Mortguages and Algorithyms
Mr. Rogers was nervously working out exactly what his mortguage payments would be if he bought the house his wife had her heart set on. He was nervous, not because he wouldn't be able to afford the payments, but because he was flying a basically unstable aircraft at seventy thousand feet over Soviet Russia. With each flight, he became ever more convinced that he was being tracked. Not only that, he suspected that a fighter was in his blind spot, below and behind him, trying to climb high enough to shoot him down. The fact that he had gotten this far was evidence that the fighters couldn't get high enough, but, still, it was enough to make anyone nervous.
On the other hand, Mr. Rogers was getting ten thousand dollars for each flight. If he made just a one more flight after this one, he wouldn't have to worry about a mortguage at all.
Some six hundred miles away, another civilian, a Mr. Jones, sat in a jeep on the edge of an American air base. Mr. Jones was also nervous, looking often in the direction from which he hoped Mr. Rogers' U-2 would come. He knew he was early, but, since Mr. Jones had come all the way from Virginia, another hour or two made no difference.
As he fidgeted and waited, Mr. Jones envied Rogers. Pilots had no one reporting to them, didn't have to make any decisions, and didn't have to evaluate any results. Even if they were killed, it would be over very quickly.
Jones, for his part, was bothered by a discrepancy in the number of Tu-20s which there ought to be and the number which they could find. Were the rest, a matter of over a hundred, hidden away somewhere? If so, for what purpose? Rogers had been sent directly over the most likely hiding place, and, if the opposition was capable of shooting him down, this was when they would do it. That, Jones thought, would be a hell of a mess. If his government decided to claim that a routine recon mission had gone astray and mistakenly ended up over Russia, he, Jones, would be in charge of putting together and orchestrating an extremely unlikely story.
It was with considerable relief when, exactly on time, Mr. Jones watched a tiny dot in the sky expand into an awkward-looking aircraft and circle slowly for a landing. For the first time, Jones spoke to the man next to him in the jeep
"Now, if he doesn't fuck up the landing and destroy the film, we're all set."
The other man smiled wanly and replied,
"If he does do a ground loop, you can run into the burning wreckage and rescue the film."
Mr. Jones looked at him sharply, as if this were no time for joking.
In the event, Rogers brought his ship in so smoothly that it could have been mistaken for an ordinary landing of an ordinary plane. After taxiing up, Rogers tried to shout to Mr. Jones over the whine of the still-running engine as he climbed from the cockpit. Jones, supervising the unloading of the film from the cameras, paid no attention to him. Rogers shrugged and walked stiffly toward the dilapidated building some hundred yards distant.
A little later on the same day, which was actually morning in Washington, General Twining, on meeting Admiral Radford in the corridor, remarked,
"They must have the damned things somewhere, and they're too big to bury underground. Or, if they did, we would've seen the digging and earth moving."
The admiral replied,
"Maybe those aircraft don't exist and never have. We arrived at the figure for Tu-20s by calculating the speed with which they're built and multiplying by the time."
"But why would they suddenly stop producing Tu-20s when they don't have anything better?"
The admiral, just as he turned to go into the men's room, smiled and replied,
"Maybe they do have something better."
On his morning walk to work, Tom often stopped by the Toddle House, a little luncheonette on Wisconsin Avenue, for orange juice and coffee. It was the first day on which he actually felt cold in his short-sleeved shirt, and he was glad to get inside.
The counter-man, Sam, wasn't really one of Tom's favorite people. Dyspeptic and nervous-looking at the best of times, there was a subtle degeneracy about him that had caused Tom to wonder if he had once been a professional pick- pocket. He looked unusually nervous on this occasion, particularly when the only other customer roared at him from the end of the counter,
"Get over here, you cocksucker, and fill my cup."
It wasn't said with a smile, and Sam jumped to obey. The stranger, pointing at Sam and addressing Tom, then bellowed,
"Did you know that this fuck-face is a child molester and a female impersonator?"
Tom was tempted to ask whether he molested at the same time that he impersonated, but thought better of it. The gentleman was large, very drunk at this early hour, and quite possibly violent. But he also spoke with good intonation and a certain elegant precision. When he invited Tom to sit near him so that he could have a conversation with someone whose brain hadn't been atrophied by drinking rubbing alcohol under the railway bridge, there wasn't much to do but comply.
As soon as he sat down, Tom found a newspaper being shoved at him with the words,
"Do you see that?"
It was uttered as something of a challenge, as if the speaker were ready to fight anyone who didn't see it. The paper wasn't a tabloid, but the Washington Post, and the object of interest seemed to be an article on an inside page. The gist was that Soviet economic progress had been greatly exaggerated, and that looming agricultural failures might bring it to a standstill. The man, still shouting even though the distance between them was only a couple of feet, said,
"Those fuckers'll never be as rich as we are."
