Friday, January 25, 2013

A Hopeful Close Encounter

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” ― Aesop

Years ago while surfing off Pawleys Island, South Carolina I had an incredible encounter with a wild dolphin. While the meeting was brief I nevertheless came away with the idea that something more had gone on than a just a lazy semi-naked primate and a curious cetacean bumping into each other on the edge of the ocean. I have no real evidence to prove this but I have never been able to shake the feeling that we both wanted to say something to the other but our extremely different methods of communications made that impossible.

When the video below came to my attention, you cannot imagine how happy I was to see how other humans and an injured dolphin were able to bridge the gap my cetacean friend and I could not. I do my best to keep a scientific frame of mind on the world and universe, but to see a wild dolphin swim out of the darkness clearly seeking help so a hook and fishing line that it had become entangled with could be cut away suggests a level of intelligence far beyond what we have come to expect. You cannot imagine how happy I am that everything worked out for the best this time for both species.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Slouching Towards Somalia

"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad" (Latin: Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius)

Hold onto your hats folks because if you have not already guessed it, and I feel sorry if you haven’t, but for the foreseeable future the good old United States of America will continue to slouch ever closer to failed state status. Sitting atop this Edward Gibbon-like vantage point is no blessing I tell you, it is the end result of what many members of my family consider my bizarre behavior and views or, from my perspective, an isolated and lonely position of relative sanity in a world of bat shit crazy.

Of course, the tipping point came with President Obama. My family had always looked askew at my interests in space exploration, liberal politics, and a general belief that pissing and shitting up the planet all to make an easy buck or two was a bad idea. But it took a black man daring to run and win the presidency before my phone calls started to go unanswered at best to outright disownment. As sad as this statement might seem, this political estrangement with some members of my family for the most matters little. I tend to follow the idea of live and let live with them since even though I have voted for Obama twice and support a good many of his stated policies he is just a politician like all the rest subject to all the failings and flaws of everyone else.

No, where I get in trouble and find myself surfing the internet looking for a country where my family and I could immigrate is the increasing evidence that the United States is edging ever closer to a right-wing psychotic breakdown. Despite some well-crafted delusions, Americans have never been that rational and if you want to get technical, you can go all the way back to the Salem witch trials for an example. But the biggest illustrations of American bizarre behavior were the centuries we spent justifying slavery then segregation, the genocide of Native Americans, and wars started to benefit the profit margin of corporations just to name a few on the hit parade of world shaking hypocrisy.

However, since the recent slaughter of twenty innocent first-graders the bizarre overreaction to even the barest commonsense measures to curb gun violence by the black helicopter fearing gun nut crowd has put them on the charts, and excuse the pun, with a bullet. The fun fact in all this is that I feel this way even though I own both a .45 Colt semiautomatic pistol and a relatively small rifle called an AR-7, which was designed as a USAF pilot’s survival rifle.

Why do I own these small weapons? The .45 is a good weapon for home protection and the small caliber AR-7 is primarily designed for wilderness survival such as hunting small game.  In truth I have not fired either in over a year and both are hidden separately from the small amount of ammo I own to prevent overly curious hands from looking at them. Neither have the obscene capacity or massive body shredding firepower of the Bushmaster/AR-15 used in Newtown.

Right after the Newtown event, I mistakenly got into a debate on Facebook, never a good venue for logical discussion, with couple of people who tightly wrapped their gun owning rights in the American flag. Early in the exchange even though I clearly stated I was a gun owner when I wrote that I supported restrictions on both the excessive purchase of ammo and the banning of the large thirty round magazines. Their mindless, knee jerk reaction was to immediately classify me with those who seek a total ban on all gun ownership.

In retrospect, my disagreement with those people while distasteful was microscopic compared to the propaganda and hate that has flooded the television and internet since then with some calling for the impeachment of the president to outright civil war.

