Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Slow Moving American Disaster

Lets be clear here, long before that walking abortion decided to run for office I always felt Trump was a supremely sleazy individual whose only real accomplishment was being born into a  rich family. That's right, he is not a self made man, he inherited big bucks from his real estate-dealing dad along with a Rolodex filled with contacts. Trump is not a Bill Gates nor Elon Musk who both have created billion dollar businesses just with their tangible intelligence and talents.

A real look at Trump's attempts at business shows a long series of disastrous failures that left him back in the 1990's on the verge of utter collapse. After some strange loans from sources that has never been revealed, Trump became nothing but a celebrity trademark little better that some talent-less rich girl whose claim to fame is just a homemade hardcore sex tape.

Lets not leave out one of the most laughable attempts at business, Trump Steaks, whose CEO, Jerry Levin said, "we literally almost sold no steaks." This delusional pussy grabber is a prime example of what happens when a population forgets substance and becomes infatuated with spectacle along with being willing hostage to their fears and prejudices. 

Trump's one true talent, besides being a bully, is being a masterful con artist who can appeal to the less educated. Trump is the epitome of the big talking, low information voter who has no real concept to the complexities that exists in government. Simply put, a failed real estate developer with no intellectual curiosity beyond dumping his current wife then bedding a younger bimbo can't conceive of the intricacies involved in international relations, healthcare, or diplomacy. When the House finally passed their version of a healthcare bill to repeal "Obamacare" several weeks ago, Trump threw a massive ceremony at the White House that gave the impression to many that he thought an actual law had been passed. Of course anyone not living under a rock while watching Fox News should know both Trump and Senator McConnell's efforts utterly failed in the senate.

Now we have Trump siding with neo-Nazis after the riots on Charlottesville last weekend. Both his lack of response on Sunday, then his forced condemnation of white supremacists that was literally a wink-and-a-nod of approval to them on Monday were surreal for anyone calling themselves the leader of this country. Now today the country was witness to one of Trump's most hate-filled, incoherent rants excusing those racist monsters. When Trump took the oath of office back in January I knew were were in deep trouble, a fact that is proven true every time some information gets out from the Robert Mueller investigation involving the Trump Campaign and Russia. Our country is in grave danger, so severe that I could not have imagined the degree things could be corrupted by that narcissistic thing occupying the White House.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Wasted Weekend

Been one of those weekends where I wasn't exactly sick but doing anything requiring movement or any real thinking was just to much trouble. Spent all day Saturday and most of today laying on the living room floor as my wife and daughter binge watched Game of Thrones reruns.  See, my fourteen year old daughter has just within the the last two weekends become interested in the show and my wife talked her into watching the entire series while giving a running commentary on the characters and situations.

Why did I just lay on the floor while my wife and daughter watched a show I don't have much interest in? Good question, but the only possible answer I can give is that while I felt terrible being cooped up in the bedroom just didn't appeal to me. Another reason could be that my wife gives the most amazing lectures on the fictional families and history of that show. And to think she calls me a nerd over what I know about Star Trek.

Whatever the case, somehow I am going to have to drag my sorry ass to work tonight. I've got too much to do and like I said, I don't think I'm really all that sick. Here is some tropical music to enjoy.    

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tiki Inspired Dreams

Thinking back on it now, I find it astonishing that my dysfunctional parents somehow found it in themselves to cooperate enough to take my siblings and myself to Walt Disney World just one year after the place opened. The city of Orlando and the surrounding area were, compared to now, still overwhelmingly underdeveloped with mom-and-pop hotels and restaurants existing alongside the young and sleepy corporate giant. I imagine those quaint and genuine local businesses had no idea that just a few short years later they would all be wiped off the map as the joyful rodent's empire began expanding at an ever increasing pace.

Don't get me wrong, my wife and I love everything about Disney. So much that we have not only sunk more money into its Vacation Club than I comfortable thinking about but that I have honestly lost count of the times we have visited each of its parks. Like some pathetic stoner desperate to get a new fix, even now I am looking forward to staying at Disney's small resort down on Hilton Head Island in the summer of 2018 and then making our way back to Disney World itself in 2019.

It's hard to really describe why I enjoy the parks so much when stories abound about how some who visit them are overwhelmed by the crowds and the growing prices. Usually, I despise crowds myself but in all the times I have been down there with my wife and kids, I somehow found a kinship with the other parents in the long and meandering lines waiting for their turn to enjoy Walt's creation. There were numerous times where my wife and I and other parents in the lines shared vital supplies like baby wipes, spare diapers, juice boxes,and assorted prepackages snacks in an effort to get the kids through the long minutes of waiting. 

Another reason I fell in love with Disney World was my discovery of the Enchanted Tiki Room on my first visit back in 1972. For those who don't know, it is a “pseudo-Polynesian themed musical animatronic show” featuring over a hundred colorful robot birds handing down from the ceiling. The show has them singing and making jokes with the climax being when a group of Polynesian tiki gods, craved figures lining the walls, become angry and throwing a tantrum.

The interior of the attraction has fake windows looking out towards a tropical island scene with heavy foliage and mountains creating a sensation, at least in me, that you are somewhere in the beautiful south Pacific. When the tiki gods get angry the skies in these island scenes gets dark with flashes of lightning and the sounds of thunder and rain adding to the dreamy feeling. The thing that has always mesmerized me is that in one of the fake windows there is a simple thatched hut not far off in the distance. This will sound weird, but I have always found that scene to be incredibly peaceful, so much that every visit to the Enchanted Tiki Room I find myself looking at the scene instead of paying attention to the show.

The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disney World was my first exposure to what is normally called “Tiki Culture” which is a very Americanized version of Polynesian culture and art. First conceived in 1934 with the opening of Don the Beachcomer, a Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant, American tiki culture has to me always symbolized a laid back and easy going style of life. Restaurants and bars that go with this theme are known for their tropically-inspired drinks with their menus leaning heavily on Hawaiian and even Chinese dishes. 

While tiki culture-inspired restaurants and bars are quite rare in my area, it is the music that continues to offer up that relaxing, peaceful, and dreamy feeling. Luckily for me I found Exotic Tiki Island, a website that is dedicated to nothing but playing vintage Hawaiian, exotica, and tiki tunes that easily transport me to that island scene I first saw at Disney World so many years ago. Ran by a guy going under the name of Tiki Brian, the music he plays is one of the best ways to shed the worries and fears that are daily coming closer to overwhelming us all. If you get a chance, jump over to his website and listen to some of the many archived podcast shows he has available. Needless to say, one of my favorite things to do on the weekend nights when I am off is to fall asleep to the amazing songs he plays.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Book Review--On the Origins of War by Donald Kagan

Despite most everyone understanding war is a horrific practice that slaughters the innocent and wastes resources that could be better used to promote life, humans can't seem to advance beyond resorting to it when problems seem intractable. Like John Steinbeck once said about war showing the failure of man as a thinking animal, many people continue to glorify conflict and make the case that the necessity of defeating the enemy du jour is a great way to advance technology. An easy statement to make when the fighting isn't destroying your own country or ruthlessly killing your children.

