Category Archives: Other

Iran

It has been a while since I last posted. Here is a story I wrote for Yom Kippur. I believe it is quite important.

**********
The man sticks his hand out to shake mine. He is wearing a cobbled-together set of winter clothes. His hands are protected against the cold by a pair of garden gloves.

“Jim,” he says, in a friendly tone.

“Joseph,” I say, extending my own hand. I am lucky enough to be wearing real gloves.

“What do you do, Joseph?” he asks.

“Analysis,” I answer, although I haven’t touched a spreadsheet in months.

“IT for me,” he replies, a bit of a wistful look in his eye.

It was painful, but in these times people continue to define themselves by what they used to do. There is no room yet for their new reality.

“You have a family?” I ask.

“Two kids,” he answers, “A wife and two kids.” He smiles now. But only for a moment.

We are, after all, standing in a breadline.

It had all started one perfect Tuesday afternoon. A converted fishing trawler had entered Israeli territorial waters. Flying a Greek flag, it was ostensibly en-route to Ashkelon to deliver aid to Gaza. It had gotten within 5 miles of the coast when it was intercepted by the Israeli navy. We still have many of the audio tapes. An astute naval officer had noticed something wrong: there were only two visible crew members. Shortly before the Navy boarded the trawler, the unexpected happened. The ship detonated.

The explosion was nuclear.

Instantly, the waterfront of Tel Aviv was erased and tens of thousands were killed. Thankfully, the weapon had been far enough to sea that only the waterfront was erased. The bulk of the city was spared.

Moments after the weapon was detonated, Hezbullah launched its own rockets en-masse and Syrian tanks began to roll towards the border. In a desperate bid to survive, Israel began to fight back – brutally.

All fingers pointed to Iran. Israeli leaders and American hawks called on the US and the UN to retaliate with a nuclear assault of their own. A nuclear war had been launched and protocol demanded a powerful response. The President of the United States addressed his nation. Yes, he said, a nuclear assault had been launched. And yes, it was likely that Iran had launched it. But it was not moral to kill millions of innocent Iranians for the probable sins of a few men. No nuclear response would be forthcoming. A massive conventional assault was being prepared.

Minutes later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, broadcast his own message. He explained that although he supported the attack on Israel, and although he regretted Israel’s tight border security, his country had not launched the assault. Nonetheless he had foreseen the possibility of unwarranted Western aggression. As other countries lacked Israel’s security, Iran had taken the precaution of placing heavily shielded nuclear devices within their major cities. Any assault would be met with a truly destructive nuclear response.

For a few hours the world watched as Washington wavered. And then it folded. The assault was called off.

Hours later, the Gulf states realigned themselves with Iran and politely asked their US soldiers to leave.

Saudi Arabia tried to resist. In another TV address, they were supplied with an address in Riyadh. A functional nuclear device was found there. They were warned that there were many more. Their fancy American-supplied Air Force had come to naught. Iran controlled the region.

Iran then used the leverage they had. They turned off the supply of oil to the West.

Now, without significant oil imports, and limited domestic production, the US government has cut off the use of private cars. For the most part, the economy has collapsed. While some could telecommute, nobody else can drive to work or shop. Non-emergency medical care has ceased. Most schools and shops have closed. Foreigners have stopped buying US debt, and most of the government has simply ceased to function. Goods that wore away – from bike parts to kids’ shoes and from dish detergent to refrigerator parts – are not being replaced. Slowly, our reality is decaying. Europe is worse.

All food is coming from a breadline – like we are refugees in a foreign land.

Those unready for the change in seasons – like Jim – find themselves wearing garden gloves in winter.

Truly, we have all been caught by surprise.

Everybody knows the United States cannot allow the nuclear blackmail to stand. We suspect that the US is shipping arms to Israel – the only country in the world that is somewhat secure from the Iranian threat. But something more is needed.

And we know that when it comes, the price will be terrible.

With the belching of ad hoc repairs, a truck begins to come up the street. The crowd, orderly, gathers around the designated spot.

Jim rubs his cold hands. Then, with a wry smile, he expresses the thoughts of millions.

“All of this,” he says, “Could have been prevented.”

*****

Hiatus

When I started this I said that if it began to negatively impact other things in my life then I would stop. The fact is that other things have begun to prevent me from doing this. I haven’t mentioned my work before, but I work as a strategic analyst for a company that just got acquired. As you can imagine there is a huge amount of strategic analysis to be done. More importantly, the work is mentally draining. I can’t muster the mental energy to write every day. Also, Pesach is looming and we haven’t started cleaning yet. So…. I’m going to take an hiatus until about Lag Ba’omer (when things at work will hopefully have calmed down). I just can’t manage otherwise.

All the best,

Joseph

Day #70: A Burst of History

The windows of the car are open, but no smells assault my senses. Instead, I am buffeted by hot winds as the feel of long-baked earth pervades the air. This is a dry land, but a land that somehow supports a substantial population. Ahead, a man crosses the road, sheep trailing behind him. I slow the car and let him cross, without frightening his livestock. He waves, smiling in polite appreciation. I wave back and continue down the highway. I pass a gas station.

