Sunday, 19 January 2020

Isolation Booths (Esoterrorists)

This post is inspired by isolation booths as used in schools in England to which I can only reply, if Orwell were alive today, imagine the novels he would write.

The principle is understandable. There needs to be a penalty for disruptive behavior in the classroom. In this instance, the penalty is to be shoved into isolation for hours, perhaps days at a time. In some cases, allegedly, weeks. No social interaction whatsoever. Just sit and do work - or sleep, or whatever, so long as it's quiet.

Image taken from the Guardian

Problem being that disruptive behavior can mean anything. It can mean mental health issues, learning disabilities, not wearing the right shoes, talking out of turn. In a BBC study, one student was put in isolation after contracting fibromyalgia. Given that schools are graded by academic performance, there must be a strong temptation to put underperforming students in isolation, as a first step to easing them out of the school altogether. 

There's enough demand for booths to inspire its own cottage industry, at £175 a throw. It's the numbers that enthrall me. Imagine the school that needs a hundred units worth of isolation booths. How many disruptive pupils can any one school have? How many isolation rooms - not booths, rooms - can any school need? 

There's a short step from this to Esoterror. 

The Summer of the Kooks

The OV's attention is drawn to the problem by a whistleblower in the school system, or a member of a pressure group like Lose the Booths.

Pupils across the UK are vanishing. There are always runaways, always heartbreaking little mysteries, but this seems different. The numbers are higher than usual but, more than that, the kids who vanish share similar symptoms - dizziness, lethargy, unwillingness to communicate, except on one topic. They all seem fascinated by someone they call Little Man, who makes all kinds of promises - happiness, sunshine, play, all the best things. Anything's better than the dark little isolation booth they regularly get shoved into at school.

At the same time, there's also a sharp uptick in unexplained deaths. Messy, gory deaths. A few teachers, a PCSO, some parents of missing children, some children. Not enough in any one place to draw official suspicion, but always the same small details. It happens in or near school. There are no witnesses, electronic or otherwise - cameras always seem to be broken, or recordings wiped. There's always something missing, usually noses, ears, in one case bearded cheeks and chin. Bitten off, it looks like.

In one case a victim, before she died, sent a text to her sister that said Picture for yourselves a little man, broader than he is tall, tender and greasy like a ball of butter, with a rosy face, a small, constantly laughing mouth and a thin, adorable voice of a cat wishing all the best to its master. Which is a quote from Pinocchio, in the original Italian, about the Coachman who whisks naughty children off and turns them into donkeys, to be sold. The Coachman in the story had a habit of disciplining his donkeys by biting their ears off - some distance from Disney's round-faced unctuous Cockney.

Odd coincidence, as it happens, since the schools affected all have isolation booths with colorful murals on the walls, scenes out of Pinocchio's Land of Toys. There, at the back of the picture, sits a cheerful little butterball with a cat's grin.

For the Kooks aren't coming out of the woods this time. They're coming out of those pretty murals, and there are so very many of them now …  

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Not Quite Book Review Corner: How To Catch A Russian Spy

How To Catch a Russian Spy tells the story of Naveed Jamali's career as an amateur double agent in New York, which really sounds as if it ought to be a Sting tune, but isn't.

Jamali, the son of Pakistani and French immigrants, comes off as a bit of an idiot in the early chapters. His parents are brilliant academics who own and operate a high-end research company in New York, selling specialized texts to whoever needs them; Jamali's a shiftless nimrod who almost flunks out of high school. He likes cars and computers, and ends up working in "a frat house for nerds," also known as Harvard's IT department. Life is soft. Life is good.

Then 9/11 happens. Jamali rushes back home, mind a-whirl. Who knows what's normal any more? Suddenly he has ambition, a purpose: he wants to join the Navy, put his brains to use and become an intelligence officer.

Except the Navy won't have him.

This must have happened to a lot of people, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There was a flood of recruits hammering on military doors, practically begging to be taken on. This is before Iraq, before the conflict that ate up all that ambition and willingness to serve. There are too many people for too few posts. To Jamali, rejection is a challenge. He will get in, whatever it takes. He needs a sponsor. He needs to impress someone.

He decides to impress the FBI.

