Friday, May 20, 2016

All The Old Knives--A Book Review

For a number of years one of my favorite fiction genres to read was the good old spy novel. The novels I preferred, and the ones overwhelmingly available during that time, revolved around the Cold War with some sort of nefarious Russian cabal plotting to destroy Western Civilization by either political subterfuge or outright nuclear war. Of course, by the end of the book an American or British spy—not James Bond—used their superior intelligence and skills to defeat the threat and save our way of life.

Many of them were quite clever books that while skirting the edges of Jame Bondian cliche with the use of gee whiz gadgets that solved certain tough points in the plot the author couldn't otherwise get around, still they were moderately enjoyable if not believable. When the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union a dead and rotting dinosaur spy novels for me lost their way with some authors becoming quite desperate to resurrect some grand evil enemy for which their characters could go into action again to save the world. What really started turning my stomach and driving me away from the genre were the insipid books where the hero was some right-wing zealot who had spent years being persecuted by naive and decadent liberals that were little better than the enemy he was ultimately called upon to defeat.

Yes, there were still well crafted and complex spy novels written in the style of John le Carré being published during that time. But honestly, they were overwhelmed by the Tom Clancy-like works typified by his fictional super spy, Jack Ryan. Truthfully, I have to admit that I enjoyed a number of Clancy's books but there came a point during Jack Ryan's adventures I half expected the man to save the Earth from an alien invasion. Instead, Clancy had his creation do something only slightly less implausible and become Vice President of the United States after the sitting VP is forced to resign due to corruption. If I remember correctly, in that particular novel, Ryan was offered the position as a form of gratitude for services he provided the nation. At the time I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous idea, which in my opinion actually bordered on silly fantasy, that such an important position would be frivolously offered to a non-politician. Leave it to Clancy to double down and have Ryan then become president after an insane Japanese airline pilot flies his plane into the Capitol Building during a State of the Union speech which kills everyone inside.

The only thing more outrageous is that here in 2016, there is a terrifying possibility a narcissistic real estate developer with zero idea of how the world actually works might become our next POTUS. So I guess you could say Clancy just posthumously proved real life is far weirder than anything that might appear in fiction.

That being said, I recently I took a chance with a spy novel called All The Old Knives by Otto Steinhauer and came away with a new appreciation of the genre.

The novel centers almost exclusively on the two characters, Henry Peham and Celia Harrison and except for flashbacks takes places curiously enough in a restaurant located in Camel-by-the-Sea, California. But back in 2006, CIA agents Henry and Celia were lovers stationed in Vienna doing the usual stuff like gathering intelligence and carefully developing relationships with different people. Not really earthshaking duties but what a lot of James Bond fans and armchair generals either don't know or ignore is that the vast majority of intelligence gathering is tedious desk work along with cultivating and maintaining networks of informants.

Henry and Celia's romantic relationship during their time in Vienna is pretty much what you might expect from two people who have put their careers ahead of their personal lives. But that has not prevented both from contemplating making a commitment with each other. Strangely even though both have been around the block a number of times with other love interests while pursuing their careers it is Henry who most fervent about making a life with Celia . Unbeknownst to Henry, she harbors strong doubts about even maintaining their current level of involvement.

It all comes undone when terrorists hijack an airliner at the Vienna airport and threaten to kill all the passengers if a number of their comrades are not immediately released from European prisons.

Given the danger of the situation the entire CIA staff in Vienna jumps into high gear to learn everything they can about the terrorists and their mindset. At first there is good news when the Vienna CIA station learn they have an asset on the plane who is sending them text messages about the situation. But that informational light at the end of the tunnel turns out to get an onrushing train when they discover that asset has either been discovered or is now working for the terrorists.

The end result is that all the hostages die on the plane leaving multiple questions unanswered as to what the hell happened. The night of that disaster, Celia decides she has had enough of the spy business and leaves Henry high and dry.

Years later Celia is now living in the idyllic California town by the ocean, married to a corporate drone, and has pumped out two kids. Henry on the other hand is still working for the CIA in Vienna and has been assigned the task of finding the answers as to what actually happened. There is disturbing allegations that the asset on the plane might have been betrayed by someone inside the Vienna station. Using the excuse that he is in the area attending a conference Henry call up Celia and innocently suggests that have dinner together to talk about old times.

Celia is dubious of the request and concerned Henry might still be harboring feelings for her. Henry actually does harbor feelings for his old love, as well as a hefty dose of resentment but he still attempts to be the professional and goes to Carmel to interview her.

After the two arrive at the restaurant, and are seated the book becomes a series of flashbacks with each telling their point of view of the events. As the two discuss what happened, Celia quickly catches on that Henry's visit to her new hometown is anything but innocent. The two begin to play an alternating game of cat and mouse with each other with the loser paying the ultimate price.

All the Old Knives is not a perfect book, it's a glorified novella actually but the psychological interplay between Henry and Celia more than makes up for any deficiencies. Love, hate, paranoia, and betrayal are all on display between those two and it is that reason alone that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As you can expect I highly recommend it but with one word of caution. After reading other reviews it is clear this is one of those novels where the reader either loves it or totally hates everything about it. All I can say is that for me it beats the hell out of the most other spy novels currently being published.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Breaking the Camel's Back

The story of a half-assed military career.

One of the secrets for a successful life is to know when a once good situation has changed, so much that a person needs to immediately begin looking for the first available exit. Dedication to an organization and tenacity to see things through when the going is rough are nice elements to the character of a person but there are times when things get so utterly crazy it's best for someone to cut their losses and run like hell. That sentiment is true for a whole manner of things but my story begins in the early 1980's.

When someone says they have only a fuzzy recollection of their high school years the tendency is to think such a person spent a good part of it smoking weed in an isolated corner of the campus. Unfortunately, for me I cannot claim that reason as to why I spent the entire four years of that segment of my life totally oblivious as to what I would do once I graduated. Long story short, I simply did not have a clue about anything from continuing my education or what kind of job I might be able to find.

Circumstances surrounding my childhood helped with that lack of direction but by the time I started my freshman year in high school by all rights I should have had some sort of plan. But it wasn't until my junior year, with adulthood fast approaching, that I have the barest recollection of being worried about what I would do after graduation. Somewhere around that time I discovered two of my buddies had joined the National Guard and would be attending basic during that summer and then return the next year after graduation to finish up their training. Needless to say, with nothing else in the works, it didn't take those two long to talk me into joining.

