This scene is dedicated to Chapters/Indigo, the national Canadian megachain. I was working at Bakka, the independent science fiction bookstore, when Chapters opened its first store in Toronto and I knew that something big was going on right away, because two of our smartest, best-informed customers stopped in to tell me that they'd been hired to run the science fiction section. From the start, Chapters raised the bar on what a big corporate bookstore could be, extending its hours, adding a friendly cafe and lots of seating, installing in-store self-service terminals and stocking the most amazing variety of titles.
Connor Prikkel sometimes thought of math as a beautiful girl, the kind of girl that he'd dreamt of wooing, dating, even marrying, while sitting in the back of any class that wasn't related to math, daydreaming. A beautiful girl like Jenny Rosen, who'd had classes with him all through high-school, who always seemed to know the answer no matter what the subject, who had a light dusting of freckles around her nose and a quirky half-smile. Who dressed in jeans that she'd tailored herself, in t-shirts she'd modded, stitching multiple shirts together to make tight little half-shirts, elaborate shawls, mock turtelnecks.
Jenny Rosen had seemed to have it all: beauty and brains and, above all, rationality: she didn't like the way that store-bought jeans fit, so she hacked her own. She didn't like the t-shirts that everyone wore, so she changed the shirts to suit her taste. She was funny, she was clever, and he'd been completely, head-over-heels in love with her from sophomore English right through to senior American History.
They'd been friendly through that time, though not really friends. Connor’s friends were into gaming and computers, Jenny's friends were jocks and school-paper kids. But friendly, sure, enough to say hello in the hallway, enough to become lab partners in sophomore physics (she was a careful taker of notes, and her hair-stuff smelled amazing, and their hands brushed against each other a hundred times that semester).
And then, in senior year, he'd asked her out to a movie. Then she'd asked him to a track rally. Then he'd asked her to work with him on an American History project on Chinese railway workers that involved going to Chinatown after school, and there they'd had a giant dim sum meal and then sat in a park and talked for hours, and then they'd stopped talking and started kissing.
And one thing led to another, and the kissing led to more kissing, and then their friends all started to whisper, “Did you hear about Connor and Jenny?” and she met his parents and he met hers. And it had all seemed perfect.
But it wasn't perfect. Anything but.
In the four months, two weeks and three days that they were officially a couple, they had approximately 2,453,212 arguments, each more blazing than the last. Theoretically, he understood everything he needed to about her. She loved sports. She loved to use her mind. She loved humor. She loved silly comedies and slow music without words.
And so he would go away and plan out exactly how to deliver all these things to her, plugging in her loves like variables into an equation, working out elaborate schemes to deliver them to her.
But it never worked. He'd work it out so that they could go to a ball game at ATandT Park and she'd want to go see a concert at Cow Palace instead. He'd take her to see a new wacky comedy and she'd want to go home and work on an overdue assignment. No matter how hard he tried to get her reality and his theory to match up, he always failed.
In his heart of hearts, he knew it wasn't her fault. He knew that he had some deficiency that caused him to live in the imaginary world he sometimes thought of as “theory-land,” the country where everything behaved as it was supposed to.
After graduation, through his bachelor's degree in pure math at Berkeley, his Masters in Signal Processing at Caltech, and the first year of a PhD in economics at Stanford, he had occasion to date lots of beautiful women, and every time, he found himself ground to pulp between the gears of real-world and theory-land. He gave up on women and his PhD on a fine day in October, telling the prof who was supposed to be his advisor that he could find someone else to teach his freshman math courses, grade his papers, and answer his email.
He walked off the Stanford campus and into the monied streets of Palo Alto, and he packed up his car and drove to his new job, as chief economist for Coca Cola's games division, and finally, he found a real world that matched the beautiful elegance of theory-land.
Coca Cola ran or franchised anywhere from a dozen to thirty game-worlds at any given time. The number of games went up or down according to the brutal, elegant logic of the economics of fun:
a certain amount of difficulty
a certain amount of your friends
a certain amount of interesting strangers
a certain amount of reward
a certain amount of opportunity
That was the equation that had come to him one day early in his second semester of the PhD grind, a bolt of inspiration like the finger of god reaching down into his brain. The magic was that equals sign, just before the fun, because once you could express fun as a function of other variables, you could establish its relationship to those variables -- if we reduce the difficulty and the number of your friends playing, can we increase the reward and make the fun stay the same?
