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Category: Newsletter (page 1 of 27)

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Bitcoin Buzz: How Does It Actually Affect the Price?

The following is an article about cryptocurrencies that I wrote back in February, intended for Mattermark. Right around the same time, Inc. hired me and my editor Alex Wilhelm left Mattermark, so the story got swallowed in the upheaval. I think it’s a decent fit for Exolymph, although the tone is much more impersonal and newsy than my usual dispatches. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this or find it thought-provoking.


Let’s say there’s a cryptocurrency called ExampleCoin, abbreviated as EXC. What would you expect to happen when stories about EXC are published in Coinbase and the mainstream financial press? You might say it depends on the tenor of the stories — are they positive or negative? That should determine how the publicity affects EXC’s price. Or you might say that raising awareness of EXC will be good for the price regardless, because some people who didn’t know it existed will find out, or some people who weren’t paying attention will start.

The influence that media attention has on real cryptocurrencies is less straightforward, regardless of which EXC hypothesis you find most convincing, according to a recent study of five cryptocurrencies. Authors Jean-Philippe Vergne and Sha Wang are associated with the Ivey Business School and economics department at Ontario’s Western University, respectively. Their research was supported by the Scotiabank Digital Banking Lab. Vergne and Wang suggest that media hype may depress the price of Bitcoin and the four other cryptocurrencies they examined.

The researchers explain, “While it has often been assumed that greater visibility in the public sphere, including in the media, would create a buzz affecting cryptocurrency prices positively, our models do not support this idea. To the contrary, we find that a one [standard deviation] increase in public interest […] corresponds to a 10% decrease in returns” (the term “public interest” is quantified in the study). This finding emerged when the researchers controlled for other variables, namely supply growth and liquidity, in an attempt to isolate the effect of media attention. Furthermore, Vergne and Shaw write, “[W]e do not find any evidence that bad press affects price.”

By contrast, Vergne and Wang found that ongoing technological development positively correlates with cryptocurrency returns. The authors hypothesize that greater security, new features, and evidence of a robust technical community that will continue to add to both, are the factors that actually increase the expected practical value of a given cryptocurrency — and thus drive up its price. Vergne and Wang summarize thus:

[T]he innovation potential embedded in technological upgrades is the most important factor associated (positively) with cryptocurrency returns. By contrast, we find that, after controlling for a variety of factors, such as supply growth and liquidity, the buzz surrounding cryptocurrencies is negatively associated with weekly returns.

In a phone interview, Jean-Philippe Vergne pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to expect a cryptocurrency to be valued in the same way as a fiat currency or a commodity like gold. What the US dollar does, in a concrete sense, hasn’t changed in a very long time, and there’s no reason to expect the dollar to develop more “features,” so to speak. Similarly, gold is gold — we can figure out new ways to use it as a material, but the substance itself remains the same. Not so with cryptocurrencies, the structural capabilities of which are always being extended by dedicated development teams.

Vergne acknowledged that this paradigm would lead us to predict that newer cryptocurrencies, with innovative technical approaches and new features, will eventually outpace Bitcoin. He pointed to Ethereum’s trajectory as an example. “People were saying, ‘Okay, in a few months the price of Ethereum will be higher than the price of Bitcoin,’ in terms of the total market cap. A lot of people started to believe that Bitcoin was dead and Ethereum was gonna be the new Bitcoin. Because of its more advanced technology team, it had more potential for future improvement.”

But then a high-profile project called The DAO got hacked, exposing Ethereum’s fundamental technical weaknesses, and the dream came crashing down. (It took a year for Ethereum to reclaim the highs it climbed to in early 2016, which it has now exceeded.) “The code underlying Ethereum was so complex that it had many more flaws than what people imagined, and it was not ready yet for large-scale implementation,” Vergne explained.

Presumably a new cryptocurrency that can excite investors and prove out its potential will not be subject to the same boom-bust oscillation, although Bitcoin’s first-mover advantage is formidable. Bitcoin has the largest number of miners and developers, providing improved cybersecurity and greater liquidity. Its name recognition also far-and-away outstrips the competitors. Up-and-coming cryptocurrencies will be hard-pressed to battle that reputation.