The highway I am on has been cut through the side of a collection of mountains. On the right of the road, reinforcements hold back the masses of dirt and stone. The mountains loom over the landscape, foreboding and locked away from normal human life. Below me, to the left, the mountains drops away. There are occasional wadis, flashes of green where streams emerge from the mountains. People live in them, growing crops and drinking the mountain runoff. Beyond them, the streams flow into nothing. Below them, there is a massive sea-like expansion of sand, heat and death.

I’ve been driving for perhaps an hour when the landscape changes. The mountains and the desert valley remain, but seem to peel away from the road, leaving me on a magnificent high plateau. There is a small river here. Its arrival is presaged by a wave of verdant green and the rich smell of life. Irrigation.

Here there are fields. Once tiny homestead plots, they have now been merged. An historically small irrigated area, at best five miles deep on either side of the river, has been trebled. It is a result of modern water management technology. While the old homestead plots are gone, their replacements are by no means large. This region’s farmland is not competitive on any efficiency measure. Instead, the local economy relies on the superior taste and natural purity of their crops. Stressed by the thin high-plateau air, whipsawed by massive rises and falls in temperature, and complemented by the land’s inexperience with fertilizers, the produce and grains from this region are celebrated for their deep and complex flavors.

I follow a road that parallels the river. I am in a world of life which is itself surrounded by struggle and death. I find myself clinging to the green and casting the waterless expanses out of my mind. If I were a nomad, I could come to worship an oasis.

I am close to my destination now. And then, suddenly, I am there – in the midst of a town which hugs the river. The town itself, really a small city, is unremarkable. In the center of the city is a small block of government buildings. They are low-slung and ugly. But they are well maintained. Houses, many seemingly cast from single blocks of cement, flow along side roads which radiate from the city center in a dozen haphazard directions. The city is not rich or distinguished, aside from a a short burst of history. But the houses are not dilapidated. Some show the wear that implies poverty, of funds or of effort, but most are kept up beautifully.

I drive slowly, not only because of the busy streets, but also because I want to take in the sights, smells and sounds of this city. The people are varied. Men and women roam the streets. Some are garbed in traditional dress, others in more global fashions. They mingle with familiarity and tolerance, but not total respect. Cars, trucks and camels likewise jostle with one another. Not unlike American farm towns, cars are rarely new and trucks either look like they work or look like totems to prestige. Unlike an American town, the air is filled with the din of honking and shouting. It isn’t anger – just life.

About a half mile from the center of town a small collection of large buildings loom. A silo, a mill and a collection of packaging plants stand there, a nexus of the physical trade that dominates life here.

There are two markets here. One is seasonal, with spot sales of regional crops. It is geared towards exports. Farmers and buyers come together six times from spring to fall in a rhythm linked to the growing seasons of various crops. It is a face-to-face business – the quality of these crops can not be appraised from afar.

The other market is for locals themselves. Here too, old and new compete. A supermarket and a collection of modern but small stores surround a massive parking lot. The lot itself is sprinkled with randomly placed stalls seemingly moved from a medieval bazaar. Some are grouped together, like cliquish friends at a party. Others stand apart and alone. I park my car. There seems to be no order here. Whatever parking lines may have once existed have long since disappeared. It isn’t a sign of neglect. If they were ever there at all, the lines simply served no purpose. They were left to the fate of time.

When I open the door to the car, the sun assaults me. The stalls offer protection, and so, seeking relief, I jump to the nearest one. The stall owner greets me, in English. “Welcome.” He opens his  gnarled hands over his merchandise. He is a wind-worn man. His darkened face carries years of sun and years of work. But his eyes are open and friendly. His smile seems entirely genuine. He is selling local produce, relatively pricey foodstuffs. Among many items, he has a flask of olive oil. Nothing, not even wine, captures the flavor of a high-altitude region like its olive oil. To learn, I must buy. And so we haggle over a price. He pushes hard, showing me pictures of his large family and explaining that he must pay for his youngest daughter’s college. His English is stilted, but understandable. I buy the flask for more than it is worth.

The transaction complete, he asks me, “Why visit?”

“I’m a journalist,” I reply.

“American journalist,” he says, wistfully, “I not see one for many years.”

“Since when?” I ask.

“Since I am five or six.” Like many of the older folk here, I doubt he knows his actual age. But I can guess it. He was a young boy during the burst of history.

“What happened then?” I ask.

“Many many years,” he says, “But I remember. Very clear.”

“What do you remember?”

“Fear. Fear and hunger. Then hope and doubt. My parents are scared. They tell us stay in the house… And then the battle. After the battle they say there is peace. We do not know. Still fear. But things better. Slowly better.”

“When did you know there was peace?” I ask.

He smiles warmly, the memories filling his face. “They clear mines from field,” he says, pointing in the direction of the city’s small soccer stadium, “I remember very very big trucks with chains. Next day, soldiers come and build goals and give us balls.We play, in that field – safe. Then we know there is peace.”

His eyes tear with nostalgia.

“Many years,” he says. He waves towards the picture of his children and grandchildren, “Now, life is beautiful.”

We keep talking, and then I explore the rest of the market and the rest of the town.

It has been 60 years since that burst of history, the Battle of Marjeh, Afghanistan. I’ve never met one of those soldiers. I’ve never met with the families of those who died. The journalists who were there are long-since dead. But I do not need to meet them. This vibrant market town can attest to the results of their work and the impact of their sacrifice.

As I return to Kandahar, I hear the voice of Marjeh repeating in my head.