This line of thought drove him to phone in a sick-call to his advisor and head straight home, where he typed and drew and scribbled and thought and thought and thought, and he phoned in sick the next day, and the next -- and then it was the weekend, and he let his phone run down, shut off his email and IM, and worked, eating when he had to.
By the time he found himself shoving fingerloads of butter into his mouth, having emptied the fridge of all else, he knew he was onto something.
He called them the Prikkel equations, and they described in elegant, pure, abstract math the relationship between all the variables that went into fun, and how fun equalled money, inasmuch as people would pay to play fun games, and would pay more for items that had value in those games.
Technically, he should have sent the paper to his advisor. He'd signed a contract when he was accepted to the University giving ownership of all his ideas to the school forever, in exchange for the promise of someday adding “PhD” to his name. It hadn't seemed like a good idea at the time, but the alternative was the awesomely craptacular job-market, and so he'd signed it.
But he wasn't going to give this to Stanford. He wasn't going to give it to anybody. He was going to sell it.
He didn't go back to campus after that, but rather plunged into a succession of virtual worlds, plotting the time in hours it took him to achieve different tasks, and comparing that to the price of gold in the black-, grey- and white-market exchanges for in-game wealth.
Each number slotted in perfectly, just where he'd expected it to go. His equations fit, and the world fit his equations. He'd finally found a place where the irrational was rendered comprehensible. And what's more, he could manipulate the world using his equations.
He decided to do a little fantasy trading: working from his equations, he'd predicted that the gold in MAD Magazine's Shlabotnik's Curse was wildly undervalued. It was an incredibly fun game -- or at least, it satisfied the fun equation -- but for some reason, game money and elite items were going for peanuts. Sure enough, in 36 hours, his imaginary MAD Money was worth $130 in imaginary real money.
Then he took his $130 stake and sank it into four other game currencies, spreading out his bets. Three of the four hit the jackpot, bringing his total up to $200 in imaginary dollars. Now he decided to spend some real money -- he already knew that he wasn't going back to campus, so that meant his grad student grant would vanish shortly. He'd need to pay the rent while he searched for a buyer for his equations.
He'd already proven to his own satisfaction that he could predict the movement of game currencies, but now he wanted to branch out into the weirder areas of game economics: elite items, the rare prestige items that were insanely difficult to acquire in-game. Some of them had a certain innate value -- powerful weapons and armor, ingredients for useful spells -- but others seemed to hold value by sheer rarity or novelty. Why should a purple suit of armor cost ten times as much as the red one, given that both suits of armor had exactly the same play value?
Of course, the purple one was much harder to come by. You had to either buy it with unimaginable mountains of gold -- so players who saw your av sporting it would assume that you had played your ass off to earn for it -- or pull off some fantastic stunt to get it, like doing a 60-player raid on a nigh-unkillable boss. Like a designer label on an otherwise unimpressive article of clothing, these items were valuable because people who saw them assumed they had to cost a lot or be hard to get, and thought more of the owner for having them. In other words, they cost a lot because...they cost a lot!
So far, so good -- but could you use Prikkel's Equations to predict how much they'd cost? Connor thought so. He thought you could use a formula that combined the fun quotient of the game and the number of hours needed to get the item, and derive the “value” of any elite item from purple armor to gold pinstripes on your spaceship to a banana-cream pie the size of an apartment block.
Yes, it would work. Connor was sure of it. He started to calculate the true value of various elite items, casting about for undervalued items. What he discovered surprised him: while virtual currency tended to rest pretty close to its real value, plus or minus five percent, the value-gap in elite items was gigantic. Some items routinely traded for two or three hundred percent of their real value -- as predicted by his Equations, anyway -- and some traded at a pittance.
Never for a moment did he doubt his equations, though a more humble or more cautious person might have. No, Connor looked at this paradoxical picture and the first thing that came into his head wasn't “Oops.” It was BUY!
And he bought. Anything that was undervalued, he bought, in great storehouses, so much that he had to create alts and secondaries in many worlds, because his primary characters couldn't carry all the undervalued junk he was buying. He spent a hundred dollars -- two hundred -- three hundred, snapping up assets, spreadsheeting their nominal value. On paper, he was incredibly, unspeakably rich. On paper, he could afford to move out of his one-bedroom apartment that was a little too close to the poor and scary East Palo Alto for his suburban tastes, buy a McMansion somewhere on the peninsula, and go into business full time, spending his days buying magic armor and zeppelins and flaming hamburgers, and his evening opening checks.
