Where there's a will, there's a way.
Blithe proverb, I know, but not to Rich. Richard—Rich to his friend, Dick to his enemies—truly believed the world worked that way. Not in the positive-thinking pseudo-mystical self-help way where a smile and a jaunt in your step is supposed to alter the laws of probability, but in the work-24-hours-a-day way.
He believed it with the ferocity of a missionary and applied it with the discipline of a Buddhist monk. It was Rich who told me that with sufficient training, those monks could light themselves on fire and maintain a serene smile as they burned to ashes. Coming from Rich, I believed it.
Rich would get dead-set on a goal, like passing an exam, and bend every fiber of his being around it. That didn't mean he would cram without sleeping, no. He would have a precise plan where he slept a full 9 hours every day, studied for around 13 hours with breaks for intense relaxation, whatever that meant, and the rest of the day was divided into chunks optimized for tending to the base needs of his body. He wouldn't only have tables of nutrition figured out, but also have a logistical plan for minimizing shopping time until the exam was over.
As you might guess, Rich didn't have many friends. Just the one, in fact. Just me.
We were assigned as roommates in what was my first year in college and his second. At first, he was always out and about somewhere. I was in fact warned about him by three different dorm-mates before I first laid eyes on him. They called him an autist, which was probably true; an asshole, which was a matter of opinion; and a madman, which was demonstrably false. As he demonstrated, again and again and again, Rich was painfully sane.
The problem other people had with Rich was that he saw them as either irrelevant or irritating. When you were irrelevant, you were ignored; you became irritating when you stated an opinion which Rich considered logically inconsistent, which of course happened all the time. I don't know why he treated me differently. Maybe our friendship was just the result of him applying his single-minded focus to the problem of making friends, just to prove he could do it. That doesn’t mean our interactions were ever normal.
Perhaps I can offer an example. It happened in our dorm room, during Rich's final semester at college. In the middle of the usual disarray (which was as always due to me) Rich sat on the floor, hunched over a Go board with only black pieces, moving them around by some pattern unknown to me. There was no other player.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
(Now you might be thinking he would have ignored me, but for some reason, Rich liked explaining stuff to me and only me.)
"Cellular automata," he said without looking up.
(This was the second question in our customary pattern of threes.)
"Every cell on the grid of the board can take one of two values. Alive or dead." He demonstrated with a Go piece. "There's a simple set of rules. I start at some state and see where it deterministically ends up."
"And why is it interesting?"
(Here, there were two options. Rich would either give a single paragraph of explanation or launch into a lecture. It depended on his current objective, and whether he thought my understanding might be of value.)
"It's Turing complete, with an infinite board at least. This is just a finite torus," he said, indicating the entirely flat board, "but that doesn't change the principle. You can calculate anything with this. In theory, it might be a more elegant way to program, for some particular problems."
(This sort of joke was too subtle for him to notice. It was for my own amusement.)
"Oh, I'm not trying to solve Go," Rich said. "I'm thinking about complex systems, like society."
Now here I stood at a crossroads: I could make a joke Rich would get, something about Hari Seldon, or one Rich wouldn't get. I knew Rich very well at this point. "That's a bit beyond your grasp, isn't it? Should I call you the Magister Ludicrous?"
At that point, he looked up. I had his full attention. "Explain."
There weren't any smartphones at the time, nor was there Wikipedia. "There's this book by Hermann Hesse. It's set in the far future, where a game played with glass beads has revolutionized the social sciences and brought about world peace. The leading player is the Magister Ludi."
"That's funny," Rich said, and turned back to his game. He meant it. For Rich, the more obscure a joke was, the more funny it was; if someone had to explain it to him, even better.
The train of thought that began with a Go board on a college room floor filled his entire last semester at college. It consumed him the way all his other projects had consumed him. He had always been erratic in his studies, as one project or another consumed his attention, but when he was done teaching himself to program or reading Euclid cover-to-cover or building a boat, he could always be guided back to reality. I just had to remind him that his care-free scholarship lifestyle was in jeopardy if he did not score the requisite marks, and he would study like a man possessed. When exams were over, the usual zaniness resumed as he found some new obsession.
