Sunday, April 20, 2014

Part One: Destination Puerto Rico-An Epic Class Trip

After what seemed like countless months of waiting the the sixth and seventh grade Spanish Language immersion class trip to Puerto Rico finally began at four oh-my-god-it's-too-damn-early in the morning last Monday morning. All told, twenty-two kids, along with at least one parent, boarded the bus for the ride to Charlotte, North Carolina to catch the flight to San Juan. To get to this point the group had to go through a series of arduous fund raising events that challenged the patience and sanity of many parents and teachers involved. While the parents were groggy and listless. mainly wandering around like zombies moaning the word "coffee" the kids were little wads of limitless energy. Through mutual support and diligence we the parents avoided killing any of the little monsters before the trip even began.     

Once we arrived at the Charlotte International Airport our fears of the TSA checkpoint proved largely unfounded. None in our group was felt up or forced to go through a strip search. If you want my opinion as to why the normally overenthusiastic airport security let us pass unmolested ask yourself the question would any sane person want to deal with over twenty energetic sixth and seventh graders before the sun was even above the horizon? By the time the entire group was seated on the plane I had drank three cups of coffee and had reached semi-consciousness. Thankfully the children all had a media outlet to keep them occupied for the three and a half hour flight. Despite being a US Airways flight we were only delayed from leaving by fifteen minutes.     

Warm trade winds and a beautiful sunny day greeted us upon arrival in San Juan. Every parent and teacher was on high alert  as we walked from the terminal to our bus. The reason why? Those kids had spent several hours cooped up in a narrow metal tube. Herding cats would have been a breeze compared to keeping them in check.

Our first stop was lunch at a roadside place so close to the beach I could hear the surf. We had our first serving of rice and beans, roasted chicken on a stick, and a local passion fruit drink. It was all genuine Puerto Rican food and tasted unbelievably good. Cocoy's Place was something straight out of  Jimmy Buffett song, it was rustic and lacked all the fake atmosphere of Applebees or any other cutey American chain. The picture below was my meal before I cleaned the container enough for it to be reused.


After lunch we had a long bus ride ahead of us that would literally take us across the island. Before the beginning of the journey though we had a quick stop at the beach allowing everyone to unwind a little. Even though I had only been on the island for a couple of hours I was already in love with Puerto Rico.


Added this map to give some idea of where we were going. Ignore the "hotel" arrow and look just over to the right a little to see the San Juan Airport.



To call a town pleasant is in some way a backhanded insult. But not in this case, Ponce had all the charm of many small towns in South Carolina before the cancerous spread of strip malls and national chain stores that have turned us into a haze of mediocre sameness with only the level of traffic congestion to set us apart. The picture above is of the old Ponce fire house, there is story associated with it that while incredible is well within the scope of reality given American arrogance, but I will save that for next time. I will stop at this point for the time being, as much as it will embarrass me there are pictures in existence showing me and my lovely spouse, Dragonwife, learning to salsa. I hope I can get a copy of them in a few days to continue with this epic journey. Coming pictures will show our visit to a rain forest, a lesson in marine biology, a truly awesome Puerto Rican village, and parts of Old San Juan.




Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Casual Observation in Old San Juan




Contrary to the deluded views of many Americans filled to the brim with their own awesome awesomeness the rest of the world does not enjoy standing around waiting for the current, but probably soon to be replaced, rulers of the world to make up their tiny minds. I have been lucky enough to travel outside the United States several times, both as a civilian tourist and while wearing Uncle Sammy's army uniform, and I have seen some really unfortunate examples of how ugly Americans can be to their fellow human beings around the world.

Now the extreme end of this indifference is good old American unmanned drones that ply the skies of unfriendly countries firing off missiles at what seems to be any gathering larger that two people. Yes, I understand that there are some really evil people out there who in the immortal words of the fictional Alfred Pennyworth “...just want to see the world burn,” and those people need to be quickly dispatched for the good of all. The trouble with this logic is that telling the difference between a gathering of fanatical terrorists and a joyous and perfectly innocent wedding party is nearly impossible from several thousand feet up in the air. Such inconvenient and unfortunate attacks on simple wedding parties and other peaceful human functions tend create more of those types who want to do nothing but firebomb the world and everyone in it.

From my perspective it would seem wise to reduce the use of the stick and emphasize the carrot in an effort to build goodwill. But because of religious nutcases giving fanatical support to Israel, longtime support to Arab dictators because they were in bed with oil companies, and simpleminded fools who fear some Muslim boogeyman out to force their daughters into burkas, the relationship waters have been so muddied as to make that next to impossible. But hey, I'm just some Utopian fool who still clings to the strange idea that we should treat people the same way we would like to be treated.

For an example of American douchebaggery not on a geopolitical level but still enough to make people want to spray paint “Yankee go home!!!” on a wall I have to relate an event I saw while on my recent trip to Puerto Rico.

The tour group I was part of spent Thursday walking through Old San Juan. As I strolled down the narrow cobblestone streets and admired the colonial-style architecture I could almost imagine the long dead era when Spain was the alpha dog of nations and the British were still struggling for a foothold on North America. The connection was tenuous at best because evidence of our modern era was unavoidable. One of those examples of twenty-first century life was the deli the group leader brought us for lunch. Because the deli was in a colonial era building not built for large groups it was crowded to nearly overflowing with a bunch of tourists all immediately wanting their food. Had the better angels of human nature prevailed with customers being considerate and patient as the staff worked in their own small area to make the food the stress level would not have been as high.

