Happy Thanksgiving

What I remember most about Thanksgiving is having a school assignment that was due the day after Thanksgiving break.  Why do they make things due the day after Thanksgiving break?

Like the time in fifth grade, I had to write an “report” on Ferdinand Magellan.  I’d done nothing for weeks, thinking, “Oh, December first, that’s like forever away.”  Then that Sunday after Thanksgiving, when I and my brother are still eating pumpkin pie for breakfast, I realize in a panic that the report is due, that I don’t have any books on the subject, and that our library branch is closed.  To appreciate this scene you have to know what it was like in the days before the internet.

Fortunately, my father served with someone on the synagogue ritual committee who worked for the library system, and by calling this person – during dinner, from what I could gather from my father’s side of the telephone call – discovered that there was one library branch that was open, and it was thirty minutes away by car.

It was an uncomfortable car ride.  My father waited while I got out the books, and then had to drive me to his office thirty minutes in the other direction from our home, just so I could type the essay because, I had meant to add, the teacher said that the essay had to be typed.

And there was eighth grade Thanksgiving break, for which I saved an assignment to pick ten Civil War battles and write a short poem about each one.  This was my first (but far from my last) experience with the “all-nighter,” as well as with the technique of using the same rhyming couplet (“In this battle of the Civil War/Twas hard to know who suffered more”) in every single poem to give some substance.  I recently reviewed the teacher’s comments in red – “Good technique but need something about the battle.” – and was insulted all over again.

In twelfth grade, I honored my Thanksgiving break with an assignment to memorize and recite lines from Hamlet.  As I could do this entirely by myself without need for rides or money or labor, I told no one, and stayed up all Sunday night and into Monday morning rehearsing the words “we fat ourselves for maggots.”

After dozing off and missing the bus and enduring a ride to school from a very angry and tired parent, I ran to English class, took a few deep breaths, got into character, and commenced my performance.  It was more exhilarating than I had ever imagined, at least until my teacher informed me that I had learned the wrong lines, and gave me an A-.

These days, the challenge on Thanksgiving is getting ready and out the door at near light speed without upending the pie or squishing the rolls.  This ritual is in its own class of torture.  But by Sunday I am worry free.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Remember Shopping on Black Friday?

The CEO took a few deep breaths and repeated his mantra silent to himself, and then addressed the shareholders.

“Esteemed shareholders, I know that our Black Friday sales were quite a bit lower than anticipated,” he said.  “Believe me when I say that this is a greater shock to me then it is to you.  No one could have predicted that people would be sick of Black Friday, and would choose to stay at home with their families rather than run out in the dark night and participate in a stampede for televisions.  Clearly there are forces at work here with which we are unfamiliar.”

The CEO took a sip of water.  The water went down the wrong pipe, and there was a coughing fit for a few moments.

“But do not despair,” the CEO continued upon regaining control.  “There is hope.  We and the other big stores have a plan.  Instead of waiting for the customers to come to us, we’re going to go to the customers.”

At 4:00 a.m. the following morning, employees from all of the major retailers lined up at the home of one of their rewards club members who had failed to show up at the Black Friday sale.  Someone pushed the doorbell, and when the groggy homeowner in his bathrobe opened the door a crack to see who was ringing the bell at such an hour, the employees rushed into the house with all sorts of wares – on sale, of course.

The homeowner was bewildered, but he was so tired and desperate to get back to bed that he bought a few items.  Then the employees left and went to the house next door, where the process was repeated.  And so on until the end of the block.

A lot of people complained about the invasion of privacy and overly aggressive sales tactics.  But it was hard to argue with the results.  It turned out that the real reason people didn’t spend on Black Friday was because they didn’t want to deal with the parking.  Once that was taken out of the equation – along with the traveling, the waiting on lines, the crowds, and the having to wear pants – people were happy to spend money.