While in hindsight it was a crappy plan, and in fact I didn't go to basic until after graduation, at least it had me doing something. In someways I had always figured time in the military would play a part in my life but never once during any of those ill-conceived daydreams did I ever consider becoming a weekend warrior.

So, barely a couple of days after high school graduation—truly an overblown ceremony in this day and age—I found myself aboard a plane heading out to Fort Bliss, Texas. It was there that I endured both basic training and Advanced Individual Training, the former teaching the sorry ass collection of recruits I was part of how to be soldiers, and the latter teaching us specialized jobs like MANPADS crewman, Vulcan Gunner, or Chapparral crewmen. Aside from the usual antics of recruits, my time at Fort Bliss was fairy normal considering all the kids the officers and NCO's assigned there trained during those years. The incident that stands out in my mind was that when our training cycle began in July my unit was issued warm weather PT uniforms which consisted of a thin t-shirt and old style gym shorts. By the middle of September though the weather during the mornings had turned decidedly cold forcing us all to huddle together in tight packs in an effort to stay warm. Of course, as we shivered in the cold, the DI's (Drill Instructors) watched us from inside their warm office belly laughing at our suffering.

When I returned home to South Carolina the National Guard seemed the best decision I had ever made in my short life. During those all too brief Saturdays and Sundays, I got to play soldier and hang out with others, who if they didn't fill a similar thrill at the required activities at least played along, well, that's mostly true.

Just a few months after I returned from Fort Bliss a couple of guys and myself were tasked by the first sergeant to go set up tables in one of the armory's classrooms for a meeting. When we opened the door to that room it was almost totally dark because all the window blinds were down. Naturally, one of us flicked the light switch on to find the entire floor covered with about fifteen to twenty of our fellow weekend warriors laying on the floor sound asleep.

It goes without saying our arrival was not welcome by any of the sleeping individuals. In fact one of the guys on the floor, the principle of a nearby elementary school no less, had some rather harsh words because we were disturbing his beauty sleep.

“I will personally put my foot up each of your asses if you don't turn the goddamn lights back off and leave this room immediately!” This stalwart leader of the community and guiding light to a couple of hundred of children and humble teachers said to us. Mr. Nasty Mouth Principle was quickly backed up with grunts of semiconscious acclamation from the other guys in the room with him.

It was clear, at least to me, that the collective mass of those individuals trying to sleep could have gotten quite nasty towards us three lowly privates unless one of us had quickly turned the situation to our advantage.

“Okay, but First Sergeant Bennett told us to come in here and setup tables. He'll be here in a couple of minutes to have a meeting with the platoon sergeants.” One of the other two said to the now alert group of men suddenly finding a reason to get off the floor.

“Bennett, coming in here?” Mr. Principle said clearly realizing that not only was he almost caught sleeping by the wrong person but had missed some important information and was about to be found totally unprepared for a meeting he had to attend. It took a few more seconds for the brains of those guys to digest all the implications of this news. But once it did, they scrambled chaotically around searching for an escape just like BDU wearing cockroaches trapped in a small room.

As the months passed I became a bit of a fixture at the local armory helping out the full-time guys during the normal work week when I had free time. As for civilian employment during this period, I held one of two crappy jobs whose one positive aspect was that they taught me I would eventually be forced to take a different path in my life. Just so I don't have to relive what is truthfully a rather embarrassing time for me, I'll skip the descriptions of those two jobs that took me from the fall of 1984 to the summer of 1986. The one thing I will say is no, these jobs were not in the fast food industry nor did they have anything to do with working at a car wash. As for this new path, I had absolutely no idea what it would look like so I did the simplest thing, I transferred from the National Guard to the active army.

When I transitioned over I had every intention of staying in the active army for the full twenty years, if not longer. Along the way though the Soviet Union collapsed and the leaders in Washington, both in Congress and the Pentagon decided that the armed forces should be drawn down in size. It was the right decision given the reordering of the  geopolitical circumstances but for me it meant another change in direction. I totally stink at interpersonal workplace politics, which meant as positions became fewer the more talented types who could kiss butt without worrying about the brown substance smeared on their noses would ultimately jump ahead of a naive goofballs like me.

So, with my enlistment over in July 1990, I went back home, enrolled in the local community college and for the most part began trying to form a plan for the rest of my life. The other thing I did was reenlist back into the National Guard because since I still enjoyed playing soldier and the money given the time involved was unbelievably easy. Even though I was just a peacetime soldier after having served active duty the trials and tribulations of weekend drills and the annual two-week summer camp was something I could do standing on my head, at night, during a torrential rainstorm, while singing Margaritville. At least that was the case when I first returned to the Guard, as the years went by that situation began to change in unexpected ways.

My life progressed pretty much as expected from 1990 to 1995 with me graduating from community college in 1992, getting a real job soon after that, and culminating with me getting married 1993. Even after getting married the Guard stayed pretty much the same except that I transferred from the air defense unit in the upstate of South Carolina down to one in Columbia. It was during this time the Guard was slowly getting weird.

At first the changes were reasonable and mainly revolved around senior leaders in the local units making sure that if a soldier was supposed to be at drill, that trooper better damn well have his ass there wearing a decent looking uniform and mildly polished boots. Now if there was a civilian job conflict with drill weekends the units use to work with that soldier allowing him or her to make it up during the week helping the full time guys and gals. Eventually even that commonsense approach slowly changed with the unit first sergeants or commanders giving long-winded lectures at formations telling us that your employer was required by federal law to give a person time off so they could report for National Guard duties be it drill weekends or the annual two-week summer camp.

That was absolutely correct, except that I can report first hand that both civilian bosses and coworkers became quite upset when that required the former to juggle shift scheduling and the latter to give up their precious deer hunting time so they could cover the person who was away playing weekend warrior. As my troubles mounted for that reason, I learned that while patriotism appears to run miles wide here in the American South its actual depth is quite shallow.

