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For All Nails #276: The Power of Pointlists

by David Mix Barrington


Aarhus, Kingdom of Scandinavia
3 July 1976

For a man well on his way into an alcoholic stupor, Bobby Contreras was content. The scene before him was idyllic: couples strolling hand in hand down the Aagaden and across the bridge over the Aa, the pleasant combination of medieval and modern buildings, his international mathematical colleagues scattered among the outdoor tables of the tavern, the last glow of sunlight still in the sky though it was after midnight. Behind him some of those colleagues were belting out a drinking song in some dialect of German. Pleasant, and no cause for worry, he'd already held up Mexico's honor by serenading the company himself a little earlier. Drinking songs were not a Mexican thing, but Bobby hadn't spent three years in the choral-happy CNA for nothing. He'd regaled them with a song from Burlington FN1 and encored them with that list of philosophers Major Dieter had forced people to memorize on Sábado Gigante. FN2 A greater triumph, maybe, even than reading his paper on "General Instruction Schemes for Processing Interconnection Networks" to the International Congress of Mathematicians.

Aarhus had been a fine place to spend two weeks. A pretty university town like Oxford, where he had just been, or Gottingen, his next stop. Reasonably welcoming to an English-speaker -- the written Danish was enough like misspelled German to get something out of street signs and menus at least. He'd been warned that the spoken language was completely impossible for non-natives, when even the natives faced new mutually incomprehensible dialects every ten kilometers or so, but most Scandies seemed to speak business English and the academics were all fluent.

And the women here! He'd finally formed a tentative theory as to why at least half of them caused him a palpable kick in his heart. Every beautiful woman he'd known, from chicas showing you everything they had, to Toriettas making you wonder what was under the long sleeve and the high collar, to his own in-between wife, their appearance was all about you, and their power to make you look. They dressed for men. But the Scandies had this complete self-assurance -- they were beautiful and knew it, but their beauty was for themselves, and if they threw the wave at you it was for themselves and not to manipulate you. It was the same honesty and directness he was used to from Mexican men, and getting it from a woman...

Like Margrethe, the graduate student who'd been placed next to him at the conference banquet. They'd been talking since they'd wound up here, though she'd now stepped inside to the damas for a moment. His mathematics, her engineering, calculators, life in his California, life in her Denmark, the alcohol-fueled conversation had ranged over every possible topic and her interest in him was obvious. He had a hotel room to himself tonight. He hadn't seen Anna in four weeks. Hadn't had real tearing-the-clothes-off sex since -- he wanted Margrethe desperately.

Bobby felt a click in his brain and a pointlist appeared:

         WHY I SHOULD NOT FUCK MARGRETHE
    1.  Anna might find out.
    2.  I am not a pinche naco like my father.
    3.  She might be a spy.

Heh. A pointlist. Why was his underbrain showing him a pointlist? Evidently he had pointlists on the brain, and under the brain, from the new product idea. Steve FN3 was convinced that the next thing in office calcs was a tool to make business presentations in pointlists, maybe with the vitascreen of the calc connected right to a projector. Businessmen, Steve said, didn't argue like mathematicians or like lawyers, they wanted lists of numbered points so they could convince themselves they were making a logical decision. Bobby had replied that he had taught Steve how to use logic, damn it, and numbered points had nothing to do with it. But they want pointlists, and they'll pay for pointlists, Steve had said. Bobby had amused himself trying to make a pointlist presentation out of "General Instruction Schemes," but you couldn't do it and be mathematically honest, he'd found. The question was whether your argument made sense, and answered the objections.

Well, his underbrain had just presented an argument. Did it make sense? Point One was ridiculous at first sight, since Anna was ten thousand kilometers away in Palo Alto. No, wait, this was Declaration Day weekend, so she was in Acapulco negotiating the contract renewal with Jorge. Dominic FN4 was with the Dimaggios -- Anna could leave the baby for a couple of days but not the six weeks Bobby needed to be in Europe. Acapulco must be about the same distance by great circle... but the underbrain actually did have a point. The international mathematical community was a small one, and to the considerable extent that it overlapped with the calculator industry, Anna was part of it. And if she did find out? He shuddered at the thought of a vengeance-crazed, binationally trained lawyer dragging him through USM or God-forbid CNA courtrooms. She'd wind up owning Pomona for sure. Point One could not be dismissed.