The question as to why there is such an extreme reaction to the most basic gun control measures that in my opinion fall short to what we should actually do boils down to simple fear by a certain ethnic group in this country who see it changing. While exceptions do exist in the form of well publicized tokens promoted by conservatives, the vast majority of people who live in fear of federal storm troopers out to take assault weapons and begin the Marxist indoctrination of their children are lily-white folks.

Since I am white myself, look rather redneckish at times in the opinion of my wife, and live in the eye of the proverbial disgruntled conservative storm these fearful folks tend to say stuff around me they would never utter in front of an African-American or Hispanic-American. The degree the average fearful white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant will go to hide their true feelings is really quite remarkable. In fact, I would bet a large sum of money I do not have that if a truly objective white person here in the South stays silent and just listens this coming Monday they will hear a vast cornucopia of disparaging remarks about both President Obama and Martin Luther King. Of course, this will vary to a certain degree; a college professor working around highly educated people in an intellectual, multiracial environment might be spared compared to some liberal idiot like me rubbing elbows with those convinced the Earth is just six-thousand years old.

While it is not stated in such formal terms, the changing ethnic demographics here in America have the WASPs fearing the end of both the United States and Western civilization as they know it. To find the best example of this all you have to do is read anything written by former presidential candidate and MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan in the last five to ten years. The man has had the United States on the verge of falling like ancient Rome and then fragmenting with various ethnic groups playing the part of the Visigoths, Vandals, and the Huns.

Another example is the surreal paranoia shown by those convinced that some sort of sinister conspiracy exists to institute Sharia law in this country. All these phantom menaces call for an eternally vigilant and heavily armed people ready to jump at a moment’s notices to defeat the pending hordes of barbarian minorities producing anchor babies like rabbits and the evil cabal of Muslims out to force all good Christian girls into burkas.

It is a very sad state of affairs in this country when guns in general and assault weapons in particular serve as a mental salve for those who feel increasingly powerless in a world that is beyond their understanding. While candidate Obama in 2008 was thoroughly chastised for mentioning this but certain people do cling to their guns and religion in an attempt to deal with their frustrations. Movies and video games only promote this view showing how complex problems are easily solved with humorous one-liners and massive, high-caliber firepower. Such is the pity because it takes away from the legitimate use of truly reasonable weapons for home defense and hunting.      

When you add all of it together, those fearful of an ethnic and religious shift away from what they believe is “normal”, belief in sinister forces planning all manner of conspiracies, and the naive view that problems can be solved if enough bullets are only used is a recipe for disaster and national suicide. Healthy countries have to be ready to adapt when conditions change. Logic should dictate that the conditions existing when a country is formed, say the United States for example, do not necessarily mean they are relevant now in the twenty-first century. While most countries who fail to recognize this have long since disappeared from history there is one in existence that can be used as an example. It is that overly religious and libertarian paradise of Somalia.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Acting Goofy at Mickey's House

“By the way, “the lovely and hardworking Dragonwife said this afternoon after returning home from work, “I’ve made the Disney World reservations for the middle of the June.”

“Awesome!” I said, feeling my inner Disney geek metaphorically jumping for joy.

Our last visit to Walt’s Florida creation was well over eighteen months ago and since it is an important pillar supporting my continued mental health I was starting to feel the strain from being away for so long. Both Dragonwife and I love the place and along with being members of the timeshare-like Disney Vacation Club, allowing us to stay at nearly all of the resorts next the various parks our number of visits over the years could easily be considered excessive by anyone with a less favorable view of Mickey Mouse’s east coast home.

Dragonwife, who was not in a particularly good mood, did have to ruin my happy time by reminding me of some unpleasant facts. “Now,” she said after making a deep sighing sound, “I hope we can have a vacation without you doing something that might get us kicked out of the place.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you mean.” I said, actually half believing the words coming out of my mouth. The immediate look of tired incredulity that flashed upon Dragonwife’s face was enough to show that she was not buying my suave attempt to deflect her cynicism at my less than thought out antics.

