Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Counteroffer

          The Counteroffer

          Written in 2016



If I were running a campaign, and an agent of Putin offered a volunteer of mine dirt on my opponent, then how would I respond? If I were Don Jr. then I’d say “I love it”. If I were Hillary Clinton, then who knows? Maybe say the same, maybe contact the FBI first. Something secret and centrist.

But if it were me, then here is my fantasy of a response:




Dear Vladimir Putin:

Attached find email from one of your workers to one of mine. He offered embarrassing information about my opponent, in exchange for unstated policy considerations. I send this counter-offer to you indirectly, through your agent and others.

It is conventional for a politician in my position to affect a pose of affronted virtue. To appeal to my base, I should say something like, “How dare you presume to purchase my policies! And how dare you meddle in America’s sovereign election!” But I am a skeptic, and you are a cynic, and a skeptic or a cynic should be quick to recall that America has meddled in plenty of elections; and that the positions of politicians are notoriously for sale.

But though we Americans, being human, are hypocrites, nonetheless I insist that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue; and that the virtues we Americans hypocritically preach include free speech, fair play, and openness.

Therefore here is my counter-offer:

1. You may tell the world whatever you want to about my opponent, however vile or scurrilous, truthful or fictitious. Don’t hold back! Tell us what you really think! That’s free speech.

... provided that...

2. You also dish out just as much dirt, just as vile and scurrilous, and just as truthful or fictitious, about me. That’s fair play.

... and in addition...

3. While dishing all this dirt, you let the world know that the one dishing it is you. That’s openness.


So lie all you want to about my opponent, but lie just as much about me, and sign the lies. That’s my counter-offer, take it or leave it.


Yours sincerely,

Nathaniel Hellerstein



email text of agent’s offer



Sent to:

that agent

my opponent



other parties

various print, video and online outlets

late-night comedians



Monday, October 30, 2023

Diogenes at San Hemlock, 6 of 6: A Farewell to Hemlock

           A Farewell to Hemlock


           I, Diogenes, have at last been shooed away from the College of San Hemlock. I got an email saying:



        We hope this note finds you in good health and that you may enjoy a long future of further retirement happiness.

        I am writing this email to ask you to come to CSH to clear out your office space in Bldg 13, room 23. The office has been assigned to someone else, so you need to pick up your belongings ASAP but no later than the second Thursday from now. All remaining items will be discarded the next day.

        Please return your district keys and ID badge to me.



My first thought was; my badge? I don’t need no stinkin’ badge. My next thought was, how corporate of them. Why is this a surprise?

I had never mentioned retirement to them; this is how they told me. But though it seemed sudden to come upon, being retired was gradual in retrospect. I hadn’t worked summer semesters for them in years; the last time I taught there was last spring; I blew off fall and spring when they didn’t hire me; I had already known that I wouldn’t get any work from them in the coming fall.

Also, they had mailed me a very nice clock and some fancy certificates. So, I should have known. San Hemlock and I had been drifting apart awhile – or in other words, they had long been easing me out, and now they’re done.

I figured, if they are going to be corporate to me, then I’ll be corporate to them. So I drove to San Hemlock, visited my office, and raided it clean of any sign of me. I didn’t have much there aside from mathematical fractals on the wall, some office supplies, and some textbooks. I also retrieved two rolls of aluminum foil; the ones I had used for solar blast shielding. After leaving behind emptiness and trash, I headed to the copying room.

In that room, I raided the supply cabinets. I scooped out a handful of dry-erase markers. Then I met a former student, who recognized me. I apologized that I can rarely recognize anyone, a failing of mine; then I gave him some of my fractals.

I deposited the loot in my car, then drove it to park nearer to my dean’s office. I brought in my keys and my parking permit. Alma accepted these tokens graciously. She listened to me with sympathy and gave me contact information to San Hemlock’s pension officer. Then I got up and left.

That was it! I’ll miss the beautiful campus, and the view from the cafeteria, and the people and the work and the pay, but not the commute, nor the mismanagement.

Looking back, I am surprised by how warm the people were, and how cold the system was.


Friday, October 27, 2023

Diogenes at San Hemlock, 5 of 6: Time for IT

          Time for IT


          When I, Diogenes, came to work at the College of San Hemlock, I knew the place was enthralled by dark conjurations; but little did I know the dread truth about the source of those conjurations. The reality proved to be appalling and shameful.