In reality, he was going broke. The theory said that these assets were wildly undervalued. The marketplace said otherwise. He'd cornered the market on several kinds of marvellous gew-gaws, but no one seemed to actually want to buy them from him. He remembered Jenny Rosen, and all the crushing ways that theory and reality could sometimes stop communicating with one another.
When the first red bills came in, he stuck them under his keyboard and kept buying. He didn't need to pay his cell phone bill. He didn't need his cell-phone to buy magic lizards. His student loans? He wasn't a student anymore, so he didn't see why he should worry about them -- they couldn't kick him out of school. Car payments? Let them repo it (and they did, one night, at 2AM, and he waved goodbye to the little hunk of junk as the repo man drove it away, then turned back to his keyboard). Credit card bills? So long as there was one card that was still good, one card he could use to pay the subscription fees for his games, that was all that mattered.
Living close to East Palo Alto had its advantages: for one thing, there were food-banks there, places where he could line up with other poor people to get giant bricks of government cheese, bags of day-old bread, boxes of irregular and unlovely root-vegetables. He fried all the latter in an all-day starch festival and froze them, and then he proceeded to live off of cheese and potato sandwiches, and one morning, he realized that his entire body and everything that came out of it -- breath, burps, farts, even his urine -- smelled of cheese sandwiches. He didn't care. There were ostrich plumes to buy.
Disaster struck: he lost track of which credit card he was ignoring and had half of his accounts suspended when his monthly subscription fees bounced. Half his wealth, wiped out. And the other card wasn't far behind.
He thought he could probably call his parents and grovel a bit and get a bus ticket to Petaluma, hole up in his folks' basement and lick his wounds and be yet another small-town failure who came home with his tail between his legs. He'd need a roll of quarters and a payphone, of course, because his cellphone was now an inert, unpaid, debt-haunted brick. Lucky for him, East Palo Alto was the kind of place where you got lots of people who were too poor even to go into debt with a cell-phone, people who also needed to use payphones.
He tucked himself into his grimy bed on a Wednesday morning and thought, Tomorrow, tomorrow I will call them.
But tomorrow he didn't. And Friday he didn't, though he was now out of government cheese and wasn't eligible for more until Monday. He could eat potato sandwiches. He couldn't buy assets anymore, but he was still tracking them, watching them trade and identifying the bargains he would buy, if only he had a little more liquidity, a little more cashish.
Saturday, he brushed his teeth, because he remembered to do that sometimes, and his gums bled and there were sores on the insides of his mouth and now he was ready to call his parents, but it was 11PM somehow, how did the day shoot past, and they went to bed at 9 every night. He'd call them on Sunday.
And on Sunday -- on Sunday -- on that magical, wonderful Sunday, on Sunday --
THE MARKET MOVED!
There he was, pricing assets, recording their values in his spreadsheet, and he realized that the asset he was booking -- a steampunk leather gasmask adorned with a cluster of huge leathery ear-trumpets and brass cogs and rivets (no better than a standard gasmask in the blighted ecotastrophe world that was Rising Seas, but infinitely cooler) -- had already been entered onto his sheet, weeks before. Indeed, he'd booked the mask when its real world cash value was about $0.18, against the $4.54 the Equations predicted. And now he was booking it at $1.24, which meant that the 750 of them he had in inventory had just jumped from $135 to $930, a profit of $795.
There was a strange sound. He realized after a moment that it was his stomach, growling for food. He could flip his gasmasks now, take the $795 onto one of his PayPal debit cards, and eat like a king. He might even be able to buy back some of his lost accounts and recover his assets.
But Connor did not consider doing this, even for a second. He dashed to the sink and filled up three cooking pots with water and brought them back to his desk, along with a cup. He filled the cup and drank it, filled it and drank it, filling his stomach with water until it stopped demanding to be filled. This was California, after all, where people paid good money to go to “retreats” for “liquid fasting” and “detox.” So he could wait out food for a day or two... After all, his Equations predicted that these things should go to $3,405. He was just getting started.