However, as I stood in line to buy a couple of extra items there was an American woman in front of me having a very difficult time speaking with the young Puerto Rican girl behind the cash register. In the course of the seven to ten minutes I looked on as the American lady changed her elaborate order three separate times with the obviously new deli employee struggling to get everything right. Of course, the American woman was displaying a seriously arrogant attitude with her pulling the talking slowly and loudly gimmick as if the cashier was mentally challenged. Once the order was finally taken the American woman added insult to injury by changing her mind and deciding to pay with a credit card after having handed the cashier money. I guess because the cash register was already open the manager had to come over to cancel the sell and ring everything back up.

From my observations of the woman's attitude, it was clear to me that she seemed to believe that because Puerto Rico, while not a state, is part of the United States and therefore like all good Americans the people living there speak English. This ignores the fact that Puerto Rico comes from a completely different cultural and national heritage and that the island was originally a spoil of war taken in the late nineteenth century and was treated that way for years afterward.

All jokes aside the American's woman's attitude was totally uncalled for no matter where her childish behavior could have taken place. The young cashier was genuinely friendly at first and as the encounter continued to go downhill visibly shaken by the affair. After the manager cleared the canceled sell so the order could be done with a credit card he whispered something to the cashier who then walked off.

Americans have often clung to a mental idea of ourselves that we where the innocent and good natured guys on the world stage. That it was the nasty Europeans who through their usual games of imperial pursuit and ideas about racial superiority caused a majority of the problems in the world. Yeah, there is a seed of truth in that assumption in some respects but Americans are exceedingly quick to forget, or just plain ignorant of, our genocide of the Native Americans on this continent, the gleeful involvement in African slavery, and how we learned to play the imperial game in that latter half of the nineteenth century. Yeah folks, as much as we mentally sit secure in our own awesomeness, convinced we are some idealistic “city on a hill” there is plenty of innocent blood on our hands.

The strangely funny thing in all this is that while we are the current alpha dog of the world, like Spain before us, there will almost certainly come a time when some obnoxious foreign douche will be treating one of our descendants like crap because they are the global top dog an assume everyone else is beneath them. In the long run, it could be worse because when world powers fall there is no real limit as to how bad things can get. The lands our drones fly over now largely belonged a world power that existed before Spain time as the global top dog .

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Cosmic Comedy of Ants



 (Author's note: Blame Neil DeGrasse Tyson for me once again beating a very dead horse. And as usual excuse the awful typos. Leaving for a four-day trip to Puerto Rico late Sunday night and cannot take my laptop, so I will be out of contact for awhile.)

The president of the United States sat at his desk and quietly watched as dozens of his staff, scientists, and uniformed military types milled about the Oval Office trying to look competent and useful despite the totally unprecedented event currently unfolding. Along the walls several large television screens had been hastily mounted displaying a constant feed of either computer generated graphics or the ceaseless babel from the cable news networks. For a moment the president looked at the screen showing a graphic of the inner solar system with the Earth a tiny green dot on the upper left following its usual orbital path. The planet Mars was a red dot also following its normal path on the lower right. Intersecting the two was a yellow line showing and unknown visitor who had suddenly appeared from the depths of interstellar space and was now on course to pass by the Earth. At the top of the screen a countdown clock had a little over forty-two hours before it reach zero signifying the exact time the ship was closest to Earth.

The television next it showed a computer representation of the alien craft drawn from pictures first taken by the NASA Cassini probe still orbiting Saturn, then by radar signals bounced off the craft from radio telescopes from different locations on Earth. One part of the alien ship was spherical, which roughly measured out to be four-kilometers in diameter. Attached to the forward edge of the sphere was another segment that looked like an umbrella, or mushroom whose diameter was about a kilometer larger than the main body.

The best rocket boys and girls across the planet had surmised that the umbrella was some sort of shield to protect the main hull from collisions with interstellar particles. What collectively sent all the scientists to the nearest liquor cabinets was the fact the alien ship appeared to be using a non-Newtonian mean of traveling between the stars. There were no huge rockets pushing the behemoth, it seemed to simply glide through open space at speeds only dreamed of in science fiction.

In the space of a week after speeding past Saturn the ship had casually changed course and cruised by Jupiter, then Mars, and was now heading towards Earth. Following long established protocols the United Nations, in cooperation with several international scientific agencies, attempted to establish radio communications with the aliens. Teams of linguists, mathematicians, and astrobiologists beamed several carefully crafted messages toward the approaching ship and then eagerly waited long hours hoping for a response. There was none, it wasn't long before several nations, feeling their sovereignty was being violated by the United Nations began beaming their own messages of welcome. With still no known communications coming from the aliens things quickly devolved further with thousands of different groups taking matters in their own hands by cobbling together long scrapped television satellite dishes and ham radio transmitters to make their own attempts.

With nothing in the way of a response from the aliens the humans tuned their radio telescopes to listen for some sort of message from them. Thousands of frequencies were scanned but all they heard was the normal background static.

