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October 31, 2002
Angels
Posted by Teresa at 10:15 AM *

I’m sorry if you were rooting for the Giants, but I am under a geas that requires me to root for any team that employs Mickey Hatcher.

The underlying forms of fraud
Posted by Teresa at 09:24 AM * 59 comments

One of the odd things about confidence games is that, structurally speaking, there are so few of them—only about as many as there are simple machines. What looks like their near-infinite multiplicity is just a lot of variations on a small number of forms.

By my current reckoning there are seven:

1. Simple misrepresentation.
2. Using high-pressure tactics to confuse or intimidate the victim.
3. Shell games, sleights of hand, and switch-and-retraction cons: the pigeon drop, the Jamaican switch, Three-Card Monte, etc.
4. The Spanish Prisoner
5. Ponzi Schemes
6. Pyramid schemes
7. Selling information about, or access to, uncommon opportunities

(The list is a work in progress. I’m not altogether sure #2 belongs on the it, though I’m not sure why or why not, and #7 might turn out to be a subcategory of one of the first six. False billing is off the list, subsumed under #1. But the whole idea of a taxonomy might be folly; everyone who thinks a lot about fraud comes up with one, and they’re all different. Here’s one, here’s another.)

From these come all the myriad versions of the confidence game. Pyramid schemes include everything from chain letters to Amway distributorships to the Dotcom bubble; their commonest form is the Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) scheme. Two excellent articles on this are Le Club Scambuster’s What’s Wrong with Multi-Level Marketing? and Ami Chen Mills’ Shaking the Money Tree.

A Ponzi scheme is a pyramid scheme where the participants don’t know it’s a pyramid. It offers investors an improbably high rate of return (for whatever reason; some are quite ingenious) on short-term investments. Early investors make big profits and tell their friends about it. But in fact, there is no lucrative investment strategy powering the machine; the early investors are getting paid out of the money paid in by later ones, and they’re being strongly encouraged to roll over those profits into even bigger investments. Excitement builds. More and more people invest. At some judicious point, the scammer up and disappears: Bye-bye profits, bye-bye initial investment. In 1996-97, a plague of Ponzis took down the Albanian economy.

The family of scams based on selling information about supposedly lucrative or otherwise advantageous schemes is huge. It includes advance-fee loan finders, lists of hot scholarships or employment opportunities, manuals that tell you how to get jobs on cruise ships or Alaskan fishing boats, this bit of effrontery, most of the “work at home” and “be your own boss” scams, a dozen dozen dubiously wonderful business opportunities involving reports, or display racks, or government auctions, or reviewer coupons; and of course Make Money Reading Books.

A particularly juicy subspecies is selling bad tax-avoidance information. This one’s a beaut; you have to check it out. There’s a whole section on it at the Quatloos! Cyber-Museum of Scams & Frauds, which is a great site in general for information about tax- and finance-related frauds. For some time now I’ve been meaning to blog their Tax Protestor Dummies exhibit; this seems like the right moment for it.

Before I stumbled upon Quatloos!, I’d wondered how “tax protestors” (i.e., would-be tax evaders) managed to come up with so many wacky theories about why they shouldn’t have to pay. Turns out there’s a separate class of scammers who sell them Secret Insider Information about these great tax avoidance schemes, then walk away whistling as they count their money, leaving their customers to find out the hard way that these methods absolutely do not work.

The theories are a hoot. Quatloos also has them in the form of a neatly catalogued list, but I think the gallery of Tax Protestor Dummies is more fun. I’m particularly fond of the cases where the tax evaders argued that the court proceedings were improper because there was gold fringe on the flag in the courtroom. The page begins:

These are people who really believed in the tax protestor literature, who followed it to the letter, and then was either sent to prison for tax evasion, or sanctioned or fined for asserting a stupid theory in court, or had some goofy case against the IRS dismissed, etc. These cases demonstrate conclusively that irrespective of what the scam artists who sell the tax protestor materials tell you, the only thing that will happen is that you will get creamed by the IRS in court. Oh, and you will also have lost the money you paid for the materials, your defense attorney’s fees, the value of your lost time fighting the IRS, and your reputation as a sensible individual.
Some of the cases:
Greene v. Commissioner; T.C. Memo. 2000-26; No. 15225-98 (January 21, 2000): Argued that the federal income tax laws apply only to employees of government-related entities.

