07/31/09 4:00am

The latest little touch of evil left over from Dick Cheney’s shadow administration was an alleged post-9/11 plan to rollback President Ford’s 1976 Executive Order prohibiting assassination (which President Reagan amended in 1981 to specifically include terrorists). Basically, Cheney wanted to be able to go kill foreign leaders deemed “bad guys.”

According to a recent New York Times story, the CIA “developed plans to dispatch small [paramilitary] teams overseas to kill senior Al-Qaeda officials.” Which in theory would have cut down on civilian casualties and offered an alternative to drone aircraft strikes or “seizing suspects overseas and imprisoning them in secret CIA jails.”

Cheney never went forward with the revival and some say his plans were only revealed to deflect attention from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s squabble with the CIA over water-boarding briefings; but to think for one thrilling moment that Central Intelligence could have been restored to its former glory: the cloak and dagger days of exploding seashells and poisoned briefcase handles…

Why, that’s almost worth trampling the constitution for.

But even though we’ve been denied the thrill of murdering foreign leaders, we thought it an appropriate moment to look back at some of our better attempts to do just that.

The classic era of Central Intelligence — which, by the way, is the proper, professional, way to refer to the agency — began after WWII and continued until the mid-70s, when Congress spoiled the fun, investigating and insisting on oversight. And by then the best intelligence was coming from satellites and signal intercepts anyway. By 1989, they were so hobbled they failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But in the old days the CIA was completely unrestrained. They were Ivy League cowboys who toppled governments, forged banknotes, consorted with the underworld and spent billions on urine detecting sensors in the Vietnamese jungle — and assassinated with relative impunity.

05/13/09 4:00am

I was a PR agent. Extending metaphors into oblivion. Shoveling shit into the daily sewer spew of dreadful ideas. Given enough fertilizer something will bloom. An appearance on the Today Show, maybe a quotation in Marie-Claire… Nothing stuck. Not a single story sprouted from two weeks of shitwork.

It was a mom-and-pop operation. Glitzy. Quite the racket, a pair of doctors who’d clawed their way up to a Park Avenue adjacent office. The two specialized in a grueling cosmetic surgery no one really needs. I can’t say what without blowing their cover. But it was foul. Gouged bones, parts of the body rarely glimpsed poked and prodded, grisly wounds, epic recovery times.

I found their ad on my alumni job board. Great pay for someone who thinks out of the box. Sure… never heard that one before. Not really my line of work, but the return address was misspelled so that would thin the herd. The ruse worked and they called me in.

The doctor was in her fifties with a face so fussed with it shined like wax fruit. Restalyn, Botox, Sculptra. The overall affect was not unattractive. We sized each other up. Stiletto heels protruded from beneath her lab coat. I affected perkiness and looked through her clips. She didn’t want my writing samples.

My job was to make women second-guess a certain part of their bodies under the guise of health tips and fashion advice.

-You aren’t a serial killer are you? She asked me.
-Nope, I said.
-It’s always the nice ones.
-I only betray in print, I replied.

Then she quizzed me:

-Recession-themed pitch. Go!

I came up with something about looking your best on a job hunt. She liked my reply, and parked me behind a flat screen in the file room. Keep ‘em kinky, She said. They love alliteration. Do their work for them. Don’t ever let ’em think!

Then she slipped her face mask back on and teetered back into the operating theater to prep another socialite for slicing.

I pitched assigning editors in New York, Paris, London, Madrid, Rome, Tokyo… for two weeks I tried everything. Winter woes. Roadmaps to the ravages of age. Preventative medicine. Not one a single one reploed. Finally one day she came clattering into my nook holding printouts of all my press releases.

She spread them out before me.

-So? She asked me. How many bites?
-Not many, I said.
-How many exactly?
-Exactly none.
-You don’t really know what you’re doing, do you?
-Nope, I said.

And they ushered me out. No goody bag for me.

03/19/08 12:00am

Readers humbled by New York City’s billionaire hedge fund managers and their trustafarian progeny may take some comfort in knowing that Andrew Carnegie’s warning about wealth slipping between the fingers of subsequent generations−“from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”−still applies.

