Writing

Taking a break

Blogging has become quite tedious for me right now. This post is something I am typing out to effectively give myself permission to take a (hopefully brief) hiatus. The issue is that I don’t have much that I really want to say on this blog right now, and I would rather invest my creative energy in something constructive as opposed to fretting about my lack of recent blog posts.

I have no intention of deleting this blog, however. Links to my writing will continue to live here and original posts will (eventually) resume.

Bukowski on Mickey Mouse

Charles Bukowski hated Mickey Mouse. No. Seriously. 

With that in mind I found this 1963 Chicago Literary Times interview somewhat amusing.

Arnold Kaye: To get down to more serious matters, what influence do you feel Mickey Mouse has had on the American imagination?

Bukowski: Tough. Tough, indeed. I would say that Mickey Mouse had a greater influence on the American public than Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Rabelais, Shostakovich, Lenin, and/or Van Gogh. Which says “What?” about the American public. Disneyland remains the central attraction of Southern California, but the graveyard remains our reality.

Steal this novel idea!

Book of Revelation art

End of Days, per the Book of Revelation

While reading some dire prognostications about artificial intelligence the other day I came up with an idea for a novel I have no interest in actually writing.

Specifically it was this passage from Tim Urban’s article (see link above) that got me thinking:

What we do know is that humans’ utter dominance on this Earth suggests a clear rule: with intelligence comes power. Which means an ASI, when we create it, will be the most powerful being in the history of life on Earth, and all living things, including humans, will be entirely at its whim—and this might happen in the next few decades.

If our meager brains were able to invent wifi, then something 100 or 1,000 or 1 billion times smarter than we are should have no problem controlling the positioning of each and every atom in the world in any way it likes, at any time—everything we consider magic, every power we imagine a supreme God to have will be as mundane an activity for the ASI as flipping on a light switch is for us. Creating the technology to reverse human aging, curing disease and hunger and even mortality, reprogramming the weather to protect the future of life on Earth—all suddenly possible. Also possible is the immediate end of all life on Earth. As far as we’re concerned, if an ASI comes to being, there is now an omnipotent God on Earth

So the idea is this: it turns out that all that crazy Book of Revelation-type prophecy was basically right all along about the End of Days. It’s just that John the Evangelist was tripping balls and had no clue what machines looked like, so his batshit writing obscured the fact that was he was really describing were hyper-intelligent machines vying for control of the Earth, and that the Anti-Christ and Jesus he saw in his visions were actually God-like AIs. As the singularity happens some astute scholars figure this out but of course not quite in time to prevent it. Chaos ensues. The central question of the novel is that if machines have replaced God what prompted John’s original vision? And if there is another, non-artificial God out there lurking in the cosmos, how does it stack up against the machines?

I have no interest in actually writing this. In fact it’s kind of a rip-off of the movie Prince of Darkness, a terminally goofy (if under-appreciated) horror flick that also hinges on mixed-up Biblical prophecy.

So feel free to steal the idea! I only ask you let me know what you do with it.

Adaptation is scary. Even when it’s fictional.

I’ve watched or listened to work I’ve written be performed exactly four times now. The pieces consisted of two one-act plays (one staged in two different productions) and, more recently, my flash piece “Frankenstein’s Monster” narrated in podcast form. I consider myself fortunate in that I’ve never been totally disgusted with any of the final products. In fact, on the balance I think they’ve turned out quite well (which isn’t to say I’ve always agreed with every choice made in the production process).

Nothing is quite so exciting (or terrifying) as handing over your work with the knowledge that someone else intends to bring it to life. I say this after two one act plays and a podcast. I can only imagine what it’s like for authors who have their work turned into feature films.

I suspect many people find the process frightening because it necessarily requires you to give up creative control. It takes many people to bring even a short fiction piece to life, and like it or not you are trusting them not to deliver any cataclysmic fuck-ups.

Personally I am not overly concerned with control. What gives me anxiety is that a team of actors and others will breathe life into my work only to demonstrate that… well… the work itself is stupid.

There is a certain cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect

wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks that are easy for them are also easy for others.

