alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Parker and I had a game of Scrabble going. According to Parker, Scrabble was an improvement over chess—at least for her, since she felt that chess relied too much on memorization for her to like the game very much.

We had been playing for a little while, and the game progressed rapidly, shrinking the stock of tiles in the bag. As I took a sip of a julep prepared for me by Parker in anticipation of an early spring, she laid down five tiles to spell BLUES, the last letter "hooking" onto the beginning of the word HARD to create SHARD.

"Bravo!" I said, and I allowed my eyebrows to rise a skosh upon seeing how many points her play had scored. "You have been spending time reading the dictionary, I see," I said, engaging in a little coffee-house banter. I knew that what I had suggested was the last way in the world she would choose to spend her time.

"Oh, cut it out, you old fraud!" said Parker. "First of all, these were perfectly ordinary words I played, and second, you know that 'preparation through memorization' is just not my style."

"Hm-mm," I acknowledged, as I surveyed my tiles, "but you know, good competitive players go to the trouble of memorizing a sizable chunk of the 83,667 words that are two to eight letters long, and really top-flight players will have committed many of the 29,150 nine-letter words to memory, as well."

"But that's them, and this is us," said Parker, spreading her hands over the board as if presenting the denouement of a magic trick. She paused, and added: "Unless you've been staying up nights memorizing word lists?"

"Perish the thought, my dear!" I protested, and played some tiles to form a word that Parker immediately challenged successfully, foiling my attempt to sneak in a word spelled the way our British cousins would, with a 'C' instead of an 'S'. My gamble had not paid off, and the affirmation of her diligence had boosted Parker's spirits.

"Memorization is over-rated," she said, alternating her gaze between the tiles on her rack and the game board. "Me, given a choice between a doctor who has simply memorized the parts of the body and one who actually understands how the body works, I'll always choose the one who understands."

"I'm afraid you'll get no argument from me with regard to the last part of your statement," I said. "But can we really say that a doctor who does not know the names of the parts of the body understands how the body works? Surely knowing what things are called is essential if information is to be gleaned from the medical literature, or acquired during lectures or in conversations with colleagues?"

Parker said nothing, but picked up all the tiles from her rack and arranged them on the board, pulling off a 'bingo' and scoring an extra 50 points on top of a 'double-double' because her letters covered two double-word squares. "Your turn, old man," she said, and added, before I could slip into deep contemplation of my tiles: "But all that information is going to be acquired over time, anyway. Why go to the trouble of memorizing?"

I looked up from my rack. "Consider your average superstar basketball player," I said. "Said athlete will spend an inordinate amount of time practicing, say, shooting fouls—the same motion, over and over, thousands of times. And it is that kind of dedication that distinguishes the superstars from those who are merely 'very good' and are satisfied to acquire their skill 'over time', as you put it, during actual games." I made my play.

"What does memorization have to do with sports?" asked Parker, and quickly made a play of her own, dumping a single letter onto the board.

"The same dynamic is at work," I said. "The more you practice, the better you get and the easier it is."

I then made my play, after which both Parker and I remained silent for a turn each, during which the bag was emptied of tiles. This allowed me to identify an interesting opportunity to rob Parker of her last turn, and to narrow her margin of victory. But she'd have to, um, cooperate.

I took an H from my rack and placed it on the triple-word square in the bottom right-hand corner of the board. The letter hooked onto the end of YEA to create YEAH, and onto the end of MUST to create MUSTH. I endeavored to present a positively cherubic poker face in Parker's direction as I calculated points.

"Wait a minute!" said Parker. "You've got to be kidding. 'Musth'? Really? I think I'm going to challenge that!"

"And I believe it means 'a state of frenzy occurring in male elephants'," I said. "Look it up."

Parker's expression fell as the game's official dictionary demolished her challenge, causing her to lose her turn, whereupon I managed to empty my rack of tiles, ending the game. I had not won, but at least I had not lost as badly as I otherwise would have.

"Musth," said Parker, and then repeated the word several more times, letting it roll around in her mouth. "Of what possible use is knowing that word?" she said finally.

"Well, in the admittedly unlikely case of finding myself in the presence of a bull elephant in musth," I replied, "I will make every effort to tread carefully and stay away from the animal. Otherwise," I said, and paused for effect, "knowing such words can, on occasion, help narrow the score in a Sunday afternoon game of Scrabble." I smiled, and asked: "Shall we play another game?"

"Sure!" said Parker, laughing, and got up. "Get ready to lose big, this time. You want another julep?"

"Absolutely!" I replied.

It was turning out to be a marvelous, if rainy, afternoon.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
If you have not read my post for LJ Idol 9.32.1,
(the other half of this week's "assignment")
please click the above link and read that post first!

My body was relaxed as I walked away from the yellow crime-scene tape toward the nearest subway stop, but my mind was racing. What had I interrupted? Had my being in the shop caused or contributed to what happened? If so, why, and who might it be that was after me? And after everything else—or maybe before—why was there no disk in the surveillance recorder?

I had spent enough time sitting in the claustrophobic back seat of the cop car, so I chose to stand while riding the nearly empty subway going uptown. And wouldn't you know it, the same rather nondescript guy in a gray newsboy hat and gray overcoat, whom I had seen standing next to a knockout redhead back behind the police tape, was in the car behind mine, also standing and faced sideways, reading a newspaper.

Was this guy tailing me? Maybe. On the other hand, I was on a train traveling on one of the main subway lines that passed through the vicinity of the shop, so there was a pretty good chance that being on the same train as the man in gray was coincidental.

Still, I got off the train a half dozen stops past where I needed to go and walked briskly up to street level. I was in the posh midtown section, which was all but deserted at this time of day. The streets were lined with storefronts offering the daytime crowd every manner of conspicuous consumption. A few dozen yards from the subway exit, I stopped to admire a window of Japanese shubusa pottery displayed sparingly within, with no price tags in evidence (a sure sign I was in "if you gotta ask, you can't afford it" country), but I quickly focused my gaze past the window, onto the reflected image of the subway's exit.

After a few moments, the man in gray came into view. He had ditched the paper and had a cell phone up to his ear. I decided I was through with giving the guy the benefit of the doubt, reclassified him as a likely hostile, and decided that, in his place, I'd be on the horn calling for reinforcements. I casually resumed my walk down the street and when I got to the end of the block, I looked around the corner and was happy to see an unoccupied cab. I flagged it down, got in, and instructed the driver to turn up the avenue I had been walking on just a moment before, taking me past the man in gray. As we drove past, my tail got a good look at the hack's number, but I got a good photo of him we drove by. It was an even trade, in my book.

I had given the driver the name of a midtown hotel a good distance away from where I was staying, with the idea that by the time whoever it was that was interested in me tracked down the cabbie and found out where he had dropped me off, I'd be back at my hotel enjoying a nightcap down in the bar and figuring out what to do with the photo of the man in gray. However, about five minutes into my fare, the driver answered a call that came in on his cell, and after a few mumbled exchanges, the guy behind the wheel stiffened a little and involuntarily glanced at me in the rear-view mirror. I was getting a bad feeling.

When we stopped at a red light, I asked him, "Was that your dispatcher?"

"Excuse me?" said the driver in a strong accent. The accent was so thick, it led me to believe that my driver wished to convey the impression that he had developed a sudden inability to communicate in English, a condition that had not been manifest when we had spoken upon my entering his vehicle.

"Cut it out," I said. "On the phone. That your dispatcher, right? And he wanted to know where you were taking me, right?"

His reaction answered my question.

"And he probably said something that made you think badly of me, am I right?"

My driver tried to smile, apologetically. And failed.

"Did you tell your dispatcher where you were taking me?" I asked. The driver tried another smile. And failed again.

It was time for a change of plan. Sort of.

"Take me the long way," I said, after a minute.

"What?" said my driver. "What do you mean?"

"I want you to drive around for a while before you take me to my hotel," I said. "I need to make some phone calls." I shoved two hundred dollar bills through the slot to him. "That should cover it." I don't know what the driver had been told about me, but the sight of those two Franklins significantly eased the tension from the driver's side of the cab.

Still, I kept a wary eye out on the driver as I took out my cell, looked up an email, sent off the photo, and then made a rather lengthy call. After I hung up, I instructed the driver to go directly to my real hotel instead of the hotel I had instructed him to deliver me to. Saying "You can keep the change," ensured the fastest and most direct route as there was an opportunity to turn most of a hundred dollar bill into a tip.

I had changed my destination because I had concluded that anyone who could so quickly track my cab could easily check if I was registered with the hotel I had originally instructed the driver to take me to. When they found out I wasn't registered there, I was sure they'd call around the other hotels in the area using some pretext until they found me. They would expect me to show up with my guard down, feeling that I had pulled one over on them. I was confident, however, that my arrangements would turn the tables.

I felt naked and exposed as I stepped out of the cab, so I strode quickly and purposefully through the entrance doors into the lobby. I did a quick scan of the place as I approached the front desk, and in my peripheral vision, I caught sight of the man in gray sitting on a couch. His hat and coat were on a low table next to him, and he seemed to be again engaged in reading a newspaper. Suddenly, he folded the paper up and dropped it onto the floor, at which point I felt more than saw two things happen.

First, the redhead who had been standing next to the man in gray at the crime scene appeared from behind the elevator banks, walking directly toward me with a raincoat draped over her right forearm, awkwardly covering her hand. I was pretty sure what she was holding in that hand, and wished I had that throwing knife from earlier in the evening in my possession.

Second—to cries of "Freeze!"—both the woman and the man in gray found themselves looking down the barrels of pistols held by plainclothes police officers. The pair surrendered quietly.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see Detective Smith.

"I see you have matters well in hand," I said.

"Thanks for the call," said Smith. "I appreciate you not trying to work this one on your own. It's enough to renew one's faith in the private investigative profession, or whatever you people call yourselves." I said nothing, but extended my hand. We shook.

"We checked your room here and I've asked the security guys to keep an eye on the camera covering your hall, to make sure there'd be no unpleasant surprises for you when you got back," Smith continued, and then handed me a room card. "Still, I did as you requested and registered a room under my name, to be billed to your account. I must say, you're one careful fella, for a tourist."

I cracked a crooked smile and said nothing. You can never be too careful.

"Anyway, sleep tight," said Smith, "Stay in touch and I'll keep you in the loop about what we learn about what happened tonight."

I thanked him, took the key and headed off to the elevators. Unanswered questions remained, but it was late, and I was confident they would be cleared up over time.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The shooter walked in through the door fast, raised his pistol, and smartly put a round through the clerk's left eyeball before turning his attention to me. Normally, that'd be the way to do it─nail the guy standing next to the alarm button first─but it wasn't the right plan for that day in that particular place, because I had a throwing knife in my hand when he came in, and it was in the air by the time the killer's arm was absorbing the pistol's recoil. The tip of my knife missed all the arteries and cartilaginous tissue in the shooter's neck, driving through his spinal column instead. The gunman fell quickly, his eyes displaying a mixture of resolve and determination, with just a tinge of surprise. He may have wanted to get another round off at me in those last few seconds of life, but it wasn't going to happen.

It was the beginning of November, and I was in town after completing a successful job doping out a scam involving a schooner named Rapture of the Deep as it darted between ports in the Adriatic Sea. The grateful client's bonus made it possible for me to visit this so-called "spy shop," which catered to investigative specialists like me, where I was checking out the latest styles in protective Kevlar vests when my attention was drawn by the knife I had ended up using. I bent down to take a closer look at the dead guy, but didn't recognize him, or at least that part of his face that I could see. Male, white, fit, right-handed, in his late twenties or early thirties, black hair, five o'clock shadow, well-groomed, wearing a hooded warmup suit and high-end running shoes. Given that his weapon was a suppressed Glock 20, I concluded the shooter was no casual thug.

I toyed with the idea of searching the dead guy, but decided against it. Places like this had surveillance systems in operation, and since this was a spy shop, it was a pretty good bet that there was a tap somewhere between the cameras and the recording unit that went offsite somewhere, so that if someone was able to get to the store's recorder and swipe the recording medium, there'd still be a record of what happened that could be turned over to the cops to serve the cause of justice, or to a private "consultant" to make things right some other way.

And since I wasn't working on any project just now─and since my face was undoubtedly on the surveillance stream─it didn't make sense to go out of my way and make trouble for myself with the local cops. My story—and it would be easy to stick to it because it happened to be true—would be that this was a simple case of self-defense by a currently unemployed private investigator. I used my handkerchief to pick up the store's phone and dialed 911.

I went through the standard rigmarole with the first two cops that arrived on the scene─a salt-and-pepper pair of patrol drones─who came at me with their guns drawn and ordering me about in too-loud voices. After making sure I wasn't armed and so on, I ended up cooling my heels in the back of their car, where I entertained myself by checking out the crowd that had gathered outside the yellow tape the patrol guys had put up to create a cops-only zone, and I waited for someone with a little more authority to show up.

Someone finally did, a detective named Smith. He pulled open the front door of the patrol car and planted himself sideways to me in the front seat, with his feet resting on the pavement. He was carefully examining my wallet, as if it was a prayer book worthy of careful reading and rereading.

"Quentin Macauley," he said. His inflection didn't change, but the way he said my name made it a question.

"That's me," I said.

"According to this identification card, you're a licensed private investigator, but not in this jurisdiction." He looked up at me through the grate that was installed between the back and front seats.