Tom replied, rather weakly,
"No, I guess they won't."
"And do you know what they'll do when they see that they'll never get out of the pigsty while kike scumbags over here drive Cadillacs?"
An answer was clearly required, and, unless Tom wanted to start his day with a brawl, it had better be the right one. He replied,
"They'll nuke us."
The blow that landed on Tom's back was powerful, but was also congratulatory. The man shouted at Sam,
"You snivelling spic, here's a man who knows something. You repeat what you said to me before, and I'll fix you so's you can suck your own dick."
Tom gathered that they had been having a political discussion before his arrival, and that the visitor had found Sam's views not to his liking. He then bellowed at both of them,
"So what the fuck should we do now?"
Tom yelled back,
"Get em first."
The blow, even harder than the first one, now fell on Tom's shoulder, almost knocking him off the seat. But Tom had been prepared, and had braced himself. The man yelled,
"Young feller, I could see the minute you came in, you had sense. What're you, in high school?"
"Naw, I just graduated."
"Well, didja fuck the prom queen?"
"There was a whole line of guys waiting to fuck her. I got tired of standing there and went for a beer instead."
That seemed to amuse the stranger. While he was laughing uproariously and threatening to shatter the counter-top with his fist, Tom gave Sam a dollar for his juice and the coffee he hadn't drunk, and slipped out the door with a cheery wave. The stanger was yelling, but he made no move to get up and follow Tom.
Out on the street again, Tom reflected. He had given the man the answers that he sensed he wanted to hear, but he wondered whether the Soviets would really attack just because they were falling behind in wealth. If so, it wouldn't be greed or jealousy that impelled them, but their own special kind of paranoia. They might think that rich America would ultimately use its wealth to subvert the Soviet citizenry. And, of course, there was something to that. People from the eastern bloc did seem to defect whenever they got the chance.
But what mattered at least as much was whether the Blue leadership thought that Red reasoned in that way. If so, Blue would have a reason to strike first. But, then, the Red leadership, replicating the reasoning of the Blue leadership, would have a reason to strike Blue before Blue could strike Red to prevent Red from striking Blue for basically economic reasons.
Tom and Hollins had been concerned with Red's perception of Blue intentions, but that was beginning to look simplistic. Would it even be enough to understand Red's perception of Blue's perception of Red's intentions?
Later that morning, as Tom was trying to combine his own ideas with those of Hollins concerning crises, a question occurred to him: What did the participants in the two super- power governments want to happen in a crisis? The obvious answer was that they all wanted their country to come out of the crisis with increased power and influence relative to the opposing country.
Tom suspected that that answer was, in fact, mistaken. He then hypothesized that the most bellicose people wanted the crisis to go badly for their own side. The worse it went, the more the moderates in power would be discredited, and the more credible the s-t-w hawk position,
"Let's win the big one now, and then it won't matter that we're losing in region X."
Suppose on the other hand, that one was winning in region X. The moderate could say to the s-t-w hawk,
"We're doing just fine. Let me manage the crisis, and don't go killing a hundred million people."
But, then, enter the b-t-t-d hawk who says,
"The other guys are losing in region X, and the extremists in their ruling circle are gaining influence. They'll strike soon! We've got to strike now."
Whichever side was winning, control would tend to go to the s-t-w hawks on one side and the b-t-t-d hawks on the other. But, of course, the more bellicose people were attracted to both positions, and could shift easily.
Even worse, moderates such as adventurers and economic- win doves could also be pushed up the scale of bellicosity toward the b-t-t-d position once a crisis began to get out of hand in one direction or the other. Everyone would recognize that they were in a position of increased danger and tension. Tom even knew some paranoic liberals who could become hawkish out of fear.
It appeared that the only hope for the moderates, not to mention the doves, was to manage each crisis in such a way that a stalemate developed. This was what had happened in the majority of crises, including Korea. Tom wondered how much of that was explicitly planned and intentional.
Later that morning, Tom put these thoughts to Mac Hollins without telling him that they had been inspired by a drunk in the Toddle House. Hollins replied,
"Your conclusion, always try for a stalemate, may actually be the best course. But no one in power would openly adopt it."
"We did have in mind a simulation of Red and Blue decision- making which would bear on this issue, but I've barely begun on that."
"Nothing we could do quickly in that area would be convincing, and time's getting short. You've mostly been working on Frace Lip, haven't you?"
Hollins smiled as he spoke. Tom hadn't realized that the name of their simulation of the Soviet economy had reached him, but he admitted that he and Sid had been hard at it. He added,
"That's hardly definitive either. There are a million strands that have to be put together."
