“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.

Crichton Risk (n)

Crichton Risk (n) – A plausible, yet improbable risk scenario that could easily serve as the premise for a Michael Crichton novel, such as space junk crashing to earth carrying lethal viruses; nanobots running amok; genetically engineered dinosaurs eating theme park visitors. E.g. The Large Hadron Collider accidentally turning the Earth into a black hole is one hell of a Crichton risk.”

See also: tail risk, Black Swan theory.

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.

Some humble suggestions for improving Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy movie posterFinally saw Guardians of the Galaxy. Frankly I can’t believe how much fun the movie ended up being, given that the overarching story was so sadly uninspired (that’s a compliment, by the way). So below I have collected some musings and criticisms.

Please remember:

  1. I am not a comic book reader. I could not care less about any movie’s fidelity to its comic book source material.
  2. I actually had a great time watching Guardians of the Galaxy. If I didn’t I wouldn’t still be thinking about it.
  3. My observations are probably riddled with spoilers, if that sort of thing bothers you.

That said, here are my curmudgeonly observations, in no particular order:

  • As mentioned above, I couldn’t have cared less about the main story arc. Some evil guy and some even more powerful evil guy want to conquer or maybe destroy the universe because… well… because. That’s what Evil Dudes do. I would have found Benicio Del Toro’s character a way more compelling villain. Kind of like Buffalo Bill in space. Too weird for the kiddies? I dunno. I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a little kid and in that movie The Child Catcher is pretty much John Wayne Gacy. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
  • At least The Evil Dudes had some personality. The Nova Corps were a total snooze-fest (with the exception of John C. Reilly, perhaps). No disrespect to Glenn Close. She had nothing to work with. Literally nothing. I was kind of hoping the baddies would destroy this pristine world just so we might be spared revisiting it in future installments.
  • Consequently, the “climactic” battle had no real tension. But I’ll readily admit to being extremely prejudiced against action set pieces these days. I’ve seen waaaay too many and 99% of the time we (the audience) know exactly how things will end from the outset.
  • Why couldn’t the movie have focused on the conflict with the Ravagers? Those guys were a blast to watch.
  • In fact, I’d rather watch a series of movies about all these characters going on crazy unrelated (or tangentially related) adventures in space. Kind of like a golden age sci-if serial, but with more talented performers and much higher production values. Why is everything so damn overwritten these days?

This is what frustrates me about a lot of the comic book movies. They give the most interesting elements the least screen time while favoring well-worn action set pieces and the minutiae of the source material.

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that there are children to wow and thus toys to be sold. Or that some dude/dude at Macquerie sold a bunch of high-yield debt to fund the things so taking a risk with the projected cash flow by pissing off the true fans is a total non-starter. Or maybe I’m just a balding curmudgeon and not at all the intended audience and therefore will just never get it.

I still see oodles of untapped potential.

The Bazaar: Chapter 41

Fairy Tale Ending

Emily returned to the Land Rover to find Fulton hunched over, vomiting into the gutter. His puke was that thick, yellow bile you threw up after a night of hard drinking.

“Concussion, I bet. You’ll need to get that checked.”

“I thought I was dead.” Fulton wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Again,” he added.

Emily bent for the carbine she’d tossed away earlier.

“I didn’t know the cartels had an air force,” Fulton said.

“They don’t.”

He looked up. Bile dribbled down his chin. “It was a joke.”

Emily stuck a clip into the carbine, gave it a good whack with the heel of her hand for the satisfaction of seating it properly. Something about the feel of a gun in her hands. A gun made her master of her fate. “Earlier you compared hackers to wizards. Do you believe that? Or is that just some bullshit you talk about when you’re wound up or drunk?”

Fulton wiped his chin on his sleeve. “I’d bet my life on it,” he said.

January = Delays

January is the toughest month of the year for me. The last few years it’s brought a new financial picture (in a good way) as well as (inevitably it seems) unexpected expenses. I mention this because financial changes have disrupted the publishing schedule for my next indie short. It will probably be toward the end February before I get cover art purchased and the copy edited.