"That I am," I said. "And yes, not in this jurisdiction."

"Are you aware that there are no substantive reciprocity agreements between here and where you live concerning private investigators?" he said.

"I don't doubt it," I said. "Then again, I'm not here as a private investigator. The fact is, I'm a tourist in your fair city, Detective."

"Uh-huh." The way Smith made the sound said he wasn't buying my answer.

"Must everyone in your city be working on something all the time? Hell, my life over the past few days is an open book," I said. "Check it out yourself, if you aren't doing so already. I got back from an overseas trip three days ago and have generally been goofing off in your fine metropolis, jump-starting my wardrobe, visiting steak houses, art galleries, and any place that strikes my fancy. To be frank, I'm not even sure I've used my cell the past three days, except to check email."

Smith looked at me for a few moments, then proceeded to ask the same series of questions the patrol cops had asked, about the sequence of events that had left the clerk in a huddled heap behind the counter and the shooter dead on the floor at my feet. Once I'd finished describing what had happened, Smith asked the question he'd been wanting to ask all along.

"So how did you just happen to end up in that spy shop just when someone happened to go in and start shooting up the place?"

"I have no idea," I said. "Wrong place, wrong time, as far as I can tell. That'd be my guess, anyway."

Smith said nothing, but he bared his upper incisors and nervously started flicking his thumbnail against them.

"The dead guy with the knife in his throat," said Smith, "you ever see him before?"

"Nope," I said, "but then again, I didn't move him around after he fell. I can only imagine how upset law enforcement can get when crime scenes are contaminated."

"Uh-huh," said Smith again, and continued to flick his thumbnail and look at me through the grating.

I said nothing, and we stayed that way for a couple of minutes. Smith turned his attention to the wallet again.

"You have any enemies? People who might seriously consider popping you?" he asked.

"Consider it seriously? No," I said. "Nobody back home and certainly nobody here. Whatever the shooter's reason for hitting that shop, it wasn't me."

I could see the gears turning in Smith's mind as he considered my answer. His thumbnail paused.

"That knife in the throat, by the way," said Smith, "that was a pretty precise piece of work. Not the kind of skill you'd expect out of your average PI from out your way." He left the question unasked.

"Two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, working with local fighters," I said, by way of explanation. "I picked up what I could. It turns out I was an apt student." I hoped I didn't sound smug.

"Uh-huh," said Smith. "Your knife?" he continued, stressing the first word.

"No," I said. "I happened to see the knife in the display case and asked to see it."

An officer walked up to the car. Smith stood up and whispers passed between the two. The officer then took his leave and, after a moment, Smith sat back down sideways in the front seat.

"Aside from making the emergency call," he said, "did you touch anything else after putting down the shooter?"

"No," I said.

Smith gave a little nod. "Then I don't suppose you have any idea what happened to the disk from the surveillance recorder, do you?" he said. My eyebrows went up just a fraction of an inch.

"No, I don't," I said, "and I certainly didn't take it. Maybe the clerk was sloppy and didn't put a new one in when the old one got full?"

"We'll find out soon enough," said Smith. "You planning on staying in town for a while?" he said.

"I had planned on a few more days," I said.

"The key card in your pocket says you're staying at one of the ritzier places in town," he said.

It wasn't a question, so I provided no answer.

"Hotel confirms you're registered there, too." He was letting me know he checked. "You planning on staying there?"


"Okay. You're free to go, but if you change hotels, or plan on leaving town early, let me know, got it?" he said. He handed me his business card.

Continue with Part 2...

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The weather this past Saturday morning was marvelous and constituted the nearest thing to a gilded invitation that nature could issue to entice me to spend some time in the back yard. So I finished my morning coffee, got dressed, and walked around it for a while, getting reacquainted with the place, and I thought about the future as I did so.

Ours is not a very large back yard, or very unusual. Some time ago, however, my wife and I had planned to put in a water feature next to the garage (once we got rid of the plants and bushes that had sunk their roots into and currently occupy that space). We'd even gone so far as to pick up one of those thick plastic liners for the pond part of the feature.

Over behind the garage is a large, flat area where, over the past couple of years, I've hastily set up my "container garden" (as there never seemed to be enough time to properly till and prepare the soil). Over near the back corner of the house is a location I had scoped out to install a "stealth" amateur radio antenna—one that would not be noticed by the folks that run around making sure everyone in our development obeys the homeowner association's rules, which strictly forbid such antennas—but I'd never gotten around to installing it, either.

After strolling past these places, I found myself in a part of my back yard that, from the perspective of the living room windows, looks like an inviting nook in which to sit and think, consisting of a small bench in front of a tree, situated next to a plaster statue of a seated old man wearing a toga. One of the man's arms is either writing or pointing at something in a book laid out on a pedestal next to him, but it's hard to tell which, because the statue is old and most of the end of the man's arm has worn away with time.

I wasn't thinking about that, however. My mind was filled with a jumble of concerns about the course my life is about to take, given my recent diagnosis. So I sat down on the bench and tried to make sense of it all.

"Do you want to know a secret?" asked a voice, after a few moments.

I looked around and found myself alone.

"Hello?" I asked, feeling somewhat silly doing so. "Who said that?"

"I did," said the voice, and my gaze was drawn to the statue. "Very good!" said the voice. "Your hearing apparatus works well. My voice does indeed appear to come from the statue. Allow me to introduce myself—I am called Marcus."

"As in Aurelius?" I asked, and heard a chuckle in reply.

"I prefer simply 'Marcus'," said the statue.

"Ri-i-ght," I said, and then changed the subject slightly. "You say your voice 'appears to come' from the…"

"It's complicated," said Marcus. "And it is what it is. In any event, it's nothing that you or I have any control over, and so it is not worth our attention. We can converse, which is the important thing."

I mulled that over for a bit and then returned to his opening line. "So what's the big secret?" I asked.

"It's not so big. It is, merely, to confine yourself to the present," said Marcus, "as each day provides all that you need to make a happy life. Never let the future disturb you."

"That's easy enough for you to say," I said. "You're a voice in a statue. Me, I'm human and I've got…"

"I know all about your ailment," said Marcus. "But what you need to realize—and the sooner you realize this, the better off you'll be—is that if your ailment does not kill you, something else will, eventually."

I said nothing.

"Just a few minutes ago, when you paused at that spot next to the garage where you would like to see a pool with lilies and exotic fish and a cheery, splashing fountain, were not your thoughts sorely clouded by the possibility that you might not be here at this time next year?"

I nodded ever so slightly.

"And aside from the sadness you felt about the prospect of dying," continued Marcus, "were you not also impelled to think of building that fountain now as a foolish exercise—as time poorly spent—given the circumstances?"

I nodded again.

"Yet here you are, in your sixth decade of life. You are—let's be frank—closer now to the end than to the beginning. If medical art does succeed in prolonging your life by curing your ailment, you must still face the fact that—somewhere within the next, oh, half century, to be generous—you will die anyway. Does that make you feel better?"

I said nothing.

"And should a cure be effected, will your becoming a 'survivor' speed the construction of your fountain, or simply make it easier to again put it off to 'someday' in an indeterminate future?"

"The future," I said, quoting a line I'd read somewhere, "outwits all our certitudes."

"Hmmm-mmm. But I'm afraid that is an opinion, not a fact," said Marcus. "As I have come to learn, the past only exists in our mind and the future, flimsy construct that it is, only possesses the power we give it. The only thing that really exists—that you can do anything about—is the present, and your job is to live in that present, to confine yourself to it, and to accept the things to which fate binds you."

"So what do you suggest I do?" I asked.

"If the answer to that was something that could be scrawled upon one side of a small parchment and sold at the market for a copper or two, we would not be having this conversation," said Marcus, and laughed. "Still you asked, so let me essay a response, however abbreviated it might be."

I leaned forward on the bench.

"Upon arising in the morning," said Marcus, "think of what a precious thing it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, and to love. Leave the past behind you, entrust the future to fate, and live in the present, for it is only in the present that you will find happiness."

I stood up. I'm not sure I believed it all, but I had already experience a change of perspective. "Thanks, for the advice," I said.

"You are welcome. Come back and visit soon," said Marcus. "The bench is a poor conversationalist."

"I will," I said, and as I headed back to the kitchen, I stopped by the side of the garage to figure out just how long it would take to uproot the plants and bushes that were there.

Not as long as I expected, it turned out.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Reporting back to active duty for "infantry training" after my ten-day leave following graduation from Parris Island, I really didn't know what to expect, but whatever it was, it was nothing like this.

I and a group of other freshly-minted Marines stood at attention in a small formation on the concrete outside our barracks. There was a pile in front of each of us, consisting of the carefully packed contents of our seabags, which we had been ordered to dump on the "deck" to be inspected. Now, the team of sergeants in charge of our training was picking through our belongings, making the occasional disparaging remark about this or that personal item and tossing "contraband" articles into a garbage can.

It was almost like being back in boot camp, though as we soon learned, there were some major differences.

Perhaps the greatest difference was in the routine at the end of the day, when a training sergeant came by to inspect us before allowing us to "mount" our "racks"—climb into our beds, in civilian-speak—and get some sleep. The way it worked in infantry training, a sergeant would come by at the appointed hour and look in through the window set in the door at the entrance to the squadbay to see if everyone was standing at attention in front of his rack. If so, he would enter, inspect us, give the order to "mount," turn off the lights, and leave. However, if even one of us was not standing at attention, the sergeant would enter, wonder aloud as to why the platoon wasn't ready to go to sleep, and then leave. Depending on his mood, he would return after a few minutes, or in half an hour, and the scene would play out again.

As a result, while eight hours of sleep had been pretty much the rule in boot camp, it had become the exception during infantry training, and in our platoon, much of our lost sleep was attributable to a fellow named Murdoch, who well and truly didn't care to "get with the program."

After the sergeant had put off inspecting us a number of times over the first few days of training because Murdoch couldn't be troubled to remain at attention on his own for longer than a few seconds, one of the Marines who stood across the aisle from Murdoch—I forget his name—tried to reason with him, but Murdoch wasn't having any.

"Get screwed, man," he said. "I'm not letting any sergeant tell me what to do on my own time."

"But it's not your own time," said his antagonist. "And some of us would like to get some shuteye, y'know? Is it too much to ask for you to stand at attention for a few minutes?"

"You gonna make me?" asked Murdoch. "You try, and I'll toss you into the next county." None of us doubted that Murdoch could make good on his claim, as he was easily the largest and physically fittest man in the platoon, and he intimidated those around him with his mere presence. If memory serves, we got to bed at a little past midnight that night. Reveille was, as always, at 5 am.

On the first Sunday afternoon of infantry training, the duty training sergeant had our platoon assemble behind the barracks building. He carried with him two pairs of boxing gloves.

"I expect that by now, some friction may have developed between some of you Marines, so we're going to work that out right now," announced the sergeant, who then held up the gloves. "Anybody here want to challenge anyone else to a little friendly sparring session?" A wicked grin flashed across his face.

"Yo!" cried Murdoch, and stepped up to the sergeant. "I'd like to go up against him," he said, pointing to his critic from across the aisle. "I've had all the ragging I can stand from him." The sergeant tossed the second pair of gloves to Murdoch's intended victim, and after both men were gloved, the fight began.

Murdoch moved easily, despite his size, and knocked his opponent down with one punch. His victim got up, the fight resumed, and Murdoch knocked his opponent down again. After two more knockdowns, the sergeant stepped in, announced the fight was over, and asked if anyone wanted to challenge the winner.

"I will!" said a voice that belonged to Vega, the only Marine in the platoon who had been in my recruit training platoon on Parris Island. What he lacked in size he made up for in spirit, for I had seen him beat recruits almost twice his size during pugil stick training. I also knew he didn't like bullies.

Vega donned the gloves and he and Murdoch went at it. Vega got some good shots in, but Murdoch seemed unaffected, and he managed to knock Vega down a number of times until the sergeant stepped in again and asked for a new fighter.

Inspired by Vega's action, I help up my hand, which was not a particularly good idea because frankly, I knew about as much about fighting with my fists as most people know about Einstein's theory of relativity. After donning the gloves, Murdoch and I circled for a while, exchanged a few jabs, and then he hit me, once. I saw stars and fell down, hard. The sergeant called for a new fighter, and one stepped forward.

Murdoch was having a really good time, knocking us down, one after another, and I don't think it ever dawned on him that there was no shortage of volunteers who wanted to take a shot at him for having robbed us of so much sleep.

Murdoch eventually tired, to the point where he got knocked down a few times. This time, however, when the sergeant asked for a new fighter, the next volunteer announced he wanted to challenge Murdoch instead of the winner. The sergeant motioned the winner to take off his gloves.

"W-wait! I don't get it," spluttered Murdoch, "I'm the one who lost! Shouldn't…"

"This ain't 'challenge the winner'," said the sergeant. "It's 'challenge anyone you want'. You want to get some rest, you can, if someone will volunteer to take your place." The sergeant turned to the rest of us. "Anyone want to put on Murdoch's gloves, so he can catch his breath?"

Nobody said a word.

"I suppose you could just refuse the challenge and just quit…" began the sergeant, but Murdoch shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "I'll fight."