“Then, there was fear and hunger. Now, life is beautiful.”

Day #69: The Machine

“Mr Smith,” says the voice on the other end of the line. It was the man from HR. “You should be proud, you’ve been offered the job.”

“Which job?” I ask. I’d interviewed for two.

“Cog,” he says, “Cog Grade II. with luck and hard work, I’d expect you could be promoted – maybe to spoke, gear, or possibly even wheel.”

I could barely contain my excitement. I’m not the kind of guy who is a crazy risky sort – so this was big time stuff.

I mean, I’d been a wheel before. But I was never a part of the The Machine. It’s entirely different when you’re part of the machine. You go from spinning uselessly to actually being a part of something bigger. Something more. Something magnificent.

‘What is the machine?’ you ask.

It is nothing less than the culmination of human ingenuity and design. It is a massive organization filled with cogs like myself. And it churns and grumbles and grinds and produces, well – anything. The most remarkable part is how it fashions itself. You see, me being a cog is no guarantee I’ll always be a part of the machine. The whole system is literally geared to making itself cheaper, more effective and more elegant. If I can stay a cog, I’ll be proud. It would mean that I’m better, smarter and more useful than ever before.

But – just for a second – imagine that I can somehow graduate – perhaps, in my wildest dreams – to something like a regulator – I should be doubly proud! In a machine that is always shedding parts, substituting cheaper ones or adding and then improving pre-made modules, such personal growth would be incredible.

I can already picture my first day on the job. I’ll show up and they’ll show me my actual physical place in the machine. They’ll show me how I fit on the gear and how I’ll interface with other cogs. It will take me a while to get used to it. But after a few months I’ll have it down – and after a year I’ll be the smoothest, best-calibrated cog ever.

I’m really looking forward to it.

Of course, being a cog in The Machine isn’t everything. The best part will be telling other people about it.

‘What do you do? ‘

‘I’m a cog.’

‘Oh, really, where at?’

‘The Machine.’

I can’t even imagine their answers to that! Women will fall for me, men will be jealous and children will idolize me.

It’ll be sweet.

“Are you there?” asks the man from HR – on the line I’d forgotten I’d been holding.

“Yes, yes,” I answer, enthusiastically.

“Do you have any questions?” he asks.

“Just one,” I reply, “When do I start?”

Day #68: Spirals

The lights in the lecture hall were dim. The projector was showing a single massive image on the screen. It was a page, obviously extremely old. On it were characters from some very odd language. It seemed to flow in a circle – from the middle to the outside or from the outside to the middle.

“Can anybody read this?” asked the man behind the lectern. He was a Professor of Medieval History.

A corpulent man in his late 40s, he was disheveled and unkempt. His hair was a knotted and tangled mess and seemed to have been last washed in the period he studied. Even from a distance, you could imagine that he smelled. He was not a respected man in his field. But, as his appearance would have suggested, he was not a man who lived and died on the opinions of others.

For that reason, and that reason alone, he was a trusted man. And when he called this conference, to share something most unusual that he had found, his peers came.

Nobody in the audience of hundreds raised their hands.

“That was the response I expected,” said the rotund professor.

“These parchments were found in northern France, near the town of Vouziers. The town is not far from the city of Reims, where the Kings of France were crowned. As you can see, they are not written in any known European script. In addition, they are not written in any linear direction – but rather in a spiral. A spiral which pre-determines the length of the message to be composed.”

296 thoughtful eyes were trying to break the code while the presenter spoke. None stood a chance.

“The skill required to compose these messages indicates that they are not the work of amateurs. These letters are the work of craftsmen. Craftsmen who struggled not to be understood.”

A hand went up.

“Yes?”

“How do we know that?” asked a voice in the darkness.

“Because,” said the Professor, “We found a key to this language. And that key spoke of the efforts to decifer this language – and of the importance of doing so. And that key is why this language has ceased to exist.”

“What do you mean?”

“Bear with me.. there is a fascinating story here. We found this parchment first. And then the key was uncovered during follow-up research.  And then this parchment led us to a search across hundreds of locales throughout Europe. And, today, we have a collection of 7,000 individual parchments. All look roughly like this. Spiral composition. Their width and height varies, but the script is consistent. And what we read uncovered a world we didn’t imagine existed.”

A low murmur went through the room. Had the corpulent professor gone mad, or was he on to something. He ignored the talk, and kept going.

“I’ve had the pleasure of reading and understanding these texts. All of them. And when they are laid out chronologically what they tell is a tale of correspondence. Not between Kings and Queens. But between members of a secret clan. This was their script, and through it, they – for a time – controlled Europe.”

“More Templars bullsh-t?!?” exclaimed an exasperated voice in the audience, “I came here for this?”

The room exploded in conversation.

The professor waited for a break in the noise. And then he said, “No, not Templars bullsh-t. These people were SERFS.”

The room went suddenly silent. Nobody really believed what the man had just said.

“Serfs couldn’t write.” came an objection.

“The vast majority could not,” said the professor, “But in settlements throughout Europe there were dozens who could. This was their script and their method of communication.”

“Why hasn’t anybody seen this before?”

“Because,” said the professor, “Everybody wanted to keep it hidden. The serfs because of how they were using their language, and the nobility and kings because of how they were used by it.”

The  professor paused, allowing what he had said to sink in.