Manhattan’s only unambiguous indicator of wealth, status and power is a penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue, across the street from Central Park. You can wear designer knock-offs, lease a yacht or a private jet, and with enough effort and credit you could conceivably leverage your way into becoming a paper billionaire and briefly bluff your own bank, but you would never be able to fake your way past the horrific requirements of a Fifth Avenue co-op board and into the penthouse. That is, unless you inherit it.

You don’t own a co-op apartment; instead, you own shares of a corporation that entitle you to live in one of the apartments in the building. The larger the apartment, the more shares you own. The advantage of a co-op is that you and the other tenants, as the co-op’s board of directors, get to decide who buys shares in the building.
However, this can be a huge disadvantage if you’re attempting to sell your shares. There aren’t too many people willing to shell out eight figures for an apartment, and if your neighbors know that a new tenant will entail several excruciating years of loud renovations, it can make selling that apartment difficult. When your financial future hangs in the balance and your neighbors have hated you for generations, the situation can become quite fraught.

*  *  *  *  *

I moved to New York City in 2002, and, after being shuffled through the homes of several family friends, not only did I find myself living at one of the most exclusive addresses in New York City, I became an unwitting pawn in a co-op power struggle.

I can’t tell you which family I stayed with. It was a household name about a generation back; suffice to say the illustrious grandfather, whose name remains on several important foundations, raised his shirtsleeves and made a tremendous fortune doing something relatively mundane very cheaply. In the 1920s, as he began to turn his attention to philanthropy, he bought a two-story penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the capstone of an illustrious career. 

When he died, the penthouse was passed on to his brother, who died soon after and left it to his wife. I didn’t pry too much into her life, but considering the only anecdote I heard about her was that she once dated Al Capone, I can only imagine it as decadent.

When the gangster’s moll died, she left the palatial penthouse to her five children. Most of the original estate had been dispersed, donated to major universities and used to endow charitable institutions, and she probably intended the apartment to be sold and the proceeds distributed among the children. However, one of the children moved her own family into the apartment while the moll was dying of Alzheimer’s, ostensibly to take care of her, but in the process she managed to take the place over.  

All penthouse apartments are difficult to maintain, but this one was a monster. For one, the family was paying to maintain an 80-year-old roof over a large building in New York City; plus everything in the apartment, from the windows to the hose-pipes in the rooftop garden, was custom-designed in the 1920s, so even something as mundane as fixing a faucet or a window lock would require mind-bogglingly expensive custom fabrication. And this on top of all the normal maintenance fees and taxes that a two-story penthouse apartment incurs.  

The squatting family couldn’t afford to maintain the place on its own, and the other four family heirs weren’t eager to chip in. Complicating matters further, the house was full of priceless artwork, including a Caravaggio, a Goya, an Albrecht Dürer engraving and several medieval tapestries. Almost all of the family’s wealth was contained in this apartment, but it had deteriorated to the point were the paintings were actually being threatened.
The other four siblings were dispersed throughout the United States, but would drop by unannounced and spend weeks at a time in the apartment, as it was theirs as well and they had every right to do so. There was plenty of room, so really there was no polite way to refuse the visitors. But these intrusions were made with ulterior motives. Depending on the family member, they ranged from simply mooching a place to stay for a couple of weeks to outright theft. (Once, during a posh dinner party, one of the siblings supposedly walked past a dining room full of guests, unhooked a painting worth several million dollars from the wall and walked out the front door.)

*  *  *  *  *

The squatter and her husband were introduced to me at a dinner party as empty-nesters with a couple of spare rooms they occasionally rented to discreet, artistic tenants. An opera singer was already there. And as luck would have it, their other tenant, a ballet dancer, had just moved out. Would I like to move in? What could possibly be wrong with the place? I agreed on the spot, sight unseen.

I was a little curious as to why such a distinguished pair would need me to pay rent, given the nine-figure net-worth that living in a such ritzy building would require. But I let it slide, thinking it would have been impertinent to ask.