Sales not only rebounded, but exceeded all the estimates and set a record for the holiday shopping season.  Soon all the stores were doing it.  People could expect a visit from the employees of a store at least once a week.  Not only was it unnecessary to visit the store in person, but it became unnecessary to shop online.  Why waste time on goods you can’t see, when the goods will be physically in your home within the next few weeks?

Online sales dropped so much that the Internet began to suffer.  Shopping websites that had gotten millions of hits per day during previous holiday seasons, now saw just a handful of visitors.  The brick-and-mortar stores had folded up long before.  Now they were joined by the digital stores.

The stores would do their best to tailor the goods they brought to households.  But it was still guesswork, and some people lamented the loss of personal choice.  Others, however, didn’t care about personal choice, because something else was taking its place.  People were finding that they could learn to like the goods that the stores brought to their homes.  The holiday wasn’t about breaking one’s neck to get the best deal.  It was about learning to be thankful for what one had.

Remember Smallpox?

I read in an article (“Resurrecting Smallpox? Easier Than You Think”) that the smallpox virus that killed about a billion humans and almost as many characters in The Oregon Trail video at my middle school library, now lives in a computer as a single sequence of 185,000 letters that scientists are now working diligently to pronounce as one word.

Smallpox stored on computers. And now the professional worriers are worried that someone is going to download and print-out, I guess, the smallpox virus and introduce it into the population via direct mailings or flyers posted on those bulletin boards at the supermarket, looking for a cat or a drummer, with little strips of paper hanging off for interested folk to rip off.

The goverment would have to implement a national system of paper management. The IRS would offer a tax credit to every household that purchased a quality shredder, one that shreds the paper vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, so that not even the Penguin from Batman Returns would have the patience to glue the pieces back together.  Unsuspecting households would be taken in by unscrupulous merchants of inferior shredders, that would choke after five minutes of shredding, or one try at those directions for household appliances that are given in three different languages.  A bureau would have to be created to develop a standard for shredders to meet in order to receive the tax credit.  A team of federal shredder inspectors would be trained to inspect shredders, and issue certifications of quality, and soon no one would buy one without asking to see a certificate of quality.  At some point they will start forging the certificates of quality, and another bureau will be created to inspect the authenticity of the certificates after the first set of inspectors reviewed them.

Maybe they won’t print the smallpox on paper. Maybe the virus will be transmitted via telephone.  Using the spreadsheet on the network titled “CELL PHONE NUMBERS – ALL” the government will call people up one by one, and when the people pick up, a recorded message will say, “Please hold for your free vacation,” and then, using a Casio PT-87 synthesizer, the 185,000 letters of smallpox will be sounded as the corresponding note on the scale.  Whoever hears more than ten notes of the virus will contract it and have to be quarantined.  For years the sound of a telephone ringing will bring shudders and flashes of the evil eye and spitting on the floor.  People will go back to communicating using cans strung together and will find it adequate, even though they will all be forced into long service contracts by the can-and-string companies.

Of course the real way that smallpox will be spread will be by the internet. All the bioterrorists will need to do is put the sequence of letters on a website and tell everyone to check it out.  People will go there and stare at the page and not be able to take their eyes off of the letters until the disease was well inside them.  And there the disease would end, for none of these people would have contact with any human beings.

Big Announcement

Instead of writing something that purports to be funny, I want to let you know about a website that I’ve been visiting recently. It is called The Issue Box. And you can find it by typing theissuebox.com into your browser’s URL field. Or you can Google it. Or you can follow this link.

The Issue Box allows users to post and vote on an infinite number of political and other public issues, without requiring any personal information – no names, no financial information – save for an email address that is used solely to verify that you are a human being and not a bot or toaster oven.

So, for example, you could say something like, “There are not enough restrictions on pollution,” and then vote “Agree” or “Disagree.” And then that issue, with your one vote, will be available for any other users to vote Agree or Disagree.  As the votes tally, you will be able to see a pie chart showing the split of yeas and nays, and how each voting user voted.