“Well,” she said, “let me remind you. First, there was the nasty incident with the girl dressed up as Ariel.”

“That was not my fault,” I shot back. “she said I could take a picture with her. Given my height and her position sitting on the rock, it’s not my fault where my hand landed where it did.”

“Oh please Ron, you groped the Little Mermaid on purpose and you know it.”

This discussion had been rehashed several times and I just kept quiet out of not wanting to dredge up the facts supporting my argument against such sophomoric behavior. Especially since, I made them up in the first place and knowing my wife’s excellent memory when it comes to some of the stupid stuff I have done I thought it best not to open another can of worms.

“One unfortunate incident does not make a series.” I said while momentarily preoccupied with feeding dynamic canine duo of Sparky the hyperactive dog and Jax the furry poop machine.

“Please, there was the other incident with Bell and Jasmine.”

“I was clearly joking my dear wife.  Disney employees have high moral standards and neither one of those ladies would ever behave in such a way, at least not with me… unless I won the lotto. Although I still have my doubts about Jasmine, she had that strange, freaky look in her eyes.”

“Okay, what about that event at Mickey’s country home?”

“Oh damn, you had to bring that up.”

This all began on a hot summer afternoon back in 2006. My daughter Darth Wiggles was four years old and totally in awe with anything that had to do with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, or Goofy. Since both my wife and I wanted to indoctrinate Wiggles into the Disney culture, we had her standing next to those characters for pictures whenever they appeared. One of the best places in the Magic Kingdom for character pictures was a section of the theme park called “Mickey’s Toontown Fair.” Consisting mostly of rides and attractions for little kids it had a large, air conditioned barn-like structure that allowed parents to get a lot of pictures with not only Mickey, Minnie, and their entourage but the human characters like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Tinker Bell.

After standing in line for close to an hour we exited the barn and proceeded to visit various attractions in Toontown, in particular a structure formally named “Mickey’s Country Home.” Like the other fake homes of Minnie and Donald, it was obviously a cartoon-inspired realization of the type of cottage the world famous mouse might own. The furnishings inside the various rooms did not look that fantastical except for an exaggerated 1940’s style with all the items oversized and rounded. Like all things Disney the imagination and attention to detail was tremendous. My problems started when we entered Mickey’s hypothetical living room.

As anyone with an ounce of commonsense could guess most of the house was roped off with clear pathways for the tourists to walk through. The pathway in the living room had us walking along the one of the walls with everyone seeing the back of Mickey’s television. Placed in front of the cartoonish, old style television was Mickey’s easy chair with flickering lights from the television clearly reflecting off its polished plastic surface.

Maybe it was the heat, the excessive walking, or the extraordinarily crappy theme park food but I somehow became obsessed with finding out if they had actually placed a real television in Mickey’s house with it running some sort of cartoon on a loop. To find out I would have to lean over the rope blocking a more responsible idiot from doing a similarly stupid act. But hey, I am tall and thought I could lean over enough without it being an issue.  WRONG!

Just when I leaned over enough to see the front of Mickey’s television was just a box with flickering light bulbs mounted inside this god-awful alarm sounded. It was something akin to an air raid siren combined with what a couple of dinosaurs having sex might sound like and as I stood up all the other people in the structure were staring at me. Let us just say Dragonwife was not happy with me and the words I heard mumbled by the other tourists were not particularly friendly.

My chief worries for several minutes afterwards had more to do with a Disney SWAT team storming out of some camouflaged door and then hauling me off to the Magic Kingdom version of Gitmo. Things did not get any better as the day continued, not only did I had to contend with a family that wanted to disown me I started to believe I was being followed by men dressed in nice sports coats that appeared to be talking to microphones clipped to the inside of their sleeves.

