Monday, May 6, 2019

An Examination of Zima Blue

One of the surprisings offerings on Netflix recently is an anthology show called: Love, Death, and Robots. Made up of eighteen animated short stories, as the title should suggest they touch on the various genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even comedy. All eighteen episodes are at least good with a few that have to be called outright mind blowing. Understand, the animation styles vary greatly and there are a couple of episodes that have sexually explicit scenes, think Game of Thrones level stuff. While my inner teenage boy enjoyed the racer episodes, there was one in particular that was so philosophically engaging it was on a whole other level by itself.

The episode, Zima Blue is set in the future and opens with a journalist sitting inside a high-speed watercraft on the way to interview the reclusive artist know as Zima. As the journalist speeds towards Zima's island home, she wonders about the artist and his early history. Apparently, Zima's public history isn't well known and consists mainly of rumor. It is widely thought that Zima began his artistic career painting portraits of people, but that he found it limiting. So he began looking for truth and a deeper meaning to existence by stretching his imagination out to the cosmos itself. This process involved him integrating advanced cybernetic enhancements with body to the point he could stroll on frozen, airless moons and wade in rivers of molten lava.

This search lead to him to paint grand space murals where he eventually began including a tiny blue square in the middle of the canvas. Over the decades, the blue squares in his work grew in size, to the point that was the only thing on the canvas. But by that time his canvases were hundreds and even thousands of feet high and wide. Remember, a good part of this story takes place several centuries ahead of our time.

Zima's work eventually moved out into space with him painting the rings around an unnamed gas giant planet along with other mega-engineering artistic works. In spite of his critical acclaim and popular fame, Zima was still unsatisfied and began making plans for his ultimate and final work.

The journalist arrives a Zima's private island and meets the man as soon as she steps off the watercraft. As far as the journalist knew, Zima's cybernetic enhancements were the result of operations that extended over his long lifetime. Zima escorts the journalist over to a nondescript pool that is being built and quickly tells her a very different story.

Zima's real story begins with a young woman living on Earth somewhere in the San Francisco area. This young woman was a genius when it came to “practical robotics” creating scores of them to perform odd jobs around her house. Zima goes on to explain this woman was quite fond of the her little robot creation that scrubbed the blue ceramic tiles on the side of her pool. Ceramic tiles whose color the manufacturer had named zima blue.

As the years went by, the robot designer upgraded the pool cleaning machine giving it a color vision system and a brain large enough to process the visual data. The upgrades continued with her installing systems that allowed the robot make its own decisions about how to clean the pool. In stages it became more aware of its surroundings. The pool cleaning robot was passed on to family members when its designer passed away. They too kept installing upgrades to the point what was once a simple machine designed to scrub pool tiles became a sentient being that took the name “Zima Blue.”

Later that night with the pool completed and filled with water, the journalist watches from the stands with other spectators as Zima dives in. As the famous artist swims, he begins to shut down his higher software functions and shed all the hardware upgrades. What is left is the original pool cleaning robot that immediately returns to the simple task it was designed.

I had a hard time dealing with the implications of this episode the first time I watched it. The basic premise being that a person can return to simpler times, like an adult wanting to shed all his or her responsibilities and become a child again. I understand the desire, being an adult has always been a pain in the ass. But everything I have been taught says returning to “simpler times” is not only a mistake but is in fact an illusion.

Yes, there are different levels to returning to simpler times. I would be quite happy to move out of the suburban, money hole mcmansion I live, and buy a much smaller house. I'm sure the same is true for changing careers. Stories abound of unhappy people leaving high pressure jobs after they realize the monetary rewards do not make their careers sustainable. There is no reason to die an early death doing a job you hate just to provide materialistic advantages.

In Zima Blue's case though, his desire to return to the one task that made him happy was the answer to his search for the ultimate truth. Real life human beings search for a grand cosmic truth will be greatly enhanced when we realize we'll never be granted that privilege.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Extinction Level Stupidity

You've almost certainly seen these types of donation jars sitting on the counter of a convenience store or some other business. They're all pretty standard, these donation jars have a picture of the person in need, a brief but heart wrenching biography, and a plea for help in the form of asking for loose change or a couple of bucks. For me personally, when it involves kids I try to avoid looking at the picture or reading the story.