The Guard only made this situation worse by ramping up participation in events that required a weekend warrior to do extra drills during the same month, extended drills that could go four or five days, extended summer camps going up to three or even four weeks. I will never forget the surly and disgruntled look on a particular boss's face when I told him my National Guard unit was going to Fort Irwin, California for a summer camp that would last twenty-five days. Thankfully, I had already taken my vacation that summer, and my boss also understood my wife was an attorney, which prevented him from getting really stupid. Federal law is supposed to protect weekend warriors from any possible reprisals from civilian employers for doing the required duty but that's simply not how it works in reality. When you add the glories of living in a “Right to Work State” that adds elements of medieval serfdom for the common worker, you get a perfect brew of legal vagueness that makes any supposed protection nearly worthless. Simply put, if a boss gets irritated at a worker for being in the Guard, he or she can essentially cook something up to get rid of them. The same goes for hiring, discounting all the Guard/Employer partnership BS, with a few exceptions most companies will bend themselves into pretzels to avoid hiring members of the National Guard. From my own personal past experience anyone who says different is either a liar or a fool.

For me the straw that broke this camel's back came in 1997. Up to then I had more or less successfully dealt with all the vagaries that had become inherent to serving in the peace time National Guard. Sure, there were several incidents involving both my civilian employers and my wife that left both upset with me. At the same time, the various National Guard units I belonged considered me a person they wanted to keep because I was showing up on time and meeting the required standards. I will admit though, civilian life was taking a small toll on my weight which put me on the “Fat Boy” program at few times forcing me on short term diets.

But it was in 1997 that I finally told the Guard I wasn't going to play the good trooper anymore. Without going all convoluted with details that might just confuse I was involuntarily transferred to a new unit because the one I belonged was grossly over strength while the one receiving me was desperate for warm bodies. The new unit knew I did not hold the required MOS (Mission Occupational Specialty) to perform the job they assigned me, they said that would be corrected at a later date.

Which I took to mean prolonged training sessions during monthly drill weekends, or a quicky qualification course held at a summer camp. I had earned two other MOS's both of those ways since leaving the active army and wasn't opposed to doing it again. Full disclosure here, by 1997 I had a two year-old son and my marriage at the time was running into some difficult waters, so while I was still willing to play the game my first priority was to my family.

That's not what my National Guard unit had in mind. As summer camp for that year approached my section sergeant, truly a good guy, called me into his office for a meeting. (I'll paraphrase the actual conversation to cover some privacy and avoid needless detail.)

“Sergeant,” he said pushing a folder filled with paperwork towards me, “we've scheduled you to attend the radio repair course, it's sixteen weeks long so you will have to explain the situation to your employer.”

Screw my baldheaded, dickless, anal retentive boss at that time, all I really heard him say was that the course, which I really didn't want to take, would have me away from my family for four months. When you added the usual bureaucratic in-processing time and out-processing, I was looking at maybe another two weeks added to the four months. Given my marital situation at that moment, I might as well gone ahead and hired an attorney and filed for divorce. It was then that I felt that one last straw hit the back of the smelly, obnoxious and grossly overloaded camel.

“No staff sergeant,” I said politely, “ I will not go to this school. I have family considerations and I will not endanger them for the National Guard.”

While my section sergeant was a decent guy, he was totally dedicated to the Guard, to the point that by all rights he should have gone active duty but that is something I will touch on later. Needless to say, my open but polite refusal totally screwed with his brain.

“You know we can't keep you in this section unless you get qualified,” He said back to me.

“No disrespect staff sergeant, but I didn't choose to come to this unit, I was forced. I'll gladly transfer out to another to avoid this situation.”

As they say my refusal went over like a lead balloon, or a submarine with a screen door attached. While I wasn't officially on any type of shit list, I had certainly become persona non grata to just about everyone involved. My opinion during that time, and even now, was screw the bastards if they couldn't take a joke. I wasn't about to make my family pay the price so a bunch of weekend Rambo's could live out their leadership dreams.

The story doesn't end there, yeah I transferred to another unit and once again found myself surrounded by weekend warriors that by all rights should have gone active duty if they truly wanted to realize their dreams of glory. What I found interesting though was their complete obviousness to the fact that their over devotion to National Guard duty was screwing their civilian lives.

One guy who worked in a retail store came to drill one weekend totally flabbergasted that his regional manager had given him a bad job review. Now this particular individual eagerly volunteered for every extra weekend drill, even the extended ones, and was constantly putting in and getting various active army schools and training courses that took him away from his civilian job for additional periods. The fact that he was quite a smart person but couldn't connect his bad civilian job review with his weekend warrior zealotry just made me shake my head in amazement.

The example that takes the cake belongs to his best friend. This guy was like me in that he worked a demanding factory job at the time which usually had him on twelve hour shifts. Add to that to all the extra Guard duties he volunteered for, just like his best friend, that at times kept him away from home for most of a month. It all came to head late one Sunday evening when he returned to his home only to find his wife standing outside with a suitcase telling him to go check into a motel. 

Of course, I learned this at the next weekend drill where he and several others were on the advance team that would leave a couple of days ahead of the main part of the unit for a five day exercise. That guy was in tears telling me that over the intervening month he had been forced to look for an apartment and move out of his house all the while dealing with his own bosses at work while begging his wife to let him come home. The guy didn't have a frakking clue. Yeah, he and his wife divorced several months later. No joke intended, the last time I heard from that individual he had developed a drinking problem.

You might be surprised to learn that all this happened before 9/11 and the resulting cluster fucks that became the Afghanistan and Iraq quagmires. I will not go further to describe how National Guard demands grew exponentially after that, nor how divorces, civilian career crashes, and even suicides followed in the wake. I retired with twenty-one years in 2005, with only my retirement paperwork being put in one month before my unit received orders for deployment saving me from going overseas with them.

The funny thing in all this is that I once had a lazy ass civilian—who not only never served but never even considered joining the military—question my decision to retire. After a few words explaining that while I hadn't given as much as some Americans, I sure as hell had done a lot more than most I punched the guy in the face. Personally I know violence is never the answer, but damn, that felt good.

To be perfectly honest, I've been out over ten years now and there are times I still dislike civilians as much as I did when I was an active duty soldier.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Speculations on the Great Eerie Silence

 (Author's note: Be sure to at least scroll down to the video at the end of this post!)

