising spend by focusing it during the peak? And if so what sorts of queries were people making that indicated they were doing holiday planning? The results were mixed. For things like Valentines it was easy, flowers, chocolates, bed & breakfast reservations sort of rose out of the general query stream, St. Patrick's Day? Not so much. But the data peaks all had different shapes appropriate for different levels of impact (Christmas shopping really starts in August among the back to school traffic for the really prepared). So looking at (and for) "interest spikes" like the ones in the story had a bunch of different shapes, some with slow onset and rapid decline, some with rapid onset and rapid decline, and some which were like soft swells on a breezy afternoon at the beach.

That said, the dataset made possible by Facebook's chat stream would be even better for those sorts of investigations.

[1] http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

I don't want to contemplate a world where Christmas decorations are being put up in stores in August. Them being installed before the start of December is too early already (for me).

The funny thing is that if the implications noted in the story were true and Facebook could accurately forecast events into the far future, building a social network would be the least of their priorities.

How do you know that's not true today? Any effort to expand the social network would just be helping the prediction engine in reality.

This is some fantastic writing.

And if you are looking for a longer, slightly better, fictionalized account of Facebook, "The Circle" by David Eggers is a quick, engrossing read and quite hard to tear yourself away from once you begin.


Great piece of fiction, it feels like the author works at Facebook or knows someone who does though.

That said, what's described could possibly be done with existing technology . Could Facebook accurately move forward statements like "next Monday is going to be massive for Volkswagen" over time you could weight private messages from people who work for regulators higher. For more public events like an apple launch they could predict a spike easily just by all the media mentions of the date

Haha..it's like a modern campfire ghost story. It's written in a believable manner too. It had me going. I like it. Good job!

reminds me of the movie primer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primer_%28film%29

Yeah it's really similar, not just in premise, the writing style really reminded me of the narration in that awesome film.

This piece scared the hell out of me (seriously, I felt panicked) until I discerned that it was fiction. Great read.

Very entertaining! How did no one realize this was fake by the first graph? Does xkcd design the graphs for fb premium partners?

I assumed the punchline was going to be that Facebook was generating fake graphs to scam their advertising partners, and the author was blowing the whistle.

The aesthetics of the chart are pretty standard for a 2D Stacked Area chart.

The only "mistake" is that the CONFIDENTIAL watermark is a lower z-order than the chart, which defeats the purpose of the "watermark."

We circulate internal drafts like that all the time. The purpose of the "Confidential" or "Draft" marking isn't to be in front of the data, it's to clearly indicate to anyone internally who has a copy that it shouldn't be released.

If this would've been posted to medium.com instead of facebook.com it would've taken me much longer to figure out that this is just a story of fiction. If this somehow would've been true then Facebook most likely would have deleted it within a short time.

Facebook has client facing products that look worse than that. No joke.

I fell for it...I figured the graph was just an illustration to give a general idea of what the data looked like, not the actual graph itself.

Lovecraft does data science?

(the variance on the graphs intuitively felt a bit low, but then again it is facebook)

Reminds me of this interpretation of Minority Report, only with AI instead of human precogs.


I think April Fools has come early this year

Oh thank God they didn't waste this story on that.

Was I the only one, whos first impression was, that facebook was somehow involved in insider trading. And that for some reason they were brave enough to also use this information for load balancing...

As someone who is non-technical, I pretty much was mind blown until the very end. Had a feeling it was fiction haha. Glad the comments here clarified. Entertaining read.

Even when you feel its fiction, it just sounds like something that I could be reading off tomorrow's newspapers. This was a great read!

It's funny that I've received the notification for the HN500 while I was reading "Mr. Penumbra's 24h bookstore" and noticed it after having finished the book. Clicked the link and the author was Robin Sloan as in the book :)

Apart from the funny combination I just chime in to recommend the book here, I think most of you here would enjoy that.

By seeing the title along with the domain facebook.com I couldn't resist but click. Perfect click bait. Though a good story.

Aw. It's in the tradition of "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline", by Isaac Asimov.

Fiction, but that was entertaining. To the author, you should probably consider writing a book in this style :)

The author did write a fiction book, Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Book Store. It's decent enough :)

Nice piece of fiction

Best version of this is still "Vaxen, my children..." http://www.hactrn.net/sra/vaxen.html (read to the end, and check the meaning of the date)

So I figured this was too epic to be real, but what part of it is real? Is there a team selling statistics from all posts from advertisers? Because that part I believed without a second thought and honestly, it does make sense.

It's disturbing to me how many comments on here assert that the piece is fiction with little to no evidence. It occurs to me that perhaps Facebook is trying to make it seem like it's fiction by posting on various forums!

The burden of proof that facebook can see months into the future would be on the poster. No evidence is needed to simply disbelieve this.

Identified as fiction because VW isn't traded on the US stock market.

Facebook has the data to make a solid prediction market. That should be their new biz model - they'll still exploit our data but they won't be degrading our user experience with ads.

Did John Titor write this?

I figured it was fiction by the end, but I couldn't really tell. I can't tell the difference between fiction/satire and reality anymore. The world is too strange.

Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick as devlopers of Psychohistory would approve. (Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" universe)

"Psychohistory is the name of a fictional science in Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe, which combined history, psychology and mathematical statistics to create a (nearly) exact science of the behavior of very large populations of people" source: Wikia

Very enjoyable, and almost plausible...

i thought the following into existence yesterday and read the post today. that facebook uses users as a layer of abstraction above one brain. a brain of brains. putting queries (thoughts) into the system (brain) and obtaining a result that is the average of many.

I enjoyed the oracle discovery very much and even more its use on themselves. Cute.

This piece was written by Robin Sloan, who is an author of fiction. :) Great story.

Oh, somehow I've got the Pollyhop breeze from House Of Cards

Hmm, fact-fic; I wonder who run with it make it an urban legend.

It still makes me excited about the future of neural networks :)

This could easily be a Black Mirror episode

Not a very useful submission title.

The big short, Facebook edition.

Entertaining read.

I really got scary reading this

I thought this was real, but man that's probably the best creepypasta I've read in a while.

Obvious fiction. Nice story, but I don't like fiction masked as real.


PrestoDB, I guess.

Who could be the real author if it's fiction? This Robin Sloan might certainly have the means and the motive. Either it is fiction, with a plot which is not to far fetched as any company with these kinds of databases can exploit it in the prediction market. "Information is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit" Billy Idol once said. It's also an important element in Asimov's Foundation series: extrapolating history through psychohistory.

Or it's not entirely fiction or perhaps even factious. I remember Rupert Sheldrake mention in one of his mindboggling talks that he wanted to investigate potential psi effects on a much larger scale and was in talks with Google. If there were 'results' pertaining to precognition (or AI enhanced precognition of the crowd) would the public get to know about it?

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact