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Introduction to The Numerati
July 21, 2008
|From the Introduction to The Numerati, about how the advance of computing led to this new data-crunching elite. This is included in a BusinessWeek excerpt, published on Aug. 28, 2008.
Imagine you're in a cafe, perhaps the noisy one I'm sitting in at this moment. A young woman at a table to your right is typing on her laptop. You turn your head and look at her screen. She surfs the Internet. You watch.
Hours pass. She reads an online newspaper. You notice that she reads
three articles about China. She scouts movies for Friday night and
watches the trailer for Kung Fu Panda.
She clicks on an ad that promises to connect her to old high school
classmates. You sit there taking notes. With each passing minute,
you're learning more about her. Now imagine that you could watch 150
million people surfing at the same time. That's more or less what Dave
"What is it about romantic-movie lovers?" Morgan asks, as we sit in
his New York office on a darkening summer afternoon. The advertising
entrepreneur is flush with details about our ramblings online. He can
trace the patterns of our migrations, as if we were swallows or
humpback whales, while we move from site to site. Recently he's become
intrigued by the people who click most often on an ad for car rentals.
Among them, the largest group had paid a visit to online obituary
listings. That makes sense, he says, over the patter of rain against
the windows. "Someone dies, so you fly to the funeral and rent a car."
But it's the second-largest group that has Morgan scratching his head.
Romantic-movie lovers. For some reason Morgan can't fathom, loads of
them seem drawn to a banner ad for Alamo Rent A Car.
Morgan, a cheery 43-year-old, wears his hair pushed to the side, as if
when he was young his mother dipped a comb into water, drew it across,
and the hair just stayed there. He grew up in Clearfield, a small town
in western Pennsylvania a short drive from Punxsutawney. Every year on
the second day of February, halfway between the winter solstice and the
vernal equinox, a crowd in that town gathers around a large caged
rodent still groggy from hibernation. They study the animal's response
to its own shadow. According to ancient Celtic lore, that single bit of
data tells them whether spring will come quickly or hold off until late
March. Morgan has migrated as far as can be from such folk predictions.
At his New York startup, Tacoda, he hires statisticians to track our
wanderings on the Web and figure out our next moves. Morgan was a
pioneer in Internet advertising during the dot-com boom, starting up an
agency called 24/7 Real Media. During the bust that followed he founded
another company, Tacoda, and moved seamlessly into what he saw as the
next big thing: helping advertisers pinpoint the most promising Web
surfers for their message.
Tacoda's entire business gorges on data. The company has struck deals with thousands of online publications, from The New York Times to BusinessWeek.
Their sites allow Tacoda to drop a bit of computer code called a cookie
into our computers. This lets Tacoda trace our path from one site to
The company focuses on our behavior and doesn't bother finding out
our names or other personal details. (That might provoke a backlash
concerning privacy.) But Tacoda can still learn plenty. Let's say you
visit The Boston Globe and read a column on the Toyota Prius. Then you look at the car section on AOL.
Good chance you're in the market for wheels. So Tacoda hits you at some
point in your Web wanderings with a car ad. Click on it, and Tacoda
gets paid by the advertiser—and gleans one more detail about you in the
process. The company harvests 20 billion of these behavioral clues
Sometimes Morgan's team spots groups of Web surfers who appear to
move in sync. The challenge then is to figure out what triggers their
movements. Once this is clear, the advertisers can anticipate people's
online journeys—and sprinkle their paths with just the right ads. This
requires research. Take the curious connection between fans of romance
movies and the Alamo Rent A Car ad. To come to grips with it, Morgan
and his colleagues have to dig deeper into the data. Do car renters
arrive in larger numbers from a certain type of romance movie, maybe
ones that take place in an exotic locale? Do members of this group have
other favorite sites in common? The answers lie in the strings of ones
and zeros that our computers send forth. Maybe the statistics will show
that the apparent link between movie fans and car renters was just a
statistical quirk. Or perhaps Morgan's team will unearth a broader
trend, a correlation between romance and travel, lust and wanderlust.
That could lead to all kinds of advertising insights. In either case,
Morgan can order up hundreds of tests. With each one he can glean a
little bit more about us and target the ads with ever more precision.
He's taking analysis that once ran through an advertiser's gut, and
replacing it with science. We're his guinea pigs—or groundhogs—and we
never stop working for him.
Fat Digital Dossiers
When it comes to producing data, we're prolific. Those of us
wielding cell phones, laptops, and credit cards fatten our digital
dossiers every day, simply by living. Take me. As I write on this
spring morning, Verizon, my cell-phone company, can pin me down within
several yards of this café in New Jersey. Visa can testify that I'm
well caffeinated, probably to overcome the effects of the Portuguese
wine I bought last night at 8:19. This was just in time for watching a
college basketball game, which, as TiVo
might know, I turned off after the first half. Security cameras capture
time-stamped images of me near every bank and convenience store.
And don't get me started on my Web wanderings. Those are already a
matter of record for dozens of Internet publishers and advertisers
around the world. Dave Morgan is just one in a large and curious crowd.
Late in the past century, to come up with this level of reporting, the
East German government had to enlist tens of thousands of its citizens
as spies. Today we spy on ourselves and send electronic updates minute
This all started with computer chips. Until the 1980s, these bits of
silicon, bristling with millions of microscopic transistors, were still
a novelty. But they've grown cheaper and more powerful year by year,
and now manufacturers throw them into virtually anything that can
benefit from a dab of smarts. They power our cell phones, the controls
in our cars, our digital cameras, and, of course, our computers. Every
holiday season, the packages we open bring more chips into our lives.
These chips can record every instruction they receive and every job
they do. They're fastidious note takers. They record the minutiae of
our lives. Taken alone, each bit of information is nearly meaningless.
But put the bits together, and the patterns describe our tastes and
symptoms, our routines at work, the paths we tread through the mall and
the supermarket. And these streams of data circle the globe. Send a
friend a smiley face from your cell phone. That bit of your behavior,
that tiny gesture, is instantly rushing, with billions of others,
through fiber-optic cables. It's soaring up to a satellite and back
down again and checking in at a server farm in Singapore before you've
put the phone back in your pocket. With so many bits flying around, the
very air we breathe is teeming with motes of information.
If someone could gather and organize these far-flung electronic
gestures, our lives would pop into focus. This would create an
ever-changing, up-to-the-minute mosaic of human behavior. The prospect
is enough to make marketers quiver with excitement. Once they have a
bead on our data, they can decode our desires, our fears, and our
needs. Then they can sell us precisely what we're hankering for.
Filtering Out the Noise
It sounds a lot simpler than it is. Sloshing oceans of data, from
e-mails and porn downloads to sales receipts, create immense chaotic
waves. In a single month, Yahoo!
alone gathers 110 billion pieces of data about its customers, according
to a 2008 study by the research firm comScore. Each person visiting
sites in Yahoo's network of advertisers leaves behind, on average, a
trail of 2,520 clues. Piece together these details, you might think,
and our portraits as shoppers, travelers, and workers would jell in an
instant. Summoning such clarity, however, is a slog. When I visit
Yahoo's head of research, Prabhakar Raghavan, he tells me that most of
the data trove is digital garbage. He calls it "noise" and says that it
can easily overwhelm Yahoo's computers. If one of Raghavan's scientists
gives an imprecise computer command while trawling through Yahoo's
data, he can send the company's servers whirring madly through the
noise for days on end. But a timely tweak in these instructions can
speed up the hunt by a factor of 30,000. That reduces a 24-hour process
to about three seconds. His point is that people with the right smarts
can summon meaning from the nearly bottomless sea of data. It's not
easy, but they can find us there.
The only folks who can make sense of the data we create are crack
mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers. They know how to
turn the bits of our lives into symbols. Why is this necessary? Imagine
that you wanted to keep track of everything you ate for a year. If
you're like I was in the fourth grade, you go to the stationery store
and buy a fat stack of index cards. Then, at every meal you write the
different foods on fresh cards. Meat loaf. Spinach. Tapioca pudding.
Cheerios. After a few days, you have a growing pile of cards. The
problem is, there's no way to count or analyze them. They're just a
bunch of words. These are symbols too, of course, each one representing
a thing or a concept. But they are near impossible to add or subtract,
or to drop into a graph illustrating a trend. Put these words in a
pile, and they add up to what the specialists call "unstructured data."
That's computer talk for "a big mess." A better approach would be to
label all the meats with M, all the green vegetables with G, all the
candies with C, and so on. Once the words are reduced to symbols, you
can put them on a spreadsheet and calculate, say, how many times you
ate meat or candy in a given week. Then you can make a graph linking
your diet to changes in your weight or the pimple count on your face.
|Photo courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
The key to this process is to find similarities and patterns. We
humans do this instinctively. It's how we figured out, long ago, which
plants to eat and how to talk. But while many of us were focusing on
specific challenges, others were thinking more symbolically. I picture
early humans sitting around a fire. Some, naturally, are jousting for
the biggest piece of meat or busy with mating rituals. But off to the
side, a select few are toying with stones, thinking, "If each of these
pebbles represents one mammoth, then this rock…." Later, notes Tobias
Dantzig in Number: The Language of Science, the Romans used their word calcula,
meaning "pebble," to give a name to this thought process. But the
pebble was just the start. The essence of calculation was to advance
from the physical pebbles to ever-higher realms of abstract reasoning.
That science developed over the centuries, and we now have experts
who are comfortable working with ridiculously large numbers, the
billions and trillions that the rest of us find either unimaginable or
irrelevant. They are heirs to the science that turns our everyday
realities into symbols. As the data we produce continue to explode and
as computers grow relentlessly stronger, these maestros gain in power.
Two of them made a big splash in the late 1990s by founding Google.
For the age we're entering, Google is the marquee company. It's built
almost entirely upon math, and its very purpose is to help us hunt down
data. Google's breakthrough, which transformed a simple search engine
into a media giant, was the discovery that our queries—the words we
type when we hunt for Web pages—are of immense value to advertisers.
The company figured out how to turn our data into money. And lots of
others are looking to do the same thing. Data whizzes are pouring into
biology, medicine, advertising, sports, politics. They are adding us
up. We are being quantified.
When this process began, a half-century ago, the first computers
were primitive boxes the size of a garbage truck. They kept their
distance from us, purring away in air-conditioned rooms. At this early
stage, the complexity of the human animal was too much for them. They
couldn't even beat us at chess. But in certain numerical domains, they
showed promise. An early test involved consumer credit.
In 1956, two Stanford graduates, a mathematician named Bill Fair and
his engineer friend Earl Isaac, came up with the idea of replacing loan
officers with a computer. This hulking machine knew practically
nothing, not even what the applicants did for a living. It certainly
hadn't learned if they'd gotten a raise or filed for divorce. Legions
of human loan officers, by contrast, were swimming in data. They often
knew the families of the loan applicants. They were acquainted with how
much the applicant had struggled in high school and how his engagement
had fallen through, probably because of a drinking problem (if he was
anything like his uncle). The loan officers had enough details to write
sociological monographs, if they were so inclined, about the families
in their towns. But they lacked a scientific system to analyze it all.
Bankers depended, for the most part, on their gut.
Scores to Quantify Risk
By contrast, the computerized approach zeroed in on only a small set
of numbers, most of them concerning bank balances, debts, and payment
history. Bare bones. Fair and Isaac built a company to analyze the
patterns of those numbers. They developed a way to determine the odds
that each customer would default on a loan. Everyone got a number.
These risk scores proved to be much better predictors than the
gut-trusting humans. Most borrowers with high credit scores made good
on their loans. And more people qualified for them. The machine, after
all, didn't discriminate on the basis of anything but numbers. It was
equal-opportunity banking. Like a lot of analytical systems, it was
fairer. Its narrow scope, paradoxically, returned broad-minded results.
What's more, a lot of people turned out to be better bets than the loan
officers suspected. The market for credit expanded.
Still, the computer knew its place. It thrived in the world of
numbers, and it stayed there. Those of us who specialized in words and
music and images barely noticed it. Yet over the following decades, the
computer grew in power, gobbling up ever more ones and zeros per
millisecond. It got cheaper and smaller, and it linked up with others
around the world. It produced jaw-dropping efficiencies. And from the
viewpoint of the humanities crowd (including this history major), it
swallowed entire technologies. It supplanted typewriters and moved on,
like an imperial force, to rout record players and film cameras. It
took over the mighty telephone. Finally, in the 1990s, even those of us
who had long viewed computers as aliens from the basement world of
geekdom started to make room for them in our homes and offices. We
learned that we could use these machines to share our words and movies
and photos with the entire world.
In fact, we had little choice. The old ways were laughably slow. But
there was one condition: We had to render everything we sent, the very
stuff of our lives, into ones and zeros. That's how we came to deliver
our riches, the key to communications on earth, to the masters of the
symbolic language. Now these mathematicians and computer scientists are
in a position to rule the information of our lives. I call them the
Adapted from The Numerati by Stephen Baker, copyright ©2008. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.
Fiction: The Andean Correspondent
May 30, 2009
THE ANDEAN CORRESPONDENT (fiction, from 1996)
I'm on the lazy side, the first to admit it. If I don't have
to do a job, I'll sit around, page through a magazine, maybe
strum the guitar a little, and think about what I could
accomplish if somehow I were forced to work. I've always known
this about myself. So it was against my better judgment that I
drove my old Beetle one autumn afternoon from Boston to a small
town in New Hampshire, on the piney banks of Lake Winnepasaukee,
and applied for a fellowship that would allow me to do nothing
for two whole years, with the only proviso that I spend this idle
time in the Andean Region.
"You mean I wouldn't have a syllabus or anything?" I asked
the foundation director.
