Tagged: fiction

Killing John Galt, Part IV

I interviewed my first candidate for an as yet undefined intern role two weeks later. Winborn’s admin had contacted a headhunter company they often worked with and they had posted some descriptions on job boards at Stanford and Berkeley. I got a filtered list of eight résumés after a few days and began reading through them. They were all very young and had limited experiences but, given the sources, they had already packed their lives with endearing little adventures. One had been the first in her family to go to college from a second-generation Chinese immigrant family, and could play violin, piano, speak several languages fluently, and volunteered at a homeless shelter in East Palo Alto. She had arrived at the café on a bicycle and was lovely and lithe with a hint of acquired hippiness in her dirty shoulder bag and brown hair band. Sonya was her name and I asked her why she was interested in social entrepreneurship. She seemed initially puzzled by the question, responding with “It sounds like a great opportunity,” then pausing at the realization of the impotence of her statement. I waited and she continued, “I’ve always been interested in different ways of managing and creating social change. Social entrepreneurship is more targeted in terms of the techniques that can be applied to that change.”

“Interesting,” I responded. She was clearly as intelligent as her background suggested, “But what specifically would you like to accomplish?”

There was a searching desire to please flashing in her eyes again as she paused and thought about the question, “Social change can manifest in many different ways, so I’m open to many different opportunities in that regard.”

Good, she didn’t have any information about specific projects and was willing to wait and listen to the details. I unfortunately didn’t have any myself and was hoping that surrounding myself with bright young people would provide the insights that I needed to guide the ship of change. The chart of possibilities was as vast as the enumerated ways of killing John Galt, from educational enhancements to space studies, as far as I was concerned. Winborn had not been more direct than that. I asked Sonya whether she liked helping the poor and she said, “Yes, of course, it’s great doing good in the community.”

“Do you think what you do makes a difference?”

“Yes, we feed homeless people from the area and some of them transition to shelters. They can go on to jobs and futures,” Sonya quickly responded, clearly easing into the conversation as it shifted to topics she was familiar with.

Conceptually, there was a dawning realization for me that the people Sonya and I would be serving had an enormous advantage over my potential staff and me. Down on their luck, suffering, struggling—just achieving something is a remarkable goal. I could measure that easily enough. Meanwhile, the privileged must achieve more and more just to keep from moving backward. I was not retired and would never be retired. I had just transitioned to another role and there was little possibility of experiencing actual privation and physical suffering in my future, yet the difference between sleeping under cardboard along a creek filtering into the Bay and being “transitioned” into a homeless shelter seemed both more trivial and harder at the same time.  We have to convince them that that is a laudable goal. We have to overcome the frictional forces that interfere with the outcome. We have to navigate disturbed and psychotic personalities. The effort towards social change was fraught with incremental events and efforts that had statistical influence on small populations but was unlikely to be disruptive the way technological change can bring about upheaval in work and play practices.

Winborn’s focus on evolutionary metaphors was jading me about the entire project. Founder effects, punctuated equilibriums, inflection—the fog of theoretical descriptions that we use as a road map also meant that there was a certain impossible quality to applying any effort at all. Reaching the moon was easy but conquering poverty was impossible. Watching Sonya’s perfection—animatedly hopeful—almost made me want to call Winborn and recommend that he just pay more taxes with the same money. Let the organizations and bureaucrats build institutions that can chisel away at the edifice, slowly and steadily, and look at giant statistical outcomes to guide changes in policy over time. It converted the problem from individuals into a technocratic game. I could play that game, running regression models and factor analytic comparisons to tease out what was and what was not working effectively. Social change then became policy management.

I asked Sonya, “Do you think government is an effective agent for social change?”

“Sometimes. Welfare has been shown to lead to dependency and the poverty rate has not significantly changed since the Great Society efforts.”

She sounded like Winborn without nuance.

“Why do you think smaller-scale efforts can do better?”