“Let me tell you the story of these sheets.”

He looked into the crowd, waiting until he felt all eyes refocused on him. He didn’t want them to miss what he was about to say.

“In 804, a scribe named Ian of Bulgaria. was banished from the court of Charlemagne. Ian was banished for a minor offense – writing in a foreign tongue. Such a man could not be trusted – but they did not recognize the language and so in no way suspected he was a spy. Indeed, he was not a spy. He had been creating for himself a new method of writing, a method of secure communications which others would be unable to read. He was spared his life, but banished from his previous life of privilege.

“Thrust into the life of an itinerant, he took advantage of his natural charisma. He taught those he encountered to read and write his new tongue. He earned his keep through a talent for negotiating the disputes of those whose villages he visited.

“Over the course of a decade, he built up a cadre of serfs across Europe. He communicated with them through bards – bards who would transmit his written pages. Over time, his hobby became something more serious. It happened quite by accident. One of his students informed him of a military action planned by his Lord. The scribe, knowing the value of the information offered to sell it to the nearest interested party – the Lord of the region he was in. From there, things steamrolled. The scribe became a very rich man and those in his network were well rewarded for the information they provided. During the wars that followed Charlemagne’s death, it was his serfs who picked winners and losers. Throughout, their power came through their hidden text. None could disturb their network – intercepting or introducing messages. Feeling the grip of this peasant network, Lords and Kings alike sought interpretation. They paid armies of scribes to attempt to crack those samples they intercepted.

“Eventually, they met with partial success. They could decode the text, but they discovered that every message could be read in two ways. From the center of the page out, or from the outside, in. And the two meanings, invariably, were completely at odds. Messages could not be reliably interpreted until that conundrum was addressed – and to this day it has not been.

“Eager to destroy the network, the nobility introduced fake parchments – forgeries that drove apart the cohesion of Ian’s network. And then, with that small flame set amongst the trusting correspondents, the network was gone. Just like that, it disappeared.”

The room was silent.

“These parchments,” continued the professor, “Contain a history that has been totally lost. A history of peasant life and a history of medieval politics. But they also contain a story. A story of exile, of daring, of adventure and of success. All in a world where a banished man was as good as dead. And, in the end, they tell a story extinction.”

The professor paused, a smile on his face.

“Who,” he asked, “Would like to learn how to read them?”

Hundreds of arms shot up.

The corpulent professor smiled.

He knew they would enjoy the tale.

Day #67: The Fixer

“I’ve got a fixer.” The lights in the operations center were dim. The smartly dressed FBI agent had short black hair and intense brown eyes. She was sitting in front of a sleek computer with a pair of massive flat screen monitors. At least 20 application windows were open. The agent, Gail Burrows, was carrying on online conversations in each of them.

“Careful,” said her supervisor, as a charge of excitement flowed through the room, “They scare easy these days.”

“I know,” muttered Agent Burrows, “It isn’t getting any easier.”

The agents were part of an elite squad. They were seeking out the lowest form of human scum – people selling or renting their children for molestation. The job required a cold and calculating demeanor. You had to play a sick personality – a buyer. You had to keep your stories straight, the prey wasn’t stupid. And, most importantly,  in order to do a convincing and effective job, you had to become the predators you were playing. It was method acting at its most painful.

Nobody was better at it than Agent Burrows. Like a champion chess player playing six boards at one time, she was expertly weaving through dozens of identities and fishing, simultaneously, for dozens of suspects. On the job, she was dry and robotic. But off the job – she worked a very late shift – she drank too much, cried frequently for no reason, and avoided children like the plague. On the job, she had teammates. Off the job, she was totally alone. Almost nobody could relate to her and she had no patience for them. Those who could relate were evil – and she had enough of that on the clock.

The job was killing her, but nobody knew it.

The job was  killing her – but she couldn’t stop.

One of the roles Agent Burrows – Gail – was playing, was the role of a ‘scared serial.’ A sick guy who preyed on multiple children – but was too fearful to actually seek them out himself. Such people relied on child ‘fixers’ who – by paying parents or the kids themselves – arranged for kids to be available. Fixers and scared serials were by nature hard to find and harder still to convict.

“Everybody ready for transfers?” There were nine other agents in the room. When a live lead was in play, the agent who generated the lead passed off their other workload. The process involved sending brief character notes and an online ID and conversation log to the new agent. Because Gail worked so many conversations, the others hated her transfers.

Nonetheless, heads nodded.

Gain hit a button and the transfers were made. Now, she could have a single-minded devotion to catching her fixer.

She had to play coy. Her character had lost his fixer and was seeking another. But nothing other than innuendo could be used. Law enforcement was constantly on the prowl and both fixers and scared serials were excellent at getting wisely spooked. She only knew the lead she had was a child fixer because the site she was on had a reputation as a hangout for those exploring the immoral.

This fixer was unusually willing to provide. The conversations started when Gail wrote, “Had a friend who used to help me out. But he moved to Phoenix.”

“Too bad.” came the reply, from her potential mark.

“I’m looking to make new friends.” wrote Gail.

“I might be able to help,” said the fixer.

From there, the conversation continued for hours – dancing delicately around the subject. The shared bonafides – Gail’s being her character’s Facebook page. The fixer found her very respectable resume and called her listed references. Other agents deftly handled the calls. The fixer shared his bonafides, including a simple web site that spoke in intentionally vague terms about the  services provided.