His name, in line with the sylvan setting, was Woody. We sat
together on a little pinewood deck, just a few feet from the
lapping waters of the lake. It was breezy, and he wrapped his
loose frame in a gray cardigan sweater, like the one President
Carter would soon don for his lecture on The Energy Crisis. Woody
wore his hair long, in the style of the late seventies, over his
ears and across his forehead, a ridge of it resting on the top of
his wire-rimmed glasses. I guessed from the gray strands that he
was about 35, which seemed depressingly old at the time. He
smiled at me, radiating wisdom. "Just to learn," he said. "That's
"And how will you know if I'm learning?" I was eager for
"Do you like to write letters?"
I told him I did. It's long been a favorite mode of
"You just write us a letter once a month, and tell us what
"And what would you want me to learn?"
He laughed gently and explained that the Higgins Foundation
simply wanted to seed the globe with young curious Americans,
hoping that in a few years, these same Americans, older and more
influential, would provide the country with expertise in
strategically important regions. He said the foundation paid
$15,000 a year -- princely pay at the time -- plus travel
At that point in my life, I hadn't yet found real work.
Foolishly, coming out of college I'd set my sights on only one
job, as a Spanish teacher at a private school in Connecticut. I
had near perfect grades at Michigan, and my Spanish was fluent. I
didn't see how I could miss. But I did. So I settled for work at
Beacon Book Store. I think I was making $3.25 an hour. This is
all to say that two years lazing in the Andes, sending off an
occasional letter, would hardly disrupt my career.
"Would it be OK if I went down there with my girlfriend?" I
He looked up from the deck and ran his fingers through his
hair. "We don't encourage it," he said. "We'd rather you spent
more time with the locals."
This meant I could break with Helen, who'd had followed me
from Ann Arbor to Boston in the vain hope that a change of locale
would alter my personality. We fought all the time.
In my quiet way, I've always been a sap for patriotism. I
get teary-eyed when I hear crackly recordings of Roosevelt's
first inaugural, or the I Have A Dream speech. I think people
with screwed-up families lean on their country a little more. I
know I did. The idea that some enlightened millionaire named
Higgins had hatched a plan to sprinkle people like me around the
world, and then wait 20 or 30 years for the investment to pay
dividends for humanity, it just seemed marvelous to me, and
quintessentially American. I admit, I was naive at the time. But
I remember driving back from New Hampshire, through a rain storm,
thinking that if I did get this fellowship, I'd work hard down in
the Andes, even without a mandate. I'd meet people, all kinds of
people, and I'd learn. Forgetting my laziness, I vowed to do
whatever I could to make Mr. Higgins proud of his investment in
A month later, I was sitting in Jim Rock's dark room in the
Gran Casino Hotel in Quito, Ecuador, smoking a joint and learning
an early lesson about the Andean Region: They grow some very
powerful drugs there.
I met Jim Rock at the Quito airport. He was standing behind
me in the immigration line, as big and broadfaced as his name,
with sun-bleached hair trimmed over his ears. He asked if the
Miami Herald I'd brought with me had a sports section. I handed
it to him, and he was still studying it as they stamped our
passports, mine American, shiny and new, his Canadian, looking as
though it had gone through a couple cycles in a washing machine.
I still remember him looking up from the newspaper when the
officer asked for his visa.
"Su visa, senor."
"Oh, that," Jim said. Then he said "pagina veintiocho" with
a laughable accent, and pointed to the visa in his passport. I
used to tutor Spanish to football players at Michigan, to get
them past language pre-reqs. Most of them had bad accents. But
Jim, it was as if he was trying to speak miserable Spanish.
His face was tanned and he wore preppy clothes: khakis,
loafers, and a LaCoste shirt. This led me to wonder if he was a
traveling golfer, and I kicked myself for not bringing my clubs.
The weather in Quito, with temperatures getting into the 70s and
80s year-round, was perfect for golf, and I calculated the
9,000-foot altitude would add 30 or 40 yards to my drives. I
imagined my first letter to the Higgins Foundation: After some
trouble with water on the fourth and fifth holes, today I hooked
over the dogleg on six and chipped home for an eagle...
As we waited for our luggage, Jim told me he was from
Vancouver. He was teaching some English, on and off, and
traveling around the Andes. It occurred to me as we talked that
he looked like a heavy, short-haired version of myself. He said
he'd just been down in Peru for a few days.
"Macchu Picchu?" I asked.
"Not far from there."
I wondered why someone would travel all the way into the
Peruvian Andes and not visit Macchu Picchu. "Is there some golf
resort up there, or something?"
Jim glanced sharply at me with bright blue eyes. "What's
"Golf. I was wondering if you were playing golf down there."
I mentioned his tan and the golf shirt. He was studying me
as I said this, and I began to feel a little ridiculous.
Then suddenly he broke into laughter. "That's a good one!
What's your name again?"
I hadn't told him yet. "Mike," I said. "Mike Bavard."
"Somewhere way back," I said.
"Oh, blueblood, eh?"
"You know what, Mike?" he said, coming close to me as if he
were going to tell me a secret. "You look like a Smedley to me.
OK with you if I call you Smedley?"
Before he could explain, our luggage arrived, my enormous
black trunk with chrome buckles, and his compact white-leather
Jim seemed to know one of the customs officials, who whisked
us right through. As we walked outside, I got my first look at
Quito, its red-tile roofs climbing up the bases of steep green
mountains. I took a deep breath of the Andean air, and tasted
diesel exhaust. Jim asked where I was staying. I fumbled through
my Bible-sized South American Handbook and pointed to a hotel I'd
circled, the Falcon, or maybe the Halcon. Its appeal, I remember,
was that each room had a balcony. I imagined sitting on my
balcony, taking the brilliant mountain sun, and writing my
monthly epistle to Higgins.
Jim laughed. "You don't want to stay there." He flagged down
a taxi and told me to join him. "Come on, Smed!" he said.
A year or two after I got back from Quito, I saw the movie
Midnight Express. It's about an American who gets caught running
drugs in Turkey, and winds up in an Istanbul jail. That jail,
with its big sunny courtyard, and all the jaded hippies mingling
about in their dusty, Third-World get up, reminded me of the Gran
Casino. The hotel Jim Rock took me to was full of young people
from all over the world, and there was something a bit grim and
weary about them. These were not vacationers popping down for a
quick look at the Galapagos and Macchu Picchu. Those types stayed
in the modern side of town, in hotels with pools and nice
restaurants. No, the travelers at the Gran Casino were in for the
long haul. Most of the Americans and Canadians had come down
through Mexico and Central America, and from there to Colombia.
They traded stories about crimes and rip-offs, hellish bus rides
down Panama, the revolution in Nicaragua. Most of the Australians
and New Zealanders at the hotel were coming from the other
direction. They had hopped the Pacific, from the Easter Islands
to Chile, and then bussed north through the deserts of Peru. They
could tell the southbound travelers where to avoid pickpockets
and bedbugs, and undercover cops. And the Europeans? Some of them
never stopped traveling. They reminisced about the golden years
in India, in the late 60s, about Thailand and Burma. A few had
even done Africa. This is all to say that the Gran Casino was no
tourist hotel. People there were going about the business of
travel. It was a place to get over dysentery, or to wait for
friends coming in from Cuzco or the Amazon, to do laundry. As far
as I could tell, Jim Rock and I were the only two who arrived by
As we walked in, I saw why Jim laughed when I mentioned
golf. The clientele were lazing about in the courtyard, drinking
coffee and beer, reading novels, most of them wearing sandals and
native cotton pants with a rope around the waist. Hardly a golf
crowd. Jim showed me around. He introduced me to a couple of New
Zealand women he knew, Jan and Eunice, who had a hammock strung
up in their room. And he knocked on the door of two Italian
astrologers, Giulio and Massimo, or Max, who both reached out
with two hands to shake mine and nodded intently as Jim told them
that I was a Bostonian named Smedley.
"Actually, the name's Mike," I hurried to say.
"But they just smiled and nodded, apparently accustomed to
Jim Rock's name games.
Later that night, as we smoked that first joint in his room, I asked him why he called me Smedley.
He smiled. "I think of things, and people, in terms of
sports," he explained. When he was on the high school basketball
team, outside of Vancouver, they once played another team with a
burly power forward named George Smedley. For some reason, Rock
and a friend liked the name. It meant something to them, though
he wouldn't tell me what. This was probably to protect my
feelings, since I was already a Smedley. Jim Rock said he always
tried to keep at least one Smedley in his life. "It's the ying to
my yang," he said, his eyes dancing.
I hated the name Smedley. I felt I was being used, and
ridiculed. So stayed away from Rock for a couple of days, letting
him know, for what it was worth, that he didn't have his Smedley
on call. In fact I didn't need him at all. I didn't like drugs
all that much. And even if I had, Jim Rock had no monopoly on
supply. A fog of marijuana hung in the hallways, pierced
occasionally by the pharmaceutical scent of cocaine, which back
then was still considered benign.
I set up a table in my room and studied the South American
Handbook, trying to plan my next two years. I also toured
colonial Quito. I climbed the steps behind the hotel, to the top
of a green hill called El Panecillo, and took in the view of
Quito, the poor, colonial neighborhood below me, and the tacky
modern section in the distance. I visited the Jesuit cathedral,
La Compania. It dripped with gold and was surrounded by beggars.
I walked up and down the cobblestone merchant streets, looking at
the silverware and jewelry, the stands of fruits I hadn't yet
tasted, papayas and chirimoyas. I saw the caskets in the
carpenters' shops, some of them arranged in sidewalk displays.
The infant-sized models, in white and baby blue, caught my eye. I
noted that detail and planned to mention it in my first letter to
I tried to make other friends at the Gran Casino. I remember
walking to a restaurant with the New Zealanders, Eunice and Jan.
Eunice, tall and thin, with frizzy hair, talked a lot, while the
beautiful Jan stared out a window. Guinea pigs, a national food
in Ecuador, scurried under our table, eating crumbs. Jan and
Eunice ordered guinea pig, reasoning that at least it would be
fresh; I opted for chicken. While we waited for the food, Eunice
told me she'd heard that robbers in Colombia, armed with very
sharp knives grabbed Gringos in the streets and slit their
thumbs. While the injured foreigners gaped at their wounds, she
said, the Colombians made off with their watches, wallets and
jewelry. I laughed and said it seemed like a round-about way of
doing business. "No," Jan said, looking at me for the first time.
"It's the truth."
The Italian astrologers were well into their second decade
of Third-World wanderings, and they had their room hung with all
sorts of Asian and African fabrics. Giulio, a balding gnome with
a pony tail, was the guru. He didn't speak English or Spanish,
and sat smiling gently as Massimo, or Max, carried out business.
Max had soft features and curly black hair, and looked to me like
an Apollo, by Velazquez or Caravaggio. He said he'd learned most
of his English from Bob Dylan songs. He rolled a joint and asked
me what I was doing in Ecuador.
"I guess I'll teach English," I said, wondering whether to
smoke when he passed the joint; it was barely breakfast time. As
it turned out, I didn't have to worry. He smoked it all himself,
speaking slower and slower as the drug settled in.
"But you arrived..." He was holding in the smoke, and
speaking in bursts. "By an airplane, no?"
"With the big box."
I supposed he was wondering why someone with no firm plans
would fly to Quito with such an enormous trunk. At this point I
wasn't telling anyone about the foundation. I thought it would
raise too many questions. I also worried that once people knew I
had a steady income, they'd hit me up for loans. Money wasn't
something you bragged about at the Gran Casino.
Yes, I said. I did come in an airplane with the trunk. Then
it was quiet. We sat there, the three of us, Max stoned, Giulio
apparently meditating, and me, determined not to break whatever
peace they were working on with some trivial question or remark.
Then, in a soft, lyrical Italian, Giulio finally murmured
something to Max.
"He says you should probably go," Max said, his eyes half
shut. "Something about the vibes he doesn't... dig." Giulio
smiled at me and waved with his fingers as I got up and left.
I bought the local paper every day from a little Indian boy
who stood at the street corner yelling, "El Comeeeeeeeercio!" It
was an excruciatingly boring paper. But I had a letter to write.
I sat at the table in my room, clipping out wire stories about
Peru and Bolivia, both run by military governments, and Colombia,
which appeared to be a democracy, at least in name. Ecuador's
military leaders were planning some sort of referendum on
democracy. I suspected it was a charade, but couldn't tell from
the pages and pages of gray coverage in El Comercio. At this
point, Mr. Higgins would probably have instructed me to go out
and talk to people.
I talked to Jim Rock. I guess I should mention here that
ever since my days in Ann Arbor, and probably even before, I've
always preferred to be among the most liberal in a group, and
hated to be the most conservative. This wouldn't be a problem if
I were a Trotskiite or an Anarcho-syndicalist. But I'm just a
liberal Democrat. Back in Ann Arbor in the mid-'70s, those of us
who didn't object too much to the rule of law, who believed in
marriage and put up with the free market, we were viewed as
reactionaries. The politics were much the same at the Gran
Casino, where Fidel Castro probably would have emerged as a
The lone conservative was Jim Rock. He'd circulate among the
travelers at the Gran Casino cafe, looking like a frat boy in
Haight Ashbury. He'd sit down with the French and Germans,
sometimes using his ridiculous Spanish, and turn the conversation
gently into politics. Carter was a fool for giving away the
Panama Canal, he'd say. Since American presidents, by political
definition, were either fools or criminals, and usually both, the
Europeans figured Jim was toeing the line. But by attacking the
American president from the right, he blindsided them. It was fun
to watch. Within a few minutes, he'd be asking, earnestly, if the
old bridges over the Seine were wide enough for Soviet tanks.