The Feds have a long history with Jamali's parents. Early in the career of their research company, they were approached by a Russian diplomat who wanted them to get some books for him. None of them were classified or otherwise off-limits, so they do as he asks. The FBI's knocking on their door soon afterwards. What did the Russian ask for? They tell the Feds. Thus begins a long career of cat-and-mouse. The Russians present a book list, the Jamalis acquire the books, and promptly tell the FBI. This goes on for pretty much the Jamali's entire working career, and their son Naveed is well aware of what's going on. He's met the Russians, met the Feds.

He's perfectly placed to become a double agent.

By this post-9/11 point Jamali's parents are close to retirement, and the book business is changing. Less physical, more digital media. Perfect for computer nerd Naveed, who takes over the business and approaches the FBI with an offer. Why don't they let him pretend to the Russians that Jamali has access to classified material? Why don't they let him pretend to want to sell that material?

The FBI's reluctant at first. The Feds like things as they are: nice, quiet, a steady earner. Jamali's proposing some risky business, and whether it fails or succeeds, the steady earner's dead in the water. However, Jamali manages to get the FBI onboard. Now it's time to persuade the Russian, Oleg.

Oleg's the latest in a long line of Russian diplomats who've come to the store to buy documents. He's a bit of a boob, a peasant, but he's also a naval officer, an ex-submariner, who works for Russian intelligence. He's a spy.

Jamali spends the next three years trying to catch him. He teaches himself spycraft, from books and movies. He tempts, lures, dangles bait, and slowly but surely, Oleg's enticed into a trap ...

I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in spies, spying and real-life spycraft. It leans heavily to the Le Carre side of the equation, but then really, why wouldn't it?

One thing it definitely shows is how difficult it is to actually catch a spy. Jamali spends three years enticing one relatively small fish. Imagine if your Night's Black Agents players spent three years trying to catch one vampire. In fact, this is more a book for players than Directors, though everyone will find it useful. Jamali's the perfect prototype for the eager vampire-hunting recruit: ambitious, motivated, with one hell of a Symbol. Frustrated in his ambitions, he turns to shadowy less-than-legal methods to get what he wants. Of course it's all okay, really - he's working for Edom, right? Edom will be there to catch him when he falls …

Jamali went on to have the Naval career he wanted, and more recently ran for political office in Seattle. He's active on Twitter, and is very much involved in anti-Swatting and Doxing measures, after being Swatted himself.


Sunday, 5 January 2020

Zombie Companies

You may have noticed this phrase pop up in your feed. It's become popular recently, in part because there's a significant school of thought that argues we're past due for a recession. If you want a more weighty, scholarly definition of the term, hie thee to Bis, but the short version is:

A zombie company is at least ten years old, burdened by debt it is unable to pay off, and only exists because banks allow it to pile on more debt, rather than die. In recent years banks have been weak because their balance sheets suck every kind of rectal cavity, and as a consequence they'd much rather roll over debt - thus keeping it on the sheet - than terminate it, and the company.

This is problematic. Zombie companies employ people and pay tax, which is great. However, because they have no money they have no hope of doing anything economically useful. They just consume resources, which might have been better used by another, more vigorous company. Zombies stifle expansion by eating all the brains, essentially.

If you're wondering whether this has happened before, it has. Economic growth in Japan came to an abrupt halt in the 1990s, ushering in what's now called the Lost Decade, from about 1995 to 2007. Corporations had guaranteed credit from the banks, discouraging them from making any reforms or trying to save the company from the consequences of its debt burden. It was easier just to let things slide. Nobody invested - after all, why would you? You'd never get your money back, never mind a profit, since every Yen that came in was eaten by the company's debt burden. Anything that might have saved the situation would have had negative short-term consequences, and nobody wanted that.

It's been argued that one of the best ways of clearing out the zombies, preparing the ground for new growth, is to have a recession. A nice, stiff, painful recession, that puts a lot of people out of work. One in which nobody's too big to fail. As with Japan, that's going to be very unpopular politically and socially, which means central governments are going to do everything in their power to prevent it. Which in turn encourages more zombies, stifling growth and initiative.

What does this mean? Apart from cardboard box homes in about five to ten years?

Let's talk gaming, which is somewhat less depressing.