The undeniable arrival of an advanced extraterrestrial species had sent hundreds of millions of people on the Earth into a blind, mindless panic while others retreated into some stronghold praying the situation would go away. For others the arrival of the starship meant something wonderful with them believing the aliens would at least offer humanity membership into some sort of galactic community and at best take protective custody of the misbegotten naked primates and usher in an utopian age for them.

However, the prolonged silence from the visitors had begun to worry some members in the latter group and send even more into a panic like the former. For the president the best example was the strange person ranting on one of the other television monitors.

He was a fundamentalist preacher who looked to be in the midst of having a massive heart attack. His eyes were huge broadcasting both fear of what he knew to the depth of his soul was the approaching Apocalypse and anger that no one else on the panel MSNBC had assembled to discuss the unprecedented event about to happen was taking him seriously.

Adding to the impression his own demise could come at any second the preacher's 1950's style glasses were now canted at a strange angle off their proper position on his face because of his wild, panicky gyrations. The thin, but steady amount of drool flowing from the corner of his mouth was the proverbial icing on the over dramatic cake causing a multitude of home viewers to email into the news network pleading they call the paramedics for the man.

I tell you,” he said slapping his Bible on an unseen table in front of him, “that craft is piloted by demons out to usher in the rise of the Antichrist. I plead with everyone who can hear my voice that now is the time to get right with Jesus. The Rapture is imminent and those left behind when the righteous ascend to Heaven will suffer the terrible torment of the defiler and his hell spawn.”

Chris Matthews, always one to enjoy a spirited discussion irregardless to whether it had any basis in fact or reality just smiled and nodded. “Well pastor,” Chris began as he looked down to review his notes, “none other than the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has directed the Vatican Observatory to beam a radio message of welcome and goodwill to the aliens.”

Like an exploding volcano, spittle flew from the preacher's mouth spraying Chris and his co-host, Rachael Maddow with a fine mist. “The Pope is an agent of the devil!” He clearly screamed before his rage turned the rant into gibberish.

The president shuddered to think that he had sat next such an ignorant fool seeking his endorsement back during the campaign of 2016. Of course, he consoled himself that at the time he was just the Vice Presidential nominee and that his running mate, the now deceased former governor of New Jersey, had been desperate to secure the support of the extreme right-wing of the Republican party.

***

President Steven Hedges came to politics reluctantly. Years before he had joined the ROTC in college to help pay for his education and as his reward ended up leading a platoon leader in the worst areas of Afghanistan. During those long days he dreamed of nothing but serving his time then going home to teach high school math and science. It was a mountain-side ambush by Taliban fighters in which Hedges rallied his platoon and then counterattacked the enemy force that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor that changed those plans of becoming a teacher.

Upon returning home he was courted by both political parties but it was his father who convinced him to become a Republican despite his unspoken and major misgivings about their behavior. A few meetings and interviews later the party more or less volunteered him to run for an open congressional seat. A couple of years later he is noticed by the New Jersey governor who wanted someone young and with military experience to share his ticket. But it was the self destructing Democrats that assured Hedges again moved up the political ladder. Their 2016 nomination process turned into a suicidal bloodbath when a significant number of their members refused to support the former secretary of state who they thought had sold out to the corporate powers. Hillary finally secured the nomination after a long fight but there was enough disgruntled people who stayed home to let the Republicans secure a narrow victory.

Hedges made the final jump to president barely six months after taking office when his running mate began choking on a big bite of a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. Alone at the time the now deceased president bounced around the White House living quarters trying to cough the meat and cheese combo up for several seconds before rescue finally arrived. During that time he popped several large blood vessels in his head and died minutes later after a secret service agent performed the Heimlich Maneuver which launched the gooey mass out of his wind pipe and into the air to splat on the face of Dick Cheney's official portrait.

***

With the fundamentalist preacher now writhing on the MSNBC studio floor Joe Scarbrough rushes in to point fingers at Matthews and Maddow claiming they purposely rigged the interview to make him look bad. The discussion lost all formality and reason as the liberal duo and the lone conservative blowhard launched into several nasty rounds of accusing each other of intellectual bias, outright arrogance, and being a humongous and obnoxious dick.

President Hedges wanted to throw the remote at the screen but instead he just tuned it to Fox News just out of a morose sense of curiosity. There he was rewarded with the all the major network personalities demanding the president declare war on the aliens for invading the solar system. Former United Nation ambassador John Bolton was adamant that he had evidence the aliens were supporters of Al-Qaeda and in fact were bringing back Saddam's long missing weapons of mass destruction. The insanity and blatant ignorance of Fox's panel was the final straw for long-time anchor Sheppard Smith who took that moment to tell his coworkers and supposed experts what he actually thought of them. He then declared that he was in fact gay and in a secret relationship with CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Once again feeling he had cast his political lot with a collection of dangerous morons Hedges switched over to CNN and was rewarded with Wolf Blitzer discussing the implications on whether the arrival of the aliens had any implications on the nasty divorce proceeding between Kayne West and Kim Kardashian. Cooper, who had just heard that his lover had finally come out of the closet seconds earlier, had just left leaving his empty chair still spinning.