Then, before a serious argument could start, Jim would laugh and
stand up, patting them on the back, shaking a hand or two, and
move on to another table. When he was done, he'd often sit down
with me. "It's you and me, Smed," he'd say, shaking his head.
More than once I insisted that I supported Carter's Panama
policy, and lots of other liberal causes too.
He shrugged. "OK. So we have some policy differences..."
Still, as far as he could see, it was Jim Rock and his friend
Smedley against the world.
"Drink up," he'd say, pointing to my coffee or my beer. "I
want to talk to you about something, in my room." But when we got
up there, he'd just horse around. He had a leather-bound
backgammon game we played, with Jim providing a comic
play-by-play in the voice of Don Corleone. And sometimes he'd do
Howard Cosell announcing the imminent fall of Europe, an
obsession of his. "Dandy, those are some very plucky Russian
tanks, which with their leaps and thrusts and manuevers as they
trample the vineyards of Burgundy, recall the inimitable Jim
Brown, the Cleveland crusher, in his prime..." It didn't matter
much that Jim Rock's imitations were as nearly as miserable as
I'm trying to remember exactly when and how I figured out
that Jim Rock ran drugs. Maybe I knew from the very start, from
the way he winked his way past the customs agent at the airport.
More likely though, it was an evolution in my mind. There was
hardly any difference, back then, between recreational drug
users, which included almost everyone, and people who might sell
a joint or two. That was just being friendly, or accomodating.
And once people started selling, some of them turned it into a
small business, which didn't exactly mean they were traffickers.
They just saw they could make more money that way than by
teaching English, which only paid about two dollars an hour. At
some point, I'm sure I realized that Jim's trips to Peru placed
him in a different league, closer to people who dealt drugs as a
career and carried guns.
Still, this was before most of us had heard about the
Medellin and Cali cartels, indeed, before they existed. And from
the Gran Casino perspective, the villains in South America were
the dictators and death squads. We read about the various Dirty
Wars in dog-eared copies of Time and L'Express, which circulated
at the cafe. Even in Ecuador, such campaigns were easy enough to
imagine. It was just a matter of taking the helmeted 18-year-old
soldiers, who yanked us sleeping out of buses at highway check
points and waved machine guns at us, who pawed through our
luggage and demanded "taxes" for soft drinks, and letting them
pull the trigger, which is what they were aching to do anyway.
The narcos? They were friendly rebels providing a useful service.
For all we knew, they probably listened to good music and threw
great parties, way up there in the mountains. Most of us didn't
think about them much.
Jim Rock would slip away occasionally, disappearing for
three or four days at a time. When he did, I felt at loose ends.
I'd wander around the hotel with my notebook or a novel, talk to
some Australians, maybe join up with the Italians, Max and
Giulio, if they'd have me, for a cup of coffee. Alone in my room,
I drank Chilean wine and worked on crossword puzzles. When Jim
Rock reappeared with his white suitcase, and circulated in the
cafe, shaking hands with newcomers, like a politician, patting
old acquaintances on the back, I felt -- and even now I feel a
little embarrassed to write it -- rescued. I'd wait for him,
nervously, to get to my table, and when he reached me, he'd
smile, point with his thumb toward his room, and say, "A bit of
I'd head up to his room determined to have a frank
discussion. I'd tell him about my fellowship and ask about his
business, point blank. It shouldn't be such a big deal, I'd
think. I had no reason to feel secretive about the Higgins money,
not with Jim. And so what if he was dealing drugs? I wasn't
judgmental. But the longer you put off big questions, the harder
it is to confront them. When I got up to his room, Jim would have
the backgammon board set up for play, and somehow I never got
around to broaching the subject. He deflected my little hints and
probes into his horn-like Howard Cosell imitation: "Giffer, at
game time today, the Smed appeared to be of an unusually
inquisitive mind, a burning curiosity which was only dampened by
the prompt application of a soporific substance, brought to his
lodging, at great risk, by his imitable Canadian friend..." And
as he talked, he'd pass me a joint.
Nights I lay awake worrying about my first letter to the
Higgins Foundation. I had a notebook filled with random
observations and pieces of color. But I couldn't imagine
synthesizing it all into a letter, certainly not one worth two
thousand dollars -- my monthly cost to the foundation, as I
calculated it. For practice, I wrote letters to my mother, to a
couple of friends in Ann Arbor, and most of all, to Helen. Early
on, I used the letters to Helen as rough drafts for Mr. Higgins.
I wrote about infant mortality and the Ecuadoran referendum, and
added a sentence or two at the end about loving her, without
actually using that word. But by the third or fourth letter, I'd
abandoned my pride and was begging Helen to fly to Quito, the
sooner the better, to join me for a lovely bus ride through Peru
and Bolivia. The prospect of traveling through that bleak
Altiplano all by myself seemed too lonely and depressing for
One Sunday when Jim Rock was gone, the New Zealanders,
Eunice and Jan, returned from the Galapagos. They'd had plenty of
sun there. Eunice's long, plain face was blotched with freckles,
her nose one big scab. Standing next to her at the cafe, Jan
looked like a bronzed goddess. I was writing a letter to Helen at
the time. I put down my pen and asked them to join me for coffee.
As usual, Eunice did most of the talking. They'd had a
wonderful time, she said -- "jest spectacula." Jan agreed. Her
tan made her blue eyes shine, and when she opened her mouth, her
teeth looked dazzlingly white. Eunice told me about their plans.
They were heading up to the states. Eunice had a friend who
worked in a Howard Johnson's in Tampa, Florida, and they figured
they could make some money there for a few months. How about me?
I looked at Jan, and was glad to see she was paying attention. I
told them I was heading down to Peru and Bolivia in a few weeks,
on a bus, and I suggested that maybe they'd like to change their
plans and join me. My hope was that Eunice would fly off to
Tampa, leaving me alone with Jan.
"You poor thing," Eunice laughed. "We just came from there."
She rolled her eyes, which made her face look even longer. "I
swear," she said, "if I had to see one more Peruvian soldier or
drink one more of those warm Inca Colas..." I looked over at Jan
and saw her nodding with her mouth shut. I wanted another look at
They were heading north through Colombia, Eunice said, and
flying from Cartagena to Miami. It occurred to me then that
Colombia was an Andean country, fully part of my turf. There was
no reason I couldn't head north with them. "Colombia..." I said,
as if intrigued by the idea. "That's one place I'd love to see.
Are you going to spend much time there?"
"Good heavens, no," Eunice said. They could only travel
through Colombia on transit visas, she explained, which meant
they had to hurtle across the entire country in a week.
"Hmmm," I said, begging for an invitation. "So you'll be
taking a short trip in Colombia. That should be quite something."
"Very short," said Eunice, clearly dreading 80 hours on a
bus in the country of the thumb-slitters.
Then Jan piped up. "Would you like to join us?"
In the next week, I hurried off my letter to the Higgins
Foundation. Now that I had other business on my mind, it
practically wrote itself. Then I went to the Colombian Consulate,
in the modern side of Quito, and applied for a transit visa. To
get one, I had to have an exit ticket. So I went over to the
Avianca offices and spent a good deal of Mr. Higgins' money on a
one-way fare from Cartagena to Quito.
Meantime, I was getting to know my new traveling companions.
They were school teachers on sabbatical. Eunice taught third
grade and Jan, who rarely spoke, was in special ed. Desperate to
establish some common ground with her, I mentioned once that
teachers thought my brother was dyslexic for a while, until they
found out that he needed glasses.
"Dyslexia," she said gravely. "Quite a thorny problem." Then
she picked up her fork backwards, in the European fashion, and
began cutting some tough Ecuadoran beef and dispatching it to her
mouth. Even when the conversations peetered out like this, I
loved to look at her, those jaw muscles working on the beef, and
passing it down to those silky neck muscles. Down I would look,
toward the two open buttons of her white cotton blouse. At about
this point, Eunice usually came up with something to say.
They were headed down to Banos, a few hours south on bus, to
relax in the mineral baths for a couple days. Despite some
shameless begging on my part, they didn't invite me. But I did
come up with an idea for turning the Colombia trip into a more
manageable foursome. We were having lunch, the three of us, at a
cafe near the Colombian Consulate. Jan nibbled at a salad while
Eunice and I waited for chicken and gossiped about the cast of
characters at the Gran Casino. She mentioned with a giggle that
my friend Jim was "bloody cute."
"Eunice..." Jan looked up from her salad sternly.
"Well he is, Janny. It's a fact," Eunice said, adding to me:
"She doesn't like him. She fancies he's a mafioso."
By the time Jim Rock returned to Quito, the New Zealanders
were in Banos. Over a game of backgammon, I told him casually
that I was thinking of taking a little tour through Colombia, and
that I might travel, at least for part of the trip, with the New
Zealanders. He seemed to perk up.
"You know," I said, "I think Eunice has a crush on you."
He puzzled for a moment. "Is that the horsey one?"
Eunice and Jan, it turned out, couldn't leave Quito until
they received a check in the mail. That was a typical dilemma for
travelers at the Gran Casino. Some of them, with no money at all,
had to run a tab at the hotel, and beg for beer and food money.
But the New Zealanders had enough to take a trip to the jungle.
One frosty dawn I walked with them down to the bus station,
helping with the luggage. They bought tickets from the man
screaming "Amazoooooonas", and then we drank hot chocolate. There
wasn't much to say. I reminded them not to walk barefoot in the
jungle streams. They nodded. I asked if they had books for the
trip. They both did. So I said goodbye. Hoping to establish a
physical precedent, I reached toward Eunice and gave her a big
hug. She seemed a little startled, but happy enough, and even
clawed my back with her fingernails. Then I reached for Jan. She
stood there, shy, maybe a bit uncertain, like one of her special
ed students. Then she stood on tip-toes and spread her arms wide
and almost jumped into my arms, kissing the first thing she could
reach, which happened to be my neck. Then almost as quickly as
she jumped in, she pushed out, and hurried toward the bus,
lugging her backpack, followed by Eunice. I was left with her
fragrance, which reminded me of pine trees, and a moist spot just
below my ear.
As Eunice might have said, I fancied I was in love. I'd
hardly exchanged ten words with Jan, of course. But as I walked
back from the bus station to the Gran Casino that cold morning,
as the first newboys started yelling, I was thinking about
marrying her, and imagining introducing her to my friends in
Boston. They'd be awed by her beauty; I'd explain that she wasn't
a big talker.
Every day they were gone I'd check with the concierge at the
hotel, to see if the letter they were waiting for had arrived. I
was anxious to take off for Colombia with them; I spent hours
devising Eunice-diverting tactics, so that Jan and I could share
some time together on and off the bus. At the same time, with the
second Higgins letter coming due, I was counting on the Colombia
trip for more material. I couldn't imagine writing another letter
about Quito. Of course, if I went out and mingled in the city a
little bit, talked to Ecuadorans, it wouldn't have been so tough.
But as I've mentioned, I'm lazy about such things.
It was during that week that Massimo started pressing me to
have my astrological chart done. He hardly ever talked to me in
the presence of Giulio, who continued to sense bad vibes coming
from my direction. But Massimo searched me out. In all of his
wanderings, he'd never made it to the United States -- the home
of his beloved Bob Dylan -- and he was fascinated by the most
mundane details of American life. I found myself telling him
about my family, how my only brother, Charles, who used to take
me camping, was now a lawyer in Minneapolis, and married. He sent
me Christmas cards. And I told him about my parents' divorce when
I was in 10th grade, how my Dad married this younger woman,
Dorothy, whom I never met, and moved to Jamaica, somewhere near
Max nodded when I told him these things. "You're still
searchin' for your brother," he said quietly. It sounded like a
line lifted from Blonde on Blonde.
I confided that I was busier pursuing Jan.
He snorted impatiently. "That's just for focking, man! Jack
He made a pumping gesture with his hands. "Do yourself, man.
That's just ... biologia."
I tried to explain the difference between bare necessity and
fulfillment. But he interrupted me, reaching across the table and
grabbing my hand. It was the kind of gesture that astrologers,
especially Italian astrologers, could pull off. "Michael. Let's
do your chart. You need it, man."
I told him I'd think about it.
A day or two later, Jim Rock came back from his trip and
made his usual victory lap around the Gran Casino cafe. I was
glad to see him, but would have been much happier to see Jan and
Eunice. We played backgammon and smoked the usual joint. Jim had
been to Panama, he said, and he'd brought back a little cassette
player and some tapes. We listened to the Grateful Dead's Mars
Hotel album, which filled me with nostalgia for Ann Arbor.
"You're getting dreamy on me, Smed," Jim Rock said, as I
gazed out his window. I was remembering cramming for finals at
the library, with Helen.
"What do you expect?" I said. "You smoke dope, you listen to
music, you get dreamy." I felt a little more assertive following
my talks with Max. "What were you doing in Panama?" I asked him.
He sat back a little in his chair. "Oh. Just, uh, the usual,
I pressed on with it, but he didn't tell me much. "You like
this machine?" he asked, gesturing toward the cassette player. I
nodded. "It's yours," he said. "I bought it for you."
I started to shake my head and turn it down.
"You know I'm tone deaf," Jim Rock said grimly.
It was a couple days later that Jan and Eunice returned. By
the time I saw them, they'd already learned that their check had
not arrived. They were in no mood for welcoming kisses and hugs.
Eunice looked as though she hadn't slept in a few days. Her curly
hair lay plastered against her forehead. Jan was tired, too, but
the dark circles under her eyes enhanced them, making her look
more sensuous. They could have been mascara stains after a
passionate night of sex. I gave each traveler a peck on the cheek
and asked them about their plans.