 Since then I have walked the straight and narrow whenever visiting Disney World and it is something that I will endeavor to do again this June. Well…that is not entirely true, there was one incident on our last Disney Cruise. But, that involved the United States Government and I cannot believe the all knowing and forgiving mouse could carry a grudge that long.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Second Hand Inheritance: Part Two

 (Author's note: Here is the link to part one which explains where the idea for this story came from. Hope this confusing jumble of words makes some sense, once again its just me having fun.)

The sun was up when I finally awoke and I quickly jumped out to see what damage there was to the valley. Because of the years of work and better than average success in seeding the area with terrestrial life, I had hoped the situation would not be a total disaster. Before the ground quake the valley was close to sixty-five kilometers long and forty kilometers wide with the river running down the middle all the way out past the gap marking its end. After the event, one of the mountains had collapsed covering over half of the eastern end of the valley in rubble with the river even changing its course to go around the obstructions. The result was devastating with many of the seeded ponds and most of the trees now covered under tons of boulders and gravel.  

After several minutes, I started scanning the collapsed mountain with my binoculars looking for signs of any pending landslides. Since I was not a geologist I could not tell for sure but it looked as if the mountain had been cleanly cleaved down an existing fault. Aside from loose boulders, it looked as if the worst was over even though what had already occurred was bad enough. Right when I was about to pull out my communicator it was then I noticed a strange shape on the side of the mountain about seven-hundred meters up from the base. For all the world it looked like a tunnel shaped like a perfect pentagon with its pitch black interior standing out in sharp contrast from the red-brown material  that made up the rest of the peak. Making matters more mysterious was that if I pushed the focus on my enhanced binoculars to the very limit I could see what looked to be a metal-like substance framing the tunnel.

From the day the Pathfinder arrived in the Tau Ceti system there had been fanciful talk about possibly finding alien artifacts, the idea being that at the start of the twenty-first century no sane person would have guessed of the upcoming events that would ultimately lead to the destruction of the Earth. So, it was grudgingly admitted by the skeptics that finding intelligent alien life or evidence of its existence was in no way a jump into fantasy. The trouble was that as the initial mapping of Haven and scans of the rest of the system proceeded after Pathfinder arrived, no signs of an alien civilization were ever found.

Still though, I was looking straight at something that I did not think could be a natural occurrence. I wanted to call New Jericho and send video but if I did and it turned out to be nothing I would never hear the end of it. That left only possible course of action, I had to cross down into the valley and over through all the debris field to examine the feature directly.

A well-worn path along the side of the mountain had me down in the valley in less than an hour. My spirits were greatly lifted as I passed a couple of the surviving fresh water ponds and saw not only living terrestrial vegetation but several adult bullfrogs and ample evidence of small fish and insects.  There was even indication that some of the life seeded directly in the river had survived the ground quake and the rerouting of the waterway. However, when I entered the debris field I abandoned the buggy and brought only the basic survival backpack, ropes, and since the pentagon-shaped mystery still looked like the entrance to a tunnel all the chemical light sticks and balls I could carry.

It took me hours to make my way up and because of loose boulders I actually had to climb above what I was now sure was an artificial tunnel. When I finally repelled down into the passageway, I could barely control both my curiosity and excitement. Not only was it clear the tunnel was lined with a refined metal after turning on my flashlight I saw patterns embedded in it that I guessed was some sort of writing.

With all doubt about the tunnel now removed, I stood on the edge of what had become the entrance since the ground quake and tried to reach someone at New Jericho with my communicator. As luck would have it, the relay tower was down at that moment and the lone satellite dedicated to Grounder communications was not in the proper position. The best I could do was leave an automated message that everyone would get when the tower came back online. With that done, I donned the small pair of night vision goggles from my backpack and started walking deeper into the unknown.

At what I guessed was two-hundred meter intervals, I dropped one of the chemical light sticks knowing that even after their light was no longer visible the night vision goggles would be able to pick up their faint glow. I began to get nervous after an hour of walking even with my precautions and despite the fact, the passageway was straight with only a slight but steady decline going deeper into the mountain. It seemed an easy assumption that whatever constructed this facility, they went to great lengths to protect it along the lines of the command bunkers the old nation-states on Earth built during the twentieth century Cold War.

