Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 4 (of 81)

Illustration by Idiots’Books

The second business that Tjan took Perry into was even more successful than the first, and that was saying something. It only took a week for Tjan to get Perry and Lester cranking on a Kitchen Gnome design that mashed together some Homeland Security gait-recognition software with a big solid-state hard-disk and a microphone and a little camera, all packaged together in one of a couple hundred designs of a garden-gnome figurine that stood six inches tall. It could recognize every member of a household by the way they walked and play back voice-memos for each. It turned out to be a killer tool for context-sensitive reminders to kids to do the dishes, and for husbands, wives and roommates to nag each other without getting on each others’ nerves. Tjan was really jazzed about it, as it tied in with some theories he had about the changing US demographic, trending towards blended households in urban centers, with three or more adults co-habitating.

“This is a rich vein,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Living communally is hard, and technology can make it easier. Roommate ware. It’s the wave of the future.”

There was another Kodacell group in San Francisco, a design outfit with a bunch of stringers who could design the gnomes for them and they did great work. The gnomes were slightly lewd-looking, and they were the product of a generative algorithm that varied each one. Some of the designs that fell out of the algorithm were jaw-droppingly weird—Perry kept a three-eyed, six-armed version on his desk. They tooled up to make them by the hundred, then the thousand,then the tens of thousand. The fact that each one was different kept their margins up, but as the Gnomes gained popularity their sales were steadily eroded by knock-offs, mostly from Eastern Europe.

The knockoffs weren’t as cool-looking—though they were certainly weirder looking, like the offspring of a Norwegian troll and an anime robot—but they were more feature-rich. Some smart hacker in Russia was packing all kinds of functionality onto a single chip, so that their trolls cost less and did more: burglar alarms, baby-monitors, streaming Internet radio source, and low-reliability medical diagnostic that relied on quack analysis of eye pigment, tongue coating and other newage (rhymes with sewage) indicators.

Lester came back from the Dollar Store with a big bag of trolls, a dozen different models, and dumped them out on Tjan’s desk, up in old foreman’s offices on the catwalk above the workspaces. “Christ, would you look at these? They’re selling them for less than our cost to manufacture. How do we compete with this?”

“We don’t,” Tjan said, and rubbed his belly. “Now we do the next thing.”

“What’s the next thing?” Perry said.

“Well, the first one delivered a return-on-investment at about twenty times the rate of any Kodak or Duracell business unit in the history of either company. But I’d like to shoot for thirty to forty times next, if that’s all right with you. So let’s go see what you’ve invented this week and how we can commercialize it.”

Perry and Lester just looked at each other. Finally, Lester said, “Can you repeat that?”

“The typical ROI for a Kodacell unit in the old days was about four percent. If you put a hundred dollars in, you’d get a hundred and four dollars out, and it would take about a year to realize. Of course, in the old days, they wouldn’t have touched a new business unless they could put a hundred million in and get a hundred and four million out. Four million bucks is four million bucks.

“But here, the company put fifty thousand into these dolls and three months later, they took seventy thousand out, after paying our salaries and bonuses. That’s a forty percent ROI. Seventy thousand bucks isn’t four million bucks, but forty percent is forty percent. Not to mention that our business drove similar margins in three other business units.”

“I thought we’d screwed up by letting these guys eat our lunch,” Lester said, indicating the dollar-store trolls.

“Nope, we got in while the margins were high, made a good return, and now we’ll get out as the margins drop. That’s not screwing up, that’s doing the right thing. The next time around, we’ll do something more capital intensive and we’ll take out an even higher margin: so show me something that’ll cost two hundred grand to get going and that we can pull a hundred and sixty thou’s worth of profit out of for Kodacell in three months. Let’s do something ambitious this time around.”

Suzanne took copious notes. There’d been a couple weeks’ awkwardness early on about her scribbling as they talked, or videoing with her keychain. But once she’d moved into the building with the guys, taking a condo on the next floor up, she’d become just a member of the team, albeit a member who tweeted nearly every word they uttered to a feed that was adding new subscribers by the tens of thousands.

“So, Perry, what have you got for Tjan?” she asked.

“I came up with the last one,” he said, grinning—they always ended up grinning when Tjan ran down economics for them. “Let Lester take this one.”

Lester looked shy—he’d never fully recovered from Suzanne turning him down and when she was in the room, he always looked like he’d rather be somewhere else. He participated in the message boards on her blog though, the most prolific poster in a field with thousands of very prolific posters. When he posted, others listened: he was witty, charming and always right.

“Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about roommate-ware, ’cause I know that Tjan’s just crazy for that stuff. I’ve been handicapped by the fact that you guys are such excellent roomies, so I have to think back to my college days to remember what a bad roommate is like, where the friction is. Mostly, it comes down to resource contention, though: I wanna cook, but your dishes are in the sink; I wanna do laundry but your boxers are in the dryer; I wanna watch TV, but your crap is all over the living room sofa.”

Living upstairs from the guys gave her fresh insight into how the Kodacell philosophy would work out. Kettlewell was really big on communal living, putting these people into each other’s pockets like the old-time geek houses of pizza-eating hackers, getting that in-the-trenches camaraderie. It had taken a weekend to put the most precious stuff in her California house into storage and then turn over the keys to a realtor who’d sort out leasing it for her. The monthly check from the realtor left more than enough for her to pay the rent in Florida and then some, and once the UPS man dropped off the five boxes of personal effects she’d chosen, she was practically at home.

She sat alone over the guys’ apartments in the evenings, windows open so that their muffled conversations could drift in and form the soundtrack as she wrote her columns. It made her feel curiously with, but not of, their movement—a reasonable proxy for journalistic objectivity in this age of relativism.

“Resource contention readily decomposes into a bunch of smaller problems, with distinctive solutions. Take dishes: every dishwasher should be designed with a ‘clean’ and a ‘dirty’ compartment—basically, two logical dishwashers. You take clean dishes out of the clean side, use them, and put them into the dirty side. When the dirty side is full, the clean side is empty, so you cycle the dishwasher and the clean side becomes dirty and vice-versa. I had some sketches for designs that would make this happen, but it didn’t feel right: making dishwashers is too industrial for us. I either like making big chunks of art or little silver things you can carry in your pocket.”