"We're bleeding broke," Eunice said, struggling to get out
from under her knapsack.
"We'll go out to dinner tonight," I said. "My treat."
Bathed and napped, they were in better spirits by dinner
time. We started off in Jim Rock's room. I brought in the tape
player, and we listened to the Stones, Sticky Fingers, I think,
and drank Russian vodka Jim had brought from Panama. Jan and
Eunice both got giggly right away, and by her second glass of
vodka, Eunice was shrieking at Jim's Don Corleone imitation.
Eventually, we made it out to dinner. Since I was paying, we
bypassed the usual guinea-pig joints and ate at an Italian place
in the new part of town. We sat in a booth and drank chianti. I
remember pushing closer and closer to Jan, rubbing my leg against
hers. As the dinner progressed, I reached under the table and
laid my hand on the inside of her thigh. She gave my hand a
squeeze, and then put her hand on my leg and slowly moved it up.
I felt my entire body quiver. Jim was telling jokes and we were
all laughing, especially Eunice, who looked much prettier than
usual. We ate linguini al Alfredo; Jim declared it tasteless and
piled on a few spoonfuls of the local hot sauce, aji. Meanwhile,
I pawed Jan under the table, overwhelmed by her beauty. I
remember thinking how Max, with his advice to "jack up," didn't
have a clue.
We went back in a cab, Jim in the front seat, still telling
jokes. "And you know what Smedley asked me the first time we
met?" he said, turning around and looking at us wedged in the
back. "He wanted to know if I played golf! In Peru! Golf!" Eunice
laughed until she cried. Looking back, I still don't see what was
so funny about it. Was I supposed to assume from the start that
he was a drug trafficker? Apparently everyone else did.
By the time we reached the Gran Casino, I was aching to take
Jan right to my bed. But Jim insisted on a nightcap. He took us
into his room, turned on the music again, and began chopping
cocaine on a mirror with a single-edged razor. I'd never tried
cocaine before, and neither had Jan and Eunice. We watched him
and then followed his lead with the rolled-up 20-sucre bill.
Within minutes we didn't feel drunk anymore. Now we were
marvelously witty and our insights, suddenly, were brilliant.
Even Jan was venturing some opinions. I began to think I should
get my notebook and jot down some of this rich material for my
next Higgins letter.
"You like it, eh?" Jim said, placing another white chunk on
"I don't feel a thing," Eunice said blankly. Jan agreed.
Jim started to chop again. But I looked at Jan and recalled
the path we'd been following on alcohol. I reached for her hand
and said good night to Jim and Eunice. Then I led Jan into my
bedroom. I shut the door and we promptly stripped off our clothes
and fell onto the bed. We made love literally all night, until
the dogs up the mountainside started barking and the boy out on
the corner yelled, "Comeeeercio!" Then, with her face glowing in
the soft morning light, her eyes ringed by spent mascara -- just
as I'd imagined -- Jan fell asleep. I looked at her and kissed
her for a while, on the brow, above the lips, on her jaw and down
to her shoulders, wishing I could save the kisses for later. Then
I slept too.
We were awakened by a soft knocking on the door, and a voice
whispering, "Janny, Janny..." I opened the door and saw Eunice,
looking pallid. She was already dressed, in bluejeans and a plaid
cotton blouse, and what looked like a brand new pair of sandals.
She had her knapsack packed. "We're flying out in an hour and a
half," she said.
Jim, she said, was lending them the money to fly directly to
Miami, on the Ecuatorian flight leaving that very afternoon. The
bus trip to Colombia was off. I looked back and took in one last
glimpse of Jan's body as she reached down and pulled on her pants
and then twisted her torso into her bra. "What time's the
flight," she asked, her back still turned.
"An hour and a half, Janny. At two," Eunice said, sounding
That was the last I saw of them. I said goodbye to Jan and
we exchanged addresses, while Jim Rock and Eunice went through
the same dreary ritual. Then we walked them outside, where a taxi
was waiting. Jan gave me one last kiss, and put a hand on the
side of my face for a moment. "Ciao," she said as she ducked into
the cab. I didn't even get around to saying goodbye to Eunice.
"Well," Jim Rock said, as we walked back into the Gran
Casino. "It's you and me, Smed."
I could have punched him.
Jim left on another one of his trips the next day.
Depressed, I took an all-night bus to Esmeralda, on the coast. It
must have been all downhill. By daybreak, I had a crick in my
neck from sleeping against the window, and I was sweating up a
storm in my alpaca sweater. I was in banana country, the air
thick with steam. The cool Andes seemed like a distant planet.
The people were black instead of indian, and they spoke a
lightening fast Spanish, like Cubans.
All I did there was drink. I took a taxi to a little beach
town called Atacames, and rented a hammock for a few sucres a
night. For four days I just sat in a shack on the beach with a
book in my hand, drinking beer and rum, and occasionally eating a
fish. When I sobered up, I told myself, I'd write my next Higgins
letter. That was the stated purpose of the trip. But I never
sobered up. I dreamed about Jan, and I cursed Jim Rock for
sending her away.
One night I found myself in a metaphysical discussion with
some Ecuadoran students who had come up from Guayaquil. One of
them was religious, a Jehovah's Witness. He was saying everything
was predestined. I took issue with that. We went around and
around in a debate, both of us too drunk to win. Finally, I came
up with a trump. "Have you heard of black holes?" I asked him,
thinking of the star-sized vacuums into which all matter is
destined to disappear.
He puzzled over it for a while, repeating the Spanish words,
"agujero negro, agujero negro..." Finally he looked up and asked,
"You wouldn't be referring to the anus, would you?"
The next day I rode the bus back to Quito, dreading the
prospect of lazing about the Gran Casino for another week. When I
got there, the concierge seemed genuinely relieved to see me.
"Senor Rock," he said, "has been calling you for 10 hours
straight." As he said that, the phone rang, and I suddenly found
myself talking to Jim Rock.
I had to do him a favor, he said. There was a package to
pick up and drop off. He'd explain it all later. He gave me an
address on the north side of Quito, the modern side, over past
the American Embassy.
"Now?" I asked.
"Now. Take a cab."
"This isn't something..."
"Don't worry about it, Smed."
"But, I'm just wondering..."
"Goddamn it! Do it for me... Please." His voice seemed to
break when he said "please," and as I took the cab to the first
address he gave me, I pictured Jim Rock sitting in a garage
someplace with a gun pointed at his head.
We drove through a middle-class neighborhood, near the
language schools where lots of the Gringos taught English. I
tried to glimpse the small houses behind the tall concrete walls
bristling with colorful shards of broken bottles, the cast-iron
fences shaped into spears. We passed Libri Mundi, the bookstore
where I'd spent loads of Higgins' money on a shelf of Latin
American literature I had yet to read. I felt like asking the
cabbie to let me off there. I saw myself knocking on the door and
asking the owner, who looked like a poet, to give me shelter.
But we drove on. I finally had the driver drop me off a
block from my destination and I told him not to wait. Then I
walked toward the address. As I passed each house, big dogs
lunged at me barking, from behind the fences.
Of course I was being incredibly stupid. I know it. But
practically everything I did back then was dumb. Imagine having
two years to travel around a dazzling region of the world, and
staying holed up for the first two months in a run-down hotel
like the Gran Casino -- a place that could double as a Turkish
jail! I suppose I stayed there because I was lonely. And I guess
I was picking up this package for Jim Rock because, no matter
what business he was involved in, he was my only friend. I
trusted him, to a degree, and felt sorry for him.
I rang the buzzer. A window opened in the black metal door
and a man peered out. "Si?"
I told him I was supposed to pick up something.
"Mike. Mike Bavard."
He shook his head and began to close the window.
"Wait a minute," I said in Spanish. "Smedley, George
"Ah." He opened the little window and passed me a small
package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. Then he told
me to hurry.
You're probably expecting me now to say that I'm writing
this from some Ecuadoran prison, one that looks and feels much
like the Gran Casino. But that's not the case. I caught a cab and
made it to the second address, in a similar neighborhood. I rang.
Another small window opened up and a dark, Incan face simply
asked: "Mister Esmedley?" I nodded, shoved the package through
the window and caught another cab back to the hotel. The
concierge smiled at me. I waved at a few familiar faces in the
cafe, and then spotted Massimo. I sat down with him and ordered a
He looked at me knowingly as I started to drink. "You are
taking that beer like medicine," he said.
"I asked for Texas medicine," I said in my best Dylan voice,
"and they gave me railroad gin."
Jim came back a day later with stories, wild stories from
Peru. As we played backgammon, he told me of guerrillas down
there, Maoists, all of them devoted to this professor named
Guzman. These Maoists, the Shining Path, planned to overthrow the
government through a campaign of terror. They would shoot mayors,
execute bourgeois sympathizers, hang dead dogs from lampposts.
"They're completely nuts, Smed," he said.
They sounded that way to me. Little did I realize that Jim
Rock was laying out for me, in uncanny detail, the tragedy that
would nearly bury Peru in the '80s. I was far more interested to
learn about that package I delivered, and why Jim was crying as
he gave me those marching orders. "What's going on?" I asked.
"What do you mean, don't ask?" I knocked the backgammon off
the table, and the pieces rattled on the concrete floor. "When I
become part of it, I deserve to know what you're doing."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He had his head down, and looked
depressed. He turned on music, to drown out our talking. "Look at
it this way," he said. "I'm juggling, juggling like crazy. I have
thousands and thousands of dollars that I'm juggling, and none of
them belong to me." He looked at me, and I think it was the first
time I ever saw Jim Rock without even a trace of a smile. I saw a
broad young face, probably not much different than it looked when
he was twelve, or even eight.
It was at that moment that I thought of a mother looking at
that face and seeing her son, and calling him Jim Rock. It didn't
sound right. And I knew then his name wasn't Jim Rock any more
than mine was George Smedley.
His jaw was trembling a little. "If I drop it, just once,"
he whispered, "I'm fucked."
I didn't know what to say. He left pretty soon after that,
to deal with whatever demons were waiting for him. Shaken, I
retreated to my room to write my Higgins letter. I wrote more
about Quito and the referendum. And to give them a sense that I
was traveling, I included some observations from my drunken
journey to the coast. I read over the letter and was not
impressed. So I bolstered it with a couple of paragraphs about
this new group of fanatics in Peru, the Shining Path.
I never saw Jim Rock again. He disappeared that night
without saying goodbye. The next day they rented out his room to
a French couple. I asked the concierge what he knew, and he
shrugged. "Nada, Senor."
I decided to go to east, to the jungle. For two days, I
traveled around Quito buying the necessary equipment, the
mosquito netting, the snake-bite kit. I paid a dental assistant
to give me a gamma globulin shot. I was just about to check out
of the hotel and head for the bus station when the concierge told
me that someone was on the phone for me. "Un americano."
I expected Jim Rock. But it was Woody. "I have a bonus offer
for you," he said, explaining that the foundation would pay an
extra $3,000 for another letter on the Shining Path.
"But I told you everything I knew," I said.
"Yes," said Woody. "But we were thinking you might be able
to find out more. It's splendid material. Just fascinating. To
think of it, the Gang of Four..."
"It seems like you're moving away from the Higgins mandate,"
I said. "What, are you in the information-gathering business,
He was quiet for a moment. "Certain types of information,"
"And who's paying for it?"
"Just do the reporting. Please." No longer the serene man I
remembered on the dock, he sounded like he wanted to throttle me.
I told him I'd see what I could do. Then I caught the bus to the
jungle. I got a fever down there, and spent the best part of a
week shivering in a hammock on the banks of the Napo River.
When I got back, there was a postcard for me from Cuzco,
Peru. It said simply: Smed, best wishes, Sasha.
So he'd reemerged as Sasha. I sat down at the cafe and
ordered a chamomile tea, and I thought about Jim Rock. I wondered
if he was wooing another Smedley in Cuzco, and if he'd had others
elsewhere. Caracas, maybe? Or Bogota? This made me feel foolish.
But then I decided to view Jim Rock simply as an act that someone
was putting on, improvisational theater. Jim Rock was a character
in my life, just like Michael Corleone or Huckleberry Finn. Sure,
I'd been duped, and I'd told this Jim Rock character a lot about
myself, thinking he was somebody I knew... It was embarrassing, I
concluded, but not terribly important. But if he had to flee town
and change his name, it suddenly occurred to me, didn't that mean
he had enemies here, or creditors? And wouldn't that make me, his
well-known friend and one-time accomplice, Smedley, vulnerable? I
was growing worried, the postcard lying in front of me, when
Massimo pulled up a chair beside me.
"Michael," he said somberly, "you're sailing a very long way
without a chart."
I smiled. "You're right."
He picked up the Cuzco postcard and read the back. "So he's
the Sasha-man of Cuzco," he said, knowingly. "I expected as
It turned out that a man named Sasha had directed a few
north-bound Americans to look up Massimo and Giulio in Quito. "We
did their charts," Max said, nodding slowly. "One's a triple
Scorpio. Someone you should meet, Michael."
I was digesting this information when Max remembered a bit
of gossip he'd picked up from Sasha's friends. "You remember that
Australian woman you were so hungry to fock, Michael?"
I told him I did, without bothering to correct the
"A very funny story about them. Very funny." He went on to
tell me that Jim Rock had sent them to Miami wearing sandals
packed with cocaine. They didn't know it. The plan was simply for
Jim's contacts in Miami to meet Jan and Eunice after they cleared
customs, and to switch shoes with them. "And as they see them
coming through customs," Massimo said, laughing, "the tall one,
not so pretty, what's her name?"
"Eunice," I said.