I took a cab over the next morning. The entrance was on a tree-lined side street. The cab driver looked at my two-dollar tip like I’d handed him a turd. The doormen sneered when I told them which apartment I wanted and didn’t offer to carry my luggage. The elevator was ancient and heavily carpeted, with a brass lever like something off a steam engine. 
I stepped out into an unlit alcove. The elevator doors closed behind me, plunging the room into darkness. I scrabbled around until I felt a doorknob. I knocked, but no one answered. I turned the handle and the door swung open. 

The space beyond was huge — it could have swallowed two stacked Gristedes supermarkets whole, with room to spare on the sides. High above me, a vaulted ceiling receded into murky brownness; two spiral staircases curled upwards at either end of the room. The floor beneath my feet was an intricate marble intarsia, a mosaic of reds, beiges and yellows inlaid in dark green stone. There was a slight breeze blowing through the house and I could hear faraway traffic through a distant open window.

I heard heels clicking toward me. It was the matriarch, a tall blonde in her fifties, wearing the same outfit she had on the night we’d been introduced. She led me into the library.

Sunbeams stirred dust motes among stacks of leather tomes, while cruel-looking Renaissance portraits glared down at us from gilt frames. Once I had her convinced that I wouldn’t make off with the silverware, she led me down a long, dim passageway, past fraying tapestries and lurking boxes studded with metal knurls that jutted out at shin level.

We passed through the kitchen. There was a working mail chute, a dumbwaiter — it hadn’t worked for decades — and a wind-up, horn-and-dial Butterfield 8-era telephone. Filthy dishes soaked in a half-dozen deep, porcelain-tiled sinks. The maid was on vacation.

My room was in the servants’ quarters. I would later learn that the dancer who had slept there before me had been dying of bone cancer and had lived in the room while recovering from an amputated foot. The room was about as long as a coffin and narrow enough so that I could reach out and touch both sides of it at once. The bed was a sliver of foam laid over a slab of plywood, propped up over the radiator, next to the window. One bad nightmare and I could have rolled out onto Fifth Avenue.

The ceiling had flaked a fine layer of plaster dust over every surface of the room, and the maid’s belongings were being slowly piled up everywhere. The walls were crammed with her clothes, her collections of weird religious artifacts and the family’s collection of Granta magazines. There was a Dürer engraving above my bed being consumed by a water stain. The bathroom had a ‘throne’ made of wicker and a scale set in the floor.
I settled into a slight existence. I didn’t think much. I staggered around the city in a state of profound culture shock. I had barely any money, just what my father had grubstaked me before I’d moved to the East Coast, but I came home to this weird old mansion.

One day, one of the equity holders arrived unexpectedly at night. He was a young man about my age. He came to stay toward the end of the summer, after a year or two as a groundskeeper at some club up in the Adirondacks. He was completely broke, but we went out on the town one night. After cadging my last twenty-dollar bill at Dorian’s Red Hand (of preppy killer fame) for a round of drinks, he promised to pay me back in kind.

When we got home he walked directly into the master bedroom. The couple was in Cambodia at this point, on vacation. The ceiling was in worse shape than it was in my room, and the floor was carpeted with its remnants. We walked into their closet. “Give me a boost,” he said. “And close your eyes.”

I didn’t. He jiggled a piece of wainscoting and a carved panel popped open. Behind it was a row of dusty bottles. “These are usually ok,” he said. It was port. The label read 1837.

We rinsed out two snifters from the kitchen and walked a half-flight of stairs down into the gallery. We switched the halogen spotlights on to all the paintings, and poured our port beneath the eyes of the Caravaggio. The gilt frames around us glowed, and for an instant the worn velvet cushions and weathered leather settees were restored to their former glory.

The first sip was sublime. The wine was ruddy gold and beneath the alcoholic burn swirled little eddies of unthinkable complexity. But gradually it began to grey in our glasses and the flavor vanished, oxidized into something creepy, ancient and undrinkable. I woke up the next afternoon with my head throbbing.

