Friday, November 28, 2014

The Esssence of Being Human--Part One

 "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love on other human individuals."
George Orwell 


 “Explain to me once again,” Kyle Parker said betraying the notion he wasn't convinced, “how this android body will be me and not some copy.”

Elizabeth Perez, the chief scientist on the New Life team, sat across from Parker at her clean and retro-futuristic desk carefully preparing the words she was about to say. Over the years she had become less a true scientist and more of a salesperson and knew just how to handle the worried speculations of the ultra rich but terminally ill wanting desperately to cheat death.

“Mr. Parker, she said, “ the consciousness download procedure will have you directly connected to the positronic neural network in the android body while your human body is still fully aware. You will in essence be in two places at one time. Understand, while your two selves will be in the same room, we will have to administer a local anesthetic to prevent a cognitive feedback. But once the procedure begins you will slowly feel more sensory input coming from your android body than the human one. When that happens your human half, for the lack of a better word will simply go to sleep.”

“So this is completely different from the standard clone life insurance?” Parker asked referring to the practice of returning a loved one to their family by having that person cloned from stored cellular stock, put through an accelerated growth phase, then having a copy of the deceased consciousness downloaded into the clone's brain. Eliza Perez smiled as Parker mentioned the procedure having personally seen hundreds of families made whole when a loved one was returned.

“Like I said Mr. Parker, for most of this new procedure you will occupy two distinct bodies at one time. Only when the consciousness transfer is complete will your diseased human body be shut down.”

Parker nodded his head knowing he was beginning to irritate the scientists. “Dr. Perez,” he said, “please understand my ignorance and stupid questions, its just that I will be the first real patient. I know you've tested this procedure on prisoners but I will be the first to receive a true positronic brain and android body far more enhanced than the test subjects.”

“Oh yes Mr. Parker,” she said, “and I'll be honest with you. Because in a way you will be a bit of a test subject for us. For the first couple of months after the download your positronic brain and android senses will be restricted to human norms. As you become more settled, for the lack of a more descriptive word, in your new body the enhanced aspects will slowly come online. The computer projections suggest your ability to perceive and process information will be orders of magnitude greater that any Homo sapien that has ever lived, just think of what you could accomplish.”

Dr. Perez could clearly see Parker was clearly impressed but still scared. “Dr. Perez, I have two final questions. All bullshit aside, just how long will this android body last?

“We didn't lie Mr. Parker, with proper maintenance and the occasional upgrade at the minimum five-hundred years but there is the possibility you could be immortal.”

Parker struggled with that thought for several seconds, for him everything boiled down to the financial empire he had built since the death of his father. He was one of only ten people on Earth that could claim the title of trillionaire, his every waking moment until his was diagnosed with one of the new neurological diseases that in a few months would make a him a babbling idiot was how to expand his wealth and power. Just when he was about to give up New Life approached him about a possible way to cheat certain death.

“The second question Dr. Perez, is just what will be the legal status of my android self? You know better than anyone the life insurance clones have been around for fifteen years and while legally they are recognized as just a continuation of the deceased, they have yet to be fully accepted in society.”

That question was actually a tough one for Perez to handle. While it was true most family members were able to accept life insurance clones, some couldn't. Perez had talked to some who said that while a clone looked and sounded like their dead husband, wife, son, or daughter something deep down told them it wasn't. When this happened the clone almost always had to be removed and given a new identity. The android project had the prospect of making this situation exponentially worse on levels she and her team could not even begin to imagine.

“Mr. Parker,” Perez said, “the European Union just recently passed a law giving full personhood status to android downloads as has the Pan Asian Alliance. The United States is a bit of a problem, the American Christian Party has our counterpart bill held up in one of the congressional committees on science saying androids are an abomination to God and that anyone downloaded into such a machine is without a soul. The senior management of New Life is lobbying congress hard to get the bill to the president's desk.”

“So why should I even bother with this android project Dr. Perez?” Parker asked as a wave depression sweep over him.

“Why, Mr. Parker?” Perez said getting tired of his whining. “Because with all your wealth and power you are scared out of you mind of dying. And deep down even though you know a clone would have your every memory, attitude, and opinion you now possess the one thing that prevents you from going this normal route is that you feel a clone would in everything that counts be a completely different person. Don't feel too bad Mr. Parker, your egotistical and completely self-absorbed to the point of utter comic absurdity perspective is normal for you ultra rich types. So make a decision Mr. Parker, I have a dozen multibillionaires wanting to give me everything they own for a chance at an enhanced android body.”

Parker realized everything she said of him was true, especially since when his father had died he himself had stated in his last will and testament he didn't his body and mind clones for the same reason. No matter how routine a procedure Parker just didn't believe the clone that would take over his money and power would be same person as him, there was simply no other option. “Fine Dr. Perez,” he said, “lets do it as soon as possible.” 

(Author's note--This series actually has a bit of plot I have thought out. Keeping segments short though since I tend to run off at the mouth. For those wondering about my other two series I am working on them.) 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Carolina Parrothead book review-- sort of


"The Collapse of Western Civilization" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik. M. Conway


Always on the lookout for an informative and intriguing book my ears perked up several days back while listening to a guy on National Public Radio interview the authors of a book entitled “The Collapse of Western Civilization.” The way Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway described their book I immediately thought it would follow in the tradition of such novels as “Warday” and Nature's End”, both written by the team of Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka.

Since both of those books have long since passed into obscurity a little background might be helpful. Originally published in 1984, Warday is, of course, a fictionalized accounting of two friends traveling through an America dealing with the aftermath of a limited nuclear war. Given the scale of human suffering, Dark Age-level chaos, and the de facto balkanization of the United States portrayed in that book from just a limited exchange I probably could not have dealt with the nightmarish descriptions from an all-out nuclear war. Their followup work, published in 1987, is called Nature's End and is set in the year 2025 where over population, pollution, and social inequality have pushed the planet to the edge of destruction. In that novel the global situation is so bad that an international suicide movement has formed whose members believe a drastic reduction in human population is the only thing that can save the planet. Yes, global warming/climate change does play a role in the overall story, although I don't remember it being the central problem.