The world is incredibly cruel to children and if I think too much about it my thoughts go to unhappy and dark places. No, I'm not talking about hurting anyone or myself. My dark places are philosophical in nature with me wondering about human stupidity and other metaphysical ideas.

Without delving too deeply into my ruminations, one aspect that I find darkly hilarious involves how many of these people who deploy donation jars as a way to pay medical bills are totally against any form of government-run healthcare. When I write “these people” I naturally mean poor working class folks who either have crappy health insurance or none at all. It's strange world, so there might be an exception or two but rich folks don't have to deploy donation jars to pay medical bills.

Several years ago I watched a documentary about a nonprofit medical organization that went into poor towns in places like Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina to provided much needed health services. This organization went beyond basic checkups to include simple surgeries to making dentures and providing artificial limbs.

If this nonprofit organization was operating as a business then they would have been making money hand over fist. Because these good old country folks would stand in incredibly long lines for days for a chance to get the medical care they desperately needed. During this documentary the filmmakers showed several examples of folks who had traveled long distances to see a doctor or dentist because they had no other means to pay for those services back home.

Here's where my normal compassion and empathy breaks down. While this documentary was made five to ten years ago, the people in these regions voted overwhelmingly for that bastard Trump. We're also talking about folks who are overwhelmingly white and live off welfare or Social Security disability. These simple people – and I don't mean that in a good way – like to believe they are rugged individualist who mistrust, but more than likely outright hate, the federal government. Even when they depend on Uncle Sam for the money to run down to WalMart, Dollar General, or Family Dollar.

No, they cringe at the idea of the government being in charge of healthcare and the possibility some atheistic, liberal bureaucratic bean counter “death panel” might want to kill grandma because of her failing health. The nasty little secret these working class and even middle class conservatives refuse to understand is that for-profit health insurance companies regularly decided which patients get medical services and who doesn't. Contrary to the Alaskan Trailer Trash Mama (Sarah Palin for those who don't remember) her Death Panels are pure capitalistic affairs. She did at least get the bureaucratic bean counter part right.

But despite all the evidence that its better to have some form of government intervention to provide healthcare to everyone, these good old folks will continue to enlist the aid of convenience store donation jars and nonprofit organizations to get basic medical care. Because it's better to stick it to elitist liberals and suffer than even try what all the other developed nations have had for decades.

Monday, April 15, 2019

On A Dark Lonely Highway

Unless you lived in the coast areas of South Carolina from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s you can not understand the magnitude of the growth that occurred in that region. The best example is of course Charleston which went from a sleepy little Southern town, pretty much disconnected from the rest of the country, to a multicultural, sprawling city that also happens to be one of the favorite vacation destinations in the United States. The astronomical increase of real estate values in Charleston alone during that period signifies how the coast of South Carolina went from a rural backwater to a place where rich elites want to be seen living.

Other areas of the South Carolina coast had significant growth but couldn't match Charleston's cultural sophistication. The area called the “Grand Strand” – typically centered around Myrtle Beach – had a similar growth in population, attractions, and businesses but desperately held on to its backwater weirdness for much longer. This is where I enter the picture after having served four years in the United States Army.

I was driving home to Georgetown from a date around two o'clock in the morning back in September of 1990. Back then U.S. Highway 501 was still a badly maintained, four-lane road with the property on either side still mostly undeveloped. Sure, one of the places on that highway was the community college I had just started attending, a few gas stations, a couple of fast food places and a seedy country club/golf course that had been superseded by other ritzier places. Even with those establishments, the property on either side of Highway 501 was overwhelmingly a swampy forest filled with snakes, alligators, rabbits, and even a bear or two.

Curiously enough I find the situation on 501 even worse now, the highway has long since been widen to six lanes with the land now overrun with businesses ranging from overpriced suburbs, mega-churches, to outlet malls. The worst being outlet malls since they are created to draw in the traveling but generally mindless sheep, better known as spoiled tourists. Personally, in most cases I would prefer the company of an eight-foot hungry alligator than such humans.

Back in September of 1990 there was one business on Highway 501 that surpassed weird and bordered on the surreal. For reasons I could never figure out someone had opened a fireworks store that ran twenty-four hours a day.