No, I'm not a whacked out pacifist desperate to ban the bomb or to cut the United States military to nothing in an insane attempt to get other powers to do the same. I fully recognize war is fact of human civilization and that our way of life, even with its numerous flaws, is worthy of being defended in the face of authoritarian adversaries who worship the pursuit of unrestrained power. This belief does make me a bit of an oddity since I am the stereotypical bleeding heart, tree hugging liberal who believes in social justice and who hopes that humanity will one day grow the hell up. There are far better things for us to do as a species than kill each other over religious, political, territorial, or ethnic disagreements.

The very fact that war will continue to be something with have to contend with means thinking people should understand the factors that push countries and empires into conflict. This requires the study of history which for me starts with Thucydides and his recount of the Peloponnesian War to the far more recent On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace by Donald Kagan.

In his work, Mr. Kagan attempts to connect the common threads linking the three main reasons for which peoples feel they have no other alternative than to go to war.

The first factor is fear of other political entities, the second being honor in the sense of gaining or restoring glory, and the third being interest in which a nation or empire feels their position would be endangered by the actions of other players. Simple enough concepts but things become difficult when you add the actions of human players who, for whatever reason, either rise up to manage the situation or fail thus resulting in war. Mr. Kagan does not offer a set playbook on how leaders should handle threats, each situation is different but they all require a country to act from a position of strength.

In his book, Mr. Kagan draws upon the histories of the Peloponnesian War, the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, both World Wars, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis in an effort to illustrate his points. The one element common in each of the examples is that preserving the peace requires active effort in the way of maintaining alliances along with military readiness and ability to make your adversary understand war will be the result if they give you no other choice. In sober, but compelling prose Dr. Kagan lays out the repercussions for any power that fails to maintain the proper military and diplomatic stance.

Mr. Kagan is clearly endorsing the “peace through strength” philosophy in his book, which my liberal political comrades despise almost as much as the insane idea about preventive war being a credible way to keep the peace. As much as liberals hate the idea, peace through strength it is the only credible option when you are faced with authoritarian nations for whom force is the chief way they exert power in the world.

On a personal note, I have to add that from my perspective peace through strength has to be balanced with active participation with other nations in making the world a better place. If all a more powerful country does is bomb the crap out of a poorer nation the natives being killed aren't going to care if foreign jets in their skies or soldiers on the ground are fighting a just cause. Peace through Strength can easily morph into cruel occupation which will just breed hate and help your enemies recruit more fighters.

Published in the mid-1990's Mr. Kagan's book is even more relevant now with Russia attempting to reassert itself and redraw the geopolitical map while China is not so slowly becoming a major military power. It goes without saying that if there was ever a time the United States needed to learn the lessons offered in this book and stand firmly with its democratic allies it is now. Instead the current occupant of the White House has a bizarre, and possibly criminal. relationship with the thug in Moscow while he berates our allies and pursues delusions like voter fraud and border walls.

At least the current occupant of White House has relatively able men working to ensure our national security. It's his rabid and largely ignorant supporters that would be well served to read this book to get a real understanding of the dangers of undermining the very geopolitical structure the United States helped create after the end of the Second World War. Of course, that would require such individuals to already have a basic knowledge of history, not the propaganda offered up by right-wing news sources.

For everyone else I highly recommend this excellently written book that while painting a rather dire picture of human nature offers practical advice on how to keep the peace. Hopefully, one day far in the future such advice will no longer be needed.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Thoughts From a Stranger in Exile

One of the peculiar aspects of my childhood was the small town where I spent the early years of my life. It had numerous faults, like every village, town, and city across the planet but one of its saving graces was an air of humanity that seemed, to my young eyes, to even cross racial lines.

The best example I can give is the fact that as you cruised the picturesque streets of my hometown filled with houses built before the American Revolution everyone waved and smiled. I'm not talking about barely conscious reactions executed reluctantly, but a full-fledged greeting where each person made solid eye contact and smiled. It wasn't until I reached young adulthood that I would learn such behavior was wildly out of the ordinary in nearly every other location I spent more than a few hours.

Call me naïve, but in many ways I have come to cherish that basic recognition of an imperfect but common humanity. If anyone is wondering, yes, on a recent short visit to my hometown I discovered this behavior is largely still intact. On the other hand, I have long since learned that the area I now live is the complete opposite to that open and friendly behavior. I'm only half joking when I write that only way the natives could become more dour and xenophobic would be for them to build a wall around the county and then send out armed patrols to scour the domain for malcontents like myself.

I didn't come to this belief on a whim. My cynical and distant attitude is not only the result of numerous observations but was confirmed by one of the locals who lived down in the Low Country for a short time. It was during a relatively deep conversation, something quite dangerous given how that individual believes pro wrestling and magic are real, that he felt the people from the Low Country area of South Carolina were far too laid back and “touchy feely” for his taste.

Yes, it is wrong to paint with such a broad brush, and yes I have met and know some exceptional people who were raised in area I now live. That being said, if I'm ever lucky enough to be able to move the door behind me will not be slammed shut by the irate natives eager to cleanse their hive of the likes of me, but by the gush of wind I produce leaving as fast as possible.

I could easily produce many examples of what caused me to develop such a disdain of the general area, but I will just offer up an incident that truly freaked me out for its blatant callousness.

It was mid-October of 2002 and I was working for a third party x-ray repair company that had the service contract on all the imagining equipment for the local county hospital system. My boss, a guy named George Miller, and I had spent the early part of the morning traveling out to one of the more distant satellite facilities owned by the county hospital to calibrate and do preventive maintenance on the various pieces of x-ray equipment located there. Situated in a truly small town, well away from the modern shopping centers of the Greater Columbia Area, the main street business district still contained active shops and commercial enterprises whose histories could be traced back for decades. Being well out beyond the territory I usually traveled, seeing all those functioning old style businesses did create a bit of a time warp for me.

The actual medical facility was really nothing more than urgent care practice that at best did extremely light outpatient surgery. This suited my boss fine since besides keeping the x-ray equipment running throughout the hospital system, it allowed him a chance to train me on the smaller, relatively idiot-proof instruments used there.

While I do have an Associate Degree in electronics, I had no experience in any type of medical imaging equipment. The only reason the third party x-ray repair company hired me in the first place was that they were desperate for a warm body being that experienced technicians were damn near in a similar venue as Bigfoot and unicorns. Conversely, I was eager to prove myself and begin building a lasting career since due to a lingering recession I had been laid off twice in the previous six months.

Our actual time onsite was brief, a testament to the simplicity of the imaging equipment and the call we received from the main hospital saying one of the bigger, money making fluoroscopes was sending all sorts of complex error messages to the control panel. This resulted in a cascade panic attack first infecting the operator and then quickly moving up the chain of command to the distraught department head.

The boss man and I were packed up and back on the road in less than ten minutes. Despite the urgency, we both settled into the usual routine of discussing our mutual interest in science fiction and the stalled American manned space program. Since I was riding in George's car I was sort of required to listen to his lecture on how the space shuttle was an utter failure and how NASA should be putting funds into rockets that after launching their payloads into space would then fly back and land vertically on legs that extended from the fuselage. While I liked George, I'll admit to the fact that I thought the dude had more than a couple of screws loose with his 1950's ideas on making space travel less expensive. Little did I know that by 2017 Elon Musk and his SpaceX company would make what I thought of as a crazy, impractical idea a reality.