Tony Arcieri, a software engineer at the blockchain network company Chain, discussed the study via Twitter DM. He hopes that Bitcoin and blockchain buzzwords “are past the peak of the media hype cycle.” If so, “true technical merit should hopefully start dominating the reasoning and conversation.” Arcieri emphasized that Bitcoin’s stability, both technically and as a community, will be key to its longterm success, alluding to recent contention over a large technical update.

Joon Ian Wong, a reporter for Quartz who formerly worked at Coinbase, was a little more skeptical of Vergne and Wang’s conclusions. “I think it is accurate to say technical developments increase the value of a crypto in the long run — but its price is still driven by speculators, and media buzz plays a big part in that,” he said in an email.

“It’s analogous to the fundamentals of say a publicly traded company. Ultimately if a company has for instance a strong balance sheet, good cash flows, and strict cost controls of course it’s worth more in the long run. But its stock price is still determined by the vagaries of market rumours, trends among hedge fund managers, and the news cycle.”

In their paper, Vergne and Wang propose that the perception that publicity encourages speculators may actually be what drives reduced returns, writing, “[A] sudden increase in the ‘buzz’ surrounding a cryptocurrency could be interpreted as a signal of increasing volatility. If market participants are risk-averse, given the same expected mean returns, they would be less willing to hold the cryptocurrency if future volatility increases, which would drive prices down and affect returns negatively.”

Angel List partner Parker Thompson remarked on the state of various non-Bitcoin blockchain projects, such as Ethereum and Zcash, “These use cases are still very speculative, and these projects don’t have the maturity of Bitcoin, but my belief is that the market cap of BTC is small enough that it could be wiped out in six months by a true consumer-facing killer app built on top of one of the blockchains I mentioned, or one that does not yet exist.”

Gwern Branwen, an eclectic researcher who has studied Bitcoin in the past, was unimpressed by Vergne and Wang’s study. Branwen responded to a request for comment via Reddit comment:

[T]o sum up my problems with this analysis, the big ones are that it uses an unrepresentative and redundant set of cryptocurrencies, over a short and unrepresentative time period, to investigate a model which ignores all feedbacks and interactions between variables and returns […] to make causal claims which are not and cannot be supported by the model and data, in support of an interpretation […] which lack[s] any face validity[.] Maybe buzz and hype and the media matter a lot less than most people think to Bitcoin’s growth. But this paper doesn’t affect my beliefs on the matter one bit.

Regardless of whether you agree with how Vergne and Wang have manipulated and interpreted the data, it’s important to remember that Bitcoin and its ilk are in fact technologies. Cryptocurrencies resemble standard money — “currency” is right there in the name! — but there’s a lot going on in the code itself, and the community developing that code, that influences how the market will behave.


Header photo by BTC Keychain.

Indignities of Late Capitalism

I prefer capitalism to the alternatives, but I’ve still gotta laugh (and cringe) at some of the results. Modern life is fucking weird. Links links links…

Juicero is a startup that raised more than $100 million to “reinvent juice” or whatever bullshit. A ground-breaking scoop showed that Juicero’s machines are basically unnecessary. You can squeeze the pre-filled juice bags by hand and get essentially the same result.

The whole Juicero saga made me snort audibly at least once. Thank you, venture capitalists. (Maybe Juicero’s valuation is actually justified because of the amount of amusement it caused?!)

Another tidbit from Silicon Valley; this one is a #shortread: “Investing in Snapchat is something that no one responsible should ever do. Snapchat is the equivalent of driving drunk.”

Tweet by Sarah Jamie Lewis. Insert "this is fine" dog here.

Tweet by Sarah Jamie Lewis. Insert “this is fine” dog here.

Tay Zonday of “Chocolate Rain” fame articulated what’s wrong with journalism better than just about anyone else. He’s also very woke, which somehow surprised me. Man, remember when that video went viral? I did not take him seriously, but apparently I should have.

Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss rally creeps me out. Examined through a feminist lens, the name is demeaning — how about a hashtag-less boss who just happens to be a woman? Also, yeah, I’m a woman, not a girl. Plus all the ~omg inspiration~ smacks of multi-level marketing schemes or infoproduct “how to be an entrepreneur” sellers.

There’s more to the Wall Street bull and newly added Fearless Girl sculptures than most of us realized. Capitalist guerilla art + pernicious marketing + the author is dead so who cares anyway. (Every possible take will be written, as the commandments of the internet say!)

Tweet by Charlie Warzel.

Tweet by Charlie Warzel.

