Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fear the Reaper

It was well past midnight as the driver of a BMW coupe turned into the underground parking garage servicing the building where she worked and proceeded to search for an empty spot close to an elevator. Nervousness and frustration swirled within her head as she descended deeper into the concrete structure. Every parking spot near the elevators were taken but yet if she went down any further the advantage of a quick exit from the building would be lost due to the extended time it took to escape the underground structure itself. Time, or the lack of it, was the current linchpin of her existence and if she didn't do everything right in the next couple of hours all her efforts, and possibly her life, would be meaningless.

Eventually the driver pulled into a parking spot on one of the mid-levels of the garage and proceeded to the next step in her plan. Wearing just casual slacks, a sweatshirt, and leather jacket her attire ran totally counter to the required dressed code during normal working business hours. Before leaving her apartment she had actually considered dressing up for her late-night visit but decided against it since it might raise more questions with security personnel and the small skeleton crew of office workers who watch the computers during the night.

The ride up the elevator to the ground floor reception area was uneventful. But the camera mounted above the sliding doors was proof positive that in some darken room one of the many security guards hired by her company had taken note of her arrival and had probably already alerted the guard standing watch at her first destination.

“Hello Ms. Drayton,” the security guard sitting at the reception desk said as she exited the elevator, “what brings you in this late at night?”

“Hi Roger,” Alice Drayton responded after searching her memory for the man's name. “I've got a bit of an emergency, I have a presentation this Thursday but a couple of hours ago I realized I had forgotten a vital report that I need to include. Is there anyway you can allow me to go up to my office and retrieve the thing so I can get this off my mind?”

Roger looked at Alice for several long seconds not saying a word. Fear began to build in her mind as the glorified rent-a-cop seemed to be weighing the validity of her reason for disturbing his peaceful shift. Alice knew that the company liked to hire ex-military types who suffered from an excess of testosterone and suspicion when it came to office workers like her.

It came as a shock and relief when Alice suddenly realized that Roger was just ogling her and hadn't realized the mental porno going on in his head was taking too long. “Roger,” Alice said again, “how about it?”

“Oh yeah,” he responded shaking his head while returning to reality, “that won't be a problem but you know the rules, someone has to accompany you all the way up and then back out.”

“I figured that,” Alice said nodding, not telling the man she had a contingency plan that would take care of an unwanted companion.

Roger next spent several minutes on the phone trying to get another security guard to come take his place at the desk so he would be the one to escort Alice up to her office. His hushed but serious tones quickly turned to outright pleading. It got so bad that Alice actually turned away to look over the huge lobby in an attempt not to to embarrass the man.

Alice felt some significant regret over the actions she was being forced to take. The company, a national known investment firm, had hired her straight out of college and given her a highly visible and well-paid position. Not out of any noble attempt to address the inequalities inherent to American business but strictly as an old-fashioned token to show a mostly disinterested population that they were not really a corrupt “old boys club.”

Since the 1980's American ideals had taken a neglected backseat to the needs of aging baby boomers whose chief concern was their retirement portfolios. In the greater scope of life what are little things like civil rights and environmental responsibility when weighed against the need for enough money so former hippies and suburbanite proles can spend their golden years drinking iced tea and playing golf down in Florida. Standing there in the lobby waiting for Roger to arrange her escort, Alice grimly smiled at calculated cowardice of it all. There was some satisfaction for her in the knowledge that all through history great powers tended to fall when narrow self-interest overwhelmed principle and thoughts for the future.

“Okay, Ms. Drayton,” Roger happily said, “I've got a guy coming to take my spot at the desk while I escort you to your office.”

Alice noticed that Roger was just too damn jovial for her present frame of mind. Back when the guy was on day shift he had hit on all the newly hired women. For the women of Alice's age group Roger's efforts were a sad comedy. Company scuttlebutt had confirmed that he was a divorced guy with two teenage kids and that ill timed flirting with one of the few senior female partners was the event that had banished him to work nights. The fact that he was closer to fifty than forty while carrying almost thirty extra pounds made his wooing of twenty-something women a joke that had long since closed the line to the other side of absurdity. The icing on the Roger's ridiculous nature was his neatly trimmed goatee that suggested the only person he truly loved was the guy that stared back at him in the mirror.