Over the course of the ensuing matches, Murdoch was able to score some points and get in a few knockdowns, but the tide had turned dramatically, and more often than not, it was Murdoch who found himself getting back up, albeit more slowly as time went on. The sergeant kept asking if anyone wanted to don Murdoch's gloves, but there were no takers, and Murdoch wouldn't quit. And so the afternoon dragged on, while Murdoch literally fought everyone in the platoon.

That night, as it turned out, the sergeant visited our squadbay only once, after finding everyone—including Murdoch—standing at attention in anticipation of his arrival.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The first time I heard of Stoicism was in junior high school, in social studies class.

The subject under discussion was ancient Greece, and the teacher was telling us about some of the different philosophical schools that thrived at that time, each seeking to find the key to living well. I cannot recall anything at all about what my teacher said about the Epicureans or the Cynics or the Skeptics, but I remember clearly what he said about the Stoics, because it was so… blunt. He said:

"And then there were the Stoics, but they didn't care about anything." Period. Paragraph. Nothing to see here; let's move on.

Years later, I was reading a self-improvement book and zeroed in on the idea that the only thing you have reliable control over in life is not the things that happen to you, but how you react to those things. It made sense. That book led to other books, and eventually, I found multiple references to Stoicism and learned more about it.

To me, the Stoic worldview made a neat counterpoint to the idea of the "Copernican principle"—which, when you get past the solar system aspect, basically says we are not the center of the universe, but a part of a larger whole—because as far as each of us is concerned, each individual is positioned at the center of his or her own universe. And here, I'm not talking about being "self-centered" in the sense of being preoccupied with oneself or being self-absorbed. I'm simply pointing out that one can view the totality of what exists as being composed of the world, on the one hand, and our own mind, which perceives that world, on the other.

And the more I read about Stoicism, the more I realized my teacher's description of Stoics had been wrong.

It wasn't that Stoics didn't care about anything; on the contrary, they cared very much about living well. They just didn't want to waste time and energy caring about things over which they had no control. In Stoic terms, once you've taken the time to identify and accept those things over which you have no control, you have nothing to fear. Stoics live in the moment, taking pleasure out of things like time with loved ones, but they do so with a set-in-concrete understanding and acceptance that any or all of it can vanish in a heartbeat.

Alas, that—in a very sketchy nutshell—may be the theory, but putting that theory into practice is no easy job, unless you've spent a lifetime cultivating that practice. This is a theme that Stoic writers often dwell upon, and for good reason. In my own experience, the word "aspire" crops up a lot in my mind when I think about how Stoic principles might apply to my own life.

Some things are easy to deal with. Did someone call me a loser? Insult my school? Say nasty things about my loved ones? I'm not sure those things have ever bothered me, and I find it easy to let go of such issues.

Other things are a bit harder. Am I faced with unexpected bill with nothing in the bank? It took me a while, but I've gotten to the point where I may allow myself "a three-minute pity party" before settling down to deal with problems such as these.

Still other things can seem insuperable, like that letter, a while back, from the IRS asking for—gulp!—quite a lot of money. And even though the situation was cleared up to everyone's satisfaction and it turned out I didn't owe the money, I did a mediocre job of keeping my mind on the problem, at first. Try as I might, there were nights my mind would not let me fall asleep, worrying about things that ultimately, never came to pass. With time, the way I reacted to the problem improved, but to tell the truth, I don't ever want to get good at dealing with those kinds of bumps!

And yet, life is filled with them. Both bumps that occur in the night and those in broad daylight. I don't know which are worse.

The most recent has been gathering force, like a low-lying thunderstorm cell, over the past week. It culminated today in a rather long visit to a doctor. I am scheduled for a biopsy tomorrow.

There is an essay by the Roman statesman (and Stoic) Seneca "open" on my Kindle. As it happens, its title is On the Shortness of Life. It would appear I have some reading to do.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I and the rest of second platoon had spent the entire day in the field, training. That meant we had marched, crawled, walked, double-timed, and occasionally lay in ambush within the confines of a depressing chunk of North Carolina real estate that was mostly sand, covered here and there with detritus from the pine trees and clumps of underbrush that liberally dotted the terrain, as did shallow depressions marking the locations of fighting holes dug by those who had trained there before us.

Dusk was falling as our platoon emerged onto a flat expanse of sand that would be our home for the night. Our amenities included a "water buffalo" containing potable water, a fire pit planted next to a wholly inadequate pavilion-like structure, and a line of latrines on the side of the camp away from a strip of beach that led to a body of water that smelled of sea salt. A truck roared in from somewhere, unloaded crates of C rations, and departed.

As the light waned, I and my squad-mates hurried to erect our shelter-halves and clean our M-16 rifles of the gunk that they'd picked during a day of firing blanks and being dragged through environments that made finely machined parts jam when they tried to operate. Once it got dark, we'd have to take turns holding flashlights for each other, which would needlessly prolong the process. As it was, we were looking forward to an evening meal and sleep.

Just as we were finishing with our weapons, our attention was attracted by some loud words coming from the pavilion, situated not far from our squad's tents. The lieutenant and the senior NCOs had congregated under the pavilion's roof earlier, and wood was being piled in the fire pit.

"After we get back," I heard the platoon sergeant say, "I will tear those supply guys a new…"

"Settle down, sergeant," interrupted the lieutenant. "It's not the end of the world. Anyway, you can't know it's supply. Maybe motor-t is having fun at our expense?"

"No way, sir," replied the sergeant, "those truck jockeys wouldn't have the balls to pull a stunt like this!"

As we learned, the "stunt" he was referring to was the systematic replacement of the variety of meals normally packed in C ration crates with boxes containing a single type of main course, "Ham and Lima Beans," a universally despised meal that NCOs had been known to force onto uncooperative Marines as a field-expedient form of punishment.

"Given the circumstances, sergeant," said the lieutenant, "I suggest we improvise if we are to eat something other than ham-and-mother-humpers tonight, what do you say?"

The sergeant thought for a moment, looked out toward the water, and then a smile creased his face. "Aye-aye, sir!" he said, and as he left the pavilion, he bellowed "I want all lance corporals and below to strip down to their skivvies, grab their helmet, take out the helmet liner, and then fall in on me carrying their steel pot. As of now, you are all on bait detail." Sensing a hesitation as those of us affected by the order wondered what, exactly, a "bait detail" was, the sergeant added, "Chop-chop, people! Do it now!"

After a couple of minutes, a small formation of young men—myself included—had assembled at the pavilion, dressed only in underwear and carrying the hard outer shells of their helmets.

"Where are we going to go look for bait now, when it's dark?" said a voice, quietly, off to my right.

"You're not going to be looking for bait, Marines," said the sergeant, picking up on the question. "You are the bait!" Any fatigue we had felt while setting up camp now evaporated, as the sergeant explained what job our "detail" was to do.

It turned out that the body of water adjacent to our camp site was home, along with many similar water bodies up and down the coast, to the North Carolina blue crab, which is renowned as an item of seafood cuisine. However, such crabs do not simply walk out of the water and throw themselves into a pot of boiling water, oh, no. You have to catch them, which is done by providing them with something edible that they can grab with a claw and consume at their leisure. After a little while, you haul the bait out of the water, and nine times out of ten (especially in waters like these), you'll find a crab stubbornly hanging onto it.

Since we didn't have the proper equipment for crabbing, explained the sergeant, we were going to use a more direct method, which consisted in us wading out into the water and waiting for a crab to grab us by the foot, whereupon we were to reach down into the water, detach the crab, and put it in our steel pot. We were each assigned a quota of six crabs, which were to be delivered to the pavilion for collection and examination before being dropped into a barrel of water that, we could see, was being put in place over the fire pit, to be heated to a boil. Thus instructed, we stepped into the water, which was pleasantly cool, and waded out to a point about a dozen yards from the shoreline.

The night air soon began to echo with cries and curses as crabs started nipping at our bare feet in the knee-deep water. "Knock it off!" boomed the sergeant's voice from shore. "You'll scare all the crabs away!" That wasn't likely, since if noise really did scare away crabs, the sergeant's outburst would have done the job (to as far away as Wilmington, I suspect). We fell silent, in any event, and worked diligently to fill our quotas, which we did, quickly. Let me tell you, there was no shortage of crabs in the water!

After we returned to shore with our plunder, we added it to a pile near the now-steaming barrel of water and the corpsman checked our feet for injuries. We returned to our tents, got dressed, and then everyone sat down to a memorable meal, consisting of plenty of boiled crab and whatever crackers and dessert we could scrounge from the C ration meal boxes.

We turned in with bellies full and more important, with improved confidence in being able to overcome obstacles, even though the idea for a "bait detail" hadn't been ours. Since then, the lessons of that night have served me well, but those are stories that, alas, must wait for another time.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Overwatch is an entirely natural role for me. Up until a little while ago, it had been a form of self-protection. Now, I had to save Captain N'klaus, too.

We were on one of the minor planets of the Anome system when the local warlord N'klaus was dealing with decided it was time to put on big-boy pants and try to hijack the Captain's ship, which happens to be the ship I pilot and whose quantum matrix I inhabit as a virtual entity. While getting rid of N'klaus was a fantasy I had often indulged in, during private time, the fact is the ship requires a human crewmember, so given a choice between keeping N'klaus or replacing him with a would-be hijacker supervising a ragtag handful of followers, there really was no choice.

The local bigshot, whose name was an unpronounceable mess of consonant sounds, was convinced there was nobody else aboard N'klaus's ship. I knew he knew this because what the ship lacks in firepower it makes up for in intelligence-gathering capability, all military grade, thanks to yours truly. And while the ship's advanced capabilities weren't of much use on this boondock planet, cameras and microphones work everywhere, including uncivilized backwaters such as the one we were sitting on.

As it happens, N'klaus always carries a collection of remote surveillance devices around with him. The devices exhibit the physical characteristics of Ctenocephalides felis, the common flea, and provide excellent video and audio coverage over extended distances. Instead of sucking blood, the devices derive power from body heat. N'klaus doesn't mind carrying the "fleas" because… well… he has no idea of what they are; he actually thinks they're fleas, assuming he notices them at all. This, by the way, makes tracking everything he says and does outside the ship a pretty straightforward deal, and was how I learned that his business on this planet had gone sour.

So when the locals dragged N'klaus up to the boarding lock, I recited John Masefield's Sea Fever to myself until the leader had punched in the access code that his underlings had obtained from N'klaus by repeatedly punching him in the face. When the hatch opened, the leader stepped confidently into the vestibule, much like Columbus stepping onto the shore of the New World, at which point I closed the hatch behind him and made my presence known to all.

"Your leader is now our prisoner!" I announced. When I later reviewed the imagery recorded of everyone's face at that moment, I noticed that nobody was more surprised by this turn of events than N'klaus. The look on the warlord's face, on the other hand, betrayed no surprise; only terror.

After a moment or two, the sharpest and most loyal soul in the small mob outside the ship produced a knife and held it to N'klaus's neck. "Release our leader, or your captain dies!" he shouted.

"Captains are easily replaced," I said. "Men like your leader are not. In any case, we both know your lives will be forfeit if any harm befalls your leader." I paused for a few seconds, and then recited a list of items that I expected this group to collect and bring to the ship to ransom my captive. When the man with the knife protested that his people had no access to such items, I replied by recalling highlights from collected surveillance data, and described exactly where the items could be found in their encampment. N'klaus's eyes would have grown to be as big as dinner plates during my recitation, except for the fact that most of his face had become swollen as a result of his beating. After convincing the locals that they didn't need to leave anyone behind to guard N'klaus, they left, presumably to start gathering the goodies I had asked for.

For some time after the ruffians left, N'klaus remained sitting on the ground outside the boarding lock, making no attempt to get closer to the ship. I was pretty sure I knew why.

You should know that the first thing I did after accepting N'klaus's invitation to join him was to disobey his direct order to leave all my stuff behind, including my dog, which had been severely wounded in the fight with a telepathic predator that had brought us all together in the first place. Instead, I picked Max up and made him as comfortable as I could in the pocket created by my body and my jacket as I followed N'klaus to his ship.

We had barely entered N'klaus's ship when he turned and unceremoniously shoved me (and Max) into a tall narrow compartment, the door of which closed quickly. The compartment filled rapidly with fluid, and I distinctly remember the moment when I could hold my breath no longer and the breathing reflex took over. My lungs filled, and I lost consciousness almost immediately thereafter.

When I came to inside the virtual world I now inhabit I was pretty disoriented and yes, more than a little anxious about where, exactly, I was. To boot, I had a world-class headache and felt exhausted, as if I had crammed for the past week straight for the final exam of all final exams. I don't know how, but I knew Max was nearby and okay and though I could easily visualize where N'klaus was and what he was doing, I couldn't visualize much else.

After about a week in my new "digs," I was able to start giving form to my environment, pretty much by thinking about the things that ought be in it. I created a room, with furniture, and computer terminals, and a library in just that way, all of it virtual. (Don't ask me to explain how this or anything else works inside my matrix; it just does.)

All during this time, I thought N'klaus wasn't talking to me because he wanted to give me some time to recover from my transition from physical to virtual being. Then one day, just as I had figured out how to activate the speakers in the control room and communicate with N'klaus, it occurred to me that he hadn't seemed particularly interested in my welfare at all. He had never tried to talk to me, or check up on me. I wondered why, so I remained mute.