Lastly, Louise Mensch thinks that everybody is a Russian agent. She’s pretty close to being Alex Jones for liberals. It honestly seems possible that she’s undergoing some kind of psychotic break and broadcasting the whole process on Twitter.


Header photo by Anthony Quintano.

Will the Digital Future Be Human Enough?

It’s easy to get tired, isn’t it? I heard today that a company is implanting its employees with microchips. Is that a PR stunt or just run-of-the-mill creepy management? Another company, called ObEN, emailed me about its unsettling 3D digital avatars (pictured above). According to the company’s website:

ObEN’s proprietary artificial intelligence technology quickly combines a person’s 2D image and voice to create a personal 3D avatar. Transport your personal avatar into virtual reality and augmented reality environments and enjoy deeper, social, more memorable experiences.

The company is owned by HTC VIVE. ObEN’s about page says, “ObEN was created out of a personal desire for the founders to remain connected to their families by ‘leaving behind’ a virtual copy of themselves during long travels.” Obvious Black Mirror parallel is obvious.

The PR person’s email said, “Knowing it’d be their biggest hurdle, the company has already transformed voice personalization using AI and speech synthesis — so now your virtual doppelganger not only sounds like you, but it can also sing like you, but better… and in Chinese.”

I don’t know why these things depress me. There are infinite issues in the world to be upset about, and in fact ObEN isn’t doing anything wrong. I’m the asshole, honestly, for making fun of their technology. People are devoting years of their lives to working on the project. Getting past the Uncanny Valley is hard.

I guess tonight I’m reflecting on how the internet can be a medium of alienation just as much as a medium of connection. Default engagement modes like snark, which is so prevalent on Twitter and Reddit, generate a lot of good jokes by making people feel bad. The targets are abstracted away as obscure names on screens, so it’s easy to do.

Ironically, VR avatars like ObEN’s are supposed to address the problem of compassion collapse. We’ll find out whether they work soon enough…

Eroge, Chopped and Screwed

I interviewed @DataErase, AKA Maddison, for this week’s dispatch. You can also find her on Tumblr and her website. Full disclosure: I commissioned an artwork from Maddison before undertaking this interview — that’s not really a conflict of interest but you might want to know anyway. The text below has been lightly edited for readability.


Exolymph: What got you into glitch art?

@DataErase: I had a NES as a kid, around the same time that everyone else had N64s and stuff, so the games weren’t really in great condition. We had a copy of Super Mario 2 that eventually stopped showing the graphics correctly. I’d say that was a pretty early memory of me having an attachment to “glitch” as this sorta spooky aesthetic. Like computer ghosts trying to talk to you or something.

When I started making these images, back in 2012, out of screencaps from old PC-98 eroges, I started using that term to describe what I was doing.

Exolymph: Some of your source material is erotica that was made within the particular constraints of the time and the technology. if it’s not too personal, can you talk about the theme of sexuality in your own work?

@DataErase: I like anime and I’m a queer girl. Sometimes that has a lot of baggage attached to it. My work is kinky, for sure, but I see it more as an exploration of where I fit into these things. It’s more about subverting this kinda banal iconography that hentai during that time was made up of — and pulling a deeper, more meaningful thing out of it. Pulling flowers out of decaying flesh. Corrupting the corrupted, if you will.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: In many of your pieces there’s a sort of visual cacophony — lots of colors, lots of detail. Is that an aesthetic you consciously set out for, or did it evolve over time?

@DataErase: It was something that was always there, but I think over the years it definitely accelerated and got more intense. Personally, I really like over-detailed stuff! And very complex patterns! Those are things that I get excited about in art.

Exolymph: What drew you to making art with computer tools as opposed to a more traditional form?

@DataErase: I’m not very good at things involving the real world, I guess you could say. My drawings are very, very bad, hehehe. But I still get a kind of catharsis out of doodling. I’ve spent a long time having a relationship with computers and the internet, so using them to do most things feels more natural to me.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: Do you remember when you first started using computers? Was it for games, or something else?

@DataErase: Probably like elementary school? It wasn’t until I was eleven or so that I started fooling around on one of my dad’s old Mac desktops that he stopped using. It ran, like, OS 8. I played with a lot of retro game console emulators on it. I think the first games I played were the fan translations of Final Fantasy 5 and The Secret of Mana 2…

Exolymph: What do you struggle with when you make art? Are there parts of it that are difficult, or does the flow come easily?