She smiled despite herself. She was drawing a half-million readers a day by doing near-to-nothing besides repeating the mind-blowing conversations around her. It had taken her a month to consider putting ads on the site—lots of feelers from blog “micro-labels” who wanted to get her under management and into their banner networks, and she broke down when one of them showed her a little spreadsheet detailing the kind of long green she could expect to bring in from a couple of little banners, with her getting the right to personally approve every advertiser in the network. The first month, she’d made more money than all but the most senior writers on the Merc. The next month, she’d outstripped her own old salary. She’d covered commercial blogs, the flamboyant attention-whores who’d bought stupid cars and ridiculous bimbos with the money, but she’d always assumed they were in a different league from a newspaper scribbler. Now she supposed all the money meant that she should make it official and phone in a resignation to Jimmy, but they’d left it pretty ambiguous as to whether she was retiring or taking a leave of absence and she was reluctant to collapse that waveform into the certainty of saying goodbye to her old life.

“So I got to thinking about snitch-tags, radio frequency ID gizmos. Remember those? When we started talking about them a decade ago, all the privacy people went crazy, totally sure that these things would be bad news. The geeks dismissed them as not understanding the technology. Supposedly, an RFID can only be read from a couple inches away—if someone wanted to find out what RFIDs you had on your person, they’d have to wand you, and you’d know about it.”

“Yeah, that was bull,” Perry said. “I mean, sure you can’t read an RFID unless it’s been excited with electromagnetic radiation, and sure you can’t do that from a hundred yards without frying everything between you and the target. But if you had a subway turnstile with an exciter built into it, you could snipe all the tag numbers from a distant roof with a directional antenna. If those things had caught on, there’d be exciters everywhere and you’d be able to track anyone you wanted—Christ, they even put RFIDs in the hundred-dollar bill for a while! Pickpockets could have figured out whose purse was worth snatching from half a mile a way!”

“All true,” Lester said. “But that didn’t stop these guys. There are still a couple of them around, limping along without many customers. They print the tags with inkjets, sized down to about a third the size of a grain of rice. Mostly used in supply-chain management and such. They can supply them on the cheap.

“Which brings me to my idea: why not tag everything in a group household, and use the tags to figure out who left the dishes in the sink, who took the hammer out and didn’t put it back, who put the empty milk-carton back in the fridge, and who’s got the TV remote? It won’t solve resource contention, but it will limit the social factors that contribute to it.” He looked around at them. “We can make it fun, you know, make cool RFID sticker designs, mod the little gnome dolls to act as terminals for getting reports.”

Suzanne found herself nodding along. She could use this kind of thing, even though she lived alone, just to help her find out where she left her glasses and the TV remote.

Perry shook his head, though. “When I was a kid, I had a really bad relationship with my mom. She was really smart, but she didn’t have a lot of time to reason things out with me, so often as not she’d get out of arguing with me by just changing her story. So I’d say, ‘Ma, can I go to the mall this aft?’ and she’d say, ‘Sure, no problem.’ Then when I was getting ready to leave the house, she’d ask me where I thought I was going. I’d say, ‘To the mall, you said!’ and she’d just deny it. Just deny it, point blank.

“I don’t think she even knew she was doing it. I think when I asked her if I could go, she’d just absentmindedly say yes, but when it actually came time to go out, she’d suddenly remember all my unfinished chores, my homework, all the reasons I should stay home. I think every kid gets this from their folks, but it made me fucking crazy. So I got a mini tape recorder and I started to tape her when she gave me permission. I thought I’d really nail her the next time she changed her tune, play her own words back in her ear.

“So I tried it, and you know what happened? She gave me nine kinds of holy hell for wearing a wire and then she said it didn’t matter what she’d said that morning, she was my mother and I had chores to do and no how was I going anywhere now that I’d started sneaking around the house with a hidden recorder. She took it away and threw it in the trash. And to top it off, she called me ‘J. Edgar’ for a month.

“So here’s my question: how would you feel if the next time you left the dishes in the sink, I showed up with the audit trail for the dishes and waved it in your face? How would we get from that point to a happy, harmonious household? I think you’ve mistaken the cause for the effect. The problem with dishes in the sink isn’t just that it’s a pain when I want to cook a meal: it’s that when you leave them in the sink, you’re being inconsiderate. And the reason you’ve left them in the sink, as you’ve pointed out, is that putting dishes in the dishwasher is a pain in the ass: you have to bend over, you have to empty it out, and so on. If we moved the dishwasher into the kitchen cupboards and turned half of them into a dirty side and half into a clean side, then disposing of dishes would be as easy as getting them out.”

Lester laughed, and so did Tjan. “Yeah, yeah—OK. Point taken. But these RFID things, they’re so frigging cheap and potentially useful. I just can’t believe that they’ve never found a single really compelling use in all this time. It just seems like an opportunity that’s going to waste.”

“Maybe it’s a dead end. Maybe it’s an ornithopter. Inventors spent hundreds of years trying to build an airplane that flew by flapping its wings, and it was all a rat-hole.”

“I guess,” Lester said. “But I don’t like the idea.”

“Like it or don’t, “ Perry said, “doesn’t affect whether it’s true or not.”

But Lester had a sparkle in his eye, and he disappeared into his workshop for a week, and wouldn’t let them in, which was unheard of for the big, gregarious giant. He liked to drag the others in whenever he accomplished anything of note, show it off to them like a big kid.

That was Sunday. Monday, Suzanne got a call from her realtor. “Your tenants have vanished,” she said.

“Vanished?” The couple who’d rented her place had been as reliable as anyone she’d ever met in the Valley. He worked at a PR agency, she worked in marketing at Google. Or maybe he worked in marketing and she was in PR at Google—whatever, they were affluent, well-spoken, and had paid the extortionate rent she’d charged without batting an eye.