By this time, I had also noticed that although there was nothing actually wrong with Max, he simply lay there (as I imagined him) in the same position, as if sleeping. After a little digging in the library (which had become populated by books I had no voice in choosing), I learned that the ship had been designed to be operated not by just a pilot, but by what can only be described as "a pilot and the pilot's companion animal." A dog, in my case.

It turns out that while the subconscious mind of either pilot or dog can, by itself, run all of the ship's systems and keep things humming, doing so leaves the rest of that mind in a coma-like state that, according to what I read, should not be indulged in for an overly long time. On the other hand, when the subconscious minds of both pilot and dog are engaged, the load on each "participant" is lessened considerably. The dog can derive pleasure from the experience (much like the pleasure derived from sticking its head out the window of a moving car) and the human can spend time doing, well, pretty much the kinds of things I had been doing since I woke up.

It occurred to me that N'klaus was pretty sure that I was out for the count, in a permanent coma. That meant his promises of equal shares and so on were just a lot of hot air. So, after engaging my subconscious to work together with Max's, I set about making sure I learned absolutely everything about my Captain, behind his back. A marvelous side-effect of this was being able to procure military-grade surveillance gear and some other toys and pay for them using funds from bank accounts N'klaus never paid close attention to. I was pretty successful in my efforts, knew the man better than he did himself, and throughout the process, he never tumbled to the fact that his pilot was conscious. Until now.

"Hey there, skipper!" I said to N'klaus as he sat, blinking at the sky, looking unsure as to how to proceed. "You going to sit there all day?" I spoke slowly.

N'klaus fixed his gaze on the speaker next to the boarding lock. "How…?"

I cut him off. "Long story, okay? And just so we get off on the right foot, I know what you tried to do, and I am not a happy camper. That said, it would appear we need each other, and so I propose a truce. Agreed?"

N'klaus nodded his agreement, and though I was sure there was a corner of his mind already scheming a way to get the upper hand, we had immediate business to attend to. "In a moment, I will open the boarding lock," I said. "When I do, I need you to take charge of the situation and intimidate the wannabe Genghis Khan I've got trapped in the vestibule into letting you handcuff him. It should be pretty easy, as he's been on his knees, whimpering, since shortly after the lock closed and I started blasting him with rap music. Do you think you can do that?"

N'klaus stood up and already looked a thousand percent better. He gave me a thumbs-up, whereupon I cut the music and opened the boarding lock. N'klaus stepped inside. Five minutes later, our captive lay on the ground outside the lock, in chains. Ten hours later, after exchanging our captive for the ransom I had demanded, N'klaus and I wasted no time getting the ship spaceborne.

I am the permanent overwatch, over everything. Including N'klaus, until I can figure out a way to get rid of him.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)

To err is human; to really screw up requires a computer.
(with apologies to Alexander Pope)

Some years ago, I had to write a letter to a potential client explaining how I would go about making sure that interpreters assigned to work at a high-level bilateral technical meeting would "provide error-free services."

This was a real head-scratcher of a challenge, because interpreters, whose job consists of orally translating what people say to each other, back and forth, in the course of a discussion, create no tangible "thing" that can be checked before it's "used." Once an interpreter utters something, the cat—so to speak—is out of the bag. By comparison, translators create a written text, the quality of which can be verified before delivery by having an expert compare the translation to the original and make any necessary corrections.

In the interpretation industry, the standard response to a requirement to "provide error-free services" is to swear up and down that you use only qualified people with extensive experience and impeccable track records to do the work. And there, with the word "people," lies the rub.

People have an annoying tendency to make mistakes.

Sometimes, a mistake is made by those screening the qualifications of the people who will be doing the work, and you end up with the situation similar to the one President Carter found himself in during a trip to Poland in late December 1977, when his State Department interpreter turned Carter's "when I left the United States" into "when I abandoned the United States," and went on to say something about "your lusts for the future" when the President spoke of the desires of the Polish people.

Sometimes, a mistake is the result of stress or surprise, as was the case during the famous "kitchen debate" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition held in 1959 in Moscow. There, during a discussion of the merits of the capitalist and communist systems, an emotional Khrushchev finally burst out with the statement that the Soviet Union would "catch up with and surpass" the United States, and then uttered an obscure idiomatic expression that basically means "We'll show you!" (with overtones of "We'll teach you a lesson you won't forget!" and the merest hint of "Your punishment will be severe!"). The situation was so stressful and the phrase so unexpected that the interpreter momentarily found himself at a loss, and he interpreted Khrushchev's phrase literally, as "We will show you Kuzma's mother!"

And in the end, sometimes—let's face it—you don't have to do anything or be anyone special to misunderstand what someone else has said. (How many times have you had a conversation that, roughly, follows the template "I said this—no, you said that"?) This stuff happens to interpreters, too, from time to time.

I finally decided that the best way to ensure high-quality interpretation was to assign two interpreters for any particular assignment. It's an expensive solution, but if "provide error-free services" is the overarching criteria, having people back each other up the only reasonable solution, the idea being that if the "working" interpreter makes a mistake, the "listening" interpreter can jump in quickly and fix things.

So, using my word processor, I wrote a very persuasive letter to the client, read it over, and then spell-checked it. I then fired up a newly installed faxing application and copied the text of the letter into it. After making sure the recipient's company name and fax number were correct, I positioned my mouse cursor over the "Send" button on the screen, and pressed the mouse button.

And just as I did so, my eye was drawn to the recipient's last name in the salutation. As my mouse button made a soft "click," I was horrified to see that Bloomstein had somehow turned into Bloodstain.

Keeping the button depressed, I felt much like the unfortunate infantry soldier who has just stepped on one of those land mines that arms itself when stepped on, and then waits for something else to happen before blowing up. I considered my options. I thought about disconnecting the computer's power cord or the modem cable, but both were connected to the back of my computer, which was under my desk. I was stuck.

Just as I was about to pick up the phone and call for someone to come unplug my computer, I realized that the faxing application would not actually send the fax until I released the mouse button while the cursor was over the "Send" button on the screen. So I carefully moved the cursor away from the button on the screen and released the death grip I had maintained on my mouse. Nothing happened. The fax remained unsent. Embarrassment—or worse—had been averted.

However, a new problem arose. When I changed the name back to "Bloomstein," it doggedly reverted to "Bloodstain." What was going on?

After digging around in the program's settings, I discovered the faxing application was configured to "autocorrect" text entered into the message field, and apparently, "Bloomstein" was not a word recognized by the program, so it was replaced by something that was in the program's dictionary. After making the appropriate changes to the configuration, I changed the name back one more time and, after making sure it remained unchanged, sent the fax.

As it turned out, my letter swayed the client and my proposed solution was adopted, but the sweetness of that victory will always be marred by the knowledge of just how closely I had come to alienating the client by having a computer program "help" me make what would surely have been a hugely embarrassing error.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Eugène Farcot stamped his feet and rubbed his hands. Although it was still September—the 23rd, in fact, the day of the autumnal equinox—the night had been chilly and he had been standing guard throughout most of it. Now, a few minutes before 6 o'clock, the sun had risen and he could get a good look at Paris's only remaining hope of communicating with the world outside—a 42,000-cubic-foot bag made of lightweight cloth, almost spherical (now that it had been filled with gas) and attached to a small gondola that hung beneath. The owner of the apparatus, a young man everyone called Duruof (although his real name was Dufour) had christened the contraption Neptune.

The last train carrying mail had left Paris for Le Mans at 5 pm on September 18th, 5 days before. Shortly after midnight on the 19th, the Prussians completed their encirclement of Paris and cut all rail and road links. The Prussians, for reasons they did not share with the French, had elected not to start by shelling the city into submission. Instead, they apparently intended to starve the city for a while. For their part, the French clung to the hope that the prolonged war was placing an unbearable strain on the economy of their enemy, and that ultimately, Prussia could still be defeated.

Be that as it may, the center of France's Second Empire now found itself isolated, except for an underwater telegraph line that, in anticipation of the impending siege, had been hurriedly laid in the Seine river over a series of successive nights, but the cable had proved inadequate, unreliable, and ultimately vulnerable to discovery by the Prussians. Given the situation, the State Telegraph Office had signed an agreement that some considered foolish, and that others—more kindly disposed—described merely as desperate: Mail was to be sent on its way by air, using lighter-than-air balloons.

Neptune had been constructed only two years previously, but between numerous appearances at public fairs, several "private" flights that Duruof had arranged with beautiful young women, and having been raised and lowered from Montmartre several times a day over the previous 17 days to reconnoiter Prussian troop movements, the apparatus was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Patches dotted the surface of the envelope.

All during the previous night, a small army of volunteers had held the balloon down as it was being filled with gas, but this was neither easy nor safe. One prolonged wind gust had distorted the balloon's envelope and threatened to rupture its fabric. Later, another particularly strong gust almost succeeded in launching the half-inflated balloon into the air, and while this was prevented by the heavy rope that had held the aircraft captive during its reconnaissance flights, the shifting rope had swept the legs out from under half a dozen volunteers, who had to be carried away on stretchers.

At 7 o'clock a carriage belonging to the Administration of Posts arrived, along with a contingent of soldiers. Duruof supervised the weighing of three sacks of dispatches, each weighing almost 100 pounds, and watched as they were stowed in the gondola. Finally, a few minutes before 7:45, he wrapped his woolen coat tightly around himself and boarded Neptune. Exactly on the quarter hour, Duruof stuck his head out of the gondola's port and cried "Cast off!"

Once set free, Neptune shot upward like an arrow into a clear blue sky, to general shouts and cries of "Vive la République!" Farcot, standing off to the side to view the ascent, added "Vive Duruof!" to the cacophany before going home to get some sleep. It's good to know that such daredevils exist, the old man thought to himself.

At an altitude of nearly a mile above the ground, the balloon caught a layer of air that took it in a northeasterly direction at a speed of about 20 miles per hour. As it flew over the Prussian lines, Neptune attracted unwelcome attention, and despite the fact that the probability of hitting an object as big as Neptune at that altitude was very nearly zero, that didn't prevent shots from being fired.

As an experienced pilot, Duruof knew that one or two extra holes would not significantly impact his craft's airworthiness, because once at altitude, it was not only normal for Neptune to leak gas, but essential. This was because the gas inside the envelope expanded as the sun warmed the cloth envelope and the surrounding air, and the expanded gas provided buoyancy and kept the balloon in the air, but only if the extra gas could escape from the envelope. Of course, if the leakage were to become excessive because, say, a major seam were to tear open or a great number of ragged holes were to suddenly appear in the envelope, the flight would end swiftly, with dire results, but Duruof never let such thoughts enter his mind.

Upon hearing the faint sounds of shooting, Duruof took a moment to stretch his cramped legs while lying on his back, after which he lightened his aircraft even more, by dumping "ballast" overboard. This consisted of newspapers, freshly printed and containing news of Paris. As an afterthought, he also cast overboard a large handful of visiting cards that he had ordered printed with his name on them. That, for you, Bismarck! So you know who you're dealing with! thought Duruof, as he looked down at Versailles and the surrounding countryside. Despite the cold and the fact that people were shooting at him (albeit from far away), Duruof felt as he always did while in the air—free.

Exactly three hours and fifteen minutes after casting off, at 11 o'clock, Duruof landed his aircraft in a park near the town of Evreux, a little over 50 miles from Paris. The landing was rough, and although Neptune would never fly again, the cargo was safe and the pilot had walked away with only minor scrapes.

The mail sacks were handed over to the town's postmaster while Duruof set off for Tours and, eventually, to Lille, where he waited, in vain, for the winds to blow favorably to let him attempt a return to Paris by air.

The Siege of Paris came to an end on January 28, 1871, and with it ended what might be considered the first modern "regular" postal service by air. And while historians and philatelists may argue about how many balloons were involved in delivering mail during the Siege, nothing can detract from the daring of a small band of "aeronauts" like Duruof, who used their fabulous floating machines to keep the mail moving under most extraordinary conditions.

Balloon mail flown during the Siege of Paris, aboard either the balloon Parmentier or the balloon Gutenberg, which both departed the Orléans Station in Paris at around 1:30 am on December 17, 1870, and landed in the Marne region at 9 o'clock that morning. A second postmark was made on the back of this letter upon its arrival in Amsterdam on January 1, 1871.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Esther Dodgins clucked her tongue as she used her passkey to let herself into the rent house she had leased to Kurt Cobb and his friends. Not answering the door might suggest there was nobody home, but the two motorcycles and car in the driveway said otherwise. Despite her seventy-three years, diminutive physique, and seemingly delicate appearance, she did not faint or scream when she beheld the bloody scene in the large living room off the entry foyer. She did, however, have the good sense to step back outside the house to vomit before using her cell phone to call the police.

* * *

"The place looked like a slaughterhouse," said Detective Junior Grade Frank O'Malley. "According to the doc, it looks like someone tried to decapitate the base player, Mike Craft, with Kurt Cobb's guitar, and almost succeeded. Then…"

"Spare me the recitation, O'Malley," said Chief Detective Jack Naquin, who was in charge of the investigation. "I'm sure I'll get all that from the doc in his report. Aside from the victims, did you find anything of interest?"

"Yes," said O'Malley. "There was a video camera set up to catch whatever it was the band had been doing, but there was no memory card in it when we checked. The perp—or perps—must've taken it."

"Any suspects?"