In Night's Black Agents, this could be a whole new endgame for your global Conspiracy. If the vampires fix it so a colossal economic crash brings about a new world order, one in which they can operate freely rather than skulk in the shadows, that's a big win for them. So their best bet is to encourage zombies. Let those brain-dead, shuffling nonentities eat the economy alive, making the crash all the more painful when it comes. This has been done before on much smaller scales; only this week, Ken and Robin discussed the career of William Playfair, who among other things attempted to ruin the French economy to benefit British interests. This is precisely the same game, played on a much larger scale. This kind of campaign best fits Dust or Mirror, some setting where betrayal and political infighting is commonplace. The soldiers on the battlefield are bankers, executives, Wall Street high-fliers, and the great thing about this kind of soldier, from the Vampires' perspective, is that they don't even need to be promised eternal life. Just bigger and better year-end bonuses.  

Of course, the agents' role is slightly less angelic than usual. If they win, either there's an economic collapse anyway, killing all those zombies, or the zombies continue to devour the economy, ruining things long-term.

An Esoterrorists pitch is slightly different. In this version, zombie companies look shiny and bright on the outside - but behind those closed doors, something awful lurks. Executives desperate to keep their company going in spite of everything fall prey to all kinds of promises from the Outer Dark. High-level Esoterrorists know that economic instability and poverty are breeding grounds for new Esoterrors. Occult beliefs and odd religious groups profligate and prosper when everything else fails - the Great Depression proved that. The Dollarmen from the main book are the obvious actors in this timeline, but there could be plenty of others working behind the scenes. Hotsetter Marcus could be sending off prize execs to be CEOs and CFOs at select zombie firms, whose sole purpose is either to perpetuate the zombie disease or to bring an otherwise healthy company to zombie status. Of course, people at that level have plenty of resources at their disposal and can hire other cells, like the Infernalists, to do their grunt work for them. Also, they could be working towards literal zombification, which drives the theme home. How many good little employees stuffed in their cubicles, like slaves in a galley, are still human? How many just exist to keep the zombie company afloat, and what happens if their conditioning breaks? Does that cause an actual zombie outbreak?

Enjoy! If you dare ...

Sunday, 29 December 2019

North Korea's Ghost Ships (NBA)

Once again North Korea hit the news this week, but not because of any Christmas Gift it's supposed to be dropping on … well, whoever North Korea doesn't like this week. No, this time it's because one of its Ghost Ships washed up on Sado Island, Japanese territory. All aboard were dead, two so badly decomposed that the authorities were unable to easily determine whether they were male or female.

This happens every so often, and sometimes hits the news. North Korea needs fish. Sometimes this is interpreted as 'North Korea is starving,' but whether it is or is not, fish is not to be had in quantity off the coast of North Korea. Though North Korea's fishing fleet isn't anything like robust enough for deep-sea fishing, in desperation its boats are forced further and further away from the coast. Often this means they can't get back again, and one more small tragedy is found, weeks or months later, by the Japanese. In 2019 alone at least 156 fishing boats were found adrift, or wrecked on the Japanese coast.

Sado is a remote, populated island, part of Niigata Prefecture, but far from Japan. In days gone by, it was a convenient place to send people nobody ever wanted to see again. Emperor Juntoku was one such; he was effectively puppeted by his predecessor, Emperor Go-Toba, who was forced to 'abdicate' by his shogun. Go-Toba spent the next few decades operating behind the scenes. Juntoku was one of three puppeted Emperors acting for Go-Toba, and when Juntoku failed to bring victory in war, Juntoku vanished.  The unfortunate puppet Emperor lived on Sado for twenty years after his disgrace, and is buried there, at Mano Goryo.

The island itself is two steep mountain ranges, north and south, clustered around a valley. Most of its 55,000-odd people live in that valley, Kuninaka. The island has been steadily depopulating; like much of Japan, it suffers from a lack of young people, as those with any ambition prefer to live in the big cities. The majority of Sado's grey-haired population hover around the 60+ mark. These days the island survives on tourism, attracting people with its geographic beauty, festivals, and historic shrines, memorials and landmarks.

