Sunday, December 27, 2009

more Frontiers of Reality

The rain was unrelenting.

I walked down Douglas at a clip, dark grey sidewalk soaked through beneath my feet, black Deer Stags work shoes gripping the concrete. Lunch was only half an hour, and I had already blown half of it cashing my check at the Money Mart.

My hands were shoved in the pockets of black work pants, one hovering above cold, damp keys, the other with six hundred or so dollars in a firm grip.

I ducked into the entrance to the Shoppers Drug Mart and the automatic door groaned itself open. I rounded the corner onto the polished floors with a squeak, flipping back my hood to set the security guard at ease. The light filled my eyes as I scanned the aisles.


Now that the Nexium samples were finished, I needed a couple of these per day to treat the ulcer. When it had woken me up in the middle of the night six weeks ago, I honestly thought it was a heart attack. Like a knife plunged into your most vital part, an ulcer will scare the shit out of you if you let it. Once established, it and only it can decide what you eat, when you eat, what you do and how much pain you can expect as a result.

I had staggered to the bathroom, clutching my chest. I thought for a moment, turned around and rapped on the bedroom door.

Startled awake, his voice came back. "Huh? What's going on?"

"Hey, sorry to wake you guys. I think I need to go to the hospital, this fucking pain is erupting like crazy. It feels like I'm getting stabbed."

He was already in the hall, dressed and grabbing his jacket. "Let's go straight to emergency. Then we'll figure out just what it is."

My mom swept out of the dark room into the hallway, looked into my face, worried, and then gave me a hug. "Don't worry, sweetie. They'll figure it out and get it all fixed up."

"Sure thing ma, back in a bit."

I had been attempting to self-diagnose on the internet - one of the stupider things you can engage in. Research is only worth doing when your judgement isn’t compromised by pain and fear.

Pleurisy? Infection?

Inflammation of the heart sac - pericarditis - that was my wager so far.

They triaged me quick and went through all the usual motions. After a thorough once-over, the kindly doctor announced "no sign of anything" - a diagnosis I had grown very accustomed to in my twenty-nine years….

The intercom went off overhead: "Checkout two is now open." I zoned back in to the shelf in front of me, picking the box of generic ranitidine, 10mg. 5.99

The next day I had gone to a walk-in clinic, and met Dr. Green.

I was wound up when he stepped into the examination room where I was sitting. We shook hands.

"So why are you here?"

I sighed. "I keep getting a really sharp, stabbing pain under my heart, and sometimes in my other side… smoking seems to set it off, but even if I don’t smoke, it still wakes me up an night…"

He interrupted me. "It's worse at night? It wakes you up?"

"Yes. I went to the emergency room last night it was so bad; they didn’t find anything. I thought it may be pleurisy or pericarditis, but apparently not." I took a breath. "So I think that maybe it's an infection, and I'm hoping to get some antibiotics, if you think that would help."

Our eyes met - mine fearful and glassy with pain, his assured and professional.

He spoke. "Hold on a minute." He paused and clicked his pen open over my file.

He locked eyes with me again. "We're going to figure out what's wrong with you, and how we're going to do that is by looking at all the different factors that could be affecting your health. Once I get some information about you, then I can start looking at what is causing the problem."

"Ok, sure." I felt like a deer in headlights, confronted with knowledge and confidence vastly greater than mine at present.

He took notes as he asked the questions.


"Yeah, but very little, like one every couple days. I just quit smoking pot too."

"Drink a lot?"

"No, 2 or 3 beers a week, tops."

"Eating habits?"

"Normal, I guess." I thought briefly. "I was poor for a long time, and didn’t eat well then."

"You say the pain is worse at night. Does eating help?"

I hadn't thought about it. Now that I did, I remembered how a granola bar had staved off the worst of the pain several nights.

"Yeah, I think it does, a bit anyway."

"Take any medication?"

"Just Advil."

"Any other pain? Symptoms? Going to the bathroom ok?"

"Well, my back hurts a lot these days… Other than that, no. Bathroom is fine."

He scribbled a few moments longer and then sat back and looked at me with a hint of a smile.

"I think you have an ulcer - or at the very least, the beginnings of one."