The passageway ended rather anticlimactically at a featureless circular room about two-hundred meters in diameter. Unlike the walls of the tunnel, the room carried no embedded shapes almost as if the builders had gotten there and just said to hell with the whole project. After circling the entire room, right when I was about to head back out a huge door slammed shut at the entrance and a weak light at the center of the ceiling came on slowly increasing intensity allowing me to remove the night vision goggles I had been wearing.

Seconds after doors slammed shut I began hearing sounds from the floor below that reminded me of massive machinery coming to life. At the same time detailed holograms began appearing on the wall showing detailed scans of my skeletal structure, circulatory and nervous system and every other facet of my body down to the molecular level.

Considerable attention was spent on my brain with holograms that seemed to show experiments being performed on the floating simulations. As I stood trapped in that room subject to the whims of the entity or entities running these scans and tests I found considerable comfort in the fact that everything was completely painless. Truth be told, I had a strong suspicion the reason I was being shown the holograms in the first place was to reassure me no harm was meant, something that was very soon to be confirmed.

“Well, this is extremely fascinating,” I heard behind me. Taken by surprise at hearing those words , I turned to see another hologram forming but this time it had nothing to do with anything remotely human. What I saw taking shape before me looked like an octopus from Earth. It had the expected eight legs but four of the appendages were ridge and clearly served as legs while the other four looked more like something from a terrestrial cephalopod but ended in fine, finger-like digits.  

I stood transfixed for several minutes watching the hologram complete the process of forming; a procedure that was clearly taking far longer than the previous three-dimensional images I saw, which could instantly materialize in high-definition across the room’s circular walls. When the creature finally looked solid, I noticed it had four eyes located on a center point of the body I took to be its face. Underneath the eyes were slits that expanded and contracted on a regular basis and appeared to be used for breathing. The most remarkable thing of all was that the creature’s entire body pulsated in amazing patterns of color. “When this structure was constructed so many eons ago we had absolutely no idea that when it was finally found it would be by a strange looking alien from another star system.” The creature said with each word causing complex patterns of color to ripple across its body.

Feeling strangely calm and almost flippant I replied, “Good point, but I never expected to meet an alien creature that could speak English.”

The creature actually seemed to enjoy the verbal exchange with an explosion of color crisscrossing its body, which I instantly assumed was laughter. “Oh my dear boy,” it said,” that was a simple enough task.” Along the walls multiple images appeared of New Jericho and Pathfinder’s habitat sphere showing all manner of human activities as if we were right there walking among the people and buildings. “As soon as you entered this central room triggering the systems we scanned everything from you to your small settlement and the ship in orbit. As you can guess from the images we displayed of our scans of your body our abilities are exponentially  more advanced that your current technological level. It did not take long for us to understand your languages, recorded history, and your attempts to bring life back to this battered world.”

Gathering my thoughts, I finally came up with a semi-intelligent question. “What do you mean battered world and never expected an alien to find this structure? And you keep saying ‘us’ how many of your species live in this complex?”

“Well,” it said heavily tinged with overt human sadness, “since we know so much about you and your species it’s time we share some answers. As for how many of us are alive here, the simplest answer is none. The complicated answer is that there are forty-two surviving individual personalities existing in an artificial reality matrix. At the time of our civilization’s Great Death, there were thousands but as the eons passed, they went insane and were deleted or became so entangled with the matrix their sentience slipped away. What remains of such a distorted and dulled personality amalgamation with the system essentially becoming a character in what you would call a movie.

The creature then paused for several seconds as if it was gathering its thoughts. The pulses of color over its body nearly died away and I began to worry something had gone wrong. “As for our battered world, my civilization was ancient when dinosaurs ruled your planet and by the time the earliest human ancestors were beginning to climb down from the trees it had reached a level of development you would compare to magic. Our fall came when a large number of my species began to believe we had in actuality become what you would call gods.”