Anyone who has ever watched the Star Trek television series should have at one time or the other heard one of the characters make reference to something called the “Prime Directive.” Without devolving into any of my usual uber-geekness, in short the Prime Directive is one of the central tenets the fictional members of Starfleet have to live by as they explore the galaxy. It prohibits any member of Starfleet from interfering in the cultural, scientific, or technological development of an alien civilization below a certain level of achievement. As far as the series are concerned, there are two main reasons why such a philosophy was implemented.

First, this prevents starship crews from imposing any values or ideas on alien cultures for whom such actions would threaten the stability of their societies and possibly their very existence. Yes, this might mean any number of barbaric practices like slavery would continue on a primitive world but the general behind the Prime Directive is that such archaic societies should mature at a natural rate without outside interference. Real human history is replete with examples of how more advanced civilizations totally destroyed or massively altered more primitive cultures for the worse. Think the Spanish Conquest of the native American cultures from Mexico to Peru. Also, Commodore Matthew Perry's expedition to Japan in 1853 led to the overthrow of the two centuries old Tokugawa Shogunate opening that country to the rest of the world. This in turn led Japan to start acting like the other imperial powers and develop an empire of their own which eventually led to one of the factors bringing about the Second World War.

The second but equally important reason is to prevent primitive societies from having access to technology that they simply do not have the wisdom to use wisely. As far as this point is concerned, you don't have to look hard at all to see examples of how current technology in use now is destroying the planet. Just imagine if some lost interstellar traveler happened upon Earth and decided to sell some of his technology related to weapons. It wouldn't matter if he/she/it sold his super lasers or photon torpedoes to a single country or to everyone with the right amount of cash. The result would still throw the geopolitical balance of power totally out of balance.

More to the point, the best example is the book alternate history author Harry Turtledove wrote back in the1990's describing the repercussions of time traveling South Africans giving AK-47 assault rifles and ammo to Confederate troops during the American Civil War. In short, the South won the war but the ripples of such an interference expanded to the point that once the Union government got their hands on the weapons they were able to copy them and eventually move on to conquer Canada. Long story short, the interference resulted in more wars, death, destruction, and hate among the nations involved.

You might be thinking how this fictional Prime Directive means anything in the real world? Well, curiously enough there is a real-world counterpart called the “Zoo hypothesis” used to explain why our planet hasn't seen any alien starships orbiting Earth. Conceived of in the face of the equally unsettling Fermi Paradox which ask the questions that given a marginally ambitious alien species with the ability to launch starships to just ten percent the speed of light they should be able to visit and/or colonize the entire galaxy in a couple of million years. The fact that we haven't detected the radio signals of any alien civilization much less found any derelict space probes or abandoned starships floating around our solar system led the famous Enrico Fermi to ask just where in the Hell is everyone.

Now the Zoo hypothesis makes a number of quite large assumptions, never a good thing when trying to form a working idea of how galactic affairs are done but just humor me for a minute. The first assumption being that there is either a powerful benevolent alien civilization, or a large number of them, that have a great reverence for the natural and independent development of younger intelligent species. That premature contact would reduce the diversity of these new civilization. Essentially the idea is that these more advanced civilization wouldn't want to inflict of the same cultural damage the powerful nations here on Earth did to all the local indigenous human cultures in places like the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia for the last four hundred years.

Another possible reason for advanced alien civilizations to avoid contact with us is to protect themselves. Humans are a rapacious species that destroys far more than it creates. An advanced and peaceful alien civilization wouldn't be wrong to assume that if we knew there was a way to circumvent the Einsteinian restrictions on interstellar travel they might soon find themselves facing the business end of a fifty-terawatt particle beam cannon mounted on a starship full of humans. Given our species usual behaviors, keeping quiet while watching us from some vantage point like one of those snowballs in the Kuiper belt beyond Pluto would definitely be a good idea. That also brings up the disturbing idea that if these hypothetical aliens saw us getting ready to make the jump to manned interstellar travel while still blood thirty killers out to do nothing but conquer that they might feel compelled to take a can of Raid bug spray to Earth and any other planet or moon we might inhabit.

Someone as esteemed as Dr. Stephen Hawking has even said it might be best if humanity didn't actively seek contact with extraterrestrial species due to our horrible record with primitive cultures. In fact, others have gone as far to speculate that the danger to our civilization from contact with another civilization might not just be from culture shock. That, while extremely small to the point the idea is more laughable than a real threat, there exists the possibility that some aliens- or their machine intelligence descendants actively seek out and destroy every new species they discover.

As with some other far out concepts, Star Trek's Prime Directive isn't just another piece of crazy science fiction gobbledygook. There are legitimate reasons why an intelligent alien species might not want to go broadcasting its existence across the cosmos. However, there is new research that speculates that intelligent extraterrestrial life not only isn't as prevalent in the universe as we might hope but that these civilization might have long since gone extinct.

The Drake Equation, created by Dr.Frank Drake in 1961 is a probabilistic argument used to arrive at an estimate of the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that might now exist. The parameters of this equation include the rate of stars forming that would be suitable for the development of intelligent life; the fraction of those stars that develop planetary systems; the number of planets in a solar system suitable for life; the fraction of those planet where life appears; the fraction of those planets where intelligence evolves; the fraction of civilizations that develop technology; and lifetime of those civilizations.

What Frank and Sullivan set out to do was adjust the Drake Equation to determine the number of civilizations that have existed, or as they call it, the “cosmic archaeological question.” Their results, if I read it correctly, suggests that one star in every million in our galaxy might hope to host a technological species. Furthermore, that over the lifetime of the Milky Way galaxy 20,000 technical alien civilizations might have existed before our arrival.

This of course brings back that irritating thing called the Fermi Paradox, in that if 20,000 civilizations have existed just where are they now? While the excerpt I read didn't delve into the details, the assumption I believe is that they have all gone extinct. The issue limiting the longevity of alien civilizations is one concerning sustainability given the limitations of resources. Whether or not such things as the development of asteroid mining, a subject under intensive research and development here on Earth even now, or any other possible technology that would extend the lifetime of a technical civilization was considered I have no idea.

Even though humanity has only been seriously scanning the skies for other intelligent life for a few decades, the great silence has unnerved many not directly understanding of the scope or nature of the task. Nonetheless, Fermi's paradox remains the 800 pound gorilla sitting the corner of the room smiling at those of us who dream of the day a news report begins with some breathless broadcaster saying personnel at several radio telescope sites are about to make an announcement that will rock the world. That gorilla being the possibility that technical civilizations are like us, woefully shortsighted and lacking the required intelligence not to destroy themselves.