Both Warday and Nature's End are complex tomes, heavy on the fictional side using facts to paint a broad picture of just how badly humans can screw up the environment and their cherished institutions. “The Collapse of Western Civilization” seemed to be following in a similar vein, this time emphasizing how global warming/climate change destroyed not just our hyper-consumerist society but the basic underpinnings and assumptions on how we live our lives. I was so intrigued from the authors interview on NPR that a few minutes later I'm on the Amazon website ordering the book figuring not only would I learn something new about climate change but would be entertained in the process.

About a week later I receive a package from Amazon about the size of a DVD case rather puzzled over what I could have possibly ordered. Once I opened the package I was surprised not to find an actual book but a glorified pamphlet entitled “The Collapse of Western Civilization.” Upon a closer examination of its Amazon webpage, and reading several customer reviews I discovered there was no mistake, the book I had eagerly awaited was about the size and length of a travel brochure. Needless to say I was both disappointed and more than slightly ticked since the price for this item was about that of a regular book. I was so upset I did something I rarely ever do and that was give it one star review on Amazon along with a snarky comment. With those pitiful actions out of the way I then went about to read my newly arrived pamphlet.

Spoiler Alert- damn book is so short it makes it unavoidable

At least “The Collapse of Western Civilization” lives up to its name despite its abbreviated nature. Essentially what happens is that despite all the scientific evidence that climate change is real nothing concrete is ever done to break away from fossil fuels. Because of that climate disasters increase in frequency along with their severity. This includes massive continent wide crop failures along with the emergence of new diseases and a few old ones, like bubonic plague, coming back with a vengeance and going pandemic. Seems disease carrying insects and microorganisms just love the warmer weather and take full advantage of populations weakened by famine, forced mass migrations, and unsanitary conditions. Sorry folks, for those who might want to take a simplistic approach and just close borders and build fences I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you for a great price.

What really delivers the knock out punch to western civilization is that the increased global temperatures due to the burning of fossil fuels sends the planet past the tipping point and methane that had been locked up in permafrost for tens of thousands of years is released into the atmosphere. This creates a nifty feedback loop releasing more methane, which increasing the temperature even more causing yet more permafrost to thaw. For the scientifically unaware, and there are a lot of folks like that in the good old USA, the one thing we have in a near infinite supply of in northern regions of the planet is methane. So much that the authors describe that the only thing that prevents the Earth from becoming like Venus is the creation of a genetically engineered fungus that is able to consume carbon dioxide at a much faster rate. One of the drawback of this is book is that the authors write that this fungus visibly altered the landscape but leave the readers hanging as to what they meant.

While this is going on the massive ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland begin an accelerated melting that cause coastal cities around the world to be flooded. Nations, barely dealing with the increase in famine and plagues now have to contend with moving hundreds of millions to higher ground. At that point many nations are reformulated and become highly centralized to deal with events. For example a neo-communist “Second People's Republic of China” is proclaimed along with Canada and the United States merging in some fashion. Sorry Canada, you know with over three-hundred million egotistical folks south of your border the urge to merge would eventually become overwhelming, just be happy it took what amounts to a biblical disaster for it to happen. Oh yeah, none of these new nations have time for the niceties of democracy in the face possible extinction.

The main idea this tiny book tries to convey is that all the relevant data concerning how the burning of fossil fuels was akin to civilization suicide was know as far back as the late twentieth century. But yet the mighty forces of the free market not only totally ignore the information but did everything possible to muddy the waters of public discourse. This failure centers around not only our dependence on fossil fuels as fuel for transport but how the use of oil is fundamental in many of the products ubiquitous to everyday life. This lack of caring combined with an industrial power base who could easily spend hundreds of millions of dollars making sure the right people are elected to political office and you have something far worse than just ignoring the handwriting on the wall.

Sitting from my vantage point literally trapped in a pleasant suburban hell I can at least understand this willful ignorance. The pod people around me have it made, while I am sure they all have shortcomings in their lives they essentially want for nothing. They live in huge houses that just forty years ago would have been considered ornate mansions in every sense of the word. The cars they drive are all relatively recent models with every family owning at least two, with more quite common. The stores they shop overflow with cheap goods and foods making life one grand experience they will do everything to defend, including ignoring all warning that this lifestyle cannot be maintained.

All our excesses add up to the point that even though we are less than five percent of the world's population Americans use one-third of world's paper, a quarter of the oil produced, twenty-three percent of the coal, twenty-seven percent of the aluminum, and nineteen percent of the copper. The fact that some Americans actually believe a huge chunk of the world hates us for our “freedoms” would be outrageously funny if the idea wasn't inherently Orwellian at its core.

When you add everything up about “The Collapse of Western Civilization” I cannot help but feel it is a halfhearted attempt at best by the authors. The message it is trying to convey is vitally important, in that the United States and the rest of the world is living on borrowed time, but while the facts about climate change are unassailable the fiction is woefully lacking the required punch.

The sad realization I cannot avoid is that our civilization will continue to pump out carbon from our addiction to fossil fuels for decades making the coming disasters far worse. Our consumerist lifestyle, not political freedoms and rational thought, is now the basis of Western existence. Voting rights can be curtailed, the press can become lap dogs to business interests, corporate CEO's can edge ever closer to a new privileged aristocracy, and our politicians outright puppets and the one thing that will outrage people is having their lifestyle inconvenienced in some fashion. I can't help but think that maybe such a civilization doesn't deserve to survive.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Far Sharper Than Just Any Serpent's Tooth




Samuel Duncan knew there wasn't a chance in hell his parents would let him leave for college alone and in peace. Despite repeated pleas that they just allow him to load up the few belongings he felt would be needed and head up to Clemson University without them he knew deep down they just could not resist the urge and would follow him up to try and continue to dominate his life. If that was the case, Sam was going to throw caution to the wind.