And now the gasmasks were rising. He'd get up, go to the bathroom -- his kidneys were certainly getting a workout! -- and return to check the listings on the official exchange sites and the black-market ones where the gold-farmers hung out. He had a little formula for calculating the real price, using these two prices as a kind of beacon. No matter how he calculated it, his gasmasks were rising.
And yes, some of his other assets were rising, too. A robot dog, up from $1.32 to $1.54, still pretty far off from the $8.17 he'd predicted, but he owned a thousand of the things, which meant that he'd just made $1,318.46 here, and he was just getting started.
Up and up the prices went, as asset after asset attained liftoff, and he began to suspect that his asset-buying spree had coincided with an inter-world depression across all virtual economies, which accounted for the huge quantities of undervalued assets he'd found lying around. There was probably an interesting cause for all those virtual economies slumping at once, but that was something to study another day. As it was, he was more interested in the fact that the economies were bouncing back while he was sitting on mountains of dirt-cheap imaginary gewgaws, knickknacks, tchotchkes and white-elephants, and that their values were taking off like crazy.
And now it was time to convert some of those assets to money and some of that money to food, rent, and paid-off bills. His collection of articulated tentacles from Nemo's Adventures on the Ocean Floor were maturing nicely -- he'd bought them at $0.22, priced them at $3.21, and now they were trading at $3.27 -- so he dumped them, and regretted that he'd only bought 400 of them. Still, he managed to dump them for a handy $1150 profit (by the time he'd sold 300 of them, the price had started to tip down again, as the supply of tentacles increased and the demand diminished).
The money dribbled into his PayPal account and he used that to order three pizzas, a gallon of orange juice and ten boxes of salad, paid off his suspended accounts, and sent $400 to his landlord against the $3500 he owed for two months' rent, along with a begging letter promising to pay the rest off within a day or two.
While he waited for the pizzas to arrive, he decided he'd better shower and shave and try to do something about his hair, which had started to go into dreadlocks from a month without seeing a hairbrush. In the end, he just cut the tangles out, and got dressed in something other than his filthy housecoat for the first time in a week -- marvelling at how his jeans hungoff his prominent hips, how his t-shirt clung to his wasted chest, his ribs like a xylophone through the pale skin. He opened all the windows, aware of the funk of body-odor and stale computer-filtered air in his apartment, and realized as he did that it was morning, and thanked his lucky stars that he lived in a college town, where you could get a pizza delivered at 8:30AM.
He barfed after eating the first pizza, getting most of it into the big pot he'd used to hold his drinking water, big chunks of crust and pepperoni, reeking of sour stomach-acid. He didn't let that put him off. His PayPal account was now bulging, up to $50,000, and he was just getting started. He switched to salads and juice, figuring it would take a little while to get used to food again, and not having the time just now to take a long bio-break. His body would have to wait. He ordered an urn of coffee from a place that catered corporate meetings, the kind of thing that held 80 cups' worth, and threw in a plate of sliced veggie and some pastries.
Selling was getting easier now. The economies were bouncing back, and from the tone of the thank-you messages he got from his buyers, he understood that there was a kind of reverse-panic in the air, a sense that players all over the world were starting to worry that if they didn't buy this junk now, they'd never be able to buy it, because the prices would go up and up and up forever.
And it was then that he had his second great flash, the second time that the finger of God reached down and touched his mind, with a force that shook him out of his chair and set him to pacing his living room like a tiger, muttering to himself.
Once, when he'd been working on his Masters, he'd participated in a study for a pal in the economics department. They'd locked twenty five grad students into a room and given each of them a poker chip. “You can do whatever you want with those chips,” the experimenter had said. “But you might want to hang onto them. Every hour, on the hour, I'm going to unlock this door and give you twenty dollars for each poker chip you're holding. I'll do this eight times, for the next eight hours. Then I'll unlock the door for a final time and you can go home and your poker chips will be worthless -- though you'll be able to keep all the money you've acquired over the course of the experiment.”
He'd snorted and rolled his eyes at the other grad students, who were mostly doing the same. It was going to be a loooong eight hours. After all, everyone knew what the value of the poker chips were: $160 in the first hour, $140 in the next, $120 in the next and so on. What would be the point of trading a poker chip to anyone else for anything less than it was worth?
For the first hour, they all sat around and griped about how boring it all was. Then, the experimenter walked back into the room with a tray of sandwiches and 25 $20 bills. “Poker chips, please,” he said, and they dutifully held out their chips, and one by one, each received a crisp new $20 bill.