The problem I have with the idea that most technical alien civilizations have short lives succumbing to ignorance, superstition, tribal conflict, or greed is that somewhere one of them has to be smart enough to avoid those fatal mistakes. While in general people are a barbaric and limited group subject to behavior boiled down to the grossest lower common denominator some don't follow that pattern. Some humans actually endeavor to lift themselves and others out of the cesspool made up of both our worst behaviors and bloody history. It isn't that great a leap of faith or imagination to think there has to be alien species that is smart enough to make it through the difficult years of technological and societal adolescence.

For those few species that reach maturity only to find scores of failed and dead predecessors scattered about the stars of our galaxy, maybe they should follow a completely different Prime Directive. Instead of keeping silent and watching younger species struggle to overcome their primitive natures while dealing with the uncertainties that it is even possible, maybe more advanced species should broadcast their presence to the universe through radio, lasers, or gravity waves. For these advanced and mature species such a project would have no immediate benefit to them. But to a young species dealing with problems that seem all but insurmountable along with apathy and doubt, confirmation that not only are they not alone in the universe but that there is more to existence than the perpetual struggle to survive could be enough to help themselves make it as well. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Again, Walking the Arthur Ravenel Bridge

After what seems like countless times of not being able to leave the house during the weekend, I finally stopped whining and got the hell out of Dodge. I really didn't want to spend a lot of money and I have long since found that the biggest issue about going anyplace is the drive down, so once I got to Charleston the bridge was where I decided to go. After that I hit the park at the base on the Mount Pleasant side.

As the other three or four times before, I start from the Mount Pleasant side and walk to the middle then turn around. This is one of the rest areas heading back over to Mt Pleasant. It use to have nice, comfortable metal benches with back rests. Not sure what happened, maybe people were loitering too long and becoming a impediment to the walkers and bike riders. Still though, the breeze on the bridge and strong and cool, it felt good to be up there. I will say it again, as I have with my other posts about Charleston, given the "beautiful people" walking the bridge I am almost too ugly to be allowed in the city limits. No, I didn't take any pictures of the young and attractive types, especially all the babes, it would have definitely caused a scene.  

Charleston Harbor- I arrived in the area a little after nine o'clock that morning and the clouds repeatedly seemed to threaten rain only to go away and then come back again. 

Just a cool sailboat going under the bridge. I was overwhelmingly envious of the people on that boat.

A small slowdown in the morning traffic. I actually have no idea why I included this picture.

An overly formal plaque telling about the Pearman Tower. I guess I should be thankful to all the people involved in getting the two old and out of date bridges removed. They were both becoming dangerous and preventing modern ships from going up river.

The entrance to Waterfront Park leading to the Mount Pleasant pier. I cannot say enough nice things about this park. It has become my personal retreat where I can find a bench and sit back and relax. There is simply nothing like it in the Columbia area.

A view of the Patriot's Point Naval Museum. It looks like there are just three vessels left. Over the years others have been added only to be removed because the success of this attraction has always been marginal at best. I thought about touring the Yorktown yesterday since I hadn't been on it for close to ten years. Then I remembered that not only do you have to pay to get on the ship but parking as well. Management was sort of forced into that since a lot of people were parking there cars in the lot and then riding off with someone else to tour the area. While my wife and I were dating we park our cars there several times.   

Why did I drive down from Columbia only to sit on a bench? For several reasons and the view was one of them. I also rather enjoyed the solitude it offered because I didn't really have to worry about running across anyone I knew. Not only do the parks in the Columbia area fall far short, there have been a number of times I bumped into someone I knew with them deciding to give me an unwanted update on their lives. Yeah, I can be a dick at times but I can't help the fact I like to find places where I can organize my thoughts and decompress. 

"Old Sunken Hull"--Click on the picture and read the story.

Confederate Jasmine growing around one of the memorial columns at the park. The scent was intoxicating.

The Mount Pleasant Pier. A great place to fish or simply enjoy the breeze coming off the water. One word of warning, the Charleston area is quickly moving into both the summer and tourist seasons. Which mean it will get ungodly hot, humid and crowded. Frankly, there have been times I have visited Charleston during those months and thought it was far worse than visiting Disney World at the same time.

Just for shits and giggles, here is a stock picture showing the new bridge under construction and the two old death traps beside it.

Final picture--It's mine and as I was totally relaxing yesterday I came to the realization that no matter what just for the sake of my loosely wrapped sanity I'm going to be required to make more of these short but vital trips.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Idiots--Then and Now

At the expense of once again showing an arrogant snobbery that has turned the stomach of many, I recently learned something I found rather interesting. It's a small fact, but given the state of the nation and the world in general it has a large bearing on the affairs of how things are run and the future of our children. Though as usual, before I get to my damn, possibly over inflated point I must do my usual grotesque digression into a seemingly unrelated subject.

True historical documentaries on television are a rare occurrence, curiously enough they are almost extinct on such cable venues like the History Channel and Discovery Channel where strange and inbred reality shows now dominate. Which on the surface is quite the bizarre situation since when both of those cable channels were chartered it was proudly proclaimed that their purpose was to raise the standards of American television. Over the years those networks have devolved into being dominated by puffball shows about “antique picking”, the logging business, driving on ice roads, and numerous programs about cars. While there is nothing wrong with any of those series, the fact that they air on channels meant to give something more than mindless entertainment proves that quantity programming cannot really exist when corporate management has to worry about ratings and corporate sponsors. On the rare times anything educational is broadcast by those cable networks, whatever subject they broach is only given the most superficial of treatment before breaking for a long string of commercials.

The best example I can give is Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent version of the Cosmos series first started by Carl Sagan back in the 1980's. While the Fox Network is a broadcast channel, not cable, the true length of each episode was barely over forty minutes. Sure, they were an excellent forty minutes compared the usual Fox-based crap, but overall Tyson, and producer Seth MacFarlane, could have done a far better series had it aired on PBC, as the original did years ago.

All that being said, the internet streaming providers, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu have a number of historical documentaries that allow a snobbish prick like me to sit back and watch television without feeling the IQ points slip away like wisps of vapor rising up in the hot morning sun. Don't get me wrong, the internet streaming providers have their own collection of mindless crap but they all have things organized so someone with a better than average curiosity that stretches into shows with an intellectual weight can easily find them.