"Vero. Eunice. She has her foot all white. It's white as a
... a fantasmo." Max by this point was laughing so hard he had
trouble talking. "And she was looking down at her foot, wondering
what is happening with her new shoes!"
I wasn't laughing.
"Don't you understand?" Max cried. "She goes through customs
with a white foot!"
I flew to Florida the next day, the same flight that Jan and
Eunice took. On board I wrote my last Higgins letter. I wrote
about what I'd learned in Quito, about the Gran Casino and the
man called Jim Rock, or the Sasha-man of Cuzco. I theorized about
the nature of drug-trafficking in South America, and how the
narcos were forging links with left-wing guerrillas in Peru. I
wasn't sure about that. But how else would Jim Rock have met the
When I reached Miami, I mailed the letter, along with a note
of resignation. I felt certain that my letter would land Jim Rock
in jail, or kill him.
I vaguely remember renting a car and driving up to Tampa
Bay, visiting every orange-roofed Howard Johnson between Sarasota
and Dunedin. I found no sign of Jan and Eunice.
I gave up. I was lost, as Massimo had warned, and I fell. I
won't bore you with the details, except to say that the recovery
process landed me in Minnesota and brought about a reunion, of
sorts, with my brother Charles. In fact, it was a hot summer
night there that Charles picked me up in his air-conditioned
Buick and took me for an excursion. We saw Midnight Express.
About halfway through, I couldn't handle it. I walked out to the
parking lot and swatted dive-bombing mosquitos, until Charles
emerged with the rest of the crowd and drove me back.
By the early '80s, when the Shining Path surfaced in the
news, hanging the dead dogs and blowing away mayors, I was back
in Boston, helping to manage a book store. Naturally, I wondered
about Jim Rock. And as I gained weight with the passing years,
and wore my hair shorter, I began to see his broad face smiling
at me from the mirror. Later in the decade, I read about an
island prison off the coast of Lima, which had turned into a
Maoist stronghold. Thousands of Shining Path fanatics ran the
place, forcing everyone, even the wardens, to attend ideology
classes and keep the place in ship shape. How sad, I thought, if
Jim Rock was missing North America's exuberant '80s, a decade
made for greedy scoundrels like him, and wasting away in a
lock-up with Maoists.
I still have the tape player he gave me. It's battered now,
with gray duct-tape holding in the batteries. Sometimes I think
about his other Smedleys, and wonder what mementos they're left with.
Copyright 1996 Stephen Baker
Fiction: As Franco Died
May 30, 2009
As Franco Died
Paloma was working on this expression back in 1975, when General Franco
was dying. She'd close her eyes halfway and shake her head slowly, as
if considering a point and finding it too pitiful for words. John Lewis
first noticed it in the basement café of the Arts and Letters
Department, la Facultad. She was down there with her philosophy
friends, drinking espressos and smoking Ducados, probably talking about
the horrors of Pinochet in Chile or the latest American outrage, maybe
the tacky McDonalds near the Plaza de España. Then suddenly she closed
those dark green eyes halfway and tried that headshake, exhaling a
lungful of smoke as she did it. John remembered wondering who the hell
she was imitating.
Now he saw the same expression, refined through 20 years of practice.
It was a thin, angular Paloma on Larry King Live, talking in English
about her political action committee and the importance of returning to
traditional American values (Paloma? American?). Then Larry asked her
something about President Clinton. The eyes closed, the head shook, the
mouth, barely open, was surely going through the motion of exhaling,
though she probably gave up cigarettes long ago. She had it down, John
thought. He pulled his chair close to the TV to see if she still had
the same crooked front tooth.
Funny how the memory worked. John supposed there were entire years in
the '80s that he didn't think of Paloma. Months at least. In airports
sometimes he'd hear a Spanish voice shouting some typically Spanish
word, like "imbécil," pronouncing the "c" with the Castilian "th", and
he'd remember her. Sometimes he saw elegant curved noses like hers, and
he wondered if she'd cut her long black hair, if she'd ever married.
But in his postings in Quito and Managua and Cabo Verde, noses like
Paloma's were rare as fresh bagels; months passed between sightings. In
Washington, of course, they were more common. John's upstairs neighbor,
K. Swartz -- Kitty, Katie? -- was a man-sized bureaucrat at one of the
Departments, either Interior or HUD, who thumped against John's door
when carrying groceries upstairs. His first few months at the
apartment, John routinely mistook the banging for knocking, and opened
the door a few times, only to find himself face to face with a large,
apologizing figure in a purple parka. With her brown eyes and red hair,
an accent from Philadelphia or Baltimore, his neighbor couldn't have
seemed less Spanish. Her nose, though, was a graceful, slender arch.
These days, John didn't have to conjure Paloma from random words and
body parts. The real Paloma was speaking to him all the time, from TV,
the Post's Style section, even some of the magazines in supermarket
checkout lines. She had married an American publishing heir, dropped
her two surnames, Ruiz Goicoechea, and emerged as Paloma Pollack, the
foreign-born goddess of the new right. John first saw her about two
months before in The Wall Street Journal. The article described a
glamorous Spaniard with a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne who
had followed a path of her husband's money right to the summit of the
Republican Party. Nowadays she was sailing in Long Island Sound with
William Buckley and showing up at fundraisers on the arm of right-wing
senators and pundits. People compared her to Claire Boothe Luce, even
to Jackie Kennedy.
Something about Paloma's spectacular flight left John feeling angry and
unsettled. At first he blamed the politics. He looked at this glib new
philosopher of the right, with sculpted cheekbones he'd never seen in
Spain, and wondered just how low she would dive for money and fame.
Following his daily routines in Washington, taking the subway, shopping
at Pathway, eating alone in the State Department cafeteria, he carried
on imaginary debates with her, positioning himself as a poor but
virtuous leftist, and ripping into her as a shill for cattlemen, oil
companies, even racists. In one of the debates he got a bit carried
away and called her a "whore." She slapped him in the face and called
him "hijo de la chingada" -- a Mexicanism Paloma would never use. John
revised the scenario and pointed out her hypocrisy more delicately.
This reduced Paloma to tears. "I know, I know," she lamented in
accented English, sounding like Ingrid Bergman. "Mightn't there be some
way," she ventured, "that we could use these millions, together, for
something worthwhile, something we'd be proud of?"
John pictured himself shaking his head slowly, with dignity, and then
asking if she acquired those cheekbones through diet or surgery. More
tears. Paloma telling him about the long years of therapy that followed
his departure from Madrid. The anorexia, the surgery. In this scenario,
John consoled her with a pat on one newly hollowed cheek. "Whatever you
do," he advised, "don't let them touch your nose."
Now that he was growing used to the new Paloma, the politics hardly
fazed him. He'd always regarded her politics as a fashion statement.
Socialism, platform shoes, Roxy Music, hash... They were all part of
the university package in Madrid that year, when the Generalísimo kept
getting sicker. Back then, with helmeted soldiers guarding the door of
the Facultad, politics were just something to talk about, in hushed
tones -- and even quieter if you were working for the bomb-throwing
Basques, the ETA. Now, John regarded her shift from ETA-sympathizing
socialist to Republican as simply a matter of keeping up with the
times, like a dentist who switches from silver to ceramic fillings. In
fact, John himself had wandered politically. Who would have thought
back in 1975, when Franco and Pinochet and Somoza all appeared to be
members of the same fascist club, that John 10 years later would be
organizing the "contras" from his political post in the Managua
Embassy? In his imaginary dialogues with Paloma in the mid '80s, she
was the one attacking from the left.
So they were both hypocrites, unless Paloma had experienced some sort
of yacht-deck epiphany, which John doubted. What irked him, he realized
after a week or two, was her stunning success. It begged a comparison,
and John, at 41, had little to brag about. Back in Madrid, he'd been
the ambitious one, the good student who wrote synopses of Borges and
García Márquez, in Spanish, on those empty pages at the back of the
books. He was the one headed for law school in America and maybe
politics, or a career in high diplomacy. Maybe he'd write books.
Paloma? She flitted around with those ragged philosophy friends of hers
in oversized black sweaters, smoking, ordering cognac with the
espressos in the cafeteria at the Facultad. John could remember her
flunking an Unamuno seminar -- flunking it! -- and then shrugging and
blowing out smoke, calling the course a “coñazo," a lewd word for
boring. John could remember her joking about it with all those friends
of hers, the guys with the half-grown beards and the eyes at half-mast,
as if they'd been out in the gardens smoking hash, or up all night
fucking. Or both. When he walked up to her table that day, looking
concerned, and asked if it was true she'd failed the test, those people
made him feel like the Joe College, the earnest American who actually
cared about grades. Paloma performed her shrugging routine and gave him
every possible signal to take his concern and his L.L. Bean sweater and
neatly combed long hair to an American table. That was when John
started thinking maybe she was sleeping with one of those guys.
Now John wondered whether at that moment in the Facultad café, Paloma
was pronouncing him -- perhaps for the first time -- a "dweeb." Back
then he didn't even know the word. But maybe as he made the decision to
retreat from that table, choosing not to mix it up with that cynical
bunch of Spaniards, not to laugh and agree that the course was a coñazo
and that grades didn't matter, and not to take the even gutsier
approach, to tell them they were full of shit. Maybe this retreat
charted his course for the next 20 years. From Bloomington through all
his postings in the foreign service, John had been following a strict
course of dweebish non-intervention. He'd hardly mixed it up with
anyone. There was a Peruvian woman he danced with one evening in Lima
who squeezed him tight and kissed him softly on the neck. When she
asked politely for his phone number, he made one up. And then once
while waiting drunk for a bus in Caracas he found himself kissing a
woman. But when her bus came, she said goodbye and waved to him from
the back window. Now it seemed like a dream. So while Paloma was busy
tangling with people, getting bruised and muddied, and using them to
climb, John was avoiding potential messes.
Not that he didn't have his pride. He looked at himself at 41, with his
flat stomach and graying temples, a face with some nice angles to it,
and he liked what he saw. He was proud of his knowledge, his taste in
jazz, his political savvy. People appreciated his humor. But his
romantic life was at best a decimal. Just a couple of weeks before, he
heard a secretary at Foggy Bottom laugh quietly into the phone, calling
someone a "dweeb." The way she lowered her voice when she said it,
looking at him through the corner of an eye, made him worry she was
talking about him. The thought mortified him.
That's when he resolved to make use of Paloma. He pictured her, much
pudgier back then, scrunched into the backseat of that deux chavaux,
pulling her skirt up and murmuring, "¡Qué frío que hace!" Now, at 40,
that same woman had turned into something of a sex symbol in America,
at least for the Washington crowd. This left John facing a singular
challenge: How to let people know, discreetly -- without bragging or
name-dropping -- that he and Paloma used to be an item that year that
Franco was dying. And, more important for John's battered self esteem,
that he'd had sex with her.
Since then, he'd raised the matter a few times at work. But his State
Department colleagues were so tuned into politics, it was hard to steer
them toward sex. One day, he saw Luis Bravo, of the Brazil desk,
reading a Wall Street Journal article in the cafeteria. It was
something about Republican fund-raising, and had a dot portrait of
Paloma halfway down the column. "Funny thing," John said, as if the
thought had just occurred to him. "You see that woman, this Paloma...
Pollack?" He reached across the table and put a finger on Paloma's
picture, leaving a smudge on it.
Bravo took a bite from a leg of fried chicken and nodded.
"I used to date her, in Madrid. Twenty years ago."
Bravo looked at John blankly. John figured he was probably wondering just how to ask about sex.
"Back when Franco was dying," John explained. "For a few months."
Bravo nodded and wadded his chicken in one cheek, to talk. "Franco was dying for more than a few months."
"I mean I dated Paloma for a few months," John said, already regretting bringing it up.
"Was she a... Fascist back then?" Bravo asked.
"No," John laughed. "Closer to a Basque terrorist."
"Hmmm. Looks like she's going to endorse Dole one of these days."
This wasn't going anywhere. John piled some cole slaw on a piece of
toast and took a bite. "Really quite a beautiful girl," he said.
"Confused as hell, but beautiful."
Bravo nodded and turned the page. John wondered if bureaucratic
routines at Foggy Bottom were grounding down people's curiosity. He
tried bringing it up a few more times. But everyone focused on her
politics. Maybe, he thought, they just didn't know him well enough to
ask the kind of personal questions he wanted so badly to answer. Rosa,
the secretary at the Central America Desk, came closer than anyone
else. "She's a very ... swank woman," she said. "Have you called her?"
John said no, not yet anyway, and walked back to his desk wondering if "swank" was a word. He'd have to look it up.
Watching Paloma on TV, he realized that he'd forgotten to look up the
word. That was the afternoon the deputy chief of mission in Paraguay
read his political file on labor unions, and called up for
clarifications. Then John had to brief the assistant undersecretary on
Bolivia and Ecuador, bring him up to speed for an Andean meeting in
What other country in the world would let a foreigner play domestic
politics like this? There was Paloma, running a hand through her thick,
shoulder-length hair, calling the president "spineless." Asked about
his Bosnia policy she made that face again -- the eyes closed, the head
shaking -- and finally selected a word for it: hypocritical. "We
Europeans know something about duplicity," she said, citing Tallyrand
and Machiavelli. "But to wrap himself in such a blanket of virtue..."
She started to repeat the gesture, but cut it short and said, "This
time I honestly think he's inhaling."