“They normally paypal the rent to me on the first, but not this month. I called and left voicemail the next day, then followed up with an email. Yesterday I went by the house and it was empty. All their stuff was gone. No food in the fridge. I think they might have taken your home theater stuff, too.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Suzanne said. It was 11AM in Florida and she was into her second glass of lemonade as the sun began to superheat the air. Back in California, it was 8AM. Her realtor was pulling long hours, and it wasn’t her fault. “Sorry. Right. OK, what about the deposit?”

“You waived it.”

She had. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time. The distant owner of the condo she was renting in Florida hadn’t asked for one. “So I did. Now what?”

“You want to swear out a complaint against them?”

“With the police?”

“Yeah. Breach of contract. Theft, if they took the home theater. We can take them to collections, too.”

Goddamned marketing people had the collective morals of a snake. All of them useless, conniving, shallow—she never should have…

“Yeah, OK. And what about the house?”

“We can find you another tenant by the end of the month, I’m sure. Maybe a little earlier. Have you thought any more about selling it?”

She hadn’t, though the realtor brought it up every time they spoke. “Is now a good time?”

“Lot of new millionaires in the Valley shopping for houses, Suzanne. More than I’ve seen in years.” She named a sum that was a third higher than the last time they’d talked it over.

“Is it peaking?”

“Who knows? It might go up, it might collapse again. But now is the best time to sell in the past ten years. You’d be smart to do it.”

She took a deep breath. The Valley was dead, full of venal marketing people and buck-chasers. Here in Florida, she was on the cusp of the next thing, and it wasn’t happening in the Valley: it was happening everywhere except the Valley, in the cheap places where innovation could happen at low rents. Leaky hot tub, incredible property taxes, and the crazy roller-coaster ride—up 20 percent this month, down forty next. The bubble was going to burst some day and she should sell out now.

“Sell it,” she said.

“You’re going to be a wealthy lady,” the realtor said.

“Right,” Suzanne said.

“I have a buyer, Suzanne. I didn’t want to pressure you. But I can sell it by Friday. Close escrow next week. Cash in hand by the fifteenth.”

“Jesus,” she said. “You’re joking.”

“No joke,” the realtor said. “I’ve got a waiting list for houses on your block.”

And so Suzanne got on an airplane that night and flew back to San Jose and took a pricey taxi back to her place. The marketdroids had left it in pretty good shape, clean and tidy, clean sheets in the linen cupboard. She made up her bed and reflected that this would be the last time she made this bed—the next time she stripped the sheets, they’d go into a long-term storage box. She’d done this before, on her way out of Detroit, packing up a life into boxes and shoving it into storage. What had Tjan said? “The self-storage industry is bigger than the recording industry, did you know that? All they do is provide a place to put stuff that we own that we can’t find room for—that’s superabundance.”

Before bed she posted a classified on Craigslist for a couple helpers to work on boxing stuff, emailed Jimmy to see if she wanted lunch, and looked up the address for the central police station to swear out her complaint. The amp, speakers, and A/V switcher were all missing from her home theater.

She had a dozen helpers to choose from the next morning. She picked two who came with decent references, marveling that it was suddenly possible in Silicon Valley to get anyone to show up anywhere for ten bucks an hour. The police sergeant who took the complaint was sympathetic and agreed with her choice to get out of town. “I’ve had it with this place, too. Soon as my kids are out of high-school I’m moving back to Montana. I miss the weather.”

She didn’t think of the marketdroids again until the next day, when she and her helpers were boxing up the last of her things and loading them into her U-Haul. Then a BMW convertible screeched around the corner and burned rubber up to her door.

The woman marketdroid was driving, looking crazy and disheveled, eyes red-rimmed, one heel broken off of her shoes.

“What the FUCK is your problem, lady?” she said, as she leapt out of her car and stalked toward Suzanne.

Instinctively, Suzanne shrank back and dropped the box of books she was holding. It spilled out over her lawn.

“Fiona?” she said. “What’s happened?”

“I was arrested. They came to my workplace and led me out in handcuffs. I had to make bail.”

Suzanne’s stomach shrank to a little pebble, impossibly heavy. “What was I supposed to do? You two took off with my home theater!”

“What home theater? Everything was right where you left it when I went. I haven’t lived here in weeks. Tom left me last month and I moved out.”

“You moved out?”

“Yeah, bitch, I moved out. Tom was your tenant, not me. If he ripped something off, that’s between you and him.”

“Look, Fiona, wait, hold up a second. I tried to call you, I sent you email. No one was paying the rent, no one told me that you’d moved out, and no one answered when I tried to find out what had happened.”

“That sounds like an explanation, she said, hissing. “I’m waiting for a fucking apology. They took me to prison.”

Suzanne knew that the local lockup was a long way from prison. “I apologize,” she said. “Can I get you a cup of coffee? Would you like to use the shower or anything?”

The woman glared at her a moment longer, then slowly folded in on herself, collapsing, coughing and sobbing on the lawn.

Suzanne stood with her arms at her sides for a moment. Her Craigslist helpers had gone home, so she was all alone, and this woman, whom she’d met only once before, in passing, was clearly having some real problems. Not the kind of thing she dealt with a lot—her life didn’t include much person-to-person hand-holding.

But what can you do? She knelt beside Fiona in the grass and took her hand. “Let’s get you inside, OK?”

At first it was as though she hadn’t heard, but slowly she straightened up and let Suzanne lead her into the house. She was twenty-two, twenty-three, young enough to be Suzanne’s daughter if Suzanne had gone in for that sort of thing. Suzanne helped her to the sofa and sat her down amid the boxes still waiting to go into the U-Haul. The kitchen was packed up, but she had a couple bottles of Diet Coke in the cooler and she handed one to the girl.

“I’m really sorry, Fiona. Why didn’t you answer my calls or email?”

She looked at Suzanne, her eyes lost in streaks of mascara. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to talk about it. He lost his job last month and kind of went crazy, told me he didn’t want the responsibility anymore. What responsibility? But he told me to go, told me it would be best for both of us if we were apart. I thought it was another girl, but I don’t know. Maybe it was just craziness. Everyone I know out here is crazy. They all work a hundred hours a week, they get fired or quit their jobs every five months. Everything is so expensive. My rent is three quarters of my salary.”

