Maxwell’s Demon: Chapter 2: Drive

DRIVE

Denis sat blinking as if trying to reset his eyes to a new reality.  He tried to remember the woman from the bar.  He could remember her office.  He could remember her dress. He could remember playfully arguing with her.  It’s a nice calendar, she said, and he said no, a calendar isn’t nice.  A calendar is aggressive, yet passive, always manipulating you, but with Company Time, you control your time.  You control your company’s time.  You are the master and commander of deadlines, plans and projections.  With a calendar, time manages you, but on Company Time, you manage time, and that makes the difference between making money and dropping the ball.  She smiled and told him she could see the value in a more active time-management system, but she didn’t personally need another calendar.  She said, “Denis, you need this calendar, but that’s not why you’re here. You do understand why you’re here, don’t you?” She looked at him with an intensity that pierced him. Then suddenly, swiftly, the memory began to fade, growing hazy and distant, as if viewed through a foggy window. But what was her name?  And what was she wearing? What color were her eyes? Was that even his memory, or just a dream?  Denis suddenly felt very confused, and closed his eyes.

 

After ten minutes of driving slowly through city streets they reached a freeway entrance and began to accelerate.  The ringing in Denis’s ears had receded to a persistent electrical hum when Timothy finally spoke.  “If you don’t know who I am, who sent you to me?” Denis briefly considered the various merits of telling the truth versus constructing a lie, and landed somewhere in the grey area between, not entirely certain which was which.

“I don’t know.  Her voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it.  She was at a big company, but I met her too long ago to remember…. I apologize, I think the explosion did something to my head.  But I have a number to contact if you want in.  Do you want to call it?” He pulled the card out of his shirt pocket.

Timothy rubbed his eyes again and then shook his head violently, as if the ringing in his ears was being caused by a handfull of change bouncing around his skull, and he might just shake the coins loose. As the car passed the last of the muscular city buildings and the squat blocks of suburban buildings spread out around them, he opened his eyes, and said very clearly and quietly, “Yes.  Why not?  Nobody who would want me dead would fail so conspicuously.  By the way, what’s your name? I’m not sure whether I’m glad to meet you, but here we are.”

“Denis.”  He realized he hadn’t introduced himself, and felt unnecessarily ashamed. They shook hands again.  “Does this,” he made a gesture of smoke and debris over his head, “happen to you often?”  

“More often than I’d like.  I don’t so much mind the idea of being dead, but the idea of being killed bothers me.”   

Denis made the call.  “They’re sending gps coordinates.  Does that work?”

“I’m too curious to say no at this point.  Just pass them through to Martin when they come.  So… what is it you’re trying to sell me?”

“The details are way over my pay grade, but the sketch I have looks like an escape from the diminishing margins of computerised arbitrage.”

“So you have no idea how it works.”

“If I did, do you think I’d be out here getting myself blown up?”

“Just so long as it isn’t more data.  Or data about data.  Or big data.  You couldn’t pay me to take on more data.  We know enough already.”  

Denis thought for a moment.  “No, it’s not data.  I can’t remember ever selling something that wasn’t data before, but this time I can honestly say that this project won’t tell you anything about anything.  It’ll either make a ton of money or a shit-ton of money, but it won’t leave you any better informed than you were before.”

“I don’t think I can stomach any more data about data about data,” said Timothy.  “The only information that matters is that one does not equal zero.  The rest is shortcut and extrapolation.  Don’t get me wrong, the math is beautiful, and tremendously helpful in the right hands, but binary addition is the end of the line.  It seems so obvious, but these cyclical banking crises says it’s not.  Bankers may claim that they really can make one plus one equal three, but that’s cutting out the key steps to capital gains.  Good bankers recognise uncapitalized value and apply enough capital to lift it into the market.  The market adds premium capital for access to something valuable.  For that, bankers deserve a commission.  But more information only gets you so far.  There isn’t an infinite well of uncapitalised value out there.  When bankers hit the limit, they start using uncertainty in the information to obscure the “uncapitalized value” portion of the equation so they can recapitalize already capitalized commodities and then sell the redundancy as novelty.  Clever?  Stupid?  At some point of convolution they’re the same thing.  Know better, do worse, pass the potato. Betting on betting on someone else betting on a bad bet.  I’m just fucking tired of information.” Timothy slowly rubbed his temples in a circular motion, squeezed his eyes shut, and frowned. “Knowledge isn’t power.  It isn’t even valuable.  You get nothing for knowing things that other people know.  Credit Default Swaps, Collateralized Debt Obligation, Mortgage-Backed Securities… It all collapses eventually. You may have learned everything you need to know in kindergarten, but everybody else knows it too.  It’s pure economics.  The best ideas are never realised because they’re so generic that nobody can make any fucking money from them.” Denis stared at Timothy blankly, thinking, “I can hardly remember my own name, and this guy is rattling on about God-knows-what… I’m in way over my head.”