Eventually I had an ugly dispute with the family over my rent, and ended up sneaking out in the middle of the night. I had to bribe their illiterate non-English-speaking maid to smuggle my passport and coat out of the apartment. But before I left, I did meet a few members of the third generation, who seemed remarkably sane and normal. One was joining the army; another was an aspiring documentary filmmaker. The idea of losing the apartment didn’t seem to bother them too much, but it was clear that neither was on track to buy another. To them at least, the investment of time and labor necessary to turn themselves into tycoons simply wasn’t worth the effort. Too boring. Perhaps by the third generation the scales fall from the eyes, and wealth seems more of a bother than anything else.

As for me, like a young male wolf spider who forever sears the leg-band markings of the first female he ever sees into his memory and seeks that pattern out in his mates, I will always expect to find a stash of Prohibition-era port secreted in my wainscoting whenever I rent a new apartment. 

08/15/07 12:00am

My first copy of William Gibson’s Neuromancer was
given to me in exchange for contraband, payment for a debt incurred on
a small vial of flammable magnesium strips I’d squirreled away from the
American Embassy School’s chem lab. I can still see the thin-lipped
wince of disappointment on the face of the young British diplomat who
gave it to me.

He was a rube, a rookie, new to India, new to the New Delhi American
Embassy School and unaware of how valuable little fragments of
subculture could be in a country that back then, in 1996, was still
under an embargo. The Indian government was levying massive tariffs
against imported goods in an effort to protect domestic industry and,
in a place where Pringles sold for $10 a can, few, if any, genuine
articles of counterculture managed to wriggle their way through
government controls.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” read the first line of Neuromancer.
Here was this intoxicating vision, an entirely technological view of
the world that was both entertaining and terrifically addictive.
Cyberpunk fiction is a hybrid of dystopian science fiction and
hard-boiled detective novels. It’s punchy, but dense with imagery and
bogus technological jargon.

Burying myself in Neuromancer, I could forget the lepers
smearing stumps up against our windshield glass every morning, the
braying beggars drying cow patties by the side of the road, and the
endless expanses of gray and brown cardboard slums. I read the thing
more than 40 times.

I was stuck in a country teeming with almost a billion people and 6,000
years of civilization, a place already crowded with history, culture,
kings and empires — while back at home in the United States this
crystalline high tech was emerging. The Internet, the World Wide Web —
I’d only glimpsed these things on summer holidays or read about them in
tantalizingly brief articles in Newsweek or Time Asia. I was being left
behind, but by reading Neuromancer I could cling to it somehow, even if it was just fiction.

By the time I received my own grubby copy of Neuromancer,
the book had been around for over a decade. The story is generated
between two poles. It is both an attempt to visualize the place where,
as Gibson’s fellow cyberpunk Bruce Sterling put it, “You are when you
talk on the telephone… the place between telephones,” and an attempt to
capture the germination of consciousness from a cluster of networked
computers. Imagine the Internet suddenly evolving into something akin
to a massive brain, with each networked computer linked to it
functioning like a neuron.

Neuromancer takes place in the not-too-distant future — the
Internet exists, as do hackers. Gibson’s description of the Internet is
considered by many to be the progenitor of the term “cyberspace” and
perhaps even the metaphor of second space formed between users and
their machines:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions
of legitimate operators…  A graphic representation of data abstracted
from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable
complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters
and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

In Neuromancer, what we would now call the Internet is far
more visceral than an endless series of pages navigated by a search
engine and browser. It’s a frontier. Accessed via a deck that plugs
directly into a user’s brain, Gibson’s cyberspace can kill an unwary
“Console Cowboy” who strays too close to data encrypted by intrusion
countermeasures electronics (ICE).

I won’t ruin the plot, but suffice to say the machines win. This seems
to confirm what I heard Gibson say at a reading in 1999, during the
release of his novel Idoru: that he is a technological determinist,
convinced that technological change determines the pace of history.

Now, more than 20 years after Neuromancer’s release, the
technological future that Gibson envisioned seems hilariously naïve.
Take computers, for example: given how many software crashes and
hardware glitches we endure on a daily basis, why would we willingly
plug ourselves into something that might decide to kill us?
The Internet, too, has become something far less visual than the
“consensual hallucination” Gibson anticipated. Although it has
certainly become as ubiquitous as he thought it would, its form is far,
far different than the virtual reality of Neuromancer. It isn’t so much a place as a presence: a thing, a non-space that you can tap into almost anywhere at any time.