Now let’s say that you are a user of the site, and you didn’t create that issue, and you don’t want to vote on it either.  You think the issue misses the point.  So now you create the issue “We need to enforce the pollution restrictions we already have,” and vote Agree, and now your newly-minted issue is posted on the Home page for all to see and vote Agree or Disagree.

Now let’s talk real controversy.  What information do we require to sign up? A valid email address. That’s it. The email address is your username for logging in, but on the site you are identified only by a random assortment of words that we assign to you.   The password is a random combination of numbers, also assigned.  So your presence on the Issue Box will be totally anonymous. There is zero chance of us sharing your information with others because we don’t have any information to share.

An email address and the issues created and voted on by that email address, and that’s it.  If your email address has your name in it, and you’re not comfortable sharing it with us, then go use another email address, even one created just for the purpose of authenticating that you are a human, which is done once and never again.  But regardless of whether your email address has your name in it or not, to other users and to the public, you will be identified by only the randomly generated handle that is assigned to you at registration.  No one need ever know how you vote…unless you decide to tell them.

In case you are wondering, I have more than a passing interest in the Issue Box. I helped create it and am hoping that if enough people go on it, I will be able to sell the website for billions of dollars, and retire to a mansion with its own movie theater, where I can watch the movie they’ll make about how I screwed over my friends to take control of the company, and hope that the screenwriter is nominated for an Academy Award.

So if you get a chance today and you want to do something that’s 100% risk-free, costless, and permits – nay, encourages – you to simply say, yes or no, how you feel about an issue, and see how many people agree with you, then go to theissuebox.com and get your issues out there!

Postscript: You should know that, strictly speaking, we are still in the Beta-testing phase of the Issue Box. So if you encounter anything that looks like a glitch, please be patient and, if you have a few moments and are so inclined, send us a note about it and we’ll take care of it.

Remember When the Internet Was Anonymous?

Today marks four years since I started this blog. Seems like just yesterday. Thank you all who have read this blog and taken the time to comment. I know that I don’t post as often as I used to, but I’ve got a few big projects I’ve been working, and I’m going to share one of them with you very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this post.

The Director was sitting in his office, enjoying a pumpkin spice latte. He did not like pumpkin flavor, but it was the law of the land that pumpkin flavor must be consumed in the fall.

There was a knock at the door and an intern entered.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But do you remember when we demanded that all social media websites turn over all of the personal information and preferences of their users? Well now they say they are not producing the information.”

“They’re not? I was afraid of this. All right, time for Plan B.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I do. House calls.”

The media at first was skeptical of the government’s new program, whereby they sent government agents to canvass the neighbors, door to door, asking the inhabitants for their personal information. Many pundits thought it an intrusion on people’s privacy, while others thought it a patriotic duty and a chance to expose themselves to some new germs.

Analysts on both sides, however, agreed that people would not want to reveal their personal information to an agent of the government who showed up at their doorstop uninvited and in most cases without even a bottle of wine or piece of fancy cheese wrapped up in nice paper.

So they were really surprised by the responses. People provided their names and ages, of course, and their email addresses and phone numbers, and where they like to shop, and what they think about the things that other people’s kids do, versus the things that their own kids do. They asked about music tastes and food tastes and whether they were more likely to choose a table or a booth when offered both at a diner.

The program was so successful and the responses so thorough, that the government turned it into a reality tv show.

“You know, usually I go for the booth. If I’m offered both, I go for the booth.”

“So you’d classify yourself as booth in response to question 19a?”

“Well, now, sometimes I don’t feel like a booth. I gotta be honest, I like booths. But sometimes – I don’t know – I just feel like a table.”

“So would you classify yourself as a hybrid booth/table? There’s a choice for that.”

“Well, you know,” he says with his finger in his mouth, and looking up at the ceiling. “Now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure if I ever chose a table over a booth when offered both. I think I was thinking of something that happened to my mother. Maybe I really am a booth guy after all.”