As we approached the main hospital we had to stop at an intersection with the medical campus to our left and a fast food chicken place on the right. George was in a dedicated left turn lane and as we waited for the traffic lights to cycle around so we could turn into the parking lot his lecture had devolved to him explaining how he believed an alien spacecraft really did crash at Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947. Yeah, while George hit the nail on the head about reusable rockets, he had some crazy ideas about UFOs and the belief that there was an actual population of giant herbivore dinosaurs still living in the largely unexplored jungles of Africa.

As George switched between talking about his crashed Roswell alien scout ship and hoping some rich individual would fund dinosaur hunting expeditions into the Congo I noticed a guy waiting at the crosswalk next the chicken place. This particular intersection had recently been fitted with pedestrian crosswalk signals to aid folks in safely getting across what already a busy highway. This individual waiting at the crosswalk was an average looking guy dressed in casual slacks and a jacket, and I would have immediately forgotten I ever saw him if the following event hadn't taken place.

I don't know anything about how traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalk signals are programmed but before the guy waiting next the chicken place got his to cross the highway the lights changed allowing traffic to flow until the road was essentially empty. That's when the pedestrian signal went to green allowing him to cross over towards the hospital campus. It was then that I noticed he not only had a bad limp but that his pace crossing the highway was glacially slow.

As the guy crossing the highway slowly made his way to the other side George had switched over to the long-necked herbivore dinosaurs living in Africa lecture and the reasons why he was sure they existed. His chief reason was how, according to him, the local tribes of central Africa all spoke about giant monsters living deep in the jungles. As I said, George was a cool and interesting guy on most subjects but I had worked with him long enough to realize you didn't interrupt his lectures, even the ones that had long since drifted into improbable and outright bizarre territory.

As he droned on my attention was on the pedestrian trying to cross the highway. After making it to the small cement median in the middle of the road I could tell he was tired. By all rights he should have just stayed there and waited for the clearly visible oncoming traffic to pass before attempting the cross the other half. But the median didn't have anything to trigger the pedestrian signals and stop the flow of traffic, which meant he could have stood there for a long time waiting for the highway to clear again. So it made sense when the guy went ahead and stepped out into the highway even with a cluster of cars speeding his way.

That being said, given the speed of the oncoming cars and how long it was taking the guy to limp across the highway it was clear that something bad was possible if the former didn't slow down or the latter didn't pick his pace up. I wasn't yet panicking for the guy, I figured that the drivers coming towards him would slow down as they got closer. I mean, it was the commonsense and compassionate thing to do for another human being. That didn't happen, if anything from my perspective the two leading cars seemed to speed up.

The pedestrian noticed this as well and began something akin to a trot to get out of the way. With the distance between the cars and the pedestrian closing rapidly I remember physically cringing expecting the guy to become road salsa. At the very last second though, the pedestrian literally jumped the last four or five feet of the highway head first to avoid getting hit.

When that group of cars passed by the left turn traffic signal George was waiting for hit and he scooted his car into the hospital parking lot. As George made the turn, I tried to see if the pedestrian was okay but my last sight was of him laying on the sidewalk. A series of landscaping shrubs, small trees, and an embankment quickly blocked my view.

Another of George's peculiar traits was his desire for the perfect parking space, yet another subject that could cause him to begin a lecture with him explaining the factors involved like shade, distance from the entrance, and relative condition of other nearby cars. So it was several more minutes before I was able to get out of his car. When all those conditions were finally met I didn't hear anything in the way of sirens nor the screams of a group of people I spotted heading in the general direction of the intersection. I could only assume the pedestrian had picked himself up and proceeded on to his destination. As for George, I didn't say anything to him about what I had seen, being so wrapped up in his dinosaur lecture the entire incident with the pedestrian had totally escaped his notice.

This event occurred just a few years after I moved to the area, and since then it surprises me far too much when I do see examples of basic humanity and simple common courtesy. No, I do not feel I am keeping a score card since most of what I'm talking about wasn't directed at me personally. And yes, to a certain extent I realize that people generally see what they come to expect so it would not be wrong to say I have a large rather polished chip firmly secured to my shoulder.

I guess the simplest explanation for my disgruntled, bias, and possibly unfair attitudes is that I do not feel at home in my current location. I recognize this because my kids, who I believe are well adjusted and give every indication of that fact do quite well getting along with the natives. Whenever this gets a little to depressing I remember how my grandparents often remarked that they didn't like my hometown and wished they could move back to Marion, South Carolina, the area they were raised. Something that puzzled me since I thought the Low Country was the best place in the world with it beaches and beautiful Charleston a short drive to the south. 

After everything is said and whined about, I guess all comes down to the trite idea that home is where the heart is, and that you shouldn't look to closely for what you expect to see. That being said, I'm still moving my sorry ass away from this place if I ever get the chance.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Alien Weirdness?

Not to get weird, because that ship sailed long ago, but as I was surfing the YouTube channels Sunday afternoon one of the guys I watch on a regular basis posted an interesting and out of the blue video. Turns out that the giant Arecibo radio telescope has detected an "odd" signal that seems to be coming from Ross 128, a red dwarf star about 11 light-years away.

Abel Méndez, an astrobiologist from the University of Puerto Rico said the star was observed for ten minutes, during which time the signal was detected and that it seemed "almost periodic". Méndez admitted that the signal could have originated from a communications satellite, since they often transmit on the frequencies observed but that the radio burst was "very peculiar". The video you will find below does suggest that if the signal was from a communication satellite it would have to be quite a bit farther out from Earth than is normal.

My first thought after hearing that was the signal might be from a spy satellite. Over the last several decades the United States and the Soviet Union have launched numerous secret payloads into space and I've heard a lot of crazy theories that some of them are in weird orbits in an effort to go undetected. There is also a chance that the signal came from the star Ross 128 itself, since red dwarfs often produce massive flares.

Recent speculation about that habitability of red dwarf star systems tends run either hot or cold. On the plus side, those stars live far longer that our sun, thus allowing a lot of time for life and intelligence to evolve, but those massive flares probably sterilize any planets orbiting close enough to be in their Goldilocks zone. Whatever the case, the guys and gals at Arecibo will be trying to tune in on Ross 128 in an effort to pick the signal up again.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Busy Aliens?--An Examination of Przybylski's Star

Curiosity can be a dangerous thing leading to the discovery of all sorts of facts that either challenge existing beliefs, or for some open the door to knowledge showing the spectacular and bizarre nature of the universe. Since the European Renaissance, scientific inquiry has done just that, we've gone from believing our world is the center to the universe to understanding that our planet circles an average yellow-star which is on the outskirts of a boring spiral galaxy lost among trillions of others.

The last real item separating us from the rest of the cosmos is that we have no idea if both intelligence life and simpler organisms exist anywhere else. The probes we've sent out into the solar system strongly suggest the presence of liquid water underneath the surface of several moons of Jupiter and Saturn allowing for the possibility of things like bacteria and other single cell organisms. Many scientists hold out the hope that similar conditions might exist underneath the surface of Mars, sort of like underground reservoirs of liquid water protected from the near vacuum of the surface and the unfiltered UV light coming from the sun. Long story short, while no respectable scientist will go out and say he or she is certain we share the solar system with simple organisms, but they would love to have a more robust space program that would determine that fact. From what I've read and seen on videos, unless humans get real stupid and wreck the planet or commit mass suicide we should know whether or not other life exists in our solar system within fifty years.