John remembered smoking hash with Paloma. One of her Basque friends had
sneaked in from Morocco with it and he gave Paloma a piece about as big
as a chicklet, wrapped in tin foil. One evening in October, she and
John were walking from the University to the Moncloa metro stop. They
were just flirting at this point, John remembered, doing the
double-cheek-kiss routine to say hello and good-bye. His Spanish wasn't
very good yet, and she spent a lot of time correcting him, and laughing
about his mistakes. On a whim, John had taken a couple semesters of
Hungarian at Bloomington, and Paloma liked to hear him speak it. They
developed a game. Sometimes when they passed policemen, or one of the
armed soldiers posted around the university, John would raise his voice
and start waving his arms, sprinking words like "Franco",
"Generalísimo" and "falange" into Hungarian sentences he remembered,
such as "My dog is brown" and "I am fine, thank you, and you?" Paloma
would look up at him, nodding earnestly, and then, when they were past
the bewildered policemen, break into a high, whinnying laugh. John
could still hear her, laughing until she coughed, and feel her grabbing
his elbow, hugging it to her chest. Sometimes she turned towards him
and held his face in her hands, and then brushed his long brown hair
across his forehead, or traced his eyebrows with a finger. John had
slept with a couple of women by this point in his life. But none had
touched so much, or so casually, as Paloma.
That evening she pulled him by the elbow just at the entrance to the
Metro and said, in English, "How about a walk in the Parque del Oeste?"
John thought she wanted sex and agreed. They made their way down the
slope of the dry, barren park, which looked to John like a goat
pasture. Paloma hunched down in the shadow of some bush and began to
burrow through her purse. She pulled out the square of hash and a
Ducado. "You don't have a Winston?" she asked, saying that good
"canutos" were made with blond tobacco. John, disappointed that she
wanted drugs, and not sex, shook his head. He looked up towards the
traffic on Avenida Moncloa, and across the park toward the palace of
the Borbón kings. There just had to be policemen patrolling this park,
Just a few weeks before, the whole junior-year-abroad delegation had
made a pilgrimage to the American Embassy, where a stern young woman
showed them poster-sized pictures of Americans in jail on drug charges.
She also warned them about politics. "You have no political rights
here, no free speech, no right to assembly." She went on and on about
what a repressive place Spain was, and finally asked if there were any
questions. A latter-day beatnic from Wisconsin -- John could remember
his ponytail and goatee, but not his name -- raised his hand and said,
"If nobody has any rights around here, why are we, like, so tight with
Franco?" That got a laugh. But the diplomat matter-of-factly mentioned
the quid pro quo, the American air base at Torrejón, the Navy base at
Rota. And she added that sports fans could listen to pro football and
the World Series on Armed Forces Radio.
As Paloma rolled the joint, John was on all fours behind the bush,
looking for police. "Shouldn't we do this inside someplace?" he asked
in his halting Spanish.
Paloma had a pile of the dark Ducado tobacco on one of her notebooks.
She was carefully grinding the hash into in, and then packing the
mixture back into the cigarette. "Don't be such a burro," she snapped.
"They wouldn't recognize this if they found it in their chocolate con
"But they might recognize it" -- John wrestled for a moment with the
past subjunctive -- "if they came upon two students smoking it behind a
very small bush."
"Then come on!" Paloma stood up and lighted the lumpy, reconstituted
Ducado, took a deep pull on it, and began walking toward the Avenida
Moncloa. John hurried to his feet and trotted after her.
He didn't like that image of himself running to catch up to Paloma.
Looking back, from his study in Arlington, he pictured himself hunching
to brush the dirt from the knees of his khakis, brushing his long hair
from his eyes, following this woman without as much as a whimper, even
if it landed him in a Spanish jail. All this just to smoke hash, which
he never liked, especially mixed with harsh black tobacco. He smoked it
that night, though, walking past the crowded shops of Argüelles, and
past the traffic cops, exchanging the canuto with Paloma. He remembered
looking at it as a game of musical chairs: whoever was holding the
cigarette when they got busted would go to jail.
That night, Paloma's laugh whinnied higher than ever, and when she
grabbed his arm, she clenched it tight to her green pea coat. They took
the Metro all the way out to Alfonso XIII, to the Cineteca. But the
Godard movie showing was sold out. Instead, they sat in a little bar,
Paloma drinking beers and eating tapas, probably chunks of Spanish
tortilla, or maybe anchovies, and John soothing his aching throat with
chamomille tea. He hadn't known the word for chamomille and improvised,
saying "camamilla." But even as he said it, he knew it was terribly
wrong, coming out like "bed of mine." Paloma shrieked with laughter,
repeating "cama mía," as the waiter stood there in his dirty white
jacket, probably wondering if she was laughing at him. Finally Paloma
looked at him and said, "Manzanilla, una taza de manzanilla,"
pronouncing the Zs with the Castillian Th. Then, done giggling, she
repeated it a few times for John. Looking at her leaning across the
table, her frank, bloodshot eyes staring at him, John had a feeling
that with a little initiative on his part, they'd have sex. The only
problem was logistics. He couldn't very well take her back to his
apartment near the Glorieta de Bilbao, where he lived with an old
Spanish couple. They couldn't do it behind that bush in the Parque del
Oeste. He remembered formulating a proposition in his hash-addled brain
as she told him about her family, her Jewish father, a professor, and
her Basque mother, and her little brother, Pepe, who didn't think about
much more than the Real Madrid football team. Maybe they could get a
car somehow, John was thinking, or visit a cheap hotel in Lavapies,
near the flea market. But as the hash high gave way to a headache, he
escorted her wordlessly down the Paseo de la Castellana, and left her
at the door of the majestic apartment building, planting little dry
kisses on both cheeks.
The Larry King show was over. John turned off the TV and walked to the
kitchenette looking down at his stomach, wondering if it was as flat as
it used to be back in Madrid. Maybe not. He made himself a ham and
cheese sandwich, using dijon mustard instead of mayonnaise, and opened
a Michelob. What was it, he wondered, that led Paloma to the top while
he was still schlepping around a bureaucracy, looking for an excuse to
tell people about his brush with fame? She was gorgeous, for one thing.
That didn't hurt. But John himself was a fairly hot number in the
mid-70s, once you got past that ugly haircut. He remembered all the
attention some of the American girls lavished on him. There was this
one girl, Pat Donaldson, who yanked him by the elbow in the hallway,
right after the Art in the Prado lecture. She backed him into a little
nook by a bulletin board and whispered urgently that he was the
best-looking guy in the program, and that she had to have him. Pat was
a blonde, a little heavy, actually pretty fat. She laughed a lot and
had a sparky Wisconsin accent, which made her sound like a chipmunk.
Her Spanish was miserable. But still, the Spanish guys paid a lot of
attention to her, which was new for her. She was screwing them more or
less continually, and bragging about it. Thinking back, John realized
that this fact cheapened the compliment she paid him. But something
about the way she looked at him, and the breathless way she spoke, made
him believe, even now, that she found him very sexy.
Should he call Paloma? Say hi? He thought about it for a few minutes,
finishing his sandwich and then opening another beer. He'd have to say
something, propose something, wouldn't he? Like getting together for a
drink near DuPont Circle, or maybe on Capitol Hill. And then what would
he tell her? That he was a bureaucrat with one eye on his pension plan,
and that her politics disgusted him? Perhaps if he kept quiet about her
politics, or even tacitly endorsed them, she could find him some kind
of job, maybe in the White House.
He thought about that for a while. What if she reached across the
coffee table and grabbed his arm, just like the old days, and said she
just had to have him? He pictured her lying back in a dark-windowed
limousine -- no cramped deux chavaux this time -- wearing nothing but a
mink stole, looking up at him with those green eyes half closed, her
tongue running over that crooked front tooth.
John called Maryland information and asked for Paloma Pollack. No
listing. Alexander Pollack? Ditto. He'd have to dig around to find the
He wondered how she'd remember him. She'd certainly recall those
afternoons in the Cafe Gijon, sitting at a table littered with papers
and books, and John introducing her to the Latin American novelists, to
Cortazar and Fuentes, even as he was having to look up three or four
words every page. She found it amusing. As he talked to her about
Rulfo's magical realism and Carpentier's baroque style, John had a
feeling he was on a stage, auditioning for her. And even if he managed
to pass the test, sex itself would be another pass-fail exam. He always
suspected that no matter how he performed with Paloma, she'd be
smirking with those friends of hers at the Facultad about her friend,
the Yanqui. One time, John recalled, she brought along one of her small
dour friends, Manolo, to the Cafe Gijón. He had a crush on her, John
could tell. It was as if Paloma had set up a duel. Manolo attacked
first, ripping into John for Vietnam and racism and McCarthyism... the
usual complaints. Manolo was Andalusian, from Seville, and John had
trouble understanding his rapid-fire Spanish, which sounded almost
Cuban. But he sat and smiled, nodding occasionally, looking concerned
when he thought it appropriate, raising his eyebrows at Paloma, from
time to time, as if to say, "Your friend's a passionate one, isn't he?"
Finally, when Manolo put a Ducado in his mouth and asked for a light,
John put together an answer. Speaking very softly, he said: "If I
understand you, your arguments, you say that you live under Fascist
rule largely because my Fascist government supports your Fascist
government, as part of its own imperial designs, no?" The Spaniard
nodded nervously and looked at Paloma, who was watching them both,
bemused, over the rim of her coffee cup. "If we both live under Fascist
rule," John continued, "then there is no place for blame. We are
victims of a similar system, and our only choices are to commiserate or
rebel, no?" That seemed to defuse Manolo. He abandoned the café a few
minutes later, heading toward the Prado with his books, and leaving
John with his bill. John remembered a feeling of victory, and perhaps
the first triumph of his diplomatic career.
By then it was getting colder in Madrid, and darker. John walked Paloma
home, down the Castellana, past the kiosks brimming with the latest
news on the Generalísimo. Grave. Peor. Sufre. He remembered seeing the
vendors cooking fragrant chestnuts over oil-drums, and asking Paloma if
she wanted some. "They smell better than they taste," she said,
smiling. A few blocks later, as John walked along holding a paper cone
full of chestnuts, trying to figure out how to eat them, Paloma brought
up the discussion with her friend. "You know, you tied Manolo into
knots. But you didn't say anything," she said gravely.
John shrugged. "That's politics, no?"
It was dark when they reached her apartment building. Emboldened by his
political victory, John tried to move the kiss from the cheeks to the
lips. But Paloma swung her face away from him, whipping his extended
lips with her hair. "Pssst. The neighbors!" she said.
"What about the neighbors?"
"Shhhhh," she said quietly, pursing lips that John wanted so badly to
kiss. "You don't understand." As he walked away, humiliated, still
holding the chestnuts, she called after him, "Don't look for the
answers in Mexican novels, Juanito."
That was the Paloma now conquering America: imperious, teasing, smug.
John found himself hating her. He walked around his apartment with a
bottle of Michelob in one hand, a copy of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia
in the other. Thinking about Paloma soured him on Spain. He put down
the book and picked up the Post. He paged through the entertainment
section, looking for strip clubs. He saw one called "Stiffy's," which
struck him funny. Maybe he'd go. But what if someone from work saw him
going in? John sat down in the living room with the paper in his lap
and took another drink of beer.
That evening after Paloma teased him, John did some teasing of his own.
He called the señora at his house and told her he wouldn't be home for
supper. Then he took the metro at Rios Rosas, switched at Cuatro
Caminos, and came up at Argüelles, just across the street from the
Parque del Oeste. The stores were closing. He could hear the music from
a discotheque, a block away -- "Voulez vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?"
-- and he was convinced it was talking to him. He crossed the avenue
purposefully and made his way down the row of tall, dingy dormitories,
Los Colegios Mayores. He found Pat Donaldson in the basement café of
her dorm. She was drinking Té de manzanilla and reading some book of
Spanish poetry, probably Machado. When she saw John, she hurried over
to kiss on both cheeks, pressing much closer to the mouth than Paloma
had. "Want to go out dancing?" she asked, before he could say a word.
He remembered trying to focus that evening on Pat's face, which was
very pretty, and not on her large body. They sat in that café, talking
about the art course they took together. Pat couldn't wait to get past
the medieval stuff they were studying, the Hispano-Flamenco and the
Maestro de las Mil Virgenes, and start on Goya and Velazquez. John
nodded, thinking about little but sex. Finally they went up to her
room. She held him tight by the elbow as they climbed the stairs, and
whispered something to him about her period. John was more relieved
than disappointed to see that Pat's roommate was there. "Well, I've got
to go," he said, kissing her on both cheeks. She tried to get him to
stay, to wait a while. Things could be worked out. But he shook his
head and heaved his book pack over a shoulder. Pat, though, didn't give
up so easily. "A group of us are going to Segovia this weekend," she
said. "You want to come?" John, anxious to leave on good terms with
her, said yes. He kissed her again, this time almost getting the
corners of her mouth. She pulled him close. Then he broke free,
hurrying down the hall, down the steps, out into the cool November
That was the night Franco died. It was dark when John woke up the next
morning. He crept into the kitchen, as usual, trying not to wake up the
señora, and turned on the gas for his shower. Waiting for it to heat up
the water, he flipped on the radio. He heard a classical dirge and then
a man's voice announced that the general “falleció" at 2 a.m. John
thought he knew what this meant. But he scampered into his room to look
up "fallecer," just to be sure. The dictionary left no doubt. He looked
out the window, half expecting to see explosions of some kind, mortars,
the first battle of a renewed civil war. But the street watchman, "el
sereno," was huddled as usual in the doorway of the shoe store, and a
few early-risers were walking, as usual, toward the Bilbao metro. He
heard the señora shouting to him that he left on the gas. John hurried
toward the shower, telling the señora on the way that the Generalísimo
"Ay, no me diga," she said, crossing the front of her nightgown.
John nodded somberly. If the señora was 70 now, he thought, she’d been
30 when Franco marched his troops up from Morocco, starting the civil
war. He tried to imagine Gerald Ford as president until the year...