“One down, seven to go,” someone said, once the experimenter had left. The sandwiches were largely untouched. They waited. They flirted in a bored way, or made small talk. The hour ticked past.
Then, at 55 minutes past the hour, one guy, a real joker with red hair and mischievous freckles, got out of the beat-up old orange sofa turned to the prettiest girl in the room, a lovely Chinese girl with short hair and homemade clothes that reminded Connor of Jenny's fashion, and said, “Rent me your poker chip for five minutes? I'll pay you $20.”
That cracked the entire room up. It was the perfect demonstration of the absurdity of sitting around, waiting for the $20 hour. The Chinese girl laughed, too, and they solemnly traded. In came the grad student, five minutes later, with another wad of twenties and a cooler filled with smoothies in tetrapaks. “Poker chips, please,” he said, and the joker held up his two chips. They all grinned at one another, like they'd gotten one over on the student, and he grinned a little too and handed two twenties to the redhead. The Chinese girl held up her extra twenty, showing that she had the same as everyone else. Once he'd gone, Red gave her back her chip. She pocketed it and went back to sitting in one of the dusty old armchairs.
They drank their smoothies. There were murmured conversations, and it seemed like a lot of people were trading their chips back and forth. Connor laughed to see this, and he wasn't the only one, but it was all in fun. Twenty dollars was the going rate for an hour's rental, after all -- the exactly and perfectly rational sum.
“Give me your poker-chip for 20 minutes for $5?” The asker was at the young end of the room, about 22, with a soft, cultured southern accent. She was also very pretty. He checked the clock on the wall: “It's only half past,” he said. “What's the point?”
She grinned at him. “You'll see.”
A five dollar bill was produced and the poker-chip left his custody. The pretty southern girl talked with another girl, and after a moment, $10 traded hands, rather conspicuously. “Hey,” he began, but the southern girl tipped him a wink, and he fell silent.
Anxiously, he watched the clock, waiting for the 20 minutes to tick past. “I need the chip back,” he said, to the southern girl.
She shrugged. “You need to talk to her,” she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, then she ostentatiously pulled a paperback novel -- The Fountainhead -- out of her backpack and buried her nose in it. He felt a complicated emotion: he wanted to laugh, and he wanted to shout at the girl. He chose laughter, conscious of all the people watching him, and approached the other girl, who was tall and solidly built, with a no-nonsense look that went perfectly with her no-nonsense clothes and haircut.
“Yes?” she said, when he approached her.
“You've got my chip,” he said.
“No,” she said. “I do not.”
“But the chip she sold you, I'd only rented it to her.”
“You need to take it up with her,” the girl who had his chip said.
“But it's my chip,” he said. “It wasn't hers to sell to you.” He didn't want to say, I'm also pretty intimidated by anyone who has the gall to pull a stunt like that. Was it his imagination, or was the southern girl smiling to herself, a smug little smile?
“Not my problem, I'm afraid,” she said. “Too bad.”
Now everyone was watching very closely and he felt himself blushing, losing his cool. He swallowed and tried to put on a convincing smile. “Yeah, I guess I really should be more careful who I trust. Will you sell me my chip?”
“My chip,” she said, flipping it in the air. He was tempted to try and grab it out of the air, but that might have led to a wrestling match right here, in front of everyone. How embarrassing!
“Yeah,” he said. “Your chip.”
“OK,” she said. “$15.”
“Deal,” he said, thinking, I've already earned $45 here, I can afford to let go of $15.
“In seven minutes,” she said. He looked at the clock: it was 11:54. In seven minutes, she'd have gotten his $20. Correction: her $20.
“That's not fair,” he said.
She raised one eyebrow at him, hoisting it so high it seemed like it'd touch her hairline. “Oh really? I think that this chip is worth $120. $15 seems like a bargain to you.”
“I'll give you $20,” the redhead said.
“$25,” said someone else, laughing.
“Fine, fine,” Connor said, hastily, now blushing so hard he actually felt light-headed. “$15.”
“Too late,” she said. “The price is now $25.”
He heard the room chuckle, felt it preparing to holler out a new price -- $40? $60? -- and he quickly snapped, “$25” and dug out his wallet.