An ulcer? I was shocked. Didn't ulcers happen to stressed old businessmen? I had an uncle get an ulcer from drinking too much, but that was the extent of my knowledge on the subject.

"An ulcer happens when the stomach starts eating itself. You said you were poor and not eating well for a long time, that could have certainly helped create the problem."

"Smoking always sets off an ulcer - it stimulates digestive juices, irritating the stomach. That's why the food helps - it fills the stomach, keeping the acid off of the wound."

He continued. "Alcohol and caffeine don’t help, and anti-inflammatories like Advil are hell on the stomach. Ulcers also often cause back pain, as well."

I thought about the endless nights of empty stomachs, or the days where I was happy with a few bagels and some candy. Endless shitty coffee, spiked with white sugar, whitebread McDonalds muffins. Booze, drugs and cigarettes for the nights; Advil liquigels for the mornings. Suddenly I felt very stupid and destructive. I had poisoned my body - in a way I had never intended.

I thought back to my uncle - experiencing unbearable pain in his stomach, he had decided to keep drinking beer until it went away. A few days later, he called my dad to come take him to the hospital. It turns out he had an ulcer that perforated, flooding his bloodstream with toxic poison; he lost 40 pounds during his month in the hospital, and endured two operations to have his rotten gut fixed up.

Soon I was on Nexium, which would define the first six weeks of my recovery. I found out that ulcers have a 100 percent relapse rate, and can take years to heal correctly.

Much later, I would discover that the most potent cure for ulcers is raw cabbage juice - that a few cups a day can heal an ulcer in a few weeks…

I stopped at the magazine rack. The new Wired was out. I had a minute to kill - and the headline of one of the features had caught my eye.

* * *

Excerpt from Recipe for Disaster: The formula that killed Wall Street (Wired, 2.23.09)

A year ago, it was hardly unthinkable that a math wizard like David X. Li might someday earn a Nobel Prize. After all, financial economists—even Wall Street quants—have received the Nobel in economics before, and Li's work on measuring risk has had more impact, more quickly, than previous Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the field. Today, though, as dazed bankers, politicians, regulators, and investors survey the wreckage of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Li is probably thankful he still has a job in finance at all. Not that his achievement should be dismissed. He took a notoriously tough nut—determining correlation, or how seemingly disparate events are related—and cracked it wide open with a simple and elegant mathematical formula, one that would become ubiquitous in finance worldwide.

For five years, Li's formula, known as a Gaussian copula function, looked like an unambiguously positive breakthrough, a piece of financial technology that allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before. With his brilliant spark of mathematical legerdemain, Li made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels.

His method was adopted by everybody from bond investors and Wall Street banks to ratings agencies and regulators. And it became so deeply entrenched—and was making people so much money—that warnings about its limitations were largely ignored.

Then the model fell apart. Cracks started appearing early on, when financial markets began behaving in ways that users of Li's formula hadn't expected. The cracks became full-fledged canyons in 2008—when ruptures in the financial system's foundation swallowed up trillions of dollars and put the survival of the global banking system in serious peril.

David X. Li, it's safe to say, won't be getting that Nobel anytime soon. One result of the collapse has been the end of financial economics as something to be celebrated rather than feared. And Li's Gaussian copula formula will go down in history as instrumental in causing the unfathomable losses that brought the world financial system to its knees.

How could one
formula pack such a devastating punch? The answer lies in the bond market, the multitrillion-dollar system that allows pension funds, insurance companies, and hedge funds to lend trillions of dollars to companies, countries, and home buyers.

A bond, of course, is just an IOU, a promise to pay back money with interest by certain dates. If a company—say, IBM—borrows money by issuing a bond, investors will look very closely over its accounts to make sure it has the wherewithal to repay them. The higher the perceived risk—and there's always
some risk—the higher the interest rate the bond must carry.

Bond investors are very comfortable with the concept of probability. If there's a 1 percent chance of default but they get an extra two percentage points in interest, they're ahead of the game overall—like a casino, which is happy to lose big sums every so often in return for profits most of the time.