"Nope. The landlady suggested drugs might be involved, but we'll know better once the tox screens come back." The tests came back several weeks later, but as it turned out, no member of the band had taken so much as an aspirin in the hours before death had come calling.

A closer examination of the crime scene had not yielded anything concrete, except for the fact that blood spatter patterns made it physically impossible for any outsider to have been involved during the deadly mêlée. The last man standing—Babin, the drummer—had committed suicide in a most improbable manner. Naquin had also made extensive notes regarding entries in the band leader's "journal," which tended to ramble along with all sorts of yearnings for stardom, and kept returning to the idea of "an exciting new sound" that would "compel people to act out being happy," but ultimately, the scribblings led nowhere.

"Nowhere" was where the case remained, and Naquin couldn't help but wonder, from time to time, whether the band hadn't indeed found a "new sound," but not the one Cobb had been searching for. Instead of happiness, maybe what the band had stumbled upon was music that compelled people to a murderous and ultimately self-destructive rage. He recalled the Cajun stories of his youth, which included rumors of music that compelled people to fall in love, and researched a song titled Szomorú Vasárnap that was written and recorded in Hungary in the early 1930s, and was widely considered responsible for a rash of suicides in Budapest. The song was eventually banned in that country.

Six months or so after the Cobb killings, a call came in about what looked to be a double-murder with a strikingly similar look and feel to it. The victims turned out to be a well-known music and video bootlegger and her boyfriend.

"I think we found the memory card from the Cobb case," said O'Malley when he reported to Naquin. "A card of the same type was found inserted in the dead woman's computer. The evidence tech did a quick check, and the files on it are dated the day Cobb and his buddies died. There was a DVD-burning app open on the desktop, the optical drive was cracked open, and a package of blank DVDs—with one disk missing—was sitting on the desk. Considering the business she was in, I'm figuring she acquired that memory card from someone we should talk to, so I've ordered a check of her recent financial transactions."

"Good work," said Naquin, and then, after a moment, added: "Is there any chance this was a murder–suicide?"

"Well," said O'Malley, "after the woman was killed, someone flung the boyfriend headfirst so hard against the steam radiator that it actually bent the pipe it was attached to. I can't imagine anyone getting up that much of a head of steam to do something like that on their own, but the doc can answer the question better than I can when he's through."

Naquin nodded, and asked: "You find the burned DVD?"

"That's the funny thing," said O'Malley. "The evidence guys about tore the apartment up, but aside from a bunch of commercially produced CDs and DVDs in their respective cases, there wasn't a single burned disk of any kind in the apartment."

"What do you think?" asked Naquin. "Someone killed the girl and her boyfriend and then burned and took a DVD?"

"It doesn't make sense, boss," said O'Malley. "It'd be easier to just take the memory card. And even if you did want to make a DVD, why leave the memory card behind?"

The two men sat quietly for a minute. Then Naquin spoke.

"Why don't you detail a couple of your guys to canvas the area within a five-block radius of the apartment? Maybe our girl took the DVD somewhere. Maybe someone saw her and followed her home."

"Will do, boss," said O'Malley, and left, as Naquin turned to pick up his ringing phone.

"I've got some bad news for you, Jack," said the senior computer forensics tech at the other end of the line. "When my guy checked the date and time of the files on the memory card, it triggered some custom system code that automatically deleted the files on the card."

"Can't you recover the files?" asked Naquin.

"Nope," came the answer. "It wasn't a simple deletion. Not only were the file entries removed from the card's directory, but the file data was overwritten with garbage. In effect, the memory card has been wiped clean. Whoever did the programming had some serious skills, let me tell you!"

* * *

The dead bootlegger's financial data revealed that a sizeable payment had been made to Esther Dodgins, the landlady. When she was brought in to the station for questioning, Esther admitted to having taken the memory card with the idea of eventually selling it, justifying her action as a way of collecting the back rent owed to her. After establishing that Esther had not viewed the recording—"Heavens no!" had been her response. "I'd rather be struck deaf and blind than have to listen to the awful noise those boys made!"—Naquin personally read the old woman the riot act about tampering with crime scene evidence, whereupon she was set free, with a warning not to leave town in case the district attorney elected to pursue the issue further and press charges.

The canvas came up with one hit. Someone had seen the dead woman at the post office, but she had not shown up in any of the surveillance video recorded of the counter area. Naquin decided to follow this lead up himself.

* * *

Naquin stood in the post office lobby and did his best to take in every detail of the place. The place was clean and well-maintained. There were no places one could reliably hide anything the size of a DVD for very long. The post office boxes were key operated, but there was no corresponding key on the dead woman's key ring.

As he stood in the lobby, twirling the key ring around his finger and wondering what to do next, Naquin allowed his attention to be drawn to the shapely figure of a young woman who had entered through the same set of doors he had, not to conduct postal business, but to cut through the lobby to the next block. On a hunch, he followed the woman's example, and mentally cursed himself for telling O'Malley to have his men canvas a five block radius, because apparently, the instruction had been followed literally. There, in front of him, six blocks from the crime scene, was the storefront to an Internet café.

* * *

"Have you seen this girl, Izzie?" asked Naquin, after glancing at the name tag worn by the bearded young man behind the counter. He flashed a photograph of the dead woman in Izzie's direction.

"Yeah," said the man. "She does some work for me, from time to time."

"What kind of work?" asked Naquin.

"She's my sysadmin," said Izzie.


"She takes care of the computer and network setup in the store," explained the man. "Before she came, every wannabe hacker and script kiddie in the neighborhood was in here trying to screw with my computers, but she put a stop to that right quick. What's the deal, is she in trouble?"

"She's dead," said Naquin.

"What? That girl in the news, that was her?" said Izzie, wide-eyed. After a moment, he added: "I had nothing to do with that!"

Naquin ignored the outburst, and asked if the woman kept any of her stuff at the café.

"Sure," said Izzie. "She's got what she calls her 'office', though it's really an old closet I let her use for free in exchange for her keeping my system humming and the computer creeps at bay."

"You mind if I take a look?" asked Naquin.

"Knock yourself out," said Izzie, "but I don't have a key. She had the lock changed and she doesn't—didn't—let anyone in there."

The key to the door was on the key ring. Naquin opened the door to reveal a neat, clean work space with neatly stacked boxes with hundreds of burned CDs and DVDs. And there, leaning up against the monitor, was a DVD neatly labeled with a date and the words "Last Cobb session." The way Naquin figured it, after burning the DVD, the dead woman had apparently made a special trip here just to put the disk in a safe place, and then returned home to actually watch the recorded performance, and then meet her maker.

Naquin picked up the disk with his fingertips and looked around. He was alone. He mentally reviewed what was known about the case, recalled how utterly depressed his uncle Ambrose would become every time he listened his recording of Billie Holiday singing Gloomy Sunday—it was like the music itself was making the old man play the song over and over—and wondered how, if his suspicions were correct, anyone could listen to the music in the video and survive the experience.

Could his hunch be wrong? Might the music be harmless and the video a key piece of evidence? Maybe. But the way it stood, its continued existence could result in more death, and if it really got loose in the world—if it got onto the Internet and went viral—it could be more devastating than a plague or asteroid impact.

His decision made, Naquin grasped the DVD with both hands and exerted mild pressure until the plastic snapped in two. He then put the halves together and snapped the pieces into four segments before leaving the café. As he walked briskly back to the precinct with a clear conscience, Naquin disposed of the pieces in different trash bins along the way.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
A photo surfaced on my desk, recently, of me at a camp one summer over half a century ago. The black-and-white image brought back pleasant memories, and I paused in the course of my day to let them have free rein for a little while.

I learned to do so many new things that summer! I learned to swim, albeit barely, and how to shoot an arrow from a bow and consistently hit the target. I learned to cook an egg in a skillet over a campfire, as well as how to select and arrange the wood and the kindling so as to reliably get that fire going without worrying about the wind or a few drops of rain. I sang new songs, I learned to play croquet, and I made a small bookshelf out of wood.

I recalled the excitement I felt playing a camp-wide game called, if memory serves, "capture the messenger," and I was suddenly struck by how the significance of one aspect of that game had eluded me until now, when the photo reappeared.

You see, in that game, campers were divided into two teams, the camp itself was divided into two team territories, and counselors were assigned the role of umpires. The point of the game was for each side's "offense" to deliver messages, written on slips of paper carried by some (but not all) team members, to a point situated deep within "enemy" territory. Defenders were tasked with "capturing," using the "two-hand touch" technique, members of the opposing team who had invaded their territory, whereupon "prisoners" were searched (under the watchful eyes of an umpire) and any found message was confiscated. At the conclusion of the game, delivered and confiscated messages were tallied using some arcane formula and the wining side was announced.

What I remember is being assigned the role of a "decoy," meaning I was supposed to try to get to my team's goal even though I carried no message. The idea that my purpose was to deliberately get captured to make the other side waste time searching me (thereby possibly allowing a real message-carrier to reach the goal) never dented my skull, nor do I remember my role being explained to me that way.

I recall only two things about that game. First, I never crossed the dividing line into "enemy" territory because—as best as I can reconstruct my thought processes at the time—I wanted to make the other side think I was carrying a message that I didn't want them to find if they captured me. Second, at one point, a fellow teammate—an older camper who was also a "decoy"—casually strolled across the dividing line with arms raised, making no attempt to evade "capture," and was immediately subjected to a search.

* * *

A few years later, after a series of humiliating defeats at chess at a different summer camp, I set about improving my chess skills during the course of the following school year. My "teacher" in this undertaking was a paperback book written by one Fred Reinfeld, whose introductory books on chess are still read today. I forget the book's title, but it seemed like just what the doctor ordered, roughly along the lines of How to Play Brilliant, Winning Chess.

I blew through that book like a hurricane through a dilapidated straw hut. Then I went back and read the book again. This time however, I could look at the printed position diagrams and move the pieces around in my head without having to set up pieces on a board. I kept going back to that book, from time to time, until the end of the school year, whereupon I returned to camp and took my revenge (but that's a different story).

The move sequences Reinfeld was illustrating were pretty direct, and weren't long or complicated. They stressed two major things. First, moves often had to occur in a certain order to mate the opponent's King (a concept that, serendipitously, helped me with algebra that spring). Second, the point of the game was exactly that—to mate the opponent's King—as opposed to merely avoiding the loss of one's own pieces, which would eventually result in a lost game. What this meant in practical terms was that, for example, giving up a Queen for a pawn is absolutely the right thing to do if you win the game as a result.(Not only that, but it's something you can brag about to all your chess-playing friends if you manage to pull it off, but I digress...)

* * *

So now, looking at the photo in my hand and knowing the importance of keeping one's eye on the goal, my mind goes back and I vividly picture that older camper as he was being "captured." I recall the smile on his face and light-heartedness in his voice as he teased his captors, saying "You'll never find any message on me...or maybe you will!" And I cannot help but wonder: Was he trying to set an example for me and some of the other younger campers around me? Was he trying to show us how the game was supposed to be played?

If that was his point, it eluded me at the time. But whether he was trying to enlighten us or not, it was a lesson I eventually learned.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
It was 1976, and the Cold War was on hold, or so they said. "Détente" was on everyone's lips, and while things had gotten to the point where U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts had flown together in space the previous year, bumps remained in the road. A stranger on the street had handed an American diplomat a package wrapped in brown paper, resulting in the latter's immediate arrest on charges of espionage. Soviet citizens seeking to join family members abroad under the terms of the Helsinki Accords did so at the risk of becoming immediately unemployable and the object of social ostracism and official harassment. And as far as anyone could tell, there had been no layoffs to speak of in the Soviet propaganda and disinformation industries.

I spent that Bicentennial year working in Moscow for a U.S. travel agency as a "tour escort," which was most assuredly not the same as "tour guide," a distinction that had been carefully explained to me over a mostly friendly glass of hot tea by a functionary of Intourist, the Soviet government tourist agency, whose name was a contraction of the Russian for "foreign tourist." It all sort of made sense, when you considered that Intourist was tasked with managing every aspect of a tourist's visit—what was seen, what was heard, what was done—all orchestrated to make sure said tourist went home with only the most positive impressions of the USSR. It was not a job for amateurs, or the "politically unreliable." I, apparently, was both, so my function was limited to representing my company, and listening to customer complaints.

Intourist, on the other hand, had been staffed by politically reliable professionals since 1929. It was created that year by order of Joseph Stalin and staffed with personnel from a direct predecessor of what, in 1976, was called the "Committee for State Security," otherwise known as the KGB.

People who worked for Intourist in those days basically collected their paycheck from the security services, and anyone who, like me, lived and worked in the Intourist Hotel, in the heart of Moscow, moved through spaces where the density of KGB employees per square foot was second only to the density a few blocks away, on Dzerzhinsky Square, within the KGB headquarters building itself (at least according to the maître d' of the hotel's second-floor restaurant, who told me this jokingly—but only after glancing over his shoulders).

So it was with some surprise that, while tending to some routine duties at my company's "hospitality" desk in the hotel lobby, a man about a dozen years my senior walked up to me and informed me, without so much as a by-your-leave that I can recall, that he was a dissident.

Just as he said the word "dissident," I felt my mental state change. A little voice commanded Shields up! somewhere in my head. This was because, in a country where just about everyone I had met—like that second-floor maître d'—paused for just an instant to determine who was within earshot before saying something that might be "misunderstood" if overheard, this meathead shows up out of nowhere and tells me straight out—no looking around, not even a token lowering of the voice—that, in effect, he's a troublemaker who's not a big fan of the local Powers That Be, because that's what it meant to be a "dissident" in those days.