She seemed perplexed by the question briefly again, trying to discern if there was an agenda on my part that needed to be addressed, as if the interview was a multiple choice question test. Anticipate the teacher and get the exact right answer. This wasn’t chemistry, though, and I didn’t know what the answers were, but couldn’t decide how to communicate that to Sonya, so I just waited as she thought things through.

“We can be more efficient in the application of social capital,” she finally answered with an initial crispness that decayed almost to a questioning lilt, and I tried to imagine what exactly that meant.

“In what way?”

“We can see what the local needs are so we don’t deliver the wrong solution for the wrong problem,” she responded.

“OK, so any mass application of welfare or assistance might be inefficient because it doesn’t address local necessities. But what if we have block grants that are given to local government or county or state?”

“Hmm,” she responded and there was a panicky look in her eyes, “But we can still do good, can’t we?”

“I don’t know,” I candidly admitted, “We can certainly add to the acts of kindness, I think, but I’m not altogether certain whether what we can achieve will represent a measurable difference. Is the outcome worth the effort?”

Sonya had shifted noticeably towards panic, now, so I gave her a comforting acknowledgment that her answers had been great and that I was not altogether certain what the nature of the fund and opportunity were or would be. I thanked her and excused myself, deciding to drive a bit in the coastal hills through the flickering redwoods to refocus.

Killing John Galt, Part III

The pageantry is purely imaginary, built around shadows that are projected internally, summoned out of an implausibly brilliant kernel that, despite the quality of the output, is nonetheless inchoate in motivations and intent. I can’t summon it, in point of fact, because summoning implies some kind of active participation, some movement towards the goal, that brings into being other identities and motivates them, couples them in arabesque brocades of plots, then supports their emergence as active referents.

If it were that easy.

I can only frame the problem and watch, once removed, as if I was looking at a jerky Eidoloscope cycling with ideas that enter the frame briefly, get burned through by the matrix of my own history, and last for just long enough to take on a ghostly impermanence in the weave of the storyline.

Limns, sharp edges protruding across towards eclipsing the fair face of the disk, and yes, the more scientific association, as best that can be set in contradistinction to the merely literary form that delineates or describes, shone from a dozen facets in the middle night as I opened my eyes. Moon, Luna, Selene, sister of the daylight, her daughter sliced apart by her over Pan, limned in fractal relief off the china cabinet. Gentle white, so pure. The house was otherwise dark and silent. I tried to stop Galt’s death from intruding on the emptiness surrounding me, but there he was again, carping pretense with presumptuous certitude out to a cowling universe. Rappers holding their guns at dumb angles might shoot him as a casual afterthought, though it would require some kind of time travel to reconcile the periods. There is nothing in randomized killings except a naked reference to noir and anti-hero films from the 70s. I wanted the man dead but it needed meaning without cliché or murkiness. It is a parody, admittedly, so perhaps an invocation of humor would blot out obviousness. Drown in red ink. Drowning in bureaucracy. Drowning in self-righteousness. Stoned to death at a union rally as he shouts “every man for himself!” Fire in a crowded theater.

I have to build an empire of compassion, Galt, if I decide to accept Winborn’s offer. I have to recruit strident and capable young people who were raised to contribute to the collective good while perfecting themselves with carefully manicured life histories. They have intersected the individual and the group, the community, the nation, and the future of the world and arrived at perfect beings who would ask for help and understanding and commitment while you prattle on about selfish self-regard. They will perfect that, too. There is no mutually exclusivity.

A postmodern conceit: Rand herself, dissatisfied with Galt’s performance in bed (likely worn down by weeks of elliptical radio addresses), stabs him in the eye with a fine fountain pen, holding it fast and firm enough that he spasms a few times and stops still.  There, there, OK, she tells him, her complex Russian overtones blurring the consonants with palatalized hissing as she strokes his hair. “You ver never a real hero,” she whispers as a last spasm curls his fingers together.

The pageantry is purely imaginary.