@DataErase: Lately it’s been really hard to initiate the whole art-making process. Entering the mental space that I make art in. It’s a different mode of operating altogether! I don’t really think when I make my glitch collages, it just sorta happens?


So endeth the lesson. Maddison also has a Patreon that you can support!

Massively Multiplayer Voyeurism

I was planning to riff on Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece about futurists who want to live forever. (Summary: lots of interesting research but very little real progress.)

Then I encountered this headline: “Day care workers charged with running toddler ‘Fight Club'” — which, get this — they aired on Snapchat! On a daily basis I encounter more and more incredible things on the internet. What could encapsulate the modern moment better than the Li’l Snapping Turtles Brigade? (I made up that name.)

A few details, per the New York Post:

“In the video clips, Kenny can be heard referencing the activity as ‘Fight Club’ — quoting from the book and movie of the same name in encouraging the children to engage each other physically,” according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors and Lightbridge management insisted that none of the kids was injured in the scraps.

Day care officials copped to the violence but called it an “isolated incident.”

[…]

Day care officials tried to make sure parents who were approached by The Post adhered to the first rule of Toddler Fight Club — which is not to talk about Toddler Fight Club.

I have some unanswered questions. How many Snapchat followers did they have? Did the orchestrators plan to monetize their Brawling Babies endeavor? (I made up that name too.) How would they go about doing that — pay-for-access like a porn star’s private Snapchat, or via advertising? What brand would solicit the endorsement of a heavily bruised four-year-old? Weren’t the perpetrators like, “Hmm, maybe this is illegal?”

The sensationalism. The amorality. The fact that the fight videos were disseminated via Snapchat, of all venues! 2016 was 100% this and I expect 2017 to keep stepping up the pace admirably.

Everyone is a media critic these days, but I must say, it astounds me how mainstream the sordid and the prurient have become. (In some ways I’m happy about it.) Any scaleable broadcasting platform that isn’t censored, or isn’t easy to censor, will be used for fucked-up content ASAP. WorldStar fits the pattern, and they’re relatively tame!

Snapchat still surprises me. I mean, I know the company made its name by helping teenagers sext each other. But still — PVP toddler matches?

Adrien Chen has investigated how scarring content-moderation can be for the arbiters of the platforms that do maintain strict content standards, in a definitive Wired article and later New Yorker followup.

I guess people used to watch public hangings back in the day. Maybe this isn’t so different.


Header artwork by Christopher Dombres.

Yup, Everything Will Definitely Be Fine Since No One Will Lose Their Job Ever

Here is a succinct and insightful comment, from Hacker News user AlisdairO, on the trend toward technology handling every kind of labor that can possibly be delegated to it:

The sad reality is that there’s a nontrivial chunk of the populace that isn’t able to pick up highly skilled roles. It also ignores the role of unskilled jobs in providing space for people whose job class has been destroyed and need to retrain (or mark time until retirement).

I’m not advocating slowing innovation to prevent job loss. I am advocating avoiding magic thinking (‘there’s always new jobs to go to’): we need to start a serious conversation about what we do with our society when we have the levels of unemployment we can expect in an AI-shifted world. Right now we’re trending much more towards dystopia than utopia.

I’m going to get around to the dystopian futurism part, but first, a long digression about intelligence! It’s a divisive topic but an important one.

Sometimes I get flack for saying this, but here goes: The average person is not very smart. Your intellect and my intellect probably exceed the average, simply by virtue of being interested in abstract ideas. We’re able to understand those ideas reasonably well. Most people aren’t. Remember what high school was like?

There’s that old George Carlin quip: “Think of how stupid the average person is, then realize that half of them are stupider than that.” This is not a very PC thing to talk about, especially because so many racists justify their hateful worldview with psychometrics. But it’s cruel to insist that everyone has the same level of ability, when that is clearly not true in any domain.

You and I may not be geniuses — I’m certainly not — but we have the capacity to be competent knowledge workers. Joe Schmo doesn’t. He may be able to do the kind of paper-pushing that is rapidly being automated, but he can’t think about things on a high level. He doesn’t read for fun. He can’t synthesize information and then analyze it.