Finally, they agreed to meet – on the steps of the public library.

The fixer would bring product.

The whole team prepped for the meet. Fixers were big fush – serious sick enablers of some of the work people humanity has to offer. some worked on an industrial scale.

Gail, being a woman who couldn’t play the perp, watched from a distance. The scared serial was played by an Agent Franks, a thin man in his lower 30s. He did it a lot. He was wearing an ‘in the canal’ mic and speaker. She could communicate with him and tell him what to say.

When they got to the meet, the target was obvious – a young Asian man with a Caucasian 4-year-old girl. But it wasn’t enough to prosecute.

Agent Franks drew close. Contact was made.

Gail watched, directing the conversation from a bench in a plaza across the street. Waiting for the magic works – ‘She’s for rent’ or ‘She’s for sale’ or ‘She lovable, physically.’ Something to trigger an arrest.

Slowly Gail moved Franks closer and closer – bringing him to the border of explicitly planning to engage in a crime. Finally, after 20 minutes, the fixer gave them what they needed. “She’s available,” he said, “Anything you want to do in one hour – as long as there are no scars – for $5,000.”

“Move!” instructed the team lead, “And Franks, keep him there.”

“I’ll buy,” said Franks.

Gail jumped up fro the bench. Across the plaza, a man with intense eyes did the same thing at exactly the same time. The agents converged simultaneously. Three tackled the fixer. Three tackled Franks. Both quietly insisted, “Check my wallet.”

Gail and the man from across the plaza reached the scene together. “What’s going on?” they demanded, almost in unison.

Minutes later it was worked out. Both the ‘fixer’ and the ‘scared serial’ worked for the FBI. They’d stung each other.

Gail looked at her counterpart – a handsome man named Robert Jones.

A smile crossed her heavy eyes.  Her job may have been to pursue evil – but this outcome was far more pleasant.

A smile crossed his eyes. He was thinking the same thing.

Together, they went for drinks.

Day #66: The Kidney Killer

I’m not a man who dwells in the past.

In fact, I tend to hide from it.

20 years ago, my mother was murdered. We were walking to the park, in New York’s Upper West Side. It was late winter, but the sun was shining and it was warm. It seemed like there were people everywhere enjoying the warmth of the day. I was looking forward to riding the swings. But we never made it. I saw the guy who killed her. He was black, like me. He was short and thick. He was muscled and he had dead eyes.

It happened quickly. No gun. I was just holding her hand, walking. He came up behind us, gloves on his hands. He grabbed and twisted her neck. My eyes met his, and then it was done. He kept going.

Despite people being everywhere, nobody saw anything. It was too fast and too quiet.

It was a headline case, but the police never found anything. It seemed too clean for anything but a contract hit. But nobody could understand why my mom had been targeted. They looked at my dad – they’d fought often and he wasn’t exactly likable – but nothing connected him.

It was a clean kill.

After that, life was never the same. Everywhere I went, people pitied me. So I changed my name. Not legally, I was only a kid. At first, I just decided to start using another name.

Then, six months after my mom was killed, my dad abandoned me. I was 8 and he just disappeared.

I never saw him again.

The state took me. I moved from foster home to foster home. But despite – or perhaps because of – all the troubles, I grew strong. Independent and strong.

When I turned 18, I legally changed my name. I wasn’t looking back.

I went to college on a scholarship. I got married. I started a successful software business.

And then, three months ago, I saw my mother’s killer.

The years had changed me a lot more than they’d changed him. I wasn’t recognized. I couldn’t help it, but I followed him. I learned where he worked. And then I went home.

For three days, I thought about what to do. And then, I arranged to bump into him again. I invited him to dinner. I had to be totally sure I had the right guy.

He seemed to be a nice guy. He ran his own business, cleaning windows on 20 office towers in midtown. He was organized, smart and aggressive.

A lot like me.

We kept getting together, hanging out, going for drinks or games at the Garden. After a few months, at a sports bar, I finally told him my secret.

I wanted my wife dead.

He laughed at first. But I lied and convinced him I was serious. I wanted to see if he’d do it.

I expected him to offer his services, but he didn’t. Instead, his voice lowered. And he asked me to follow him. We went to his office. He made two coffees and sat me down on a cheap swivel chair. He sat on the edge of his metal desk. The whole office had a cheap and industrial feel, despite the fact that I knew he had and made real money. He must have been seeking to portray an low-end services attitude.

I was still waiting for his answer.

“Jim,” he said, finally, “I can help.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking about how to kill him.

“But there are a few conditions.”

“Okay,” I answered, a touch of agreement and impatience in my voice.

“First, this is going to be strange, but you need to trust me.”

“Okay.”

“Second, if you tell anybody you shouldn’t about this, you’ll die.”

“Okay.”

He moved off the desk, and sat heavily in his own chair – a slightly more expensive swivel model.

“Jim,” he said, “There’s a website. A blank page with one white box and a submit button. You go there, you enter what you need, and then it happens.”

“And then what?” I asked.

“And then, down the road, you are asked to do something. Your instructions will actually come with a full plan, something that will guarantee you never get caught. You do your part, and you are done.”