In fact, so effective was the government program that the social media websites started offering the government money for the personal data of the citizenry, in hopes of offering content that would attract more viewers. The official answer was no, but then some Congressmen and Senators got into a bit of hot water over selling of personal data to social media companies, and had to do penance by reciting the 80s pop hit single “Safety Dance” a cappella, including all of the instrumental sounds, before every session of Congress.

Remember When Your School Got Its Own Tank?

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now of the school district that obtained an armored vehicle – actually, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle or MRAP if you want to impress someone – from the United States military through its Excess Property Program.  The vehicle was free, and the district had to pay just the cost of transportation, which was $3.95 for regular ground, or $5,000 for 2-day express.Tank1

I remember when my school got its first tank, the graduating seniors’ class gift to the school they loved so much.  At the dedication ceremony, the Class President, Class Vice President, and Class Risk Assessment Manager spray painted the sides of the tank with “Woo Hoo Class of Awesome!  To Thine Own Self Be True!”  There was an after-party, mainly for those three people, where they ate pizza and discussed what they were going to do with all their Barron’s review books.

Some concerned parents managed to have the tank classified as dangerous, so the school had to keep it under strict lock and key in the A/V room, along with the televisions on those tall skinny carts.  The School Tank, as it came to be called, was taken out for special events like Homecoming, where the Homecoming King and Queen would ride atop the military vehicle, holding flowers and wearing their crowns, and waving to the crowds in the stands.

The following year, a neighboring school district, a rival in football, basketball, and Monopoly, got its own tank. It was larger and shinier than ours, and at the Memorial Day parade, at which all high schools in the region could march in whatever formation they liked as long as it met federal safety standards, their tank got more cheers from the crowds of parents and siblings.

Over the summer, the school diverted some funds earmarked for social studies books and ordered up another tank. This one was bigger and shinier than even the tank that our rival had obtained. Next to our first tank, it was a giant. We started calling them Big Tank and Little Tank. At lunchtime now, the school paraded the two tanks, sometimes Big leading, sometimes Little, around the track. All students could look out the window and see the two tanks parading.  The tanks were driven by students, and for some reason this job attracted the same students who were in charge of the audio/visual technology.

At the Memorial Day Parade, Big Tank and Little Tank rolled down our town’s main thoroughfare in triumph. Parents and siblings cheered loudly and the day appeared to be ours. But then a sound…a buzzing chop-chop sound filled the air and all were quiet.

And then we saw it. A helicopter with a bad drawing of a wildcat – the mascot of our rival school – spray painted on the side.  The tank was rolling on the street, directly underneath the helicopter, with balloons floating from the nozzle of the gun.

This was absolutely the last straw. Classes were cancelled for a week while school officials sold books and some desks where the chair and desk are fused together to get another military vehicle. As we sat at home and wished we could be back in English class reading Wuthering Heights, we speculated on what the new vehicle would be. What could be more impressive than a helicopter?

The Warren G. Harding High School Air Craft Carrier was delivered via overnight courier. Since our physical school building was not that near the water, we had to be relocated to a coastal town on the bay. It was a lot windier but we didn’t get as much snow.

One night our radar caught a few blips off the coast of Madagascar. Our commanding officer, who was also the official wearer of the school mascot costume at home football games, ordered our battleship and guided missile cruiser – gifts of the National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America, respectively – in for a closer look.

“Identify yourselves,” Kevin said into the microphone, which no one except him seemed to know was not connected to the unknown ships.  “Prepare the guns,” he said to the crew, who were making posters for a pep rally. “This could get ugly.”

Our ships were moved into position and guns aimed. Now we were worried about the math test in third period and the possibility of war.

“Man the cannon!” Kevin said. “Ready, aim…”

“Wait! Wait!” said the Class Gluten-Free Bake Sale Coordinator. “What’s that on the side of the ships? I think it says…Go Wildcats?”

Yes, it was our dear rivals from the neighboring town. Looks like they had obtained for themselves a navy. Had it not been for the unsteady block printing and pathetic drawing of a wildcat on the sides of the ships, we would have launched on them and probably have had to make up our math test.  The near risk of war marked a turning point in the relationship of our schools, and I can safely say that today we are not rivals but allies.