It has a notorious connection with North Korea. US deserter Charles Jenkins lived there with his wife and daughters, after Jenkins was released by North Korea. His wife, Hitomi, was a 21-year-old abductee, one of several that North Korea snatched and kept imprisoned. The North Korean government 'gave' Hitomi to Jenkins, and they were later married. Her job was to teach North Korean agents Japanese language and customs, and Jenkins was meant to teach her English.

Hitomi was snatched from her home in Sado by North Korean agents, and Japan has always worried that the Ghost Ships are being used to transport spies to Japan, In 1999 there was an armed clash with one such 'fishing boat,' which resisted capture and fired on a Japanese coast guard ship with machine guns and rocket launchers. After it sank, it was recovered by the Japanese, and inspection showed it to be double-hulled with secret compartments capable of launching small speedboats. Presumably this was how it intended to deliver North Korean agents to Japan. The North Korean ship is now a star exhibit at the Coast Guard Museum, Yokohama.

So, to gamify:

The Cat Returns

In 1981, Japanese Vampirology expert Hotaka is taken by North Korean agents, and is never seen again. Most of his notes and research vanished with him, leaving only a few scraps behind for dedicated occultists and vampire hunters to fight over. However there have been persistent rumors since then that Hotaka-san was being forced to lead some kind of North Korean vampire program on a shoestring budget. There have also been rumors that he married, and had children - or possibly was forced to have children, depending on which version of the story you believe.

The agents have heard, through Network contacts, Tradecraft whispers, Traffic Analysis of Japanese SigInt, or similar, that Japanese authorities are particularly concerned North Korean agents of very uncertain, if not supernatural, provenance, may have infiltrated Sado. The Coast Guard recently intercepted a derelict fishing boat just off Sado's northern coast. The crew are dead, but what the Japenese government isn't saying is that the ghost ship wasn't an ordinary fishing smack. It was an armed spy ship, rigged in such a way that Vampirology experts can tell it was intended to transport blood-drinking cargo.

This coincides with an unusual radio broadcast from North Korea, evidently from a pirate station, unencrypted. It repeated the same Buson Haiku  three times, then went silent. The Haiku, Lighting One Candle, is known to be one of Hotaka-san's favorites. The broadcast went out the same day the ghost ship was recovered by the Japanese Coast Guard.

Has the 74-year-old famed Vampirology expert escaped, perhaps with the aid of one of the vampire program's experimental subjects? Or is this a defection by one of his children - and is that child human, or something else? If the agents want to find out, they'll have to evade Japanese and North Korean agents, who also want the same prize. Plus, there is that Haiku. If it was a secret message or signal, who was supposed to receive and understand it? The CIA? The Vatican? Someone else?

Bonus points to the Director if this race to uncover the defector - assuming it is a defector - takes place during one of Sado's many festivals. The Noh festivals in June, for example … imagine tracking a vampire through bonfire-lit Noh performances! Extra bonus points if the final scenes take place, at night, at Mano Goryo.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

KGB Museum, and Books!

I spent last weekend in NYC, loving every minute of it and walking my hind legs clean off. My hotel's about ten minutes walk from the Flatiron, and most of what I wanted - the Strand, really - is roundabout Union Square, so I didn't bother with the subway this trip. Spent a lot of time at the Pit, which I recommend if you enjoy comedy & improv.

That's not what this post shall be about, tho.

The KGB Museum down on West 14th Street is exactly what you think it is: a room stuffed full of pretty much every kind of spy kitsch you can imagine. If you like the KGB (and really, who doesn't?), Cold War shenanigans, and vintage spy tech, this is exactly the place you want to be. All it needs is a life-size statue of Ken Hite, glad-handing the tourists as they stroll in the door.

I got there at opening time, 10am, on Friday, and I'm glad I did. It meant I got the guided tour free of charge, but more importantly, I could enjoy everything in peace and quiet. There's a lot to see here, crammed into a relatively small space. I can only imagine what it's like with, say, fifty to sixty other sightseers jockeying for position.

It's run by a group of smiling eastern Europeans, probably Russians, and to be honest, if your first thought is, 'this has got to be an FSB front organization,' rest assured, I thought the same thing. It's exactly the sort of dumb-but-it-could-work idea that has fueled many a real-life spy operation, ever since Kit Marlowe got his in the back room of Elanor Bull's tavern. She, incidentally, did a lot of business with Russian merchants … wheels within wheels.