Minutes later, after another security guy relieved Roger they are riding the elevator to the floor where Alice's office is located. “Hey Ms Drayton,” Roger said in another attempt to engage her in conversation, “ did you catch the Braves game last night?” Apparently Roger somehow knew Alice grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, a fact that sent unwanted chills down her spine.

“No I didn't, I was with my boyfriend,” she answered in an attempt to shut the man up. Her response only cause Roger to chose a new line of questions.

The arrival onto the floor where Alice's office was located brought with it a welcomed silence where Roger just followed closely behind. A quick flash of her card key unlocked the door allowing Alice to enter. While security was tight the company didn't allow guys like Roger wandering around inside offices where there was sensitive material lying around. So Alice actually welcomed the idea of not having to smell the man's cheap aftershave.

“I'll just be a few minutes Roger,” Alice said after reaching her desk. This was the point of no return, the mere fact she was turning on her computer would alert the cyber-security types who would be able to backtrack every one of her keystrokes. The trouble was that she needed time and having Roger close by would not allow her accomplish the task.

“Roger,” Alice said, “would you come here. I'm not quite sure what's going on with my computer.”

Now had middle-aged Roger been more interested in his job than scoring with the young Alice Drayton he would have declined and forced her to leave the building until such time the proper technicians arrived in the morning. But seeing an unexpected opportunity he rushed in to play the rescuing hero only to receive the sensation of a sharp, thin needle penetrating his fleshy butt as soon as he leaned over close to Alice.

“What the hell,” he said quickly standing up and backing away. The mixture of compounds in the hypodermic auto-injector quickly flushed all through Roger's blood system first making him dizzy then causing the man to collapse on the floor. Alice suspended her normal human compassion because time was quickly counting down, the security guard down in the lobby would surely call Roger in a few minutes.

Alice pulled the small thumb drive from the pocket of her leather jacket and inserted it into the computer. The files she needed were quickly pulled up on the screen and then transferred to the device. At least when that part was over she breathed a fleeting sigh of relief. The next step would require some acting. Taking a moment to collect herself she picked up the phone on her desk and dialed the reception desk down in the lobby. “Hello,” she said in a panicked voice, “I'm up here with Roger and he complained about chest pains before passing out in my office. Please get someone up here quickly.”

The response time left much to be desired but eventually five security guards arrived at her office. “What happened Ms Drayton?” The night supervisor asked as a couple of others checked Roger's pulse and breathing.

Alice told a story about how Roger stepped inside the office complaining about how badly he was feeling before falling to the floor. The neat thing about Alice's story is that while there were enough cameras mounted all through the hallways on every floor, none were inside actual offices. Alice then danced about seemly scared, bordering on being hysterical to the point the night supervisor had one of the other security guards escort her out the building so they could prepare for the paramedics arriving.

When Alice got back to her little sports car she wasn't worried about them closing the gates and locking down the structure. Roger's collapse due to the drug she injected him with and her acting had all but convinced them she was just a typical woman who could not take stress. But still she hauled ass out and only felt better when she turned into traffic.

The next thing on her schedule was the rendezvous where she causally drove across town to a private airport. A sleek and foreboding Chevy Suburban was parked next a small executive jet. Inside the SUV was her contact, a man who had gone against his own bosses by giving Alice the auto-injector and coaching her through the procedures to retrieve the information she had told them existed.

"Reaper has arrived," the agent-in-charge said into a small microphone inside the sleeve of his coat. 

Allowing Alice enough time to remove the thumb drive and give it to him he then asked “Did you get it all?”

“Everything,” Alice responded watching him hand the storage device to another agent, “will this bring down the company like you said it will.”

“If the tidbits you showed us are anything like the overall package it will easily bring down the company, several government bureaucrats, and a few United States senators. The public simply cannot ignore the danger they have been exposed to because of the greed of a few elites. Are you ready to pay the price for exposing so many of the rich and powerful? Are you really ready to give up your identity, your past, and your family and begin a new life somewhere else?”

“Is our agreement still in effect?” Alice asked.