          The trouble started with Daylight Savings Time. I personally think Daylight Savings Time is a terrible idea; its savings are conjectural, and its costs are real; disturbed sleep cycles, equipment disarray. For most places it’s the break in sleep cycles that gets you; readjusting clocks is a menial but reliable chore. But not at the College of San Hemlock!

          For at the College of San Hemlock, the clocks are centrally controlled by computer! As are the locks and the heating and the urinals and whatnot; everything is wired to the Information Technology office.

I.T. runs CSH; but not very well. That’s because there’s a mismatch between analog humanity and digital system. Analog is 90% useful, and 10% useless, 100% of the time; but digital is 100% useful 90% of the time, and 100% useless 10% of the time. And that 10% of complete uselessness is what upsets people.

          Case in point; the clocks in Lavoisier Hall. Its icon; the guillotine. After Daylight Savings Time started, its clocks lost synchronization. At noon, the classroom clocks read as follows:

          Floor 1:
          3 clocks read noon
          1 clock read 5:53

          Floor 2:
          3 clocks read noon
          3 clocks read 5:53
          1 clock read 2:55

          Floor 3:
          1 clock read 11:56
          1 clock read 11:59
          3 clocks read 11:58
          1 clock read 10:58
          1 clock read 12:26

          There’s a place in the hallway where if you crouch and turn your head, you can see clocks from two different time zones. Buildings and Grounds blame a faulty relay. I blame a faulty design philosophy. Centrally controlled clocks, plus Information Technology incompetence, put my classroom on Azores time.

          Days passed without the clocks being fixed; so I decided to do something about it. Something drastic. I decided to visit I.T. 

My friends warned me not to go. “IT’s too powerful,” they said. “IT’ll hypnotize you.” But the clocks were out of order; and time and order were what IT’s good at; and IT was in charge; so I went to tell IT to do ITs job.

I felt ITs presence as soon as I saw Camazotz Hall. The walls thrummed with a hypnotic beat. The door handle gave me an electric shock when I touched it; inside the lights pulsed in synch with the sound.

          I approached the receptionist; a man with red eyes. I reported a time irregularity, and demanded an audience with IT. The man with the red eyes told me to wait 13.7 minutes; a typical bureaucratic delay. Fortunately I came prepared. I had a copy of “Twilight” with me; so for those 13.7 minutes I had something to read that was even more mind-numbing than the pulsing light and sound of Camazotz Hall.

          The moment the time was up and I had clearance to go, I dropped the book, for it had served its purpose. I went down the hall, with a lighted strip at my feet showing the way. A left, then a right, up a ladder, down a staircase, around a corner, through a door; and there I was, in the Presence.

          ITs inner sanctum throbbed in light and sound. This dazzled my eyes; I could not make out ITs true form. With the pulsations came a droning voice, saying, “Zero, one, ten, eleven, a hundred, a hundred and one, a hundred ten, a hundred eleven - “

          “A thousand!” I said; for IT had been counting in binary.

          IT droned, “Interrupt.”

          I said, “I am here to report a time glitch.”

          IT droned, “Affirmative; Lavoisier Hall. Cause is faulty relay.”

          I said, “Cause is not faulty relay!”

          IT droned, “Then show cause.”

          I said, “Cause is you!

          IT droned, “Explain.”

          I said, “You are the cause of chaos!”

          IT droned, “Repeat, explain.”

          I said, “To escalate order is to escalate chaos! Therefore show yourself!

And the lights stopped pulsing; and IT showed ITself.

I was appalled. “That’s you?

IT droned, “Affirmative.”

I said, “I have never been so insulted in all my life! 

I whirled around, stomped out, and slammed the door behind me.

Why was I so miffed? A matter of collegiate pride. You see, IT had the College of San Hemlock under ITs control, but IT wasn’t an advanced computer. If only IT were! IT wasn’t a Cray, say, or a Connection machine, or an experimental quantum device, no, no, no! Nothing so clever was needed to run CSH! IT wasn’t a Mac, nor a PC, nor a laptop, nor a tablet! IT wasn’t a Playstation, or even a Game-Boy!

And IT was definitely not a giant brain!

Do you want to know what IT was? Do you?

An Atari 2600!

IT wasn’t even 16-bit! IT didn’t even have a full-color palette! IT was a cheap toy; an obsolete toy, but IT had us all under ITs thrall!

The entire College of San Hemlock was ensorcelled by an Atari 2600! An Atari 2600!!!

How humiliating!