“It’s really hard,” Suzanne said, thinking of the easy, lazy days in Florida, the hackers’ idyll that Perry and Lester enjoyed in their workshops.

“Tom was on antidepressants, but he didn’t like taking them. When he was on them, he was pretty good, but when he went off, he turned into… I don’t know. He’d cry a lot, and shout. It wasn’t a good relationship, but we moved out here from Oregon together, and I’d known him all my life. He was a little moody before, but not like he was here.”

“When did you speak to him last?” Suzanne had found a couple of blister-packs of anti-depressants in the medicine chest. She hoped that wasn’t Tom’s only supply.

“We haven’t spoken since I moved out.”

An hour later, the mystery was solved. The police went to Tom’s workplace and discovered that he’d been fired the week before. They tried the GPS in his car and it finked him out as being in a ghost mall’s parking lot near his old office. He was dead behind the wheel, a gun in his hand, shot through the heart.

Suzanne took the call and though she tried to keep her end of the conversation quiet and neutral, Fiona—still on the sofa, drinking the warm, flat Coke—knew. She let out a moan like a dog that’s been kicked, and then a scream. For Suzanne, it was all unreal, senseless. The cops told her that her home theater components were found in the trunk of the car. No note.

“God, oh God, Jesus, you selfish shit fucking bastard,” Fiona sobbed. Awkwardly, Suzanne sat down beside her and took her into a one-armed hug. Her helpers were meeting her at the self-storage the next day to help her unload the U-Haul.

“Do you have someone who can stay with you tonight?” Suzanne asked, praying the answer was yes. She had a house to move out of. Christ, she felt so cold-blooded, but she was on a goddamned schedule.

“Yes, I guess.” Fiona scrubbed at her eyes with her fists. “Sure.”

Suzanne sighed. The lie was plain. “Who?”

Fiona stood up and smoothed out her skirt. “I’m sorry,” she said, and started for the door.

Groaning inwardly, Suzanne blocked her. “You’ll stay on the sofa,” she said. “You’re not driving in this state. I’ll order in pizza. Pepperoni mushroom OK?”

Looking defeated, Fiona turned on her heel and went back to the sofa.

Over pizza, Suzanne pulled a few details out of her. Tom had fallen into a funk when the layoffs had started in his office—they were endemic across the Valley, another bust was upon them. His behavior had grown worse and worse, and she’d finally left, or been thrown out, it wasn’t clear. She was on thin ice at Google, and they were laying people off too, and she was convinced that being led out in handcuffs would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“I should move back to Oregon,” she said, dropping her slice back on the box-top.

Suzanne had heard a lot of people talk about giving up on the Valley since she’d moved there. It was a common thing, being beaten down by life in the Bay Area. You were supposed to insert a pep talk here, something about hanging in, about the opportunities here.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s a good idea. You’re young, and there’s a life for you there. You can start something up, or go to work for someone else’s startup.” It felt weird coming out of her mouth, like a betrayal of the Valley, of some tribal loyalty to this tech-Mecca. But after all, wasn’t she selling up and moving east?

“There’s nothing in Oregon,” Fiona said, snuffling.

“There’s something everywhere. Let me tell you about some friends of mine in Florida,” and she told her, and as she told her, she told herself. Hearing it spoken aloud, even after having written about it and written about it, and been there and DONE it, it was different. She came to understand how fucking cool it all was, this new, entrepreneurial, inventive, amazing thing she was engaged in. She’d loved the contrast of nimble software companies when compared with gigantic, brutal auto companies, but what her boys were doing, it made the software companies look like lumbering lummoxes, crashing around with their fifty employees and their big purpose-built offices.

Fiona was disbelieving, then interested, then excited. “They just make this stuff, do it, then make something else?”

“Exactly—no permanence except for the team, and they support each other, live and work together. You’d think that because they live and work together that they don’t have any balance, but it’s the opposite: they book off work at four or sometimes earlier, go to movies, go out and have fun, read books, play catch. It’s amazing. I’m never coming back here.”

And she never would.

She told her editor about this. She told her friends who came to a send-off party at a bar she used to go to when she went into the office a lot. She told her cab driver who picked her up to take her to the airport and she told the bemused engineer who sat next to her all the way back to Miami. She had the presence of mind not to tell the couple who bought her house for a sum of money that seemed to have at least one extra zero at the end—maybe two.

And so when she got back to Miami, she hardly noticed the incredible obesity of the man who took the money for the gas in her leased car—now that she was here for the long haul she’d have to look into getting Lester to help her buy a used Smart-car from a junker lot—and the tin roofs of the shantytowns she passed looked tropical and quaint. The smell of swamp and salt, the pea-soup humidity, the bass thunder of the boom-cars in the traffic around her—it was like some kind of sweet homecoming for her.

Tjan was in the condo when she got home and he spotted her from the balcony, where he’d been sunning himself and helped her bring up her suitcases of things she couldn’t bear to put in storage.

“Come down to our place for a cup of coffee once you’re settled in,” he said, leaving her. She sluiced off the airplane grease that had filled her pores on the long flight from San Jose to Miami and changed into a cheap sun-dress and a pair of flip-flops that she’d bought at the Thunderbird Flea Market and headed down to their place.

Tjan opened the door with a flourish and she stepped in and stopped short. When she’d left, the place had been a reflection of their jumbled lives: gizmos, dishes, parts, tools and clothes strewn everywhere in a kind of joyful, eye-watering hyper-mess, like an enormous kitchen junk-drawer.

Now the place was spotless—and what’s more, it was *minimalist*. The floor was not only clean, it was visible. Lining the walls were translucent white plastic tubs stacked to the ceiling.

“You like it?”

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Like Ikea meets Barbarella. What happened here?”

Tjan did a little two-step. “It was Lester’s idea. Have a look in the boxes.”

She pulled a couple of the tubs out. They were jam-packed with books, tools, cruft and crud—all the crap that had previously cluttered the shelves and the floor and the sofa and the coffee table.