“How does it work?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“I’m not sure,” said my mother’s killer, “But I think it’s something like those kidney transplants. You know, some doctor somewhere connects a daisy chain of 15 patients who can help each other. This is the same sort of thing, but with crime. It’s got to take some major sort of brain.”

“Have you done it?” I asked.

“Years ago,” he said, “I wanted to get this business started. It was a mob industry – and I had to break into it. I had superior technology – robots that could autonomously wash windows, all day and all night. There was a lot of money to be made. The guy who controlled the business had a clean reputation. He had to. His clients needed plausible deniability. I needed him exposed.

“I met somebody. He told me what I told you – except in those days it took a piece of paper and a PO Box.

“The guy was gunned down in what seemed to be a clear mob hit. No arrests were made.

“Years later, I got a letter and I did my part. Again, no arrests.”

“You did it just the once?” I asked.

“Just one hit,” he said, “But my robots look into a lot of offices and I have had a fair number of requests for inside information. So I’ve been able to call one some more help.”

“Any regrets,” I asked.

He paused, thought about it, and then said, “No, none at all.”

I went home that night. As I lay in bed, I thought about what I’d learned. Three people had killed my mother. My new ‘friend.’ The Kidney Killer. And my dad. Whatever they or others in their circle had started, they hadn’t stopped.

I got up from bed and went to my home office. I opened the devil’s website. I thought about what I could enter. My father’s name. The name of my mother’s killer.

I thought about trying to track the message.

I got up, poured myself a whiskey, and thought about killing the Devil himself.

And then I closed my laptop and went back to sleep.

I’m not a man who dwells in the past.

Day #65: Contract Negotiations

(WSJ) The National Basketball Federation is in an uproar today after the financial collapse of the Vegas Texans. The NBF had distinguished from other professional sports leagues due to its unique compensation structure. Seeking to alleviate union-owner contract disputes, the NBF was formed with teams as Limited Liability Corporations.

Players, instead of earning straight salaries, could also earn ownership positions through share grants that would vest based on a flexible variety of conditions. For example, a marque player might be drawn in with a strong ownership position and kept with long-term vesting rights based on key performance metrics. As a member of a successful team, such a player would naturally be enriched by the team’s success. Long-term, due to their ownership stakes, players had an interest in teams and their communities even after retirement.

To blunt the market limitations faced by small-market teams, all teams would share 50% of its profit (or loss) with the league . That profit or loss was then distributed evenly to all teams.

“It changed the entire equation,” explains sports finance guru Ned Callahan, “Instead of head-to-head combat between players and owners – and instead of one-size-fits-all contract types that were incapable of adjusting for circumstance, players themselves became the team owners.”

Initial public reaction to the plan was position. As Callahan explains, “Many only saw benefits. Players wouldn’t sit on their heels once they had their fat contracts and they wouldn’t jump ship for the next dollar. Fans could cheer for players and teams knowing they were the exact same thing.”

Players themselves greeted the change positively. Among other benefits, Forward Brendan Jones shared an unexpected side benefit, “Suddenly, if I’d always wanted to play alongside my best friends, I could.”

Teams developed unique cultures as players learned to balance earnings with a spirit of partnership. For the most coaches, GMs and team presidents remained in their prior roles. But they reporting changed. All reported to boards staffed by player’s representatives. To maintain effectiveness, their activities were not micromanaged. Instead, the boards could elect only to hire or fire them – not to direct their individual decisions. This has left coaches with remarkable, consensually accepted, authority.

Of all the positions, the role of GMs has changed the most. Rather than seeking to draft and trade players, GMs worked to attract talents and with with players and other GMs to find mutually attractive swaps for board approval. Players who agreed to be traded could often swap ownership positions and vesting plans and interests. This sort of setup reduced trade volumes, but created trades where every party felt they could benefit.

Despite the promise of the new model, cracks soon appeared. Players sought to pad stats for reward rather than play for wins. It proved remarkably difficult to align player and team incentives. And despite league profit sharing, some teams had better owner-players than others. They recognized the value of continuity, they had civil and productive board discussions, they hired officers intelligently, and they were committed to their teams standing in the communities they represented. Because of this, the value of the franchise and its ownership stakes, rose. Top-tier players, interested in a winner, more readily came aboard. Other teams were less successful. Their disputes became public and fans turned away. They sunk and tried to bring in talent with heavy cash rewards – but the talent lacked the drive they might have had on better teams.

Now, after six years, the first team is going bankrupt. The Las Vegas Texans (named after the poker game) displayer extremely poor management – leveraging their league revenue stream, they spent heavily to attract coaches and players to revitalize the franchise. But those players used the team only to showcase their individual talents. The best took their money and quickly moved on.

And the fan base turned away.

The failure has pundits of all stripes weighing in. Some decry the model, suggesting players aren’t smart enough to govern themselves. Others call for a league rescue and takeover – as the loss of a team, and the revenues due to that team, could threaten the league itself. Still others praise the outcome, claiming the market has correctly culled a team that was terribly mismanaged.

For their part, fans are enraged. As fan union representative Andy Burns explains, “The greed and short-sided setup of the league has threatened all lovers of basketball, depressed children and adults alike and undermined hope itself. There has to be another way. Perhaps fans can own the teams.”

At the moment, the league, governed by representatives of the various teams, is debating what to do.

For the players, fans and staff, nothing is certain.