2014? The señora started to cry, murmuring something about "pobrecito."
Then she crossed herself again, said, "Qué en paz descanse," and told
John to hurry with the shower.
That frosty morning he walked all the way to the university, expecting
to see something momentous. But except for some black crepe hanging
from public buildings and the banner headlines on newspapers, he was
disappointed. Cafés did the usual business, buses ran. Construction
workers at Cuatro Caminos warmed themselves with red wine and brandy.
But when he reached the university, he found armed soldiers standing at
closed gates. Classes, they said, were postponed for a week.
He started to head home when he heard some honking. It was Paloma, her
friend Pilar, and two young men -- Manolo and one other -- in an old
car. They were all beaming, paying no attention to the soldiers. Paloma
leaned out a window and told John they were heading to San Sebastian
for a week. They'd already swung by his house to invite him, and
learned from a teary-eyed señora that he'd walked to school. Didn't he
want to come? John looked into the crowded car, a deux chevaux, and
wondered where he'd fit. He hesitated. "Come on," Paloma urged him,
telling him she had cousins to stay with up there. Pilar told him to
jump in. Even Manolo, who had seemed so sullen at the Café Gijon, urged
him on. He told John they'd be driving through the Rioja region, and
would drink plenty of the best red wine. He held up a boot-shaped
wineskin and smiled broadly, exposing a row of crooked teeth. John was
paralyzed. He said he didn't have any clothes with him. But Manolo said
his house was on the way. John asked how long the drive was. What's it
matter? Paloma said. Fifteen, twenty hours. John wondered about the
sleeping arrangements. He pictured himself lying awake in an attic as
Paloma slept with Manolo. But leaning out the car window in a big wool
sweater, flushed and radiant, Paloma was going on about what a great
fun they'd all have. They'd see the cathedrals in Leon and Burgos, the
wine country in Rioja, the Pyrenees. "And we can even stop in Segovia
for lunch today," she said. "See the aqueduct and eat suckling pig.
It's so tender, they say, you can cut it with the plate." Manolo
laughed and added that "cochinillo" was delicious with Rioja wine.
Then John remembered. "Oh," he said, looking disappointed. "I forgot. I'm supposed to go to Segovia this weekend, with friends."
"Cancel," Paloma said matter-of-factly.
Paloma shrugged, looking hurt. "Oh well," she said. "Maybe some other time."
Manolo put the wineskin back under his seat. Even he looked disappointed. "Hombre..." he said.
"No, no," John said, waving them on.
The car finally pulled away, toward Argüelles. Paloma looked back one more time.
As John pictured the scene 20 years later, he tried to read her
expression. More than angry or sad or betrayed, she looked perplexed.
John often regretted his decision. Looking back, he saw that Paloma and
her friends were celebrating a new beginning, the first political
change in their lives. What better way to celebrate than a road trip?
John ended up traveling to Segovia as a member of Pat Donaldson's
entourage. When he met her at the bus station, she was already sitting
with another American, a studious engineer from Purdue named Greg. It
turned out she'd arranged to meet yet another American in Segovia.
John, it seemed, had given up the trip to San Sebastian for a place in
a line of lonely, horny ex-pats. When they got to Segovia, Greg walked
next to Pat most of the time, and John tagged along behind, as if he
didn't care. Luckily, they never ran into the other American. But Pat
did find a Spaniard with a car. John remembered sitting in the back
seat with Greg as the Spaniard, his name long forgotten, drove
recklessly through the brown prairies, pointing out things to Pat. She
grabbed his hand and rubbed it, saying, "Verdad? Verdad?" in her
miserable Wisconsin accent. That night they somehow managed to sneak
into the same hotel room. But just as John and Greg were readying to
negotiate sleeping arrangements, the Spaniard knocked on the door. So
the amenable Americans lay on blankets on the floor, pretending to
sleep, while Pat fucked the Spaniard. In the middle of the night, the
Spaniard woke up with a start. He dressed loudly, hopping near John's
head as he pulled on socks, and hurried out of the room. As soon as he
was gone, Greg rose like a zombie and crept wordlessly into bed with
Pat, and the humping began again. John tried not to watch too much.
What would have happened, he wondered, looking back 20 years, if he had
demanded his turn? Would Greg have returned to the floor? It was a
question that never came up, probably because all of them could tell
that John wasn't the kind of guy who would get up from the floor. Even
as John spent long hours speculating about his own future, what kind of
woman he would end up with, everyone else had him down as a dweeb, for
life. That's why Manolo had been so friendly! John had never considered
this before, and it depressed him. He walked into the kitchen for
As he opened the last Michelob, he heard a thumping from upstairs, then
some shouts. A chair falling over? Then a door slammed and someone
pounded down the stairs. He braced himself, beer in hand, hoping that
his neighbor would keep running down the stairs, past his door. But she
stopped and banged. "Mr. Lewis!" she shouted. "Fire!"
John opened the door and saw his neighbor for the first time without
her purple coat. She was standing wild-eyed in a grey sweatsuit, red
hair he'd never noticed falling down to her shoulders, yelling
something about a fire extinguisher. John ran to the kitchen and
grabbed a small red unit by the refrigerator and ran up the stairs
after her into a smoke-filled apartment. The TV was on, playing for an
idle exercise bike. "In here!" she shouted from the kitchen. John
hurried in and saw a plastic trash can lying on its side in the middle
of the floor, burning. "Shoot it!" the woman screamed as John tried to
read the instructions. Something about pulling a pin out..."Shoot it,
Goddamn it!" He saw a plastic pole. That must be the pin. He grabbed it
between his thumb and forefinger and pulled. "Give it to me!" she
yelled. John swung away from her, to keep control of the extinguisher,
and looked at the pin. He was pulling the wrong way. He gave it a yank
in the other direction and it came out. Then he calmly pointed the
apparatus at the fire, which was melting the garbage can, sending inky
threads of petrochemicals toward the ceiling. "Fuck!" she yelled. He
pulled the trigger and a blanket of white powder buried the flame with
Silence. Then John could hear some popping and crackling from the
remains of the fire. The coat of white powder seemed to hiss. He heard
canned laughter from the TV in the living room, and he could hear the
large woman next to him breathing heavily. What was her name? Kitty?
That didn't seem to fit such a large woman. She was still staring at
the remains of the fire and listening to it. "It's sorta like it's
talking, isn't it," she finally said, looking up at John and smiling.
"Kind of like Rice Krinkles," he said.
"Or Krispy Kritters."
They both laughed.
"I'm sorry I screamed at you," she said. "But I was thinking, here's my
kitchen burning down, and this guy, he's like, reading the goddamned
"It had this pin in it..." John started to explain.
"Listen," she said, her voice brightening. "Would you like a beer or
something?" She stepped over the remains of the trash can and opened
the refrigerator door. "I got some white wine in here too. And
Stolichnaya vodka in the freezer if you want something..."
John started to back away. But he stopped when he saw the smile drop
from her face. "Well, I guess I could have something..." he said. "You
have some lime or lemon for that vodka?"
It turned out her name was Katie. She moved the exercise bike and
installed John in an easy chair near the TV, with a tall glass of vodka
on the rocks, and hurried off to take a shower. By the time she came
back, dressed in jeans and a blue blouse, and the red hair tied up in
back with a ribbon, John had worked his way through half his drink and
was having a very hard time concentrating on what appeared to be a
hospital soap opera on TV. It seemed to jump around so much, from one
character to the next. Even the picture seemed to bounce.
Katie sat on the couch with a big glass of white wine. She grabbed the
remote control and starting switching the channels, confusing John even
more. She settled back on the hospital show and turned up the volume.
John sipped his vodka and looked at her. The nose. It really was like
Paloma's. But her face was half again as broad, with rosy cheeks, and
deep-set brown eyes. Something serious was happening on the hospital
show, and her eyebrows were knotted with concern. She took a big sip of
wine and swallowed it without removing her gaze from the screen. She
was actually pretty, John said, once you got past her size. He figured
she was at least six feet tall, and probably pushing 175 pounds.
Commercials came on. Katie muted them and swung around toward John and
told him about herself. In short order, she managed to let him know
that she was 37, divorced, originally from Philadelphia, and still with
some friends there -- though her ex-husband was there, too, which was a
downer. She worked three floors down from Bruce Babbit at Interior, she
said, and made it clear that she wasn't a big admirer of Newt Gingrich.
She didn't like Clinton too much either, but would probably vote him.
She said she didn't especially enjoy TV, especially the Thursday night
line-up. Just then the hospital show came back on, and she un-muted it.
John emptied his vodka glass and tried to look at the TV. The picture
seemed to jump around even more. Now he had trouble understanding what
the people were saying. He looked at Katie. Something about her
reminded him of someone. Was it that woman he kissed at the bus stop in
Caracas? Or was it just that she was wearing Paloma's nose?
He cleared his throat to say something. She looked at him. "You need a
refill?" He started to say no, that he'd had enough. But just then the
commercials came on and Katie, working against the clock, grabbed his
glass and hurried into the kitchen. He heard her unloading an ice tray
and pouring. "You know, I guess I should do something about this trash
can," she yelled. "I can't like just, leave it here. Smoldering, or
whatever it's doing."
Commercials were still on when she got back. "Tell me about yourself,"
she said, handing him the drink. "I hardly see you, except when I bump
into your door in that ridiculously small landing there..."
John didn't know where to start. So he told her about himself and
Paloma. He told her how they met at the Facultad, about how Franco was
dying and it seemed that everything was headed for radical change, even
civil war. Katie listened intently, keeping the TV on mute, even as the
hospital show ended and the local news came on. John told her that long
before Paloma was a friend of Newt Gingrich, she was a socialist of
sorts, who smoked hash that her friends brought up from Morocco. He
told her about walking past the cops talking Hungarian.
"My folks are Hungarian!" Katie said, nodding intently.
"No. But go on."
Fueled by the vodka, John was content to keep on talking. He enjoyed
listening to his own sentences, his touches of Madrid color and
history. He was a good story teller, he thought, when he put his mind
to it. But he could see that Katie was waiting for this relationship he
was describing to flower into love, or at least something in that
realm. If he ended the story with that sad little scene where he
refused the ride to San Sebastian, she'd most likely turn her attention
back to the TV. So he changed a few things in his head and kept
talking. He told her about the day Franco died, how he walked to the
University and found it closed, and how Paloma and her friends pulled
up next to him in that ancient Citroen and asked him if he wanted to go
with them. To Segovia. Naturally, he hopped in.
That night they ate very tender suckling pig, and washed it down with red wine. Rioja.
Katie shook her head. She hadn't heard of Rioja.
Just a detail, John said. But if she ever went to Spain, she should keep it in mind. "It's sort of oaky."
Anyway, afterwards, the four of them walked around the city. They
looked at the aqueduct, which the Romans had actually constructed, some
2,000 years earlier, without even using mortar.
"They used rocks," Katie said, nodding, eager to get back to the romance.
"Uh huh. Big stones."
After the walk, they headed back to the hotel.
As he told the story, John saw that by putting all the other people in
the car, he'd undermined the romantic connection between himself and
Paloma. By this point, though, there wasn't much he could do about it.
They walked up one of Segovia's steep cobblestone streets toward the
castle. They found a little Pension, and somehow they managed to sneak
into the same room. "We probably wouldn't have dared do that if we
hadn't been drinking so much wine," he said.
Katie nodded, anxious to hear how the young Paloma Pollack would handle these three hot-blooded men in her hotel room.
Paloma made it clear that she wanted to sleep with John, and John
alone, John said. But he was shy back then, and felt uncomfortable
about the whole affair. He couldn't really be in the same room with
these other two guys, but he didn't want to kick them out. So,
magnanimously, he suggested that all three men sleep on blankets on the
floor, leaving the bed for Paloma alone. The other two agreed. They all
went to sleep. Next thing John knew, one of them was up in the bed with
Paloma, having sex. Very loud, passionate sex.
Katie leaned forward. "Did you... just watch?"
"I probably shouldn't have," John said. "But yeah, I did, a little." He
told her that Paloma was much bigger back then -- almost fat, he
noticed, seeing her naked for the first time.
As John told the story, he could guess that Katie was expecting some
sort of orgy. But even with all the vodka, he just couldn't deliver
one. They finally fell asleep, he said. Then the guy in bed woke up
with a start and hurried out of the room, swearing in Spanish.
"But didn't he come with you, in the car, from Madrid?" Katie asked.
"Yeah, he did. But I guess he had some sort of appointment or something..."
At this point in the story, John considered putting himself in the bed
with Paloma. He found it very hard, though, to change the story. "Next
thing I know," he said, "the guy next to me's getting up, like a
zombie, and crawling into bed with Paloma."
"You're kidding!" Katie said, getting into it. "I think that's where I
might 'a drawn the line, like said, 'Hey, there, Paloma. Like, HELLO!
Like, EXCUUUUSE ME."
"And the way she paints herself now," Katie went on, "as a model of
virtue." She shook her head, marveling. "But three's golden, right?"
"Not that night," John said, smiling fondly, as though the undivulged memories were almost too precious to share.
He finished his second glass of vodka and looked at Katie, who was
still waiting for him to continue the story. "You know," he said. "Your
nose is exactly like Paloma's. You ever notice that?"