While still early in the morning when he arrived the campus grounds surrounding the high-rise dormitory where he would be living the next four years, if everything went as planned, was as busy as an ant hill someone had kicked. Cars, trucks, and vans were scattered around his building and all the others nearby with new college students and parents busy offloading a wide array of small appliances and cheap furniture.

Sam parked his car in the lot reserved strictly for students and hiked the half-mile to the dorm taking just some clothes packed in a travel backpack and his new laptop on the initial trip. After showing his registration papers to the pretty young girl sitting at the desk in the lobby he claimed the key to his room and walked up the required four flights of stairs. Once inside he found his roommate had not arrived yet. Both sides of the small dorm room were mirror images of the other consisting of two twin-sized beds, two small desks with an attached wooden bookcase, matching chairs, and small closets. He immediately claimed one of the beds by laying his backpack and laptop on the left side foam mattress then plopped down in one of the chairs.

The small room was dominated by the window on the opposite end from the door. It offered a view of three other dormitory high-rises and a section of the main road leading to the main part of the campus. Uninspiring to say the least but the cold and efficient design of the buildings sort of matched the worn nature of the wooden desks and chairs in his room. Sam couldn't help but wonder how many students over the years had sat in the very spot he now occupied.

With the door to the room shut hardly any noise from the hallway seeped in allowing Sam an unusual amount of solitude, which, unfortunately, only lasted about an hour before the first of his parents showed up.

“Sammy,” his mother Ellen Parks, yelled as she stormed through the door, “we were all supposed to convoy here together!” Her face almost glowed in righteous indignation at what she considered to be a show of disrespect. “After all your stepfather and I have done for you and you treat us so callously.”

Sam was almost as angry as his mother was annoyed. “Mom,” he said forcing his voice to be calm, “I told you that I didn't need anyone coming with me.”

Ellen acted like she hadn't heard a word her son had spoken and went into a long diatribe about the sorry condition of the room openly wondering if it was modeled on a prison cell. Sam was able to tune out his mother's meaningless rant by grabbing his laptop and beginning the process of connecting to the university's wifi, to prepare for what amounted to as Armageddon for his family.

Sam didn't hate his mother, it was just that she was an overbearing perfectionist struggling with disillusions of grandeur. Having been born to an upper middle class family in the small town of Georgetown, South Carolina Ellen fell in love with the city Charleston, situated sixty miles to the south of her hometown, during a fifth grade school trip. After seeing the magnificent colonial homes and meeting several important people Ellen decided during that trip that not only would she live there, but would be accepted by its high society.

Ellen had gone as far to construct her life around that idea by first attending the College of Charleston mainly to make connections, then marrying Sam's father, an attorney who she thought might one day sit on the Supreme Court, then by raising a child who would go into politics. While she did graduate from the College of Charleston everything after that fell apart.

The first being that Sam's father, Michael Duncan, became a glorified ambulance chaser after a short stint as a county prosecutor. For years his face had emblazoned the sides of buses and billboards all through the South Carolina Lowcountry proclaiming his ability to make the insurance companies pay. Ellen's second assumption that her child would go into politics was a total nonstarter. In a blatant attempt to dissuade his mother or her fantasies for him, Sam joined the American Communist Party and posted a picture of himself standing next the flag of the old Soviet Union on Facebook. Given the backward attitudes and unparalleled vindictive nature of South Carolina politics Sam's action, while ultimately childish, was in essence political suicide.

Truthfully, Ellen never had a chance of being accepted in Charleston high society, mainly because she was not born into any of the proper families. When Michael give up the county prosecutor's job to become a personal injury lawyer the two promptly divorced with her marrying an up and coming golf course developer named Barry Parks a year later. Through it all Sam realized he couldn't judge his mother too harshly because all during the time his parents were married his father had been a serial womanizer.

As if on cue the door to his room opened again with his father, Michael, coming in and step-father, Barry just a couple of seconds behind. “Yeah, you tell that bastard if he doesn't agree to my terms I'll sue his ass sixteen ways to Sunday.” Michael said to someone through the Bluetooth device he was wearing in his right ear. Sam's step-father, Barry, rolled his eyes at the overly dramatic nature of Michael's cell phone conversation.

It would have been difficult for two men to be more different from each other. Michael was a man in his mid-fifties and of average height and build. His most distinguishing physical feature being his bald head, something he played to his advantage in all his advertisements for his personal injury law practice. Dressed in a stylish black sports coat, orange polo shirt, and white slacks, Michael always looked like he could have modeled for a fashion magazine for those over fifty.

Michael's upper scale fashion combined with a witty down home personality had allowed him to build both a successful personal injury practice raking in over a million dollars a year and charming close to two-hundred women into his bed. Michael's greatest accomplishment in his career field was curiously enough not successfully suing some errant insurance company or negligent product manufacturer for his wronged clients but by coming to numerous backroom deals with those businesses to soften their losses.

One of the greatest struggled in Sam's life was trying to keep some respect for his father after learning what he did behind the legal scenes. It was near impossible since Michael was nearly always on his cell phone discussing some aspect of a injury case. It made Sam feel incredibly sleazy to have his father openly talk on the phone in front of him about screwing one of his clients over. The situation was made worse when Michael would look over a Sam and winked, as if to include him in on his shenanigans.

His stepfather Barry was almost a completely different type of person, and not in a good way. He had the build of a football linebacker and not only knew it, but made a conscious effort to use his size to intimidate people when it was useful. Barry had at one time been an athletic superstar for the Andrews High school football team eagerly recruited by several different colleges in and out the state. His college athletic career was cut extremely short by the fact that no one other than his uncle, who was his high school coach, could tell the hulking man-child anything.

All it took to have Barry literally tossed out on his ass was a mild attempt at intimating the head football coach of a major South Carolina university. In the process of flying through the air and landing on the sidewalk of the coach's Columbia, South Carolina office he injured his right knee. With no other options, since the military wouldn't take him, he limped back home telling everyone it was the injury that ended his career.