"Sure. But that's something we could do. We need people working on each strand, and one very experienced programmer to put the whole thing together. I was thinking of Bruce Hammond."
"That'd be great, if he isn't fully occupied."
"I'm sure he is, but things are pretty tense. We don't happen to have an identifiable incident with a capital 'I' at the moment, but one may appear overnight. In this atmosphere, it's bound to be serious. We'll just have to put aside any projects that aren't going to be useful in the immediate future."
"I'd be happy to assist him in any way that I can."
Mac then added,
"Even with Bruce, there'll still be an element of fraud in this. I don't think the kind of simulation we can produce in a hurry will tell us anything we couldn't reason out in our heads. But there's a mystique about computers. People in the high positions pay about seven times as much attention to something that's based on a computer simulation as they would to what they'd classify as mere opinion. We have to make an impression now."
Tom didn't ask why it was necessary to make that impression at that moment. He replied only,
"Then we should go with our best. And that's certainly Bruce."
"Show him what you've got, and let him go from there."
As it happened, it was Tom's day to have lunch with Elaine Kittredge. She was to pick him up at Complab, and, to his surprise, she rolled up in an air-conditioned limousine with a chauffeur. When the chauffeur popped out and held the car door for him, he found her, just as cool and smooth as he had remembered her, welcoming him to the cool dark interior. For a moment, he felt as if he were being enticed into something potentially compromising, but he soon relaxed into the deep seat as the car began to float along. Elaine spoke softly,
"I realize that it's somewhat ostentatious to go around Washington this way, but I think we need as much rest and comfort as we can get."
"It must be nice not to have to hunt for parking spaces."
"Parking's hopeless everywhere. Morris is very good at finding places where he can wait with the car, and, if that fails, he just circles the block."
Tom more or less agreed, as if he, too, had just decided to hire a chauffeur. Elaine continued,
"I should explain myself. I'm primarily a feature writer, and I've made a career of interviewing important people and writing little pieces about them for the papers. Most of those people don't want anything that's at all critical, or even insightful, written about them. I've ended up gilding quite a few lillies, sometimes rather shamelessly."
She looked closely at Tom as she reclined in the seat with her legs crossed. The atmosphere was that of a salon, and he certainly wasn't disposed to be critical. On the other hand, it was odd to have such a cool dignified woman tell him, in effect, that she wrote trash. While he suspected that she spoke the truth, he knew that he was supposed to disagree. Unfortunately, he didn't feel fluid enough socially to tell her with the proper confidence that he was sure that she wrote very well. Before he could manage anything at all, she said,
"The compensation is that I do know all these people, and a good many of them will enter into serious conversation with me as long as they know that their comments won't end up in print."
As they talked further, Tom got the impression of a woman gliding from one influential person to another, taking ideas back and forth, and sometimes having the opportunity of putting those ideas together in useful ways. It sounded like an interesting occupation, and he was given to understand that he himself was a potential source of ideas. Mac had recommended him highly, and had even encouraged Elaine to talk with him. She said,
"People like Mac trust me not to try to get secrets out of people, and, of course, I know that a good deal of your work is secret. But it's been my experience that, even in areas like yours, the most important and interesting ideas aren't secret at all."
"Yes, I think that's true. It's usually the numbers that are secret. The ideas can easily end up being published in one of the defense journals."
With that preamble, Elaine began what Tom recognized as an interview as they drifted through intersections and headed downtown. It wasn't long before she said,
"Here you are, a young man in a much more important position than you probably ever imagined having. What do you worry about?"
"War and finding a girl friend."
Elaine didn't seem at all surprised. She said,
"Finding a girl friend will be easy. It's a matter of finding the right one. But about war. Are you afraid that we'll start it or that they will?"
"I think that there's about the same mix of people on both sides. What I'm afraid of is that they'll start inter-acting with each other in a way that could get out of hand. At the end, it would be hard to say who started it, but it wouldn't matter because we'd all be dead."
"Do you think that war and peace are the products of great impersonal forces that no one can control, or do they depend on the personality quirks of leaders and whether they happen to like each other?"
"Well, that's a big question. I suppose you'd have to say both. And, since we can't do anything about the great impersonal forces, we're reduced to the psychology of the leaders and their perceptions of the larger forces instead of the forces themselves."
"There are many naive people, myself included, who think, or at least hope, that, as long as Eisenhower and Khruschev are in charge, they'll always find some way of working things out short of annhiliation."
"Well, I've just about concluded that the two leaders will be swept along if the hawks overcome the doves at the highest levels."