Understand, this was not some trailer on wheels nor a minor building stuck on a small plot of land. This was a large steel building painted a glaring white with huge plate glass windows. The building itself and the parking lot in front of it were brightly illuminated with numerous light poles of the type used at Walmart or any other massive businesses. This fireworks store was not something new, it had existed for several years going back to the time my lackluster mother made trips running from Conway, South Carolina to Myrtle Beach to see her drunk and worthless boyfriend.

The fireworks shop had caught my attention back then but every time I mentioned something about stopping there to look around, my mother, who naturally had her own grownup agenda, adamantly refused. So this twenty-four hour fireworks shop faded into the background as my younger siblings and I were forced to endure our mother's pursuits.

By that God-awful early morning in September of 1990, my curiosity of the fireworks shop had long since died. I was in my twenties and pursuing my own amorous pursuits, the difference from my mother's being that I was single and that I wasn't dragging any tired and hungry kids on these jaunts.

The girl I saw the night before was one that I had met working as a lifeguard at the Myrtle Waves Water Park. An attraction that has long since been closed, bulldozed, and paved over with a NASCAR-themed restaurant being built on the property. What's funny is that I recently learned that the NASCAR restaurant was closed years ago. Given the nature of property values in Myrtle Beach, it was probably quickly bulldozed, paved over, with something equally obnoxious built in its place.

My date's name was Emma and we met in the water park's lazy river. I was walking through the waist deep water playing lifeguard and she and her girl friend/roommate were laying on a double inner tube. We started talking and about an hour later I asked her out to the usual dinner and a movie. Both of us were in our twenties, which meant raging hormones, and as far as I knew neither of us had a significant other. What that all means was that things were moving quite fast.

From the movie we went walking on Ocean Boulevard, which involved a little old fashioned necking on the beach. Eventually I drove us both back to her apartment all the way over in Conway where things were supposed to get even more physical. Unfortunately, when Emma and I arrived at the apartment her roommate had left a note on the kitchen counter saying, “Bob called from the Gulf.” Those five words sent all my quickly developing plans and fantasies totally sideways.

I didn't learn right away but it turned out Emma did have a boyfriend, a guy who was normally stationed at Fort Bragg up in North Carolina. But who at that moment in time was over in Saudi Arabia guarding a fast growing supply point out in the desert. Emma's initial reaction after reading the note was a thin nonchalance with her wanting us to play tonsil hockey on the couch before going into her bedroom. Never the sharpest knife in any drawer, I had enough smarts to sniff out the change in Emma's attitude. And as long as Emma still wanted to play doctor, I wasn't about to ask any awkward questions.

Things proceeded between us as I had hoped up until Emma's phone began ringing. She answered and from the look on her face a few moments later, I immediately knew everything was over. It was Bob and he had called to beg some sort of forgiveness and of course, Emma started crying saying she had never stopped loving him. Just hearing Emma's side of the conversation I was able to piece together all the important elements of their relationship.

Barely five minutes later, I'm leaving Emma's apartment with her still on the phone now making plans to move up to the Fort Bragg area when Bob got back from Saudi. Feeling extremely bummed out, I began my long drive back to Georgetown and my own bed.

The disappointment was still strong but as I turned onto Highway 501, I slipped a Buffett CD into the player and began singing along. As my mood lighted, I came up on the bizarre fireworks store on my left. My long dormant curiosity flared when I spotted the flashing “Open” sign in one of the large windows and saw a single store clerk calmly sitting at the counter reading what looked to be a magazine.

I initially passed the strange building but turned around and drove into the parking lot. Except for a single car in the parking lot, which was most likely the clerk's, the place was deserted. In fact as I drove up to the front entrance the clerk didn't even look up from his post. As I stepped out of my car, little voices in my head started buzzing around like gnats reminding me of several Twilight Zone episodes along with a multitude of science fiction stories all centered around people who enter strange places.

I entered the fireworks store half expecting it to be some elaborate facade like something from a movie set. It wasn't, just as I had seen after numerous trips between Conway and Myrtle Beach over the years it was a huge store with long clean aisles of nothing but various types of fireworks. What still bothers me even now was the near surgical-level of cleanliness, to the point I would have felt comfortable eating off the floor.

The clerk, a clean-shaven guy who looked to be in his thirties dressed in what I would call business casual attire look up from his magazine long enough to say hello and that most items were buy one get another at half price. He made no attempt at small talk nor asked just what in the hell would I be needing fireworks a little after two o'clock in the freaking morning.

