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Bruce Sterling

Black Swan

The ethical journalist protects a confidential source. So I protected “Massimo Montaldo,” although I knew that wasn’t his name.

Massimo shambled through the tall glass doors, dropped his valise with a thump, and sat across the table. We were meeting where we always met: inside the Caffe Elena, a dark and cozy spot that fronts on the biggest plaza in Europe.

The Elena has two rooms as narrow and dignified as mahogany coffins, with lofty red ceilings. The little place has seen its share of stricken wanderers. Massimo never confided his personal troubles to me, but they were obvious, as if he’d smuggled monkeys into the cafe and hidden them under his clothes.

Like every other hacker in the world, Massimo Montaldo was bright. Being Italian, he struggled to look suave. Massimo wore stain-proof, wrinkle-proof travel gear: a black merino wool jacket, an American black denim shirt, and black cargo pants. Massimo also sported black athletic trainers, not any brand I could recognize, with eerie bubble-filled soles.

These skeletal shoes of his were half-ruined. They were strapped together with rawhide boot-laces.

To judge by his Swiss-Italian accent, Massimo had spent a lot of time in Geneva. Four times he’d leaked chip secrets to me-crisp engineering graphics, apparently snipped right out of Swiss patent applications. However, the various bureaus in Geneva had no records of these patents. They had no records of any “Massimo Montaldo,” either.

Each time I’d made use of Massimo’s indiscretions, the traffic to my weblog had doubled.

I knew that Massimo’s commercial sponsor, or more likely his spymaster, was using me to manipulate the industry I covered. Big bets were going down in the markets somewhere. Somebody was cashing in like a bandit.

That profiteer wasn’t me, and I had to doubt that it was him. I never financially speculate in the companies I cover as a journalist, because that is the road to hell. As for young Massimo, his road to hell was already well- trampled.

Massimo twirled the frail stem of his glass of Barolo. His shoes were wrecked, his hair was unwashed, and he looked like he’d shaved in an airplane toilet. He handled the best wine in Europe like a scorpion poised to sting his liver. Then he gulped it down.

Unasked, the waiter poured him another. They know me at the Elena.

Massimo and I had a certain understanding. As we chatted about Italian tech companies-he knew them from Alessi to Zanotti-I discreetly passed him useful favors. A cellphone chip-bought in another man’s name. A plastic hotel pass key for a local hotel room, rented by a third party. Massimo could use these without ever showing a passport or any identification.

There were eight “Massimo Montaldos” on Google and none of them were him. Massimo flew in from places unknown, he laid his eggs of golden information, then he paddled off into dark waters. I was protecting him by giving him those favors. Surely there were other people very curious about him, besides myself.

The second glass of Barolo eased that ugly crease in his brows. He rubbed his beak of a nose, and smoothed his unruly black hair, and leaned onto the thick stone table with both of his black woolen elbows.

“Luca, I brought something special for you this time. Are you ready for that? Something you can’t even imagine.”

“I suppose,” I said.

Massimo reached into his battered leather valise and brought out a no-name PC laptop. This much-worn machine, its corners bumped with use and its keyboard dingy, had one of those thick super-batteries clamped onto its base. All that extra power must have tripled the computer’s weight. Small wonder that Massimo never carried spare shoes.

He busied himself with his grimy screen, fixated by his private world there.

The Elena is not a celebrity bar, which is why celebrities like it. A blonde television presenter swayed into the place. Massimo, who was now deep into his third glass, whipped his intense gaze from his laptop screen. He closely studied her curves, which were upholstered in Gucci.

An Italian television presenter bears the relationship to news that American fast food bears to food. So I couldn’t feel sorry for her-yet I didn’t like the way he sized her up. Genius gears were turning visibly in Massimo’s brilliant geek head. That woman had all the raw, compelling appeal to him of some difficult math problem.

Left alone with her, he would chew on that problem until something clicked loose and fell into his hands, and, to do her credit, she could feel that. She opened her dainty crocodile purse and slipped on a big pair of sunglasses.

“Signor Montaldo,” I said.

He was rapt.

“Massimo?”

This woke him from his lustful reverie. He twisted the computer and exhibited his screen to me.

I don’t design chips, but I’ve seen the programs used for that purpose. Back in the 1980s, there were thirty different chip-design programs. Nowadays there are only three survivors. None of them are nativized in the Italian language, because every chip geek in the world speaks English.

This program was in Italian. It looked elegant. It looked like a very stylish way to design computer chips. Computer chip engineers are not stylish people. Not in this world, anyway.

Massimo tapped at his weird screen with a gnawed fingernail. “This is just a cheap, 24-K embed. But do you see these?”

“Yes I do. What are they?”

“These are memristors.”

In heartfelt alarm, I stared around the cafe, but nobody in the Elena knew or cared in the least about Massimo’s stunning revelation. He could have thrown memristors onto their tables in heaps. They’d never realize that he was tossing them the keys to riches.

I could explain now, in grueling detail, exactly what memristors are, and how different they are from any standard electronic component. Suffice to understand that, in electronic engineering, memristors did not exist. Not at all. They were technically possible-we’d known that for thirty years, since the 1980s-but nobody had ever manufactured one.

A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns.

I sipped the Barolo so I could find my voice again. “You brought me schematics for memristors? What happened, did your UFO crash?”

“That’s very witty, Luca.”

“You can’t hand me something like that! What on Earth do you expect me to do with that?”

“I am not giving these memristor plans to you. I have decided to give them to Olivetti. I will tell you what to do: you make one confidential call to your good friend, the Olivetti Chief Technical Officer. You tell him to look hard in his junk folder where he keeps the spam with no return address. Interesting things will happen, then. He’ll be grateful to you.”

“Olivetti is a fine company,” I said. “But they’re not the outfit to handle a monster like that. A memristor is strictly for the big boys-Intel, Samsung, Fujitsu.”

Massimo laced his hands together on the table-he might have been at prayer-and stared at me with weary sarcasm. “Luca,” he said, “don’t you ever get tired of seeing Italian genius repressed?”

The Italian chip business is rather modest. It can’t always make its ends meet. I spent fifteen years covering chip tech in Route 128 in Boston. When the almighty dollar ruled the tech world, I was glad that I’d made those connections.

But times do change. Nations change, industries change. Industries change the times.

Massimo had just shown me something that changes industries. A disruptive innovation. A breaker of the rules.

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