The Great Simoleon Caper

СодержаниеNeal Stephenson The Great Simoleon Caper → Часть 1

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TIME Domestic SPECIAL ISSUE, Spring 1995 Volume 145, No. 12

Hard to imagine a less attractive life-style for a young man just out of college than going back to Bismarck to live with his parents -- unless it's living with his brother in the suburbs of Chicago, which, naturally, is what I did. Mom at least bakes a mean cherry pie. Joe, on the other hand, got me into a permanent emotional headlock and found some way, every day, to give me psychic noogies.

For example, there was the day he gave me the job of figuring out how many jelly beans it would take to fill up Soldier Field.

Let us stipulate that it's all my fault; Joe would want me to be clear on that point. Just as he was always good with people, I was always good with numbers. As Joe tells me at least once a week, I should have studied engineering. Drifted between majors instead, ended up with a major in math and a minor in art -- just about the worst thing you can put on a job app.

Joe, on the other hand, went into the ad game. When the Internet and optical fiber and HDTV and digital cash all came together and turned into what we now call the Metaverse, most of the big ad agencies got hammered -- because in the Metaverse, you can actually whip out a gun and blow the Energizer Bunny's head off, and a lot of people did. Joe borrowed 10, 000 bucks from Mom and Dad and started this clever young ad agency. If you've spent any time crawling the Metaverse, you've seen his work -- and it's seen you, and talked to you, and followed you around.

Mom and Dad stayed in their same little house in Bismarck, North Dakota. None of their neighbors guessed that if they cashed in their stock in Joe's agency, they'd be worth about $20 million. I nagged them to diversify their portfolio -- you know, buy a bushel basket of Krugerrands and bury them in the backyard, or maybe put a few million into a mutual fund. But Mom and Dad felt this would be a no-confidence vote in Joe. "It'd be, " Dad said, "like showing up for your kid's piano recital with a Walkman. "

Joe comes home one January evening with a magnum of champagne. After giving me the obligatory hazing about whether I'm old enough to drink, he pours me a glass. He's already banished his two sons to the Home Theater. They have cranked up the set-top box they got for Christmas. Patch this baby into your HDTV, and you can cruise the Metaverse, wander the Web and choose from among several user-friendly operating systems, each one rife with automatic help systems, customer-service hot lines and intelligent agents. The theater's subwoofer causes our silverware to buzz around like sheet-metal hockey players, and amplified explosions knock swirling nebulas of tiny bubbles loose from the insides of our champagne glasses. Those low frequencies must penetrate the young brain somehow, coming in under kids' media-hip radar and injecting the edfotainucational muchomedia bitstream direct into their cerebral cortices.

"Hauled down a mother of an account today, " Joe explains. "We hype cars. We hype computers. We hype athletic shoes. But as of three hours ago, we are hyping a currency. "

"What? " says his wife Anne.

"Y'know, like dollars or yen. Except this is a new currency. "

"From which country? " I ask. This is like offering lox to a dog: I've given Joe the chance to enlighten his feckless bro. He hammers back half a flute of Dom Perignon and shifts into full-on Pitch Mode.

"Forget about countries, " he says. "We're talking Simoleons -- the smart, hip new currency of the Metaverse. "

"Is this like E-money? " Anne asks.

"We've been doing E-money for e-ons, ever since automated-teller machines. " Joe says, with just the right edge of scorn. "Nowadays we can use it to go shopping in the Metaverse. But it's still in U. S. dollars. Smart people are looking for something better. "

That was for me. I graduated college with a thousand bucks in savings. With inflation at 10% and rising, that buys a lot fewer Leinenkugels than it did a year ago.

"The government's never going to get its act together on the budget, " Joe says. "It can't. Inflation will just get worse. People will put their money elsewhere. "

"Inflation would have to get pretty damn high before I'd put my money into some artificial currency, " I say.

"Hell, they're all artificial, " Joe says. "If you think about it, we've been doing this forever. We put our money in stocks, bonds, shares of mutual funds. Those things represent real assets -- factories, ships, bananas, software, gold, whatever. Simoleons is just a new name for those assets. You carry around a smart card and spend it just like cash. Or else you go shopping in the Metaverse and spend the money online, and the goods show up on your doorstep the next morning. "

I say, "Who's going to fall for that? "

"Everyone, " he says. "For our big promo, we're going to give Simoleons away to some average Joes at the Super Bowl. We'll check in with them one, three, six months later, and people will see that this is a safe and stable place to put their money. "

"It doesn't inspire much confidence, " I say, "to hand the stuff out like Monopoly money. "

He's ready for this one. "It's not a handout. It's a sweepstakes. " And that's when he asks me to calculate how many jelly beans will fill Soldier Field. Two hours later, I'm down at the local galaxy-class grocery store, in Bulk: a Manhattan of towering Lucite bins filled with steel-cut rolled oats, off-brand Froot Loops, sun-dried tomatoes, prefabricated s'mores, macadamias, French roasts and pignolias, all dispensed into your bag or bucket with a jerk at the handy Plexiglas guillotine. Not a human being in sight, just robot restocking machines trundling back and forth on a grid of overhead catwalks and surveillance cameras hidden in smoked-glass hemispheres. I stroll through the gleaming Lucite wonderland holding a perfect 6-in. cube improvised from duct tape and cardboard. I stagger through a glitter gulch of Gummi fauna, Boston baked beans, gobstoppers, Good Plenty, Tart'n Tiny. Then, bingo: bulk jelly beans, premium grade. I put my cube under the spout and fill it.

Who guesses closest and earliest on the jelly beans wins the Simoleons. They've hired a Big Six accounting firm to make sure everything's done right. And since they can't actually fill the stadium with candy, I'm to come up with the Correct Answer and supply it to them and, just as important, to keep it secret.

I get home and count the beans: 3, 101. Multiply by 8 to get the number in a cubic foot: 24, 808. Now I just need the number of cubic feet in Soldier Field. My nephews are sprawled like pithed frogs before the HDTV, teaching themselves physics by lobbing antimatter bombs onto an offending civilization from high orbit. I prance over the black zigzags of the control cables and commandeer a unit.


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