For the Win
Cory Doctorow (2008-05-11)

Part III: Ponzi

This scene is dedicated to the Harvard Bookstore, a wonderful and eclectic bookshop in the heart of one of the all-time kick-ass world-class bookshopping neighborhoods, the stretch of Mass Ave that runs between Harvard and MIT. The last time I visited the store, they'd just gotten in an Espresso print-on-demand book machine that was hooked up to Google's astonishing library of scanned public-domain books and they could print and bind practically any out of print book from the whole of human history for a few dollars in a few minutes. To plumb the unimaginable depths of human creativity this represented, the store had someone whose job it was to just mouse around and find wild titles from out of history to print and stick on the shelves around the machine. I have rarely felt the presence of the future so strongly as I did that night.

Harvard Bookstore 21 : 1256 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138 USA, +1 (617) 661-1515

The inside of the shipping container was a lot worse than Wei-Dong had anticipated. When he'd decided to smuggle himself into China, he'd done a lot of reading on the subject, starting with searches on human trafficking -- which was all horror stories about 130 degree noontimes in a roasting box, crammed in with thirty others -- and then into the sustainable housing movement, where architects were vying to outdo one another in their simple and elegant retrofits of containers into cute little apartments.

Why no one had thought to merge the two disciplines was beyond him. If you're going to smuggle people across the ocean, why not avail yourself of a cute little kit to transform their steel box into a cozy little camper? Was he missing something?

Nope. Other than the fact that people-smugglers were all criminal dirtbags, he couldn't find any reason why a smuggle-ee couldn't enjoy the ten days at sea in high style. Especially if the smuggle-ee was now co-owner of a huge shipping and logistics company based in Los Angeles, with the run of the warehouse and a Homeland Security all-access pass for the port.

It had taken Wei-Dong three weeks to do the work on the container. The mail-order conversion kit said that it could be field-assembled by two unskilled laborers in a disaster area with hand tools in two days. It took him two weeks, which was a little embarrassing, as he'd always classed himself as “skilled” (but there you go).

And he had special needs, after all. He'd read up on port security and knew that there'd be sensors looking for the telltale cocktail of gasses given off by humans: acetone, isoprene, alpha pinene and lots of other exotic exhaust given off with every breath in a specific ratio. So he built a little container inside the container, an airtight box that would hold his gasses in until they were at sea -- he figured he could survive in it for a good ten hours before he used up all the air, provided he didn't exercise too much. The port cops could probe his container all they wanted, and they'd get the normal mix of volatiles boiling off of the paint on the inside of the shipping container, untainted by human exhaust. Provided they didn't actually open his container and then get too curious about the hermetically sealed box inside, he'd be golden.

Anyway, by the time he was done, he had a genuinely kick-ass little nest. He'd loaded up his Dad's Huawei with an entire apartment's worth of IKEA furniture and then he'd hacked it and nailed it and screwed it and glued it into the container's interior, making a cozy ship's cabin with a king-sized bed, a chemical toilet, a microwave, a desk, and a play area. Once they were at sea, he could open his little hatch and string out his WiFi receiver -- tapping into the on-board WiFi used by the crew would be simple, as they didn't devote a lot of energy to keeping out freeloaders while they were in the middle of the ocean -- and his solar panel. He had some very long wires for both, because he'd fixed the waybills so that his container would be deep in the middle of the stack alongside one of the gaps that ran between them, rather than on the outside edge: one percent of shipping containers ended up at the bottom of the sea, tossed overboard in rough waters, and he wanted to minimize the chance of dying when his container imploded from the pressure of hundreds of atmospheres' worth of deep ocean.