McQuatters v. Commissioner; T.C. Memo. 2000-34; No. 16871-98 (February 3, 2000): Argued, among other things, that letters addressed to “Dear Taxpayer” were fraudulent, and that “income” cannot be defined — In addition to losing, he additionally received a $5,000 fine from the court for making frivolous arguments.

United States v. Ross, No. 93-1010 (7th Cir. 1995): Argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction because Indiana is not part of the United States, and because there were no regulations issued to implement the criminal statute under which he was convicted.

Miller v. United States, 868 F.2d 236 (7th Cir. 1988): Argued that the Sixteenth Amendment was never legally ratified.

United States v. Genger, No. 87-1043 (9th Cir. 1988): Argued that the district court erroneously exercised admiralty jurisdiction over him, and that filing a federal tax return violated his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion.

McLaughlin v. United States, 832 F.2d 986 (7th Cir. 1987): Argued that the federal income tax is a contract, and that he didn’t owe any tax because he rescinded the contract.

Casper v. Commissioner, 805 F.2d 902 (10th Cir. 1986): Argued that wages are exchanges of property rather than taxable income.

Eicher v. United States, 774 F.2d 27 (1st Cir. 1985): Argued that the Fifth Amendment allowed him to withhold all financial information from his income tax return.

Newman v. Schiff, 778 F.2d 460 (8th Cir. 1985): Irwin Schiff offered $100,000 to anyone who could prove that the tax code requires individuals to pay income tax.

Lovell v. United States, 755 F.2d 517 (7th Cir. 1984): Argued that they are exempt from federal taxation because they are “natural individuals” who have not “requested, obtained or exercised any privilege from an agency of government.”

McCann v. Greenway, 952 F. Supp. 647 (W.D. Mo. 1997): Argued that a state court lacked jurisdiction over him because the flag in the courtroom had yellow fringe on it, thus converting it into the “maritime flag of war.” A Favorite!

United States v. Greenstreet, 912 F. Supp. 224 (N.D. Tex. 1996): Filed UCC-1 financing statements against federal employees. Argued that as a “white Preamble natural sovereign Common Law De Jure Citizen of the Republic/State of Texas,” the district court lacked jurisdiction, that the case should be moved to “Our One Supreme Court for the Republic of Texas,” and that fringe on an American flag denotes a court of admiralty.

Valldejuli v. Social Security Admin., No. 94-10051 (N.D. Fla. 1994): Argued that he was fraudulently induced into signing a “contract” with the Social Security Administration, and that he is a natural sovereign citizen of the United States who is not subject to the Social Security system.

Snyder v. United States, 596 F. Supp. 240 (N.D. Ind. 1984): Argued that the I.R.S. is a private corporation and not part of the government of the United States.

McKinney v. Regan, 599 F. Supp. 126 (M.D. La. 1984): Argued that as a “Sovereign Individual,” the “Common Law of the United States of America, a Republic” protected him from penalties for filing a frivolous tax return.

Uh, yeah, right. Hard to believe they thought those would work. The final kicker, says Quatloos, is:
Somewhat humorously, in several cases where the IRS has gone after promoters of “Don’t File” schemes, it was determined that the promoter—while advocating not filing returns—had been filing their returns all along. This really isn’t surprising, since most of the promoters will secretly confide that they really don’t believe these theories either, but it makes them good money.
It’s just too cute for words.

The variety of scam I find most fascinating is the Spanish Prisoner. It’s named for its first recorded version, dating from the 16th century, when it went something like this:

Lord Whatever has been taken prisoner in Spain. He has withheld his name and condition from his captors, lest they torture him for military or diplomatic secrets; and so they think him a common soldier, worth only a paltry ransom, and hold him in conditions of great misery and want. He cannot send to have his ransom paid out of his own vast estates, since to do so he must peforce reveal himself. The man who could supply the trifling sums needed to ransom him, and bring him home safely to England, would have Lord Whatever’s eternal gratitude, and be rewarded many times over.

Naturally, there are variations. Lord Whatever can have a beautiful daughter who’ll be ever so grateful. He may be a staunch English Protestant, in danger not of being tortured for military secrets, but of being handed over to the Inquisition. And sometimes it’s just the money, plus the gratitude of the high and mighty.