So the really horrible thing about being a no-talent hack is that you are much less likely to realize you’re a no-talent hack. And if there are enough deluded, no-talent hacks out there some of them may decide that your crappy story would make a great (by great what they really mean is crappy) podcast/play/film/television series.

Of course this fear is completely irrational. You’ll probably never know if you’re actually any good, or if the work based on your work is any good. Which is why the only  measuring stick I hold to any performance based on my work is whether I enjoy it.

By that standard I guess I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out.

“Frankenstein’s Monster” podcast goes live July 7

Just an update that the podcast of my flash story, “Frankenstein’s Monster,” is set to go live on Far-Fetched Fables on July 7. I’m looking forward to listening to the show.

The story was originally published on Every Day Fiction.

Interestingly, Far-Fetched Fables is one of several podcasts run under the umbrella of District of Wonders. Since checking out the site I’m also quite interested in the horror podcast: Tales to Terrify.  I like the fact that they consider work between 1,000 and 9,000 words, which offers a lot of flexibility. The downside is that it’s a non-paying market. Still, I plan to keep it in mind for the future. I definitely have some ideas that fit the market.

Writing is more athletic than artistic

The more I write the more I realize writing is less like some hippy-dippy journey of self-discovery and more like training for a marathon. Maybe a decathlon. There is nothing dreamy or romantic about coming home from a ten-hour workday to sit down in front of a laptop and hammer out that night’s thousand words.

Writing is a caffeine-fueled endurance test. It requires a tremendous commitment of mental and physical energy. It requires discipline and perseverance.  I would venture to guess that even the loopiest, spaciest artiste possesses these qualities in spades. Otherwise he’d never get anything done.

“Keep the mundane world out”

As I sit down to write today I am thinking of a passage from Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing (probably because I totally wasted an evening I had blocked out for writing the other day and am feeling guilty about it):

If possible there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write. I work to loud music — hard rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica have always been particular favorites — but for me the music is just another way of shutting the door. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out. When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do.When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

I’m at the point in my writing career where I don’t need to isolate myself completely to be productive. I do, however, need to create the same “bubble” around myself that King describes in his book. Just something I think is worth thinking about.

The Bazaar: Epilogue

Epilogue

God is greatest, God is greatest.
I bear witness there is none worthy of worship except Allah.

The call to prayer came just as the sun began to dip below the horizon. Cargo ships lay at anchor throughout the harbor. The larger fishing boats were pulling into their berths. Fishermen dragged the smallest of them right up onto the beach. Rowboats and dinghies dotted the shore, including a handful of improvised rafts that looked like they’d break into a thousand pieces as soon as they hit the waves.

Faisal enjoyed watching the boats in the evening. It had become his daily ritual. As soon as the sun began to set one of the Yemenis wheeled him out onto the balcony where he had a spectacular view of the harbor. Lately they had been bringing him tea. They said it was good for his nerves. As if Lipton yellow tea had medicinal properties.

He didn’t remember the trip to Aden.

He didn’t remember much of anything beyond the moment the virus began drilling into his brain. One moment his chipset was shrieking about a critical security breach, the next his whole field of view was a psychedelic nightmare and then he sat up in bed in Aden, completely cut off from the net. Faisal knew immediately they’d deactivated his chipset, same as if they’d chopped off a limb. From time to time an older man in a dark suit claiming to be a doctor showed up. He was bald and wore thick-rimmed glasses with dark frames. Looked a bit like he’d stepped through a portal from 1966.

The doctor never really examined Faisal. Mostly he just asked questions.

How are you feeling ? Are you sleeping? Do you ever question things you see or hear? Do you dream much? When you do dream what do you see?

Faisal didn’t dream.

Supposedly people who didn’t dream went insane, or were already insane. Maybe that’s what the doctor was waiting for – the doctor, the Yemenis, Don Carlos – they were all waiting for Faisal to lose his shit completely and wheel himself straight off the balcony.

Except then he’d no longer be of any use.