Editor’s Note:  It turns out that the San Diego School District has returned the armored vehicle.  I hope they kept the receipt.

Remember When the World Cup Wasn’t On?

I was walking down the street, with my headphones on, listening to Sir John Gielgud’s performance of the “To Be, Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet.  Suddenly a long black car pulled up to the curb beside me, and two large men with black suits got out and pulled me into the car.  They blindfolded me, I imagine so that I could not see their faces, or perhaps they wanted to surprise me with a gift, the way parents would do after we lit the Hanukkah candles.

Then someone spoke to me.

“We heard that you said football was boring.”

I protested and said that I never said such a thing, that I love football and cherish every tackle as if it was happening to me or someone I loved.  There was some whispering, and then the man who spoke cleared his throat and spoke again.

“I mean, we heard that you said that soccer was boring.”

I tried to remember if I ever said that soccer was boring.

“Well, I certainly remember thinking it,” I admitted.  “But saying it?  I’m afraid I don’t remember.  I mean, I’m not saying I didn’t say it.  I’m saying I just don’t remember if I said it or not.”

The car stopped moving and the door opened and someone led me out of the car.  We walked for a while and I wondered if I was going to be killed for thinking or perhaps even saying that soccer was boring.  Then I remembered that many great people had died for a deeply held belief, and I was comforted.

Then someone stopped me, and removed my blindfold.  I was standing in the middle of a field.  It was a sunny day, and I felt around for my prescription sunglasses, and realized that I had left them at home.  Then someone called to me from my left.

I turned and a large man in a black suit, perhaps one of the pair who had kidnapped me, was standing by a soccer ball.

“We are going to show you how much fun soccer is!”  And he kicked the ball over to me.

“Now kick it back,” he said cheerfully.  I kicked it back.  I admit it was a little fun, kicking a ball.  I’ve never been able to hit a baseball or throw a perfect spiral.  But kicking a soccer ball?  It’s just like kicking a TV that doesn’t work, except it rolls.

The man kicked the soccer ball in different direction, and I saw that the person he had kicked it to looked as confused and out of place as I did.  Without a word, he kicked the ball back to the kidnapper, who then gracefully kicked the ball in yet another direction to yet another person looking confused and out of place.  I turned my body around a full 360 degrees, and saw many other people standing around, looking confused and out of place, all with a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here playing soccer.”  I was apparently part of a soccer game designed to expose soccer to people who were rumored to have said that soccer was boring.

I don’t know how long I was out there.  Time seemed to stand still as we kicked the ball to this person, then to that person, then to that person.  It was too hot to run around, so we all just stood there kicking the ball.  But after a while it was kind of fun.  Just kick the ball.  At some point someone asked the kidnapper how much time was left in the game.  The kidnapper signaled to the sideline, and two other large men with black suits came onto the field, hit the person over the head with something, and dragged him off the field, his heels leaving tracks in the grass.  He did not return to the game.

At some point the soccer ball disappeared, and we were blindfolded one at a time.  I was led to the car, told to get in, and driven a distance.  Then the car stopped, the door opened, the blindfold removed, and I’m let out of the car.  The kidnapper who played with us was standing next to me.

“You see?  Now you know how much fun foot – I mean, how much fun soccer is.  Tell all your friends!”

The car drove off and I wandered down the street.  I passed a bar where people were watching World Cup soccer, and I walked inside.  The players on the screen were kicking the ball from one to another, just as I had been doing a short while before.  I thought about how much fun I had been having.  I remember the satisfying feeling of kicking the ball, and projected my feelings onto the players on the TV.  No one in that bar was more focused on the game than I was, and soon I started to feel like I was actually in the game.  I was living soccer!  This is what they were talking about!

I lasted almost five minutes.  Then I felt around for my headphones, put them on, walked out of the bar, and continued listening to Sir John Gielgud as the melancholy Prince of Denmark.