Gibson has backed away from technological determinism. September 11th
blew apart that hypothesis, proving just how intense forces of
religious faith and globalization have been in recent history. He now
claims that his science fiction has always been about the present, and
his past two novels have both taken place in the present day. His
latest, Spook Country,
is a serious attempt to visualize the Internet that has arisen, and to
properly contextualize the technological realm as one factor among many
shaping history.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the book’s title is meant to encapsulate what Gibson envisions as the virtual realm. If it is, Spook Country
is both an atmospheric description and a literal place within the book,
a reference to the uncanny underworld of spies and government agencies
and a metaphor describing the weird non-place that cyberspace has

While the stakes are a little lower in Spook Country, or at least more realistic than they are in Neuromancer, the plots are very similar — so similar that Spook Country feels like a conscious redeployment of Neuromancer. Given the complex back-stories informing Spook Country’s characters, it would make sense if it were.
 The protagonist is Hollis Henry, a popstar turned journalist hired by
Blue Ant, an ad agency appearing in other works of Gibson’s. Hollis is
assigned an article about artists who “geo-hack” — meaning they attach
their artwork to specific GPS coordinates.

One artist lovingly recreates celebrity death scenes around Los Angeles
— River Phoenix’s body slumped outside the Viper Room, Helmut Newton’s
car crash outside Chateau Marmot. His images are virtual, visible only
by linking to a website at the precise map coordinates; a layer of
information draped over the location.

As Hollis probes deeper into the story, she realizes her article is
pretext for Blue Ant to gather intelligence on the mysterious producer
arranging the technological component of the artwork. This producer
also works for another shadowy entity who’s tracking a shipping
container through the ocean.
Realizing the potentially sinister implications of this rogue container
(i.e. nuclear terrorism), Hollis confronts her boss, who claims his
agency is simply indulging in the advertising equivalent of REM sleep.
“Secrets… are the very root of cool, he says.”

While Hollis chases the producer from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Gibson
follows two more factions squabbling over the container. One is a
government contractor and his Russian-speaking, drug-addicted hostage.
The pair stalks the next group, a family of former Cuban intelligence

The Cubans, under contract to yet another shadowy entity, have
intercepted information about the container. Again, I won’t reveal the
rest of the plot other than to mention that all three parties converge
on the container and, again, the ambiguously good team manages to
prevail. It’s really the same thing that happens in Neuromancer, only set in the present with technology that could actually work.

Neuromancer uses classic film noir elements: its protagonists are the dregs of society, the femme fatale has a hot
bod, and the enemy is rich, corrupt, and at the center of power. Spook Country,
on the other hand, seems to reflect a much more mature view of society,
and the story takes place among middlemen, all of whom are clued in a
little bit, but none of whom is in complete control. None of the new
technology on display is completely reliable (even the gadgets of
Hollis’s billionaire boss require separate adapters) and all the actors
are smaller fish. No faces you’ve seen on television. Functionaries.

Things get done in Spook Country the way they’re usually
done in real life — a friend of a friend knows somebody, by
bureaucratic incompetence, or by sheer luck. It’s the opposite of the
heroic outsider dismantling the bad guys with his godlike skill. This
muddy realm of links and exchanges, this weird netherworld of
middlemen, is precisely why I delved into the world of Neuromancer as a teenager.

Around about my tenth read of Neuromancer, during the
summer vacation before my junior year at the American Embassy School in
New Delhi, a family friend of ours was kidnapped while hiking in
Kashmir. He was the son of a famous British journalist, snatched up by
a group of wannabe militiamen calling themselves the Hazrat Mujahadeen.

The Hazrat Mujahadeen said they were holding the boy hostage until the
Indian government released political prisoners in Kashmir and the
former Yugoslavia. Naturally, because of who the boy’s father was, the
entire foreign press corps flew up to Srinagar (the capital of Kashmir)
along with a number of British diplomats and mysterious American
bureaucrats. My parents were journalists too, and I came up with them. 

