play money
DIARY of a dubious proposition



(And you can buy it at Amazon.)

Monday, March 29, 2004

Farewell to the Road  

I came to the Southern California finish line of my journey last night, but not before one final Flying J -- the impressive Barstow, California, outpost of the truckstop chain. Such is the degree of professionalism at the Barstow Flying J that as a nontrucker I was explicitly banned from using the facilities in the "Drivers' Lounge" and was obliged, therefore, to set up shop in the amply wired coffee shop. I leave you with this image of me in my "office," kindly taken by the waitress with a crappy little $35 digital camera I'd bought a few truckstops back:

And here, for good measure, is a picture of me completing a delivery of 5 million gold pieces at the bank in Skara Brae, a city in the far west of UO's mythic land of Britannia. I'm the gray-haired guy in reddish robes, on the lighter horse, thanking and being thanked:

Flying J. Skara Brae. Which is my true place of work?

The question is left as an exercise for the reader.

11:28 PM

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Having Fun Yet?  
Greetings from the Richfield, Utah, Flying J. I started in Denver this morning, having stopped over to visit a dear old friend there. I caught snow flurries coming over the Rockies, descended into the sun-baked, John Ford glory of the Utah canyon lands, watched far-off rain storms drift for hours on the horizon.

And then I sat here for five hours, watching the computer screen. I toted up about $1100 in sales, did a half dozen deliveries, haggled with gold sellers, fretted about cash flow.

Was it fun? I've been wondering. Yesterday, over at Terra Nova, the Wired News story about me got written up, and TN regular Staarkhand commented as follows:

I've been keeping up with Play Money for some time now. Quite interesting, although it has been depressing to observe the transition from witty and insightful commentary on [virtual worlds] and general human nature to PLZ BUY FROM ME WTFOMG. I think we can probably cut him some slack though based on the merits of earlier work and his pretty harsh deadline coming up.

After all, it's just business. Wait, that's what's depressing. The archives reveal that Julian rather enjoyed the game at one point.

I can't disagree. Not with the last sentence, anyway. UO was once a much simpler diversion for me, it's true. Yet I'm not sure that I'm really enjoying it any less now. Or even that it's "just business." Yes, I am buying and selling Ultima items, trying to get more of them all the time, but so are thousands of other players. And the emotions I'm experiencing as I enter this final phase of my "game" are complex -- not pleasant, exactly, full of deep anxieties about outcome and social standing, yet not unlike emotions I've felt in other games.

In particular I remember an almost gruesomely involving 6-month game of e-mail Diplomacy I organized three years ago. I think I meant it as a kind of farewell to the care-free days of childlessness in the months before Lola was born. And yet in practice it turned out to be anything but care free. Diplomacy is a fiendishly complex game of negotiation, bluffing, confidences honored and betrayed, and for the months I played that last game I went to bed with knots in my stomach and woke up in cold sweats, sick with worry over what the next round held in store for me.

I loved it.

And I'm loving this too, though I'm not sure why. Let's just say that among the many strangenesses of life in late modernity, not the least is that we have come to play games that defy any simple understanding of what the word "fun" could possibly mean.

11:03 PM

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Clocking Out  
It's after midnight, Central Time, and I have just finished a seven-hour shift here at the Flying J in North Platte, Nebraska. The bandwidth remains solid, but the circumstances tonight are somewhat less accommodating than yesterday's. The communications nook here at the North Platte stop shares space with the TV area, and I have struggled to stay focused on my work while a rotation of uniformly burly truck drivers watched and commented on Charmed ("Oh you've never seen it? Cute show. These gals are witches, and that guy there is supposed to be some kind of mentor to them. The outfits can get kind of skimpy too, so that's nice"), Law and Order ("Oh man, that kid killed the guy just for some Chinese food? Boy, if I'd have done something like that when I was that age, my daddy would have -- I wouldn't have been able to run away from him fast enough!"), and the 1998 Julia Roberts/Susan Sarandon weeper The Stepmother (this one left them speechless, actually). I did about $320 in sales and posted something like 70 eBay auctions. I'm exhausted.

Home now, to my bedroll at the Rockin' DH campground and trailer park, just across the interstate.