One morning the Yemenis gave him an old laptop to play with, the way zookeepers drop strange toys into animal enclosures to keep the critters engaged. Faisal fiddled with it for a half hour or so that first day then left it on his nightstand to gather dust. He preferred to watch the boats in the harbor. The boats and the sunset.

Now the call of prayer finished:

Allah is greatest
There is none worthy of worship except Allah.

The Yemenis didn’t like it that Faisal didn’t pray. For the most part they kept communication to one-word questions and answers. They never said anything about what he was supposed to be doing in Aden or how long he could expect to stay here. Maybe they didn’t care to answer his questions. Maybe they didn’t know anything more than he did. Maybe they were convinced he was a djinn and were slowly working up the courage to burn him at the stake. What did Arabs do to djinn? Faisal hadn’t the slightest idea. It had been a long time since his last trip to Arabia. He was a kid then, so young he might actually have believed in God.

At first Faisal honestly believed they brought him to Aden to recover. He told himself that in a few days Don Carlos would show up to check on him, to explain the next assignment. But days passed with no word from Don Carlos, then weeks. Now a full month had gone by.

They weren’t nursing him back to health. They were studying him. Watching and waiting. Wondering whether he’d flip out, and, if so, how long it would take. Don Carlos & Co. thought he might be useful like this. Or, more likely, whatever tunneled into his brain.

A fat military helicopter came in low over the harbor, low enough it sent waves rippling out in concentric circles. The thwack thwack thwack of its rotors echoed across the water and up the cliff face to Faisal’s balcony.

The helicopters always came near sundown. Sometimes – usually on the days where there was a particularly serious cafe bombing or highway ambush – the air force sent a pair of jets screaming along the coast instead. From a distance the jets looked like darts skimming across the water. And from a distance they reminded Faisal of the drone.

Funny because he didn’t remember the sound of its engines. He hadn’t heard anything during his time in the drone. His brain took the sound he heard in the present and dubbed over his memory. In his more paranoid moments (more and more often, anymore) he wondered whether this was something his real, biological brain was doing this or whether it, too, was the product of an AI dicking around in his mind.

There was a war on in Yemen. Faisal didn’t know much about it. He didn’t read the news. Every once in a while he got flashes in the corner of his mind’s eye.

A half-imagined image of a soldier in desert camo dropping a round into a mortar tube.

Artillery rounds bursting over the desert in sinister puffs of dark smoke.

Soldiers loading men and women onto army trucks.

These were not images, the way Faisal used to view feeds on his lens. They were more like memories. Not his memories, though. Seeing them was like watching someone else’s memories.

That thing had put them in his head.

Sometimes Faisal wanted to drill a hole in his head and tear it out with his hands. He made the mistake of describing this to his doctor once (it’s like a bee buzzing in my head; I don’t hear buzzing I can actually feel its wings flapping) In response the Yemenis took all the sharp objects from his room.

It occurred to Faisal he didn’t know any of their names.

That was one difference between doctors and prison guards. Everyone knew their doctor’s name. They could give a shit about their prison guards. They got nicknames, maybe. Here in Aden Faisal had both: prison guards and a prison doctor. All of them holding their breath, waiting for him to crack.

They don’t know it but I’ve already cracked.

It was obvious. So very obvious. Here he sat: the start-up guy who’d failed but was too in love with his concept to admit it, struggling to hang on to the scraps of the sorry little market share he’d carved out of the tech sphere.

I cracked. I failed.

Faisal looked back over his shoulder. One of the Yemenis lurked just indoors, watching him from halfway behind a curtain, just in case Faisal tried to wheel himself up to the railing and over the edge.

Everyone was watching. Watching and waiting for something to happen, some unnamed event they all clearly expected and Faisal didn’t have the slightest clue about. Which left him to spend his days watching this war play out in his head.

And the war wasn’t all he saw.

Sometimes he saw his father. Sometimes he relived that childhood beating in the streets with the Salafists’ shouts about his European whore mother echoing to the furthest reaches of his mind. Sometimes he watched Latin policemen die on a grainy CCTV feed, over and over on a loop as if he himself had turned into a television and someone else held the remote.