That doesn’t mean that Joe Schmo is a bad person — if he were a bad person, we wouldn’t care so much that the economy is accelerating beyond his abilities. The cruel truth is that Joe Schmo is dumb. He just is. AFAIK there is no way to change this.

I hate that I have to make this disclaimer, and yet it’s necessary: I’m not in favor of eugenics. In theory selective breeding is a good idea, but I can’t think of a centrally planned way for it to be implemented among humans that wouldn’t be catastrophically unjust.

Also, while raw intellect may correlate with good decision-making, it doesn’t ensure it. Peter Thiel’s IQ is likely higher than mine, but I don’t want him to run the world. (Tough luck for me, I guess.) As Harvard professor and economist George Borjas told Slate:

Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related, and IQ only measures one kind of ability. I’ve been lucky to have met many high-IQ people in academia who are total losers, and many smart, but not super-smart people, who are incredibly successful because of persistence, motivation, etc. So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.

It’s also notable that similarly high-IQ people disagree with each other often.

And now back to the topic of technological unemployment!

The two main responses to concerns along the lines of “all the jobs will disappear” are:

  1. Universal basic income, yay!
  2. No they won’t, look what happened after the Industrial Revolution!

The counterargument to universal basic income is, as Josh Barro put it:

UBI does nothing to replace the sense of reward or purpose that comes from a job. It gives you money, but it doesn’t give you the sense that you got the money because you did something useful. […] The robots have not taken our jobs yet. It is not time to surrender to a social change that is likely to further destabilize a world that is already troubled.

The counterargument to the Industrial Revolution parallel is that AI — alternately called machine learning, or automation, if you prefer those terms — is different. Andrew Ng is the chief scientist at Baidu, and this is what he told the Wall Street Journal:

Things may change in the future, but one rule of thumb today is that almost anything that a typical person can do with less than one second of mental thought we can either now or in the very near future automate with AI.

This is a far cry from all work. But there are a lot of jobs that can be accomplished by stringing together many one-second tasks.

And then there are concerns about general AI, which I don’t want to get into here.

If you’re curious about my opinion, it’s this: We’re in for a difficult couple of decades. Most hard problems can’t be solved quickly.


Tachikoma artwork by Abisaid Fernandez de Lara.

The Fleet Can Withdraw

For work I had to read Lyft co-founder John Zimmer’s manifesto about the future of cities. A quote that jumped out at me:

Technology has redefined entire industries around a simple reality: you no longer need to own a product to enjoy its benefits. With Netflix and streaming services, DVD ownership became obsolete. Spotify has made it unnecessary to own CDs and MP3s. Eventually, we’ll look at owning a car in much the same way.

I think he’s right. No doubt rich car enthusiasts will keep their toys, like people still cherish their record players. Who knows whether it will be legal for a human to drive on regular streets at that point? I’m not the first person to ask that question, but it hasn’t stopped being worth asking.

Nor am I the first person to identify the inevitable next step. When you don’t own any of the equipment that you use, someone else controls your access. They can cut you off. (Pretty sure there are multiple Black Mirror episodes about this.) Consider that your ability to challenge an access provider may be limited. Lyft, for example, includes an arbitration clause in their terms of service:

YOU AND LYFT MUTUALLY AGREE TO WAIVE OUR RESPECTIVE RIGHTS TO RESOLUTION OF DISPUTES IN A COURT OF LAW BY A JUDGE OR JURY AND AGREE TO RESOLVE ANY DISPUTE BY ARBITRATION, as set forth below. This agreement to arbitrate (“Arbitration Agreement”) is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act and survives after the Agreement terminates or your relationship with Lyft ends. ANY ARBITRATION UNDER THIS AGREEMENT WILL TAKE PLACE ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS; CLASS ARBITRATIONS AND CLASS ACTIONS ARE NOT PERMITTED. Except as expressly provided below, this Arbitration Agreement applies to all Claims (defined below) between you and Lyft, including our affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, successors and assigns, and each of our respective officers, directors, employees, agents, or shareholders.

Caps not added. I will never understand the aesthetic conventions of contracts.

For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, this passage from a Nathan Jurgenson essay about the glut of modern media feels related:

From 24-hour television to the online posts being cycled through algorithms optimized for virality, the constant churn of news seems to make everything both too important and of no matter. Every event is explained around the clock and none of these explanations suffice. Everything can be simultaneously believable and unbelievable.