There is something about an intense, physical experience that demands expletives.  Timothy opened a compartment and pulled out two small glass bottles of water as the car passed through the endless miles of repeating angles, parallel power lines, uniform lawns, pretty little cookie-cutter boxes, and tufty trees.  

Denis passed his phone forward to the driver.  There was no need to press the sale, but a salesman instinctively repeats what he hears.  He forged on, bravely. “Technology seems like it’s mostly about having your cake and eating it too.  I couldn’t understand that phrase when I was a kid.  I knew it meant to be greedy, but it seemed to me you had to have your cake if you wanted to eat it, and you still have it once eaten, it’s just in your stomach.  It would have helped if the phrase was more like save your cake and eat it too, or hold your cake and eat it at the same time.  That would have clarified the situation. ‘Have’ is too vague.  I had a hard time understanding that it meant wanting to have something both ways, up and down, or hoping for two mutually exclusive outcomes.  But that’s not even greedy.  Of course you want the best of both sides of the coin.  That’s where imagination and reality conflict.  It’s why you always have to do real-world tests to make sure your imagination isn’t inflating your sense of knowledge.  You can imagine things that can’t be.  Like a flying horse.  But then you can also imagine a workaround, like an airplane.  But that’s not the same as a flying horse…  Oh. Say. Should we call the police?”

“We should… But fuck it, I don’t have the energy.  There’s no law against fleeing a burning building, is there.”  Timothy took a long drink of water and looked out the window.  “The one thing everybody learns about physics is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  That’s bullshit, but it’s great for accounting.  The truth is that for every action there is an opposite reaction and a loss.  The loss may be big or small, but there’s always a loss, and the loss goes everywhere.  Punch a paper bag full of flour and you’ll see what I mean.  You make money by passing that loss on to someone else, preferably someone who can’t fight back.”  He looked out at the alternating housing developments and strip malls drifting past the windows.  “My father made a lot of money clearing land and building properties.  Houses, warehouses, offices, all of it.  He bought, built, sold and moved on, and my god was he proud of that.  He tried to teach me everything he knew: how to deal with zoning, contractors, regulators, he just loved the ins and outs of getting a project built and walking in the front door of a place that didn’t exist before.  But by the time I was finished with school he was starting to hit a wall.  New projects weren’t bringing in the same net, and the competition for viable land was overwhelming.  He started complaining a lot.  He still did the work, but it was like his experience was working against him instead of for him.  By the time he died, he was pretty disoriented around his business.  So when I got the reigns I started shorting things instead of building them.  I shorted real estate and mortgages and made money.  I shorted oil and made even more.  It was like my father’s world was inverted for me.  Luckily, I didn’t have his optimistic outlook.  Did you grow up in a suburb like this?” He asked, pointing vaguely out the window.

Denis nodded. “Yes. Not exactly like that, but yes, like this.  It was great until I was about 14.  Then it was like there was acres of space but nowhere to go.”

“I grew up in the most magically improbably place in the world.  On one side of my house was an old forest, on the other a metro stop.  I suppose the metro was a bit of a hike, but it’s the sort of place that you can’t buy because it is beyond rare.  I didn’t understand how incredibly unique it was until much later.  My father sold it when my mother died and we moved on.  I don’t think I enjoyed it all that much; it was my environment so I took it for granted.  You can’t spend your life revelling in your extraordinary privilege.  Emotions don’t work that way.  But looking back, from here, I can see how close to ideal it was to go for a walk in the woods in the morning and then hop on the train to the zoo for the afternoon.”