Such a documentary is: Athens:Democracy Without Rules airing on Amazon Prime and starring Dr.Bettany Hughes, British historian and author. Let me go ahead and get the stereotypical sexist American disclaimer out of the way. Yes, Dr. Hughes is an attractive woman but her ability to relate history in a context someone like me can understand and connect to our modern world is unparalleled. Her documentaries allow the watcher to relate to the past in a manner that is sorely lacking in many historians who can't get past the basic facts. Just to show what I think of Dr, Hughes, I cannot help but call her the Carl Sagan of history, which for me is high praise bordering on worship. Then again, I love history while for far too many of the great unwashed and barely sentient, they hardly comprehend things that happened just a couple of decades ago.

In short, as anyone should be able to guess, Athens: Democracy Without Rules tells the story of the rise of democratic ancient Athens starting with how the wealthy aristocrats controlled both the land and the city government with the poor living nearly enslaved to them. It quickly moves on to the Age of Tyrants and then the rise of Cleisthenes, who brought on the reforms which came to be called democracy.

This documentary is not the typical whitewash of history where some less than thorough and honest host grossly waxes on about how Athens lead the way to the establishment of Western Civilization. Yes, Athens did lay the foundations of the West and, in my opinion was the most important defender of those early ideals during the Persian Wars. Sorry fans of Sparta, sure Leonidas and his troops held off the Persians at Thermopylae but it was the Athenian naval battle at Salamis that saved Greek civilization. The ancient Athenian people were total hypocrites but quite frankly the citizens of Sparta were monsters given their practices and government.

But Dr. Hughes goes on to show that the people of Athens were not saints, that they regularly voted for war--so much it came damn close to utterly destroying them, that they oppressed woman in way quite similar to many Muslim countries, and that while they championed the idea of freedom, their economy was based on a vast population of slaves.

But it was the origin of the word “idiot” that about made he fall over laughing. In today's modern American English the word idiot is defined as anyone who is stupid but in ancient Athens it held a meaning that, as far as I am concerned best describes the proles that unfortunately dominate our society.

Idiot is derived from the ancient Greek word, ἰδιώτης ( idiōtēs ), meaning “person lacking processional skill.” For those living during the years of ancient Athenian democracy an idiot was someone characterized as a self-centered person more concerned with private affairs than the greater public good. It also meant someone lacking education and to be so mentally deficient as to be incapable or ordinary reasoning. To the ancient Athenians everyone when they were born were idiots but were made citizens through education. Yes, don't send me hate mail or nasty comments, I know Athenian citizenship was overwhelmingly hereditary but for the most part they still imposed strict educational standards.

Call me a snob, bordering on the delusional but I can't throw a rock anywhere I live without hitting someone who while trained to do one thing well enough to have a job do not have the slightest ability to make a reasonable and informed decision. If I desired to start a blog listing examples on general idiocy it would be so easy but also exponentially depressing. But before anyone starts calling me a political partisan out to grind an ideological ax at the expense of conservatives, rest assured idiotic behavior crosses the entire political spectrum.

So, some might be wondering what is wrong with being an idiot? It's abundantly easy with most of society geared to service such people. Yeah, but the world we live in now has reached a crowded complexity that defies all the moaning down through the ages about how the unwashed masses don't know their asses from a hole in the ground. Humans are no longer a thinly scattered animal living in primitive cities and villages completely disconnected from what goes on the other side of the planet. Decisions made in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, and hundreds of others cities that would terrify the ancient Athenian because of their size daily affect everyone on the planet.

For the average factory worker to not have a basic understanding of how such things as regional trade agreements will affect them is to court disaster and possibly suicidal. I could write a whole other crappy essay on how abuse of the environment and the increased rate of extinction could endanger the entire human species. But for far too many people, such information is not just above their heads but something they do not want to accept because it might mean an end to their easy lifestyle. The same goes for police brutality here in the United States and how an Africa-American male wouldn't be wrong to walk around with a shirt displaying a circular target. Just to share the wealth of idiocy, the same could be said for many nations, including American, European, and Islamic, and how they are doing their best to turn a blind eye to the plight of millions of refuges fleeing oppression, war, and climate collapse.

A comfortable idiocy seems to be a prerequisite for modern life in the twenty-first century Western world. Mildly stupid entertainment, such as the stuff I mentioned earlier, allows people to unwind and relax after a hard day running the metaphorical but pointless hamster wheel. Human nature seems to me that once a group has craved out their comfortable little space that the rest of the world doesn't exist. This complacency is highly dangerous because a lazy population is easily distracted allowing the rise of a privileged elite that will eventually do everything within their power to protect their positions. Which was of course was the reason the Athenian people rose up in the first place to begin their unprecedented experiment in self government.

Given the house of cards our civilization has become maybe were due for a type of Dark Age. Maybe at some point people will realize that they need to pay attention to the world around them, that idly making due as their portion of the pie gets smaller and that some people get nothing is wrong and rise up again. Then again, maybe if they stopped being idiots they could have avoided all the heartbreak and spilling of blood required to build a better world in the first place. 


Friday, April 22, 2016

Yard Sale Hell

Last Thursday the indignities of middle age and the wisdom of medical science required that I surrender my personal sovereignty for about an hour so a doctor could check for any nasty surprises lurking in my nether regions. Frankly, basic decorum and the unwritten internet rule about it being best that we all resist the urge to overshare far too much personal information forbids me from coming out and actually naming the procedure. But I will say that given what the good doctor did find, I'll have to go through the crap again in five years.

Just for shits and giggles, I will admit that the drugs they used to knock me out made me feel all warm and fuzzy as what for me passes as consciousness faded into short-term oblivion. That being said, what I am about to go through tomorrow morning is probably going to be far more a trying ordeal than the session of preventive maintenance I endured last week. See, very early tomorrow morning my wife will begin her seventh yard sale since we were married with me as her chief and only unpaid and totally under appreciated and overly abused flunky.

