Maxwell’s Demon: Chapter 1: Shock


image (1)“I want you to sell something for me.  You’re still a salesman, yes?”  Her voice was soft and smooth and hypnotic, the slow cadence of her speech so confident that Denis felt himself nodding before he remembered that he was, in fact, a salesman.  Denis felt her standing behind him as he sat at the hotel bar, and he knew the voice instantly. He could remember the view from her office window down through the canyon of the financial district.  He caught a breath of her subtle perfume, a muted jasmine with honeyed overtones, and he remembered the contours of her red dress, and the piercing gaze of her deep brown eyes. His pulse began to quicken. He continued to stare at his fourth glass of Oban, poured neat, and didn’t turn around. He could feel the warmth of her body, inches away. She spoke again, the quiet music of her words filling his mind with a familiar desire. “I know what you want from me. Don’t look up, just read the card I’ve put in your pocket.  See the man standing at the far end of the bar with the blue shirt, open collar, steel watch?  If you can hook him, I’ll give you what you want.”

Nobody ever got rich doing company work on company time, so Denis tried to mix pleasure with everything he did on the clock, which was why he was at the bar instead of the main conference hall handing out information.  Strictly speaking, he was not a great salesman, but then he wasn’t a poor salesman, either. (Denis once thought that although he might not be able to sell snow to an Eskimo, he’d make a killing on snowshoes.) Yet he approached everything in his life with the kind of enthusiasm that made people believe he couldn’t fail, or at least that he couldn’t fail at the same thing twice.

Denis studied the card for a moment and studied the man in the blue shirt for another. Then he stood up and started walking toward the end of the bar.  Although he occasionally puzzled over conundrums, he did not, as a rule, think things over or consider the consequences of his actions or impulses. Why the woman in red offered to reward him with pleasure rather than money came down to a curious rule of personal finance: billionaires get for free what the common man can’t buy with his life savings. The woman in red had her ulterior motives beyond the hook, of this he was sure, but he thought perhaps the woman in red had underestimated him. He also thought there was a possibility that he had overestimated himself. These thoughts rippled the surface of his consciousness for only a moment, and departed without a trace. Regardless, Denis had always been susceptible to the charms of a beautiful woman, and he was comfortable with this fact.

The bar and lounge were a quiet murmur, busy but spacious enough for inconspicuous conversation.

The man in the blue shirt was young, on the good side of thirty, and radiated effortless wealth; it wasn’t immediately apparent why he was at the bar in the first place.  He had the air of a man accustomed to corner offices and back rooms.  It was going to be an awkward approach, but there wasn’t time for subtlety.  

“What game are you playing?” asked Denis.  

The man looked up from his drink.  “Do I look like I’m playing a game?”

Denis smiled warmly. “I don’t see any bulls, sharks, or guns, so yeah, I’d say we’re all here to play at something.  Are you here to get laid, get high, or get inside the head of someone with a bit of power and influence?”  The man’s lips smiled unconsciously and he looked up at the top shelf of whiskeys as though he knew that somehow he’d been caught out.  

Denis went on, “I can see by your skin that you relax outside, by your physique that you don’t abuse yourself for pleasure, and by your shirt that you’re not here on a whim. If you don’t have a game lined up, I’ve got something for you.” Denis paused for a moment, and the man in the blue shirt looked at him with an air of quizzical amusement. Denis lowered his voice. “Have you heard of Maxwell’s Demon?”

The man in the blue shirt had become accustomed to people trying to sell him things.  He had made a fortune on Wall Street by the age of 25, and was considered brilliant and precocious, if emotionally unstable. He had a knack for numerical calculation and complex systems, having graduated cum laude from Harvard in applied mathematics and combinatorial optimization at the age of 19, and had accumulated enough wealth and influence in the decade since that almost everyone he met would sooner or later look for an exchange of some kind. While he was reticent to engage in human contact that was not pre-paid and professional, his success depended on buying the right things at the right price at the right time, so he accepted the continual sales pitches as inevitable noise in his environment.  And, as a curator of sales pitches, he appreciated a novel approach.

“Maxwell’s demon… second law of thermodynamics… Go on.”

Denis regarded him appreciatively. “Do you ever trade stocks?”

“I have a hedge fund manager for that.” The man in the blue shirt said this with a twinkle in his eye. This was a technically accurate statement, as he no longer managed the markets on a day-to-day basis. But he did not mention that he was, at that moment, holding positions worth over three billion dollars.

“Exactly, and why is that?  Computer arbitrage is too fast for you to make any sense of the market movements, but what if you could beat the machines at their own game?”

The man in the blue shirt was enjoying the ride, but decided it was time to take back the initiative before the conversation got out of hand.  “Let’s get down to brass tacks.  Are you pushing a product or an investment?  What’s your MVP?”

Denis looked up at the bartender, pointed to the man’s glass and then held up two fingers.  The line of communication was open.  He could take a breath and a moment to think it through.  The bartender didn’t move, but raised an eyebrow and looked at the man in the blue shirt, who nodded.  That sent the bartender through the service door behind the bar, where he disappeared for a surprisingly long time.

Denis collected his thoughts.  “A good algorithm takes advantage of random movements in the financial markets by trading faster than anyone else through computer speed and proximity to the trading servers, but the computers also create their own random movements.  Maxwell’s demon takes advantage of the computer generated fluctuations.  That’s all I can tell you.  One million dollars will buy you a seat on the train, but if it works the way it’s supposed to, there may not be much of a station left when it takes off.”  