Denis nodded. “I had a park nearby.  We could ride our bikes there.  You do kind of take where you live for granted, good and bad.  It was clean too.  There were no homeless people.”

“Of course, the suburbs might as well be the desert for an itinerant.  There’s no free space, and no free energy.  Even garbage seems to be closely guarded.  My father had no sense of space.  He loved everything he had built.  He loved the new roads and sewers and windows.  He got such a kick out of being the first person to open a door to a finished building.  I’m not sure that it ever occurred to him that the builders must have opened the door a hundred times, but he always wanted to be there when the finished building first opened up.  There was something about walking into a mint fresh and polished interior for the first time, clean in a way that it will never be clean again, but he never understood that every new building took up space that might never be open again.  He was building himself into oblivion.”
“Did he build suburbs?”

“He built everything.  Wherever he could find the land to do it.  He loved watching people move into houses he’d developed.  There was a lot of joy in that moment and sometimes he would drive around a subdivision looking for people moving in.  It was kind of weird and creepy and voyeuristic when I think about it, because he had this immense car that they could never afford, but he’d stop and shake their hands and they were usually so excited about moving in that they didn’t see it as weird or creepy.  Maybe that was just me.  But now, driving around, that’s what comes back to me.  The newness is gone and the sameness has moved in.  The curse of the twentieth century is the notion that a single-family home and a car can turn a middle class man into a country gentleman.  Is it a shrunken country house or a fortified squatters shack?  Maybe an inbred hybridisation of both.  Freedom devolves into dependence on the job to pay the mortgage and the car to navigate the maze of sameness in the race to escape physical reality.  Energy wasting, culturally irrelevant, ecologically disastrous, the suburban tract house, the british housing estate, it’s starting to feel like the last hurrah of a western european culture disintegrating into delusional self-gratification and ignorant consumerism.”  

“One of our neighbors had a pool,” said Denis, leaning away from the abyss.  He was too late.

“Something horrible happened when the grid system took hold.  The grid is a pathology of obsessive compulsive planners and organisers.  Most people hate them.  Not passionately, but enough to make suburban planners change their street plans from grid to swirly.  But you see this in the plans of obsessive organisers, these repetitive patterns that make it really easy keep track of where you’ve put things.  Except that the repetition, while great for indexing, makes things indistinguishable – harder to locate intuitively – and it leaves people with a revolting sense of entrapment.  It is not always obvious how arbitrary order creates disorder, but the grid of city streets is the epitome of orderly inefficiency.”

“But if it’s so inefficient, why is it everywhere?”

“That’s the story of civilisation, isn’t it?  On paper, a grid seems like the perfect organisation.  Everything can be catalogued and located, and every location is accessible with only a tiny amount of information.  How far on the x-axis, then how far on the y-axis.”

“You can’t get lost in Salt Lake City, unless you get your norths and souths mixed up.  Then you can get lost.  But ordinarily you can’t get lost.  You can get depressed though.”

“That’s just it.  There is no potential for flow or confluence so, when people try to use the streets for navigation, they get in each other’s way at every intersection.  In the best case, you have the inefficiencies of stopping and starting every few hundred feet.  In the worst case, you have grid lock, where each block is full of cars and a stoppage in one block resonates out through the entire system.  Even in stasis, the arbitrary order of the grid leads to inefficiency.  Most of the streets have no reason to be streets, so there is a phenomenal amount of real estate that has been paved for no reason, and would be far better used as parkland or habitation.”

“But how did it happen?  It’s not like there was a decree from god that industrial cities should be grids.  Isn’t there a general law of evolution that flow increases over time in a free system?”