The girl took his money -- how did he know she would give him the chip? He felt like an idiot as soon as it had left his hand -- and then the experimenter came in. “Lunch!” he called out, wheeling in a cart laden with boxed salads, vegetarian sushi, and a couple buckets of fried chicken. “Poker chips!” The twenties were handed around.
The girl with his money spent an inordinate amount of time picking out her lunch, then, finally, turned to him with a look of fakey surprise, and said, “Oh right, here,” and handed him his chip. The guy with the red hair snickered.
Well, that was the beginning of the game, the thing that turned the next five hours into one of the most intense, emotional experiences he'd ever taken part in. Players formed buying factions, bought out other players, pooled their wealth. Someone changed the wall clock, sneakily, and then they all spent 30 minutes arguing about who's watch or phone was more accurate, until the researcher came back in with a handful of twenties.
In the sixth hour of the experiment, Connor suddenly realized that he was in the minority, an outlier among two great factions: one of which controlled nearly all the poker chips, the other of which controlled nearly all the cash. And there was only two hours left, which meant that his single chip was worth $40.
And something began to gnaw at his belly. Fear. Envy. Panic. The certainty that, when the experiment ended, he'd be the only poor one, the only one without a huge wad of cash. The savvy traders around them had somehow worked themselves into positions of power and wealth, while he'd been made tentative by his bad early experience and had stood pat while everyone else created the market.
So he set out to buy more chips. Or to sell his chip. He didn't care which -- he just wanted to be rich.
He wasn't the only one: after the seventh hour, the entire marketplace erupted in a fury of buying and selling, which made no damned sense because now, now the chips were all worth exactly $20 each, and in just a few minutes, they'd be absolutely worthless. He kept telling himself this, but he also found himself bidding, harder and harder, for chips. Luckily, he wasn't the most frightened person in the room. That turned out to be the redhead, who went after chips like a crackhead chasing a rock, losing all the casual cool he'd started with and chasing chips with money, IOUs.
Here's the thing, cash should have been king. The cash would still be worth something in an hour. The poker chips were like soap bubbles, about to pop. But those holding the chips were the kings and queens of the game, of the market. In seven short hours, they'd been conditioned to think of the chips as ATMs that spat out twenties, and even though their rational minds knew better, their hearts were all telling them to corner the chip.
At 4:53, seven minutes before his chip would have its final payout, he sold it to the Fountainhead lady for $35, smirking at her until she turned around and sold it to the redhead for $50. The researcher came into the room, handed out his twenties, thanked them for their time, and sent them on their way.
No one met anyone else's eye as they departed. No one offered anyone else a phone number or email address or IM. It was as if they'd all just done something they were ashamed of, like they'd all taken part in a mob beating or a witch-burning, and now they just wanted to get away. Far away.
For years, Connor had puzzled over the mania that had seized that room full of otherwise sane people, that had found a home in his own heart, had driven him like an addiction. What had brought him to that shameful place?
Now, as he watched the value of his virtual assets climb and climb and climb, climb higher than his Equations predicted, higher than any sane person should be willing to spend on them, he understood.
The emotion that had driven them in that experimenter's lab, that was driving the unseen bidders around the world: it wasn't greed.
It was envy.
Greed was predictable: if one slice of pizza is good, it makes sense that your intuition will tell you that five or ten slices would be even better.
But envy wasn't about what was good: it was about what someone else thought was good. It was the devil who whispered in your ear about your neighbor's car, his salary, his clothes, his girlfriend -- better than yours, more expensive than yours, more beautiful than yours. It was the dagger through your heart that could drive you from happiness to misery in a second without changing a single thing about your circumstances. It could turn your perfect life into a perfect mess, just by comparing it to someone who had more/better/prettier.
Envy is what drove that flurry of buying and selling in the lab. The redhead, writing IOUs and emptying his wallet: he'd been driven by the fear that he was missing out on what the rest of them were getting. Connor had sold his chip in the last hour because everyone else seemed to have gotten rich selling theirs. He could have kept his chip to himself for eight hours and walked out $160 richer, and used the time to study, or snooze, or do yoga in the back. But he'd felt that siren call: Someone else is getting rich, why aren't you?
And now the markets were running and everything was shooting up in value: his collection of red oxtails (useful in the preparation of the Revelations spell in Endtimes) should have been selling at $4.21 each. He'd bought them for $2.10 each. They were presently priced at $14.51 each.
It was insane.