On the surface yard sales are simply affairs, you set up some picnic tables in your driveway, bring out all the assorted unused crap taking up space in your house, and then place that stuff on the tables and wait for all the local human scavengers to arrive and pick everything apart like hyenas do a dead zebra. However, that basic premise ignores certain elements to the yard sale equation. The first being that you have to decide what unused crap will be itemized and then sold. This is highly problematic for me since my wife tends to believe anything of mine is a top candidate to be priced and them offered up to the ravaging hordes looking for a bargain. Just this morning after returning home from work, I made sure my DVD collection had not been located and absconded. The worst part of seeing my wife rifle through my belongings is to to get the impression that if kidneys could be sold on the open market she would somehow clandestinely get a blood sample so my spare organ could be typed and matched.

Once that is done, someone has to place an ad in some local paper to first attract the foragers. Here it is best to remember that while brevity being the soul of wit, it is also useful in placing expensive advertisements. It's best to state just the basics like time and location and let those searching for that huge bargain find you. But placing such a brief advertisement can also backfire when you see cars slowly drive by your house with the occupants silently appraising the items you carefully laid out while all the sane people were still in bed only to drive away without stopping.

The preliminary steps are over after several signs are made and placed at strategic locations along the roads leading to the house. Experience has taught my wife and I to place the signs out about two to three hours before the scheduled start. During our first yard sale back in 1996, I placed the signs out early Friday evening and had people knocking on the front door barely an hour later with others showing up until eleven o'clock that night. In fact, it didn't take many more yard sales before I noticed it was normal for a certain type of obnoxious person to show up at your front door the night before. Because education and proper hygiene are always suspected as a liberal conspiracies here in South Carolina, the early birds can often look like trailer park renegades on the verge of going Apocalyptic survivalist. Yeah, that's a mean statement but there is nothing like opening your front door around nine or ten o'clock at night and seeing a snaggletooth lady with yellow-tinted skin puffing on an extra-long cigarette asking if she and her friend can come inside to look at the stuff going on sale.

The next few steps all take place the day of the yard sale with all the items for sale laid out on the tables. My wife tries to organize similar items together but there is never enough table space. So you might have things like fragile Christmas decorations placed on top of a blanket laying on the ground. This seems to invite small children, who are always attracted to shiny objects, to ignore all the toys and go straight for the objects that are highly breakable. For my wife, that is when she suddenly realizes the breakable item shouldn't have been included in the yard sale.

The worst part of an active yard sale is to realize something was left out that the homeowner or visitors might trip over. During one yard sale I left the water hose laying on the ground like a lazy python stretching from the facet next the backdoor to the center of the front yard. Of course, my wife almost tripped over the thing with her then yelling like a enraged banshee for me to roll the damn thing up. Since my mom-in-law already had me very busy carefully moving the heavy tables so they had a more appealing position, I had to break away from her to answer my loving spouse.

After rushing over to the decorative reel where the water hose should have already stored, I bent down on my knees to begin rolling it inside the container. Through some combination of being on my knees, reaching over to turn the handle, while using my other hand to guide the hose in, I threw out my back. Actually, the best description is that all the muscles in my back decided they had had enough of the bullshit and just seized up. For about ten seconds I was frozen in place unable to move, hell, even breathing during that time seemed optional.

I quite literally stayed that way until the slope of the front yard caused me to fall over. As you might expect both my wife and mom-in-law, long since worked up into a shark-like frenzy, yelled at me to get the hell off the ground and get back to work.

My yard sale experience have taught me a little trick that I plan on using tomorrow. About the middle part of the sale, my wife will get bored and then ask me to watch the tables alone for what she will say is only ten to fifteen minutes leaving me alone outside, this usually happens during a lull in the customers. As soon as the next group arrives I plan on offering everything on a buy one item, get another item of equal value for free. It tends to clear things out rather fast, its one drawback though is that there isn't an inverse increase in the cash box, something my wife quickly notices.

The best solution for items that don't sell was inadvertently discovered at the last yard sale back in 2006. It was past noon and my wife, mom-in-law, and I were exhausted after spending all morning outside, which happened to be one of the hottest and humid days of that summer. As usual, we had a bunch of stuff left over with my wife again disappointed that she didn't make anywhere near the money expected.

A charity organization was supposed to drop by and pick up the leftover items, which we had positioned in a neat pile next the mailbox. A couple of hours later the guy driving the charity's truck knocked on our door asking where the stuff was he was supposed to pick up. We all went outside to look and it was then one of the neighbors dropped by to explain she had seen a car pull up with its occupants quickly jumping out and throwing everything inside the trunk before turning around and driving off. My wife and mom-in-law were incensed, while I couldn't help but laugh.

Mom-in-law isn't with us this time and yes, part of me is weighing the option of figuring out a way to leave all the crap alone for a few minutes while my wife is in the house. With any luck, those same people might show up again and save me a lot of hassle.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Never Felt the Bern

When this nightmarish comedy called the 2016 presidential campaign started I actually liked Senator Bernie Sanders. He seemed to offer a vision of the United States where working and middle class folks would regain some of the economic leverage they began losing in the 1980's. Somewhere along the way his vision morphed, or better yet mutated, into something just as unrecognizable as it is unachievable. At the same time I had some interest in Sanders, I was lukewarm to Hillary Clinton at best, an attitude that quite frankly started way back in the 1990's.

Even though I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 my politics soon diverged with me spending several years afterwards supporting the Republicans. Bill was a damn decent president but his escapades while living in the White House left an extremely sour taste in my mouth. No, they were not impeachable offenses but as the 2000 campaign approached, I felt a house cleaning was in order.

That being said, it's funny how a war built on lies and a political party hellbent on descending into a bizarre corporate-sponsored, proto-fascist madness can change a person's politics but that is what happened to me. The political circuit breaker for me was the fact that absolutely no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq after the entire Bush/Cheney administration all but bet their collective firstborn children they not only existed but that Saddam Hussein was eager to give them to Al-Qaeda. Throw in a realization on my part that all the Republican talk about “family values” comes from closet theocrats little removed from the Islamic extremists they hate. When you also consider these conservative politicians are financed by a whole spectrum of billionaires who don't even pretend to give a rip about the Republican Party's precious God-based principles and you have a contradiction someone with an IQ over 50 would be hard pressed to ignore.

Given everything the Republicans had screwed up and with me still nursing a distaste for Hillary, when the 2008 presidential campaign started I immediately jumped on the Obama bandwagon and have stayed there ever since. Not only do I think Obama has been an excellent president, he has shown nothing but decency and an intellectual superiority that puts his opponents to shame. And yes, during his time as president Obama has made some mistakes while in office but I would without a doubt vote for the man again if that was an option.