Point Two? Robert Contreras Senior was indeed a pinche naco, a mujeriego. Three broken marriages and a host of abandoned girlfriends attested to that. And Bobby had vowed to be different, to be faithful to his marriage. But however much Robert had wronged Mom, was it reasonable to hold him, to hold himself, to a standard that nine out of ten married Mexicans abroad could not meet? A woman like this -- clean, beautiful, interesting, willing, in a foreign country -- it would be unpatriotic not to fuck her. He rejected Point Two.

Which left Point Three. A spy? Perfect English. An interest in his work, the ultimate aphrodisiac for the technical man. If she were deliberately planting herself on him, she couldn't be doing better. But why? Click:

            REASONS THE SCANDIES MIGHT SPY ON ME
      1.  My father is a politically influential businessman.
      2.  I am a world-renowned mathematician.
      3.  My company builds calculators.
      4.  I know a lot about military field communications.

Heh. This was the problem with pointlists. You could come up with a superficially plausible list like this that really had very little reasoning behind it. Take Point One. Sure, Dad knew people who knew people who knew the President. He'd even passed on a message to one of them once -- whatever that thing was that Joan Kahn was so concerned about a couple years ago, no doubt one of her insane conspiracy theories. FN5 But Dad, influential? He actually seemed to think that his friend Costigan was going to be the next president, FN6 which told you about how politically connected he really wasn't. Plus, if you were going to use a pretty girl to get to Dad, which would be hunting deer with hand grenades, why bother with his son as the middle man? Point One made no sense.

Point Two was true, of course, his very presence here proved it, but what would spies want with pure mathematics? Now Point Three, on the other hand -- if there were really a lot of money to be made in calcs eventually, which was sort of the point of his company, some kind of industrial espionage might make sense for the Scandies. But it wasn't like Pomona was keeping a lot of secrets, not that he could think of...

Point Four? Per regulations, CPT R. T. Contreras, Jr., AUSM reserves, had informed his superiors of his plans to visit a foreign country. He had been officially warned of the possibility that Foreign Spies might be after Military Secrets. And since the AUSM in one of its occasional forays into rationality had assigned him, an electrical engineer, to inalambrico security rather than sewage system design, he actually knew a few useful ones. And there were Scandies in New Granada facing Mexican troops, though from what he'd heard everyone down there except the limones and the locals were mostly trying to keep their heads down...

So there was some actual intelligence value to Scandinavia in subverting Bobby Contreras. That left the question of whether they'd do it, whether they were the kind of police state-- Click:

              DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS OF A POLICE STATE
     1.  The authorities routinely detain, imprison, beat, and kill 
         people without due process.
     2.  The citizenry is afraid to criticize the government or its 
         policies.
     3.  The authorities monitor society through a network of agents 
         and informers.

That was reasonably clear, anyway, score one for his underbrain. Clear enough to establish that Mercator's Mexico, much less Moctezuma's, was not the police state the rest of the world seemed to imagine it to be.

A bit of Factor Two under Mercator, sure, there were things you just didn't do if you were smart. But Factor One not so much. When Dad got himself on the wrong side of the War Department, the squeeze had come through the legal system, not the polis, and Anna'd been able to stop it through the legal system. Okay, that had been 1973 and not 1955, true. A little more initiative from the polis back in 1955, but at least the courthouses never closed.

Factor Three? Not a Mexican thing at all. Sure Army Intel had spies, and there were undercover polis, though not as many as you saw on the vita. But there was a difference between a spy mission and a spy program. It was the Tories who had to worry about the CBI agent under the bed. At least the Tories on Sábado Gigante did. The real Tories in Burlington had openly checked up on him periodically, and kept him away from some of Belanger's projects, but after all he was an enemy alien, what should he have expected?

