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The Christmas Present War

by Richard K. Lyon

My friend Max and I have been fighting a Christmas present war for some years now. The goal in this war is to blow the other guy’s mind with a present you got without spending any money.

I started it by giving Max some paper clips I’d gold-plated. This turned out to be a mistake because my very limited Internet access puts me at a disadvantage. Max and I both collect pulp magazines. Two Christmases ago the best I could do was a batch of sugar-free, fat-free, zero calorie, homemade cookies. The chief ingredient is sawdust but if you’re on a starvation diet — as Max and I often are — they’re not that bad.

Max sent me a single CD onto which he had downloaded hundreds of copies of vintage pulp magazines, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Operator 5, and The Spider. The market price for real copies of all those magazines is at least $300,000 if you can find them, which you can’t!

This past Christmas we both escalated. Max always starts the new year by going on a starvation diet. I sent him a batch of my new improved zero-calorie cookies. I soak the sawdust in very hot water under high pressure and then put it through explosive decompression. This puffs it up so it crunches like rice crispies.

Again he sent me a single CD, but on it he put a copy of the June 1938 issue of Action Comics. That’s the issue with the first Superman story! He also included the CIA World Factbook, an enormously useful world atlas that provides detailed information on all manner of strange little places, and a large series of DoD technical reports. I got detailed reports of research projects aimed at developing gamma ray lasers, methods of antimatter storage, and ghost planes that show up on the enemy’s radar but aren’t really there.

There was also a complete inventory of DoD’s chemical weapons with maps showing exactly where they were stored! He also included a list of “Militarily Critical Technologies,” a 378-page highly detailed list of all the technologies DoD regards as military secrets. You might think that such stuff would be highly classified, but it isn’t. Max got it from DoD simply by asking.

The way Max explained it — he’s a sociologist by profession — there are simple secrets and complex secrets. Simple secrets are things like the fact that you keep a house key hidden under the front door mat. To keep secrets like that you don’t do anything. You have to avoid doing anything that gives the secret away.

The situation is different for complex secrets such as the technologies on the DoD list. These things are large secrets made up of an enormous number of small pieces. Many people inevitably know different parts of these secrets. Keeping this kind of secret requires an active organized effort to restrict the flow of information. Steps such as a publicly available list of the secrets being kept can be a necessary part of this organized effort.

When I met Max at Philcon the following year, we spent several hours in the bar, drinking beer and talking. Any long conversation with Max, a three-pack a day man, always includes his complaining about the way smokers are being treated.

The other topic of conversation that night was the sociology of open secrets, a topic which Max has been studying. During our first two beers Max explained that open secrets are secrets that are kept by avoiding the appearance of secrecy.

Take, for example, the U.S. Army’s M55 chemical rockets. Everybody who deals with explosives knows that either you dispose of aging ordinance or it disposes of you. Despite this, the Army made several hundred thousand M55 rockets during the 1960s, each with a non-removable warhead of VX nerve gas.

This horrible mistake was compounded by storing these rockets at sites scattered all over the U.S. With the propellant in these rockets ticking toward inevitable detonation, the Army faced intense opposition to any possible method of disposing of the nerve gas.

This affair had all the ingredients for a major scandal except for a cover-up. Every detail of this horrible affair was documented in reports available to anyone for the asking. Lacking the appearance of secrecy the M55s never got any public attention.

At this point a lady three tables away glared at Max as he started to light another cigarette. Defiantly Max lit up. After quietly cursing everyone he regarded as a “health Nazi,” he said, “It’s all well and good for the gays to come out of the closet, but why does that mean we smokers have to be forced into it?”

Speaking without thinking I replied, “It’s another method of secret keeping. By shoving something into the closet every time something is taken out, they make it impossible for anyone to see what’s at the back of the closet.”

After giving me the annoyed look he uses when I make a bad joke, Max’s gaze moved to the ceiling. He took a long thoughtful pull on his cigarette and said, “That’s... an interesting thought. Keeping the front of the closet full protects whatever’s at the back. Yes, it bears looking into.”

My friend Max has a singular talent for unearthing strange facts, but he sometimes acts without thinking about the consequences. Recently a rather strange man has been asking our mutual friends about Max and me. Photos of this man show him standing on the street on a sunny day without a shadow.

I’m a little afraid of what Max might send me this Christmas. Publishing this story seemed like a good way to reassure whoever — or whatever — is at the back of the closet that I can be very discreet.

Copyright © 2007 by Richard K. Lyon

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