However, Barry's path to the American Dream was cut by the riding lawnmower his uncle let him use to start making some money. With the addition of a commercial-grade leaf blower and weed whacker Barry then became an entrepreneur. Once his business was built up enough that he needed some help he could claim the title of respected community job creator.

What saved Barry from a lifetime of residential lawn care drudgery was the chance meeting with a golf course developer who saw him as a kindred spirit struggling to make a honest living despite a growing legion of welfare leeches and lazy bums looking for a handout. It was a strange viewpoint disconnected from all reality for Barry and his friend to hold since every person under their employment were minorities often paid under the table and well below minimum wage. Still though, Barry took to building golf courses like a pig to a pool of muddy shit or a politician to carefully managed bribery, which is essentially the same thing. By the time Barry married the newly divorced Ellen Duncan he had more than enough money to provide the kind of lifestyle she demanded.

Over the years since Barry had married Sam's mom he had come to a few conclusions. Namely that like many others in South Carolina, Barry was an idiot savant, that he could do one thing really well and absolutely nothing else. To ask Barry what he thought of some abstract idea would exactly like going up to a tree and asking what it knew about American politics. The second thing was that Barry and his development company could claim credit to the destruction of more coastal wetland in South Carolina than any other person. To Sam, Barry was more than just a combination of dumb brute, unethical businessman looking for any way to cheat a person out of a buck, or blatant ignorant hypocrite blissful blind to the world, he was the personal embodiment of twenty-first century America.

“Sammy my boy,” Michael exclaimed taking a few minutes to actually talk to someone in person instead of over a phone. “We were supposed to have a family breakfast this morning. Denise even bought you a present and wanted to see your reaction when you opened it.” He added while walking over to rub his hand through Sam's hair as if he was still five years old.

“Dad, we talked about this, I didn't feel the need to have breakfast or convoy up here. Sam said giving both Ellen and Barry a sharp look. “Wait a minute,” Sam said after a second of thought, “where is Denise anyway?” He added figuring if the shit was going to hit the fan his father's twenty-something trophy wife might as well be around for the initial impact, especially since she was going to play a major part in the fireworks.

“Listen Sam,” Barry almost growled, “I didn't want to come up here, the Carolina game starts in a couple of hours and I wanted to be back home in front of the television. So keep your whining to yourself, I don't give a damn.”

“Watch your mouth moron,” Michael said, “that's my son your talking to, so keep a civil and respectful tongue in that slobbering pie hole.”

This was the main reason Sam wanted to be free of them all. From the moment Ellen brought Barry home there had been what amounted to a low-level war going on between them all. At first Barry played his usual card and tried to intimate Michael, who promptly responded by alerting certain government types to his hiring practices and questionable impacts on the environment.

Barry and Ellen tried to respond by threatening to take Michael to court to challenge the shared custody agreement. Their high card was Michael's womanizing.

Neither side would back down and when a family court date was set not only did the judge, a personal friend, dismiss the allegations of moral impropriety against Michael, he offered him full custody of Sam. Something Michael declined since it would have put a crimp in his style.

Barry didn't fair as well during his day in court, investigators found severe irregularities in his employment practices resulting in fines that almost put him out of business. Michael, using personal contacts, stopped the environmental review and had a private conversation with Barry telling him if he ever got half an idea Sam was endangered he would spend time in a federal prison. Since then Barry was scared of Michael and usually did everything possible to stay on his good side. Which generally meant free and unlimited access to all the golf courses he either controlled or could talk the owner it letting Michael play for free. Golf courses being the place white people conduct the most business, Michael happily accepted.

Since that time both Ellen and Michael had been engaged in what amounted to a parental cold war with each doing their best to show they loved Sam more than the other. This meant both parents, and their respective spouses, attended every special function and activity Sam took part, even when the step-parent very much didn't want to go.

“Sammy honey,” Ellen said, “you just don't understand how much Barry and I love you. It's so mean and hateful the way you treat us.”

Sam looked at the people taking up far too much space in such a small room and felt it was time. “Mom, Dad, and Barry,” he said, “there's things you all need to know about each other and I've been waiting for just the right moment.” With those words Sam hit a key on his laptop bringing up a video with the camera situated outside was was certainly a cheap motel.

“This here mom,” Sam began, “is video outside the Red Roof Inn in North Charleston. Notice the sports car in the center of the screen.” Barry, always one needing a few minutes for reality to fully process inside his brain, didn't realize until it was too late that the car in the video was his. By the time he realized what was up the video showed him coming out of a ground floor room with Michael's wife Denise following behind. Denise inadvertently helped Sam make his point by clearly shoving her panties inside the small pocket book she was carrying. The video then ended with Barry backing out of the motel parking lot and driving away.

The real-life Barry, standing in Sam's dorm room, knew that not only had the shit hit the fan but that Ellen would do everything her power to financially ruin him. Never in his life had he felt so utterly powerless. His usual course of action would be to begin threatening both Sam and his father but with Ellen standing beside him even he, with his limited mental capacity, knew that was impossible.

“Sammy, Ellen screamed, “you turn off that computer right now! We'll need to talk about this as a family at some point.” His mother statement initially confused Sam, until he realized that for his mom Barry was not only a reliable and undemanding meal ticket but that she was no longer a young and attractive woman. She knew that if the video was seen by anyone else, her reputation would be ruined, she'd have to leave the state over the embarrassment.

“Wait a minute you little shit,” Barry said suddenly coming to life, “after this I refuse to pay a cent for you to go to college. That clearly isn't me in that video, you've doctored it or something.” He said desperate to save his ass.

After hitting another key on his laptop, another video began this time at the same motel but positioned much closer to his sports car. This time it was Barry leaving the room without being fully dressed.

“Oh yeah,” Sam said to both Ellen and Barry,” I forgot to mention I uploaded both these videos to the internet and sent emails to everyone in your contact lists to watch them. As for my college tuition Barry, my entire four years was paid for by the inheritance I got from my grandfather. Plus, I imagine you and mom have some serious things to discuss on your drive back down to Charleston. At least you'll never have to worry about me again.