Day #64: Stigma

The facility had been designed by one of the world’s top architects. With welcoming doors, a low-profile and an overt attempt not to make any statements it was boring in the extreme. It was the first of many such facilities – to be positioned as regularly as post offices, in every city and county in the country.

And today, the facility is ready for its first visitor.

The cameras and reporters have gathered from all around the country. Local bloggers are on hand. Even a couple of radio personalities have shown up.

The initial visitor is none other than Congresswoman  Peters. She is a petite and powerful woman with cutting blue eyes, dark brown hair and a gift for sharing the challenges of her constituents.

She is also the architect of the newest and largest program in Federal Government history.

As her limousine pulls up to the door of the clinic, it is mobbed by the press. She steps out gracefully, basking in this halcyon achievement in her life. She is proud.

She walks to the door, ignoring all questions, and then turns and speaks briefly.

“Gentlemen of the press,” she  says, “I have arranged for a cameraman to follow me through the processing. I will explain every step of the way. I am just so thankful to God that we have reached this moment.”

There aren’t cheers, the assembled reporters are trying to maintain their impartiality. But more than a few hearts well up, and more than a few eyes let tears fall. It is a beautiful moment, a moment of promise.

A cameraman, carrying a small digital camera, follows Congresswoman Peters as she steps into the building.

They are welcomed by a perky young greeter. “Your name?” she asks politely.

Congresswoman Peters answers, “Congresswoman Joan Peters.” She then turns to the camera. “Even if they know you,” she explains, “They are required to ask you your name and confirm it in order to eliminate bias and fully verify your identity.”

The greeter checks the invitation on her terminal and then instructs the Congresswoman – “Through the double doors.”

The Congresswoman is in a talkative mood. Turning towards the camera, she launches into part I of her prepared speech. “America had a problem,” she explained, “As in other countries, it was discovered that ugly people were at a severe disadvantage. Their salaries  were lower for the same jobs, they had low self-esteem, and they were less likely to be hired due to their physical appearance. in other words, they were disadvantaged due to nothing other than their genetics or, perhaps, their inability to pay for decent dental work. When the spotlight was shone on this problem, the country realized what a moral failing it represented. We had a dark history of discrimination on the basis of genetics. Slavery, segregation and higher insurance costs for those genetically predisposed to disease being only a few of the most egregious cases of this. To redress those inequities, we had sporadicly implemented affirmative action of various sorts. But our efforts were never comprehensive and scientific in their approach.

“Ugliness, with the clear correlation between perceived beauty and future earnings and relationship success, was a natural opportunity to try a new way. A 3rd path forward. We could make the equality of opportunity mean something.”

The Congresswoman passes through the double doors, cameraman close behind.

A waiting attendant politely instructs her to strip and pose for a camera. The Congresswoman asks the camera to turn away. As she undresses, she continues to explain. “The goal was to determine how much money or other support would be required to compensate for a given individual’s ugliness. Of course, the potential for fraud was significant. In addition, those who did a poor job of presenting themselves would naturally appear to be more ugly, whether or not that was due to their underlying genetic disability. So we developed a computer that, looking at the unadorned human body, can present a score for physical attractiveness. A score distinct from any influence due to that individual’s behavior. Of course, images are kept entirely private.”

There is a flash and the Congresswoman can be heard reassembling her clothes. In a minute, she is back on camera – a bright smile plastered across her face.

“The system not only assesses ugliness, it can assign racial scores. Instead of simply being Caucasian or African-American or Hispanic and individual can be rated for built-in racial victimhood on a continual curve.”

The attendant directs her into the next room.

“Of course,” she explains, “That was only stage one. With this new methodology, there were so many areas of born inequality that could be addressed. We have developed a battery of tests to judge people’s performance in each area. In every case, we have opted for scientific and not subjective results.”

A third attendant appears and directs her to lay on a bed that is in the center of the room. She is ordered to react.

The camera catches her peaceful smile as the room’s lights dim. Then, above her, lights flash and patterns form. Smells enter the air, then noises. Her toe is pricked. The entire time, data is collected. After three minutes, she is asked to get up from the bed.

She does so.

“During that test,” she explains, “My brain was being continually scanned. It was designed to assess core physical and mental acuity. Am I wired properly for smell? How quickly do I recognize patterns? How many inputs can I handle at one time? All put together it gives an excellent of my mental and physical birthright.”

The attendant directs her into the next room. There, yet another attendant is sitting behind a desk. She has a list of questions in front of her.

One by one, she reads them off and the Congresswoman answers. The attendant’s delivery is intentionally flat. After seven minutes of questioning, the attendant gestures her towards the next room.

“That may have seemed odd,” she explains to the camera, “But that was a psychological examination. The computers were analyzing not only my verbal responses to the questions but also my physiological responses. They were determining whether I have any underlying mental issues. If not, course, I can be eligible for additional government support.”

They enter the next room.

“I want to stress,” she adds, as they are about to step into the next room, “That centralizing all these functions is not only a boon for the moral fabric of our society. It is also a tremendous cost savings. Your entire predisposed But the Congresswoman’s responses are carefully monitored

The next room is empty. Congresswoman Peters explains, “There are a number of new and exciting areas we are looking to assess. These would include physical condition, for example. However, we are currently unable to distinguish nature from nurture in these areas. It is possible a genetic test might be run to determine what portion of a person’s obesity is due to genetics, what portion is due to an inborn lack of willpower and what portion is due to that individual’s own decision-making. For now, we have simply left room for the tests of the future.”