“Yeah,” Timothy paused, trying to remember something particular.  “Constructuralism.  But evolution has these weird moments that you can’t wipe away with Darwinism or rationalisation.  Big antlers on male deer are the height of dysfunctional sexual dimorphism.  There’s nothing flowing about them.  It’s pure evolutionary inefficiency.  It’s like the back channel of the constructural law.  The problem with constructuralism is that it doesn’t account for mutually exclusive flows and opportunity costs.  Flow rates always have random variations, all the way down to brownian motion, so whether a critical flow is strong or weak at a moment when evolution decides whether it is freed or blocked can be totally random.  The assumption is that over time that flow would be unblocked, but evolution doesn’t actually give do overs.  City grids are horribly inefficient, both in terms of space usage and traffic flow, but the decision to use them was based on the flow of information available at the time, and once they were laid down, property laws were laid down over them and together they made it impossible to go back and fix either one.  So counter-evolving systems can create legacies of inefficiency that are irreversible.”

 

“Have you ever actually spent the night in a suburban home?” The abyss yawned, and Denis felt his balance teetering.

“Why would I?  Suburbs are just upscale slums.  People without the money to buy property in the city proper set up in shanty towns on the outskirts.  Slums, shantytowns, suburbs.  Suburbs have the comforts of a city, but no work.  Suburbs press on the city from the outside without contributing to keep the city clean and quiet.  They latch on like parasites.  It’s not their fault though.  Big city mayors care about money and privilege.  They don’t care about the land around them and they don’t care whether residents have access to food, water, air or peace.  City leaders almost universally take it for granted that the surrounding countryside will provide food and water, but they don’t give a shit for the people in the countryside or the land they live on.  They focus on the buildings and roads that bring in more and more people, developing whatever space is there, without minding that food, water and waste need open space.  The great challenge for great cities is avoiding the generation of slums, shantytowns and suburbs, but nobody has done it right.  The market can’t protect open space.  It’s the tragedy of the commons, a city-state with a vision for consumption and control, but without a vision for life or space.  But in business terms, doing it right would be insane.  Do you know who Antoine Lavoisier was?”

“Should I?”

“Not really, but I don’t want to tell you a story you already know.  He was the founder of modern chemistry, but in his day job he was a director of the company tasked with collecting taxes for the French state before the revolution.  Because the crown depended on excise taxes rather than income taxes, Lavoisier realised that the company needed a way to monitor the traffic of goods in and out of Paris, which is where things were generally bought and sold.  So he built a wall with customs check points.  The wall was immensely unpopular, but it may have inadvertently saved Paris from the period of intense suburbanisation that afflicted London.  There is an ancient Chinese adage that the Castle walls protect the prince, while the city walls civilize the people.  And this may explain why the walled city states of Europe birthed the modern age of science, engineering and commerce.  The walls and then the trains.  You see, a wall is not a barrier and a train is not a vehicle, although they can be used that way.  Their real value is organisational.  Walls organise the space and trains organise the time.  City walls are no great barrier to attackers or immigrants, but they are a great barrier to property developers.  A good wall defines the boundary of the city, and prevents the city from exploding out into the countryside, which ruins both itself and its surroundings.  Likewise, a good train system can tell you the time, and show you where you are in space.  Yes, you can use a train for transportation, but it is the arrival of the train, on time, and your arrival, on time, that signals the civilisation of the railways.  The city walls tell people where they must build to gain access to the civilisation of city life, and the trains tell people when to meet one another.  New York and San Francisco are the greatest American cities because they are bounded by water, which is the only wall that still works.  Trains and walls, well used, offer predictability in time and space, and more opportunities than limitations.”

“I remember driving around in cars.  Playing football in the street.  I had a soccer mom, so I was always kind of delivered to where I needed to be.”

“Yeah.  For any given person, it’s probably pretty good.  But how is soccer mom less pejorative than housewife?  It’s like the ecosystem depends on this immense network of voiceless women working twelve hours a day for the privilege of being taken for granted.”  

“My mom seemed like she had a pretty good gig.  She liked reading books.  She didn’t have to fight with anybody or worry about getting fired.  If you can afford it, there are all kinds of reasons to stay home and leave the jobbing to your spouse, as long as you don’t mind the neighborhood bobble-heads.  My mom definitely seemed happier than my dad.”