We spent nearly four weeks holed up in a ‘houseboat hotel’ floating
alongside the banks of Dal Lake with the rest of the press corps. At
night we would hear AK-47 fire echoing through the city, and there were
constant rumors. Some nights we’d be pulled ashore, with everyone
convinced that the militants were planning to drive a motorboat into
the hotel and shoot everybody. Sometimes blustering Indian officials
would appear, insisting that the militants had killed him or that he
was about to be released. The entire ordeal, at least on our end, was
conducted through bribery, threats and terse discussions over cups of

This is the atmosphere that Gibson channels in Spook Country.
And there is something within this setting, something about the
flickering back and forth of rumor and innuendo, of half-truth and
suggestion that also speaks to something fundamental about the
strangeness of technology interacting with people’s everyday reality.
Toward the end of Spook Country,
there’s a scene between the kidnapped Russian translator and the rogue
contractor. The two are driving through downtown Vancouver, trying to
find a wireless Internet connection that will let them log on to the
Internet without a password: 

“Milgrim had had no idea that people had these networks in their houses
and apartments, the sheer number of them were amazing, nor that they
extended so far beyond the owner’s actual property. Some people named
them after themselves, some were simply called ‘default,’ or ‘network,’
and some were named things like ‘Dark Harvester’ and ‘Doomsmith.”

While reading Spook Country, I decided to set up a wireless
network of my own. When I fired up my modem, I was suddenly confronted
with offers to join networks named, “prius,” “Team Vindaloo,”
“fuckbush,” and “isitreallysostrange” (after a lyric by the Smiths).

What was so uncanny about this was that I could more or less identify
which of my neighbors each network belonged to, simply by looking at
the bumper stickers on the cars parked outside. Prius belonged to the
owner of the gleaming Toyota Prius, fuckbush to the Subaru spattered
with Vote for Obama stickers, isitreallysostrange to the purple Civic
with the Smiths vanity plate — each of my neighbors was beaming out his
or her own network, not to mention broadcasting a tiny nugget of
information about themselves. 

In Spook Country, cyberspace, once a different ‘place,’ is
being enfolded onto real space. Information floating around cyberspace
is becoming a part of the environment, a fragment of perception no
different than a ‘real’ memory someone might have attached to specific
place. “Would it all be like this, in Alberto’s new world of the
locative?” asks Hollis, observing a virtual ruined Statue of Liberty
poking out of a Malibu Beach à la Planet of the Apes. “Would it mean
the untagged, unscripted world would gradually fill with virtual
things, as beautiful or banal as anything encountered on the web

Gibson uses real, identifiable locations for his scenes in Spook Country
— real restaurants, streets and squares. This, plus the potent
back-stories he’s included with each character, suggests that Gibson is
demonstrating that any information someone has about a location — their
past, their memories, their religion, their gender, their celebrity
status, their ethnicity, their training, even their addictions — will
inform the way that he or she perceives a location.

Stretching this new metaphor for cyberspace a little further, of
information tethered to a particular location, Gibson also introduces
the idea of being able to select between different channels. Of being
able to pick and choose what information is attached to a particular
location. This was in effect what I was attempting to do in India by
reading and re-reading Neuromancer
all those years ago, attempting to assimilate its chilly, high-tech
aesthetic and overlay it onto the fetid viscerality I experienced every
day in New Delhi.

Gibson’s attempt to introduce feeds of information into his new
metaphor for cyberspace points to a fairly serious flaw in it. Namely,
where are these feeds coming from? While information is unquestionably
beginning to be attached to specific locations, at the same time, the
idea of cyberspace as a thing, as a mass consensual hallucination that
is ‘elsewhere,’ doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon.

The corporate strongholds that console cowboy Case and his cyborg
assassin lover Molly tore into continue to exist as enterprise-level
corporate intranets. An underworld of illegal file-sharing networks and
areas where people can meet and chat back and forth continue to thrive.
Still, Spook Country is unquestionably on its way, if it hasn’t already arrived.