One of the other agents in the SUV had begun reviewing the files Alice stole on a small laptop. “What about it Agent Wilson” the agent-in-charge asked, “is everything there?”

“Yeah, it's all here and more. These guys and gals will be going to jail for a long time, that is if the public doesn't lynch then first.”

The agent-in-charge shrugged and then handed Alice a cell phone. She had long since made her peace with the decision to expose the company. Months ago she had said goodbye to her brother and mother even though they weren't close. So with no regret she dialed the number she had long since memorized and waited for the person on the other end to answer. Being so early in the morning she had to dial the number three times before an irate man finally answered.

“Who the hell is this and it better be important!” he bellowed into the phone.

“Hello Mr. Jackson, it's Alice Drayton I'm here to inform you there has been a data breach at the company.”

“What the hell are you talking about Drayton, what data breach?'”

Alice smiled like a cat about to eat a valuable and fat bird. “It's the Connors Chemical and Drilling files sir, the FBI now has them.”

“Oh my God,” was all Jackson could say. “This will ruin everything and everyone. How did it happen? Who gave them the files?”

“I did sir, and I am told you will be one of the first people they arrest.” Without saying another word Alice cut the connection and tossed the cell phone back to the agent.

“We're done here, lets get going.” The agent-in-charge said.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Future Hermit Kingdom

In a world where there is an overabundance of grotesque human jokes the country of North Korea wins the award for excuse-free craziness. Many other countries at least make up some vaguely plausible reasons as to why they oppress their populations, destroy the environment, or periodically look for a rational motive to plunge the world into war. For some its the easy excuse of religion, there's nothing like a few sanctimonious a-holes screaming infidel or blasphemer to get the uneducated masses riled up. Needless, to say I am including all three monotheistic religions in this criticism as well as most, if not all the rest. Another goody is the always trusty ethnic excuse in that some group comes to believe they are privileged in some fashion which means everyone else is slightly sub-human. The final one is the love of money. In this capitalistic age it has come to rival the other two as an excuse to commit all manner of crimes both great and small.

North Korea is immune to all of that, they're crazy and know it. So much that they just sit back in their tiny polluted corner of the world, make demands just like a mentally retarded petulant child, and then watch the rest of semi-civilized humanity fret over whether they will start a war that is almost guaranteed to kill millions. While they were once a Marxist nation, created at the start of the Cold War, I agree with the view that the unfortunate inhabitants of that land now live under some quasi-religious, family controlled cult where reality has no basis in fact.

Yeah, you say, tell me something I don't know. Okay, what I will tell you is that none other than the United States is every so slowly floating down a similar river. Case in point is the newly elected Senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton.

In a move that suggests he wants to unseat Ted Cruz for the most clueless senator this mental giant goes and pens a letter to Iran saying that no matter what possible agreement you reach with a legitimately elected United States president—as opposed to George Bush—the next person to occupy that office could casually abandon that accord. Adding another dash of dark comedy to Cotton's letter is that forty-seven other senators signed it as well forever ending the idea that politics stops at America's shoreline when it comes to foreign policy. Yes, I remember Nancy Pelosi had an ill-advised meeting with the president of Syria several years ago during Second Bush. But back then there wasn't an Israeli/Republican cheer leading party demanding war with them like they are with Iran. 

All that is seriously deranged behavior but what truly freaked me out was another quote by Cotton. 

North Korea is a huge prison, it is a safe assumption to say that unless a person is somehow connected to the ruling elite there is only an extremely small chance of escape from that nightmare. It is a country where absolutely everything is geared for total war. To have an United States senator openly call for America to base its reason for being on anything even remotely similar to North Korea is the very definition of the word surreal. But yet that is where we stand, conflict has become our byword, not the search for peace or the betterment of our citizens but a perpetual call for war. To be sure, the world is dangerous place and we must stand ready to defend ourselves and our allies but somewhere in the recent past a line was crossed.