Sam's paternal grandfather, Jacob Duncan, had been a tough old, Great Depression era curmudgeon who happened to own several square miles of inland swamp land just north of Charleston. About the time Sam was born several developers had begun offering him ungodly amounts of money for the property, including the individual who a few years down the road would take Barry under his wing. After the wheeling and dealing was done Jacob pocketed a couple of million along with setting up a sizable college trustfund for Sam. Jacob, being an intelligent man of the world, along with not caring one bit for his grandchild's mother set up the money so he wouldn't have to depend on anyone, as long as he got a college education.

Realizing Sam was totally untouchable, Barry knew he was utterly powerless, but after years of dealing with such a massive idiot Sam felt the need to twist the knife a little more. 'Barry, one last thing, you remember the summer I helped out at your office? What did you say to me back then? That I needed to do some actual work before I went off to college. Well I found several curious memos and canceled checks back then and mailed them off to a few state and federal officials this morning before I left. I figure you and mom better settle things no later than Tuesday.”

Barry would have liked to say something, anything really then get violent. But Ellen stormed out of the room and even someone as dense as Barry knew it would be wiser to follow her, especially since she was muttering the word “divorce” as she walked out. That left Sam's father, Michael, who up until that second had been utterly speechless.

“Dad,” Sam said, “I'm sorry about Denise, I'd been collecting stuff on Barry for quite a while and she made the mistake of leaving a message on his private line back at the house. They seem to have started seeing each about a year ago.”

“That's okay son,” he said almost beaming in pride. “I was about to dump her anyway.”

Sam didn't hate his father, nor his mother for that matter, but now it was time to cut the strings with him as he had clearly with her. “Dad, I want you to know I didn't leave you out of my little sting. I've alerted the Bar Association of your unethical behavior concerning your clients. I figure you;ll have some visitors as well in a couple of days.”

That clearly surprised Michael. “Well son, I guess its best that I leave now.” He said as he walked out the door but still clearly smiling. As the door to his dorm room shut, Sam took a deep cleansing breath and reveled in the peace that had finally come to him.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

La Parguera--My Special Happy Place





The evening rush hour traffic had piled up as expected along Highway 378 making all the slowly moving cars look like a giant segmented toy mindlessly inching towards from pre-programmed destination. Another way of thinking about it had the cars as individual cancer cells spreading out from Columbia to form tumors outside the city people liked to call suburbs. Either way there was irony in the idea that nearly everyone of those privileged individuals, all moving slower than a snail's pace, had at sometime rejected the idea of city living so they could escape its congestion and crowds.

Making this twice daily game even more fun, long both sides of the already overburden highway, feeding in from side streets and roadside businesses, were even more people inside their cars waiting for a chance to join the lemming-like procession. As long as these suburban road warriors made right-hand turns merging onto Highway 378 going with the flow or made left-hand turns at intersections controlled by traffic signals everything was as preachy keen as anything can be in twenty-first century America.

Unfortunately no, given the unthinking nature of most Americans that assumption was so unrealistic as to border on fantasy. See last Tuesday I was tasked by my lovely wife with several errands that forced me into the insanity that is afternoon rush hour. Like a good browbeaten husband married long enough to know that as long as the wife is placated I will be left relatively alone I accepted my fate and endeavored to complete the required tasks as quickly as possible. The details are unimportant but that evening I found myself not only surprised at the simplicity of the errands she gave me but that traffic was uncharacteristically light. As many might be able to guess the proverbial light I saw along my journey through the dark tunnel was that of a massive high-speed train.

What happened was that in the space of fifteen minutes Highway 378 was engulfed in a tsunami of motor vehicles with me caught up in the collective urgency of everyone trying to be the first home. Still though, traffic was going relatively well up until I reached a strip mall that sat on the corner of a major intersection.

This strip mall is pretty typical of all the others that sit along America's highways consisting of about twelve segments providing locations for such businesses as a nail salon, eye clinic, Chinese restaurant, and a couple of insurance places. Its parking lot has three access points with one connected to 378 and two others leading out to the road that runs perpendicular. Now throw in what appears to have been a suburban mom driving one of those tank-like SUV's attempting to cut across rush hour traffic to make a left-hand turn onto 378, not from the traffic light, but from the strip mall parking lot and you have the makings of a comedy or apocalyptic movie. Since this suburbanite was also talking on a cell phone as she used her behemoth to forcibly interjected herself into traffic I saw nothing humorous in her actions from my vantage point about five or six cars back.

While the lady driving the SUV was able to wedge herself into the right lane of traffic no one in the left lane would stop to allow her to cross over to the median running down the middle of the highway. As you can imagine this created a major impediment to the flow of traffic with the SUV driving suburbanite actually becoming so irate that she began blowing her horn and flashing her lights as if she was the one being wronged. Personally I just wanted to get home before I missed my nightly hour of Big Bang Theory reruns and had lady suburbanite just gone through the traffic light this whole event could have been avoided.

After about ten minutes lady suburbanite gets really stupid and ends up hitting one of the cars in the left lane when it refused to let her through. When the deputy sheriff showed up that was when I settled in for a much longer wait and decided to go to my happy place.

Last April my wife and I were lucky enough to accompany our daughter, and most of the kids in her Spanish Language Immersion class on a trip to the island of Puerto Rico. While only a four day trip it was an incredible experience, allowing us all a taste of the island's culture and history along with meeting a truly remarkable people. While intended as a learning experience for the kids it was easily the best vacation of my life.

Since my return to the land of the free and home of the brave I have found that during times of stress I mentally return to that Caribbean jewel, with the village of La Parguera being especially idyllic to me. It is either that or have my blood pressure jump fifty points as I fight the urge to rip out the throats of the wonderful people I find myself living among.



It also helps to have some music as well.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Snowy Ill Wind




Last Saturday morning began as expected, I awoke around five o'clock and was greeted by the sound of falling rain just like the smiling nondescript weatherman predicted the day before. After letting both the dogs outside so they could do their required morning business I made a cup of coffee and began surfing the internet along while toying with the idea of trying to write some fiction. The former proved irresistible, especially since whatever muse I use for the latter is still AWOL.