What’s wonderful is that not only is it not necessary that Lord Whatever exist; it isn’t necessary that Spain exist. All you need is the piece of Secret Inside Information about an immeasurably rich prize, which for some odd reason needs to be extricated from its current situation, and which can be had for a very little money. You could play it with, say, a hitherto unrecognized Faberge egg and a pawnshop ticket. The Nigerian 419 scam is a Spanish Prisoner variant; on which, more anon.

Sometimes the McGuffin to be rescued is a fabulously wealthy unclaimed estate, like the Drake Inheritance, supposedly left to his descendants by Sir Francis Drake but tied up for centuries in court; or the Baker Estate, which supposedly included a large chunk of prime real estate in downtown Philadelphia. If you had the right surname, you got hit up for contributions to help finish the last bits of legal work and genealogical research.

Unclaimed funds are another major McGuffin. The liveliest modern variant of this (which Neal Stephenson picked up for Cryptonomicon) involves 2,000 metric tons of gold buried in the Phillippines by the Japanese near the end of WWII. The recovery project needs investors—that’s where you come in—but it has to be kept quiet, because the government will doubtless queer the deal if they find out about it. Your return will of course be many, many times your original investment.

(I am now getting to my point.)

A couple of days ago I finally put my finger on something I’ve been sensing but not grasping—you know, one of those itchy back-of-the-brain apprehensions that there’s a pattern here, only you can’t quite see what it is. Somehow it’s felt like literary analysis. The question is, why do these scams—inheritance cons, MLMs, tax dodges, Make Money Fast, hot stock tip swindles, et cetera—take the forms they do?

What did it was looking at my list of basic scams and observing that what they have in common is the promise of lucrative, risk-free investments. Lord knows the things exist, I thought, but nobody ever gives them away. In theory, high rates of return are the investor’s payoff for taking on higher-risk investments. Achieving that happy state of all payoff and no risk is the main reason the wealthy and powerful manipulate the system.

Oh.

These scams take the forms they do because they’re parodies—no, a better way to put it: they’re cargo-cult effigies—of the deals the ruling class cut for themselves. If you’re an insider, if you have the secret, you can have a job where you make heaps of money for very little work. You can avoid paying your taxes. You can inherit a pile of money because an ancestor of yours left a moderate fortune that’s been appreciating ever since. You can be your own boss. You can have other people working for you, who have other people working for them, who all pay you a percentage of the take.

Of course people believe it. After all, they vaguely know this sort of thing happens. It just doesn’t happen to them. But why shouldn’t they be the lucky ones, this time around?

I give you Exhibit A, Omega Trust & Trading, as outlined by Quatloos:

After five long years, victims of one of the longest-running bank debenture scams of the 1990s have finally realized that they have been scammed. Yes, we’re talking about Omega and Destiny, two programs in which funds were pooled so that investors (called “lenders”) could invest in various bank debenture programs. The problem, as we have repeatedly chronicled, is that bank debenture programs do not exist.

The bank debenture scam is one of the best-known to law enforcement, because it became so prolific in the mid-1990s. The storyline is that there is a “secret” banking system, in which the “prime banks” and the ultra-wealthy make trades that yield 70% per week and upwards. According to the storyline, so called “little people” (small investors) don’t have the money to enter into these transactions, so they must “pool” their funds together and let someone who does have a magical “in” to this system invest for them.

Thus also the late great bull market. As Chris Quiñones has observed, people invested in it because they thought they were finally getting in on the games the rich get to play.

My two favorite recent Nigerian 419 variants:

I know they’re pernicious, but I love Nigerian scams because the best ones are such great examples of story construction and narrative compression.

First specimen. Patrick got this one last week. I’ve transformed it from all-caps to u&lc and cleaned up the spelling a bit, just to make it more readable:

THE PRESIDENCY
14/20 WUSE II ONABANJO AVENUE
GARKI ABUJA

TEL: 234-80-371-44515,
234-1-471 8233 ,
234-80 234 233 85
FAX : 234-1-272 1250

OUR REF: FGN/ANT/DT09

FOREIGN CONTRACTORS

DEAR SIR/MADAM

ALLOCATION OF YOUR ENTITLEMENTS

This is to inform our numerous contractors all over the world the awareness of the fraudulent practices of Nigerians have reached the Federal Government attention and means to eradicate this virus from our society has been of great concerned to us.

The Federal Government on behalf of all the law abiding citizens of this great nation do solemnly regrets the action of the fraudster. And however we have been doing all within our possible powers to stop the act of terrorism in our global world

The American and British conquest against the advanced fee fraud known as 419 has been commendable and encouraging. They instigated this campaign and this is to inform you to desist from all forms of business relationships with Nigerians, the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been mandated to foresee any international business which involves foreign investors and business.