Bond investors also invest in pools of hundreds or even thousands of mortgages. The potential sums involved are staggering: Americans now owe more than $11 trillion on their homes. But mortgage pools are messier than most bonds. There's no guaranteed interest rate, since the amount of money homeowners collectively pay back every month is a function of how many have refinanced and how many have defaulted. There's certainly no fixed maturity date: Money shows up in irregular chunks as people pay down their mortgages at unpredictable times—for instance, when they decide to sell their house. And most problematic, there's no easy way to assign a single probability to the chance of default.

Wall Street solved many of these problems through a process called tranching, which divides a pool and allows for the creation of safe bonds with a risk-free
triple-A credit rating. Investors in the first tranche, or slice, are first in line to be paid off. Those next in line might get only a double-A credit rating on their tranche of bonds but will be able to charge a higher interest rate for bearing the slightly higher chance of default. And so on.

* * *

I put the magazine back on the rack. I would have to read the rest online.

As I stood in line, I couldn't help noticing little fireworks of activity in my mind - vague ideas about the power of language to define reality, and how math is like any other language, in that it describes concepts… defines parameters…

"Just this today?" The cashier eyed me, her figure lit from above by the harsh fluorescent.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Excerpt from Frontiers of Reality

Here is an excerpt from a new project, Frontiers of Reality. It will be all over the place.


The dude sitting in front of me had C.R.E.A.M. tattooed on the back of his neck.

As he violated persons unknown over the phone with his collections skills, I shivered.

I had to get the fuck out of here.

I was on my fourth day back on the phones, a collections agent for a long-standing criminal enterprise in Montreal. Like most long-term spots, it's offered services included the typical "Yellow Pages" subscription, paper rolls for debit machines, and counterfeit money detectors; they had also branched into first-aid kits in recent years, since several states had now passed laws mandating their presence in the workplace. This meant banner sales for our outbound team.

The company also had an in-house collections agency, where I was posted. As soon as an invoice went unpaid for 30 days, the gap-toothed little minx from AR would bounce the file down to us, the Collections Team, and we would follow up with the 'customer'.

In terms of who you wanted to get stuck on the phone with, I was your best bet. That's because I had no intention of actually trying to get payment for anything. I was there to acquire as many paychecks as I could before getting fired to pay for my ticket to Amsterdam, where we were booked at the end of the month. We had killer shows lined up in Brussels and Rotterdam too. I salivated at the thought of crushing Euro stages, of enrapturing strange young women of old-world bloodlines.

Our record had gotten some critical praise, and we had just played our biggest show yet, an opening slot for a big-name electronic act. We played to a packed house of 1000, live voodoo wreckage onsite…The only review I had seen so far said our set was 'ridiculous', and that from a Frenchman yet.

The phone picked up. "Hello?"

I pressed the release button and the line went dead. Oops.

I sighed and scrolled through the call log screens, selecting the client file for an Update.

Under 'Notes', I typed the following:

Do you ever think about getting a different job? This shit is borderline criminal. The poor fuckers we are calling are just hardworking people trying to run their businesses, and we conspire to rip them off. How sweet. Seriously, quit this fucking job now. La la la.

I tapped 'Save' and smiled. I had acted as a subverting interest within call centers for quite some time, but never to such a blatant extent. Before this one, my most recent position had generously allowed me to book many shows on company time by not clueing in that I had 15 browser windows open during my shifts, all dedicated to personal interests.

They were a new operation; I knew they had no workstation monitoring in effect yet.

As with most things in life, timing is everything.

Feeling righteous at that job, I had gotten ballsy, whispering to clients over the phone to "Just say that you will call the Attorney General," I would advise. "Once they hear those words, they will delete the invoice. It's the only way to beat them."

The gratitude from the client would be overwhelming. "I cant thank you enough. We pay all our bills on time, but this one - I mean, it's just a scam, and my husband is ill…"

"I know, yes it is a scam. Just mention the AG and you will be ok. All right?"

That one, at least, I had managed to keep for a couple months. I had caught them at a good time, just getting set-up, meaning the workload wouldn’t be significant for a few months yet. And the no-monitoring was perfect for my ghost-in-the-machine act, which could very realistically have gotten me a severe beating or worse had I been found out.

Actively sabotaging the revenue stream of an organized criminal enterprise? Stupid - and I would like to think, noble.