11:04 PM

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Market Watch (Now With Fewer Data Than Ever!)  
So here I am at the Flying J in Des Moines, a little after midnight Central Time, waiting for DeepAnalysis to stop being broken. I think I've waited long enough. We'll just have to skip the eBay market numbers this week and get straight to my financials. This is unfortunate for two reasons. One: I am very curious to see how the price of gold is doing two days after OSI's announcement that characters can now move between shards with all their possessions. Rumor has it that there are vast hoards of gold on the Asian shards (where gold trades at a much lower rate than elsewhere) just waiting to flood into the North American shards. Should be fun to watch.

And two: My financials this week are nothing I'm in any hurry to look at. Profits are down, alas -- $933 against last week's $997 -- pushing the average weekly number I have to post in the time remaining up to a staggering $1335. The only bright spot is that the vast majority of my assets are now in inventory and gold (yes, the supply crunch is over), so I am poised for some serious profit-taking in the week ahead.

My gold holdings: 332.28 million gp

My dollar holdings: $1,441.82

My inventory: $1,030.60

My net worth: $5,488.83

My profits this week: 933.70

My profits, to date: $8,821.45

Audited statements available upon request.

(Numbers crunched with help from Lance Leger, professional accountant and guildmaster, Ancient Order of Elves.)

10:32 PM

All Hail the Flying J!
And: Play Money in the News
I write to you from exit 292 of interstate highway 80, in Davenport, Iowa, USA. I'm in a back corner booth of the local Flying J truckstop, which along with diesel fuel, hot showers, laundromat, Louis L'amour audio books, and other necessities of the modern truck-driving life, now offers broadband Internet connections for the reasonable rate of $4.95 per day, $24.95 per week. The air conditioning is on too high, but my little office here is otherwise comfortable enough -- handsome faux-wood-laminated particle board table and banquette, warm fluorescent lighting. The connectivity options include modem, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi. I am going with Ethernet at the moment, the wireless currently being a little more Wi than Fi.

I've been sitting here conducting business for almost four hours, which is surely the longest stretch of time I have ever spent inside a truckstop. I have always been fascinated by these places, though of course, as a pointy-headed college boy, I've never much felt at home in them. Culturally, this is alien territory for me: solidly working-class, Southern-inflected, lots of big bellies in T-shirts and mullets flying proud. The distance is underlined by the odd truckstop apartheid that lets the general public in to shop and eat but sets aside various areas and amenities for "Drivers Only."

Yet here I sit, surrounded by truckers gazing at their laptop screens, not really so different any more. Truck drivers may be the last American cowboys, but like me, they're in a business that plays weird games with geography and uses the latest telecommunications technology to do so. Their trucks are tracked by GPS as they drive, their lives go on by email and EverQuest when they stop. Right now I'm meshed into the same network of highways and data vectors, only mirrored, talking to friends and family on the cell phone while I drive, getting back to work when I stop.

Two, maybe three more days of this, and I'll be at my sister's house in California.

Meanwhile, I am famous. Wired News's Daniel Terdiman has caught up with the Play Money challenge and filed a somewhat bemused report on my final race to glory. Doubts are cast by various sources on the likelihood of my success, including these, expressed at the end of the article by one Julian Dibbell:

"I think the whole blog is infused with a sense of melancholy and inevitable doom, so I don't think great shame will fall on me and my household if I don't make the numbers," he says. "I think of it as a game, and if I don't make the numbers, I will have lost the game, and it will feel crappy in that way."

Jeez, dude, way to keep hope alive.

4:34 PM

Friday, March 19, 2004

Oh, Crappy Day  
What a crappy day. A lousy $225 in revenues, but that's the least of it. I have run up against the dreaded supply crunch. My accountant, Sarlock the Elf, advises me to keep my cash flowing, but it's pooling instead. My PayPal account fills up with dollars while I beat the bushes desperately for inventory at prices I can live with. It's an endless haggle, and I have discovered I don't especially like haggling.

Not when it doesn't go my way, in any case. Today I spent a good 45 minutes appraising a pair of accounts some random prospect was looking to sell, only to be met with what sounded like genuinely wounded indignation when I made an offer that stood a remote chance of securing me a living-wage return on the deal. I know, I know: the guy probably spent the best hours of his adolescence building up this asset, and it's my problem if I can't learn the art of lowballing with charm. But still, it's bad enough to blow a deal without feeling like you've stepped on someone's pet puppy in the process.