Yes, I should have immediately asked the clerk why has this store been open twenty-four hours a day for years but honestly, I was getting really spooked. Something wasn't right about the place with the Twilight Zone quality growing exponentially. As I browsed the aisles it wouldn't have surprised to see hideous monsters dressed as stockmen emerge from the store room pushing loaded carts of colorful explosives.

As far as firework stores were concerned, it was the Sam's Club and Costco of such items. Every conceivable type of fireworks were on display going from simple firecrackers and bottle rockets to larger items that probably needed professionals to safely set off. Naturally, the air temperature inside the store was quite cold and as the minutes ticked by with me strolling the aisles, I felt close to shivering. At some point I knew my curiosity was more than satisfied and that I needed to buy something and get the hell out of the place.

I grabbed a packet of bottle rockets and walked up to the counter. The clerk, who had stayed silent during my browsing, simply asked how I was doing as he rang up my item on the cash register. It was then that I saw what magazine he was reading, a copy of the Economist, which surprised me in a way. I somehow imagined it would have been a copy of Playboy or even Hustler. It was a possibly cruel but definitely unjustified assumption, I just couldn't see an intellectual type working at an all-night fireworks store in the middle of nowhere South Carolina.

Yeah, I have to mention again how surreal the fireworks store seemed. But my curiosity was definitely quenched and I knew as certain that bears take poops in the swampy woods on either side of Highway 501 back then that I would never reenter the place. Just to throw a little extra weird icing on the unearthly cake, as I was pulling out of the parking lot I spotted the clerk talking on the telephone looking intently in my direction.

For the next two years I passed that fireworks store going to my community college and then back home again. Yes, there were several times I saw the parking lot with numerous cars, almost always near a holiday like Christmas, New Years, or the Fourth of July. Occasionally, as I pursued my single guy life back then, I would pass the place at night and see someone sitting at the counter but no customers. Eventually the fireworks store again faded into the background as it had when my mother was doing her stuff.

After moving up to Columbia in 1993, I didn't get anywhere near Highway 501 for several years. By the time I did travel that road again the entire nature of it and the area in general had changed. The fireworks store was long gone, a victim of the highway being expanded to six lanes. Whatever purpose of having an all-night fireworks store was, I have this nagging feeling it wasn't to sell drunk locals and tourists sparklers and roman candles. While I may had struck out with Emma, this cat did survive a close encounter with his over active curiosity.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Assuming the Worst

“Never assume anything, it makes an ass of you and me,” is the nifty little maxim I learned from one of my NCO's while serving in the United States Army. Yeah, it's a cliché but one whose truth can't be denied since young and dumb soldiers, like I was back in the 1980's, can really screw up a situation by making stupid assumptions. While over time I generally learned not to presume anything when no real facts were present, over the years evidence seems to suggest a lot of people never assimilated that lesson.

Now most assumptions are harmless, such as an acquaintance of mine recently making the statement he didn't understand why the Columbia, South Carolina area didn't have any used books stores. While we do not have used book stores on every street corner, I was able to name off three such businesses to him off the top of my bald head. While this person's assumption was harmless, the look I received after casually telling him about the used book stores I knew about was not one of gratitude.

I had overturned his mental applecart and derailed his usual argument that the country was going to hell in a handbasket. Yeah, don't ask me how he was connecting the lack of used book stores with the demise of Western Civilization in general and the United States specifically. It's a long and complicated story with more than a few sprinkles of White paranoia mixed with barely hidden racism and a touch of alt-right fascism. The fact remains that I disproved this person's assumption causing him a momentary revelation that he was not as smart as he presumed. No worries, like most individuals these day, this acquaintance brushed off this small fact and quickly returned to his usual right-wing Chicken Little attitude.

The thing that honestly worries me is that this acquaintance makes assumptions on subjects that actually matter. Given my description of this person you have enough evidence to understand he is a Trump worshiper who totally accepts any information he sees or reads from the usual right-wing outlets. This includes baseless and conspiratorial propagandic theories like that several mass shootings here in the United States were perpetrated by left-wing types in an effort to overturn the Second Amendment. Something I heard him repeat in hushed conspiratorial tones to his cohorts.

