And their eyes just glazed over, Ralph thought for the umpteenth time this week. Authoritarian regimes inevitably believed they could utilize technology for their own whim. And more often than not, their whim involved attempting to control their populace—or better yet, their neighbors’ populace.
He was speaking with the telecommunications minster’s top aide. The minister was also in the room but was three chairs away and feigning deep thought. He was probably catching a quick nap. The aide was young and probably thought he was being sly—with this obviously dim-witted, bloated, unkept, sockless American.
“The imaging of these micro-satellites can be aimed anywhere we want?” the aide asked. “Even to places that may not want us to aim them—places like, say, Iran?”
Ralph was pleased this particular question finally came to light. It was his opinion that this guy had been laser-focused on this one question from the start. And many of the times when Ralph made this same pitch, the “key” questions took hours to appear.
Sure. But with that said, this is an open marketplace. The bidder willing to pay the highest price will get to control where these six hundred micro-satellites are focused.”
“And you’re absolutely certain that we can focus these satellites anywhere we want. Anywhere? And no one can block you?” The aide was almost giddy in his excitement.
The minister cleared his throat. For the first time, he addressed Ralph directly. “What will it cost to ensure that our neighbors do not have the opportunity to see into our sovereign nation?”
“Minister, of course our neighbors will never be allowed to …” The obviousness of his objection suddenly hit him. The aide angrily turned toward Ralph.
The minster continued. “Excuse my naive co-worker. In our culture, nepotism is expected. But this one spends all his time spending his father’s money on Italian cars and sheesha, and not enough time actually thinking.”
“Uncle!” The nephew-slash-aide was visibly hurt and surprised.
“Why are you really here, Mr. Gibsen? I assume it wasn’t for the rude groping you received while entering the building? Although there are some who find that enjoyable.”
Ralph had been stripped and body cavity-searched prior to being allowed entry into this facility. All of Ralph’s electrical kit was currently plugged—and disgorging their data—into various devious-looking machines at the security checkpoint.
Ralph was a small investor and board of director member of this micro-satellite company. The company didn’t have a single “bird in the sky” yet, but the plan was to launch hundreds of low-cost, off-the-shelf component-enabled, 3D-printed micro-satellites in the next few months. The satellite imaging industry was about to be disrupted with this new Silicon Valley approach. Over the last thirty years, large companies would hire retired NASA engineers to build huge satellites with triple redundancies and diamond-coated bespoke integrated circuits at a cost of six hundred million dollars. These decades-old designs were slow and had computing processing power from the Reagan administration. Ralph’s investment was buying ICs and all the electrical/optical components off Amazon.com and 3D printing the micro-satellite containers. These shoe-box-sized satellites could do all the imaging, processing, and analytics of the bigger satellites, but cost $250,000 apiece and were software upgradeable, like an iPhone. So while the big companies could afford putting a new satellite in orbit every four or five years—at more than $600M/unit—Ralph’s team could put up 600 satellites over the next six months, for 25% of the price of a single dinosaur satellite. And now Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the Russians, Indians, Chinese, New Zealanders, and others were putting these micro-payloads into orbit about every seven days, on average. Ralph’s company had even set up a website where people could bid on the location and time they wanted to capture their real-time imagery. Want to see what the frost damage is in the Florida citrus groves? As a commodity trader, you might. And as long as you were the high bidder, you could get 31cm resolution to know if you were buying or selling orange juice futures.
“I’m here because I wanted to be sure to show you this opportunity. To judge your interest,” Ralph said. He was in the geographic region to show a half-dozen oil- rich ministers this same opportunity. “As you probably surmised, some of your neighbors are interested in buying this imagery service in bulk. There’s also the possibility of silent investment.”
The nephew-aide was keen to redeem himself. “And if we invest, do we get to determine where these damn things are pointed? Or better yet, do we get a back door to see where others want to look?”
“No.” Ralph stared into the young man’s eyes.
“No? Do you realize …?” The aide snarled menacingly. “Do you realize the punishment for sedition under Sharia law is death?”
“I am not aware of all aspects of Sharia law. But I am aware that technology is amoral. A kitchen knife is most useful in preparing a family’s dinner. And it can also be used in harming another human being. But the knife itself is without morality. This satellite imagery is the same.”
As the young aide huffed and geared up to tear Ralph a new hole, the minister raised his hand.