Not this time. I didn't see him at the Go board again—apparently, cellular automata were not the solution—but society led to ecology, and the problem he found there wasn't easy enough for his usual approach. Unlike his other monomanias, he was not able to just solve it and move on.
"I need your advice," Rich finally said, one evening as we were getting to bed. "I have to make a decision."
"And you want my advice." I must have sounded incredulous enough for him to pick up on it, because he offered an explanation.
"I need to find flaws."
"Flaws in your thinking?"
"No, in yours. I feel like I shouldn’t make this important decision until I've found at least some flaws."
"Alright." I had learned not to take Rich’s callousness personally.
"I'm thinking about leaving college."
"Capital-T Thinking?" But that was too mundane to be his new obsession.
"No. I'm still capital-T Thinking about ecology."
"So college has finally gotten in the way." I furrowed my brow, sucked in my lower lip, and made a bit of a show of deliberating, because Rich had a habit of berating me for split decisions. "Seems like it's time to leave college, then."
"Explain," Rich said.
"Well, you would know what's best for you. And a degree isn't essential for the kind of person you're trying to be."
(I wasn’t quite sure what kind of person Rich was going to become, and truthfully found the concept kind of scary to think about.)
Belatedly, I added. "Also, I'm not your mom."
"Disappointing," Rich said. "I was hoping for more flaws. I've taught you too well."
(This was the highest compliment Rich ever gave me.)
"But you're right," he continued. "I am the expert on myself. What I'm not the expert on is the Sahara. I've been thinking about it, and it's growing, which seems like a huge problem. Most of the growth is man-made, actually."
There it was. The full-size lecture on his current obsession, bursting forth at last. I hunkered down and listened. He had thought about it; had read and analyzed whatever the university library had to offer on the topic of desertification, had discussed all possible countermeasures with himself and ranked them according to a wide array of metrics. Of course, he had gone off the beaten path more than a few times, and some of his proposals were far too weird and utopian to work with actual humans. But there was value in it, a lot of original thought. If he had written it down nicely, he would have found a professor to accept it as a thesis. But at this point, Rich had his path set out for him, and actually finishing college was extremely low on his list of priorities. I had known this day would come; I had just always assumed that he would leave to find a place at some tech firm, do something hugely innovative with computers, and get fabulously rich in the tech boom that never seemed to end.
The lecture came to an end. "I'm going, then. Any remarks?"
Apparently, he could still surprise me. "Now?"
"Rich, it's 1 AM. If you start packing your stuff now, I won't be getting any sleep tonight."
"Who do you take me for? Of course I already packed."
His stuff was always so neatly organized that I hadn't even been able to tell.
If I hadn't been quite so tired, I might have had more to say, but at this hour, I wasn't going to. "Well, good luck, then. You can call me if you need something."
"I will. Until then."
And that was the last I heard of him. Since he's been gone, I feel I've carried a splinter of him inside me, a tiny little puppet Rich whom I could depend on in times of uncertainty. To the rest of the world, he was an annoyance, an overachiever, a hopeless nerd. To me he was all of those things, but also a beacon of idealism, of principle. He never did anything without doing it right. More than that, he never did anything without putting every little part of himself to work, every single resource at his disposal. If something's important, I believe that you should go about it as if there is nothing else in the world worth doing. And most humans can't be Rich; we don't have this endless well of discipline and energy to tap. But it's worth trying nonetheless. I've never done better work, never been a better person than when I imagined Rich by my side, telling me to apply myself.
I was shocked to hear about his suicide. It seems unlike the Rich I knew. I can't help but think that he burned the candle at both ends, trying to do good all the way. Perhaps his iron self-control led him to deny himself something essential. But being a little more like him, a little more considered and controlled and invested in what we think is important—that is without doubt a good thing.
I looked over what I had typed. It was better than I had feared; for a first draft, one might even call it alright, though it needed some cleaning up around the edges. The anecdote rambled a little, and I thought I was shining a bit too much light on his bad sides. But the important stuff was there; some cutting, some rewriting, and it would make a fine eulogy. It was ten p.m. on a Tuesday, and the funeral was planned for the day after tomorrow. Better to sleep on it, I thought, with a wistful smile at the memory of that night in the dorm when I had last seen him.