It is the search for intelligence life where we have little chance of answering that question barring the interception of radio signals from interstellar or intergalactic space. Yes, there is a more than zero chance that an alien starship might just happen to see our little planet and decide to stop by and say hello. But that “more than zero chance” is so infinitely small it would be better for the average person to plan on winning the lotto than expecting such an event from ever happening. Astrophysicists and other astronomers have made some curious observations about other stars in the galaxy that right now they can't readily explain with existing theories causing a few to hesitatingly suggest the presence of advanced alien civilizations.

The first example is KIC 8462852, which stirred up the media when it was found something was causing that star to periodically dim up to twenty-five percent suggesting something really big was orbiting it. Ideas of why it was dimming an unusual amount ranged from an asteroid field, a cluster of comets, to debris leftover from the collision of two planets. None of them really satisfied the observations leaving someone to jokingly suggest some really industrious aliens were building a Dyson sphere around the star to collect all that easy solar energy.

With curiosity running at warp speeds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) guys and gals began scanning the star looking for radio communications between all those busy aliens working to enclose the star. None were detected, but fuel was further added to the possible alien fire when astronomers looked at the data collected over the last hundred years or so of observing that star suggesting the dimming has has grown over that time. The actual nature of this dimming is still unknown leaving KIC 8462852 to be the subject of continued intense investigation, although recent ideas put forward squarely put the cause back into the non-alien induced reasons.

Then there is Przybylski's Star, located roughly 370 light-years away, is showing seriously bizarre characteristics that suggest the presence of elements unknown to Earth or maybe aliens dumping heavy substances into it as a way to reveal their existence.

From Wikipedia:

In normal-sized stars like our sun, as it ages and runs low on hydrogen it gets hotter until it starts fusing its remaining fuel into iron. While the sun is even now slowly getting hotter when it fuses iron that when it goes seriously old age and does the expansion out beyond the orbit of our planet. No real worries though, without humans screwing things up, we've got about a billion years before the increasing temperature makes Earth too hot for liquid water and about another three billion before it gets incinerated.

When larger stars run out of fuel they go super nova, the temperatures and pressure involved in those explosions forge all the heavier elements like silver, gold, and many of the heavy elements being detected in Przybylski's Star. So, long story short with Przybylski being one classification bigger than our sun, and because it clearly hasn't exploded, why it contains those types of elements is quite bizarre.

The going non-alien explanation is that there is some source, like a nearby neutron star, feeding the elements into hot plasma that makes up the star. Another, almost as wild possibility as aliens, is that Przybylski's Star somehow contains a as yet unknown on Earth heavy element that is simply decaying into the ones listed above. Once again, how this unknown element was created without any nearby super nova remnants is a big mystery.

Just because when you eliminate all the other possibilities whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be considered. The one explanation half jokingly suggested is that aliens are producing mass quantities of heavy elements and then feeding them into Przybylski's Star in an attempt to get noticed by other intelligent species. A seriously fascinating idea but although, like Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims must come with extraordinary evidence. This method does seem crazy, but who can tell what another species with technology far more advanced than our own might consider a good idea.

Realistically, there is probably a far more reasonable explanation as to why Przybylski's Star has those wacky elements circulating in its plasma. For a short time scientists entertained the idea that pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars, might be navigational beacons for aliens cruising around in their starships. But for me Przybylski's Star and the curious nature of KIC 8462852 are enough to keep hope alive that the SETI guys and gals might just have an exciting announcement to share with the world one day.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

For a More Perfect Union...

With the Fourth of July upon us, and with me marooned in my suburban hell because of traffic issues going down to the coast, now seems a good time for some wild speculation on how to build a more perfect union or society. Given the degree of economic inequality we face in this country, along with the rampant societal issues, and the near collapse of our government due to ignorance, incompetence, and ideological demagoguery, reforming or even scrapping the whole shebang is a circumstance that might need to be pondered.

Unfortunately, even reforming a society with so many special interests and entrenched powers is no easy feat. Yeah lets be clear for a moment, no group is without sin in this area. By definition any group that wants to protect their position is a special interest, which could be as noble as environmentalists wanting to protect vital ecosystems that cleanse our waters and air, or as reckless and irresponsible as corporations that knowingly sell defective or dangerous products. And yes, just to be fair you could easily reverse those two comparisons with radical extremist environmentalists being the bad guys and, at least in theory, a corporation playing the part of the hurt and damaged entity just trying to make a buck and employ people.

Now some might say we've already walked down this path with the Founding Fathers, that they lead the thirteen colonies to victory against the oppressive Great Britain and its crazy ass king. With them a few years later writing up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and BOOM, we have the most awesome and kick-ass nation ever to existed. Yeah, well something like that but if you look a little closer things aren't that simple.

First of all there's slavery, an economic practice many of the Found Fathers depended on to keep them in powered wings and those seriously weird looking socks and shoes. It's easy to say “all men are created equal,” but its meaning gets lost when you have people in permanent bondage working your tobacco and cotton fields. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—all slave owners-- were exceptional and enlightened men for the 18th century but they were not saints. When something close to the barbaric notion of kings being appointed “divine rights” by God was still a serious thing in Europe and the rest of the world the Founding Fathers decided they would set America on a different but not entirely new path. But their accomplishment is still sullied by the fact that slavery was enshrined in the Constitution with black people being counted as three-fifths of a person.

The Founding Fathers also screwed up with their treatment of Native Americans and of women. The former being treated in ways that some actually use the word genocide and the latter being little better than property up until the twentieth century. Yes, all three of those issues were addressed in time, but you can't honestly say they were successful efforts with African-Americans, Native Americans, and women now seamlessly part of our society. Racism, institutional poverty, economic injustice, and blatant sexism are still wildly prevalent today, and because of certain people who play on fear and hate as well as economic trends, it's getting worse.

The long and the short of it that while the Founding Father were great guys for their time, the society they helped form was centered around rich, white, property owning guys. If you were not a member of that club your standing fell almost exponentially to the point it really didn't make a difference if the ultimate leader was a president or some king. What ultimately saved our experiment was the vast continent that allowed those property-less souls to move westward. And like the proverbial vicious circle that leads back to the Native Americans being slaughtered, ethically cleansed in such things like Jackson's Trail of Tears, and finally herded onto reservations. Sorry for being such a buzz kill, but when you look beyond the warm and fuzzy propaganda, history can be a real bitch.

The bright side in all this is that the United States did slowly and imperfectly reform itself to the point that we have expanded the definition of human rights and liberty to the point the Founding Fathers, those crazy radical 18th century liberals, would run off screaming into the night. The one exception I believe would be Ben Franklin, if you bring one of them forward I believe that old magnificent goat would understand the path we've tried to take.

Unfortunately, from a high point of around the early 1970's the United States has started on a downward spiral. With the frontier long since closed, it was a growing economy that provided the safety valve on the worst aspects of our society. The problem is that technology and simple rules of economics has eliminated many good paying jobs that allowed a man or woman to buy a house, send their kids to college, and later retire. Technological innovation, the thing that raised our lifestyles, is now making many jobs go the way of blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Throw in corporations trying to raise profits by shipping other jobs overseas where pay is insanely less and you have a recipe for societal unrest.