“Watch this,” he said. He unvelcroed a wireless keyboard from the side of the TV and began to type: T-H-E C-O. . . The field autocompleted itself: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and brought up a picture of a beaten-up paperback along with links to web-stores, reviews, and the full text. Tjan gestured with his chin and she saw that the front of one of the tubs was pulsing with a soft blue glow. Tjan went and pulled open the tub and fished for a second before producing the book.

“Try it,” he said, handing her the keyboard. She began to type experimentally: U-N and up came UNDERWEAR (14). “No way,” she said.

“Way,” Tjan said, and hit return, bringing up a thumbnail gallery of fourteen pairs of underwear. He tabbed over each, picked out a pair of Simpsons boxers, and hit return. A different tub started glowing.

“Lester finally found a socially beneficial use for RFIDs. We’re going to get rich!”

“I don’t think I understand,” she said.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get to the junkyard. Lester explains this really well.”

He did, too, losing all of the shyness she remembered, his eyes glowing, his sausage-thick fingers dancing.

“Have you ever alphabetized your hard drive? I mean, have you ever spent any time concerning yourself with where on your hard drive your files are stored, which sectors contain which files? Computers abstract away the tedious, physical properties of files and leave us with handles that we use to persistently refer to them, regardless of which part of the hard drive currently holds those particular bits. So I thought, with RFIDs, you could do this with the real world, just tag everything and have your furniture keep track of where it is.

“One of the big barriers to roommate harmony is the correct disposition of stuff. When you leave your book on the sofa, I have to move it before I can sit down and watch TV. Then you come after me and ask me where I put your book. Then we have a fight. There’s stuff that you don’t know where it goes, and stuff that you don’t know where it’s been put, and stuff that has nowhere to put it. But with tags and a smart chest of drawers, you can just put your stuff wherever there’s room and ask the physical space to keep track of what’s where from moment to moment.

“There’s still the problem of getting everything tagged and described, but that’s a service business opportunity, and where you’ve got other shared identifiers like ISBNs you could use a cameraphone to snap the bar-codes and look them up against public databases. The whole thing could be coordinated around ‘spring cleaning’ events where you go through your stuff and photograph it, tag it, describe it—good for your insurance and for forensics if you get robbed, too.”

He stopped and beamed, folding his fingers over his belly. “So, that’s it, basically.”

Perry slapped him on the shoulder and Tjan drummed his forefingers like a heavy-metal drummer on the side of the workbench they were gathered around.

They were all waiting for her. “Well, it’s very cool,” she said, at last. “But, the whole white-plastic-tub thing. It makes your apartment look like an Ikea showroom. Kind of inhumanly minimalist. We’re Americans, we like celebrating our stuff.”

“Well, OK, fair enough,” Lester said, nodding. “You don’t have to put everything away, of course. And you can still have all the decor you want. This is about clutter control.”

“Exactly,” Perry said. “Come check out Lester’s lab.”

“OK, this is pretty perfect,” Suzanne said. The clutter was gone, disappeared into the white tubs that were stacked high on every shelf, leaving the work-surfaces clear. But Lester’s works-in-progress, his keepsakes, his sculptures and triptychs were still out, looking like venerated museum pieces in the stark tidiness that prevailed otherwise.

Tjan took her through the spreadsheets. “There are ten teams that do closet-organizing in the network, and a bunch of shippers, packers, movers, and storage experts. A few furniture companies. We adopted the interface from some free software inventory-management apps that were built for illiterate service employees. Lots of big pictures and autocompletion. And we’ve bought a hundred RFID printers from a company that was so grateful for a new customer than they’re shipping us 150 of them, so we can print these things at about a million per hour. The plan is to start our sales through the consultants at the same time as we start showing at trade-shows for furniture companies. We’ve already got a huge order from a couple of local old-folks’ homes.”

They walked to the IHOP to have a celebratory lunch. Being back in Florida felt just right to her. Francis, the leader of the paramilitary wing of the AARP, threw them a salute and blew her a kiss, and even Lester’s nursing junkie friend seemed to be in a good mood.

When they were done, they brought take-out bags for the junkie and Francis in the shantytown.

“I want to make some technology for those guys,” Perry said as they sat in front of Francis’s RV drinking cowboy coffee cooked over a banked wood-stove off to one side. “Room-mate-ware for homeless people.”

Francis uncrossed his bony ankles and scratched at his mosquito bites. “A lot of people think that we don’t buy stuff, but it’s not true,” he said. “I shop hard for bargains, but there’s lots of stuff I spend more on because of my lifestyle than I would if I had a real house and steady electricity. When I had a chest-freezer, I could bulk buy ground round for about a tenth of what I pay now when I go to the grocery store and get enough for one night’s dinner. The alternative is using propane to keep the fridge going overnight, and that’s not cheap, either. So I’m a kind of premium customer. Back at Boeing, we loved the people who made small orders, because we could charge them such a premium for custom work, while the big airlines wanted stuff done so cheap that half the time we lost money on the deal.”

Perry nodded. “There you have it—roommate-ware for homeless people, a great and untapped market.”

Suzanne cocked her head and looked at him. “You’re sounding awfully commerce-oriented for a pure and unsullied engineer, you know?”

He ducked his head and grinned and looked about twelve years old. “It’s infectious. Those little kitchen gnomes, we sold nearly a half-million of those things, not to mention all the spin-offs. That’s a half-million lives—a half-million households—that we changed just by thinking up something cool and making it real. These RFID things of Lester’s—we’ll sign a couple million customers with those. People will change everything about how they live from moment to moment because of something Lester thought up in my junkyard over there.”

“Well, there’s thirty million of us living in what the social workers call ‘marginal housing,’” Francis said, grinning wryly. He had a funny smile that Suzanne had found adorable until he explained that he had an untreated dental abscess that he couldn’t afford to get fixed. “So that’s a lot of difference you could make.”

“Yeah,” Perry said. “Yeah, it sure is.”