It was at that point that my phone rang, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. No one called me that late, and it wasn't a number I recognized.
"Adam," he said, and I recognized his voice at once. "You told me to call if I needed something."
"So," I said once he had made himself comfortable in the passenger seat beside me.
There was no answer, as expected.
"So," I said again, even more lamely. There wasn't really an adequate way to continue the sentence, because there wasn't really an adequate way of responding to the situation at hand.
He was taking out a laptop. Probably some urgent work to do, as always.
"Have you ever figured out a solution to the Sahara?" Talking about my emotional turmoil at his reappearance was a non-starter, but maybe we could talk shop.
"Well, it’s still growing, but I'm working on it. Did you think I had given up?"
"Not given up, exactly. Perhaps I thought you might have reassessed your investment, considered the sunk cost fallacy, and moved on to more low-hanging fruit." It had been twenty-five years, but I didn't mention that. I wasn't sure if that would mean anything to him.
A short glance to the side confirmed that it really was him, re-appeared like a ghost of days gone past. He was a lot older, and a bit smoother around the edges. There was a beard; that was new as well. He looked surprisingly decent, as though wardrobe optimization had been a side project at some point in the intervening decades.
"Where am I driving you, anyway?" I had picked him up in the wilderness near the Canadian border. He'd gotten in and given me an address, but no explanation.
"I think I do need to know if I'm doing something illegal. You faked your death, then crossed the border illegally. Is it drugs?"
"No," Rich said, looking thoughtful. "That's an interesting idea, though. There's a lot of money in that business, and if it were a party drug without a lot of side effects, the net benefit would probably be positive."
"Money, huh? Should I assume you faked your death for the life insurance payout? That's a crime. Several crimes, actually."
"Is it morally good to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving child, supposing you had no way to buy the bread?"
"I suppose, yeah."
"If something is morally good, are you obligated to do it?"
"Depending on the consequences to myself—but I suppose those would be part of the question of whether it's morally good. So, yeah. I have to do good things when the opportunities to do so are relatively painless."
"Then you're obligated to steal one loaf for one child. To steal a thousand loaves to feed a thousand children, more so. Also, bread's a fungible commodity: any given loaf is similar, and if its value to you exceeds its price on the market, it's a good idea to buy it."
"Steal a thousand dollars. Feed a thousand children."
"You're in, I take it."
I couldn't keep a grin off my face. The Magister Ludicrous had risen from the dead, his mind as sharp as ever. "You've got me."
"So what do you need me for? You could've called an Uber."
"We've got about five hours of road ahead of us. You're a journalist. Interview me."
"Hold on." I stopped at the side of the road, fiddled with my smartphone. "Mind if I record?"
"Far ahead of you," he said, and indicated his laptop. I started my device nonetheless.
"So, what have you been doing since college?"
"I got in on the tech boom."
"Really. I've kept an eye out, and I've never seen your name in the news."
"I wasn't interested in public appearances. I was interested in solving technical problems."
"Wozniak, not Jobs."
"Exactly, except that I was less public than that. I got in after the fundraising stage, just when the initial ideas started to be burdened down by problems of technical implementation. Then I put my mind to it, solved all of the company's problems, writing basically their entire tech stack. The CTO at that point knew that I had their balls in my hand, and I made sure that they let the CEO know, too. I got paid in stock options mostly, with only a tiny fraction in cash for daily necessities. Turns out that if you're a good enough programmer, you can extract a surprising amount of money from a company, and they won't even get mad as long as they are taking home the larger part. When my usefulness to them started to wane, I extracted a glowing reference and went on to the next project, ad infinitum."
"You went into tech for the money, then. Why have I never seen you on any list of eccentric rich people?” I racked my brain for a name. “Like Myhrvold, or something."
"Unlike Myhrvold, I never wanted to advertise a cookbook. But the main reason is that I was never rich on paper, not like Bezos or Musk, whose wealth consists mostly of unrealized capital gains on company shares. I had throughput instead: input and output. People talk about you if you have capital. When you provide income, they have to listen."