It might scan, but introduces a new thread that forces reworking, reorganization: the presence of the author herself. Not easy, daunting even, but with nontrivial payout on both the humor front and as a symbolic full stop in the parody. The entire fabric could be restructured to lead her to him, drawn moth-fire towards his arrogant disputations of altruism, but convinced that an immanentist presence in the scaffolding of the ideology had to die at her own hands to enforce the intellectual order that only the great individuals matter and they matter like lions matter. Like a lion, the blood drizzling down from Rand’s mouth as she smears her face and tastes her quarry. What would she say to the police? “Be men, be great men, rise up against the conformity of the force and say enough, and let your conscience be your guides.” They haul her away smirking over another loony dame in a degenerate city.  She appears later on a special Firing Line that takes us inside Bayview in a lurid women’s prison segment where she stares blankly out at Hoboken and laments the existence of New Jersey. William F. Buckley asks her if it was worth it and she responds absolutely, that there is perfection and heroism in what she did. She is also getting a lot of writing done inside, when they let her have pencil and paper.

 

I have a coffee meeting with Winborn a week later following pushy rounds of meeting requests from his admin. He cycles down the hill to meet me. I comment that we could have found something closer and that he has the uphill to contend with going back. “That’s what I look forward to,” he enthusiastically responds as he orders his coffee. I take a seat and watch as he argues with the barista over some problem with the quantity of foam in his drink. The girl, not more than twenty, looks confused over his directions and he is angry, his neck pulsing and reddening as he puffs up. I feel flight or flight rising in me as other customers turn around to assess the situation. The voices are hidden behind the whir of the coffee grinder for a moment, and then Winborn sits down with me. He has his drink and is calm.

“Everything alright?” I ask.

He nods agreeably, “Yes, fine.”

I wait for a moment for him to frame the meeting.

“Are you ready to start?” he asks directly and without hesitation.

“I think so, but need a few weeks to get everything I’m currently working on complete and ordered.”

“I thought you are unoccupied? I almost said ‘retired’ but that isn’t appropriate for our age group.”

“I am. I just have one quarry in my crosshairs right now,” I responded, avoiding grinning about the literal referent lashed to what was otherwise a common abstraction in business circles. Winborn was suddenly looking out the window of the coffee shop, apparently dropping the conversational thread as he peered at something. I followed his gaze and saw a police cruiser was pulled parallel to a black SUV. Windows were open and there was an ongoing discussion between shadows in the vehicles.  A hand emerged and shook a flat palm in the air. I wondered if Winborn was concerned that his bike had been taken, but could see it leaning against the plate window of the coffee shop.

“Uhuh, right,” he distractedly responded, excused himself and headed for the bathroom. He was gone for more than ten minutes before finally returning, much calmer. I had distracted myself with The Times on my phone during the interim. Winborn had been caught off guard by gastrointestinal distress, I decided, and he seemed distant even after returning, excusing himself after a few minutes of discussion and making his way to his bike, his clip-on shoes clattering on the tile floor. He waved cursorily as he fixed his sunglasses and began pedaling away, bioluminescent logos glowing off his back.

Killing John Galt, Part II

“Thanks. I’m doing some writing,” I responded. The elongated buildings of SLAC, like a parked train, suddenly suggested a death scenario for Galt: fried by proton beams. I had no idea if one could be fried by protons, but it seemed likely if they were accelerated to high-enough energies. That would require research and I doubted I had the energy to call and bother and get interviews with the relevant parties. I could just wing it. Galt the crispy mess. He tried to directly manipulate the beam at CERN to prove he was the God particle.

“I want to get into social entrepreneurship,” Winborn continued, his eyes narrowing as a coy smile escaped the serious corners of his mouth, “and I need someone to run the effort.” He paused and waited. I gave an exaggerated and perfunctory exhalation, and then smiled.

“Oh, I see,” I responded, “that’s quite a shift for you, Sam, from what I understand.”

“Yeah, but I think it’s the right thing to do. I want to raise a fund and see what can be done based on creative solutionsmaking.”