I’m still looking forward to the project. It’s a horror piece that blends Lovecraft, math and finance in (what I hope) is a frightening and unexpected way. At the very least it was a blast to write.

In other news, my serialization of The Bazaar on this blog is just about wrapping up. It’s an exciting place to be. Not least because I will be putting an ebook version of this novella together over the coming year.

I hope to put more indie work out there in 2015, as well as get short pieces published in markets with a bit more visibility. I’ve already got ideas for a couple shorts kicking around in my head, and am eager to get them down on paper.

Or rather, hard drive.

The Bazaar: Chapter 40

Faisal’s Nightmare

Faisal didn’t immediately perceive the missile impact. He couldn’t feel it and he couldn’t immediately see it, either, what with the FLIR camera being mounted on the underside of the fuselage. He understood the impact first as a loss of control, then as the unified series of the drone’s sensors and control mechanisms flying apart. All the warning indicators seemed to trip at once. It was as if one moment he was sitting in a dark room and the next someone flipped a switch to reveal it had been strung with blood red light bulbs that all came on at once.

The FLIR image spun wildly. Chunks of drone fell away toward the ground. The FLIR pitched up and Faisal found himself looking skyward while at the same time knowing he was hurtling down, down toward the ground as if he were falling in a dream. Flames blossomed at the edges of the screen, glowing white hot in monochrome.

Fuck fuck fuck he thought and was about to disengage from the drone’s hardware when he caught sight of something familiar in the flames lapping at the FLIR. They weren’t just flames.

Faces.

Warped faces with deep black pits for eyes that twisted with the flames. Warped, bearded faces like the faces Faisal stared up at all those years ago when they were flogging him in the street in Gaza. Then, as now, nothing to be found in those black eyes but inflexible, implacable purpose, al-hamdu’lillah.

Faisal screamed the way he screamed when he was falling in a dream and he suspected (no – knew) it was all a dream but was scared shitless anyway because wasn’t there something to the notion that if you died in a dream you died for real? A long, silent scream that set the microchips rattling around inside his head.

And meanwhile those twisting, black-eyed faces multiplied, crowded closer and merged till Faisal was staring into total darkness, screaming.

The Bazaar: Chapter 39

Grand Finale

Fulton heard a tremendous commotion rise up somewhere behind the vehicle. Another missile, probably. He twisted to look out the SUV’s shattered rear window. All he could see was nondescript corrugated metal. That and smoke. There seemed to be smoke everywhere.

Extraction successful!

A moment later he got Penetration Complete!, which meant his chip had established a direct connection to the drone, and by association whoever or whatever had taken up residence inside. Fulton queued up the Malware Insertion app and loaded Reese’s AI. As soon as the Locked and Loaded! indicator winked on he pulled the virtual trigger.

The Bazaar: Chapter 38

Dance of Death

Emily watched the drone enter a ninety-degree dive, looking for all the world like an over-sized lawn dart.

She had never seen one maneuver so violently.

The missile changed direction to compensate, entering a steep dive of its own.

Emily had an intuitive understanding of this dance of death. The pilot guessed the missile would pull lead as it guided to the target. By pointing himself toward the deck at high speed he planned to drive it into the ground. If the Skorpion pulled a lot of lead (that is to say, aimed itself way out in front of its target to intercept) this would have been a perfectly reasonable strategy. Unfortunately for the pilot, the Skorpion had been designed to pull less lead than earlier generation missiles, so as to achieve higher kill probabilities in exactly these kinds of situations.

It caught the drone halfway down the fuselage. Didn’t explode immediately. For a fraction of a moment it appeared to Emily the missile might actually bounce off, then plummet to earth inert and harmless.

Which would have been just her goddamn luck.

But in the next instant a fireball engulfed the drone’s midsection.

The craft snapped in half. The two pieces fell, spiraling around one another as if performing a mating ritual in reverse where the end wasn’t sex but fiery death. The spiral accelerated, the diameter of the revolutions shrank until finally the wreckage slammed into the slum, sending enormous plumes of dirt and debris hurtling skyward.