Yes, the United States has had the blood of innocents on its hands almost since the founding of the Republic but there was a time when we at least paid lip service to the idea that all wars are at their essence are wasteful and monstrous enterprises. Now we writhe almost exclusively in the squalid and stunted glory of how many human beings our laser-guided bombs and trained snipers can kill in a day. At the same time our elites demand yet another war the national infrastructure is falling apart, certain schools are allowed to fail, and poor Americans are told to shut up and just be glad they have a job despite the fact it fails to pay a living wage. Don't know about anyone else but that is starting to sound a lot like North Korea.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Flu Shot Insufficiency

The first inkling that a torturous, virus-induced fog of flu was about to descend upon my existence came last Sunday afternoon. At the time it was a small nagging headache that just refused to completely go away. The night before we had just “sprung ahead one hour” and the daily high temperatures the previous week had oscillated between late-autumn lows and early spring highs making life seriously sucky. I literally went to work one night wearing just a t-shirt and jeans because it was so warm but had to put on a sweatshirt around the house the next morning because some freaky weather front had slipped by sending the temperatures into the low forties. When you also consider the fact that I work night-shift, which is like a suicide bomber on my circadian clock, a small headache seemed insignificant.

That night at work though my condition had worsen to the point that I felt like I had slipped into an alternate universe governed by different laws of physics. Absolutely nothing made any real sense and in truth, I would have called it a wrap and went home had we not received news Sunday evening that one of my wife's uncles had passed away requiring a family trip up to Wilmington, North Carolina later in the week. Despite my abject misery, I needed to suck it up and go on into work so I wouldn't waste too much vacation time.

Monday and Tuesday there were times I would get better and feel close to human and living in a three-dimensional universe. But in the space of a few hours I would slip back into the Twilight Zone wishing someone would just shoot my sorry ass. It was Wednesday afternoon when the flu-induced fog permanently set in requiring I finally go to the doctor.

Since I am famous for being misunderstood I'll say this as simply as I can, I hate going to the doctor when I am sick. Despite the stupid and ridiculous nature of that statement there are real reasons. The first being that when I do go to the doctor with a cold I always have this nagging feeling that I am making too much of my illness. It's one thing to feel bad, but when I see another patient in the waiting room throwing up their lungs into one of those cheap curved plastic basins it sort of puts my illness into perspective. The second is work related in that when blue collar types like me call in sick their coworkers always have to pick up the slack. It's a spectacular and easy way to become immediately unpopular despite all the company related talk espousing the idea of teamwork. So it says a lot when I decided that no matter the repercussions, I had to see a doctor quickly.

A third general reason why guys don't like to see the doctor is the hassle. There is always paperwork involved, even when you're actually seeing your primary care physician. However, when I called my doctor's office I was told the first available appointment was two weeks away. The way I felt at that moment I wasn't going to last two days. So that left me one option, the local doc-in-a-box, urgent care facility.

After a nerve wracking twenty-minute drive through suburban rush hour traffic I pulled into the parking lot of the nearest fast food-like medical care establishment and walked inside. Thankfully the waiting room was empty so at least I wouldn't have to suffer through the mental angst of wondering who was sicker. But my troubles were just beginning, see since I had never visited that facility the bored receptionist handed me a clipboard with nine pages of information to fill out, many of them double-sided. At that moment I don't think I could have passed a first-grade spelling test and as I looked over the various sheets I saw questions that required some thought and reasoned responses.

Some ungodly time later I handed the clipboard back to the receptionist hoping she didn't look too closely at many of my responses that pretty much amounted to “beats the hell out of me.” Since she was on the phone with her significant other discussing plans for after work I sat back down pondering the demise of customer service and the scarcity of decent reading material in waiting rooms. No, I don't consider an ancient copy of illustrated Bible stories for children all that interesting.

The receptionist finally ended her phone call, but not before a hushed period where there was some whispering and giggling, and asked me for my drivers license and health insurance card. “Your lucky Mr. Johnson,” she said, “there's no other patients and the doctor will be able to see you just as soon as we finish here.”

Oh the joy! I thought while digging through my wallet. The drivers license was easy to find. But panic quickly set in as my health insurance card was nowhere to be found in my wallet. I have a tri-fold wallet and keep all my important cards in the center section. The end sections are for snapshots and important papers. Well, it didn't take long to realize I simply didn't have my insurance card and the receptionist said that unless I wanted to pay upfront there would be no services for me until I found the thing.