The KGB Museum's collection is very impressive. It leans a little more towards the early years, the Chekists and Beria, than the later Cold War operations. Some of the items stretch credulity a little bit. For example, the Museum has both The Thing - the wooden US seal which hung on the wall of the American Residency in Moscow for many years, which concealed a transmitter invented by musical genius Leon Theramin - and a Bulgarian poison-tipped umbrella, of the type that was used to kill dissident and defector Markov in London, 1978. Surely those are replicas. It beggars belief that the original Thing found its way to the KGB Museum, and as for the poison-tip umbrella … Anything's possible, I suppose.

That's the Museum's greatest trick. It makes everything seem possible. You don't know who owns it, where its money comes from, how it got its very impressive collection together, who all these charming Russians are who either run, or own, the place. It's a brilliant, small little museum, nestled in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world. Unless you're prepared to go to Moscow, you'll never see anything else like it.

It's a few steps down the street from a great 24-hour diner, the Coppelia, a Cuban place, and no, the irony of a little slice of Cuba a few steps down the street from the KGB museum did not escape me. God, I needed the Coppelia, at about 930 in the morning, when French toast with fresh sliced banana, plus a sinfully dark coffee, was the only shining light on a slate gray day. A good spread of rum on the shelf too; the kind of place worth coming back to again and again.

Now the books.

Hollywood's Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles, Laura B. Rosenzweig, NY University Press 2017. Los Angeles' Jewish community, led by Hollywood's elite, fights back against American Nazis. A slice of pre-Cold War cloak-and-dagger, and probably a good resource for Bookhounds, since a lot of the things happening in bookstore back rooms in Los Angeles in the 30s are probably also happening in London. If you play Technicolor and want some anti-Nazi action, paid for by Warner Brothers, here's your chance.

Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn edited by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton Uni Press, 2019. Hearn's stories enrapture me, and possibly the greatest thing about his work is, he wrote so very much it's almost impossible to run out. The day you think you've read them all, you find a whole new collection. The ghost lovers out there want this book.

Dark Tales, Shirley Jackson, Penguin 2017. Not as prolific as Hearn, but just as evocative. This contains the classics and several obscurities, newly reprinted. Again, ghost lovers, seek this out.

Psycho, Robert Bloch, Overlook Press, 2010. I must have seen the movie a dozen times, but it suddenly occurred to me, standing amid the Strand's towering stacks, that I'd never read the book. Time to rectify that.

How To Catch A Russian Spy, Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican, Scribner paperback, 2018. Modern espionage tale about Jamali's work with the FBI, drawing out Russian intelligencers with poison packets of fake data. For the Night's Black Agents players and directors out there. Bought at the KGB Museum, so it has their own stamp on the flyleaf. As is only right and proper.

Hungry Ghosts, Anthony Bourdain, graphic novel, Berger Books (Dark Horse). Bourdain borrows from Japanese folklore to create a collection of creepy horror tales. I'll be honest, I hesitated over this one. Bourdain's unexpected death hit me hard, and for the longest while I didn't want to read his books or watch his show. I've recently gotten back into his work, and when I saw this on the shelf, I couldn't resist.

Night's Black Agents, Solo Ops. Pelgrane Press. How could I not? I playtested this, back in the day. I don't know how often I'll get a chance to play, but I couldn't resist. Now if only Swords of the Serpentine was out …

Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Edmund Curll (Bookhounds)

Once again, this week's inspiration comes from Geoffrey Ashe's The Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs, the gift that keeps on giving.

Edmund Curll is the kind of bookseller whose success your Hounds long to emulate. Born in 1675(ish), to a moderately respectable family, he apprenticed to a bookseller in the 1690s, and thus began his meteoric rise to fame, fortune, chicanery, and pornography, more or less in that order.

His early career was yellow journalism, in that it was entirely invented and existed only to start arguments. Clickbait. He'd work in conjunction with others like him, publishing cheap papers and pamphlets, capitalizing on current affairs. If a witch trial captures public attention, print some quickie cash-grabber taking her side of the case, while your partner in bullshit prints a denunciation of same. By doing so, you grab both ends of the market at the same time, and, if you can keep the argument going long after the witch hangs, you can keep the money rolling in for weeks after the actual incident is no longer news. The filthier the better - Archbishop engaged in sexual relations with a cow, that sort of thing.