The British/American campaign has also given the Nigerian Government the sum of $10,000,000,000 million to compensate and pay contractor all foreign partners/investors that has suffer great financial loss in the hands of the evil perpetrators.

Hence, all foreign contractors are advised to forward the following via the above fax number:

1. The Certificate of Incorporation
2. Letter of Credit/Evidence of Due Payment
3. Name of Ministry
4. Name of Contractor

This will be crosschecked among the list given to the government by the British /American Aid and Fraud Reconciliation Committee. please we would like to inform you that prior to the evidence and proof of the activities before us.

You will have to pay a mandatory and non-refundable fee of $650 for the processing and application fee as well as the transfer fee, because henceforth all payment shall be remitted in person via our Payment Centre in Spain.

Having evaluated your contract sum and contract claims thoroughly we will forward your original documents to the corresponding bank in Spain and they will immediately call your attention and our officials located in Spain will invite to come and receive you fund in person

Please note that we have to safeguard this project, because we have discovered that some top officials are also involved in the global fraud, so please henceforth the Central Bank of Nigeria will not

1. Transfer any fund by wire/telegraphic transfer
2. Allocate an attorney for signing document
3. Charge any dollar other than the $650
4. Send the message by fax or with any logo
5. Give any authorization for payment other than the one to be provided by you as evidence.

This is the measure to ensure that the image of this great nation is maintain, we want you to know that we have a list of contractors from the British/American fraudster listing and also from our local source here we have list of people that have been defrauded based on money claimed to be in one security company or the other .

Please you are advised to desist from all emails coming from this part of the continent because this individuals are still at large and have access to governmental documents and we need also need your assistance to curb this act menacing our world. all correspondence should also be sent by mail as this is the surest way of communication: presidency@post.cz

Thanking you for your audience

Long Life the Federal Republic of Nigeria

Peter Oshinowo
Publicity Secretary
Special Aid Anti-fraud/Debt Reconciliation Committee

That is, if you’ve already fallen for one of these scams in the past (and suckers who’ve fallen for one con are proverbially prone to fall again), we can arrange for you to have a repeat experience! So ingenious, building a new Nigerian scam around mythical reparations for past ones.

This one was sent to Jordin Kare and asst’d other SF fans:

Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2002 04:03:24 -0700 (PDT)
From: augustine ogwu
Subject: FROM AN AFRICAN WRITER OF SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

Hi,

I’m a writer of science fiction and fantasy. A publisher based in London approved one of my books for publication two years ago but I had to call off the deal when I realised they are vanity publishers. I have finally taken the decision to publish my novel, War of the Immortal Kinds, both in print and as an e-book. It is the first real fantasy novel ever to be published by an African and I do hereby request your financial support for the publication.

War of the Immortal Kinds adeptly depicts a Fantasy world governed by unearthly powers and the mystic. The work is also a celebration of nature and humanity in which the impotance of friendship and the pleasure of a life without material possessions was emphasized. I assure you that your support won’t be a waste. The book will surely hold the world spellbound. I will soon open a website where a short story, Beyond the Blue Sky, can be downloaded.

Regards
Augustine .k. Ogwu

Go here for a last word on Nigerian scam letters. I’ll fix the link when Donald Davies fixes his, but for now just scroll down until you find “Dial 419 for fun”.

October 30, 2002
Relit
Posted by Teresa at 03:20 PM *

Tom Whitmore sent me the URL of this site, where Kenneth Wald has posted lost bits of medieval English lit:

A, we!
A grene gome I naf
Neuer sene, ne nolde se;
But on sene, I vowche saf,
Deme I bettre thanne on to be.
That was from Sir Gawain and the Green Burgess. This bit’s from Chaucer’s “The Compleynt of Mercurie”:
Ful often have I payed that was due,
And suffred peynes, though from crime pure;
Of soor mistakes have I maad som fewe;
My part of sand have I received sure
In face, and have availled; and I dure.
Ywis, we been the champiouns, my freend,
And so we shullen fighten on till end.
Don’t throw things at me, or I’ll quote you his bits of Anglo-Saxon verse that end with the words, Byrme Scafe.