President Hedges turned off all the televisions displaying news coverage and instead began reading the various intelligence reports concerning the present situation. With the world's attention riveted on the aliens several nations had taken that moment to attack their neighbors in an attempt to settle longstanding quarrels. Hedges took some solace in the fact that none of the combatants in the dozen or so new conflicts had used any nuclear or chemical weapons, yet.

More disturbing was the breakdown in authority in several countries, including large areas of the United States. Religious groups were especially the worst, as the preacher on MSNBC had shown with his highly animated breakdown. With their views of reality and reason so violated some had retreated to bunkers fearing Judgment Day was at hand while others committed group suicide. Active army units had been sent in to these troubled areas to reinforce National Guard units who had been pushed to the breaking point while trying to keep order.

Despite the low-level clamor of all the people in the Oval Office, Hedges heard none of it and just starred at the screen showing the graphic of the approaching ship. He couldn't help but wonder with all the Hell breaking loose on Earth what the aliens thought of human civilization.

***

Speculation on the alien craft had taken several different angles, some extreme and quite ludicrous, since it was first discovered passing Saturn. The two most likely were that it was indeed a ship full of intrepid explorers or, given the perceived extreme difficultly associated with interstellar travel, some sort of probe guided by an artificial intelligence. It would have pleased the former to learn that the craft was indeed a ship crewed by an advanced species.

A species so advanced and long lived that their civilization had developed space flight about the time multicellular life first appeared in Earth's early oceans. Those believing it was a crewed ship would have also been fascinated to learn that this was not just a ship of simple exploration but that it had a discernible and practical purpose for traveling the uncounted light years since its departure from its point of origin.

For that species engineering and scientific experimentation had taken on a scale that humans would have compared with some god. These creatures had no intention to establish communications with a contentious and extremely primitive group of hairless primates. Their ultimate goal was to contact other civilizations, but it involved scanning for signals across whole universes for intelligences similar, or greater, than themselves.

To accomplish such a feat took a material that they could not readily fabricate. Namely a delicate form of matter that could only be created in the core of some gas giant planets like Jupiter or Saturn. This substance was exceedingly rare because too much pressure, like that at the center of a neutron star, would destroy it before it even existed. So fleets of ships were sent out to find and collect this substance so the device could be built. It was a tedious and time consuming duty but for a civilization nearing a billion years of existence well within their capabilities.

Caught up in their own microscopic and self destructive pursuits the people of Earth barely had time to notice that the starship that had so disturbed their preconceived notions of where they fit in the universe simply passed them by and within a day once again disappeared into the darkness. Many on Earth would spend their lives speculating as to why the aliens did not contact them. As with all things involving humans the reasons ran the spectrum from the possible to the utterly insane. A few did guess at the truth but they largely kept to themselves since to many it was just to great an insult to human arrogance. They realized that the aliens did not contact Earth for the same reason humans did not attempt to carry on a conversation with ants living in a pile of dirt they might find along a highway.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

On The Run

 (Author's note: This qualifies as my first adventure story. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental, I swear! As usual, excuse the typos, I can't sit down for more than five minutes without someone calling my name so proofreading is impossible.) 


From the moment I told her about the possible expedition Mira said it was a bad idea. Things got even worse when the two guys who showed up at our beach cottage. To her, despite being dressed in thousand dollar suits they somehow still reeked of government involvement. “Simon Powell,” she whispered to me as we both sat on our porch watching the two walk from their parked car, “turn them down and send them away. We don't need the money that bad.”

My love, you have obviously forgotten about what happened in Zimbabwe and then Albania last year.” I whispered back. “We're living off television residuals and our good looks. Let's just listen to what they have to say, this could all be innocent and above board.”



When the two reached the porch it started out all pleasant and friendly. The two guys introduced themselves to my wife claiming to be representatives of a group wanting to make a documentary proving the Nazis had in fact developed a working anti-gravity device. That they wanted to hire us to go spelunking through a long abandoned underground research facility in eastern Germany and locate either evidence or, if possible, one of the prototype devices.

For Mira and I this was old hat after starring on an archeological show that attempted to be both exciting and educational. When we were first approached it seemed a no brainer, Mira holds a PhD in geology specializing in volcanoes and cave formation and while I am a regular Indiana Jones with a degrees in ancient history and archeology. We had first entered the public eye six years before after discovering a new set of ancient cave paintings in Spain that predated the believed arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe. The most obvious conclusion at the time was that the artists had to have been our Neanderthal cousins. Despite fits of outrage from the anthropologist and overtly religious types the paintings were verified genuine which launched Mira and I into the world of pop culture.

The eventual result was a show on one of the supposed educational cable channels. We succeeded in keeping our show truly based in science which of course destined it to a total ratings disaster. Halfway through our second season we were abruptly replaced with a reality program showcasing the life of a southern American family running a chain of garages in South Carolina. Needless to say, it was a huge hit with all the talk of family, a righteous God, weapons, and cars the producers cram into every episode.

All that, as they say, is water under a ruined bridge, and as the two gave their presentation I endeavored to prevent my hot-blooded Latin wife from chasing them off with a machete. The leader of the two called himself Wilson Teeter and had all the polished appearance, proper speech, and obvious social refinement of an Ivy League grad purposefully breed by ultra rich parents for political life. The trouble was that despite the expensive dental work and wide smile, the guy had the charm of an eel. Which to me meant he was the perfect television producer.