Not only is he telling me this, but he's announcing it to me in the lobby of a hotel run by the KGB! A scant thirty yards away, in fact, there stood a door to a room I had mentally dubbed "the penalty box," after I had seen the door opened to admit some poor jamoke that was being frog-marched out of the lobby by a couple of burly bouncer types, doubtless for being a troublemaker of some kind.

My initial reaction to my interlocutor's opening line had been to say something stand-offish, like "So, you want me to give you a medal?"—but my Russian was not up to the task. Before I could formulate something less flippant, the man dragged up a nearby lobby chair, draped himself across it, and began to rant about how bad conditions were in the Soviet Union. I did my best to ignore him, until he did something that made me really sit up and take notice, mentally.

He prompted me to agree with what he had said.

Why would he be doing that? I asked myself, surveying the lobby and wondering why my visitor's presence had not elicited any response from the people who normally did a workmanlike job of keeping the hoi polloi out of the hotel. And then it occurred to me—my interlocutor was probably not who he claimed to be, and I was very likely being subjected to a "turn your head and cough" moment, a test to see if anything untoward would emerge should I be prompted in just the right way.

You see, over the course of learning the ropes of my job, I had from time to time been the subject of casual efforts to gauge my political leanings, my views on the issues of the day, and similar subjects. The questions I was asked had always been such as to allow me to come across honestly as someone who was suitably pro-American, as befit my origin, yet undecided about things Soviet (this last, frankly, involving a bit of prevarication on my part the longer I stayed in-country).

"Why should I agree with you?" I said to my visitor. "You sound like a lunatic!"

"What do you mean, 'you sound like a lunatic'?" he said.

"Did I say it incorrectly?" I said, and added, by way of explanation, "I am still only learning Russian. I meant to say, 'The ideas you express make me think you are crazy'."

He blinked and glanced to the side for a moment, eyes wide open, as if thinking How do I get through to this idiot? He refocused on me and rephrased his question: "What is it about what I said that makes you think I'm a lunatic?" His tone reminded me of an encyclopedia salesman I once knew, who was always eager to overcome any and all objections a prospect might offer.

"Well, the question you just asked does, for one thing," I said, and before he could sort that one out, I added: "Look, I've got to get back to work, so if you'll…"

"Okay!" said my visitor. "Look, I'm sorry. I apologize. My question was out of line." He waited a beat and then continued: "I've been under a lot of stress." Another beat, and he said, "Can I ask you for a favor?" Taking my silence as a "yes," he continued: "I'm desperate to leave this wretched country. Will you sign a document saying you're a distant relative of mine, so I can start the emigration process?"

"No," I said.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because I'd be lying. You and I are not related," I said.

"So what?" he said, "Nobody cares. The authorities just care that I have a relative living abroad."

"I'd care, because I'd be lying," I said, and I didn't doubt that "the authorities" would also care, and would view my lie as an affront worthy of cutting short my career in the hospitality industry and deporting me, or worse.

"I can pay you!" he said.

"Being paid to lie is even worse," I said, and my thoughts returned to that encyclopedia salesman, and I realized I was being drawn into a protracted "sales" pitch.

"But…" said my visitor, whereupon I stepped up close to him and, in a calm voice, interrupted him before he could get another word past his teeth.

"Look," I said, "I've got work to do, and if you don't stop pestering me, I'm going to go over to the front desk and ask that you be removed from my work area. Do you understand me?"

Upon hearing my words, my visitor got up, took his leave, and started to walk aimlessly about the lobby. I followed his progress for a while, but eventually had to turn my attention to my duties. The last I saw of my "dissident," he was headed not for the hotel doors leading to the street outside, but in the general direction of the door to "the penalty box."

The Cold War may have been on hold, but I felt as if I had just survived a minor skirmish in it.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
My first visit to the venerable Moscow Chess Club took place in November 1975. After depositing my coat in the ample lobby cloakroom, I went upstairs into what, were I baseball fan, would represent Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and the Cooperstown Hall of Fame all rolled into one. I peeked in through the door of an auditorium and saw former World Champions Spassky, Petrosian, and Tal playing at tables set up on the stage of the main auditorium. They and their opponents were participating in a tournament organized in memory of an earlier World Champion who had fled the USSR in 1921 and never looked back, but whose name had since been co-opted by the State either out of respect, a desire for prestige, or perhaps both.

As I walked around the other club rooms, I could not help but notice the dark, polished wood paneling, decorated with photographs, caricatures, and various artwork. (If memory serves, there was even an oil painting of Lenin—playing chess, naturally!) In those rooms, those who could not find their way into the auditorium were either analyzing the positions shown on the giant chess diagrams that hung above each table on the stage, or playing their own informal games. I ended up sitting across the board from an intense, dark-haired woman several years my senior.

I learned that her name was Natalia Konopleva, and we struck up a quick acquaintance while setting up the pieces for an offhand game. It turned out I was one of the few Americans she'd ever actually met, and very likely the only one that played chess. I lost that first game, but only after dogged resistance on my part, I can assure you.

As we set up the pieces for a rematch, I asked Natalia a question about something that had been bothering me. You see, a few days previously, I had visited the "House of Books," a ginormous store situated on one of the main boulevards of the city. I had made my way to the "Physical Culture and Sports" department—where the chess books would be, based on what I had learned at the Four Continents Bookshop in New York, which sold select Soviet books and periodicals and was officially registered as a foreign, i.e., Soviet, agent—but upon looking at the books on display there in Moscow, I was surprised to find there were no chess books on sale! Not one!

"How can this be?" I asked. "Chess is so popular here!"

In response, Natalia leaned over to borrow a book from the players at another table and opened it to the back.

"You see this information?" she asked, pointing to some print at the bottom of the last page of the volume. It looked like a bunch of numbers and arcane abbreviations. "It summarizes the typographical information about the book that is required by state regulations. This information includes the number of copies that were printed of the book. Here, take a look." And here she held the book out to me, with her index finger pressed against the page. I leaned forward to look at the number at which her finger was pointing; it was "10,000."

"Do you know how many chess players there are in the Soviet Union?" she asked when I leaned back in my chair.

"I recall reading an article that said there are 3 million members of the official Soviet chess body. I would imagine there are many more who play chess but are not members," I said, as the light dawned. "You mean to tell me that only ten thousand copies of…" I began, and here I leaned forward, took the book from Natalia, and looked at the cover, "Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games was printed for the whole country?"

"So it would appear," she said, as she took the book from me and returned it to our neighbors at the adjacent board.

"So how does one acquire a chess book in this country?" I said, with a little laugh.

"Well, in most bookstores," replied Natalia, in all seriousness, "the clerks put such books aside for 'good' customers, which means customers who pay extra to get the book. Or sometimes, you'll see a book on sale as a 'secondhand' book at a news kiosk, since such books can be sold at whatever price the buyer is willing to pay over the official price printed on the back cover."

Our conversation was one of my earliest eye-opening lessons on how things worked in "the land of the Soviets." We then played another game of chess, and I lost that one, too.

As my job made great demands on my time for what remained of my stay in Moscow that year, I did not see Natalia again until the following year, when we met over lunch at my hotel, the Rossiya (new then, now demolished), which stood not far from Red Square. Since our first meeting, I'd learned (completely by accident, from reading an item in the weekly chess newspaper "64") that Konopleva hailed from Murmansk, up above the Arctic Circle, had been an All-Union Girls Champion in the late 50s, and had earned the title of "Woman International Master."

After lunch, we played what turned out to be our last chess game. I managed to draw that one, but only by the skin of my teeth.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Emil Bor's physical demeanor, the crispness of his uniform and the manner in which he wore it (together with the medals and orders he had been awarded) was the stuff designers of military recruiting posters dream of depicting, except that high-ranking officers like Bor never appear on such posters, and in any event, Bor's service branch never made use of such vulgar, public recruitment propaganda. Bor sat behind a desk in a room that should have looked dingy, but didn't. Instead, the plain room and the furniture in it was neat and spotless and conveyed an unmistakable impression of competence, hard work, and discipline.

Two young men stood at attention in front of Bor's desk as the latter reviewed a pair of files. The men wore the uniforms of provisional lieutenants. The pressed creases on their uniforms were sharp, their shoes gleamed with polish, and the men's eyes were locked on a point about halfway up the painted concrete block wall behind Bor's chair, where there hung a portrait of The Leader. After a suitable interval, Bor closed both files and placed them atop one another, aligning them perfectly in the center of his desk.

"At ease, comrades," ordered Bor. As one, the men in front of him snapped to a no-less-formal position, with the left leg "relaxed."

"You are both to be congratulated," continued Bor. "You have completed a very arduous course of training to serve in a most trusted capacity in our country's security apparatus. Before you can assume your responsibilities as lieutenants in that apparatus, however, you both face a special challenge." Bor allowed the hint of a smile to flicker across his face before continuing.

"Comrades, we have removed your desk chairs from your office area, arrested them, and placed them in Interrogation Rooms 23 and 27 downstairs." Bor paused for a moment to let what he said sink in, and then continued. "Please understand that this is not a joke of some kind. From here, you will proceed to your respective assigned room and commence an interrogation of the chair you will find there. I will expect you to deliver a valid confession from the chair, however long the process might take. You will formally receive your assignments momentarily. Do either of you have any questions?"

"No, comrade general!" answered the men, in unison. Bor pressed a button on his desk, and said, "It is now Friday afternoon. I expect you to be finished well before Monday morning." A second or two later, an orderly opened the door to Bor's office and motioned for the men to come out. As each man left the room, he received a file from the orderly.

* * *

"So, how did our young lieutenants do?" asked Bor during an unplanned visit to his facility on Sunday. The captain on duty snapped to attention and reported.

"Comrade general, I was informed both candidates handed in completed confessions after about six hours," said the captain. "The legal department vetted both confessions as valid according to current rules and regulations. The confessions are on your desk, comrade general, awaiting your review."

"Excellent!" said Bor, and headed off to his office. Some time later, as he passed the captain on his way out of the facility, Bor said, "Please arrange for our two young fire-eaters to meet with me in their office area at 8 am, won't you?"

"Yes, comrade general!" said the captain.

* * *

The lieutenants came smartly to attention when Bor entered their room at the appointed time the next day. This room was smaller than Bor's office and looked like most other rooms at the fortress-like facility, clean but... ordinary. In addition, there was a strong feeling of imbalance in the space, which was doubtless the result of each man having a filing cabinet and desk in the room, but no chair.

"As you were," said Bor, as he closed the door behind him. After the men relaxed—to the extent lieutenants could in front of a general—Bor continued, "I wanted to come by and congratulate both of you on a job well done. I am pleased to note that you were able to fulfill the task I assigned you." Bor allowed what seemed to be a genuine smile to appear on his face. "Interrogating each other's chair is probably the last thing you ever expected to be ordered to do, am I right?" The young men allowed themselves to smile, faintly.

He turned to the lieutenant standing behind the desk to the left of the door and said, "Your interrogation was a model of propriety," said Bor. "When the chair did not answer your questions, you put down 'the accused does not deny guilt'; when the chair did not provide information in its defense, you put down 'the accused refused to provide any mitigating information'; when the chair did not sign the confession, you certified that fact and made the whole thing proper and by the rules. A textbook confession. Bravo!" The last word was uttered without much enthusiasm, however.

As if on cue, a knock came on the door.

"Enter!" said Bor. A sergeant and two enlisted men carrying a furniture dolly entered the room. Bor pointed at the desk between himself and the lieutenant and motioned the lieutenant to move out of the way.

"That said," said Bor to the lieutenant (who stared as his desk was being loaded on the dolly), "your success—compared to what your colleague was able to accomplish—fell a bit short of the mark."

Here, Bor turned his attention to the other lieutenant and said, "The confession you extracted was truly a pleasant surprise for me to read. I was particularly impressed with the scope of the confession, especially the part where," and here, Bor turned his attention back to the first man, "your chair admitted to being part of an international conspiracy against our country, and further, implicated your desk as one of the ringleaders of that conspiracy!" Bor was now pointing at the desk, which was being rolled out the door. "Your inattention to the 'big picture' indicates a certain need for 'seasoning' in the field for several years… perhaps at a remote, cold duty station… before you can be trusted with serious responsibility." After a beat, Bor said, "I trust you have learned a valuable lesson from this exercise. Report immediately to the duty officer for further instructions. Dismissed!" Visibly shaken, the man left the room directly. Under our previous Leader, thought Bor to himself as he watched the man leave the room, you would not be getting off so easily, so count yourself fortunate!

Bor then turned to the remaining lieutenant and said, "I noted with satisfaction that you were able to get the chair to sign the confession, although I must admit to being saddened by the news of the chair's fragile health and sudden demise due to splintering at the end of the interrogation. The fact you had the chair's signature witnessed was a good example of fast thinking, and saved the day. Bravo!" This time, Bor sounded like he meant it.

"Thank you, comrade general!" said the young man, almost bursting with pride.

On his way out the door, Bor turned and said to the lieutenant, "This will be your office now. I'll have our supply people come by and arrange things. While your training is far from over, I think you will go far here."