The man in the blue shirt let his mind drift for a moment towards MVP, or “Minimum viable product”, a catchphrase from the second internet startup boom, but it has always been the basis of good business, he thought.  Offer no more in a product than what people will buy.  It sounds stingy, but if nobody is willing to pay for it, it isn’t worth anybody’s time for you to sell it.  He considered a curious analogy in government, where libertarians advocate a minimum viable government, inspired in part by the minimum viable state that was cobbled together in the USA after the declaration of independence, and in part by disdain for people in need.  He considered that Government spending ballooned under Reagan and G.W. Bush for the same reason that most business do not offer a minimum viable product.  Given a source of capital, the tendency is to spread it as widely as possible, hoping that it unlocks a new stream of money or power. Plato’s Republic started with the idea of a minimum viable state; he read the Republic once but didn’t get to the end.  Nothing happens and then everybody dies for no reason.  It’s just like Hamlet, he thought. He was only gone for a moment.

“Is it a pyramid scheme?”

Denis smiled again. “If it wasn’t a pyramid scheme, you wouldn’t make any money, would you?”  The bartender carefully placed two glasses in front of them and Denis took the same care in taking his off the bar.  “Scotch?” Denis asked.

“In a manner of speaking.  Do you have any idea who I am?”  The question hung for a moment.  It seemed like it might be an important question as the moment stretched out, arched it’s back, and lingered in the room before the bomb exploded.  

High velocity explosives produce a supersonic blast wave that shocks the air and everything else it hits until it runs out of energy and melts into ordinary sound.  If your ears aren’t blown out, the wave sounds more like a click or a pop than a boom because it isn’t exactly sound.  A sound, no matter how brief, travels in a packet of resonating waves that vibrate the air to and fro until the passing energy dissipates.  A blast wave travels too fast to set up a packet of waves.  The front of the wave over-compresses the air faster than its highest resonant frequency, and unlike the billowing smoke and noise that follows, the shape of the blast wave is perfectly organised, expanding as a sphere in all directions until it disintegrates into the characteristic boom and shudder of a proper explosion, tuned loud and low according to the power of the explosive.  In the near vicinity, say, in the bar where the explosion takes place, the shock travels like a premonition before the sound, informing the matter in its path that something big has happened.  The glasses and bottles on the shelf behind the bar took the news badly.  Although the blast wave was moving too fast to track it visually in real time, the perfect symmetry of shattering glass on the top shelf and the bottom shelf and the rippling of paper napkins out to the far wall gave the peripheral impression that space and time were rushing out the back door.

Denis was looking through the amber in his glass when the feeling of momentum enveloped his body from behind.  His eyes, focussing in slow motion, caught the eye of an elderly man sitting in the far corner.  Explosions are exquisitely beautiful and intricate close up, before the smoke obscures the glowing billows of the initial combustion, and the flicker of a smile played over the man’s face as the shock wave buffeted his skin before the table in front of him planted itself squarely across his body.  The air disintegrated behind the shock and the thud of the impact transformed into an immense roar covering the full spectrum of audible sound.  For a moment, everything seemed energised and anything not bolted down leapt joyfully into the air.  And then the moment passed.  Anyone with ears still intact could hear the faint knocking of big things crashing down as if through pillows beyond the ringing of displaced eardrums, then the faint tinkling of glass and small things finding the ground again.  Then a rushing whoosh of returning air and a whop of combustible material catching fire in the return of oxygen through the blown-out windows.  

It is possible to be in the right part of the wrong place at the right moment in the wrong time, and Denis and the man in the blue shirt were right there, each holding a glass full of scotch.  They looked at one another, instinctively touched glasses, and drank down the sweet, deep, rich honey.  For all the books written on making a sale, the way of the salesman depends on fundamentals: make a connection; build trust; satisfy a demand.  Although not a recommended technique, sharing a near death experience kills two birds with one stone, while sparing the lives of the subjects.  Unbeknownst to the men, the explosion had originated in the street, targeting an adjacent building wherein a foreign embassy was located. The bar was shattered, but essentially intact, through luck or fortune, and the men were unharmed. Thinking the bar had been the target, and gunmen were soon to arrive to finish the job, the man in the blue shirt stood up and looked back at the fire and smoke spreading toward them.  “We should go,” he shouted silently, and started walking towards the side exit.  He pulled the table off the old man and Denis helped carry him through the door and into a hotel corridor. Once outside, they set the old man leaning against the hotel wall.  The old man was obviously stunned, but seemed to try to mouth a “thank you.” His voice cracked and croaked unintelligibly, and Denis thought he resembled nothing so much as a fish suffocating in air.  The man in the blue shirt turned away, put a phone to his ear and said, “Now, please… I can’t hear you… I said, Pick me up now… Yes.”  Then he looked at Denis and offered a handshake, which for some reason struck Denis as an odd gesture.  “My name is Timothy. You can come with me if you want, but I can’t say when you’ll be able to come back.”  Denis shook his hand, as if in a dream. Timothy held his hand for a moment, looked him in the eye, and they stared at each other for a moment too long. Timothy then turned and walked up to a waiting car, whose rear door opened upon his approach. He motioned to Denis, who launched himself through the door and across to the far seat.  The interior was spotlessly clean and absolutely silent, so the ringing in their ears was deafening.  “Get us to nowhere, fast,” said Timothy, in a voice that he hoped was audible to the driver, because he couldn’t hear a damn thing.  Timothy closed his eyes and let his head rest on the seatback.