To make matters worse, my beloved Tradespot, the bazaar of first resort for anyone looking to load up on UO stuff, has become uncomfortable territory for me. I was warned today by the people who run the place to stop spamming the boards with links to my eBay auctions, and to limit my total posts there to four or five a day. Guilty as charged, and the restrictions are fair enough. But soliciting the torrent of goods I need is not going to be easy now that my access to Tradespot has dwindled to a trickle.

And to think just days ago I was pleading with you all to buy from me.

For God's sake somebody please sell me something.

11:49 PM

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Market Watch  
The good news: I turned a remarkable $996.99 in profit this week. The bad news: I turned a remarkable $996.99 in profit this week, which means that in the three weeks ahead, I must average an even more remarkable $1200 a week if I'm to make my goal.

Now here's your weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Market sales total: $158,380 (-5,034 from last week)

Market sales total, annualized: $4.1 million

Market volume total: 3,392 sales (-197)

Exchange rate: $13.56 (-0.02) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18-tile mansion: $168.58 (-13.69)

My gold holdings: 182.45 million gp

My dollar holdings: $2,689.36

My inventory: $470.60

My net worth: $4,555.13

My profits this week: 996.99 (!)

My profits, to date: $7,887.75

Audited statements available upon request.

[Note: An earlier posting of this entry included figures based on a faulty inventory count. Play Money regrets the error.]

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool, and Lance Leger, professional accountant and guildmaster, Ancient Order of Elves.)

9:59 PM

Monday, March 15, 2004

Open for Business  
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...

The official Play Money online emporium.

Accept no substitutes.

And if you have not done your good deed for the day, then for God's sake get over there and shop.

(Also please give a big round of applause to Mark Givens, the PHP-programming genius who made my storefront dreams a reality. Mark's own projects include such staggering works of Web genius as the Proudfully American Logo Museum, Hostitles, and The Tenuous Connection, as well as America's oldest living unsigned Southern California punk-art band, Wckr Spgt. Did I mention he's a genius? Employ him before your competitor does. )

9:37 AM

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Market Watch  
This week's Market Watch features newly sensible figures on my progress, thanks to the patient assistance of Mr. Lance Leger (better known to denizens of the Pacific shard as Sarlock Longbow), Play Money's new in-house accountant. For the first time you can see how much profit I actually racked up during the preceding week. Neat! Not so neat is the fact that I seem to have ended this week in the red. Nothing Sarlock can't fix with a few clever recalculations, I trust. We'll see how it goes next week.

And now, once again, here's your weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Market sales total: $163,414 (-7,070 from last week)

Market sales total, annualized: $4.2 million

Market volume total: 3,589 sales (-129)

Exchange rate: $13.58 (-0.22) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18-tile mansion: $182.27 (+31.78)

My gold holdings: 177.2 million gp

My dollar holdings: $1,670.14

My inventory: $608.20

My net worth: $3,397.84

My profits this week: -96.56 (!)

My profits, to date: $7061.76

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool, and Lance Leger, professional accountant and guildmaster, Ancient Order of Elves.)

11:29 PM

The Art of Losing  
I'm back. If we can call it that. Somehow every trip I take lately seems to entail losing a little piece of myself along the way.

You may remember the disastrous hard-drive crash of my last trip to San Francisco, which took with it years' worth of email and other memorabilia. Then there was the suitcase lost on my return from Brazil two months ago, gone with gifts for wife and child and 20 of my favorite CDs. And last night I came home from New York to find that we'd been burglarized while I was away. The DVD player, the ReplayTV unit, and a telephone were taken -- no great loss, all things considered, except that I truly had been looking forward to the Sopranos season debut recorded on the ReplayTV.

I should mention, too, that I spent the weekend letting go of things much dearer. My 97-year-old grandmother, a sweet, witty, legendary woman who will be mourned by half of Greenwich Village when she finally goes, is going. I was glad to get to see her again, and hold her bony hand.

And there are more unsettling losses afoot, about which I may or may not say more here later. I'm not sure why I'm going on about all this right now in any case; its connection to the business at hand is figurative at best. I could relate these lessons in loss to the nature of this enterprise, I guess -- talk about how I deal in nothingness all day, how I trade in desire for things that aren't real, and how I should probably just sit back, enjoy the Buddhist wisdom of it all, and find solace in knowing that all desire, in the end, is for things unreal.