The holograms came alive again with images of what I took to be the planet Haven millions of years ago hanging in space. The images zoomed down to the surface showing graceful crystal-like cities and millions of creatures like my new friend walking among the streets. It was a beautiful world fitting seamlessly with dark colored native vegetation and the terrain creating a work of art.

“Unlike the crude and nonsensical political and religious divisions that plagued your species,” my friend said, “from the time my early ancestors crawled out of the mother ocean we were a unified species. There were divisions and events very much like wars but they never lasted long. Our physiological and philosophical makeup prevented deep divisions and as for religion, your history suggests a level of insanity that defies all reasonable explanation. From your own records, early humans had a habit of constructing polytheistic religions with a complicated series of gods all exhibiting your same base and irrational behavior. The monotheistic faiths that followed spoke of rising above such primitive instincts but quickly devolved and in fact behaved even worse in many cases. Instead of trying to create gods or god in our own image, my species viewed the universe as a living creature where various types of intelligence emerges and struggles to reach some sort of connection with the greater whole.”

“But yet with all your knowledge and wisdom you eventually found a way to destroy yourselves?” I said confused.

“Our downfall came from the desire to actively pursue perfection in an effort to force an early unity with the universe on our own terms. Unlike your species, we had no moral or ethical issue with modifying our basic genetic code. It was something we had been doing since our civilization began. The problem came with the very different and competing methods some were experimenting with that threatened to change our core nature. Various factions formed over the methods with the extremists doing their best to exacerbate the divide. The war that resulted sterilized our world so completely it took millions of years to come to the state you see now.”

The holographic images floating before us of an advanced civilization merged into a single picture that jumped back out to space showing Haven as a whole. Blotches or fire bloomed on the surface and grew until it encompassed the entire surface. Centuries then began to flash by in seconds now with the planet nothing but a burnt cider.   

“My own faction built this structure in the childish hope that something might be left for us to rebuild from the ashes but we eventually realized that would not be possible. After that we just continued our existence for no other reason than the fact that self termination was not an option that had been built into the system.”

I could tell my meeting with the creature was drawing to a close but I had one more question. “How does my species fit in all this? We do not have the ability to leave your world should you find our presence objectionable, we are orphans in every sense of the word.”

“My surviving compatriots and I could not force your species off the planet even if we wanted. We are limited to just the passive watching of the outside universe. No, we decided to meet with you because we feel your species presence could bring something back to this injured planet and us as well. Yes, you are very flawed creatures but you crossed the stars in an effort to preserve life and rebuild a civilization. They are goals worthy of the most noble of intelligent species we have every encountered. No, the fault is our own, we have little to give you but a wrecked world and maybe as the years go by wisdom in the hopes we can help you recreate something of your lost home here.”

Without any ceremony, the creature started to fade. “Wait a minute,” I yelled, “will we met again?”

“Most definitely we will talk again, although I have no idea when, my fellow survivors and I have much to discuss.”

“What can I call you when that happens?”

The patterns of light again flashed across the creature’s body indicating laughter. “My species language is incomprehensible to you humans, but just for simplicity sake I will take the human name of Sam.”

The huge doors to the room opened the same time Sam faded completely away. The tunnel back to the surface was lighted this time and when I emerged on the surface, it seemed the whole town of New Jericho had come to Apple Valley. It took a few hours for me to climb down as they were trying their best to climb up to the entrance.

“What the Hell did you find Aaron?” my boss Akemi and wife Ruth asked along with everyone else after I made it down to the base camp that had been set up.

“I stumbled upon the landlords and they officially gave us the planet. Said it was a fixer upper and that they will stay in touch.” Was my general answer, but as the days passed and news about Sam and his fellow survivors of a lost civilization was adsorbed it was clear that humanity’s view of the universe had changed again. I had no idea where this all would lead but I soon realized that for me personally I had completely accepted Haven as my home.