Remember When Virtual Reality Was More Virtual Than Reality?

Facebook’s Director of Newfangled Operations was sitting at his desk, reading reviews on Yelp for a good place to get turkey salad. An assistant knocked at his door.

“Come in, come in,” he said, facing the assistant. “So what’s the good word?”

“Well, sir, you know that ever since we acquired the virtual reality company Oculus VR, the, uh, upper management has been anxious to learn about the user experience.”

“Yes, yes,” the Director said. “And what is the user experience? Do the people, the salt of the earth, the great unwashed masses yearning to be free…do they like virtual reality?”

“Yes, they do, but—”

“But what? Are people displeased with the gaming?”

“No, they love it. They say the exploding bodies have never been more life like.”

“Are they able to access enough pornography?”

“Of course. We’ve enabled even individuals with visual, hearing, and tactile disabilities to enjoy it. A Congressional committee has commended us.”

“Don’t tell me they’re concerned about privacy.”

“Most people accept the theory that privacy was a myth originated by the Sumerians around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

“Well what then?”

“Sir, the users’ concern is that when they wear the virtual reality headgear, they can’t tell if people are touching their food.”

The Director stared at the assistant for a few moments. “Touching their food?”

“Yes, you know. Like putting their hands all over a bowl of potato chips, and then watching while the virtual reality user eats the potato chips that have just been touched.”

The Director was a silent a moment. “I see how this could be quite a problem.”

“Sir, should we tell Mr. Zuckerberg? Perhaps—”

“No! Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t like problems.” The Director chewed on a nail. “We’ve got to fix this ourselves.”

The solution was to offer virtual reality users the services of someone who would sit in the same room with them, without wearing headgear, and would stand guard over the users’ food or drink or bodily integrity. These hired individuals—called “guardians”—could also watch coats and book bags. And for a while it worked.

But then people started to worry that these guardians were doing things to them that they had been hired to prevent. What if the guardians had been bribed by someone who wanted to dip a finger in the users’ coffee and stir it around? How would the users ever know?

So then the guardians were scraped and instead the headgear was fitted with a little camera that would broadcast the user’s immediate surroundings through a little window in the corner of the headgear’s screen. So now users could watch the real world while they were immersed in virtual reality.

After a while, users found that watching their real life surroundings was more interesting than the virtual world. If they were alone, they could watch an empty room and see if anyone came in. If they were in a room with other users, they could watch a bunch of other people wearing headgear, bobbing around in their seats and waving their hands.

Users started talking to each other while they were immersed in virtual reality. Now that they could everyone else in the room, they could talk freely, knowing that they weren’t speaking to an empty room. At first they talked about the virtual reality simulation they were using at the moment. But soon they moved on to other topics, like the weather, or upcoming weddings, or what each of them had done that day. Tech bloggers dubbed this growing practice of in-person conversation while wearing the headgear “non-virtual reality.”

Non-virtual reality became so popular that the software engineers kept enlarging the size of the window projected on the inner screen. Before long, this window took up the entire screen, so that when the users put the virtual reality headgear on, they saw a live, perfectly to-scale rendering of the same exact scene they would see if they took the headgear off.

“Sir!” the assistant said, entering the Director’s office with the headgear on. “Your program is a complete success! It is reported that 98% of the world’s population now walks around with headgear on all the time.”

“Splendid!” said the Director, wearing his own headgear. “But who are the 2% that aren’t wearing headgear? Are they from those primitive societies that walk around in loincloths and star in those movies they show at the Museum of Natural History?”

“No, sir. That was our initial theory, too. But it turns out that the 2% are hardcore techies.”

“Techies! But how can that be?”

“They say the original headset was better.”

Remember the Cold War?

Is it East versus West
Or man against man?
Survivor, “Burning Heart”
Rocky IV Soundtrack
(Volcano Records, 1985)

The President of the United States wasn’t having one of his better days.