The second guy who went by the name Thomas Smith, did indeed smell of government. He was obviously ex-military and if I could read minds I'd say he had a constant, almost unconscious, thought underlying everything else he did during his average day that he wished he was still in uniform. Having served myself I knew the type, they generally regarded civilians with disdain and had this belief that debate and discussion were weaknesses. To them decisive action in everything were what was called for and anything less promoted failure or defeat resulting in the destruction of civilization. Useful types when confined to a military profession but outside you can easily begin to picture them in brown shirts and goosestepping during holiday parades.

The idea,” Teeter said wildly gesturing with his hands, “is to have you two lead the expedition into the ruins. The main purpose, or course, is to locate information on the device, but during filming we can easily accommodate changes to the main objective if anything of interest is found.”

Gentlemen,” my wife said as if it was more a question than statement, “you know such a device is totally impossible in this day and age, what gives you the idea the damn Nazis invented one back in the 1940's?”

Her question stymied Teeter for several second forcing him to come clean. “Yes Mrs. Powell, but in this day and age you need something extraordinary to get the attention of the viewing public. You should know that from how your husband and you kept creative control over your archeology show. Your adherence to real science only accomplished one thing and that was the creation of “Garage Dynasty. Look at it another way, you have a chance to explore an underground Nazi-era research facility that has been untouched since it was abandoned. I'm sure you can find some real science tucked away someplace.”

It didn't matter that Teeter's statement was not the least bit sarcastic, I saw the rage begin to build in her eyes and I had only one way to prevent it from exploding. “Never mind the examination of America's declining cultural and education standards how much are you going to pay us to play along with your little sensationalistic crap?”

***

Mr. Teeter's answer to that question was exceptionally good, so much that even Mira decided that science could take a temporary backseat to the needs of the unwashed and ignorant masses. Even with a monetary payoff large enough to secure Mira and mine's future as well as allow us to purchase enough equipment to get back into the field Teeter's was strangely insistent that we had to leave within the week.

Except for our cottage Mira and I don't have much to tie us down so it only took three days for us to be standing outside the ruins that was once the entrance to one of Nazi Germany's ultra secret research facilities. On the surface there wasn't much to see except for some crumbling pillars of concrete and a massive steel door in the side of a hill largely overgrown with weeds.

Within eyeshot of the Second World War underground base was a ramshackle collection of building that had been a Soviet Army base during the Cold War. That to me gave a possible answer as to why the Nazi facility had sat untouched for so long. To those who ran the former Soviet Union, Hitler was the boogeyman and while they controlled eastern Europe in a purely superstitious way avoided most everything they felt might resurrect the evil he represented. Just as I accepted my own elaborate explanation it was my wife who pointed out that a nearby sign in German proclaimed that within a month construction on a huge new shopping center covering this entire area would begin.

Joining us for the mission was just Wilson Teeter, acting as the director of the documentary and the mysterious Thomas Smith doing the actual filming. “What about a local guide inside or a support team here on the surface?” I asked Teeter who smiled and responded that they didn't need any extra people because he already had the best. Of course that was a no-go for both Mira and I but Teeter did a little song and dance reminding us about how we did something similar in Zimbabwe and Albania for a lot less money. Having to run from local authorities for not being exactly where our digging permits said we should was bad enough. The fact that in both cases we had to shoot our way past a disgruntled warlord in the former and a corrupt militia officer in the latter had pretty much ruined our reputations. Then Teeter reminded us that we had both signed a contract and had already received half of our substantial paycheck deposited in our account.

It was Thomas Smith who, with a set of massive keys unlocked the vault-like door to the facility and swung it open as if the thing was brand new. I stared into the entrance which opened up into medium-sized room taking stock of the junk that had been left behind. Several wood desks were in a late stage of decay. Beside them were a collection of chairs and even a couple of rusty old cots suggesting a couple of unlucky fools had to play guard duty here. Mira and I easily dealt with the dust covering everything, although Teeter and even Smith to a lesser degree started coughing from it.

We were all wearing one piece jumpsuits, hardhats with a combination LED light and digital video camera attached, as well as seriously bulky and slightly geeky utility belts that for me brought up memories of the old Adam West “Batman” series. “Well, lets go have an adventure.” I said in a tongue a cheek manner making fun of the catch phrase from the canceled show Mira and I created.

As we step through the entrance there is an air of fear and trepidation treading into a place that has sat empty and unexplored for so long...” my wife said beginning the narration of our journey. Mira had a natural flare for verbally painting a scene and I let her run with it. Her tight and shapely jumpsuit, a cheap and blatantly sexist trick was added in an attempt to appeal to the baser instincts of our supposed audience. The way Teeter was smiling and following her around while Smith did the filming on the big high definition camera did worry me a little.

The main tunnel was still in relatively good condition for the first kilometer or so until it branched off like a tree. The secondary tunnels were in various stages of collapse forcing everyone of crawl through small openings and even use the entrenching tools attached to our belts to make them bigger. What struck me as odd was how through experience I could tell we were not steeply descending as you would have expected for such a high-valued research facility. The Nazis dug their redoubts deep to protect them from Allied bombing raids. Another thing that bothered me was that after six hours inside the bunker looked more like a secondary command and control facility than anything else.