I cringed at the slurred, ad hoc portmanteau. He was excited, which was good, but it also meant he was exploitable. I could resist and build my terms against his aspirations. Why had I been chosen for this? I could only think that he had read my vitae and latched onto my Peace Corps service some twenty years in the past. I hadn’t been driven specifically driven by a desire to serve. It was a lack of focus or direction that had been my motivator at the time, stalled between graduation and graduate school and without debt or obligations. My “burn rate” at the time (a moment of acid reflux, here, because that’s a phrase accumulated in the crucible of building businesses while keeping families in new shoes and the tenuous threat of being without health insurance) was almost nothing. I could drop by home and catch a meal here and there. I worked a bit as an intern at a consulting firm specializing in transforming databases from one matrix into another to solve this or that analytics problem. I stayed up late with my girlfriend, smoking hash in the night. The economy was stalled and defense spending was drying up. Peace Corps seemed a colorful distraction before diving back into studies. I could decompress in some village far removed from the expectations of Western society.  John Galt came to mind again, leading an exodus of engineers to strike against mediocrity, all in alignment with a storm of abstractions and ideologies. Why had they signed up? Maybe one of the striking technologists accidentally unplugs the safety system of Galt’s elevator and he gets to contemplate his fate for a brief few seconds during free fall, his briefcase and fedora rising up around him as the car plunges downward.

“OK,” I responded neutrally, “But why? What motivates you now at this point in your life?”

“Right. Well, I could tell you a simple story, here, but it is actually more complex than I might have thought a few years back. Can I bore you a little?”

This was an unusual demonstration of earnest depth for a busy person with such a unity of focus, so I nodded encouragement. I had no other appointments for the day and just planned to go for a walk along the waterfront with the dog and think more about Galt’s execution.

“As a businessman committed to the efficient application of capital through the venture system, I realized a long time ago the close relationship between evolution and what we do. Adam Smith inspired Darwin, Darwin inspired the Social Darwinists, championed by the magnates of the era—a misinterpretation that was corrected over time—but the dog-eat-dog competition idea, as a refiner and corrective for sloth and indifference, remained. But corporate behavior is group behavior and we all hold that teams are the most essential part of what we do. I sometimes feel like I’m just a talent tracker and matchmaker, building relationships between people who are complimentary. What is the moral fabric of this system? It is certainly not compassion in the religious sense. Yet we hold that there is some values system that we hardly question. If nothing else, we treat one another respectfully and the taxes we generate get applied more broadly to social goods even while we conspire and scheme to minimize our payments to The Golden State and the Feds.”

He sipped at a water bottle colored by some energy-enhancing additive and continued, “Some in our field are libertarians and think that even that application of tax dollars is misused. The arguments range from welfare creates dependencies to a broad indictment of the ability of a government to apply resources efficiently because centralization short circuits the required information flow for good decision-making. It irritates me, that. Why can a corporation do things any better? I know CEOs who can’t tell you their headcount right now. But what I never understood was the inconsistent and literal application of anti-group ideas. In the natural world competition is almost never between animals but almost always between animals and the environment. The struggle is to survive the winter, to survive disease, for your calves and foals to survive predation. What formed the backbone of the urge towards compassion is exactly what makes us work together to create new things.”

I had my coffee beneath my nose, sniffing the bitter vapors, wondering why this pitch was starting from such abstract premises. Winborn hardly seemed the part based on his manner and his background. He leaned in more closely, his water bottle dangling between his knees. I could tell from the drape and slackness of his arms that he had been on a long ride. “So social entrepreneurship is not merely compassion, but is efficient compassion?”

He waved his bottle at me in a flourish of sloshing negation, “No, no, nothing like that. It might be more efficient. A little thought on the application of charitable giving can be efficient, too. No, I just see it as copacetic with my institutional leanings. I know how to build businesses and organizations, and know people who know these things, too. So apply the same methodology. But that isn’t the motivator, really; the motivator is just the realization that we are suspended in a social gel and that any arguments from the desires of individuals are dependent on co-existence, mediation, or destruction of others.”