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
A friend of mine, who emigrated from Russia to New York in his youth, observes Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox calendar, on January 7. Early in our friendship, I asked him what it was like to celebrate Christmas almost two weeks after "everybody else." He smiled, thought for a moment, and said that it all boiled down to two main points.

"On the plus side," he said, "you wouldn't believe the great deals I get when it comes to purchasing gifts during the sales that start on December twenty-sixth!" After we both enjoyed a hearty laugh, he added, "On the other hand, it takes somewhat of an effort to hold on to the spirit of the season after people have put their decorations away and the world has returned to the everyday rule of 'screw your neighbor'."

I knew what he meant. Not long before, I had been walking north on Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan when a man, also walking north a couple of dozen yards ahead of me, took his hand out of his left trouser pocket for some reason, and when he did so, a roll of bills dropped out of his pocket onto the sidewalk. Almost as soon as the money hit the concrete, an individual who had been walking in the same direction a pace or two behind this unfortunate fellow bent smoothly down, picked up the cash, and put it in his pocket, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I was a little shocked at this rather straightforward example of 'screw your neighbor,' and I doubtless contributed to it by doing… nothing.

From time to time, though, things do move in the other direction. One day, after our family had moved to Colorado, news came of a vacationing couple that had driven back to our small town from the top of Wolf Creek Pass, where they had found a wallet lying on the ground, stuffed with over $3,000 in cash, and turned it in to the local police. As it turned out, the wallet had been dropped by a local college student who had stopped at the top of the pass to enjoy the view on her way to her freshman year at school and her first semester away from home.

And while most of the time, the news seems to be a serial compendium of tales about individuals who, for no good reason, go out of their way to inflict harm to others, there are stories out there—and I believe they are much more common than you would believe, because they are so rarely told—about people who, for whatever reason, do what they can to lend someone a hand.

In my own past there was an incident that occurred a few weeks after my wife and I had moved from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. Various expenses associated with the move had tapped us dry, financially, and I came home a few days short of payday to find my wife in tears. She had gone to the grocery store down the block yo do some shopping with our last twenty-dollar bill—about sixty dollars in today's money—but when the time came to check out, the bill was not in her purse. She had dropped it somewhere, or lost it, or something.

Then and there, on impulse, I hied us to the store, where I stepped up to the manager's counter and asked the bespectacled man there, who was just hanging up the phone, if anyone had turned in a twenty earlier in the day. Clearly, I thought to myself as I asked, this was a mad act of desperation, for I had been born and bred in New York and I knew how the world worked. To my surprise, the manager's face lit up when he heard my question, and he exclaimed "They surely did!" And he reached down behind the counter and handed my wife a twenty. Both my wife and I stood there, for a few moments, in disbelief, before we thanked him and shuffled off into the aisles to do our shopping.

That was not an isolated incident in my life. Shortly after moving from a condo in California to mobile home in Colorado, my wife drove our van back to the West Coast to take care of some unifnished matters. On the return drive to Colorado, the van broke down some distance from Bakersfield, California. She was safe and was coming home by train, but the van would require major repairs to put it back on the road.

Our new neighbors—Shari and Lloyd—were kind enough to lend me a car to drive down to Santa Fe, where I picked up my wife at the Amtrak station. All during the drive back to Colorado, we tried to figure out the logistics of getting our van back from the garage owner, who we had begun to call "the Bakersfield Bandit" (given the size of his bill for towing and storing the car). How would we ever manage to get the van back to Colorado?

When we got back home, our neighbors came to the rescue. "Lloyd's got a pick-up and a trailer," said Shari. "If you can cover the gas," said Lloyd, "we'll go get your van!" I forget the rest, except that Lloyd and I pulled an all-nighter and a half driving to Bakersfield and back over the next thirty hours.

After we got back, I recalled the idea of "paying it forward" that I had learned about from Jerry Pournelle, an author known for his science fiction and whose monthly column appeared, in those days, in BYTE magazine, where a number of my articles had also been published. Over sushi one evening, during one of my trips to the Los Angeles area, Pournelle related to me how Robert A. Heinlein—yes, the Robert A. Heinlein—had been of great help to him back when he was first starting out as a writer, and later, after Pournelle had become established, he asked Heinlein how he could pay him back. "You can't pay me back," said Heinlein, according to Pournelle, "but you can pay me forward," by lending someone else a hand, some day.

And so, over the years, I have been "paying it forward," in my own way: some here, a little more there. And as I've become older, I become ever more convinced that "screw your neighbor" is far from the default setting for human interactions. If it were, we would never have survived as a species.

In any event, I always make sure to send my old New York friend a Christmas card timed to arrive just before January 7. It's the least I can do.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I was going through my chess books the other day with the idea of reducing their number to some manageable quantity when my eye fell on a single hardcover tome, bound in black, that had somehow found its way into the "humane society donation" pile, along with—among other things—an old (but complete) Monopoly game and a nearly mint "Monkeys in a Barrel" toy. I turned from my task, took up the book, and sought out a place where I could sit down, flip through the book's pages, and think about whether to really donate the book or not.

The book, written by World Champion Alexander Alekhine and straightforwardly titled My Best Games of Chess: 1924–1937, is certainly not a keeper. The book is not rare, my specific copy is not in particularly good condition (in fact, to tell the truth, it's falling apart), and the moves are written in a notation nobody uses any more (although admittedly, I can still read the moves).

A penciled price on the inside of the back free endpaper suggests the book was sold to its previous owner for $3.50. There are additional notations on that endpaper, made by me, indicating the book was given to me in August 1967, and the scrawled name and address of the previous owner, a fellow named Tom, who—as it turns out—drove the Good Humor ice cream truck that delivered frozen, sweet treats to our summer camp, timed to coincide with the end of the post-lunch "rest hour." Tom, who also happened to be quite a strong chess player who had drubbed me soundly over the chessboard numerous times over the previous weeks, had given me the book as a gift as the summer wound to a close.

That address was important. Without it, Tom and I would never had been able to start playing chess by mail.

Now, it may seem, to the normal, average person, that playing chess by mail would be about as interesting as watching paint dry—and might even take second place to that broad, chromatic spectacle—but there are certain aspects to correspondence chess (as it is more formally called) that give this pastime a certain appeal to some chess players.

First, unlike when playing over-the-board, where reflection time is limited to an average of a few minutes per move, in correspondence play you are free to think about a single move for two or three days, if you like. You can even refer to books and magazines to learn what other players did in similar situations (doing so in over-the-board play is considered cheating, and is punished with forfeiture). Correspondence players can also move pieces around on a board while analyzing variations, which is a far cry from the draconian over-the-board rule of "touch-move," i.e., if you touch a piece, you have to move it. In short, chess by mail really lets a player get into the game.

That said, you might think that—given the opportunity to really think through your moves, play over variations, make notes, refer to books, and so on—it'd be fairly difficult to play poorly.

You'd be wrong. I'm living proof.

My over-the-board record against Tom during that summer of '67, though poor, had at least included one win and one draw out of about two dozen games. In correspondence play against him afterward, though, I fared even worse. To my credit, I suppose, I didn't lose heart; upon finishing a game, I'd doggedly start another one. After a couple of years of exchanging postcards, however, our extended correspondence match came to a close. I don't recall winning a single game against Tom, but I learned quite a lot about chess.

In the years that followed, I entered a number of correspondence chess events, more to play the game than to win any prizes. A couple of my games—wins, naturally—were deemed "good enough" by various editors to publish in chess periodicals, thereby adding my own modest contribution to the mass of reference material used by correspondence players in their games.

As I continued to flip through the Alekhine book, and read the various notes I made here and there, back when I avidly played the game and analyzed the games of the great players, I realized it's been ages since I've played chess by mail.

One reason has to do with how, for me, much of the enjoyment of correspondence chess lay in the tactile feel of physical postcards and the "vacation" one got while cards traveled through the post, during which one could analyze a position (or not). These days, most players seem to prefer electronic mail to transmit their moves, which is certainly less expensive and more reliable than the service offered by the post office, but it speeds the game up too much for my taste.

A far more important, and perhaps deciding factor in my decision to stop correspondence play has been the widespread availability of chess analysis software, with the result that all too commonly, I can find myself playing chess against a human opponent who is satisfied to act as an intermediary between me and a computer program. How anyone could derive pleasure from such "play" is beyond me, but I prefer not to participate in such a charade. If I want to play against a computer, I can do so in the privacy of my own home, thank you.

I completed my examination of the book and put it in the appropriate pile, for reasons of my own.

Soon after, I picked up the latest copy of Chess Life, the official publication of the United States Chess Federation, the delivery of which I had (in my capacity of Life Member) recently resumed after a hiatus of about a decade.

It turns out they still organize old-fashioned, snail-mail correspondence chess matches!

How about that! Hmmm…

NOTE! Due to a miscommunication, I ended up listed as taking a bye in the current poll. That is not the case, so if you liked what you read enough to vote for me, please do so even though the poll—which cannot be edited once it's been put up—says I'm taking a bye. Thanks!

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
"What's eating you, Walsh?" asked Lance Corporal Pfeiffer, addressing his squad's automatic rifleman.

"Nothing," replied Jim Walsh, a red-haired, freckle-faced, perennially underweight Marine who was abnormally quiet this particular Sunday morning, at least in the opinion of Lopez and me (the rest of Pfeiffer's squad). The four of us were sitting at a table at the mainside mess hall and were basking in the afterglow of a very filling breakfast of steak and eggs.

"Don't hand me that bull," pressed Pfeiffer. "You've hardly said a word all morning. Something's got your goat. What is it? Girlfriend trouble?"

Walsh remained silent.

"Bet you it's that jerk uncle of hers," volunteered Lopez.

"C'mon guys, just leave me alone!" said Walsh, and started to get up to leave. "Sit down," said Pfeiffer. Walsh dropped back down onto the bench.

"What about this 'jerk uncle', Lopez?" asked Pfeiffer.

"Why don't you tell him?" said Lopez, addressing Walsh. Pfeiffer turned his gaze to Walsh. The story was slow in coming, but eventually, it came.

"Well… it's like this... any time I go to Maria's house and her uncle is there, he ends up giving me a bunch of crap about 'the Old Corps', y'know?" Walsh paused to take a breath. "How 'gyrenes' were rougher, tougher, and all-around better in the old days. Sort of like the crap they used to dish out to us in boot camp, except—my God, this guy just can't let it go! I get so mad, sometimes I want to hit him."

Pfeiffer thought for a minute, and then asked: "Have you considered he's just riding you to make sure you're not the kind of guy who likes hitting people because they say things that tick you off? You're going out with his niece, after all…"

"Yeah, I thought about that. And I've been ignoring him, just like my mom suggested was the way to deal with certain people at school, but… What'd I say that was so funny?" The last was sharply directed at Lopez, who had failed to adequately suppress a smirk at Walsh's mention of his mother. "Hey, man," said Lopez quickly, holding his hands palm-out in front of him, "no offense meant, okay? My mom told me a lotta good stuff, too!"

"It's good advice," I interrupted, to defuse the atmosphere. I then asked Walsh: "So you think this guy wants to argue with you?" Walsh closed his eyes and shrugged. "I don't know," he said, "but the line of crap he keeps handing me is getting old."

The table fell silent for a few moments, during which Lopez, Walsh, and I all sort of instinctively turned to Pfeiffer, for he was not only our squad leader, but also the chronologically oldest of us all (being 22 years of age), and the most educated (one year of college before dropping out to join the Marines, not to mention having read through almost the entire "five foot shelf" of Harvard classics stacked in his closet).

Pfeiffer looked at each one of us in turn, took a deep breath in through his nose, and then let it out slowly.

"You could argue with the guy," he said, finally, "but you should think a bit about what you're going to say."

We all held our peace. Whatever Pfeiffer was about to suggest to Walsh would probably be at least educational for Lopez and me. Pfeiffer started to speak:

"First, keep in mind that people who cry in their beer about 'the Old Corps' and civilians who go on about how tough life was when they were kids—you've heard the line about 'walking six miles to school in the snow', right?—are singing from the same page of the hymnal." We all nodded.

"It's not a new song, by a long shot. There's this famous Russian poem, for example, written about the Battle of Borodino, fought in 1812, where the speaker—the poet's uncle—when asked to relate the story of the battle, starts off by saying:
—Oh, there were people, back in my prime,
Not like the breed of present time:
They were heroes—not like you!
"So it's fair to think that 'the Old Corps' idea has been around since before the Romans started training recruits for their legions." He made a little smile and we all smiled back.

"So what kinds of arguments might we use?" asked Pfeiffer, of nobody in particular, and then went on to answer his own question.

"One approach might be what we could call 'the serious argument.' If today's Marines aren't as good as the ones in 'the Old Corps,' one could argue it's at least as much a reflection on the quality of training and leadership as it is on the quality of the recruits coming in, and for that, those in 'the Old Corps' must shoulder the blame, which doesn't make them look very superhuman."

"Can you say that in English?" asked Lopez, with a smile.

Walsh ignored Lopez. "So if what he's saying is true, and 'the Old Corps' was better and tougher, it's the fault of his generation?" he asked, leaning forward. There was a note of disbelief in his voice.

"Basically, yes," said Pfeiffer, "but you'll definitely want to make it more personal and make it out to be his own individual fault." Walsh nodded, and after a moment, Pfeiffer continued: "Then there's the humorous approach." Three sets of eyebrows rose.