"You're kidding." She ran a finger along the curve of her nose and
seemed to ponder it for a moment. "You want me to put on music, or
"Ok," John said. He didn't feel like moving or talking anymore. He just
wanted to sit there and let his head spin, and listen to this large,
friendly woman with the Philadelphia accent, who now knew more about
his junior year in Spain than all of his colleagues at the State
Department, combined. He started to regret that he'd lied to her about
that night in Segovia. He looked over at her, hunched over the stereo,
wiping a CD on her blouse and placing it in the machine. The blue
ribbon that held back her hair was falling off. Why did he have to lie
to her? John felt his nose running. He sniffed, and wiped an eye with
The music came on, some kind of soft jazz with strings. Katie walked back toward John and saw right away that he was crying.
She rushed toward him, saying, "Aw, what's the matter?" She sat next to
him on the couch and grabbed his hand. John looked at her through his
tears and saw a pair of brown eyes and knotted brows swimming about six
inches from his own.
He said, "I just..." But he couldn't finish the sentence.
"Awww," Katie said. She ran a hand through his hair, trying to comfort him.
They sat there for a minute, listening to the music. Finally, John
said, "You know. That scene I told you about in Segovia? It wasn't
exactly like that."
"You were the first one, right?" Katie said, sounding like a mother pepping up a six-year-old.
He shook his head, and she pulled her hand from his hair. "That wasn't Paloma in the bed. It was somebody else."
"Tssst. That doesn't matter," she murmured, snuggling closer to him. "But you did know Paloma Pollack, back then, right?"
John nodded. "I just switched her with this woman, because... Oh I
don't know why I did it." He was finished crying now and a little angry
"Kiss me," Katie said. Her voice was about an inch from his ear.
He turned to her, suddenly finding her beautiful and wondering if it was the alcohol.
"Kiss me," she whispered.
John obediently inched toward her and closed his eyes.
"Hold it right there," she said, putting up a hand. "Keep your eyes open."
"I want you to remember who you're kissing. Understand?"
John smiled and kissed her, first on the tip of the nose, that beautiful nose, and then on the mouth.
Worker: BW excerpt
August 29, 2008
By building mathematical models of its own employees, IBM aims to improve productivity and automate management
BusinessWeek's 2006 Cover Story, "Math Will Rock Your
World," announced a new age of numbers. With the rise of new networks,
the story argued, all of us were channeling the details of our lives
into vast databases. Every credit-card purchase, every cell-phone call,
every click on the computer mouse fed these digital troves. Those with
the tools and skills to make sense of them could begin to decipher our
movements, desires, diseases, and shopping habits—and predict our
behavior. This promised to transform business and society. In a book
expanding upon this Cover Story, The Numerati, Senior
Writer Stephen Baker introduces us to the mathematical wizards who are
digging through our data to decode us as patients, shoppers, voters,
potential terrorists—even lovers.
One of the most promising laboratories for the Numerati is the
workplace, where every keystroke, click, and e-mail can be studied. In
a chapter called "The Worker," Baker travels to IBM, where mathematicians are building predictive models of their own colleagues. An excerpt:
On a late spring morning I drive up into the forests of Westchester
County, N.Y., to the headquarters of IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research
Center. It sits like a fortress atop a hill, a long, curved wall of
glass reflecting the cotton-ball clouds floating above. I have a date
there with Samer Takriti, a Syrian-born mathematician. He heads up a
team that's piecing together mathematical models of 50,000 of IBM's
tech consultants. The idea is to pile up inventories of all of their
skills and then to calculate, mathematically, how best to deploy them.
I'm here to find out how Takriti and his colleagues go about turning
IBM's workers into numbers. If this works, his team plans to apply
these models to other companies and to automate much of what we now
Takriti, a slim 40-year-old with wide, languid eyes, opens the door
of his small office. He wears a rugby shirt tucked tightly into blue
jeans. I tell him that being modeled doesn't sound like much fun. I
picture an all-knowing boss anticipating my every move, perhaps sending
me an e-mail with the simple message, "No!" before I even get up my
nerve to ask for a raise. But Takriti focuses on the positive. Imagine
that your boss finally recognizes your strengths, he says—maybe ones
that are hidden even to you. Then he "puts you into situations where
you will thrive."
Samer Takriti, at the Watson Research Center
Still, Takriti confesses that he's nervous. His assignment is to
translate the complexity of highly intelligent knowledge workers into
the same types of equations and algorithms that are used to fine-tune
shipping or predict the life span and production of a mainframe
computer. With time, he and his team hope to build detailed models for
each worker, each one complete with a person's quirks, daily commute,
and allies, perhaps even enemies. These models might one day include
whether the workers eat beef or pork, how seriously they take the
Sabbath, whether a bee sting or a peanut sauce could lay them low. No
doubt, some of them thrive even in the filthy air in Beijing or Mexico
City, while others wheeze. If so, the models would eventually include
this detail, among countless others. The idea is to build richly
textured models that behave in their symbolic realm just like their
flesh-and-blood counterparts. Then planners can manipulate them,
looking for the most efficient combinations.
Takriti's team is hardly starting from scratch. IBM has long been a
leader in converting all kinds of complex systems into numbers. Right
after World War II, Big Blue used a new science called Operations
Research to construct a mathematical model of the company's industrial
supply chain. It included its costs and capabilities, as well as
limitations, or constraints. Once the supply chain existed as numbers,
engineers could experiment with it—optimizing it—and later incorporate
the improvements in the real-life version. This drove efficiency and
lowered costs. It was wonderful for manufacturing. But now, as IBM has
shifted its focus to services, the corporate supply chain is made up
less of machine parts than of people—Takriti and some 300,000 of his
colleagues. His job, quite simply, is to start optimizing his
To put together these profiles, Takriti requires mountains of facts
about each employee. He has unleashed some 40 PhDs, from data miners
and statisticians to anthropologists, to comb through workers' data.
Personnel files, which include annual evaluations, are off-limits at
IBM. But practically every other bit of data is fair game. Sifting
through résumés and project records, the team can assemble a profile of
each worker's skills and experience. Online calendars show how
employees use their time and who they meet with. By tracking the use of
cell phones and handheld computers, Takriti's researchers may be able
to map the workers' movements. Call records and e-mails define the
social networks of each consultant. Whom do they copy on their e-mails?
Do they send blind copies to certain people?
These hidden messages could point to the growth of informal networks
within the company. They may show that a midlevel manager is quietly
leading an important group of colleagues—and that his boss is out of
the loop. Eventually, say experts, e-mail analysis may single out
workers whose behavior places them outside the known networks. Are
these outliers depressed, about to jump ship, consorting with the
competition? In companies around the world, the Numerati will be
hunting for statistical clues.
Even without reading all the e-mails, managers can automatically
spot the most common words that circulate within each group of workers.
This permits them to establish the nature of each relationship. They
can also see how communications shift with time. Two workers may
discuss software programming Tuesday through Friday but spend much of
their time on Monday sending e-mails about the past weekend's football
games. "The next big step," says Kathleen M. Carley, a lead researcher
in social networks at Carnegie Mellon University, "is to take tools
like this and tie them to scheduling and productivity programs."
Takriti's scheme is even more ambitious. He is not given to bold
forecasts. But if his system is successful, here's how it will work:
Picture an IBM manager who gets an assignment to send a team of five to
set up a call center in Manila. She sits down at the computer and fills
out a form. It's almost like booking a vacation online. She puts in the
dates and clicks on menus to describe the job and the skills needed.
Perhaps she stipulates the ideal budget range. The results come back,
recommending a particular team. All the skills are represented. Maybe
three of the five people have a history of working together smoothly.
They all have passports and live near airports with direct flights to
Manila. One of them even speaks Tagalog.
Everything looks fine, except for one line that's highlighted in
red. The budget. It's $40,000 over! The manager sees that the computer
architect on the team is a veritable luminary, a guy who gets written
up in the trade press. Sure, he's a 98.7% fit for the job, but he costs
$1,000 an hour. It's as if she shopped for a weekend getaway in Paris
and wound up with a penthouse suite at the Ritz.
DO THE MATH
Hmmm. The manager asks the system for a cheaper architect. New
options come back. One is a new 29-year-old consultant based in India
who costs only $85 per hour. That would certainly patch the hole in the
budget. Unfortunately, he's only a 69% fit for the job. Still, he can
handle it, according to the computer, if he gets two weeks of training.
Can the job be delayed?
This is management in a world run by Numerati. As IBM sees it, the
company has little choice. The workforce is too big, the world too vast
and complicated for managers to get a grip on their workers the
old-fashioned way—by talking to people who know people who know people.
Word of mouth is too foggy and slow for the global economy. Personal
connections are too constricted. Managers need the zip of automation to
unearth a consultant in New Delhi, just the way a generation ago they
located a shipment of condensers in Chicago. For this to work, the
consultant—just like the condensers—must be represented as a series of
Eventually, companies could take this knowledge much further, using
the numbers, in a sense, to clone us. Imagine, says Aleksandra
Mojsilovic, one of Takriti's close colleagues, that the company has a
superior worker named Joe Smith. Management could really benefit from
two or three others just like him, or even a dozen. Once the company
has built rich mathematical profiles of Smith and his fellow workers,
it might be possible to identify at least a few of the experiences or
routines that make Joe Smith so good. "If you had the full employment
history, you could even compute the steps to become a Joe Smith," she
says. "I'm not saying you can recreate a scientist, or a painter, or a
musician," Mojsilovic adds. "But there are a lot of job roles that are
really commodities." And if people turn out to be poorly designed for
these jobs, they'll be reconfigured, first mathematically and then in
Sound scary? It may depend on where you're perched on the food
chain. Remember the $1,000-per-hour consultant who almost got
dispatched to the Philippines? He didn't end up going, and instead, in
IBM's scheme, he remained "on the bench." Takriti smiles. "That's what
we call it," he says. "I think the term comes from sports." The
question, of course, is how long IBM wants to have that high-priced
talent gathering splinters. If there isn't any work to justify his
immense talents, shouldn't they put him on something else, just to keep
Not necessarily, says Takriti. Job satisfaction is one of the
automatic system's constraints. If workers get angry or bored to tears,
their productivity is bound to plummet. The computer keeps this in mind
(in a manner of speaking). As you might expect, it deals very gently
with superstars. Since they make lots of money for the company during
short bursts of activity, they get plenty of time on the bench. But
grunt workers in this hierarchy get far less consideration. They're
calculated as commodities. Their skills are "fungible." This means
these workers are virtually indistinguishable from others, whether
they're in India or Uruguay. They contribute little to profits. It
pains Takriti to say this, because humans are not machines. They have
varying skills and potential to grow. He appreciates this. But looking
at it mathematically, he says, the company should keep its commodity
workers laboring as close as possible to 100% of the time. Not much
kickback time on the bench for them.
Where is this all leading? I pose the question one afternoon to
Pierre Haren. A PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a
prominent member of the Numerati, he's the founder and chief executive
of ILOG. It's a French company that uses operations research to
fine-tune industrial systems, charting, for example, the most efficient
delivery routes for Coors beer. ILOG makes allowances for all kinds of
constraints. For example, a few years ago, the Singapore government
wanted to avoid diplomatic spats at its new airport. So officials asked
ILOG to synchronize the flow of passengers, making sure that those from
mainland China wouldn't cross paths with travelers from Taiwan. Haren
speaks in a strong French accent. We're talking in the lobby of a
Midtown hotel in New York, and he has to yell to make himself heard
over a particularly loud fountain.
Haren says the efforts under way at places like IBM will not only
break down each worker into sets of skills and knowledge. The same
systems will also divide their days and weeks into small periods of
time—hours, half-hours, eventually even minutes. At the same time, the
jobs that have to be done, whether it's building a software program or
designing an airliner, are also broken down into tiny steps. In this
sense, Haren might as well be describing the industrial engineering
that led to assembly lines a century ago. Big jobs are parsed into
thousands of tasks and divided among many workers. But the work Haren
is discussing is not done by hand, hydraulic presses, or even robots.
It flows from the brain. The labor is defined by knowledge and ideas.
As he sees it, that expertise will be tapped minute by minute across
the world. This job sharing is already starting to happen, as companies
break up projects and move big pieces of them offshore. But once the
workers are represented as mathematical models, it will be far easier
to break down their days into billable minutes and send their smarts to
fulfill jobs all over the world.
Consider IBM's superstar consultant. He's roused off the bench,
whether he's on a ski lift at St. Moritz or leading a seminar at
Armonk, N.Y. He reaches into his pocket and sees a message asking for
10 minutes of his precious time. He might know just the right
algorithm, or perhaps a contact or a customer. Maybe he sends back word
that he's busy. (He's a star, after all.) But if he takes part, he
assumes his place in what Haren calls a virtual assembly line. "This is
the equivalent of the industrial revolution for white-collar workers,"
It's getting late in Takriti's office. I can see that he's concerned
about my line of questioning. This virtual assembly line sounds
menacing. The surveillance has more than a whiff of Big Brother. For
those of us who aren't $1,000-per-hour consultants, life bound to a
mathematical model is sounding like abject data serfdom.
Here's Takriti's counterargument. As the tools he's building make
workers more productive, the market will reward them. We already use
math programs to plot our trips and look for dates. Why not use them to
map our careers—and negotiate for better pay? (Takriti, it turns out
months later, masters these market dynamics: He was able to shop his
gilded Numerati credentials to several Web companies and banks, and
finally leaves IBM in late 2007 for a post as a top mathematician at
Goldman Sachs. Work on the modeling project continues apace, says IBM.)
All sorts of workers will be able to calculate their own worth with
more precision. Let's say analytical tools show that a consultant's
value to the company topped $2 million one year. Shouldn't she have
access to that number and be free to use it as a negotiating tool? In a
workplace defined by metrics, even those of us who like to think that
we're beyond measurement will face growing pressure to build our case
with numbers of our own.
Adapted from The Numerati by Stephen Baker, copyright © 2008. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. All rights reserved.
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
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