With a gesture, Congresswoman Peters pulls the camera towards the next room.

“Results!” she says gleefully.

In the final room, a new attendant is waiting, a print out in her hands.

“Name and ID,” she asks.

The Congresswoman confidently presents them.

The attendant cross checks the paper and the ID she’s been handed.

“Thank you,” she says, handing the ID back. “Ms. Peters,” she says, “I have some excellent news. In the ugliness test you scored a 53%. This will require your employer to raise your pay by 15%. In addition, your brain score was only 12% above normal. This will enable you to receive hiring preference and cash paycheck supplements when competing against smarter individuals.  When combined with your ugliness factor, it should also make finding work significant easier. On the psychological exam you demonstrated a definite inability to delay gratification. It has been determined that this is overwhelmingly caused by genetics or factors outside of your control. For this reason, your employers will be require to give an additional 5% of your income towards your retirement planning packages.  All in all, you are eligible for a 20% raise and an array of hiring and other preferences.”

The attendant hands Peters a printout of the report.

The senator looks crestfallen. “I look beautiful,” she tells the attendant.

“Ma’am,” says the attendant, “It’s possible that you simply dress well.”

As she stumbles from the building, a particularly aggressive reporter steps into her path.

“What do you think about the new system?” he asks, shoving a microphone in her face.

Her answer is short, “Clearly, it has a few kinks.”

Day #63: Dubai

(Dubia, UAE – February 25th). In an unexpected about-face, Dubai’s Commander-in-Chief of Police, Major General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, refused to answer questions regarding the alleged assassination of Hamas arms procurement specialist Mahmoud al Mabhouh. The Major General instead used his press conference to profess an interest in more mundane police matters, such as ensuring that the Pepsi machines in the lobby of his Headquarters were adequately stocked.

A  number of theories have been advanced considering his about face. The first, and most prominent, is the possibility that the Mossad or other parties threatened him if he continued to talk. A second popular theory is that he too owns false passports and realized pursuing the topic could cause him significant personal damage.

Our own investigations, using informants who work within the Dubai Police Department suggest a different motivation. As the Dubai police expanded their probe, they realized that over 75 agents – all sent to dispose of a single individual – were staying in top-tier Dubai hotels and eating at top-tier Dubai restaurants. All flew Emirates Airlines with the majority purchasing tickets in first-class. Finally, according to accounts of those who encountered the massive assassination team, they were unfailingly polite and very generous tippers.

The official, who requested that he remain unnamed, explained: “Here in Dubai we were initially concerned that we would receive a reputation as a popular destination for assassinations. The al Mabhouh case was seen as a potential threat to all-important tourist dollars – as well as dollars spent by those in our blackmarket arms industry. The lost revenues from that case could have been substantial, had the killers hurt others beyond their targets. However, the assassination was remarkably clean. And, as 75 foreign agents came to stay in Dubai to carry out the effort, it was felt that the net positive gain from the assassination was substantial. In this global economy, with budgets falling, governments are seen as an excellent source of hotel and restaurant revenues.”

Further consultations with Dubai officials have indicated that a rash of reforms are making their way through the city-states government. First, suspected political or military assassins are to be freely admitted. Second, to reduce diplomatic tempests, assassins are advised to travel under their legal passports – even Israelis will be welcome. Third, in order to ensure a target-rich environment, Dubai will make every effort to expand the illegal arms business, the drug transiting business and the blind-eye-to-terrorists policies.

With these elements in place, Dubai expects that it will see international espionage related assassinations almost triple in one year.   In two year’s time, it is estimated that the new measures will be generating $200M/yr in new hotel revenues from assassins and their associates while costing only $10M/yr in non-scheduled hotel stay reductions. It is hoped that Dubai can be the world leader in targeted killings by late in 2010.

While the new unofficial policy is exciting for those in the targeted killing industry, the Dubai government has indicated that visitor’s activities will be restricted in two significant ways: First, any collateral damage will submit all parties involved to intense review and possible banishment. Second, any assassins using low-budget hotels will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

A passport officer at Dubai Airport explained the change succinctly, “We used to look at the passports. Now, we try not to.”

Note: Today is the Fast of Esther, which directly precedes (most years) the holiday of Purim. Often seen as an adjunct to Purim, this fast is actually quite important. It is the Fast Esther asked the Jewish people to take prior to taking her case for Jewish survival to the King. Where most fasts are concerned with the past (and perhaps how that past affects us today), this fast is solidly focused on the present. We fast on this day so that G-d will bless our attempts to thwart modern-day attempts to eliminate our people. As the Iran threat grows, and as we prepare to play whatever hand we have, it is critical that we understand that our efforts and our redemption will come from G-d. Here are, I feel, two revealing quotes:

“They have a whole backup system called asynum(?). These are the people who are local residents, Jewish people, who will help the Mossad. And there’s estimated to be in the world about half a million, some say a million, I tend to say about a half million from what I’ve learned from Mossad people.” — BBC interview, February 17th, 2010 (this would indicate up to 1 in 12 diaspora Jews works for Mossad)

“’There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed;” Haman, Megillat Esther, a long time ago.