This one, my collections gig, I knew I would be gone in a week or so. I had progressed to a level of zero respect for these slimeballs and could no longer hide my contempt for the industry that had sustained me financially for so long. Every morning, as we smoked in the bitter grey cold, the big boss would arrive in his Lamborghini, made out of other people's suffering and stupidity and his own vile interest, scattering plebes like pigeons as he wheeled in to man the top tiers of this corrupt enterprise.

I would look at his push-button convertible and his vanity plates and smolder inwardly. "A real fucking tough guy eh? A real class act… One more pathetic fucking criminal with a taste for innocence and a hard-on for money… A bag of shit who will get what he deserves some day - hopefully a mugging and a quick stab with a dirty syringe."

I didn't think I was any better - we're all fuck-ups after all - but at least I wasn't proud of my faults, wasn't actively nurturing them, wasn't bragging with a Lamborghini about how many people I had ripped off.

I wanted to stab him in the guts, to feel a knife dig around his precious interior; wanted to burn fistfuls of dollars in my bare bloody hands in front of his dying eyes.

Break was over. We streamed back in, the Arabic girls in headdress, sweatpants-wearing cigarette-toothed lifers, Montreal North bottom feeders, macks, bangers and hustlers alike.

The building was straight out of an 80's coke-flick. A squat six stories, it occupied prime real estate in downtown Montreal, a tough little aberration among the towering glass cathedrals of the banks and investment firms.

They owned the whole building. One floor was sales, one was the cafeteria, one was collections, and so on. Each entry and exit point was secured by an ancient punch-in security system, where you enter your hand and squeeze these stationary plastic pegs.

I guess the squeeze-style was as unique as a fingerprint, because once you squeezed, it clanged and registered your action. It was pretty cool.

There were cameras everywhere. The lobby was faux-marble and overseen by an attractive brunette, Italian, in her late thirties.

* * *

I rounded the corner and tapped on the glass door. My card didn’t work anymore.

She glared at me, then reluctantly stood and came to the door.

"What do you want?" Her friendly tone was long gone; I had walked out mid-shift a couple days previous.

"I'm here for my paycheck," I smiled.

"Well, they are not ready yet. Come back tomorrow."

"It's Wednesday, I know they are ready. Eric the collections manager has them."

"Well, we'll call him, and see about that." She swung open the door for me to enter behind her.

She sat down at her reception desk and picked up the phone.

"Hi Eric, I have an ex-employee here to pick up his check…mm hmm… it's Nathan… all right." She held the phone out to me, smiling.

"He wants to talk to you."

I took the receiver. "Hey Eric."

"You're a comedian, eh? You think you're pretty funny."

Eric, interestingly, looked very similar to Erik Engstrom, founder of my favourite band, HORSE the Band. I found it hard to reconcile that these two similar genotypes would go on to such disparate endeavours.

I pictured him speaking to me from his desk, the other collections agents well within earshot. Had I simply left, there would likely have been no bad feelings - call centers are designed for high turnover. But I had disrespected him and the company with my client-notes messages, which were practically impossible to delete once saved in the file.

"What's the problem? It wasn't working out, so I left." I was actually starting to sweat a little. I needed that check.

"Well, since you were being so funny in your notes, maybe I'll be funny too. Maybe I'll just keep your paycheck and cancel it. Huh? Wouldn’t that be funny?"

I kept my voice calm. "Well, Eric, if you did that, then I'm sorry but I would have to call the Normes du Travail. I certainly expect to get paid for the hours I worked with the company." The last thing these guys want is a complaint filed against them with the labour standards board. I hoped that would shut him up.

"I'll mail you the check. You're never setting foot in here again."

I smiled at the receptionist; her glare had never left me. "Thanks Eric. I'll expect it next week." I handed her back the phone.

* * *

I did a double take as I passed the newsstand.

The cover of the Montreal Gazette, Tuesday Oct. 9 read:


Police herded about 130 people from a nondescript downtown Montreal office building to RCMP headquarters for questioning Tuesday in what they described as a major crackdown on an alleged international telemarketing ring.

"No fucking way," I scanned the article for details.

Jesus Christ. It was. Belmont Street. I couldn’t believe it. They had been around forever!

When had I left? The previous Monday…came by on Wednesday for a check.

And now… after 12 years in business… they were done.

I had some timing. But I was as worried as I was grateful.

How would I get the check?