Month: November 2014

The Bazaar: Chapter 32

Blown Away

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion Emily was surprised but not afraid.

Surprise was okay. Fear was not.

It wasn’t the first time she’d seen a bomb explode, and it was far from the largest bomb she’d ever seen go off. In Syria the militia used to pack two-ton trucks full of C4 and drive them in formation toward army checkpoints. If one got stopped or the driver got killed there would be the others. All it took was a single truck. One truck carried enough explosives to demolish an entire city block.

People unfamiliar with explosives always expected fireballs. That wasn’t how it worked. Maybe you’d catch a flicker of flame when something particularly combustible went up, but for the most part when a bomb went off you got choking black smoke and dust. Particularly dust. More cloud than fireball.

Here the narcos preferred a standard car bomb (explosive + tilt fuse + time-activated detonator).

A bomb’s explosion wasn’t particularly dangerous. The shockwave and the pressure did most of the killing. Depending on the force of the blast and your distance from it you might break every bone in your body. Or your brain might turn instantly to jello — a gruesome smoothie all bound up in skin and bone.

Bombs were not to be taken lightly. Even under the best of circumstances.

This particular bomb wasn’t as powerful as a Syrian truck bomb. Emily knew that instinctively because she hadn’t been killed outright. The blast shattered the SUV’s bulletproof windows. Spidery cracks formed up, down and diagonally across the bulletproof windows. They flexed in place, bowing in and then out again.

Emily had time to observe all of this. In her business you either made time for details or you died. Flapping around hysterically wouldn’t do anything but get you killed.

Beside her Fulton doubled over in his seat. Probably thought he was dead.

The driver swerved the SUV hard left. A concrete wall loomed in the windshield. It took on a menacing look the closer the SUV came. Almost grinning. As if it were ready to eat her alive.

She let her body go limp, doing her best imitation of a rag doll.

The SUV hit the wall. Emily lurched forward. She got to about an inch from the seat in front of her before her belt caught and slammed her back. Then she was out of the belt with the door open and one leg headed that direction. Then she was outside the vehicle all together, spinning in place struggling to get her bearings.

Back in the direction they’d come from a whole block’s worth of corrugated metal shanties had been reduced to smoldering ruins. A plume of smoke rose up from the destruction. Bits of corrugated metal fluttered down from the cloud of smoke, the smaller ones spinning furiously end over end and the larger ones lilting gently from side to side.

No screaming, which Emily found strange.

There was always screaming.

Unless no one was home.

Awfully kind of these narcos to hit their target with no one at home. Added to that the scene looked wrong. There was no evidence of a blast outside the building. No wreckage. No demolished car. No crater in the dirt road. She would have expected something with a car bomb. Unless it was not a car bomb and they had rigged the place to blow from the inside, which didn’t add up, either. oo much trouble for narcos. Slum dealers weren’t mad bomber types. They wielded violence like a heavy blunt instrument – clumsily, but with purpose.

She became aware of a wetness along the right side of her face. Emily touched two fingertips to the spot. Both came away bloody.

She glanced back at the car.

No movement. She doubted the others were dead but this was no time to play nurse. She patted up and down her coat.

No gun.

Right, El Commandante kept it for a souvenir. There would be other weapons in the car. Emily struggled to her feet. And as she did she caught the faint whoosh of a jet engine.

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The Bazaar: Chapter 31

War 2.0

Once more Faisal abandoned his hardware setup and zoned out. His unfettered consciousness circled at just over 5,000 feet, raining down destruction with the modern military equivalent of +2 acid arrows: Hellfire missiles. He needed to impress his clients in a big way and as luck would have it the Targets (military types preferred a capital ‘T’) were well and truly back on the grid.

Faisal cued up the drone’s FLIR feed on the monitor for his audience’s benefit.

His first pass was all trial and error in terms of firing procedure. He slewed what looked like a square designator box over the target, believing he locked it. The missile came off the rail all right. A pillar of fire shot skyward in the approximate location of the vehicle. Unfortunately the awesome destructive power of the missile also kicked up a tremendous cloud of smoke and dirt. To confirm the kill he had to circle back after the dust had cleared.

At the very least the narcos gathered round his monitors would be impressed. They liked watching things go boom. Instant gratification.