Circumstances require that I have daily interaction with this person and others like him who hold the same views. It's beyond surreal to listen to these people talk about subjects they have absolutely no factual information to base their opinions. They speak in certainties and absolutes that defy not only commonsense but logic because each and everyone of them have tools, such as smart phones, that would easily allow them to find the truth. This will sound cruel and arrogant but I've heard five-year old children carry on more rational and intellectual conversations.

Yeah, the human race has had to deal with barely sentient “Bubbas” from the beginning of civilization. The difference now is that there is next to no wiggle room to put up with their ignorance. Such people are easily manipulated with appeals to stunted patriotism or frenzied religious belief. One of democracy's fatal flaws is the uninformed mob being lead by their emotions, or even worse, a charismatic demagogue. Millions of people have been killed over the centuries using such tactics.

The United States has always has certain percentage of individuals that wallowed in willful ignorance and blatant hate. They have been responsible for some of America's worst crimes against Humanity. But these people now have a leader that refuses to condemn the worst behaviors of his followers. This demagogue and his followers almost daily edge ever closer to unleashing their anger and rage on anyone who dares to speak against their view of the world.

An important British politician of the early Twentieth century once said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we will not see them lit again in our lifetime.” I'm taking a few liberties with the meaning of his words but honestly, I believe they fit the situation we now find ourselves in this country. Unless a miracle jumps up and bites us on our ass, I believe things are going to get far worse. We're living in dangerous times folks, I'll make what I feel is a safe assumption and write that you might want to begin thinking about the unthinkable.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Perchance to Dream

Like most dreams it didn't have a beginning, at least one that I remember. How and why my subconscious chose to build that particular hallucination, I truly have no real idea. My best guess is that as I slept, my brain just threw together random elements it found in the dusty and cluttered attic of my mind. Unlike many people, I do not believe dreams are necessarily glimpses into the mind of an individual showing off their wants or desires. Nor are they cracks in our reality allowing us a view of another version of ourselves. For me, I'm in the camp that believes dreams are just our brains blowing off mental steam. I added that last part to avoid anyone from getting the wrong idea about what I'm about to report.

Since my health issues emerged my dreams have been chaotic. Nothing out of the ordinary there, as far as I know dreams usually do not follow set story lines. But my dreams have been uncomfortably disjointed with many having an atmosphere of deep foreboding, as if a great evil was lurking in the shadows nearby. For that reason during such dreams I usually forced myself awake and then spend several minutes shaking off the aftereffects. So a particular dream I had a couple of weeks ago was an unexpected and happy departure from my usual nighttime sleeping fantasies.

This dream took place in some sort of ornate room. I can't say anything about my dream's location other than I have a fuzzy idea it was some type of resort, but no place I have ever visited in real life. I was laying back in a large, fancy recliner which was covered in a fur-like fabric. Where this dream radically departs from my recent experiences is that I was sharing the recliner with a woman who possessed beautiful brunette hair. No, don't worry my dream didn't develop into a ridiculous porn fantasy. But this fantasy woman and I did share a kiss, which was incredibly intense with how real it felt. The other item that set this dream apart from others was that the woman was wearing an unknown perfume that was equally realistic as the kiss.

Like I said, the dream didn't go any further than just a kiss. Because as I was settling into the dream, actually hoping it would continue, a scratching noise and feeling began to invade my fake reality. I actually remember trying to ignore the scratching sensation by concentrating on the woman. But as you probably can guess, the scratching commotion popped my dream like a child's soap bubble.

I opened my eyes to find one of the dogs scratching my side of the bed with his front paws and looking at me with adoration. At quick look at my watch told me it was past time to feed both him and the other dog, who was still sleeping curled up next my wife.

Yeah, as I feed the dogs I had to deal with a nice piece of disappointment that one of my very few pleasant dreams was cut short. I'm a big boy, so that disappointment faded quickly as I feed the dogs and began to deal with the new day. That didn't stop me was giving the canine interloper of my sleep some annoyed looks.

Like I wrote earlier, the majority of dreams have no bearing on real life. Although I'll probably freak out if I catch a real life whiff of that unknown fragrance my fantasy brunette was wearing in the dream.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Bad 2020 Omens and Portents

Above all understand that I have hated Donald Trump for years. Back when he described himself as a Democrat, every time I saw him on television the impression I came away with was of a degenerate conman suffering from delusions of grandeur. I never watched his realty show, but somehow video clips of it always ended up being featured on programs that marketed themselves as news programs. Even worse were his cameos in such diverse television broadcasts as “professional” wrestling and various movies. To me, all I saw was someone craving attention and glorification. There were several times his appearance on some programs were so weird that they left a bad taste in my mouth.