“He wants to annex what?” he asked into the phone. “Moldovia? I’ve never even heard of Moldovia…What’s that you say?…It’s ‘Moldova’ and not ‘Moldovia’?…Well, I’ve never heard of Moldova, either…I don’t care how many athletes they sent to the Olympics.” An advisor walked into the Oval Office and the President glanced at him briefly. “Listen, John, I’ll have to call you back.” The President slammed the phone into its cradle.

The advisor spoke without preamble. “Mr. President, the President of Russia says he won’t withdraw Russian troops from Crimea and he won’t give Crimea back to Ukraine.”

“Really? Did you make him the offer?”

“Of course, Mr. President. And he said thank you, but that he already had a neck basket.”

The President frowned and nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “Time to think outside the box.” He went up to a white board along the wall of the Oval Office and wrote “military action” in red erasable marker. “Let’s brainstorm. Give me some options for dealing with Russia.”

“Military action, Mr. President,” said the advisor.

“Great! Now, let’s flesh that out a little. What are some things that go with military action.”

“Um, troops,” said the advisor.

“Yes, okay.” Underneath “military action” the President drew a dash and wrote “troops.”

“What else?”

“Tanks.”

“Okay, great.” The President wrote “- tanks” under “- troops.”

“What else?”

“Planes.”

“Great. We’re moving right along.” The President added “- planes” to the list.

There was a knock at the door.

ya

“Come in!” yelled the President, wiping away some stray marks from the white board. In walked the Secretary of Defense.

“Mr. Secretary!” said the President. “Come on in. Take a doughnut. We’re just doing a little brainstorming on what to do with Russia. As you can see, we’re off to a great start.” He presented the white board with his hand, palm turned up.

“That’s very good work, Mr. President. But I don’t think military action is going to work. The Russian forces are well set up inside and around Crimea, and our forces are frightened of going into a country that has a backwards ‘R’ in its alphabet.”

“Hmm, that’s a good point. I never trusted that backwards ‘R’ either,” said the President, shuddering.

“Mr. President,” said the Secretary of Defense with a tight smile, “may I offer an alternative strategy?”

The media did not respond favorably when it was announced that the President of the United States had formally challenged the President of the Russian Federation to a game of Flappy Bird to determine the ownership of Crimea and Russia’s overall designs on world domination. The criticism was especially sharp over the fact that the challenge had been issued over the President’s Twitter account. But to everyone’s surprise, the challenge was accepted, and the coverage shifted from anlysis of foreign policy to analysis of the two leaders’ video game skills.

American historians noted that when the President of the United States was in law school he had won a Super Mario Bros. tournament against the other students in his constitutional law class.

But Russian historians noted that the President of the Russian Federation had been the top scorer in a first-player combat video game developed just for Russian government officials, called KGB versus Journalists.

Flappy Bird was a two-dimensional, side-scrolling game with primitive graphics, like Super Mario Bros., but required laser-like precision and impeccable reflexes, like KGB versus Journalists. So both Presidents had an edge.

As the time of the match approached, people were anxious. No one wanted to be unpatriotic or find themselves imprisioned. But Vegas odds never lie, and the odds on the two contestants were neck and neck.

TV stations had arranged to broadcast the match during primetime. Since Moscow is nine time zones ahead of Washington, DC, to prevent either President from playing the middle of the night, the match was arranged for 10 a.m. eastern standard time, and 7 p.m. Moscow time, on the same day. Video cameras were set up so that in the left corner of the screen would be live video of the American President, and in the right corner would be a live video of the Russian President, and the middle of the screen would be the video screen of the leader who happened to be playing Flappy Bird.

The rules were simple. A coin flip would decide who would go first. Then they would take turns, and whoever had the most points at the end of ten rounds would be declared the winner. If the American President won, the Russians had to withdraw from Crimea and forget about the Soviet Reunion.  If the Russian President won…well, no one really wanted to think about that.