October 23, 2002
Cover Letters
Posted by Teresa at 04:45 PM *

The Onion has done it again, this time with a piece that perfectly captures a recurrent feature of editorial life: the gormless cover letter. What you have to understand is that they’re only exaggerating a little. These are quotes from some real ones:

— I think you will find this a cut above the kind of junk Tor usually publishes.

— Projected literary reviews are as follows…

— Dear Mr. or Ms. Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

— p.s. These are not my best chapters.

From an agent:
— [Title] is a book written by an author whose style calls to the less than stellar readers … those who are in a lower percentile of reading ability. This client’s writings are the filler for that market.
Somewhere towards the middle of a very, very, very long outline:
— Chapter Fifty: The backstory is now complete.
And my favorite:
— What I am sending now is an EXTREMELY DIFFERENT VERSION of a novel that I sent to Tor Books in April 2001 (it was rejected). I am sending you this altered manuscript now because THIS VERSION INCLUDES MATHEMATICAL PROOFS THAT REVEAL THE SECRET OF THE UNIVERSE and THE REJECTED ONE DID NOT. Furthermore, I made drastic changes in the story line, which is why I feel that this is worth consideration.
I actually like that one. If it should happen that mathematical proofs which reveal the secret of the universe (though not, alas, in the first three chapters) aren’t enough, he’s also beefed up the story line. I cannot disapprove.

I’m perversely fond of the bad cover letters. I collect them. They fascinate me because no matter how many I see, I still find them unimaginable: What could the authors have been thinking?

For instance, we see submissions where the author has enclosed copies of rejection letters from other houses. Sometimes they also send copies of letters from agents who’ve declined to represent them. Why do they do this? No idea. None at all.

Your basic cover letter is such a simple thing: Get in, get out, and shut up. Here’s a no-frills model:

Dear Editor:

Enclosed are the first three chapters plus an outline of my 85,000-word science fiction novel, Voodoo Robot. It is [insert here a one- or two-sentence summary of the basic setup and story arc]. This is my first novel. [OR: I have the following publication credits.] [Optionally, and only if EXTREMELY pertinent: In addition, I have the following related credentials or experience. For example: This is my first SF novel, but on the other hand I am Geoff Landis.] I also enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. [OR: You need not return the manuscript.]

Thank you for considering my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
[your name here]

See? Dead simple. If your material doesn’t speak for itself, no cover letter ever written will make up for it. In the meantime, saying anything more complicated just gives you more chances to get into trouble.

Unless, of course, you have a knack for being charming and graceful, in which case you’re allowed. Here’s an old favorite—the other kind of favorite, the good kind—from a time when we regarded our mail with less suspicion:

Dear [Editor],

Enclosed is a copy of my manuscript, [Title], and a box of Chocolate Truffles for your enjoyment. I do not expect that a box of chocolate will make you want to publish my manuscript, but I do hope that it helps my manuscript get read faster.

Sincerely yours,
[Name]

P.S. [My friend the big-name author whom you edit] says “hello”.

Perfect courtesy! Such delicately expressed sentiments! I’d be hard put to say which we admired more, the letter or the chocolate truffles; but the truffles are long gone, and the letter is with us still.

October 20, 2002
Magia naturalis
Posted by Teresa at 04:08 PM *

I’ve messed around some with medieval recipes over the years, enough so that I regard “tyl it be y-now” as a normal cooking instruction, and I’d gotten to thinking I pretty much knew the basic corpus of surviving medieval recipes. I’m delighted to report that I was not only wrong, but that the material that gives me the lie is extravagantly and gloriously weird. It’s collected together on the Incredible Foods, Sotelties, and Entremets page.

They’ve got all the classic medieval solteties and bizarreries I expected to find when I went to check out the page: cooked peacock re-clothed in its skin and feathers, check; fruited meatloaf made to look like a giant peasecod, check; roasted chicken dressed in helmet, shield, and lance, riding on a roasted pig, check; three recipes for cockatrice, check check check.

But making the re-feathered peacock breathe fire—now, that’s a new one on me. So’s a clever (if hazardous) use of unslaked lime to power fireless cooking.

There are directions—unkind, but it must have been very funny if the gag came off—for treating a live plucked chicken so it looks and acts like it’s been roasted, until such time as it wakes up and takes off across the dinner table. I don’t know, maybe it’ll run past the fire-breathing peacock that’s cooked but looks like it’s alive. That’d be weird. It would be even better if you served both of them at the same time as the roast chicken that sings. That would give you one edible bird out of three, since the live chicken can’t be eaten, and the method for making the roast chicken sing involves stuffing the neck cavity with sulphur and quicksilver.