But honestly, there's only one real reason I should even be alluding to how tough things have gotten, and that is to advise you all that the drift of my life may soon entail a change of plans for the Play Money undertaking. Or anyway a change of venue. I'll need to be hitting the road for a while, is what I'm saying. Destination: California. Means of transport: Honda Civic. Place of business, while en route: The Flying J chain of truckstops, which I'm told has wireless broadband service now, and where I plan to continue my trading activities during those hours when I am not putting pedal to metal.

After that, who knows? I have family in L.A., we'll figure something out.

5:18 PM

Thursday, March 04, 2004

I'm exhausted. Thursday evening is auction-posting time around here, and this week I'm running more auctions than ever -- including my first forays into the tantalizing artifacts market. I need a break, and starting tomorrow I get one. I'm flying to New York for the weekend. I'll have little Lola in tow, and when I come back to South Bend on Monday, she will remain in the city with her grandparents for a week, then come home with Jessica.

I'll miss her, as I already miss her mother. But this is crunch time, and the time alone will help me crunch.

That's next week, though. For now, I'm putting it all on hold. Till Monday, Mr. Big will be handling my deliveries. May there be a lot of them.

11:05 PM

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Market Watch  
There was indeed a bean-counter in the house. I'll tell you his name if he tells me that's OK, but in the meantime I can tell you he is a professional accountant, he is an avid UO player and guildmaster, and he has kindly agreed to help me set up a weekly profits & losses statement, for your collective edification. Watch this space for it.

And now, here's your weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days:

Market sales total: $170,484 (-4,669 from last week)

Market sales total, annualized: $4.4 million

Market volume total: 3,857 sales (-139)

Exchange rate: $13.80 (-0.21) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18-tile mansion: $150.49 (-1.12)

My gold holdings: 264.1 million gp ($3,644.58)

My dollar holdings: $617.30

My profits, last 12 months: $3,663.92

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

9:07 PM

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

No, Seriously  
OK, maybe I was a little too coy in my plea for help yesterday. Let me try again.

By tomorrow I need to figure out a credible scheme for calculating my profits and losses on a weekly basis. By tomorrow, if past server statistics are anything to go by, some 800 people will have looked at this page. By tomorrow, therefore, the chances are good that these words will have been read by a professional accountant, or an amateur accountant, or a person whose father was an accountant, or someone who got halfway through writing a novel about an accountant -- any one of whom knows at least 3000 times more about accounting than I do. And maybe that someone is you.

It is?

OK then: Help!

Send me an email, an instant message (the contact info is on the lefthand sidebar, can't miss it). Give me a clue! How do I do this?

And yes, I'm asking for free advice. It's called keeping costs down, for God's sake. Isn't that what you accountants are always telling us to do?

As for you 799 other slackers: You want to pitch in? Go buy some of my stuff. Damn.

7:56 AM

Monday, March 01, 2004

Is There an Accountant in the House?  
The terms of the challenge seemed clear enough when I laid them down: Between now and April 15 I must post a profit of $4600 within a one-month period.

Now that I've had some time to ponder the meaning of the word "profit," however, I'm beginning to understand why they pay those corporate CPAs the big bucks. Like any other high-profile business readying its quarterly earnings report, I hear the siren call of dubious accounting schemes and know enough to try to shut my ears against it -- yet I'm not sure I know enough to tell the difference between the truly dubious and the merely creative. Even the most basic rules of accounting, after all, can be fairly counterintuitive, and I sure as hell don't want to let my ignorance of the art of bean counting screw up my shot at winning this race.

Obviously, for example, it would be the height of cheesiness to invest all my dollar holdings in gold and other inventory, spend a month selling it off, then claim all that revenue as profit. But what about existing inventory? How do I value that, for the purposes of a final reckoning? Just counting the dollars I invested in it won't do, since that wouldn't account for inventory acquired merely from buying and selling within the game. How do I count it, then?

And what about expenses? Clearly, monthly outlays like subscription fees must be deducted in full from any monthly revenues. But what about one-time fees like hiring a designer to ready my Web storefront for business? Can I amortize that cost, and if so, over how many months?

Sigh. By the time I post this Wednesday's market figures, I will need to have come up with some rational -- and ethical -- scheme for calculating the benchmark numbers of my progress toward success or failure. Surely there is someone out there with the training, the spare time, and the esprit de corps to lend me a hand?

12:45 PM

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