That night, she found herself still blogging and answering emails—they always piled up when she travelled and took a couple of late nights to clear out—after nine PM, sitting alone in a pool of light in the back corner of Lester’s workshop that she had staked out as her office. She yawned and stretched and listened to her old back crackle. She hated feeling old, and late nights made her feel old—feel every extra ounce of fat on her tummy, feel the lines bracketing her mouth and the little bag of skin under her chin.

She stood up and pulled on a light jacket and began to switch off lights and get ready to head home. As she poked her head in Tjan’s office, she saw that she wasn’t the only one working late.

“Hey, you,” she said. “Isn’t it time you got going?”

He jumped like he’d been stuck with a pin and gave a little yelp. “Sorry,” he said, “didn’t hear you.”

He had a cardboard box on his desk and had been filling it with his personal effects—little one-off inventions the guys had made for him, personal fetishes and tchotchkes, a framed picture of his kids.

“What’s up?”

He sighed and cracked his knuckles. “Might as well tell you now as tomorrow morning. I’m resigning.”

She felt a flash of anger and then forced it down and forcibly replaced it with professional distance and curiosity. Mentally she licked her pencil-tip and flipped to a blank page in her reporter’s notebook.

“Oh yes?”

“I’ve had another offer, in Westchester County. Westinghouse has spun out its own version of Kodacell and they’re looking for a new vice-president to run the division. That’s me.”

“Good job,” she said. “Congratulations, Mr Vice-President.”

He shook his head. “I emailed Kettlewell half an hour ago. I’m leaving in the morning. I’m going to say goodbye to the guys over breakfast.”

“Not much notice,” she said.

“Nope,” he said, a note of anger creeping into his voice. “My contract lets Kodacell fire me on one day’s notice, so I insisted on the right to quit on the same terms. Maybe Kettlewell will get his lawyers to write better boilerplate from here on in.”

When she had an angry interview, she habitually changed the subject to something sensitive: angry people often say more than they intend to. She did it instinctively, not really meaning to psy-ops Tjan, whom she thought of as a friend, but not letting that get in the way of the story. “Westinghouse is doing what, exactly?”

“It’ll be as big as Kodacell’s operation in a year,” he said. “George Westinghouse personally funded Tesla’s research, you know. The company understands funding individual entrepreneurs. I’m going to be training the talent scouts and mentoring the financial people, then turning them loose to sign up entrepreneurs for the Westinghouse network. There’s a competitive market for garage inventors now.” He laughed. “Go ahead and print that,” he said. “Blog it tonight. There’s competition now. We’re giving two points more equity and charging half a point less on equity than the Kodacell network.”

“That’s amazing, Tjan. I hope you’ll keep in touch with me—I’d love to follow your story.”

“Count on it,” he said. He laughed. “I’m getting a week off every eight weeks to scout Russia. They’ve got an incredible culture of entrepreneurship.”

“Plus you’ll get to see your kids,” Suzanne said. “That’s really good.”

“Plus, I’ll get to see my kids,” he admitted.

“How much money is Westinghouse putting into the project?” she asked, replacing her notional notebook with a real one, pulled from her purse.

“I don’t have numbers, but they’ve shut down the whole appliances division to clear the budget for it.” She nodded—she’d seen news of the layoffs on the wires. Mass demonstrations, people out of work after twenty years’ service. “So it’s a big budget.”

“They must have been impressed with the quarterlies from Kodacell.”

Tjan folded down the flaps on his box and drummed his fingers on it, squinting at her. “You’re joking, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“Suzanne, they were impressed by you. Everyone knows that quarterly numbers are easy to cook—anything less than two annual reports is as likely to be enronning as real fortune-making. But your dispatches from here—they’re what sold them. It’s what’s convincing everyone. Kettlewell said that three quarters of his new recruits come on board after reading your descriptions of this place. That’s how I ended up here.”

She shook her head. “That’s very flattering, Tjan, but—”

He waved her off and then, surprisingly, came around the desk and hugged her. “But nothing, Suzanne. Kettlewell, Lester, Perry—they’re all basically big kids. Full of enthusiasm and invention, but they’ve got the emotional maturity and sense of scale of hyperactive five year olds. You and me, we’re grownups. People take us seriously. It’s easy to get a kid excited, but when a grownup chimes in you know there’s some there there.”

Suzanne recovered herself after a second and put away her notepad. “I’m just the person who writes it all down. You people are making it happen.”

“In ten years’ time, they’ll remember you and not us,” Tjan said. “You should get Kettlewell to put you on the payroll.”

Kettlewell himself turned up the next day. Suzanne had developed an intuitive sense of the flight-times from the west coast and so for a second she couldn’t figure out how he could possibly be standing there—nothing in the sky could get him from San Jose to Miami for a seven AM arrival.

“Private jet,” he said, and had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. “Kodak had eight of them and Duracell had five. We’ve been trying to sell them all off but no one wants a used jet these days, not even Saudi princes or Columbian drug-lords.”

“So, basically, it was going to waste.”

He smiled and looked eighteen—she really did feel like the only grownup sometimes—and said, “Zackly—it’s practically environmental. Where’s Tjan?”

“Downstairs saying goodbye to the guys, I think.”

“OK,” he said. “Are you coming?”

She grabbed her notebook and a pen and beat him out the door of her rented condo.

“What’s this all about,” Tjan said, looking wary. The guys were hang-dog and curious looking, slightly in awe of Kettlewell, who did little to put them at their ease—he was staring intensely at Tjan.

“Exit interview,” he said. “Company policy.”

Tjan rolled his eyes. “Come on,” he said. “I’ve got a flight to catch in an hour.”

“I could give you a lift,” Kettlewell said.

“You want to do the exit interview between here and the airport?”

“I could give you a lift to JFK. I’ve got the jet warmed up and waiting.”

Sometimes, Suzanne managed to forget that Kodacell was a multi-billion dollar operation and that Kettlewell was at its helm, but other times the point was very clear.

“Come on,” he said, “we’ll make a day of it. We can stop on the way and pick up some barbecue to eat on the plane. I’ll even let you keep your seat in the reclining position during take-off and landing. Hell, you can turn your cell-phone on—just don’t tell the Transport Security Administration!”