But for my money, the real showstopper is the recipe for decorating a perfectly good roast “That flesh may look bloody and full of worms, and so be rejected by smell-feasts”—a smell-feast being a schnorrer, someone who always shows up at dinnertime looking hopeful. This jolly trick, it turns out, is from How to drive Parasites and Flatterers from great men’s tables, the thirteenth chapter of Giambattista della Porta’s Magia naturalis:

How to make good meat appear rotten:

Boil Hares blood, and dry it, and powder it. Cast the powder upon the meats that are boiled, which will melt by the heat and moisture of the meat, that they will seem all bloody, and he will loath and refuse them. Any man may eat them without any rising of his stomach. If you cut Harp strings small, and strew them on hot flesh, the heat will twist them, and they will move like Worms.

Most ingenious! Which is just about right for that period; medieval Europe was full of gifted techies. It’s just that most of them weren’t real big about writing it down.

October 19, 2002
A few words from a Texas Republican
Posted by Teresa at 09:02 PM *

This past September, Republican congressman Ron Paul, U.S. House of Representatives, figuratively nailed a list of 35 questions about Iraq on Mr. Bush’s door, saying:

Soon we hope to have hearings on the pending war with Iraq. I am concerned there are some questions that won’t be asked—and maybe will not even be allowed to be asked. Here are some questions I would like answered by those who are urging us to start this war.
They haven’t been answered. They should have been then, and they still should be now. Here are a few:
1. Is it not true that the reason we did not bomb the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War was because we knew they could retaliate?

2. Is it not also true that we are willing to bomb Iraq now because we know it cannot retaliate—which just confirms that there is no real threat?

5. Is it not true that the intelligence community has been unable to develop a case tying Iraq to global terrorism at all, much less the attacks on the United States last year? Does anyone remember that 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and that none came from Iraq?

6. Was former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro wrong when he recently said there is no confirmed evidence of Iraq’s links to terrorism?

11. Why are we taking precious military and intelligence resources away from tracking down those who did attack the United States—and who may again attack the United States—and using them to invade countries that have not attacked the United States?

12. Would an attack on Iraq not just confirm the Arab world’s worst suspicions about the US, and isn’t this what bin Laden wanted?

13. How can Hussein be compared to Hitler when he has no navy or air force, and now has an army 1/5 the size of twelve years ago, which even then proved totally inept at defending the country?

18. Are we willing to bear the economic burden of a 100 billion dollar war against Iraq, with oil prices expected to skyrocket and further rattle an already shaky American economy? How about an estimated 30 years occupation of Iraq that some have deemed necessary to “build democracy” there?

22. If we claim membership in the international community and conform to its rules only when it pleases us, does this not serve to undermine our position, directing animosity toward us by both friend and foe?

26. Is it not true that preventive war is synonymous with an act of aggression, and has never been considered a moral or legitimate US policy?

28. Why is it that those who never wore a uniform and are confident that they won’t have to personally fight this war are more anxious for this war than our generals?

Ftrain
Posted by Teresa at 12:10 PM *

I don’t know Paul Ford, but he’s good. His website, Ftrain, is, he says, “a collection of interlinked pages, with text, graphics, and links to other digitally encoded media objects.” This is accurate, if somewhat inadequate. His content—essays, bits of fiction, commonplaces, pictures, language engines, Other—is divided into a series of immaculately detailed little modules, full of surprises and payoffs, that left me feeling the way I did the first time I wandered around in Myst.

Here’s a bit from a piece called Chinatown:

The crowded Fung Wah bus lets me off on Canal St. The boy behind me on the train was chattering into a cell phone about Ibiza for the entire trip. It is raining hard, cold, but the streets are crowded, solid with umbrellas, people, food, and noise. I have a backpack, and I walk through the crowded streets, aiming for the East Broadway station, but willing to be diverted by dumplings, caught between bags of garbage and stalls selling ginger root, scallions, and obscure ocean fauna.

“Sir! This is the luckiest cat ever!” shouts a man. He is in his 40s, thin, a weedy moustache, a suit. He chases me, smoking a cigarette, cradling a small ceramic kitten with its paws up. Big and tall, I am always a target for hawkers. I shake my head. “Sir! The luckiness of this cat cannot be overstated. The cost of such luck is minimal—”

“No,” I say.