A quick glance at him showed an unusual amount of enthusiasm in his expression, but it seemed artificial, practiced. Again I noticed that he was more polished, as if someone had gone over his appearance and demeanor with a fine comb and really smoothed him out, but kept the important edges. Given that he was Rich, this was the result of intentional effort.
"You say people are listening to you. It seems to me you've become better at talking to them, too."
"Mostly I have other people for that, because it's not a core strength of mine. But I do need to talk to those." He looked at his laptop, typed a few words, effortlessly talking at the same time. "I just applied myself to the problem. Enough about me."
"Tell me what you did with the money," I said.
"A number of rich idiots are talking about Mars as if it's just waiting to be terraformed. But Mars is dry, cold, radioactive and poisonous. Getting a kilogram of equipment to Mars costs more than most workers make in their lifetime. Terraforming Mars is a sucker's game, with current technology. I'm terraforming Earth."
"You're talking about ecology. Desertification, if I remember correctly."
"Exactly. The Sahara is dry, but it isn't cold, radioactive or poisonous, and getting a kilogram of equipment there is a matter of cents. There are people I've hired all over the Sahel. Most of them don't know my name, but they do know the conditions attached to my anonymous donations. They've been making changes over the past decades: reducing the amount of grazing, planting a lot of trees. With more roots in the ground, the earth can retain moisture and resist wind erosion. Plants will beget plants, and though the climate won't ever admit a rainforest, we'll get a fair part of the way there."
"You're saying you'll make the desert bloom." It seemed so easy when he laid it out like that.
"Did you know that dust from the Sahara is swept up by winds and taken over the Atlantic? It continuously fertilizes the Amazon rainforest, and is apparently critical in doing so. All the pieces are already there."
"Biologically speaking, maybe. What about the human element? Foreign aid doesn't always end up where it needs to be."
"It's an unstable region, that's true, and putting the right people in charge isn't enough. Some confrontations are mathematically destined for unfortunate outcomes. You've heard of the prisoner's dilemma."
He had told me about it, back in college. "Two criminals are separately confined. Each is told that if he rats out the other, he'll get a better sentence. They can't communicate or control each other, so they have to operate on blind faith. If both keep mum, that's the best outcome, but either of them can get a better deal by ratting the other out."
"Game theory says that each should rat out the other, if they're maximizing their own good, even though it ends up being a worse outcome for both."
I got where he was going. "Societal systems are built to work when everyone maximizes their own good. That makes the prisoner’s dilemma an inescapable trap of human interaction."
"That's the fun part, it isn't. In reality, true Prisoner's Dilemmas are rare. Far more common is an Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, where the same scenario repeats again and again. Here, the optimal strategy is tit-for-tat: keep the common good in mind until the other guy stops cooperating. At that point, you punish him, then go back to cooperating. The math checks out, and everybody's happy."
"How does that help you deal with warlords and terrorist organizations in the Sahel?"
"I divided the region into sections and ran a little experiment. If a section performs worse—more money embezzled meaning less trees planted—you withhold aid. Tit-for-tat, but with many players at once, so I can select those who are learning the game. You can also see it as a monopsony, a buyer's market where I am the only major buyer. They shape up, or they dry out. Of course, you'll have to deal with the vultures who roam through your sections without staying put, but once some of the more reasonable warlords are listening, they can be employed as security."
"That's a rather simplified view which still allows for a lot of terrible conflict."
"I know. That part's not my job, and I've got experts for the details."
I took in the view of the highway while I tried to process the absurdity of the situation. An old friend from college had faked his death, crossed the border illegally, and was now telling me how he planned to save the world.
"What is your role in the whole process?"
"I'm doing what I do best: squeezing money from Silicon Valley. Have you heard about CryptArtKey?" He pronounced it cryptarchy, the reign of secrets.
"It's an NFT venture, by some guy named… Vasily Korchakov?" I was a bit hazy on the details.
"Vasily's the guy I pay to be the public face, but a few of the more important players see that I'm one of the programmers and know what's up."
"Explain it, then."
"NFTs are non-fakable certificates of ownership of digital objects, cryptographically secure. People are using the technology to sell JPEGs of the Mona Lisa. But those certificates don't mean anything. Anyone can copy that JPEG and do whatever they want to it. Real property is based on exclusivity. I've bought a lot of new art that hasn't yet been digitized, of which there's not a single high-resolution image on the web. CrpytArtKey is a platform that implements a strong sort of DRM based on these NFTs."