Everyone – East and West – was nervous as the coin was tossed at a live video feed in Reykjavik. As the coin flipped end over end the Russian President said “Golovy!” – heads.  And the coin landed heads.

Immediately there were arguments all around the world over whether it was better to go first or last. The Russian President chose to go first, and his compatriots cheered him for taking the initiative. But the Americans were, for the most part, relieved, as more than a century of baseball had taught them the value of last licks.

In the end it didn’t matter who went first.  Flappy Bird was so hard that even after ten rounds neither man had scored a single point. There was no winner and nothing changed in the geopolitical world. But since it had stayed unchanged without a single shot being fired, both sides declared victory and were wrapped in the flags of their respective nations by the warm embraces of their citizens.

I’d like to wish Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson a hearty welcome back to blogging.  It’s good to see that familiar title in my inbox again. – MK

Remember Privacy?

The Director called a general staff meeting.  All hands on deck.  He gave everyone a few minutes to grab coffee and bring it into the conference room.

“All right, everyone,” he said.  “I know this has been a rough few months for us.  The phone tapping, computer tapping, video game tapping.  They know all our tricks, and soon they’re going to shut us down and we’ll left to gathering evidence the old fashioned way, sitting up in a tree with binoculars.  I don’t want to go back to that.  Do you?”

Everyone shook their heads.

“Good.  We need to come up with a new way of spying on people without them knowing.  Something we’ve never done before. Yes, esteemed colleagues.  It is time for nostril bugs.”

Over the next few weeks agents fanned out across the country, in search of people sleeping so that bugs could be implanted in their nostrils.  People sleeping on subways, park benches, and commuter trains were easy.  Even libraries snagged a few sleepers.  But the real difficulty was breaking into people’s homes late at night and implanting the bugs while they slept.  More than one agent tried to go down the chimney.

But before long the entire population was walking about with tiny electronic sensors in their nostrils.  Like the bugs in cell phones and computers, these nostril bugs recorded data and then transmitted it back to headquarters.  But unlike the bugs in cell phones and computers, these nostril bugs did not record communications.  These bugs recorded smell.

The Director’s dream was to map the entire country by smell.  An internal memo had once mentioned that a certain group of mischief-makers liked to eat pizza the night before a big event.  So whenever the detected that there was a cluster of nose sensors picking up the scent of pizza, agents would immediately surround the area and detain everyone for questioning.

After the fiftieth raid on a student council meeting, the Director decided to alter the strategy.

“Forget the pizza rule,” he said.  “It’s yielding too many false positives.  Let’s focus on another smell.”

Another internal memo mentioned that the groups liked to meet in basements.  So whenever they detected a cluster of musty or moldy smells, agents would surround the location and detain everyone for questioning.

After the hundredth raid on an innocent poker game, the Director knew that once again he had to change focus.

“What’s done is done.  Enough playing around.  Time to go for the jugular.”

He ordered all agents to focus just on the smell of instruments of sudden disaggregation.  It was so simple, so obvious, that he wondered why he hadn’t thought of it at the very beginning of the nostril project.

The agents waited on the edge of their seats for the smell clusters to appear on the big screen.  But the clusters never came.  They checked the parameters for incorrect calibrations.  They checked the software for glitches.  They banged the side of the big screen.  Nothing.

“Maybe there is no more mischief!” the Director exclaimed.  “Hey, we did it!” he shouted and put his palm up for someone to high five.  Then he saw the news flash.

An attack on a series of lawn ornaments had taken place.  The news footage showed bits of miniature windmill and terracotta clay gnomes littering a suburban street, with homeowners standing around in their bathrobes, crying and hugging each other.

And then they showed a picture of the group claiming responsibility for the attacks.  The members were wearing masks over their eyes, and clothes pins on their noses.

The Director looked around the room, wondering who had leaked the nostril program and endangered the welfare of the nation.  But he knew it was useless.  There was no single unwarranted invasion of privacy that could stop these kinds of activities for good.  You just had to keep coming up with something new.