Inheritances were handier than he'd suspected. He was able to click onto Huawei's website and order ten power-packs for their all-electric runabouts, each one rated for 80 miles' drive. They were delivered directly to the pier his shipping container was waiting on (he considered the possibility that the power-packs had been shipped to America in the same container he was installing them in, but he knew the odds against it were astronomical -- there were a lot of shipping containers arriving on America's shores every second). They stacked neatly at one end of the container, with a barcoded waybill pasted to them that said they were being returned as defective. They arrived charged, and he was pretty sure that he'd be able to keep them charged between the Port of Los Angeles and Shenzhen, using the solar sheets he was going to deploy on the top of the container stack. He'd tested the photovoltaic sheets on his father's Huawei and found that he could fully charge it in six hours, and he'd calculated that he should be able to run his laptop, air conditioner, and water pumps for four days on each stack. 16 days' power would be more than enough to complete the crossing, even if they got hit by bad weather, but it was good to know that recharging was an option.

Water had given him some pause. Humans consume a lot of water, and while there was plenty of room in his space capsule -- as he'd come to think of the container -- he thought there had to be a better way to manage his liquid needs on the voyage than simply moving three or four tons of water into the box. He was deep in thought when he realized that the solar sheets were all water-proof and could be easily turned into a funnel that would feed a length of PVC pipe that he could snake from the top of the container stack into the space-capsule, where a couple of sterile hollow drums would hold the water until he was ready to drink it or shower in it. Afterwards, his waste water could just be pumped out onto the ship's deck, where it would wash overboard with all the other water that fell on the ship. If he packed enough water to keep him going on minimal showers and cooking for a week, the odds were good that they'd hit a rainstorm and he'd be topped up -- and if they didn't he could ration his remaining water and arrive in China a little smellier than he'd started.

He loved this stuff. The planning was exquisite fun, a real googlefest of interesting HOWTOs and advice. Lots of parts of the problem of self-sufficiency at sea had been considered before this, though no one had given much thought to the problem of travelling in style and secrecy in a container. He was a pioneer. He was making notes and planning to publish them when the adventure was over.

Of course, he wouldn't mention the reason he needed to smuggle himself into China, rather than just applying for a tourist visa.

Wei-Dong's mother didn't know what to make of her son. His father's death had shattered her, and half the time she seemed to be speaking to him from behind a curtain of gauze. He found the anti-depressants her doctor had prescribed and looked up the side-effects and decided that his mother probably wouldn't be in any shape to notice that he was up to something weird. Mostly she just seemed relieved to have him home, and industriously involved in the family business. She hadn't even blinked when he told her he was going to take a road trip up the coast, a nice long drive up to Alaska with minimal net-access, phone activity and so on.

The last cargo to go into the space-capsule was three cardboard boxes, small enough to load into the trunk of the Huawei, which he put in long-term parking and double-locked after he'd loaded them up. Each one was triple-wrapped in water-proof plastic, and inside them were twenty-five thousand-odd prepaid game-cards for various MMOs. The face-value of these cards was in excess of $200,000, though no money changed hands when he collected them, in lots of a few hundred, from Chinese convenience stores all over Los Angeles and Orange County. It had taken three days to get the whole load, and it had been the hairiest part of the gig so far. The cards were part of a regular deal whereby the big gold-farmers used networks of overseas retailers to snaffle up US playtime and ship it back to China, so that their employees could get online using the US servers.

Technically, that meant that all the convenience store clerks he visited were part of a vast criminal underground, but none of them seemed all that dangerous. Still, if any one of them had been suspicious about the white kid with the bad Mandarin accent who was doing the regular pickup, who knew what might happen?

It hadn't, though. Now he had the precious cargo, the boxes of untraceable, non-sequential game-credit that would let him earn game-gold. It was all so weird, now that he sat there on his red leather Ikea sofa, sipping an iced tea and munching a power bar and contemplating his booty.

Under their scratch-off strips, these cards contained unique numbers produced by a big random-number generator on a server in America, then printed in China, then shipped back to America, now destined for China again. He thought about how much simpler it would have been to come up with the random numbers in China in the first place, and chuckled and put his feet up on the boxes.

Of course, if they'd done that, he wouldn't have had any excuse to build the space-capsule and smuggle himself into China.


 21. http://www.harvard.com/

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