Once I satisfied my need for melding with the nascent global consciousness I drifted over to the living room couch and started watching a documentary on Netflix. I picked a film about the life of a famous Hawaiian surfer and quickly became engulfed with his life, and indirectly, the tropical atmosphere inherent with anything related to those islands.

Now understand, the weather forecast for last Saturday called for chilly temperatures and rain all day. I was completely happy with that meteorological prediction since such weather tends to relax my wife generally leading her to be lazy. On weekends where she is “energetic” my wife might become obsessed with some project, and when that happens everyone living in the house is required to share her enthusiasm.

Where everything went overboard occurred sometime around 6:30am when my daughter comes running into the living room. “It's snowing!,” she screamed in joy.

While still watching the surfer documentary, I was in that twilight area between being fully awake and lightly dozing producing a curious semi-dream like state where I actually felt like I was on a Hawaiian beach enjoying the salty breeze and the feel of soft warm sand between my toes. Needless to say, my daughter's gleeful proclamation about the weather caused my warm and fuzzy state of mind to fall apart like a poorly knitted sweater after someone began pulling on a loose thread.

Yes, it had been rather chilly earlier when I let the dogs out but as I got up from the couch to go look outside the idea of it snowing seemed beyond ridiculous. My first thought was that my daughter was trying to pull one of her practical jokes, a talent she seemed determined to perfect on me.

Sure enough, I opened the door to the backyard and was shocked to see that it just wasn't snowing but that I had at least half an inch of the white stuff on the deck. The scene was truly surreal in every sense of the word. The sky was a uniform dull silver with streaks of dark gray. Whipped up by a steady and energetic wind the white of the large and fluffy snow flakes were a stark contrast to the brooding sky. While watching all this I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that just the previous Wednesday the high temperature that day had been in the upper 80's. For a few seconds I stared outside and considered the possibility that I was still dreaming. About that same time, my daughter, who had ran outside while still in her PJ's, threw a nicely shaped snowball that smacked me squarely in the head. That officially ended any further consideration that I was somehow still detached from reality.

“Son of a bitch,” I said not really believing what I was seeing. “It doesn't snow in South Carolina in freaking November,” I added to no one in particular.

What does someone do when confronted by something they find quite disturbing? In my case with the unexpected and untimely appearance of snow I close the door, grab a blanket, and then hope with all my might that it ends as quickly as it began. There are two thing you have understand about me and snow.

The first being that I live in South Carolina. In this gloriously FUBAR state snow is such a rarity in the lower two-thirds it only takes two snowflakes hitting the ground to send everyone into an utter panic. People who aren't all that smart or rational to begin with rush to the nearest stores to load up on milk, bread, soup, and batteries the same way they do for hurricanes. Now you can't blame them in some respects, the lower two-thirds of the state doesn't have to deal with snow all that often there is no real justification to purchase and maintain a great deal of removal equipment.

The second reason is personal. Before I joined the active army back in July of 1986 I had seen significant snow about four or five times in my life. That almost made it an occasion to party by playing outside until we needed to warm up inside usually with a bowl of tomato soup in front of a fireplace. As someone transferring from the National Guard to active army one of my enlistment perks was the chance to pick my permanent duty station. For reasons I can't really explain anymore I picked Fort Carson, Colorado. If forced, I'll admit to listening to “Rocky Mountain High” by the late and great John Denver one too many times. By January of 1987 I had seen enough snow to last a lifetime, unfortunately for me Uncle Sammy didn't allow second choices and I had to deal with all that nightmarish frozen white stuff until my enlistment ended in 1990.

Since then snow has become akin to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to me. Yes, its nice and pretty coming down but invariably it turns to slush and fouls up the roads at night when temperatures go down making already semi-deranged drivers four-wheeled, fossil-fueled terminators. The final aspect involves trees, and that is where things got weird for me last Saturday.

Being at least a decent dad it didn't take much for my daughter to get me outside with her and play. We were outside for about ten minutes when I began hearing loud popping sounds accompanied by crashing sounds immediately after that. These calamitous noises were both loud and near enough to add another level of the surreal. The noises were so loud, I somehow imagined a platoon of irate Bigfoots stomping through the neighborhood. What it turned out to be was that it was so early in winter that all the trees still had most of their leaves. Like I already mentioned, the snowflakes were large and fluffy as well as slightly wet and they stuck to leaves like super strong post-it notes.

I made this discovery when one of the trees in the house across the street from me quite suddenly collapsed. I'm not taking about just a couple of medium-sized limbs but the entire tree. You'd have to understand the neighborhood social dynamic but my first concern was how the owners of that yard would react to the tree collapsing. The male of of that household is one of the anal compulsive types who pulls out his riding lawnmower and vacuums up fallen leaves every other day during autumn.




I didn't worry about the neighbors for long when I realized I might soon have tree issues of my own. Back when the house my family and I live was built the first owners planted river birches right on the edge of the street. I'm sure when they were young and small they were quite attractive additions to the landscaping. That was over twenty years ago, now in the best of weather they are Swords of Damocles waiting for a chance to abruptly shed a limb on top of someone's car. Over the years I've tried my best to convince my wife they should be removed but she refuses saying they add value to the property.

I usually then say something about our glorious neighbors suing us for damages if and when one of those limbs fall at an unfortunate time. She just dismisses my argument saying I'm just trying to get out of yard work. Well yeah, but I'm already the neighborhood pariah and figuring an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The snow continued to fall until about noon that day with me having a deathwatch on the trees in the front yard. Luckily my problem trees didn't collapse, in an effort to reduce late summer lawn cutting I had turned off the sprinkle system in August. Coupled with the lack of rain my trees started shedding leaves early reducing the overall weight on the limbs. Once the freak weather system moved out of the area the temperatures shot up melting nearly all of the snow. My trees returned to their proper position with me breathing a temporary sigh of relief. My worry now is that they have been weakened to the point a minor windstorm could bring them down.