"That might be true on a given occasion, and it could be disastrous. But there's something else. Over time, the leader has a great deal to say as to who gets admitted to those highest circles. He chooses policy more by choosing advisors than by making direct decisions."
Tom, buth surprised and pleased at this insight, replied,
"So they already know what advice they want to get and choose advisors who'll give it to them?"
"Yes. Then they have someone to blame if things go wrong."
"That sounds like a ray of hope. I suppose DRI is in the American chain of advisors, but I don't know how seriously we might be taken."
"Why should you wonder?"
"Well, I'm a young guy in graduate school. Even if a report I write should get sent to the defense department, it's not hard to imagine that it'd be chucked in the nearest wastebasket."
Elaine seemed amused and replied,
"Contrary to general opinion, money in Washington is seldom wasted. DRI obviously costs the army many millions of dollars a year, and it wouldn't be maintained unless it serves someone's purposes. You may not like those purposes, but you can be sure they exist. And so, anything of yours that Mac sends up the ladder will receive attention. You may never hear from it again, or hear anything about it, but it'll affect someone's thinking."
"I see. And then, as you say, it may affect it in ways I wouldn't like."
"That's happened innumerable times. Perhaps more often than not. Young men like yourself can sometimes exert quite a lot of influence here, but they often don't find out until much later, if ever, what sort of influence it was."
They arrived at the restaurant just then, one on Connecticut Avenue whose name meant nothing to Tom. As they entered, he had the feeling that his diplomat friends would have heard of it, but wouldn't think they could afford it. He had fortunately worn a coat and tie that day, which no one did at DRI, and the head waiter welcomed them with a quiet satisfied enthusiasm.
As Elaine was helped into her seat, she smiled at Tom and said,
"If you aren't used to the menu, there are a couple of things you might look at."
Tom had never heard of tournedos Rossini. But Elaine seemed to know that he would want steak in some guise, and he assured her that he was adventurous enough to like a little something different on top.
They talked more defense and politics as they ate, even though Tom was, at times, entirely focussed on food such as he had never eaten. It was as they had coffee after the main course that Elaine returned to the other problem he had mentioned. Tom explained where he was with the opposite sex without much detail, and without reference to Ellie, concluding only,
"Most people my age are a good deal further along, and I'd like to at least get started."
"Yes. This should be within my area of expertise, but it's hard to match people. Blind dates are notorious, and I've done much better just bringing people together at dinner. I sometimes have six or seven people, enough so that no one feels that they're paired, but few enough so that it's impossible for anyone to be ignored. Then, in the next day or two, I talk with the two principals and find out if they like one another. If they both do, I tell them both to go ahead. If one doesn't, there isn't much lost and there's very little embarrassment."
"That sounds good to me."
"Most of the girls your age that I know are the daughters or relations of friends, which means that I don't really know them very well. A seemingly pleasant girl can turn out to be a mass of neuroses and jealousies, but I suppose one just has to take one's chances."
"Well, graduate schools are full of people with all kinds of craziness, so I'm used to that."
"By the way, are you looking mainly for sexual experience or something more permanent?"
The question was thrown out casually, and it caught Tom by surprise. He supposed that the honorable answer would be that he was looking for a wife. And, for all he knew, he was. But Elaine seemed so open that he replied,
"I don't really know."
"It's not so much that I know which girls are available for which, but I might have some intuitions. I rather think that you're a bit more intent on the sex part, at least at this stage."
"Well, perhaps so. I suppose a lot of guys in my position would go to prostitutes, but I've always been afraid to."
"I dare say that has its problems. As an alternative to that, there are any number of somewhat older respectable women who'd be happy to get together with a young man such as yourself."
"You mean, married women?"
"Some are and some not. Either way, they're usually interested in a little variety, but wouldn't be too demanding. And, of course, you might learn something from them."
"I think I need to learn a great deal."
"It might complicate things if you got with a young woman who also needs to learn a great deal. On the other hand, some of these other women might be your mother's age. Would that put you off?"
Elaine was speaking as casually and off-handedly as before, but Tom suddenly realized that she was offering herself. He was very quick to say that he wouldn't be put off in the least. Elaine nodded and suggested that it might be time to try some dessert.
When they were done, Tom supposed that he should at least make some attempt to pay the bill. He had come fortified with cash, but the bill never came. He gathered that his companion settled her account for God only knew how many lunches monthly. He said nothing of it, and they had hardly emerged from the door when her car came gliding up. Tom dared not ask what sort of communication between restaurant and chauffeur was responsible for the simultaneity.
By the time that Tom had been deposited back at Complab, it was arranged that they would have dinner in the next week. As Tom left Elaine, it seemed to him that she would surely not be crazy in the way that Ellie was.