To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite movies, our success is becoming our undoing. With an expanding economy it was easy to start including other segments of our society into the American Dream. There was significant opposition, but when you considered the economic lifeboat was being lifted almost constantly, it only made sense to bring aboard those folks who were in the water hanging on the railing.

Now with the middle class shrinking and the working class folks not so slowly being engulfed in poverty the “Kumbaya” feeling most Americans enjoyed is being replaced with divisiveness and rancor. The worst thing in all this is that everyone knows the economic shit is going sideways but no one really wants to do anything about it. The Democrats spout platitudes about how bad things are while the Republican answer is to apply more tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation. Yes, this is a purely partisan statement but of the two the Democrats at least recognize the problem. But because they are tied to a system where campaigns require huge sums of outside money, they are hamstrung at instituting any real reforms. A fact made worse when a huge chunk of the middle and working class feel any reforms are socialistic in nature thereby giving their hard earned money to lazy ass (insert your idea here).

The Republicans live in a wondrous world of utter delusion where they believe rich elites give a damn about common folks. Sure, once again there are exceptions but the fact that when innovation didn't make a job obsolete, the majority of corporations used their tax breaks to ship jobs overseas to countries free of nasty labor unions and decent pay. Throw in the libertarian/Ayn Rand branch of the Republican party who blatantly say they have their pile of nice things and the rest of the country can go screw themselves and you have a political party perfectly set up to use a convenient dipshit with just enough charisma to promise to Make America Great Again.

Now I'm painting a dismal picture of a United States unable or unwilling to change, something that history suggests isn't true. One of our truest strengths is that we eventually face our problems and work hard to try and correct them. Honestly, I believe our current situation isn't hopeless and in fact I see the beginnings of a realization on the part of the nation as a whole that our current mindsets are outdated. But for wild speculation sake lets ponder what we might be able to do if shit doesn't get better, just how would a more perfect society be built in the face of numerous special interests.

Enter the late John Rawls, who was a moral and political philosopher at Harvard University. In his book A Theory of Justice he attempted to solve the problem of creating a more equal society. Grossly paraphrasing, Rawls understood that any designers hoping to create a new society will by human nature engineer it to their benefit. The only hope of getting around that obstacle was that everyone decides what principles are instituted from behind a Veil of Ignorance.

This group of founders would know nothing of their own positions, themselves, nor history. The only exceptions would be knowledge about human biology, psychology, our values, and various theories of justice. This veil of ignorance would in theory allow the benefits and burdens of social cooperation to be appropriately distributed. Before anyone flies off the handle, while this concept is new to me it is not the recent creation of some wild eyed college professor with nothing better to do. Heavy philosophical hitters like Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and even Thomas Jefferson have played with the idea.

It was be supremely easy to get lost in the complex nature of Rawls' proposal, needless to say that is the beyond the scope of this post and not really the point I am trying to make. Although, Rawls' thoughts on justice can be summed up along these lines:

"First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

My take on this is the impossible nature of finding anyone who could realistically serve on any type of committee under such an all encompassing ignorance of their own agendas. Speaking strictly hypothetically if Americans, or any other people, decided to reboot their societies it would be impossible to not feel the weight of history much less ignore centuries old grudges and biases. Both the French and the Russians attempted societal reboots but failed miserably with it taking the former centuries to develop a free society and the latter even now engulfed in an authoritarian regime as birthrates and gross domestic product fall along with the only thing of value they can sell on the world market being oil.

There is one possible, totally hypothetical solution to the quandary, and that is computer-based artificial intelligence (AI). The scenario I've played with while thinking about the fate of the human race, the true nature of existence and reality, along with just what makes up belly button lint is that an AI program is the only possible entity that could realistically judge a situation without any of the inherent biases or prejudices all human beings possess. A tall order, not just because such technology has not yet been developed but because getting everyone to agree to having an AI reboot (redesign) society would almost be as impossible as finding a group of humans without all those preconceived notions that cloud our judgment.

Let's face it, one of the reasons basic reforms are damn next to impossible is that we have too many special interest groups who all feel their scared cows should come first. The rich elites are first on that list, namely because they have the money to make their influence felt far beyond their actual numbers. Their special considerations have grown so out of proportion to their actual worth to the nation that some in that group have suggested they be given more votes, as opposed to the common folks.

But other special interest groups are often just as obnoxious, especially since their positions are often justified by superstition or ancient prejudices. In all honesty, while I am on friendlier terms with religion these days, quite frankly churches need to pay taxes on what they gather from members. There are simply way too many rich preachers running around in two-thousand dollar suites, living in forty room mansions, and flying off to tropical vacations in their personal jet aircraft. As for prejudices, a great majority of Americans would be well served if they had access to mental health counseling concerning how they act to people outside the scope of their understanding.

An AI could in theory be programmed to make rational decisions on just who would get access to resources and level the political playing field in such a way as to prevent gerrymandering and basic demagoguery. As I've already written, I'm just doing some wild speculating because I've got nothing better to do. If such a technology was developed the circumstances that would force people to rely on artificial intelligence to guide them to a more just society falls strictly in the realm of science fiction.

That places us back at the start of our problem. Our society is grossly unfair and getting worse. I guess everything can be summed up to apathy and political polarization. Beyond token efforts, most people really do not give a rip about the their fellow citizens, much less about some poor soul in Africa starving to death. And as far as polarization is concerned, it's easy to blame the situation on politicians, but the nasty truth is that they only reflect the people that vote for them.

The only real way to change the direction of our society will have to come from the realization that there is no saviors or any real quick fixes. We'll have to start electing leaders instead of dead weight whose only real accomplishment is being born rich, but that is only the first step. The next will be rational experimentation with plans that might span the political spectrum, and then be adapted as situations change. This would preclude ideological A-holes who can't think beyond some static party platform. In simpler terms, that might mean taxes have to be raised occasionally and that some guy or gal with a new invention or idea shouldn't be stifled because they might get rich over their creation.

Our destiny as a nation, and the world, is ultimately up to us. Hunkering down and not getting involved is truthfully a suicidal move because the world is constantly changing. Personally, I'm cynical enough that I actually like the idea of an AI taking charge of the government, even if there is a chance such an entity might go all Skynet on us. Given the troll living in the White House right now murderous software bent on world domination doesn't seem that much different.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Lawn Care Ruminations

Sunday morning began with me looking out my kitchen window and struggling to convince myself that my backyard didn't need cutting. Usually this early in the summer I can get away with cutting one yard a weekend and I did the back just last Sunday. Unfortunately something is different this year, not sure if it's the heavier rainfall we've had but as I walked outside on my deck to take a closer look, it was apparent that if I didn't cut the backyard I'd have a jungle the following weekend. A further mystery is the fact that except for a few dandelions, my front yard didn't need to be cut although its already been two weeks it was mowed.

So like a good suburban drone I inserted the headphones attached to my MP3 player into my ears, cranked up the mower, and proceeded walk up and down my yard pushing a ridiculous device that I am sure will be a joke to future generations. I'm sure climate change and simple innovation will eventually make gas powered lawnmowers antiquated relics. Battery powered lawnmowers are already for sale and if I had five hundred dollars I could risk on such a new technology, I'd already have bought one just so I would not have to deal with the frustration of their gas powered counterparts. I know the problems I've had with lawnmowers are from a lack of proper care on my part, but I'll be damned those things weren't as complicated back when I pushed my Granddad's around the neighborhood to earn a few bucks cutting other peoples' grass.