I'll give the devil some credit, for decades he played the media, both real journalists and glorified infomercial hosts, like Mozart played a violin. Trump is by no means a smart person but he does possess a low-grade cunning akin to what an alpha male chimp would use to take control of his group.

Trump crafted an image—or “brand”-that the semi-literate masses jumped on like flies to a fresh pile of shit when he entered the world of American politics. Trump learned to tickle the irrational fears and ancient prejudices of a group of Americans who have no desire nor apparent ability to adapt to a changing world they refuse even to try and understand.

His ascension to the highest office in the land was not totally a personal victory due to his talent for manipulation. The Republican Party sowed the field with decades of Orwellian doublespeak. Trump was just the final result from Tricky Dick Nixon's Southern Strategy when he sheared white folks away from the Democratic Party. Trust me, as someone who has lived in the South for the majority of his life, nothing scares the snot out of white people more than black folks wanting to have little things like justice and equality.

Conservatives like to joke about something called “liberal guilt” over the plight of African-Americans. To them, we liberals are supposed to be all tied up in guilt over black poverty and crime, which we dissuaded with welfare and food stamps. However nothing compares to the near unconscious but deep realization from conservative whites that they fear violent retribution from African-Americans over centuries of slavery and oppression.

The Democrats helped Trump into the White House back in 2016. The biggest hand they gave was deciding to have a civil war over political purity. Even when Trump was giving speeches clearly telling how much of a monster and potential dictator he would be in office, they couldn't unite to defeat the obvious danger. Secondly, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee had more than enough political baggage to sabotage her own campaign. Lastly, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee fell victim to the same mistake that defeated her back in 2008. She assumed that 2016 was her election, that she was owed the nomination and victory in November.

Now with all that history behind us, I regretfully have come to the conclusion Trump will more than likely win reelection in 2020. Yes, the Democrats took back the U.S. House in the 2018 midterms and are highly motivated to defeat the Orange Bastard but quite frankly they are their own worst enemy. With around a year left before the first caucuses and primaries the Democratic Party is already fracturing and dividing into bitter tribal cliques. That fact that there are over a dozen people who have declared candidacies for the Democratic presidential nomination only makes the divisions more acute.

As a Democratic, my personal philosophy falls somewhere between what is generally called a “moderate” and “progressive.” I know the United States is in some deep societal and economic shit but I do not believe the Utopian rhetoric that hard-line progressives preach will work. Yes, healthcare should be a right, human-caused climate change is real and dangerous, and some form of college should be readily available for kids but I do not necessarily believe Bernie Sanders nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) have workable proposals. Frankly, I find Bernie about as detached from reality as Trump and suspicious on a number of fronts, while AOC plays fast and loose with basic facts.

To hard-line progressives, my humble and pragmatic stance makes me more of an enemy to them than the average Republican. But that does not take away from the fact that if the Democratic Party moves too far to the left it will certainly alienate moderates like me and, even worse, Independent-minded Americans. Progressives seem to have forgotten that right now the American economy appears quite healthy with record low unemployment and even some upper movement in wages. Even with Trump's corruption and personal immorality, Independents will not vote him out if the alternative is a someone the Republicans have successfully labeled a nasty socialist out to tax them into the poor house.

Of course, if the economy tanks or the Mueller Report hits Trump with clear and irrefutable evidence of working for Putin, all bets are off. Unfortunately, a recent NPR interview I heard with the lady running the International Monetary Fund has her stating there is no evidence of a recession taking shape in 2019 nor 2020. As for the Mueller Report, while I believe Trump is both a degenerate criminal and possibly working for the Russians, there is no certainty that any clear evidence brought to the public attention would destroy his 2020 reelection chances. As of this writing, certain United States Senators are working hard to prevent the Mueller Report from going public at all.