In the course of extending away from the target (Faisal played enough flight sims to know you needed separation prior to making a second pass) he perused the drone’s operating manual. It turned out an alloy bubble mounted underneath the drone’s nose contained a laser designator. According to the manual taking a visual-only shot meant degraded accuracy, more specifically an increased circular error probability. So despite the impressive pyrotechnic display he had more than likely missed.

When the drone reached the outskirts of the city, the point where the drab browns and grays of the slums gave way to lush green jungle, Faisal banked sharply to the left.

A column of black smoke drifted lazily skyward where the first missile had hit.

He cycled the weapons and cued up another Hellfire. This time he made sure to arm the laser.

Finance is just telling stories with numbers

I recently spoke with one of the founding principals at the financial firm where I work.

“What did you major in?” he asked.

“English,” I replied.

“That’s fantastic,” he said. “That’s a great major.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. His comment was so fundamentally at odds with everything I’ve heard over the last three years as I worked to build up my credibility within the industry. So I asked him why he felt that way — because pretty much everyone else I have ever spoken to about my professional goals has warned me my educational background will always be a huge liability.

He explained that English majors can think critically, put ideas together in a logical way, and most importantly, communicate that information clearly to people who need it. Everything else in finance can be taught on the job, he said.

His comments got me thinking more about my writing, and the path that led me from a writing career to one in finance. And I’ve realized that what I do isn’t so different from writing after all. Finance is all about telling a story (hopefully not fictional — though the way some research is written you would never know it). It’s just that financial stories are written in an entirely different language.

A valuation model, for example, is nothing more than a formal mathematical structure for a particular story, the way one narrative structure may work better for a certain fictional story than another. At the end of the day a valuation model tells the story of a company, or another asset, and why it might be worth X as opposed to say, Y. The characters may be cash flows and discount rates as opposed to adventurers and monsters. Sure, a discounted cash flow valuation of Unilever may not read like Lord of the Rings, but both the valuation and the novel are telling stories, and both should flow logically from beginning to end. I happen to find valuation every bit as compelling as swords and sorcery (a kind of mental illness, if you ask my girlfriend). A decent salary doesn’t hurt, either.

The moral of the story, as far as I’m concerned, is that we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that there are “math people” and “writing people,” or “creative people” and “business people,” and that these labels are somehow mutually exclusive. It simply isn’t true.

The Bazaar: Chapter 30

Clarity

Emily’s colleague, Mister Pritchard, had brought a pair of armored, bullet-proofed SUVs to the prison. The military police saw them off cheerfully. They were rich now, after all. Fulton imagined that as soon as the convoy pulled away from the prison they would throw their weapons in the dirt and trek home, never to fight again.

Pritchard was up front with the driver. Fulton sat in the back with Emily. The car jostled them into one another as it snaked through the labyrinth of slum streets.

“On the face of it the app is worthless,” Fulton explained. “It’s not even spacial encryption, just Reese banging on about his worldview. Take one of the characters — if you can call her that — half spider and half girl. She’s patterned after Claire, this girl Reese used to sleep with. She’s not an exact match, of course, and not just because of the metal abdomen. He distorted her features. He did it to make fun of her.”

“Then what do the cartels want with it?” Pritchard asked.

“They could probably care less. I bet their freelancer wants it — this Arab they’ve got shut up in a room somewhere.”

“I thought you said it’s a joke?”

“It is a joke,” Fulton said. “On the surface at least. But there’s something fairly sophisticated happening underneath. The app does something with your memories. It takes bits and pieces and twists them around. Reese found a way to tag and extract memories from a digitally augmented brain. Not just memories, I suspect, but fantasies and fears as well. I’m not entirely sure how it works yet. Bear in mind this kind of modification is illegal in most places. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research on the subject. Consider for a moment the overarching trend in technology: digital integration, augmentation and immersion. You think of it in terms of defense, but it’s much bigger than that. Think of the pedestrian meandering down the street, browsing restaurant reviews on his lens. Think of the commercial pilot, the futures trader…”

Emily gave him a blank look that reminded him of Robyn, so Fulton skipped the detailed case studies he’d been working up on the fly and cut straight to his conclusion. “Reese tore the cover off the brain’s circuitry and started fiddling around with the wires underneath. Take this to its logical conclusion and you’ve got the ability to alter human perception of reality, potentially en masse.