Ideally, and call me insane, I'd like to see the demise of the modern subdivision and have them replaced with a more communal lifestyle. I've heard of a few places like that already exist, it's not an apartment nor condo situation because these new neighborhoods are made up of individual, freestanding family homes but the green spaces have a more open, park-like feel. The homes in these new types of neighborhoods are also much smaller than the Mcmansions many Americans have come to believe are rights enshrined in the Constitution. That right there will have some running off screaming socialism but if I could buy into such a place go ahead and start addressing me as comrade. 

Yes, this means lawn care of the grounds would be relegated down to a contractor or in the future, battery powered robots that would perform their duties without human interaction. Yes, all this pondering is just me whining about having to take care of something I bought back when I was too stupid to realize how demanding lawn care could be.

All told it only took me forty-five minutes to cut the backyard and the small segment on the other side of the fence. Yes, I did come away with a small feeling of accomplishment. Both the backyard and side yard looked better but any satisfaction was short lived, because as I kicked back with a cold soda I realized that I will most certainly have to do the same damn thing next weekend.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is to perform the same act over and over again expecting a different result. How lawn care plays into that idea I'll leave that to each individual to decide. I'm sure everyone can already guess where I fall on that answer.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Staycation Blues

Before anyone gets the wrong idea let me go ahead and state that I actively pushed my wife and daughter to take the trip both are currently on right now. This trip was so important to them that I realized anything less than my enthusiastic support would eventually come back and bite me on my own ass. What trip that I knew from the very beginning I wouldn't be going with them am I speaking about?

As of this very moment my lovely wife and daughter are probably sitting in the bizarrely conceived chairs at one of the Washington DC airports waiting to board a flight that will first take them to New York and then another to Edinburgh, Scotland. You know the kind of seat, it has a frame made up of some sort of shiny metal alloy with the actual place you put your butt and lean back on a vinyl/plastic substance. From a distance these seats, long rows of them, look comfortable but since the arm rests are fixed if you have to wait longer than thirty minutes to board your plane the average person begins a stationary dance sliding their butts to one side or the other in an effort to relax.

Once they arrive in Edinburgh they begin a nine day trip which will have them, and the others in the tour group, heading south and catching some of the beautiful sights and interesting places making up the island of Britain. Like I said, I knew from the beginning I wouldn't be going on the trip, so while I didn't selflessly volunteer to stay back, I didn't make a huge stink about the fact that I would, once again, be keeping the home fires burning while they were gone.

While the cost of the trip was overwhelmingly the main reason I stayed back, another big factor was the fact that one of our two dogs is diabetic and requires insulin shots twice a day. Yeah, there are local kennels we could have boarded both dogs and the two cats we own but that would have just raised the already crazy cost of the trip even more. Throw in the usual crap associated with suburban living like cutting the yard and general overwatch of the house it was mandatory that some adult, other than my college age son who has his own things to do, had to stay home.

No, other than maybe a day trip down to the coast there isn't any sort of conciliation prize in the form of a cheap and easy vacation to the Bahamas waiting for me once they return. Truthfully, when my wife and daughter left the house Friday morning I had images of myself as the hapless loser on any number of game shows who totally embarrassed themselves on national television and came away from the experience with a one year supply of Rice-A-Roni. I'm sure Rice-A-Roni is a tasty treat but you've got to wonder that if they readily give away that much of the product who are they really helping, the hapless game show loser or the company?

What this all amounts to is that I am condemned to a “Staycation” this year with me taking a four-day weekend now and another at the end of the next. A situation I find comparable to having to endure one of the less extreme levels of Hell. Think the Rod Serling's Night Gallery episode where a late 1960's/early 1970's West Coast hipster is forced to spend an eternity of punishment listening to a rural Midwest farmer talk about the weather and crop yields. My attitude come from the fact I really don't like the area I live, don't get me wrong it's a perfectly pleasant place filled with sterile examples of America's corporate feudalism, traffic congestion comparable to big cities during rush hour, and my favorite, authoritarian neighbors on the lookout for any sort of infraction. There is also the fact that I'm just far enough away from the coast, and its beaches, that certain logistical issues become a problem, especially with a diabetic dog.

Since I willingly took one for the team this year to make my wife and daughter happy you would think I might get some iota of consideration from them when it comes to enduring this idyllic suburban hell. No, I'm not looking for an inane souvenir nor some special reward upon their safe return home. But given the conversation I had with my wife yesterday they seem oblivious to my vacation sacrifice.

Due to a slight mix-up my wife called me yesterday afternoon to ask me to track down some paperwork she should have taken with her. After finding the items within minutes I was standing at the scanner/copier/fax waiting for the overly complicated machine to do its duty so I could email her the forms. During those minutes she attempted some idle small talk.

“So, how are things going at the house?” she asked. I'll give my wife credit, she's not the best small talker and would have usually walked off to do something else as I scanned the forms.

“Almost exactly the same as you left them about ten hours ago.” I replied trying valiantly not to sound like a smartass even though I was slightly miffed that she had already run into an issue. This trip had been in the works for at least nine months and if the shoe was on the other foot I wouldn't left anything behind.

“Well, are you having any fun?” she asked in a way over twenty years of marriage has taught wasn't an attempt at humor.

To say I was dumbfounded at the question would have been an overstatement. But it did make me uncomfortable since she has to know how I would do anything to move not just to another town but at least to a house where the neighbors are far enough away they can't be quite as nosy.

No, I wasn't kidding.

“Having oodles of fun, playing doorman for the animals here at home is awesome!” I said as sarcastically as possible explaining that since she and my daughter had left I had already lost count of the number of times I had let some combination of dogs and cats inside the house or back outside.

“Okay, that's great,” she said with the total absence of mind that suggests I could have instead said something as outrageous as I brought a Craig's List hooker over the minute they left the house. Not that I would ever seriously consider such an action, the neighbors would have a cow.

Instead, I played it cool and kept my mouth shut, emailed her the documents, and went back to my activities such as they are after hanging up the phone. No, this time I've got to take the staycation hit and deal with the abject boredom that comes with being marooned in a place I'm close to despising. Although I did vaguely threaten my wife a few months back that I could take my own credit card and book a trip somewhere with my departure the day they are scheduled to return home. It's a nice fantasy, and right now it will stay that way.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Socrates Understood...

Despite the obvious benefits of democracy, there has always been certain flaws inherent to any government trying to practice that system. According to Plato in his Dialogues, his mentor the great Socrates asked the question that if you were about to take a long voyage on the ocean who would you want to be in charge of the boat? Commonsense should suggest that the people about to take such a trip would want someone qualified in such niceties as practical sailing, the finer points of navigation, the know-how to repair whatever vessel they are taking, and lets throw in knowledge about weather.

Socrates' response was to further ask the question why then do we let just anyone vote? Voting shouldn't be something we relegate to intuition, or to some fanciful whim based upon a public who really doesn't know their heads from their collective backsides. Voting should be an educated skill and letting people elect leaders without the proper knowledge of government and current events is like making a washed up, semi-senile rock star the captain of a massive cruise ship about to go from San Francisco to Sydney. (I bet you people thought I would say a delusional, lying, and narcissistic reality star who advertise himself as a businessman?)