Saturday's snow fun didn't end there, we lost satellite television reception just a few minutes after my daughter first alerted me to the climate change induced weather abnormality. In the greater scheme of things that wasn't a big issue, the various specialty networks, like History, Discover, and A&E, have long since turned to smelly poop filled with an incredible array of morons. Yes, we needed to hear weather reports but we got those over the internet, but guess what happened next.

We lost power around eleven o'clock, and it wasn't a clean shut off. In the space of maybe twenty seconds power died and came back on several times. Just when we thought the worst was over the lights in the house faded for a couple of seconds then outright died taking the internet with it. The electricity was out for about four hours and when it finally returned my wife, daughter, and I quickly learned that both the router and DSL modem were utterly fried. Strangely enough, out of everything that happened or could have occurred last Saturday, that is when things went straight to shit. Three people cooped in a house with no where to go and no internet, it was medieval.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Star Trek-Myriad Universes: Infinity's Prism (A Book Review)




Book reviews are a rarity for me, I only do them when a novel really hits home in some way. What makes the review you are about to read odder is that I am going to recommend a book that consists of three novellas set in the Star Trek universe. Well, let me qualify that statement, yes this collection of stories has characters from all five of the Star Trek television series but the events that take place are in alternate timelines where something went wrong.

While I have attended one Star Trek convention years ago and still watch the shows on Netflix, I don’t consider myself one of the fanatical “Trekkies.” Generally speaking, I never got so involved with Trek that I bought a Starfleet uniform, kept toy models of phasers, or debated the finer technical points of starship design. Star Trek novels are a different matter though, despite the fact that most of them in my experience have turned out to be huge disappointments.

There were exceptions like First Frontier by Diane Carey and James Kirkland and Star Trek: Federation by Judith Reeves-Stevens but I found most others, at best, poorly executed examples of grade school level writing. In actuality, I felt some were so bad that they in fact gave me hope that some of my own crappy stories could one day be published.

I discovered Infinity’s Prism during one afternoon while cruising around Amazon. Already being on an alternate universe/timeline reading and writing kick, I found the synopsis for the three novellas intriguing.

The first Novella is “A Less Perfect Union” by William Leisner and takes place in a universe where twenty-second century Earth never joined the nascent interstellar alliance that Captain Jonathan Archer of the Star Trek: Enterprise series worked so hard to establish. In this story, taking place just at the end of the ST: Enterprise series, Earth is overtaken by an isolationist movement and severs most relations with the other species that would make up the United Federation of Planets. Seeing the benefits of unity and cooperation, the Vulcans, Andorians, and several other species go ahead and form a Coalition of Planets without Earth. In the following years, a Cold War develops between the two, largely aided by several unfortunate incidents on both sides.

It takes a full century for the government of Earth to realize that going it alone in a hostile galaxy without any allies is next to impossible unless they want to abandon all their progressive principles.  At this point, Earth has become something akin to the old European colonial powers forcing treaties on underdeveloped alien planets and maintaining military ground forces on human colony worlds wanting independence.

In an effort to show goodwill the government of Earth sends the new starship Enterprise, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, to the Coalition of Planets headquarters to petition for membership. The main thrust of the story involves the first officer of the Enterprise, Commander James T, Kirk, who harbors outright hate for the Vulcans. This alternate Kirk’s hate originates from an incident where is wife and infant son are killed when the small starship they were on was accidental destroyed by a Vulcan patrol ship as it entered Coalition space to take part in an interstellar conference.    

What really drew me into this story was how it relates to the xenophobia we see all over the world today, and especially here in the United States when it comes to the insane reaction many “upstanding Christian citizens” showed towards refugee children from Central America. Those kids are running from rampant poverty and viscous drug gangs and many on the conservative side of American politics have likened them to an invading army out to destroy the country.

Another aspect of this story that had elements from real life was how many intelligent people cannot shake simple prejudice. The best example I can give is the never-ending conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. Frankly, the worst enemy the Palestinian people have had to face is their own government but the Israelis are not far behind. Each side is caught up in their own hate and rage that neither sees the other as human. Both sides, and their various allies around the world, eagerly parade around pictures and stories of dead children completely ignoring the fact that their own actions kill kids on the other side.

“A Less Perfect Union” delves deeply into the idea that once such hate is sown that it take monumental efforts by scores of good people to even begin to fix the damage. The sad truth though is that even with people doing their best to end the hate and mistrust all it takes is a few to rekindle the rage and destruction.     

The second novella, “Places of Exile” by Christopher L. Bennett, is centered on the series Star Trek: Voyager. Set in the twenty-forth century the ship and crew of the U.S.S. Voyager are thrown clear across the galaxy to the Delta Quadrant by an enormously powerful entity. The starship Voyager itself was not designed for such a long journey, so the crew must struggle to survive in a very hostile environment while slowly making their way home. Where the alternate history comes in is that Captain Kathryn Janeway makes a different choice during a critical situation that she did in one of the television episodes. This alternate decision ends up killing several of the main character and nearly damages Voyager to the point the crew has to abandon any hope of returning home.

I must admit there is not as strong as a moral component in this story except that by killing off several series main characters it forced the survivors into new directions and choices they never would have considered. I once had an extremely low opinion of Voyager, one episode that had them finding a 1940’s Chevy truck floating in space that they brought into the shuttle bay and promptly started as if it had been sitting in some driveway. Making matters worse, in that episode they also soon find Amelia Earhart in suspended animation on one of the planets in the Delta Quadrant. However, since I started occasionally watching Voyager on Netflix I have found many of the episodes to be quite good.

The final novella completely blew me away! “Seeds of Dissent” by James Swallow takes place in a universe where Khan Noonien Singh conquered Earth at the end of the Eugenics Wars changing human destiny forever. For those who do not know, the character of Khan made his first appearance in the original series on the episode entitled “Space Seed” back in 1967.