“A tragedy of a social commons, if you will,” I volunteered, imagining a phalanx of sheep hurtling towards Galt as he stood atop a hill with a classic ribbon microphone like a shoebox before his face. It would not do, I knew. A parody can be self-referentially transparent but there are extra points available for subtlety. Phoebe, I was in Phoebe. A large print of the moon hung on the north wall, perfectly juxtaposed against a granular image of the dark side on the south wall. Ancient Soviet achievement, I initially thought, but refocusing my eyes I realized the granularity of the image was due to a fine mesh of letters laid over the grayscale of the lunar surface. A hidden message, perhaps, encoded by the artist, but I was too far away to do more than notice it.

“I’m here both because of my own capabilities and because of the people who supported me and the institutions that I have been a part of,” he continued, “The rise of the West is a study in contrasts between the inevitability of sharing, redistribution, collectivism, and opportunities that were bound up in the environment. Railroads, mines, oil, fish, furs. When supply is eclipsed by demand, the urge towards interventionism, compassion, and control arises, but the supply will always end under unsustainable conditions and we are then left with invention. There is no inevitability to compassion oppressing creativity. They exist in an orderly balance, I think, and I want to be a part of turning creativity back into compassion.”

I was surprised and impressed, but perhaps I should have believed that there was more than herd investment strategies and due diligence behind these faux mahogany walls. My contact experiences with investors had been as limited as any entrepreneur: pitch, pitch, pitch, wait for term sheets. And they sat through the same cycle, trying to stay apprised of dozens of shifting and emerging trends in the space of their practices. I decided that Winborn knew more about me than I had suspected, and that this was part of his recruiting strategy, though it was an elaborately intelligent effort to recruit someone to a personal quest if that was the case. But maybe that was too cynical. Why wouldn’t he put forward great effort for something that was of perhaps greater importance than the mere creation of wealth for his institutional investors?

“What exactly do you want to do?” I queried, cutting into the thick abstractions with knife-like precision.

“Start it up. Run it. Same standard profile as any investment opportunity, but with a basket weight of return on investment and some kind of measure of return to human capital. The improvement in graduation rates, the rate of retention of minority students, the reduction in global HIV infections, the increased adoption of solar power. You create the metrics and we iterate and form a portfolio. We start with seeds and then move to A rounds as we attract institutional investors or, more appropriately, institutional charitable givers.”

“What kind of time commit?” I asked, wondering if the question itself could be considered in bad taste given the nature of the endeavor, but also moderately jealous of my time, including the endless considerations of Galt’s fate that were possessing me.

He nodded conciliatorily, “Oh, start it slowly. Figure out what works for you. Find some office space. You can share here or get something somewhere else. You probably should keep office costs down, you know?”

“Absolutely. I could operate out of the seating area of the Whole Foods,” I joked, watching for his response.

I was back out in the lambent sunlight in another twenty minutes with plenty to think about. The breeze had died while I was inside and there was an edge of heat beginning to rise off the dark parking lot. On the way out I had stopped by another pedestal of artistry trapped inside plastic like a frail insect in amber. It was a miniaturized mechanism, like a fine watch, with layers of papery gears that collided with one another at implausible angles, guaranteeing that the machine was incapable of any movement whatsoever.

Killing John Galt

Intro of my short story, Killing John Galt, from 2011:

How do I kill John Galt? That compact question was consuming my waking thoughts. Plots formed into charts, and charts into mental maps overlain by dramatic forms—murder most foul, suicide, death by ridicule, a drowning, evisceration on the aerial of a low-flying aircraft, a push and crash through a plate glass window, the splintering cacophony of an airborne piano—each device trying to fit the cogs of the pubescent story that was my most recent side project. I emphasize that it was a side project. I am not a writer and don’t care to be. Or, more accurately, I do actually write and earnestly wanted to kill Galt in some literarily significant way, but could only spend a few minutes each day stalking him.  I would therefore never profess to be a writer, with all the semantic baggage that surrounds and enervates the term, but, if Galt died, I would readily admit to having killed him and even that I had enjoyed it.