Mild Factor Three aside, the CNA was no police state either. They could and did print whatever they wanted in the papers, and that included reporting on the CBI whenever they actually did something instead of hiding under the bed with the notebook. Well, maybe not everything the CNA did. Joan said her publisher friends were always just this close to getting closed down by the government (the N.C. government, if he remembered right) so they watched themselves like the Mexicans under Mercator. For that matter, Joan said that the entire CNA press was a willing tool of the powerful interests. But that couldn't really be true, could it, because when the CBI really kicked the duck, like shooting that bystander last year, the reporting seemed to be honest and thorough.

Britain? Even there the polis seemed to respect your three-fifteen FN7 rights, giving you some kind of a fair and public trial after they grabbed you off the street. As Anna was always saying, Article Three was pretty much just English common law anyway. So no Factor One, but they had Factor Two in spades. Take Barclay's friends at Oxford, for example. They hated the government, were apologetic to him about the war, but outside their own little gatherings you'd never hear a peep from them. They weren't afraid of the polis, as far as he could tell, but they were plenty afraid. Hold an anti-Party demonstration and the pro-Party street fighters would take care of you. Write a letter to the newspaper and lose your job. Forget to show the Union Jack on a public holiday and your neighbor knocks on your door. No poli informers -- nobody at Barclay's house was watching what they said in private -- but a real climate of fear. Did it count as a police state when it was the Party and its mobs and busybody neighbors enforcing it and not the polis themselves?

It would be interesting to see what Germany was like in person. Everyone in Mexico knew that you'd be taken round back and beaten up the moment you became tiresome to someone like Major Dieter, but that was probably no more accurate than the CBI man under the bed. Germany was supposed to be a democracy, at least if you were German and got to vote. Unlike Laci Kovacs, his host-to-be, who was considered a foreigner in Germany even though he'd been a Herr Professor Doktor for twenty years. Did he resent the German yoke upon his nation? Did he fear the poli's knock on his door? Maybe between discussions of Minorcan schemes for prime numbers FN8, he'd find out. None of which answered the question of whether Scandinavia was a police state, or whether Margrethe had Ways To Make Him Talk. (That sounded like a lot of fun, actually.) And it was too late to figure it out, because the woman herself was back.

"You look so serious. What are you thinking about?"

"Police states, actually." She raised an eyebrow. He continued. "Can you tell me how often it happens that the police come around and take someone away and they're never heard from again?"

"Happens all the time."

"All the time?"

"Sure. We're next to the Germans. And the British. Spying on us, spying on each other, we can't have that. So we find a spy, they disappear. FN9 Why, are you a spy?" The friendly smile didn't quite assure him that she wasn't serious.

"Not me. A harmless mathematician. And an army officer, of course, but I told them all about that at the airpark when I came in, they didn't seem to mind. Do I look like a spy?"

"It is hard to tell. That Englishman in the films is very handsome, you are very handsome. I think we cannot be too careful about handsome foreigners in our country."

"Who's we? Are you with some sort of counterintelligence?"

"Well if I were, I would hardly discuss it with a handsome foreigner, would I? No, I think it is simply my duty as a private citizen to make sure that you don't cause any trouble. Perhaps I should walk you back to your hotel room?"

"And stay with me there to make sure I don't escape?"

"Do you think that would be necessary?"

"As you said, you can't be too careful." He finished his beer and stood up. There was another click in his head and a final pointlist appeared:

            REASONS WHY IT ISN'T MY FAULT
    1.  I'm a long way from home.
    2.  She is very persuasive and it's really her idea.
    3.  It's probably in my germ plasm from Dad.
    4.  It's her duty as a private citizen-- oh, never mind.

Forward to FAN #277A: Military History.

Forward to 9 July 1976: Wheeler Wars.

Forward to Contreras family: Remembrance Day.

Forward to Calculating machines: Machine Politics.

Return to For All Nails.

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