Many called the 2018 November midterms the “most important election in American history.” While true at the time, the 2020 presidential race will more than likely decided the fate of the nation. Trump wants to be a dictator, his existence is based on adulation and acquisition of power, especially to destroy anyone who hinders his goals. If Trumps gets another term, he will most certainly get to pick two more Supreme Court justices and hundreds of lower ranking judges. Trump's recent declaration of a national emergency to circumvent Congress is a full-blown constitutional crisis that he is certain to repeat the next time he doesn't get his way.

Just to show it can get worse, Trump openly threatened anyone who opposes his policies saying in an interview that he had the police, military, and “bikers for Trump” on his side and that it could get really bad for those of us on the left. That statement is an unbelievable degradation of civility worthy of a dystopian novel or third-rate banana republic. For years some right-wingers have expressed support for “Second Amendment” remedies so they can “save America” or “take back their government.” The vast majority of these idiots would never actually attempt political violence on fellow Americans. But that is underestimating the hardcore crusaders who finally have a leader that they believe would look the other way if he told them to act.

I personally know people who listen to alt-right internet news broadcasts and believe the insane conspiratorial crap they spew. All these individuals I know love their guns and think liberals want to ban Jesus and force their kids to become gay Muslims. I have heard them utter admiration for Trump to such a degree that it borders on religious worship. To them, Trump is a man's man unafraid to bust heads and do everything he wants no matter the consequences. They believe everything Trump says and instantly discount his moral failing and unethical behavior. If Trump told them to take to the streets they would comply and once this mob had assembled everything that happened next would be extremely bad.

Yes folks, the United States is standing on a cliff and staring straight down into a 2020 abyss. Given how stupid and selfish many Democrats and the nation as a whole can act, we may just decided to jump.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Parrothead Book Review- The Songs of Distant Earth

Way back in the 1980's and earlier, scientists researching the tiniest bits of matter in existence were freaking out over the fact that our sun didn't seem to be producing enough of ghost-like particles called neutrinos as it fused hydrogen into helium. The details are messy and uber-complicated, so trust me it was a huge deal for the guys and gals who study physics. Two important items you have to understand is that neutrinos could literally pass through trillions of miles of lead and very rarely interact with the atoms that make up such an implausible structure. The second, is that we now know that there are more than just one type of neutrinos, so the problem has long since been solved.

For science fiction writers back then the missing neutrinos were something they couldn't let slip through their collective fingers. A minor sub-genre of stories came about explaining why our sun seemed to be abnormal. The best of these works is a novel called The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke.

In the novel somewhere around our current year, particle and stellar scientists realize that because of the Sun's missing neutrinos it will go nova in a couple of thousand years. To put it simple terms most Americans can understand, in the novel the scientists discover the sun will explode destroying the Earth. At first this news is mostly ignored, people have bills to pay and it's extremely hard to get anyone to think ahead six months in the future, much less two millennia. Still though, with the Earth under an unavoidable death sentence the only question was what would be Humanity's eventual response.

Before we go any further you have to understand how Arthur C. Clarke liked to write his novels. While most sci-fi writers would have just turned to outlandish technology like faster-than-light propulsion or massive multi-generational starships for humans to escape the doomed solar system, Clarke liked to base his works on real science. For him that meant nothing that violated the known laws of physics nor concepts that were implausible because of their massive engineering. Despite countless speculative theories there is very little in the way of real science that suggests our species will ever exceed the speed of light. And while sub-light manned starships are theoretically possible, the extra mass such constructions would require to support humans traveling the distance between stars makes them highly implausible. It boils down to having enough fuel to accelerate to a decent percentage of light speed and then enough to slow down and stop at the destination.

In The Songs of Distant Earth, Clarke get around these problems by having humans send out unmanned robotic starships loaded with frozen embryos who are thawed out and developed in artificial wombs after they reach their target worlds. After being “born” these kids are then raised by robots who go on to create their own civilization. Yeah, for those who don't read a lot of science fiction the idea of robots raising human children might seem unethical or maybe even immoral. But honestly, in reality I've seen some people who were so terrible they never should have been allowed to have children in the first place. With the rate both artificial intelligence and robotics are developing in real life, those technologies could very well mature to such a point that they would do a much better job with kids than their human parents.

So the centuries go by with hundreds, if not thousands, of seed ships being sent out with people back on Earth more or less content to know the human race with carry on even after the planet becomes a deep fried rock. One of those seed ships settles on an ocean world with only scattered islands the human inhabitants come to call Thalassa, and that is where most of the story takes place.