“Of course we are interested in pre-purchasing bulk imagery, as well as perhaps investment. My aide will arrange to collect your paperwork and begin the payment process.”
The nephew-aide was aghast. “But sir, won’t we demand our own paperwork and terms. This is how we always do business with Western companies …”
The Minister didn’t respond. He stared at Ralph and apologized. “My nephew still doesn’t understand. You won’t be allowing for negotiations, I imagine. At least, that’s what my counterpart from Jordan told me last night over sheesha. Isn’t that so?”
“I have the commercial paperwork for you to sign. We’d appreciate a purchase order from you within the next forty-eight hours. I also have the investment documents for you to review. We will take discussion and your guidance. But please be aware, these investment terms have already earned a bid from another sovereign wealth fund in the region. So unless your offer is better, we will not want to waste your time.”
The aide switched to Arabic, pleading to his uncle. “This camel fucker is too stupid to be a real threat to us, Uncle. Shouldn’t we investigate if this company is for real? He isn’t even wearing stockings.”
Ralph tried to hide a smile.
“Muqiat al jamal.” The minister smiled, shaking his head. “Our sock-less guest understands Arabic, and probably a dozen other languages.”
Ralph realized they were talking only to each other, as if he wasn’t in the room.
“I really don’t speak dozens of languages,” he admitted. “I understand only a few. I recognized ‘mugiat al jamal’ because, well, it seems I get called that many times when I visit the region. It’s not a very nice thing to say.”
“No it is not.” The minister started to laugh, and his laughing grew heartier. Soon Ralph joined him. The aide remained red-faced.
“Mr. Ralph, would you care to join me for some tea? My nephew can’t join us.”
The aide looked confused.
“Or, if you have some free time this evening, I’d love to have you over for dinner and meet my son. He wants to work in Venture Capital in the Bay area. Perhaps he can bend your ear and ask you a few questions …?”
“I’d be delighted to join you for dinner. Will you have a car pick me up from my hotel?”
“Of course. At 8 PM.”
They stood and walked toward the elevators.
“If you will allow me to excuse myself, my aide will take you downstairs and return your electronic equipment. And we’ll see you tonight.”
The minister started to wander off, then abruptly turned back. “And if it isn’t too much to ask, I’d like you to send me your Offering Memorandum for your Clam Pie Growth Fund. I think I’d like to invest in your venture capital fund. If you’d accept my investment.”
“Let’s talk about it tonight.”
The aide corralled Ralph into the elevator. He was still red-faced and perturbed, and he wouldn’t meet Ralph’s eyes.
Ralph extended the olive branch. “Your uncle was pretty tough on you in there.”
The aide didn’t acknowledge Ralph’s comment. When the elevator opened, he quickly walked to the security desk. He made certain Ralph could see an elaborate show of checking the plug-ins of Ralph’s computer and iPhone. In Arabic he said to the desk staff, “Make sure we get everything we can off this asshole’s stuff.”
Ralph waited patiently. After a few moments, his driver approached him and explained that there were men in suits and badges disassembling the hotel’s SUV, looking for something. Ralph merely nodded.
“Is there a coffee shop nearby?” Ralph asked politely.
The aide looked up with disdain.
“Seriously. When you eventually crack that computer and phone’s Rijndael Asynchronous 256-bit encryption, you’re going to learn that I bought the two items off eBay last week specifically for this moment. I created and adhered my company’s inventory sticker onto the computer, so you’d waste your time and energies. The contact list on the phone is for a fifteen-year-old girl in Wilmington, Delaware. She’s obviously has a crush on an older sophomore boy named Anil. Her poetry is embarrassing. The MacBook computer was used by an Art History major at BU who thought Matisse took hallucinogens to create his masterpieces. So if you persist, you’re going to spend an enormous amount of your team’s effort, resources, and morale to discover that the teenage girl’s Pokémon collection wasn’t that inspiring. And when that’s all you learn about ‘me and my organization’ from your … search, what’s your uncle going to tell you? And if there isn’t a nearby coffee shop, can I ask that you please go fetch me a cup of strong espresso?”
Ralph’s storytelling skills were apparently convincing. Muttering something in Arabic, the aide pushed the computer and phone across the desk. Ralph collected his electronics and went outside to the armored limousine, where he helped his driver put the disassembled seats back as they were. Then they quietly drove back to the hotel. On the steering wheel, the driver’s hands never stopped shaking.