He also had a good line in pseudoscience, publishing cure-all pamphlets and medical remedy books. Of course they bore no relation to actual scholarly work, but scholarship's boring - and Curll wanted to sell.

He had no scruples whatsoever. Johnathon Swift never wanted his Meditations on a Broomstick to see the light of day, and certainly not under Swift's own name, so Curll stole the book and published it. Curll would publish any old rubbish and put the names of famous men on it, to drive up sales. His favorite trick was to publish manuscripts already in print elsewhere, without seeking permission from the author or the publishing house, and often the ensuing controversy and denunciation only helped to publicize Curll's books.

Another beloved cash cow of Curll's was the unofficial biography published after some great man's death, when they couldn't retaliate with troublesome lawyers. He became so notorious for this that the House of Lords passed a law specifically to protect themselves: nobody could write about, or by, a Lord without permission.

He didn't escape unscathed. Swift poisoned him with an emetic, and the schoolboys of Westminster School, outraged at his unofficial biography of their headmaster, lured him into an ambush and beat him silly, wrapping him up in a blanket and thrashing the package with sticks. However despite all this he emerged as venomous as ever, and went on with his back-alley tricks. he had a special, enduring, rat-like talent for publishing, and publicity. Once, when he was put into a pillory, he salvaged something from the wreckage by publishing, and selling, self-promoting pamphlets, which he sold to the crowds who came to see him pilloried.

His final years were spent writing and publishing the Merryland line of  pornography. A Compleat Set of Charts of the Coasts of Merryland, Succors from Merryland, that sort of thing - the female body as a kind of strange and exotic land, to be explored by bold adventurers.

Curll's greatest achievement was to outlive his critics. He eventually died, publishing to the last, in December 1747, in a shop in a little alley off the Strand, in the City of Westminster, which used to be called Curll's Court.

All of which brings me to:

Let's All Go Down The Strand

The Bookhounds know Harry Box as a bumptious little fart who just can't keep his mouth shut for longer than five minutes, a minnow among sharks, bottom-feeder in the murkier, algae-flecked puddles of publishing. However he has a remarkable knack for ferreting out gossip, and he makes the leap from book scout to publisher. He gets his own printing press - God alone knows how, or where from - and publishes the most outrageous, scandalous and thoroughly disreputable biography of a recently deceased grandee, who according to Box's account cut a broad path through the demi-monde of Paris before the War.

It sells. O God, how it sells. The Bookhounds can't keep enough of it in stock. Lawsuits follow, but that doesn't seem to stop Box, who has something else on the go, an equally scandalous biography. Where does he get his material? The children of the dead man are very anxious to know, and will pay quite a handsome figure to find out.

If the Bookhounds go in search, whether on the family's account or for reasons of their own, they discover something unusual. Box's press isn't the original press. The printworks are given printed pages to work from, but these printed pages are of a very old-fashioned type - the sort that hasn't been seen since the 1700s.

Box is keeping his actual printworks in some Strand cellar, away from hidden eyes. Now, why would he want to do that? Where did he find this odd printing press - and how is it that this press somehow knows what to print, without needing to be told?


New York, New York

I'm taking some time off, and will be in the States this weekend. No Ephemera next Sunday!

I've been to NYC, God, I can't think how many times. I'm planning out an itinerary - first day shop (for Christmas looms like a bloated white whale, festooned with ribbons, and one roaming, bloodshot eye staring into your soul), next two day enjoy. The Argosy on 59th, the Strand and probably the game shop near Empire State whose name I can never remember. Ideally the Film Forum down on Houston, though, looking at the upcoming week's schedule, only Taxi Driver appeals. Maybe the Angelika? Jesus, is The Hidden Life the only thing on at the Angelika this coming weekend? I'm sure it's good, but if I wanted to spend the weekend in a state of existential misery, I'd just contemplate my bank  statements for 48 hours straight.

Well, looks like movies are off the table.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll find something to do.