Khan is a genetically enhanced human with greatly augmented physical and mental strengths including ruthless ambition and the desire to control everything. Khan and other augments like him launched the Eugenics Wars in an effort to conquer the planet. After their defeat by an alliance of nations, Khan and about ninety others escaped Earth in an experimental nuclear powered space ship and disappeared into the void. In the “Space Seed” episode, Kirk and his Enterprise stumble upon Khan’s ship adrift in space. Not knowing Khan and other augments are aboard Kirk awakens them from suspended animation where they promptly take over the Enterprise. Kirk and his crew find a way to defeat Khan and his people and take back the ship. At the end of the episode, Kirk shows mercy to Khan by exiling them all on a barely habitable planet.

In the story “Seeds of Dissent” Khan is victorious and it is a group of normal humans that leave Earth as refugees on the experimental space ship. These alternate refugees are found four hundred years later by the starship Defiance, which is a ship in the fleet serving the direct descendant of Khan. These descendants of Khan are just as warlike and vicious and have conquered a good chunk of the galaxy enslaving hundreds of different species.

There is a resistance though, made up of the conquered species, it is small and weak, but it has at least seeded agents all through Khan’s interstellar empire. Moreover, it is one of these resistance agents on the starship Defiance that sees the normal human refugees as a way to hurt Khan’s empire.  
The curious thing about this story for me though, was the flashbacks to what amounts to our era. Despite it being wholly self-destructive, it looks like Khan and the other augments had fanatically followers who were normal humans. I could not help but think of insane Westerners who are even now fighting alongside the terrorist group Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

“Seeds of Dissent” also hints that Khan Noonien Singh is a very charismatic individual and that during the Eugenic Wars convinced quite a few normal humans he is an enlightened person and a great leader with a grand vision. I admit this is a bit of stretch, but after reading those parts all I could think of is how several Republicans and a few washed up movie stars have rallied around Russian president Vlad Putin calling him a great leader. A person who has quashed just about every free institution in Russia along with jailing most prominent individuals that speaks against him. At the same time, these delusional Americans badmouth the democratically elected president of the United States.

All three novellas in Infinity’s Prism is extremely well thought out and frankly, I came away wanting more from each of them. There are at least two more books in the series and at some point I plan on ordering them. One piece of advice, I bought this book used off Amazon, the price buying it new or for the Kindle was a little excessive in my opinion. Whatever the case, I highly recommend it for everyone, even those not fans of the Star Trek series.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Don't Hold It Against Me



Back in January of 2011 I am sitting at a totally awesome beach-side bar on Grand Cayman island sipping a rather expensive beer enjoying both the tropical atmosphere and the eclectic bunch of people around me. The bar was Calico Jacks located on Seven Mile Beach and the group sharing this exotic local represented a good chunk of Humanity.



There was a Japanese couple, nice people who I suspect were academics of some sort. Don't ask me why I believe that, its just listening to them talk it was clear they were brilliant people. There was a British guy with a fantastic sense of humor who in my opinion was the social lubricant of our small and temporary group. His name was Michael, I believe, and he had a clear talent at breaking the awkward silence that often reigns when total strangers are in close proximity. Michael described his profession back home in Birmingham as an office bound instigator and reluctant mediator, not exactly sure what he meant but he made my time at that bar especially enjoyable. Directly across from me was an attractive lady from Canada, don't remember her name but from the looks she was giving Michael I suspect the dude was going to get exceptionally lucky sometime later that day. Rounding out my bar mates was another couple from Germany, a guy from Brazil, and a muscular Russian fellow who while never admitting a damn thing screamed Spentsnaz in his demeanor and bearing.


During this all too short enjoyable time Michael livened up everything enough, much like an emcee hosting a party, to get us all to say where we lived. Given my seating position at the bar I was last but when I said South Carolina the entire bar busted out in uproarious laughter.


It was immediately clear to me that South Carolina's reputation as an arrogant and ignorant backwater had gone worldwide. Making matters worse the good governor Mark Sanford had relatively recently gotten caught with his proverbial pants down. See this upstanding and moral individual, who was being looked at by the Republican party as a possible presidential nominee sometime in the future, had in 2009 supposedly gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail but somehow got lost and ended up in Argentina in the arms of his mistress. Now I admit, a politician having an affair is nothing new, but old Mark put a new spin on things by leaving the freaking United States without telling anyone in the statehouse. Yes, also means he didn't leave anyone else in charge should some type of an emergency occur needing immediate action.


Please my friends,” I said after finishing off my beer, “don't hold my home state against me, I'm really a nice guy.” My protest didn't exactly end the laughter but I was cool about the whole thing. What sort of made me laugh in return was the realization that most from South Carolina would have stormed off upset. Truth be told, South Carolina has worked hard to be perceived around the world as something between an American version of a banana republic and a collection of hopeless rednecks forever lamenting the defeat of the Confederacy.


Alas, not only has nothing changed since then but there is evidence that the situation has only gotten worse. Case in point, the one genuine redeeming jewel of this state, the glorious city of Charleston, somehow votes the world traveling adulterer Mark Sanford back into the United States Congress. On a side note, Sanford recently broke off his relationship with his Argentine “soul mate” by sending a message over Facebook, a truly classy way of doing things.


His replacement as governor, Nikki Haley, is also doing her best to keep South Carolina a bastion of the ridiculous while groveling like a twenty-dollar hooker to corporate CEO's at the expense of a large segment of the population. Ignoring her statement saying she would turn away businesses that wanted to bring unionized jobs to South Carolina she seemed to think CEO's have some special position above the people in this state. 

 

Yeah, I know Republicans are all about sheltering the mythical job creators from the evils of socialism, but come on governor, this is akin to have a tramp stamp tattooed just above your butt. 

While I firmly believe the Confederate flag needs to be removed from the statehouse ground, truth be told I don't know if a majority of the people here would vote for it. The big delusion the whites folks believe about the Civil War being some noble cause is still very powerful here, as far as the slavery angle is concerned they tend to mouth off some platitudes then do their best to forget about the whole thing. Such is life here in the Palmetto State, still too large to be an asylum but still much too small to be a republic.


I have decided one very important thing though for the next time I travel, when asked where I am from I will say North Carolina.