The people of Thalassa go on to develop a Jimmy Buffett dream of an easy going society that doesn't really rush to do much of anything. So when the island where they built the radio telescope to keep in contact with Earth and the other colony worlds is destroyed by a volcano, there's no hurry to rebuild. After a few decades of silence, the other human worlds begin to believe the colony on Thalassa was wiped out as well.

Now back on Earth as the seed ships are leaving, rigid population control has not only massively reduced the number of people living on the planet but they are enjoying an unbelievable lavish lifestyle because there is more of everything to go around. This abundance of resources at least partly translates into massive scientific research, and this is where Clarke comes close to violating his own ban on impossible technologies.

If any one theory of the twentieth century threw reality for a loop it was Quantum Mechanics. QM deals with subatomic particles, such a those missing neutrinos, but that isn't even scratching the surface. Subatomic particles do a lot of wild and crazy stuff that seem to violate macroscopic physics and basic commonsense. Once again, it's messy and uber-complicated so instead of me confusing everyone with my bad explanations about QM, it might be best if you all just look up some educational videos on You Tube.

One of those crazy QM theories that Clarke used in the book involves the idea that the vacuum of space is not peaceful and empty but is a seething cauldron of particles popping in an out of existence. In fact the famous physicist, Richard Feynman, once said that one cubic meter of space at the quantum level has enough energy to boil all the waters of all the oceans on Earth. Once the scientists and engineers on the doomed Earth figured out a practical way to use this information, they could now get around the fuel issue with manned interstellar travel and get to building actual starships-- though still slower than light. The trouble with this discovery though was that it took place a little over a hundred before the sun would go boom.

But the people of Earth did have time to build a few true manned starships. Funny thing, while discovering a way to build ships that could approach the speed of light, the engineers soon realized that another issue would keep them from coming close to that speed. See, interstellar macroscopic space is “filled” with with debris that ranges in size from lone atoms of hydrogen to various rogue planets that were flung out from the star system where they were formed. While these starships could detect the big stuff and slide out of the way, the atoms and other smaller rocks and stuff could literally destroy these fancy vessels. Confused? Look up Newton and his equation on how force equal mass times acceleration.

But the engineers decide to build an ice shield at the nose of the starships, which partially solves the problem. But they still have to limit the speed of these ships to around ten-percent of the speed of light. And as you might be able to figure out, these ice shields wear down after so many years of traveling through deep space.

Enter the starship Magellan and its hundred-thousand or so hibernating humans, who after two-hundred years of travel need to stop and rebuild its now thin ice shield. It just so happens that he ocean world Thalassa is the midpoint on their journey to their eventual destination. Needless to say both the humans from the now dead and roasted Earth and the native Thalassans are quite surprised to see each other.

The actual meat of Clarke's novel comes with how the two groups interact with each other. An important note Clarke hints at several time for the reader is that human history is filled with how stronger cultures overwhelm and destroy weaker ones. So both groups initially tiptoe around each other in an effort to play nice.

Before long several reawakened but weary members of the Magellan's crew become entangled with native Thalassans, for whom emotional and sexual relationships are free of the possessiveness which are normal to us. More importantly, as the crew of the Magellan builds the ice plant on the surface of Thalassa to replace their ship's worn down shield, they discover that a scorpion-like species living underwater that is well on its way to being a sentient species. This scorpion-like species is actually native to the planet opening up uncomfortable questions about how the human Thalassans will learn to live with them. These scorpions have massive underwater villages and farms and like to obtain metal to build things from human constructions that stick out into the ocean. One more thing, the scorpions are only semi-aquatic and can spend a great deal of time on the surface.

What attracted me to this book was the deep time aspect of human development. While only set in the 3800's AD, The Songs of a Distant Earth reminded me that our personal existence, culture, and civilization are temporary creations which will be replaced at some point. That maybe a better objective for Humanity might be working to build something that improves what we have now for the benefit of our descendants.

I give nothing away by writing The Songs of Distant Earth ends on the duel notes of both hope and tragedy. While I obviously loved all the hard science in the book, the strength of the novel is, of course, how the characters deal with each other. After centuries of separation, the Earthers and human Thalassans have much to overcome in the way cultural differentiation. While Arthur C. Clarke didn't get as deep as I would have liked in human tension, it is still a remarkable work.