Hey Teeter,” I yelled, “we should have long since stumbled on something akin to laboratories and work shops. Are you sure you weren’t sold a bill of goods on what this place really was back during the war?”

The hairs on the back of my neck began to stand at attention when I saw Teeter and Smith exchange some knowing glance. “Yeah Simon,” Teeter yelled back, “we're on the right track.”

Not an hour later, with both Mira and I beginning to get very nervous we finally hit pay dirt. The especially difficult tunnel we were crawling through opened up into a huge room. Large boxes took up just about all available space with things like “art”, “gold”, and even “top secret” stenciled in German on the sides. Neither Teeter nor Smith had guessed that I learned how to read German from my time being stationed in Germany during the late 1990's while serving in the army. They were too busy obviously looking a particular box with a certain series of numbers painted on the side.

The one thing I have learned in my short forty-two years on this planet is that the Universe is not without a sense of irony or humor. Just as Teeter and Smith became excited about finding their box a chunk of cement took that moment to fall from the ceiling. Smith was able to jump out of the way but it hit Teeter squarely on the head. As I ran towards the two the beam of my flashlight caught the reflection of blood seeping from under Teeter's smashed hardhat.

Well that is unfortunate,” Teeter said in a manner that would have chilled the blood of both Darth Vader and a platoon of Klingon warriors. “I guess that means you two will live a little longer just to help me find the papers I'm looking for.”

In hindsight, I guess Smith felt he had to show who was the alpha dog of our remaining group because he then attacked me. I admit he got the first few blows in but I surprised his sorry ass when I quickly recovered and counterattacked. Yeah, this had been a setup from the beginning but neither the now dead Teeter nor Smith had researched me enough to know I was a black belt in Aikido. To my surprise though, a minute of two into our fight I saw Smith smiling, he was actually enjoying this little dance while I had realized we were at a relative stalemate. Thank God for my intelligent and lovely wife.

Muere hijo de puta!” She screamed from a couple of meters away while pointing the business end of her Sig Sauer nine-millimeter at Smith. Despite the fact Smith never really had a chance he did try to jump out of the way. But that only caused Mira's bullet to strike him in the neck. The look of utter surprise on Smith's face as lay on the dirt covered floor with blood bubbled up from his destroyed air way was , as they say, priceless. Yes, Mira and I had gone rogue and long since been disowned by our colleagues in our respective fields of study but experience had taught my wife to always go armed in the field.

It took the rest of the night to find out why were were played as patsies. The box that Teeter and Smith had been so happy to find turned out contain files listing the names of over twenty still distinguished American families who had secretly been Nazi sympathizers. Reading even further I found out one of these traitors back in the late 1930's had even tried to organize a coup on President Franklin Roosevelt. This was all relevant since another grandson of that particular Prescott was planing on a presidential run in 2016 and didn't need something as ridiculous as the construction of a German shopping mall to unearth information that would clearly destroy his chances and his family.

The remaining question for Mira and I is how to get this information out into the public. Realizing our lives were pretty much worthless we spent the next day loading up on the gold coins the Nazis had stored in the facility and went underground. I hated setting fire to all that stolen art work but we needed to cover our tracks to give us a bit of a head start before the bad guys realized we're still alive.

Yeah, we're on the run while building a network of allies so we can reveal what we know to the world. But truthfully I believe I'm actually enjoying it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pondering the Cosmically Great and Small



Pondering the existence extraterrestrial intelligence is probably one of my most reoccurring subjects I like to quietly think about as I watch the evening news. Yes, that is a backhanded insult at the usual array of semi-psychotic individuals both in politics specifically and out among the greater mass of humanity in general. Humans have been playing a glorified children's game of dominance, and calling it civilization, for around five-thousand years with only the most tenuous examples of advancement.

See for the longest time I have openly doubted that Homo sapiens are in fact an intelligent species. The examples for that assumption include George W. Bush, Vlad Putin, Assad in Syria, and numerous others both great and small. In my own circle of acquaintances I could list about a half dozen people who I find both horrifying and outrageously funny because of their statements and observable behavior. Yes again, I have long since come to the conclusion that I am a bit of a snob in some respects.

However, as I mentioned I like to ponder the existence of intelligent life out in the depths of space and what it would mean if by chance their radio transmissions were detected or, and this probability is microscopically small, they decided to stop and visit our little planet. See, like most people lacking a formal education in such things as evolutionary biology I came to think of extraterrestrial intelligence in terms presented in Star Trek, or any number of other science fiction venues. No, I'm not talking about meeting aliens that look just like humans, I know enough about evolution to understand that is beyond pure fantasy. What I'm talking about is encountering an alien civilization that is on equal terms with humanity in both intelligence and technology.

I vaguely remember Carl Sagan, in the original Cosmos television series, talking about how if two aliens civilizations did in fact encounter each other the odds were overwhelming that one of would be far more advanced than the other. While this is in no way a quote he went on to say that any conflict or “star wars” would be terribly one sided. I was a preteen at the time so his statement on the subject pretty much went into one ear and out the other.