“You need the luckiness of this cat,” he says.

October 18, 2002
Cooking with Shmoo
Posted by Teresa at 05:20 AM *

Another cheery low-carbohydrate recipe. As usual, I’m shooting for food you’d eat even if you weren’t dieting, and could feed to guests without their guessing it was built around constraints.

Scallops with other good things

2 or 2-1/2 lbs. fresh sea scallops
2/3 stick butter
1 portobello mushroom cap, finely sliced
1 bunch of green onions
1 clove garlic
1 T. finely ground almonds
1/3 - 1/2 C. dry sherry
1/3 C. heavy cream
salt, black pepper, white pepper, red pepper
Wash the scallops and cut them into thirds. Melt the butter in a good big frying pan, and throw in the chopped mushroom. Cook, stirring occasionally. When the mushroom’s well cooked, turn up the heat and stir in the scallops. Do the same, unhurriedly, for salt and black pepper, a small pinch of white pepper, and the veriest trace of hot red pepper; then garlic; then the chopped-up bottom third of your onions; then 1 T. finely ground almonds. The last must be attentively stirried in; they’re the thickening. Continue to cook, stirring a bit. When things are looking good but look like they won’t be much longer—that is, when the scallops are thoroughly cooked and the liquid around them is somewhat reduced—stir in the sherry, and then the rest of the green onions, chopped fine. Let cook 3-5 more minutes. Turn the fire off and stir in the cream. If you’re dieting, serve this in bowls. If you’re not dieting, serve it over rice or noodles.

I can only afford this recipe because I’ve been getting my scallops for about $5.00 a pound from a fishmonger in Chinatown. If I were braver I’d try their package deal, three lobsters for $18.00. If I were really brave I’d try their blue crabs at $6.40 a dozen, which are so fresh they’re combative. My problem with the crabs is that I can hear their dialogue as they’re being unwillingly tonged up and dropped into the bag, madly clinging to each another all the while:

“Take that, ya lousy tongs!”
“Keep pinchin’, Louie, ya gotta fight ‘em!”
“Joe—they’ve got me by the main carapace—I can’t—”
“Hang on tight, Louie, I ain’t lettin’ you go alone!”
I’d feel like I was eating Sergeant Rock and the fighting crabs of Easy Company.

Scallops are a happier proposition. As you know, Bob, scallops are formed by using a biscuit cutter on Shmoo flesh, which produces a delicate little cylindrical morsel of shellfishy goodness. Since they have the Shmoo nature, their joy is to be eaten, and they live in hope of being well cooked and lovingly consumed:

“Is she looking at us?
“Hello, nice lady!”
“Over here, lady—hey, over here!”
“Look, she’s smiling. This could be it.”
“Do you think she does garlic butter?”
“Could be, could be.”
“I’ve been really really hoping for garlic butter.”
“I don’t know. She might be the soy sauce and ginger type.”
“Oooh, that’d be good too!”
“Over here, nice lady! Me me me pick me!”
Makes it much easier.

[Recipe Index]

October 16, 2002
Commonplaces
Posted by Teresa at 09:19 PM *

Heard from Avram Grumer: “Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from believing that everyone else is psychic.”

Query: dust explosions
Posted by Teresa at 08:38 PM *

Can someone tell me whether we’re likely to have a space station explode the first time someone spills flour or cocoa or powdered sugar in zero gee? Dust explosions in coal mines and grain elevators are a recognized hazard right here on Earth. When you get billions of tiny combustible motes of organic material floating in the air in the right concentration, the mixture can ignite at temperatures under 500 F.—about the same temperature as a newly-extinguished match—to produce a powerful explosion.

Domestic dust explosions are rare in one gee, since even the Three Stooges would be hard put to kick up enough spilled flour to blow the windows out. But in a weightless environment, any spill of a finely powdered organic material could create an extremely hazardous situation—and you’d want to be sure the engine on your vacuum cleaning didn’t throw sparks.

October 08, 2002
Fool Money
Posted by Teresa at 02:32 PM *

OPM is Other People’s Money. It’s easy to spend. That’s why, when Staples first opened up a store in Manhattan, its prices were often half what you’d pay for the exact same item if you bought it through a standard office supply catalogue. The standard catalogues were aimed at corporate clients, and the people who buy corporate office supplies are spending OPM.