"And DRM is what sellers of digital musics, video games or ebooks use to combat pirates."
"Exactly. At some point, other art vendors will want to use CryptArtKey, but there is real, valuable art on the platform right now, and it’s exclusive."
"With a cumulative value in the hundreds of millions, if I remember correctly." The half-remembered details of a dozen news articles were coming back.
"I'm offering Silicon Valley the future of the art market, in a technological framework they understand. It's the perfect scam."
"The art market is the oldest money laundering scheme on the planet. I bought way overpriced art from agents who had agreed to donate most of the money to the Sahel operation. Then I invented a technological excuse to get angel investors interested. Half of Silicon Valley was begging me to take their money. Throughput again: I was burning money like a rocket engine."
"So CryptArtKey is doomed to go under?" That was a scoop; CryptArtKey was the talk of the town in some circles.
"Probably, but it doesn’t matter. The funds are already where I want them. I've paid Vasily a handsome wage to make excuses for a few years, and anyone who's important will realize he's just a front. There is of course a non-negligible risk of some tech billionaire sending a goon squad after me because they believe I can get their money back. Also, I might get prosecuted."
"So you went to the sensible extreme of faking your own death."
"Exactly. I took the opportunity to take out a few loans beforehand, of course. My parents won't be liable for my estate."
"Let me summarize. You worked yourself to near burnout on a shoestring budget in the tech industry, built an entire NGO infrastructure, and then pulled a highly illegal fraud scheme worth hundreds of millions of dollars, all because you perceived an ecological problem."
"Yes. I don't understand why other people whine about things instead of applying themselves."
They're human, I thought. But it was a weak excuse. As I had written in the eulogy, there was no reason we could not be a little more like Rich, just a little more goal-oriented, without the insane schemes and the terrifying risks. Also, I was conducting an interview, not trying to make a point.
"How do you think people should apply themselves?"
"From the moment you're born, you're worth your expected lifetime earnings. Human capital, some call it, and in developed countries, it’s on the order of a few millions of dollars. In the beginning, you take loans against that expectation, with society as the creditor. Most people pay off those loans, then burn most of what is left over on frivolities even they don't believe to be important. I invested instead."
"And you chose a risky investment, because that increases the profit."
"Going into tech was not a risk," Rich said. "Risks and profits are only commensurate in an efficient market with lots of players. If you do something few others are doing, you can vastly outperform without any risk involved. It's simple, if you have a cause: Take some time to identify the jobs that earn you the most money. No need to become a tech entrepreneur; highly specialized regular jobs tend to offer high wages and have good job security. Therefore, shape yourself into someone who can perform one of those jobs. Don't waste your human capital."
"In service of your cause, you went without a lot of the pleasures of life. A family, leisurely hobbies, everyday luxuries," I said. "Are you happy?"
"Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs," Rich answered with a wide grin. "I'm self-actualizing like no one's business."
There were a few more questions on details after that. At some point, I turned the recording off.
"So… what do I do with this recording?"
"I've burned my reputation with CryptArtKey," Rich said. "Even if I were to resurface at some point, the tech crowd would be out for blood. But burning is a complex metaphor. It's never just destruction."
"It can be the creation of heat instead."
"I'm talking about transformation," Rich said. "Turning one kind of capital into another."
"You want me to put this out into the world." I had suspected something like that. "Paint you as a modern-day Robin Hood, or Mother Teresa."
"Mother Teresa was a terrible person, yet she’s a saint, which means propaganda works. But don't publish yet. I'm dead, remember? I want you to hold this interview in reserve, just in case I ever need to sway the court of public opinion. I'll give you a sign when it comes to it."
"You, an inspiration to the masses?" He had convinced me, but I had always been the easy one to convince. "Seems unlikely."
The rest of the way, we drove in silence, except for Rich's incessant typing on his laptop. He got out somewhere in the middle of nowhere, presumably to create a new identity and get started on the next scheme, while I went to his funeral. In the months since, I haven't heard from him. As for me… well, recently, I've been Thinking.