It wasn't until I recently stumbled across the video where Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the situation even further that it finally hit home. In short he brings up our nearest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees, and how our respective genetic codes are exactly alike in the high ninety-percent range. But what difference that exists in our DNA means that humans can build space telescopes, ponder and test abstract concepts like quantum physics, create music and literature. All the while our chimp cousins are restricted to using sticks and rocks as tools. This is not a slam on chimps, behaviorally speaking our family relationship shows through with them known to commit both wonderful acts of generosity and terrible actions like individual murder and war between different groups.

You can probably guess where this dovetails back to aliens. It doesn't take much to realize that an alien species only a tiny bit more intelligent than humans would have an extraordinarily difficult time trying to relate concepts to us that they take for granted. As much as I have been impressed with videos showing primates communicating in American sign language I can't imagine them learning anything about how to build or maintain a laser, solve differential equations, or understand the metaphors in some poem.

It's both a little depressing and exciting to realize that there could be facets to the universe that humans just cannot grasp. That there could be some basic component to reality staring us in the proverbial face that we miss entirely.

This begs several questions to be asked. The first is what good is our current efforts to detect extraterrestrial civilizations by listening for interstellar radio transmissions? We could be waiting for smoke signals when everyone in our, relatively speaking, local area of the galaxy is communicating through gravity waves, pulsed lasers transmissions, or some real version of science fiction's subspace. The next question is whether or not aliens have tried to contact us but we're simply aren't smart enough to receive or understand what they are trying to say. Please understand I am not including idle and mostly ignorant speculation about UFO's. Those waters have been thoroughly muddied to the point any real discussion is doomed to descend into abductions and anal probing. Present an alien that can be checked openly by experts, a piece of metal made of an element unknown to science, or technology that defies our current understanding and then I will consider the option.

But the basic point remains just what would a slightly more advanced species say to us? Taking the question one step further would they even want to try? Not to backtrack, and beat an already dead horse, but what if some alien species is orders of more intelligent than us that we are to an earthworm or cockroach? Would they even register our existence if we somehow got in their way?

Check out the Tyson and Dawkins video I mentioned:




Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Well Dressed Lemmings Marching Towards Oblivion



Being the perpetual and totally out of place liberal oddball living in Red-state suburbia I notice things that the other inhabitants take as a normal part of their reality. The best example I can give happened several years ago at pool party my wife and I were invited. The hosts were part of our adoption group and were completely gracious in throwing open the doors to the huge and lavishly decorated home. All told at the height of the party they had about thirty people wandering around inside the house and outside playing by the pool. To be honest, if by some weird shift in reality, including significant changes in my personality, I owned a similar house I would have never allowed so many people who were at best just acquaintances such access to my home.

That being said, I would not be exaggerating in the least when I write that because of so many people I ended up using their master bathroom to change upon arriving and was stunned to realize it had a floor area bigger than my living room and kitchen combined. The garden tub was so big that it rivaled some motel pools I have seen. The shower stall...well, lets just say there were numerous nozzles as well as some sort of bench inside whose design raised more questions than I want to bring up. When you throw in everything else about the rest of the house and the pool it could have comfortably housed more people than were at the party to begin with. The shocker in all this was that the family who lived there only numbered five people. While I kept my mouth shut, the entire time I was at the party I desperately wanted to ask why in the hell did such a small family need such a gigantic house.

Yes, I know the stock answer many will instinctively recite. That the owners were highly successful people who deserve to reap the rewards of all their educational preparation and hard work. Far from betraying my growing socialistic tendencies I still agree, mostly, with that assumption. Anyone who works hard both in school and later at their jobs has a basic human right to reap the rewards that comes their way. The problem comes with the question that at what point does reaping justifiable rewards cross the line and become gross excesses in a world where many people struggle just to keep rain off their heads while finding enough to eat for one day. If that is too abstract I'll phrase it this way, just how big a damn home, or homes, does a person need?

This question is especially relevant to the few multimillionaire and billionaire elites who control the vast majority of wealth on the planet. How many yachts, estates, cars, and property do they need to own before being satisfied? This still does not let middle class types like myself off the hook. While I live in a “moderately”sized home of two-thousand square feet I have been to countries where that would be considered a plush mansion.

For those in the developing world attaining the American middle class lifestyle became the ultimate goal with the embrace of free market capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union. I'll hazard a guess and say that if the average American had any thought about those living in poverty outside the United States he or she would applaud any attempt to bring the Walmart-style consumerism to that country.

The massive problem that the world finds itself is that it cannot sustain an American style of life for every human on the planet. In fact, and it is sad to say many don't want to understand this, but even now we are destroying the global environment along exhausting current resources just to keep those of us living in First World countries supplied with televisions, refrigerators, cell phones, cars, and other items we think we can't live without. Throw in the populations of China and India seeking the joys of an American materialistic lifestyle and you might as well go ahead and nuke the planet because in a truly perverse way it might be kinder.

Unfortunately, here in America any person, like me, who does not believe this rate of materialistic consumption can be sustained is usually branded a commie pinko out to destroy the most wonderful and awesome place ever to exist on this planet. I am sure someone reading this is asking the question that if I have so many problems with America's God given way of life why don't I leave? In all honesty I can answer that I have seriously looked into it but unless you are a rocket scientists or have wads of cash it is extremely difficult. Yes, I would very much like to leave what I see to be a parade of fat and well dressed lemmings marching towards an abyss but as of right now, I cannot.