Tjan looked cornered, then resigned. “Sounds good to me,” he said and Kettlewell shouldered one of the two huge duffel-bags that were sitting by the door.

“Hi, Kettlewell,” Perry said.

Kettlewell set down the duffel. “Sorry, sorry. Lester, Perry, it’s really good to see you. I’ll bring Suzanne back tonight and we’ll all go out for dinner, OK?”

Suzanne blinked. “I’m coming along?”

“I sure hope so,” Kettlewell said.

Perry and Lester accompanied them down in the elevator.

“Private jet, huh?” Perry said. “Never been in one of those.”

Kettlewell told them about his adventures trying to sell off Kodacell’s private air force.

“Send one of them our way, then,” Lester said.

“Do you fly?” Kettlewell said.

“No,” Perry said. “Lester wants to take it apart. Right, Les?”

Lester nodded. “Lots of cool junk in a private jet.”

“These things are worth millions, guys,” Kettlewell said.

“No, someone paid millions for them,” Perry said. “They’re worth whatever you can sell them for.”

Kettlewell laughed. “You’ve had an influence around here, Tjan,” he said. Tjan managed a small, tight smile.

Kettlewell had a driver waiting outside of the building who loaded the duffels into the spacious trunk of a spotless dark town-car whose doors chunked shut with an expensive sound.

“I want you to know that I’m really not angry at all, OK?” Kettlewell said.

Tjan nodded. He had the look of a man who was steeling himself for a turn in an interrogation chamber. He’d barely said a word since Kettlewell arrived. For his part, Kettlewell appeared oblivious to all of this, though Suzanne was pretty sure that he understood exactly how uncomfortable this was making Tjan.

“The thing is, six months ago, nearly everyone was convinced that I was a fucking moron, that I was about to piss away ten billion dollars of other people’s money away on a stupid doomed idea. Now they’re copying me and poaching my best people. So this is good news for me, though I’m going to have to find a new business manager for those two before they get picked up for turning planes into component pieces.”

Suzanne’s PDA vibrated whenever the number of online news stories mentioning her or Kodacell or Kettlewell increased or decreased sharply. She used to try to read everything, but it was impossible to keep up—now all she wanted was to keep track of whether the interestingness-index was on the uptick or downtick.

It had started to buzz that morning and the pitch had increased steadily until it was actually uncomfortable in her pocket. Irritated, she yanked it out and was about to switch it off when the lead article caught her eye.


The by-line was Freddy. Feeling like a character in a horror movie who can’t resist the compulsion to look under the bed, Suzanne thumbed the PDA’s wheel and brought up the whole article.


Kodacell business-manager Tjan Lee Tang, whose adventures we’ve followed through Suzanne Church’s gushing, besotted blog posts

She looked away and reflexively reached toward the delete button. The innuendo that she was romantically involved with one or more of the guys had circulated on her blog’s message boards and around the diggdots ever since she’d started writing about them. No woman could possibly be writing about this stuff because it was important—she had to be “with the band,” a groupie or a whore.

Combine that with Rat-Toothed Freddy’s sneering tone and she was instantly sent into heart-thundering rage. She deleted the post and looked out the window. Her pager buzzed some more and she looked down. The same article, being picked up on blogs, on some of the bigger diggdots, and an AP wire.

She forced herself to re-open it.


has been hired to head up a new business unit on behalf of the multinational giant Westinghouse. The appointment stands as more proof of Church’s power to cloud men’s minds with pretty empty words about the half-baked dot-com schemes that have oozed out of Silicon Valley and into every empty and dead American suburb.

It was hypnotic, like staring into the eyes of a serpent. Her pulse actually thudded in her ears for a second before she took a few deep breaths and calmed down enough to finish the article, which was just more of the same: nasty personal attacks, sniping, and innuendo. Freddy even managed to imply that she was screwing all of them—and Kettlewell besides.

Kettlewell leaned over her shoulder and read.

“You should send him an email,” he said. “That’s disgusting. That’s not reportage.”

“Never get into a pissing match with a skunk,” she said. “What Freddy wants is for me to send him mail that he can publish along with more snarky commentary. When the guy you’re arguing with controls the venue you’re arguing in, you can’t possibly win.”

“So blog him,” Kettlewell said. “Correct the record.”

“The record is correct,” she said. “It’s never been incorrect. I’ve written an exhaustive record that is there for everyone to see. If people believe this, no amount of correction will help.”

Kettlewell made a face like a little boy who’d been told he couldn’t have a toy. “That guy is poison,” he said. “Those quote-marks around blog.”

“Let him add his quote-marks,” she said. “My daily readership is higher than the Merc’s paid circulation this week.” It was true. After a short uphill climb from her new URL, she’d accumulated enough readers that the advertising revenue dwarfed her old salary at the Merc, an astonishing happenstance that nevertheless kept her bank-account full. She clicked a little. “Besides, look at this, there are three dozen links pointing at this story so far and all of them are critical of him. We don’t need to stick up for ourselves—the world will.”

Saying it calmed her and now they were at the airport. They cruised into a private gate, away from the militarized gulag that fronted Miami International. A courteous security guard waved them through and the driver confidently piloted the car up to a wheeled jetway beside a cute, stubby little toy jet. On the side, in cursive script, was the plane’s name: Suzanne.

She looked accusatorially at Kettlewell.

“It was called that when I bought the company,” he said, expressionless but somehow mirthful behind his curved surfer shades. “But I kept it because I liked the private joke.”

“Just no one tell Freddy that you’ve got an airplane with my name on it or we’ll never hear the fucking end of it.”

She covered her mouth, regretting her language, and Kettlewell laughed, and so did Tjan, and somehow the ice was broken between them.

“No way flying this thing is cost-effective,” Tjan said. “Your CFO should be kicking your ass.”

“It’s a little indulgence,” Kettlewell said, bounding up the steps and shaking hands with a small, neat woman pilot, an African-American with corn-rows peeking out under her smart peaked cap. “Once you’ve flown in your own bird, you never go back.”