Socrates' points notwithstanding, we've pulled that restricted voting scheme many times and all were blatant attempts just to oppress various minority groups. So, instituting a system where the average voter has to prove he or she isn't a blithering idiot just will not happen. More to the point, a bigger issue might be the simple fact that most people can't be bothered to vote on election day. For some the reason is that they can't make it to the polling place because of work or family issues. But others, for whatever reason refuse to take part in the very system that ensures their safety and well being.

The common complaint from a number of folks on my side off the political fence is that they refuse to elect a lesser of two evils, which they see as still evil. Nice logic for those who believe in unicorns that fart rainbows which smells like expensive potpourri. The problem for the rest of us is that we have to live in the real world and deal with the results of a delusional, lying, and narcissistic reality star/businessman getting elected.

To sum this short post up, since a realistic education test for voters isn't possible, people can bitch all they want about nasty, divisive politicians and the horrendous things they do in office. But unless more people vote and chose candidates who stand a realistic chance of winning we will continue our spiral downward into oblivion. Watch the video below for a more precise take on the issue. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Political Pearl Harbor

Probably the only instance of me ever uttering something prophetic happened in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, commonly referred to as “Operation Desert Storm.” Since history is a weak subject for most lets backtrack for a moment. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, a much smaller and weaker country was rightly opposed by the United States and the coalition of nations it formed. Oil be damned, had Saddam's actions gone unopposed it would have eventually lead to every second-rate dictatorial cockroach invading weaker neighbors in an effort to build an empire. When you throw in Saddam's treatment of people inside Iraq, the inventory of chemical weapons he had at that time, and his interest in acquiring even more powerful destructive capability he had to be stopped.

That being said, First President Bush's decision to leave Saddam in power was also the right thing to do. The nation of Iraq is a Frankenstein's monster of varying ethnic and religious subgroups created by the British in the aftermath of the First World War and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Saddam was a monster and if Hell really exists he most certainly is now a resident. But you have only to look at the bloodbath Iraq became after he was removed from power to understand that while the lesser of two evils is still bad, sometimes the alternative is even worse. Yes, I am totally discounting the idea that we invaded Iraq to take away Saddam's WMD's. There was plenty of intelligence, all ignored or hidden, that his desire to produce a nuclear bomb had no basis in reality. As for his stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, aside from a few pitiful exceptions they were all destroyed or taken back during the 1990's.

History lesson over, my post Operation Desert Storm epiphany involved the realization that despite Saddam's real but relatively minor threat in the 1990's, and the much propagandized menace he was made to be after 9/11, he was not an existential danger to the United States. The statement I made to my cohorts at the time was that Saddam Hussein was an idiot and that the United States might find itself in some really deep shit if it ever had to face and adversary with more than a few dozen IQ points.

My point being that given the capabilities Iraq's military had right after he invaded Kuwait, Saddam could have caused significant trouble in such places as Saudi Arabia or even Israel before there was anywhere near enough American troops and equipment on site to deter him. What that means is that since Saudi oil is a major factor in the international economy if Saddam had just attacked its refineries with Scud missiles he could have caused another Great Depression.

Even worse, since one of the worst kept secrets of the modern era is that Israel has a significant cache of nuclear weapons had Saddam said screw it and attempted a full scale attack on the Jewish state an apocalyptic event with clouds of radioactive fallout drifting out from the Middle East would have more than likely occurred. Saddam Hussein didn't hold any military punches out of the hidden, moral goodness of his heart. The man was an utter bastard, which was only exceeded by his ego and incompetence. (On a side note unrelated to my point, I will refrain from the eerie physiological comparisons I could make between Saddam and Trump.)

Of course, my point that Saddam was not an existential threat to the United States was pretty much ignored. This early 1990's when the modern version of American exceptionalism was born with one of the central pillars of that belief being the idea that the United States was immune to all the factors that had brought down numerous other powers all through history. For those on the right, their narrow view held that the United States was king shit and would go on kicking ass forever. Those on the left held a similar but slightly askew view that through its military power and faceless corporations the United States had bullied the world into submission and the idea that anyone else would rise up to threaten us was ridiculous.

Well, history is replete with nations and empires whose citizens and subject were convinced would hold power forever. Low and behold the 2016 presidential election was hacked by the Russians with them flooding both social and television media with stolen emails and fake news stories. Contrary to the more excitable and less rational on the left, I have yet to hear or read any evidence that Russia hacked into the computers that were linked to electronic voting machines. But what the Russians actually did to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign was bad enough.

After decades of the Soviet Union pouring untold hundreds of billions of rubles into their military machine in an attempt to overwhelm the United States, it looks like all the Russians had to do was tickle the ugly underbelly of American political paranoia and abject racism to goad us to tearing ourselves apart. Now, I'll admit while I voted for Hillary both her and the people running the campaign made it easy for the Russians to dig up information to use against them. It's funny to think now that back when the collection of Republican clowns, fools, and idiots were in the primary phase of the campaign I had the stupid idea that since Hillary was a long time political warrior there shouldn't be much for them to use against her. I totally ignored the fact that things could be made up out of whole cloth and that Hillary has a history of being her own worst enemy.

With that out of the way, the fact remains that a hostile foreign power, I'll go ahead say existential enemy, has found a dependable way to make the powerful United States look like a sick old man suffering from dementia. What really turns my stomach is how many in the Republican party view Vlad Putin, a dictator who murders journalists and dissidents, as someone who should be admired. Sort of makes a mockery of how they looked down upon and even accused liberals of something close to treason if any mention of peaceful coexistence was suggested during the Cold War.

Of course, to many of the less educated folks on the right Putin is a masculine (white) dude who doesn't spend time worrying about inconvenient things like civil liberties and basic human rights. The acquaintances I known in that group, all certified rednecks, have almost a homoerotic fixation on the manly Putin riding on horses without a shirt and his association with washed up martial artists/movie stars like Steven Segal. It goes along with the perceived notion of him standing against gay marriage, and other liberal causes that they believe America needs to be saved from. But most of all they like Putin because he was white while the democratically elected American president was a black guy.

Since I have lived in the American South most of my life it would have shocked me to hear anyone of that type say anything but the usual thinly veiled racist talk. But I've got to admit it is the established right-wing that has most disappointed me with their downplaying of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Yes, there are notable exceptions like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham but the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, and the majority leader of the senate, Mitch McConnell have only given the barest lip service to Russian hacking. Those members of Congress and in the Senate occupying the fuzzy middle between the two are just waiting to see what the various investigations will or will not turn up. Largely a rational approach given the nature of the allegations against Trump, but that stance is less about finding the truth and far more with just protecting their asses and cushy jobs.

What it all comes down to is that the Russians pulled a blatant electoral Pearl Harbor on the United States. For me that is almost reason to go to war, but what scares me the most is that Americans are so politically polarized that many on the right are okay with the hacking since they hated Hillary Clinton more than they are concerned with the state of their country.

Don't worry, I'm not excluding Democrats/liberals/progressives for putting party and ideological purity above the health and safety of the nation. The main election strategy for both parties is to convince voters that the other side is evil. Yes, as a liberal Democrat I do believe some Republican ideas are baldfaced attempts to protect the rich elites, but I also realize Democrats have their own faults and inability to see the forest for the trees. I'm not saying we should all go for one big group hug and then break into singing “Kumbaya,” I can be just as partisan as any other dickhead, especially when I believe the Republicans are dead wrong on a subject like climate change. But democracy only works if the different factions compromise, it's an ugly process but works far better than one side controlling everything only to be kicked out of power at the next election when nothing really gets done.