"This involves poking fun at what he's saying, for example, by telling a joke along the lines of the one about what the first Marine recruited on November 10, 1775 said to the second Marine recruited that same day at Tun Tavern," said Pfeiffer.

"I never heard that one, Pfeiff," I said. Both Walsh and Lopez made little noises of supportive anticipation.

"The story goes something like this," said Pfeiffer. "When the first Marine was recruited, he got a signing bonus of two shillings and a free beer. A few hours later, the second Marine signed up, but by that time, Colonel Nichols, the recruiter, was offering a signing bonus of two shillings and two free beers. When the first Marine saw the second Marine with two beers and learned how he had gotten them, he burst out with: 'You new Marines sure have it easy! Back in the Old Corps, we only got one free beer for signing up!'"

With that, we all had a good laugh, whereupon Pfeiffer pointed out to Walsh: "That laugh of ours, just now, is exactly the effect you're looking for!" After a few more minutes, we got up and returned to our barracks.

The next weekend, Walsh returned from liberty with a spring in his step and in a good mood.

"How did it go?" we all asked him.

"Well, just about on schedule, her uncle started riding me about 'the Old Corps,' but apparently, he didn't much like being criticized or made to feel like the butt of a joke, so he ended up taking a swing at me. So I decked him, a little."

"What happened then?"

"Nothing, really. Maria's mom and dad just smiled. After a while, the uncle left, and Maria and I went out dancing and had a good time."

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
"Mind if I join you, Marine?" asked a male voice from over my shoulder.

Shields up! I thought to myself as the speaker came into view and deposited his coffee on the other side of the small table I was sitting at in the air terminal in Dallas.

"Depends what you're selling," I said, hoping the intonation in my voice made it clear that while I wasn't being unfriendly, neither was I exactly pining for someone to talk to.

"Oh, don't worry, it's nothing like that," said the newcomer, as he sat down. That's what they all say, I thought, but held my peace. My visitor was a couple of decades older than me, wore a business suit and carried a leather case. There were laugh lines around his eyes. "People been giving you a hard time?" he asked.

I thought about the "flower children" who saw me off, so to speak, in New York that morning, and how they appeared to truly enjoy feeling superior as they cast every variety of aspersion in my direction—"baby killer" was perhaps the least offensive epithet they threw at me and my uniform. Then there were the Hare Krishnas who had accosted me and the rest of the passengers on my flight upon landing in Dallas, but they seemed like a harmless bunch.

I shrugged and said: "Not a lot of people seem very friendly toward Marines, I guess."

"Tell me something new," said my companion, and stuck out his hand. I've since forgotten his name, so I'll just call him "Mac."

We shook hands, and by and by, Mac told me he'd served in "The Crotch" at about the time I was born (except he called it "the Green Weenie," in the slang of his era). Spent time in Japan during the Korean "kerfuffle," as he put it. He had a way about him, and after a few minutes, it was as if we were old friends.

He eyed my PFC stripe and asked: "You just graduate?"

"No," I replied, resisting the urge to add "sir!" to my reply. "I finished boot camp six weeks ago. Since then, I've been at infantry training, and now I've got orders to report to my first duty station."

We were both silent for a minute or so. Frankly, I half expected him to start lecturing me about "The Old Corps" and how he and his buddies were in every way superior to the sad excuse for Marines Parris Island was currently churning out for the jungles of Vietnam.

"So," said Mac, to keep the conversational ball rolling, "did you get any good advice in boot camp?"

Pleasantly surprised by the direction the conversation had taken, I laughed and asked, "Does telling me I better get my head and ass wired together count?" He laughed in reply.

"No, I don't mean that," he said. "I'm curious to know if any of the DIs took you aside to give you a tip, some advice, or some help. Something not out of the book; something intended for your ears only."

I thought for a moment or two and blew out a long, slow breath. Then I said: "Well, while our platoon was out at the rifle range, our lieutenant announced that anyone who fell out of this one particular Monday morning PT run would get recycled, and since I was usually among those who fell out of such runs, I guess you could say I got some advice from my Senior Drill Instructor about what to do." Getting 'recycled' meant being sent back to repeat several weeks of training and it was, to quote Shakespeare, "a consummation devoutly to be avoided."

"Oh, yeah?" said Mac. "What'd your DI say?"

"He told me there was nothing physically preventing me from completing the run," I said, "and that my problem with running was sitting squarely between my ears."

"So what happened?" asked Mac.

"I really didn't believe him, but I figured I had nothing to lose, so I started to brainwash myself," I said.

"Wow. How'd you do that?" asked Mac, taking another sip of his coffee.

"I just kept repeating stuff like 'I will run… I will finish…' in every spare waking moment, up to the morning of the run," I said. "I probably sounded like one of those Krishnas over there," I continued, waving in the general direction of a flurried flash of saffron I'd spied a few moments earlier.


"I finished that run and all the runs after that," I said, and then asked, to change the subject: "Did you get any good advice when you were in boot camp?"

"Actually, I did," said Mac, "but my problem was, I was too undisciplined to pay attention. I thought it was a waste of time, and I guess, in the end, it was a waste of my DI's time, too, because I ended up stumbling through boot camp by the skin of my teeth, and then having to learn all of it later, the hard way."

"So, why did you want to know about my experience?" I asked.

"Basic reporter's curiosity," came the reply. "I'm a newspaperman, these days," said Mac, "and after getting enough answers to my question, I'm convinced there's a link between listening to good advice and moving ahead"—and here, he leaned forward and tapped my PFC stripe.

I looked at my stripe, then at him, and raised an eyebrow. "That seems pretty obvious," I said.

"It should be," said Mac, "but in real life, few people act like they believe it. I think it's because most people actually resent advice, so they would rather blow it off than follow it and possibly benefit from it. Which is not to say that all advice is necessarily good, or that following anyone's advice guarantees any kind of reward," Mac continued, "but if I had a nickel for all the people I've met who systematically ignore advice and insist on making their own mistakes… well, right now, I'd be on a beach somewhere, sipping a Mai Tai."

Mac then shot his arm out of the sleeve of his suit jacket and looked at his watch. "It's time I got going, Marine," he said, and rose. I told him it had been a pleasure to make his acquaintance, which it was.

"Fair winds and following seas… semper fidelis!" he replied, and turned to walk away. A few moments later, he was lost from view.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Ayn Pelletier took a deep breath, clutched the sheaf of files she held close to her chest, and knocked on her boss's door.

"Enter!" came the response. Pelletier opened the door, stepped inside the room, and closed the door behind her. The face of Andrew Chapman, the man behind the room's desk, displayed a slight trace of surprise at Pelletier's appearance, as very few things would cause the young woman to step away from her office, with its computers, whiteboards, and other analysis tools. "Sit," said Chapman, and though he did not mean it to, the word came out as a command. After Ayn sat down, Chapman softened his features and smiled as he asked, "To what do I owe this honor?"

"I'm pretty sure I've found a clandestine communications channel," said Pelletier, with no preamble. "I'm also pretty sure it's what Mansfield was trying to put his finger on when he went missing six months ago." Chapman pursed his lips and nodded. Mansfield's disappearance had wrought havoc within the agency—an agency so "black" that only the NSA was aware of its existence, and then only vaguely. After all investigations were complete and fingers pointed every which way, the agency's director had been replaced by a political appointee whose grasp of intelligence was as feeble as his campaign contributions were substantial.

Then Chapman smiled, for whenever Pelletier spoke, you could take what she said to the bank. "So, who's communicating?" he asked.

"You're going to find this pretty unbelievable, but you've got to hear me out," said Pelletier. Chapman nodded. He would sooner slice off one of his own fingers than not hear everything Pelletier had to say.

"Who's communicating?" Pelletier repeated the question, and then answered, "It's nobody. And everybody. You. Me. Some kid trying to hack the Great Firewall of China... basically everybody on the planet." She paused to see Chapman's reaction.

"That's some kind of 'clandestine channel'!" said Chapman, with a smile. "But never mind me and my smart remarks," he said, after a beat. "Please continue." He was still smiling.

"Have you ever heard of memes?" asked Pelletier.

"Sure," said Chapman. "My kids talk about them all the time. 'Memes' sound like a scholarly way of describing what, in my day, were called 'crazes' or 'fads.' Things like the hula hoop or telling people to 'look it up in your Funk-and-Wagnalls'. There's a lot more of them now, of course, thanks to the Internet. What do memes have to do with this channel of yours?"

"Well," said Pelletier, ignoring her boss's question, "a meme covers a bit more than just fads. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins devoted a section of text to the propagation of ideas and cultures, and how such propagation resembled what genes do. So he posited the existence of units he called memes, which included tunes, catch phrases, fashions, techniques for building arches—or nuclear reactors—or any idea at all, really."

Chapman held his peace. Pelletier continued: "Extending this line of reasoning suggests that we humans are vehicles for the survival of memes—of ideas—and if that's true, then it's entirely possible that when we act in concert with the ideas that we hold, our behavior is not substantially different from that of a mouse that has lost its instinctive fear of cats because it has been infected with Toxoplasma gondii parasite, whose 'goal' (inasmuch as a single-celled organism can be said to have one) is to end up in a cat's digestive tract, and from there, the cat's brain. So when we think we're being clever sharing something online, it's actually a meme's way of figuring out how to modify human behavior to maximize its own survival and propagation. In its own crazy way, what's going on is communication to achieve an end."

Chapman remained silent for what seemed like several minutes.

"Okay," he began, cautiously. "So what's the threat? Why should we worry about, say, a bunch of goofballs doing bad imitations of Miley Cyrus and her wrecking ball, or a ceramics company selling coffee cups that say 'Keep Calm and Drink Decaf'?"

"Because nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come," said Pelletier. "Or as Victor Hugo said it: 'On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.'"

"'One resists the invasion of armies, one does not resist the invasion of ideas', right?" translated Chapman. Pelletier nodded. "But I still don't see the threat," said Chapman.

"You're not supposed to," said Pelletier. "I'm not supposed to. None of us are. That's the point. That said, for all we know, the creation of the Internet was something driven by memes to achieve the next level of their evolution, by creating a massive environment for their rapid propagation and mutation, to enable them to more efficiently shape themselves by shaping us."

As Chapman digested that, Pelletier took a deep breath and looked directly up at the ceiling. She then exhaled, lowering her chin and turning her head to the left as she did so. Her pensive gaze came to rest on a point a few feet to her left. She then raised her eyes to meet Chapman's.

"Frankly, if I were you," said Pelletier, "I'd think I'm crazy."

The thought had crossed Chapman's mind, but he said: "Nothing of the sort. Your analysis has always been spot on, but I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around what you've just laid out for me. Not only that, but I'll need evidence of some concrete act having been taken against this country before I can even think of taking this to the director. You mentioned something about Mansfield?"

"Yes, I was getting to that. The closest thing to what you'd consider 'evidence' was a series of anomalies I think I found in Mansfield's analysis," said Pelletier.

"What anomalies?" asked Chapman.

"I've spent a lot of time poring over his notes," began Pelletier, "hoping to find what others might have missed in the investigation into his disappearance. Instead, all I found was pretty exhaustive analysis of the dynamics of various memes—things like the IP addresses of the participants, changes various participants made to the root idea, and so on—and it finally dawned on me... maybe that's what was missed! It turns out that, starting three years ago, Mansfield began to find memes that originated from..., well,... nowhere. Which simply isn't possible. The first few memes fizzled out after a day or two, but then a few enjoyed moderate popularity, until finally, last year, one such 'anomalous meme'—Mansfield's name for them—resulted in the formation of a flash mob that caused the seemingly accidental deaths of three people in Venice. You remember that?"

Chapman nodded. "The ensuing investigation found no premeditation and no specific people to blame, though some of the flash mod participants did serve some jail time," he said. "Are you saying the deaths were caused by a meme?"

"The idea for that flash mob not only came from an anomalous meme, but it had just the right something to appeal to certain personality types who, acting in concert the way they did, could only have achieved the end that occurred. And it turns out one of the victims was a prominent economist who exerted a great deal of influence on European Union monetary policy as it relates to the United States," said Pelletier.

"That doesn't prove anything," said Chapman. "What has your own independent analysis turned up?"

Pelletier's brow furrowed. "To be frank, I was so taken with Mansfield's notes that I didn't even think of doing any analysis on my own until I fully understood what he was getting at, and once I did, it turned out I had done the right thing, because Mr. Chapman, I think Mansfield's own research—even from behind our agency's firewalls and using our proxies and virtual networks—was what caused his disappearance."

As he absorbed this and everything else Pelletier had said, Chapman thought about how the agency's director might react if he were to learn of Pelletier's analysis. It occurred to Chapman that, if Pelletier was right and there really were memes out there trying to bury what Mansfield (and now Pelletier) had discovered, the director's general cluelessness was more than adequate to serve that end. Chapman sighed. Long ago, as a young officer, he had learned to trust the instincts of his subordinates, and he was not going to second-guess himself now. If Pelletier was right...

"So what do you want to do?" he asked. "What do you need from me?"

"I need to figure out a fundamentally new way—a safe way—to do an analysis to check and expand on Mansfield's work," said Pelletier.

"So get on it," said Chapman. "I'll run interference for you. It occurs to me that—if Mansfield's analysis is correct—we may very well have embarked on humanity's first war, not of ideas, but with them."



alexpgp: (Default)

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