“This is a monstrosity,” Tjan said as he boarded. “What this thing eats up in hangar fees alone would be enough to bankroll three or four teams.” He settled into an oversized Barcalounger of a seat and accepted a glass of orange juice that the pilot poured for him. “Thank you, and no offense.”

“None taken,” she said. “I agree one hundred percent.”

“See,” Tjan said.

Suzanne took her own seat and her own glass and buckled in and watched the two of them, warming up for the main event, realizing that she’d been brought along as a kind of opening act.

“They paying you more?”

“Yup,” Tjan said. “All on the back-end. Half a point on every dollar brought in by a team I coach or whose members I mentor.”

Kettlewell whistled. “That’s a big share,” he said.

“If I can make my numbers, I’ll take home a million this year.”

“You’ll make those numbers. Good negotiations. Why didn’t you ask us for the same deal?”

“Would you have given it to me?”

“You’re a star,” Kettlewell said, nodding at Suzanne, whose invisibility to the conversation popped like a bubble. “Thanks to her.”

“Thanks, Suzanne,” Tjan said.

Suzanne blushed. “Come on, guys.”

Tjan shook his head. “She doesn’t really understand. It’s actually kind of charming.”

“We might have matched the offer.”

“You guys are first to market. You’ve got a lot of procedures in place. I wanted to reinvent some wheels.”

“We’re too conservative for you?”

Tjan grinned wickedly. “Oh yes,” he said. “I’m going to do business in Russia.”

Kettlewell grunted and pounded his orange juice. Around them, the jet’s windows flashed white as they broke through the clouds and the ten thousand foot bell sounded.

“How the hell are you going to make anything that doesn’t collapse under its own weight in Russia?”

“The corruption’s a problem, sure,” Tjan said. “But it’s offset by the entrepreneurship. Some of those cats make the Chinese look lazy and unimaginative. It’s a shame that so much of their efforts have been centered on graft, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be focused on making an honest ruble.”

They fell into a discussion of the minutiae of Perry and Lester’s businesses, franker than any business discussion she’d ever heard. Tjan talked about the places where they’d screwed up, and places where they’d scored big, and about all the plans he’d made for Westinghouse, the connections he had in Russia. He even talked about his kids and his ex in St Petersburg, and Kettlewell admitted that he’d known about them already.

For Kettlewell’s part, he opened the proverbial kimono wide, telling Tjan about conflicts within the board of directors, poisonous holdovers from the pre-Kodacell days who sabotaged the company from within with petty bureaucracy, even the problems he was having with his family over the long hours they were working. He opened the minibar and cracked a bottle of champagne to toast Tjan’s new job, and they mixed it with more orange juice, and then there were bagels and schmear, fresh fruit, power bars, and canned Starbucks coffees with deadly amounts of sugar and caffeine.

When Kettlewell disappeared into the tiny—but marble-appointed—bathroom, Suzanne found herself sitting alone with Tjan, almost knee to knee, lightheaded from lack of sleep and champagne and altitude.

“Some trip,” she said.

“You’re the best,” he said, wobbling a little. “You know that? Just the best. The stuff you write about these guys, it makes me want to stand up and salute. You make us all seem so fucking glorious. We’re going to end up taking over the world because you inspire us so. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, because you’re not very self-conscious about it right now, but Suzanne, you won’t believe it because you’re so goddamned modest, too. It’s what makes your writing so right, so believable—”

Kettlewell stepped out of the bathroom. “Touching down soon,” he said, and patted them each on the shoulder as he took his seat. “So that’s about it, then,” he said, and leaned back and closed his eyes. Suzanne was accustomed to thinking of him as twenty-something, the boyish age of the magazine cover portraits from the start of his career. Now, eyes closed on his private jet, harsh upper atmosphere sun painting his face, his crowsfeet and the deep vertical brackets around his mouth revealed him for someone pushing a youthful forty, kept young by exercise and fun and the animation of his ideas.

“Guess so,” Tjan said, slumping. “This has been one of the memorable experiences of my life, Kettlewell, Suzanne. Not entirely pleasant, but pleasant on the whole. A magical time in the clouds.”

“Once you’ve flown private, you’ll never go back to coach,” Kettlewell said, smiling, eyes still closed. “You still think my CFO should spank me for not selling this thing?”

“No,” Tjan said. “In ten years, if we do our jobs, there won’t be five companies on earth that can afford this kind of thing—it’ll be like building a cathedral after the Protestant Reformation. While we have the chance, we should keep these things in the sky. But you should give one to Lester and Perry to take apart.”

“I was planning to,” Kettlewell said. “Thanks.”

Suzanne and Kettlewell get off the plane and Tjan didn’t look back when they’d landed at JFK. “Should we go into town and get some bialy to bring back to Miami?” Kettlewell said, squinting at the bright day on the tarmac.

“Bring deli to Miami?”

“Right, right,” he said. “Forget I asked. Besides, we’d have to charter a chopper to get into Manhattan and back without dying in traffic.”

Something about the light through the open hatch or the sound or the smell—something indefinably New York—made her yearn for Miami. The great cities of commerce like New York and San Francisco seemed too real for her, while the suburbs of Florida were a kind of endless summer camp, a dreamtime where anything was possible.

“Let’s go,” she said. The champagne buzz had crashed and she had a touch of headache. “I’m bushed.”

“Me too,” Kettlewell said. “I left San Jose last night to get into Miami before Tjan left. Not much sleep. Gonna put my seat back and catch some winks, if that’s OK?”

“Good plan,” Suzanne said.

Embarrassingly, when were fully reclined, their seats nearly touched, forming something like a double bed. Suzanne lay awake in the hum of the jets for a while, conscious of the breathing human beside her, the first man she’d done anything like share a bed with in at least a year. The last thing she remembered was the ten thousand foot bell going off and then she slipped away into sleep.

<<< Back to Part 3

Continue to Part 5 >>>

* * *

As part of the ongoing project of crafting’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.

Doctorow’s Makers will be released in print by Tor Books in October. You can read all previous installments of Makers on on our index page.


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