Friday, December 7, 2007

Thought Experiments

I picked up Valerie Plame's memoirs at my library — Barnes & Noble — but only made it through ten or so pages before the book became absurdly redacted. I promptly moved on to something more readable. Fair Game cold opens with Plame's months-long job interview at the CIA. I've been interviewing recently, so I can totally relate — unless you're on The Apprentice and your interview's systematically produced for maximum drama and entertainment, all job interviews are more or less the same, evaluative tools for matching candidates to positions. The best and the brightest, they're looking for the same thing whether you're working at Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, or the CIA. (I love their "Now Hiring" page, by the way. Ever since Jennifer Garner started recruiting for them, it's replaced the "NSA for Kids" page as my favorite clandestine agency website.)

None of this surprises me, but according to Plame, the CIA's hiring process (back in her time) included a battery of number-two pencil tests, a Myers-Brigg inventory Myers-Brigg evaluation, some examination — sounds like the ultra-sketchy Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory — where one deciding question was "Do you prefer tall women?" (First, compared to what? And second, people with a little reasoning ability would easily recognize this as a false dilemma.) I'm sure traders at the Carlyle Group and engineers for Halliburton are given the same ridiculous tests, and it goes a long, long way to explaining how the hell we got our army into Iraq.

One question in Plame's interview — I guess this might be important in her line of work — was: What do you do if you're meeting with a contact in a foreign hotel room and the police knock on your door? This kind of stuff — solve this problem — intrigues me, much as I hate it when I get asked these questions in an interview, because the permutations send my mind into a thrilled flurry. I'm still working on the most efficient way to count the windows in New York City. (I wonder if building plans need to be kept on file in City Hall?) Plame's question, and her obvious answer, are great thought experiments (well, thought experiments for me, if not her)...

You'd strip down, hop into bed with the foreign contact, and pretend you're having an affair. But my immediate response: Do people still fall for that? You're sort of relying on the police being incompetent, disposable goofballs to pull the fake affair off. What I've learned about open-ended engineering is that your first answer is almost always the wrong one, even when there are no right and wrong answers... I hate the learning curve, since it usually turns into a real-life mess, but you know.

Live and learn.

Avoid the ass-backwards parts of the world where you'd be stoned for committing adultery. The problem is if the police are looking for you, and they come upon you having sex, they'll still arrest you. I guess you could read the question assuming that the police were looking for your contact, and you'd pretend to be a sweet, innocent thing randomly caught up in international espionage. Really? Hope nobody would check?

Still working on this brain-teaser, but I think it needs to be dealt with on a micro level. Issue one: the police are interested in you. Remedy one: make the police not interested in you. My guess is that the best way to accomplish this is to be a victim, the more pathetic and more in need of the police, the better. Issue two: the police are in the same room as you. Remedy two: not be in the same room as the police. I haven't solved this one yet; running out a window or something seems like a losing proposition, although if the police are going to fall for the illicit affair tactic, I can also see them busting into the room and finding an open window with the curtain blowing around. Issue three: the police are going to take you to jail. Remedy three: get the police to take you somewhere else, or nowhere at all. I don't see any way you'd be staying in the hotel room — maybe if you handcuffed yourself to the bed or something.

My best idea so far would be to drink a bottle of ipecac and spend the next hour or so grossly ill, hoping that your puking all over your captors might be a bit more imperative than whatever intelligence you have. But I like optimal solutions and arbitrage — and yes, the problem is designed to not have an (apparent) optimal solution — but the puzzle still remains. In the academic.