It goes without saying the American political process is a screwed up system. Both parties paint the other as the enemy with many members saying any sort of cooperation with their counterparts is a betrayal of sacred principles. In the past such behavior could largely be overlooked since no other country would dare to interfere. That time has passed with Vlad Putin and the Russian government he controls making it part of their way of dealing with foreign governments. Putin is the worst possible adversary we could face in this current era. He and his minions have found what divides Americans and will not hesitate to widen the existing chasm as long as we continue allow him.

It appears the time when Americans pulled together when faced with an adversary has passed into history. Then again, all we really have to blame for this behavior is ourselves. What should scare every rational American most of all is that the situation is probably only going to get worse.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Tales From REFORGER-2: I Accuse

 (Author's note: This story is true, although I had to go creative-nonfiction to stretch it out and alter it enough so I wouldn't have anyone going crazy on me.)

All things considered, Captain Bryant, the S4 of my air defense battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado, wasn't a bad guy. Which makes what happened to him in a West German field all the worse. Without overly explaining what the S4 does, it can be boiled down to anything to do with supply, logistics, maintenance, transportation, and budget for the entire battalion. It is a demanding job and takes someone with a detail oriented mind and who can deal with the stress involved when millions of dollars of equipment and supplies are involved.

Since I was just a junior enlisted soldier at the time when the incident occurred, everything I heard from the NCO's suggested Bryant was perfectly competent in his job. Captain Bryant's one problem though was that despite his best efforts at the S4 job he was still catching hell from his lackluster command of one of the batteries of the battalion. See, Bryant was suffering from one of the worst traits that can befall an individual not only serving in the United States Army but anyone living in a country that prizes charisma and hard charging excellence. 

Bryant's first sin was that he had absolutely no charisma or anything else in the way of inspiring others to perform great deeds. Like any leader who command people, army officers are almost required to give speeches that motivate those under them to push harder. Given that the batteries in my battalion shared a common assembly area I caught a few of Bryant's speeches and even as a junior enlisted guy I could tell that someone born without vocal cords could have given a better, more inspiring speech. Sure, he could relay information and give instructions but his spoken voice had the personality of one of the old “Speak and Spell” toys from the 1980's.

His second, and possibly worst, sin was that Bryant was average in all his abilities. I learned this from one of my friends, Specialist David Speakman, who was the driver for the battalion sergeant major. While Speakman was my best friend, I often found him irritating as shit since the man excelled at absolutely everything he did from scores on the rifle range to maxing out the PT test. Speakman would regularly tell me battalion scuttlebutt since he spent all normal duty hours at headquarters.

The overall word about Captain Bryant was that the battalion commander and battalion sergeant major, both hard charging types who expected nothing less that one-hundred percent and then more from everyone in his command wasn't happy with his performance. Back then I believe myself to be a member of the hard charging group but was frankly perplexed at what exactly they wanted out of Bryant. However, my lack of understanding of the nebulous requirements they expected suggests I was closer to Captain Bryant's group than the one my friend Speakman belonged.

The curse with being average is that people tend to remember your mistakes, and misfortunes, more than anything else. Being “average” myself in many ways its almost as if you're wearing sign that everyone else but you can see but you that tells people not to expect much. For Captain Bryant to carry such a burden pretty much meant his military career was going to stall and die unless he somehow turn perception around. That opportunity came in the form of one of the battalions units, Alpha Battery, being sent to West Germany in 1987 for REFORGER.

REFORGER, which stand for Return of Forces to Germany was a huge deployment exercise and war games meant to prepare for the possibility of war with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations it controlled. All told thousand of troops and equipment were loaded on planes and ships and sent to Europe from North America. In the days leading up to our departure from Fort Carson, Captain Bryant seemed to be constantly in action. After we arrived in Europe for the first four or five days before the people in my unit were dispersed I don't believe the man ever slept.

What Captain Bryant did between the time of our first arrival and when we all regrouped at the assembly area to wait for our turn to return home I have no idea, although I highly suspect he did his best to play super soldier.

Every soldiers' mission at the assembly area was to wait and prepare the equipment we had drawn in Europe for turn in. As duty goes it was pretty sweet, we lived in literal circus-sized tents with some of them dedicated to food stands, movie theaters, mess halls, PX shops, and even libraries. Our equipment was nearby, all lined up neatly with us spending about half a day cleaning and repairing what we could. After lunch, which was still first generation MRE's at that time, we were usually released and allowed to hang out in the recreation tents or even see some of the local sites. Captain Bryant didn't play that game, even though many of the officers were almost as eager to get away as the enlisted, he stayed in the makeshift motor pool trying to impress the his higher-ups. Sadly, even though he moved heaven and earth during this deployment his average-ness came back with a vengeance.

Naturally, given the human digestive tract and its normal functions the US government spent the money to rent hundreds of port-o-potties for the assembly area to prevent thousands of soldiers from turning the countryside into a disease ridden sewage pit. Most were the normal looking ones you would see here in the States with a wide base that strongly resists tipping over because of wind. But a number of them, like the ones situated close to the motor pool, were quite thin and light and placed very close together.

The morning the incident happened it was already quite windy. In fact, several of the people I was around had noticed the thin and light port-o-potties being moved by the gusts. Once lunchtime came we stopped what we were doing, ate our MRE's, then put away our tools before drifting off to pursue our off-duty entertainment. Not Captain Bryant who stayed behind inside his deuce and a half fitted with a shop van he used as a makeshift office.

Sometime later Bryant had to answer the call of nature and proceeded to use one of the abnormal port-o-potties. Unfortunately, he picked one in the middle of a line of at least fourteen or fifteen. From what I could gather one of those heavy gusts of wind hit when Bryant was inside and not only did the entire line of port-o-potties fall over like so many dominoes, their thin sheet metal construction bent in such a way that he was literally trapped inside. Yeah, as word passed down everyone learned the potty was tipped over enough that its contents did spill out.

Poor Captain Bryant was eventually rescued by someone several hours later but word of what happened spread through the area at a speed that defies Einstein's limit on anything moving faster than light. Efforts to limit the effect on Captain Bryant's reputation were enacted, mainly having already ill-tempered first sergeants telling annoyed platoon sergeants to pass down to the tired section sergeants to tell their troops that any form of misbehavior around Captain Bryant would be severely punished.

It didn't work, especially when news of the incident somehow spread to nearby British troops who were visiting our location. Reports were that when they learned of what happened to Bryant their entire contingent,which was eating in the mess hall tent, all fell onto the floor laughing their asses off. While it was probably American soldiers who did it, someone a few days later took a permanent magic marker and wrote, “Bryant-potty, Use only at your own risk” on most of the type that fell over and trapped him.

There is no happy ending to this story. This incident sort of capped a military career that never left the metaphorical launch pad. He only stayed with the battalion about six months before getting reassigned somewhere else in the United States. But even when I was about to leave the service in July of 1990 some a-hole was still writing “Bryant-potty” on the much more stable ones used at Fort Carson. The only person I knew who could have been immune to possible discovery of the action and had ample opportunity to hit so many of the potties used down range was my good friend, David Speakman.