Maybe because we don’t own the information we consume. Of course, we never owned our everyday data, except in the banal sense that people had to buy newspapers.

More likely the correspondence is that we dip in and out of infostreams — open up social media for a minute, scroll, close the app to switch to email — the way we duck in and out of rideshares.

Rhythms of engagement. Cycling like a heartbeat. Blood in, blood out.


Header artwork by Leonardo de Moura.

Pointillism of Failure

One of the most interested things that happened this week was an AWS outage. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Amazon Web Services is a sophisticated cloud host for websites and apps. It is very widely used, especially among startups. When it goes down, as it did on Tuesday, many tech workers can’t do their jobs. At least Twitter was still available, providing a convenient location for complaints. (Additional discussion took place on Hacker News.)

I wrote about the incident for work, first summing up reactions from Twitter and then making the case that AWS is not a monopoly and shouldn’t be regulated as such. In response to that argument, my friend Adam Elkus pointed out that decentralized infrastructure was a founding ideal of the internet. The beautiful new world of http://www was supposed to empower individuals at the expense of institutions, be they governmental or private.

It has done that — but as usual, the reality is more of a complex onion than the idealists seemed to expect. In my first Ribbonfarm essay, I wrote:

The internet enables more individual opportunity than ever before — how would my words manage to reach you otherwise? And the internet is more meritocratic than the landscape it took over, because anyone can distribute their own work to a potential audience of millions, but of course age-old power dynamics can’t be erased in one fell swoop. It also enables winner-take-all businesses, like Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce and Facebook’s reign over news media.

Centralization wins because it’s efficient, given the constraints and affordances of the internet. And yet this centralization can be penetrated — not dismantled, but surface segments can be peeled back. That’s what hackers do when they leak a database or whatever.

One of cyberpunk’s central insights, as an ethos, was that the internet gives individuals more power at the same time that amoral, corporatized institutions build up their strongholds. It’s funny that some of the same people — the cypherpunks, say — explicitly bridged cynical cyberpunk and sunny techno-utopianism.

In John Perry Barlow’s “Independence of Cyberspace” manifesto, presented to “Governments of the Industrial World” at Davos, he said:

The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish. […] We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

No one can arrest our thoughts, unless they’re hosted on AWS — a factory of the information economy if there ever was one — in which case someone fat-fingering a command kicks your thoughts into the inaccessible nowhere of a disconnected server farm. It’s impossible not to be at someone’s mercy.


Header artwork by Igor Kirdeika.

In Effigy

It’s been ages since I sent you fiction. This half-story has been kicking around in my Google Drive for months, and even though it doesn’t have a normal plot or resolution, I hope it will interest you. Suggestions of what might happen next are welcome. Either way, think of this dispatch as a foray into a world based on Exolymphian principles.


Phoenix illustration by Ricardo Orellana.

Artwork by Ricardo Orellana.

“It is a strange wind that blows no ills.” This is what Attwell’s grandmother told him, in her warm, wry voice. They stood in front of a clear window, high up in the arcology. Attwell could see her scalp through the silver hair on her head. Earlier she had mentioned that a cousin offered to buy her a full-body resurfacing, but she planned to decline. “Why bother?” Nana had chuckled.

Now, glancing down at her, Attwell felt slightly embarrassed by the visible skin of her scalp. He ought to look away.

The wind that blew against the window was thick with dust. All they could see was the movement of the air. “It is a strange wind that blows no ills,” Nana repeated.

This conversation took place before she died, as all people must die. Before she was recycled, as all empty bodies must be. Attwell knew that her substances would nourish the arcology. Her generation was dropping one by one, two by three by four by five, and their deaths helped to sustain their children. Chickens and pigs had no sentimental qualms about an old woman’s flesh.

Attwell wished that personality-preservation had existed before the cancer ate up Nana’s brain. Even the stilted simulation of a first-generation model would be a comfort to him now. But perhaps she would have been content to disappear completely.

It was twelve years ago that Nana died. A few days after her body had been surrendered, the computer that coordinated the arcology offered usage stats to Attwell. This percentage went to mineral reclamation, that percentage went to agriculture, and so on. The computer instructed, “Please engage the Cycle of Life grief-management module. This is a complimentary offer, available until” — then Attwell blanked the screen with a harsh motion. He sat on the carpet and wept.