Imagine someone writes a virus that bridges the gap between the integrated chipset and your actual brain. He doesn’t just infect a hard drive. He infects your mind. Maybe you end up on a perpetual LSD trip. Maybe your brain starts running traumatic stimuli on a loop. Maybe you lose control over your nervous system. To a hacker this is the holy grail: hacking the human brain. Now imagine that propagating across an entire network. You literally have the ability to trigger mass insanity.”

There was no scientific basis for his last statement. It was pure supposition. Fulton was not a hacker. An avid user of technology, certainly, but for practical purposes. Like most people he viewed technology as a means to an end.

The hacker, on the other hand, fetishized technology. For the hacker it was all about thrills. The end was incidental. This of course went a long way toward explaining the preponderance of freelancers in the world. Freelancers only cared that they were hacking, and that they were doing something BIG. As a wise man once said (or typed): “it’s all about the lulz.”

Fulton had worked with many a hacker over the years. Reese, for example. But he still understood them only in a distant, academic sense. From what he’d seen they preferred to exist in a different world. Maybe not in the way most people considered Mars a different planet from Earth. Maybe “world” wasn’t the right word at all.

The hacker’s world looked like ours, worked like ours in most respects but was not bound by the same social, moral, physical — even perceptual constraints. Which of course was why Reese struggled so desperately with anything that involved relating to other human beings. He existed above and beyond them, in an almost evolutionary sense. Reese was like Merlin trying to relate to the illiterate serf shoveling manure out back of Camelot.

Somewhere in the midst of this train of thought, long after he’d forgotten whether he was speaking aloud or merely thinking very, very intently, Fulton realized everyone else was staring at him.

Emily, Pritchard — even the driver eyed him sideways as he worked to keep his head on the proverbial swivel.

“Am I rambling?”

“Back to the part about spreading a computer virus through people’s brains,” Pritchard said.

Fulton swallowed. He didn’t have all that much to say on the subject. Really he was just thinking out loud. A bad habit. This was not the first time it had resulted in him biting off quite a bit more than he could safely chew. Granted, prior to this about the worst damage he’d ever done was derail small-talk at cocktail parties.

“It would be something of a cross between information and biological warfare,” Fulton said, immediately looking to Emily for approval. It said something about the current state of affairs that the woman who’d snapped and killed a half-dozen people earlier in the evening was beginning to look like an emotional anchor point.

If this explanation at all impressed Emily she didn’t show it.

For whatever reason Fulton thought back to Reese’s suicide note, to the image of the two of them mid-coitus playing beneath his feet, the visual manifestation of some subconscious fantasy he feared would now haunt him for all eternity.

“It’s nothing new,” Emily said. “NSA pegged it in a Threat Assessment almost as soon as the first generation of chips were being plugged into brains. Professionals have been working on this for a long time.”

“The theory of it.”

“He’s that smart?” Pritchard asked.

“Was,” Fulton corrected. “But yes, I believe so. From what I would understand there are two key elements that come into play. First, you have to crack the security on each model of chip. That’s the easy part. I’m sure the NSA got at least that far experimenting on convicts — however they do research and development these days.”

At that Emily stiffened a bit in her seat. “The hard part,” Fulton continued, “would be finding a way to pull memories out of someone’s consciousness. That’s where Reese got ahead.”

“How?”

“Some kind of AI. Reese’s specialty was cognitive development for AIs. He taught machines to learn through various carrot-and-stick type strategies. Most were all stick and no carrot. Every cub scout with his computer science badge knows you can shape an AI’s behavior with imperatives. Reese gave his AIs the imperative to survive, then programmed them to die unless they accomplished certain tasks. He taught them to fear.”

“Crude,” Emily observed. Again she had that distance in her voice that told him she’d gone somewhere else in her mind.

Fulton shrugged. “Efficient, was how Reese described it. His AIs were quick studies.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the building to his right exploded.

Excuses excuses

Just a brief update: I started a new job about two weeks ago and the new commute has been a real shock to my previous writing/workout/study routine. As such, I’ve been quite lax in updating this blog as of late — particularly in regards to my serial fiction project. Rest assured, I remain committed to my writing (and this project in particular). Things should slowly get back to normal over the next couple weeks. In the meantime please bear with me.