Then I am an assassin, I thought, as I pulled into the parking lot of the venture capitalist group off the freeway south of San Francisco. The cat-piss smell of decaying Eucalyptus drifted over the rows of luxury cars. A Mexican gardener with a facemask paused his weed eater according to protocol as I drifted between the planters looking for the lobby of the building. The buzz began again and I glanced back as the device sliced deeply into the grass and sent a vortex of clippings into the air. An accident, I thought; Galt chopped up by a robot-controlled combine on a giant industrial farm. It became picturesque: purple and black monsoonal clouds contrasted against ochroid fields; the green machine as large and menacing as a dinosaur churning Galt’s body into blood vapor.

Inside the machine’s noise collapsed as the tinted glass door closed. There was art and I took a moment to look around as a flat Asian face studied me from the reception desk. She was pretty and unadorned save dianthus lips reflecting slivers of light from a screen hidden below. Each sculpture was on a pedestal and trapped inside a cube of Plexiglas. The pedestals were veneered to resemble mahogany. The design motif continued in the reception desk and onto the walls of the space, with the coloration faintly mimicked in ruddy floors of stained and sealed concrete. I edged closer to the nearest pedestal. The face watched me but was willing to wait a few moments until I finished with my distractions. There was a mechanical device inside the transparent box. It was concentric brass rings, designed to look old, perhaps medieval, and held together with bits of slick leather. My immediate thought was astrolabe or antique measuring device, but there were tiny intaglios along the rim: cell phones, sports cars, computers, flat-screen televisions, and atomic bombs. New meets old. A clever joke like the entire oeuvre of Koons, etched small. I laughed and the receptionist looked up suddenly and asked if she could help me. I had an eleven AM meeting with Sam Winborn, I told her, and she consulted a display hidden in her desk.

“You’re in Phoebe,” she said flatly and stood. I waited, unsure what that meant, until she invited me to follow her back to a conference room. Coffee was brought and I stared out the window at the arrow of the Stanford Linear Accelerator piercing the coastal hills. Killing John Galt was just a way station in the plot convolutions that I needed to build my parody of Ayn Rand. Conceptually, the basics were already in place. Rich industrialists were consumed with their intellectual superiority, with the power of their wealth, and with the desire to manipulate the political landscape and marketplace to generate more wealth. The great unveiling arrives late in the book when one of the principal characters has an opportunity to productize a new cold-fusion energy cell but determines that it would cannibalize sales of his oil and gas products. Change is suppressed in an accountancy exercise. There is no complex bureaucracy conspiring to enforce mediocrity or willful masses interfering with excellence. The power relationships flow the other way, exploiting the weaknesses in the law and the psychology of the masses.

But it was the economy of commodities and extraction and marketing that my plot concerned. Rand was a visionary failure in that regard—hence the parody—looking backwards at the robber barons as antitrust regulations were ginned up out of the vapors of their excesses. I was in a different world now where margins were still the conceptual driver but where disruptive innovation was the counterpoint in the layered movements of the symphony of investment cycles.

Winborn arrived in t-shirt and cycling shorts. I could smell sweat tinged by body wash rising off him. He was trim and young—mid-forties—a product of excited waves of technological investments and term sheets and IPOs. He was notoriously inattentive, drifting into odd soliloquies with little notice, but then reemerging to ask pointed questions and make snap decisions. His record was good by the VC community’s standards where exits and valuations were the measures of worth.  I was not here to pitch him anything, however. I was seasoned by two exits myself, with the second one sufficient to keep me in Priuses and Bordeaux until I died. I was here at his request to talk about something different, something new. His admin had contacted me a month back and requested a meeting. Sam knew me from a friend and another friend’s colleague. The timing had been bad, then got worse, but then finally opened up, and I finally drove down. He apologized for that but then turned intense after a brief pause.

“To the point, then. Thanks for your time and I hope your retirement is sufficiently fulfilling.”