It was wonderful.
Connor knew it couldn't last. Eventually, there would be a marketwide realization that these were overpriced -- just as the market had recently realized that they had been underpriced. Bidding would cease. The last, most scared person who bought an overpriced game asset would be unable to flip it, would have to pay for it.
Rationally, he supposed he should sell at his Equation-predicted number. Anything higher was just a bet on someone else's irrationality. But still -- would he really be better off flipping his 50 oxtails for $200, when he could wait a few minutes and sell them for $700? It didn't have to be all or nothing. He divided his assets up into two groups; the ones he'd bought most cheaply, he set aside to allow to rise as far as they could. They represented his lowest-risk inventory, the cheapest losses to absorb. The remaining assets, he flipped at the second they reached the value predicted by his Equations.
He quickly sold out of the second group, leaving him to watch the speculative assets climb higher and higher. He had a dozen games open on his computer, flipping from one to the next, monitoring the chatter and their associated websites and marketplaces, getting a sense for where they were going. Filtering the tweets and the status messages on the social networks, he felt a curious sense of familiarity: they were going nuts out there in a way that was almost identical to the craziness that had swept over the group in the poker-chip experiment. In their hearts, everyone knew that peacock plumes and purple armor were vastly overvalued, but they also knew that some people were getting rich off of them, and that if the prices kept climbing that they'd never be able to own one themselves.
Nevermind that they never wanted to own one before, of course! The important thing wasn't what they needed or loved, it was the idea that someone else would have something that they couldn't have.
Connor had made his second great discovery: Envy, not greed, was the most powerful force in any economy.
(Later, when Connor was writing articles about this for glossy magazines and travelling all over the world to talk about it, plenty of people from marketing departments would point out that they'd known this for generations had spent centuries producing ads that were aimed squarely at envy's solar plexus. It was true, he had to admit -- but it was also true that practically every economist he'd ever met had considered marketing people to be a bunch of shallow, foolish court jesters with poor math skills and had therefore largely ignored them)
He watched the envy mount, and tried to get a feel for it all, to track the sentiments as they bubbled up. It was hard -- practically impossible, honestly -- because it was all spread out and no one had written the chat programs and the games and the social networks and the twitsites to track this kind of thing. He ended up with a dozen browsers open, each with dozens of tabs, flipping through them in a high speed blur, not reading exactly, but skimming, absorbing the sense of how things were going. He could feel the money and the thoughts and the goods all balanced on his fingertips, feel their weight shifting back and forth.
And so he felt it when things started to go wrong. It was a bunch of subtle indicators, a blip in prices in this market, a joyous tweet from a player who'd just discovered an easy-to-kill miniboss with a huge storehouse stuffed with peacock feathers. The envy bubble was collapsing. Someone had popped it and the air was whooshing out.
At that moment, his speculative assets were theoretically worth over four hundred thousand dollars, but ten minutes later, it was $250,000 and falling like a rock. He knew this one too -- fear -- fear that everyone else got out while the getting was good, that the musical chairs had all been filled, that you were the most scared person in a chain of terrorized people who bought overpriced junk because someone even more scared would buy it off of you.
But Connor could rise above the fear, fly over it, flip his assets in a methodical, rapidfire way. He got out with over $120,000 in cash, plus the $80,000 he'd gotten from his “rationally priced” assets, and now his PayPal accounts were bulging with profits and it was all over.
Except it wasn't.
One by one, his game accounts began to shut down, his characters kicked out, his passwords changed. He was limp with exhaustion, his hands trembling as he typed and re-typed his passwords. And then he noticed the new email, from the four companies that controlled the twelve games he'd been playing: they'd all cut him off for violating their Terms of Service. Specifically, he'd “Interfered with the game economy by engaging in play that was apt to cause financial panic.”
“What the hell does that mean?” he shouted at his computer, resisting the urge to hurl his mouse at the wall. He'd been awake for over 48 hours now, had made hundreds of thousands of dollars in a mere weekend, and had been graced with a thunderbolt of realization about the way that the world's economy ran. Oh, and he'd validated his Equations.
He could solve this problem later.
He didn't even make it into bed. He curled up on the floor, in a nest of pizza boxes and blankets, and slept for 18 hours, until he was awoken by the bailiff who came to evict him for being three months behind on the rent.
SiSU Spine (object numbering & object search) 2022