He suspected he might no longer be human, but a human-shaped conduit for the net, that the ceaseless buzzing inside his head was an electric stream of trillions of bytes of data passing through him on the way to somewhere else. And from this torrential outpouring of data the AI plucked bits and pieces of sensory and auditory stimuli for him to see.

Faisal the man was nothing but a puppet now.

He didn’t dare tell the doctor his theory. If he did the Yemenis might lobotomize him or something. It would be the end of Faisal, as surely as if they put a bullet in him. Maybe that was what Arabs did to djinn.

By now most of the boats had been beached or tied up. The only ones left were the larger cargo vessels. These had deeper drafts. They couldn’t get in close to shore. They lay at anchor overnight, lolling gently from side to side.

The sun had sunk halfway below the horizon.

Faisal watched it fall further.

And again his world slowly went dark.

Adding fixed income and derivative products to your friendly game of Monopoly: A practical approach

Despite the proliferation of Monopoly game board variants, the rules themselves have changed little (if at all) to accommodate the financial innovations of the last 100 years. This can be rectified largely by expanding the Monopoly rules to include a range of fixed income products and derivative instruments. Implementation is not nearly as difficult as you might imagine.

These suggestions hinge on the expansion of the role of the banker. He doesn’t need a game piece, either. I suppose he could take one just for funsies but he can’t move it around the board. His goal is simply to make as much money as possible.

Financial Innovation

Players may still take mortgages per the traditional rules. However, they may also issue bonds to finance purchases. It is the banker’s responsibility to coordinate issuance of the securities (you can jot terms on a notepad) and ensure principal and interest are paid in a timely fashion. The issuing player and banker may structure notes however they see fit. Coupon bonds and floating rate notes are both fair game. There is no reason you can’t implement bonds with embedded options, either (see Deriving the Yield Curve below).

In addition, the banker may securitize outstanding mortgages. That is, the banker may sell the cash flows from player mortgages to other players. There is no limit to structure (though again, you should definitely write down the terms of these securities). Passthrough securities are probably the easiest structures to implement in-game. It may be wise to standardize the terms of collateralized mortgage obligations ahead of time.

Not enough game pieces for all your friends? Consider having groups of players adopt a real-estate investment trust type structure (haven’t thought through the details of this, yet).

And of course any reasonable banker will charge fees for his services.

Deriving the Yield Curve

Introducing fixed income securities to your friendly game of monopoly will require you to develop a yield curve.

I suggest using the “round” as the basis for the term structure, and random dice rolls to determine the rates at each point along the curve.

As an example, suppose you would like to create a six-turn yield curve. You could roll a die 6 times (once for each term). Simply take whatever number you roll and double it. Having established market interest rates in this fashion it is straightforward to implement fixed income trading into the game. Just make sure to bring your HP12-C with you to game night.

Deriving a yield cure also presents the opportunity for introducing more complex fixed income and derivative products. The 1-round rate, for example, could serve as the benchmark for floating rate notes, as LIBOR does in real life. Issuing players and the banker may add spread as needed to generate interest in their products. This of course opens the door to interest rate swaps and forward rate agreements, though the pricing of such derivative instruments is not a topic I will explore here.

Obviously this procedure will lead to an extremely volatile term structure. Which of course is the whole fun.

All of which leads us to…

How the Banker(s) Lose

To this point I have been talking in terms of one banker. However, there could easily be two, three, or four bankers (you may not even need much paper money, if you can trust your friends to keep an honest set of financials on spreadsheet software – perhaps a subject for another post).

The banker(s) will need to receive some quantity of beginning capital, with which he/they must also a maintain reserve. Let’s make it easy and say 25% of beginning capital.

We could assume the banker’s cost of funds is equivalent to the one-round interest rate described above. The banker must pay his funding costs explicitly each term, as well as meet any obligations she has incurred through lending and securities issuance. If the banker fails to meet these obligations, or depletes his reserves in meeting them, his bank goes bust. It is then up to all the players to hash out what becomes of his assets and liabilities. This translates to a relatively elegant implementation of financial crises, and possibly even bailouts.