“I suppose you make the most of where you are.  My father always felt like a hero, and the people moving into his houses always looked up to him in a way that made him feel like a god.  He couldn’t see how many other people were doing exactly the same thing as him.  It was like they were all building the same wall, but in different places, so none of them could see when the wall was going to be totally built up.  Look out there.  We could be anywhere.  London, L.A., Cairo, Bangkok, Cape Town, Sydney, Beijing, Astana, Moscow, New York, Paris, once you get beyond the landmarks their suburbs all look the same.  Same streets, same cars, same frame houses.  Some places are distinguished by their roofing material.  Most of the big developers thought they could get through the wall by building even more, but the wall was the wall.  And it crashed.  In the end, I don’t think I was particularly clever.  I went short because I could see my father getting jaded.  The effort wasn’t paying off for him.  It was a feeling as much as anything.  Like a vortex ring state.”

“A what?”

“It’s mostly a helicopter thing, but you see it all over the place.  It happens when a helicopter descends straight downward a little too quickly.  Instead of pushing the air downward into a cushion of turbulence, the rotors start to push the air outward around the tips.  And then instead of getting fresh air from above, the rotor pulls in the air that it just pushed out around the tips, so that it creates this donut of air revolving down through the rotors, out, around the tips, in over top, and back down again.  The ring looks like a smoke ring.  The problem is that it envelops the rotors in this self-contained ring vortex, totally separate from the clean air column.  What makes it really dangerous is that more power will only increase the size and speed of the vortex, not stop the free fall, and the bigger vortex will be harder to escape.  Something similar happens to non-swimmers in deep water, people stuck in quicksand, and armies stuck in guerrilla wars.”

“So you and Goldman Sachs made a killing on the collapse.  Who followed whom?”

“Goldman Sachs went short because that was the only way they could get out with their shirts.  If there’s only one lifeboat, the last thing you want to do is tell everyone that the ship is sinking.  If everybody’s going to die, there’s nothing heroic about dying with them.  We had different reasons for going short.  For them, it was just a matter of having the information before anyone else and the power change their position.  For me, it was a feeling of hopelessness, like all of the arteries were finally, fully clogged, and pumping more blood would only burst them open.  Then, once I got started with short selling, I just couldn’t stop.  I had a vision of how markets hit the wall and I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Real estate, energy, commodities, water, it’s just a matter of timing.  The big thing that I don’t understand is the climate.  I feel like I should be able to do something more than profit from the collapse here, but I don’t know what.  I don’t pretend that there will be a stable planet in any probable future, no matter what we try to do about emissions.  That bus drove off in the eighties, the train departed in the nineties, and the last boat sailed in the naughties.  The climate is toast.  But the things we would need to do to arrest climate change are the same as the things we would need to do to survive it, as a peaceful civilisation anyway.  Compact the cities, own less, share more, and let trees grow.  Don’t plant trees, just let them grow.  People are terrible at planting trees.  We plant the wrong species in the wrong places and we generally ignore the fact that trees are not the dominant life form in the forests.  Mushrooms are.  They are bigger than trees, older than trees, and more mobile than trees.  Mushrooms are killers, omnivores, and recyclers.  The push and pull between meadow and forest is not a battle between trees and grasses, but between the sun and shade loving fungi underground.”

“Have you tried planting mushrooms?”

“You’d think that would be easy, but their life cycles are weird.”

“What about windmills and solar farms?  They look like a hot ticket.”

“Where?  In whose suburban backyard should I build my windmill?  Or will we put it up in the mountains where the energy is not needed?”

Denis was beginning to understand why the woman hadn’t simply approached Timothy herself.  “What about a foundation?  It seems like everybody with money has a charitable foundation.  You could spend your time getting your photo taken with kids and animals.”

“I tried giving away money for a while.  You’d think that would be easy too, but money is like thick honey.  It doesn’t spread around.  It clumps, and then it clumps on to more clumps, and pretty soon it’s all back together again.  You pretty much have to follow every dollar through to the final recipient if you want it to get to anyone who needs it, and by the time you’ve paid off all the fixers, policemen and warlords on the way, you’ve caused enough local inflation that the money you finally deliver is virtually worthless.”