Now there is always the hope that society in general and those in power will realize that our civilization is ultimately screwed if we stay on our current course but I am not optimistic. My belief is only further reinforced by the growing economic libertarian ideology around me that exclaims “I have mine, and to hell with everyone else.” This ignorant and selfish attitude is suspicious of any idea or person that suggests that there are somethings in life that supersede the individual and the pursuit of unrestrained personal profit.

What I find darkly humorous at times is a local, retired radio personality whose one overriding obsession is his fear that democracies always fall once the people—and I take this generally as a reference to mean minorities on welfare---realize they can vote themselves cash from the state treasury. Yes, I will go as far to agree that it can be a legitimate concern, now I have no idea if he includes all those businesses that receive various forms of corporate welfare meaning they make at least millions in profit but pay no taxes or possibly even get money back from the government.

My counter but equal concern to his is that there are selfish and hugely ignorant people like him that blithely ignore new and unique problems the nation and world now faces. With over seven billion people living on the planet our free market-based industrial civilization cannot be sustained. Sure, civilization has headed off past threats to its existence by incorporating new technologies that raised efficiencies but conversely it also raised consumption and resource extraction making the problem even worse. When you throw in literally billions of new people all wanting the unrestrained American Dream we have jumped way past the breaking point. In short I believe the only way our civilization will survive is to adapt to a new reality.

Human shortsightedness is a near absolute, although our species did find the means to adapt to the world's changing conditions at the onset of the last ice age, which meant the beginnings of civilization. So, as we face increasingly drastic and deteriorating conditions there is a chance that we might find it in ourselves to once again adapt. 

Don't follow my reasoning? Try reading this:





"The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Universe and Garage Reorganization



There is a deep, but ultimately puzzling, sense of relief coursing through my mind and body as I sit at the kitchen table typing. I will make an assumption and guess there might be two questions springing into existence for anyone reading my latest semi-coherent verbal offal. The first being what in the hell has this idiot come up now? The second being that if Beach Bum has not finally lost what tiny portion of his mind that works what could cause him to feel this way?

Well, there could several other questions associated with my first statement but the only one I will answer outright to alleviate any worries about me delving into the kinky side of life is that no, there is nothing remotely sexual about what I am feeling. But to provide an answer, which is certified family and office safe I will have to backtrack.

See, as most of you already know I work third shift, which runs from eleven o'clock at night to seven in the morning. Because of this abnormal schedule, my weekend begins Friday morning and ends on Sunday night when I must return to the old grindstone. Since everyone living here at my house is either at work or at school on Friday this provides me the opportunity, as my lovely spouse describes it, to get some chores done.

Now, unfortunately, there is never a lack of chores to be done around my house. You name the task and I can most assuredly say there is some part of my home or yard that desperately needs just such a corrective action. However during the long winter months laundry is the usual default chore I embrace just for the fact that it absolutely has to be done and that there are long lazy breaks between me washing a load of filthy clothes, transferring them to the dryer, to finally folding the newly spring fresh smelling items. With the return of warmer temperatures and longer days the specter of yard work and spring reorganizing has come to the forefront.

My self-imposed troubles began a couple of weekends ago when I up and did something miraculous and started working in the backyard without any prompting from my wife. And while there is still much to be done, progress is being made---at least in my eyes. You have to remember everything in the universe is relative and I am sure my neighbors would say something different. 

Yesterday morning my wife asked that I begin the annual garage reorganization. Since mundane consistency is an inbred hobgoblin of stunted minds I readily agreed and actually looked forward to tackling the problem. This mainly came from my military years that ingrained a need to keep everything orderly and clean. 

I kept this attitude until I stepped into the garage and began to examine the degree of chaos that existed. Assorted minutia had literally flowed off the steel storage shelves down onto the cement floor. Making matters even worse stuff important to my wife had long since been mixed in with the other collection of junk she gives to charity. From past, painful, experience I have come to know that it is best not to make the mistake of misidentifying particular items and then keeping or taking off the wrong ones,

Adding to the problem was my wife's collection of oddly shaped cooking items and unused kitchen counter appliances. Both groups take up valuable space and if I truly wore the pants in my family most of it would have been long since taken to the recycle center. Harsh and cruel you might be thinking right now. The thick coat of dust covering the vast majority of these items screams to the universe years of sitting unused.

But as they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step and I jumped into the task. Two hours later, I realized that with all the uncertainty on what items were keepers and what could be tossed I had, at best, rearranged the existing mess. That is when a calming sense of of relief flooded my being to the point I was lifted up and for one belief moment was unified with the universe. The cosmos was telling me that the job was simply too big and diabolically complex for my puny male mind to comprehend.

So what does a person do when the universe itself overrules the task your wife assigned you? You grab a beer and begin to type out some rambling verbal essay describing the situation. Then hope your wife had a good day at work and finds the situation just a funny when she comes home and see the stuff still in disarray.
The steel shelf after two hours of futile reorganization.
One of my wife's culinary items after I wiped off the dust. It has something to do with "cake pops."