Back in my days as an office temp, before Office Max and Staples, I never once saw an office where they comparison-shopped between supplier catalogues. They’d have their regular supplier, and when you needed a new chair or three dozen hanging folders, you’d get out the catalogue and order it through them. It was the kind of setup that makes you hope someone’s getting a kickback out of it, because they damned well ought to be.

(A co-worker who’d been a clerical worker in Britain told me that back in the days of carbon paper copies, one manufacturer had included a free pair of nylon stockings in each box of carbon paper. She said you’d open supply closets and find tottering ziggurats of carbon paper, enough boxes to last a century—each one of which had been opened to get at the stockings.)

The next stage after OPM is Fool Money, and it’s even easier to spend. If you’re an investor, it’s what you pay if you’re sure this investment is bound to go up—huge profits! pots of money!—but you’re not sure how or why it’s going to happen, or why anyone put you on to it instead of taking advantage of it themselves. If you’re a consumer, Fool Money is what you pay when you stop asking about prices, and start saying things like “I don’t care how it gets done, as long it gets done.”

A pattern you frequently see in lines of merchandise is a fairly smooth gradation between the utilitarian economy model down at one end of the price range, and the solid value of the more expensive end of the line. After that—not invariably, but darned often—there’ll be a sharp price jump up to the real top end of the line, the deluxe executive version, which is significantly more expensive than the next nearest item. I’ll be interested to find out if I’m wrong about this, but I’ve always figured that top-end model is there to soak up any Fool Money that comes floating past.

Combining both sorts of Fool Money, we have Jenifer Hanrahan Goodwin’s story in the San Diego Union-Tribune about L. Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco:

Remember the $659 ashtray and the $400 socket wrench that embarrassed the Pentagon in the ’80s? Chump change compared with the excesses of the ’90s boom coming to light in the new millennium bust.

The latest revelations involve L. Dennis Kozlowski, former chief executive of Tyco. A Securities and Exchange Commission report says he spent $6,000 on a shower curtain, $15,000 for an umbrella stand, $2,900 on coat hangers, $5,960 on bedsheets and $2,200 for a wastebasket.

That he appears to have bought all those goodies and much, much more on the company dollar troubles the SEC. What’s bothering the rest of us is: Where do you buy an umbrella stand that costs as much as a Honda Civic? What’s the point of a trash can that costs more than most monthly mortgage payments?

Is there a Gucci of garbage, a Tiffany of trash?

Maybe we’ve been spending too much time at Target, but it seems perhaps somebody – maybe an interior decorator or two? – was conning Kozlowski as badly as he was conning shareholders.

A good question. Ms. Hanrahan Goodwin went and talked to various designers and interior decorators who operate in the price ranges that start at utterly fabulous, proceed upward by degrees to the surreal, and peak at the level where you get up and bathe every morning in a specially-heated tub of Fool Money just to get yourself into the right frame of mind.

Naturally, they assured her that not only is it possible to pay $6,000 for your shower curtains and $2,200 for a wastebasket, it’s a Good Thing to do so, practically essential. Then they explain how:

“Sometimes the wastebasket is exposed,” said Joel Joves, a designer with offices in Rancho Santa Fe and Beverly Hills. “If you have a fabulous study or master bedroom, then maybe we need a pewter-finished basket with decorative pearl beadings or semiprecious stones to complete the look of a room.”
That’s Fool Money at work. If you can’t find a sufficiently fabulous wastebasket for $200, $500 absolute tops, you’re not half trying.

My other favorite quote is:

“It’s taken out of context,” said Sue Kelly of Fairbanks Interiors in Rancho Santa Fe. “People that live in the kind of home that (Kozlowski) lives in don’t have shower curtains.”

What they do have are “tub treatments” – sunken baths swathed by draperies made from $200-a-yard Italian silk or $300-a-yard hand-painted velvet. Add tassels, tie-backs, lace fringe and labor, and the shower curtain can add up to $6,000 quite easily, Kelly said.

It’s the “quite easily” part that gets me. Quite easily. Six thousand dollars. Shower curtain. Tyco shareholders. For that matter, six thousand dollars, shower curtain, small children starving to death all over the world. Tell me again about that invisible hand?

October 05, 2002
Deserts of vast literacy
Posted by Patrick at 11:58 PM *

Joseph Epstein cites a perfectly dreadful statistic:

According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them 97 and that they should write it.
That’s been my perception too, but I’d been trying to convince myself that I must be wrong.

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