Even now, more than a decade later, Attwell longed to speak to Nana again. If her essence were available as a Dearly Departed® program, Attwell could upload pictures of his new suite, to show her his success. He could demonstrate the screen-morphs that disrupted the monotony of the arcology. Attwell felt sure that Nana would want to explore the reconstructed immersion vistas of rainforests and sunny beaches. And he would tell her about the scientists preparing for expeditions to reclaim the outside world, microbiome by microbiome. The news-beams warned that a manned mission was still decades away, but Attwell hoped it would happen sooner than that.

Attwell was estranged from the rest of his family. Grief had turned to bitterness after Grandpapa’s death, and every segment of the clan came to suspect the others of villainous perfidy. Inheritances are a hard thing. Six of them came to live in the arcology when it was established, but they still never spoke to each other. One cousin’s suite was on Attwell’s level, but the pair had affected indifference so well that it came true. Attwell felt as if he had never known this cousin at all.

Their respective parents had both refused to enter the arcology, calling it a project of Satan. Attwell suspected that they had perished in the howling dust storms many years ago. Nana was always more sensible than her children.

Attwell was not alone, and he didn’t spend all of his time pining for a lost grandmother. Not long after the twelfth anniversary of Nana’s death, incidentally, he held a dinner party for his friends. Two of them were lapsed members of the Sunsplit doomsday cult. (It had lost steam after the predicted doomsday actually came to pass. The arcology chugged along just fine. Mourning rites were still held quarterly, and a fanatic core remained, but general attendance kept slipping.)

At the table these two quarreled about a fine point of the law written by the Sunsplit founder, part of a document officially titled `revealed_arcana4j.txt`. Most people referred to it as the Revealed Arcana, for convenience. Sunsplit lore reported that the First Priest sat down to write a SCRUM report for his manager, found his fingers hijacked by a higher power, and spent seventy-four hours typing sacred secrets. Skeptics often attributed this episode to a layered cocktail of amphetamines and hallucinogens. They couldn’t dismiss the incident altogether, since the First Priest’s computer had been forensically examined.

Atwell’s friends were arguing about the prohibition against killing and consuming phoenixes. The mythical phoenix is a large bird with red and gold plumage, which never dies unless intentionally slain. When it perishes from old age, there is a burst of flame. A phoenix chick emerges from the ashes of its previous life cycle after the blaze subsides.

The rest of the party looked on, bemused, as the Sunsplit believers went back and forth.

“Why forbid the eating of a phoenix,” Timothy asked, “if there is no such an animal in nature?”

A noncombatant chimed in, “Maybe there used to be, before the dust” — but was quickly shushed.

“There must necessarily be such an animal!” replied Valeria, “There’s no sensible reason for the rule to exist, otherwise, and of course the First Priest was sensible.”

Attwell pointed out, “If there are no phoenixes, we cannot possibly slaughter them. Either way, all of us are following the Sunsplit doctrine, without even trying.”

The guest who attended by hologram said, “Did you know that the nanotech fellows at Companion Labs aren’t even trying to make a phoenix, because it would be such bad press?”

“What about an effigy?” Attwell asked. “What if I 3D-printed a phoenix out of cake and ate it?”

Valeria snorted, half amused and half contemptuous. Timothy opened his mouth but someone else cut in before he could speak.

“Haven’t any of you played the phoenix game?” This was the first time Lydia had spoken since the appetizers.

“No, what’s that?” the hologram guest inquired.

Lydia shrugged her thin shoulders. Atwell thought she seemed uncomfortable with the table’s full attention. “Just something I heard about. You harvest phoenixes.”

“I don’t know if it breaks the First Priest’s law,” Valeria declared, “but it’s certainly obscene.”

Not wanting Lydia to be steamrolled, Atwell hurried the conversation in another direction. But after the guests straggled out of his suite that night, he sent her a message.

> what’s the name of that game you mentioned? i searched and nothing came up

She responded almost instantly.

> i shouldnt have said anything =/

> why not? it sounded interesting. i like obscure games. You know how i am

Lydia didn’t respond, but a few minutes later, he received a message from the username vezik77. It was just a hyperlink. No preview popped up. Was this just spam, or did it have something to do with the conversation? Attwell copied the link, opened a sandbox browser, and pasted it into the address bar.


That’s it!

Very loosely inspired by “The Envious Man” from Voltaire’s Zadig the Babylonian, via Project Gutenberg.