But since that is not a possibility, that left me with the choice of Hillary or Bernie Sanders. As I wrote, at first I had little enthusiasm for Hillary, even though right from the start she was the one candidate of the two with enough national name recognition to be a serious challenger to the supposed initial Republican front runner, Jeb Bush. However, given my own political convictions I should have jumped on the Bernie bandwagon almost as quickly as I did with Obama, but that didn't happen.

Right from the start I had a problem with the messianic zeal his supporters regularly displayed. Whether they were on some video feed or writing something online their statements could be summarized as to say if Sanders is elected we would immediately have utopia. That on his inauguration day, daffodils and daisies would spontaneously rain down on Washington DC like manna from heaven as entire legions of unicorns pranced in front of the United States Capital and sprayed the adoring crowds with rainbow-colored farts. Immediately following Sanders being sworn in, he would then proclaim himself Presidential-Wizard-In-Chief and wave the magic wand he had secretly kept and turn all 535 members of congress into fairies with magical wings who would then zoom off to their districts and home states to see that his Will would be done.

Given that we were talking about Democrats here, not Republicans forever on the lookout for the Second Coming of Reagan, I was surprised to find out to voice any doubt about Bernie Sanders or the certainty that he could single handily fix all the problems the country faces was to commit heresy. This was an especially weird reaction for me since at the time I was going with the idea that either Hillary or Bernie would be far superior, as well as the only truly sane choice, to the array of batshit crazy being offered up by the GOP.

Numerous times I saw on social media people just write that “no matter what vote blue in November” only to be castigated as secret members of the Hillary/Bill cabal out to perpetuate the evil establishment. Adding a dash of salt to the wound, it was normal for one of Bernie's drones then to say that Hillary is really no better than Trump or Cruz, who by this time had sweep Jeb Bush away like a dead, dried up cockroach. (On a side note, that's pretty much my opinion of the entire Bush clan, so much that I have these barely coherent fantasies of a Terminator being sent back in time...)

To be fair, there was a similar messianic zeitgeist attached to candidate Obama for a while back during the 2008 campaign, which evaporated long before the 2010 mid-terms. This inconvenient timing ensured a successful conservative backlash thus making everything President Obama had to do far more difficult. Yeah, it was simply too hard for all those poor Millennials, who even now make up the shrill backbone of Bernie's support to break away from their video games to vote. Once again to be fair, it wasn't just the unwashed Millennials who utterly failed to maintain a true “progressive agenda”, there were other segments of the Democrat coalition that failed to show up at the mid-terms. So as to not offend every member of my political party, I'll just stop there for the time being.

As the campaign continued I soon noticed that Bernie himself started showing signs that he too believed in his own Christ-like awesomeness. Hey, I admit when you're the lone voice of opposition to some seriously stupid shit being enacted in the halls of congress I can see how a little national attention could go to your head. And you would think that during those lonely years in the wilderness the guy would have spent a little time figuring out how to enact his policies if he ever got the chance.

The problem that kept nagging me about Sanders is that he is an one issue candidate. Yes, economic inequality in this country is the number one internal issue we face but as numerous presidents have found out, often from the day they took office, that the larger world often derails their finely planned agendas. Frankly, Bernie's past is high problematic for me, so much that after listening to his speeches on television I have doubts he has the capacity to make the correct decisions when it comes to defending the United States and the interests we have defined for decades as vital for our survival.

That one statement automatically makes me an enemy of his camp who see the world in glasses far more rose-colored than I could ever hope to achieve. Without a doubt, George W. Bush radically destabilized the entire Middle East region on his ignorant, criminal, and ham-fisted crusade in Iraq but that does not negate the fact that there are bad people in the world who wish to do the United States and our allies harm. In fact, as perverse as it sounds even to me, with the political situation of the world in such as sorry-ass state of flux because of Bush, these times will often require a strong show of force.

Contrary to the views of many progressives, there is no nascent peaceful world order waiting to take the global stage after the fall of the “American Empire.” I cannot tell you how much I truly wish there was budding planetary awareness but we unfortunately live in a world where regional powers are once again actively jockeying for dominance at the expense of weaker nations and are willing to go to war to ensure their success. Bernie's admonishments of global economic inequality will do absolutely nothing to deter Russia tanks rolling westward to regain what they see as their Hitler-like right to eastern Europe nor stop China from building fortified military islands in the South China Sea to control the shipping lanes. In fact, Bernie's misplaced 1960's attitudes might invite more conflict just as Neville Chamberlain's ineptitude did as he waved around the piece of paper with Hitler's signature did back in1938.

As Bernie has continued to show he is in no way ready to be president my opinion of Hillary has changed for the better. Because I believe Hillary offers the right balance between a realistic view of the world and the desire to change it for the better I now enthusiastically support her. This opinion has come with a price since I have now alienated a number of people who I use to call friends.

The fact that, in my opinion, seems to allude both Bernie and his followers is that democracy is an ugly mess full of dirty compromises and clumsy cooperation with people who hardly agree on any issue. That's just the nature of the beast and for any candidate to stand up on a podium and say with religious-like certainty that he will change the basic nature of the country in the space of a few short years suggests some combination of massive ignorance and/or outright delusions.

Bernie says his movement is a revolution, the problem with that such events have a dismal record. The American Revolution did succeed in a way, but it was less a massive overthrow of the existing regime and more of a replacement of the English aristocratic system with an enlightened landed gentry. As the decades passed, the American republic slowly and awkwardly evolved more enlightened and democratic practices with the Civil War one of the glaring exceptions as entrenched interests and an uneducated population fought to maintain an unjust and inhuman system of bondage of fellow human beings. The true notable revolutions that took place in France, Russia, and China saw the imposition of long reigns of terror that in the case of Russia and China results in tens of millions of deaths.

I truly wanted to like Bernie, but as the campaign has proceeded the sympathetic old man acting as the conscious of the nation while espousing coherent reforms has been replaced with a disgruntled fool basking in his failed past while sowing only discord and unrealistic expectations. The core ideas Bernie started with still matters and very much need to be addressed, it's just that the messenger has been fatally flawed from the very beginning, and things have only gotten worse.