“I'll be back.” I said in a mechanical tone after leaning in close. The receptionist complete missed my intended joke having snatched up her cell phone and gone into texting mode totally oblivious to the rest of the world.

When I got back home I went straight to my sock drawer figuring I must have mistakenly pulled the insurance card out at some point and put it with the rest of the cards and stuff I keep there. No such luck, it wasn't there and I was feeling quite perplexed besides feverish and slightly nauseous. It was then I just gave up and laid down on the bed surrounded by a couple of dozen items like canceled credit cards, insurance agreements, and other pieces of junk required by our modern lifestyle.

“Did you look all through your wallet?” My wife asks when she came home.

“Yeah,” I said having a strange feeling her question was somehow loaded.

She then grabs my wallet and takes out the small piece of plastic designed to hold snapshots. Among the old pictures of my kids was my health insurance card. My wife explained that several weeks earlier she went looking for one of our credit cards and after digging through my wallet she put everything back. What she let go unsaid though was that she didn't place everything back where I normally kept such items like insurance cards.

Had I been of sound mind-yeah that doesn't make sense but screw it-I would have said something about how I'm not supposed to go tearing through her pocketbook but I just let the whole thing drop. No I didn't go back to the doc-in-a-box, it would have taken too much energy, I just laid in bed and somehow made it through one more night of work. I had already put in for Thursday night off to go to the funeral for my wife's uncle. I went straight to the doc-in-a-box the next morning after work and promptly spent two hours sitting in the waiting room. At least I wasn't bored, I got the chance to fill out all that paperwork again. The actual visit with the doctor lasted just fifteen minutes where he declared I had the flu and sent me home.

No, I didn't go to the funeral, although a part of me would have liked to float around several of my in-laws spewing flu viruses like a Las Vegas fountain. And yes, earlier in the year I did have the flu shot that was supposed to reduce my risk of catching it in the first place, go figure.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Wandering Toes: Harbison State Forest

Saturday morning brought with it my usual urge to get out of the house. In actuality what that really means is out of town but I didn't have the funds for a road trip. So in a surprising move I decided to check out Harbison State Forest here in Columbia. See, several years back while I was still in the National Guard doing my weekend duty my wife and young son went there once and got more or less lost on the trails. Something I heard about for years afterward whenever my wife wanted to complain about me being away on weekends.

First, if you visit Harbison State Forest the parking fee is fiver dollars. As you approach the gate entering the place you will see a locked metal box and a smaller one connected to it. The larger one is the cash box, but before you push your money through the slot pull out one of the envelopes in the smaller box. Fill out the pertinent information on the outside of the envelope concerning your car and remove the parking pass from the inside. Only then do you place your money inside the envelope and drop it in the lock box. I didn't read the sign listing the instructions and just pushed my five-dollar bill through the locked box slot. No biggie really, not because I went ahead and grabbed an envelope, removed the parking pass, and placed it on my dashboard but because I regularly do something stupid every time I go someplace new.   

I hit the Eagle Trail first, which was classified on the brochure as "Easy." I will not go into the embarrassing details but it kicked my ass. As the picture shows, the trail was hilly and I was surprised how much effort it took. It was pretty chilly yesterday morning and for the first couple of hours I'm sure I had that particular trail all to myself.  

Eagle Trail opened out onto several nice meadows which were very peaceful.

While not my first choice as an escape from the mind numbing confines of suburbia I did thoroughly enjoy walking amongst the trees. Unfortunately, this section of the forest was still close enough to the highway that I occasionally heard the rancid noises of the nearby decaying civilization.  

Due to state budget cuts this is what passes as a bench. No, I'm just kidding, mostly. Certain sections of the forest definitely needed some extensive maintenance. Trail markers and guide posts were few and far between with many of them heavily weathered and barely readable. 

"A fork in the road." I didn't get lost while walking among the several trails I explored but I could easily see how someone could. 

I'll be honest, my biggest compliant was the trail map. During my time in the army I had a better than average ability in land navigation using maps, compasses, and just terrain recognition. This map on the brochure didn't really bear any relation to the actual trails I could see.    

"You are here." Always something good to know. About the best way to navigate was to match up buildings, and in this case a road. With this excursion I have half an idea about exploring other state forests and parks here in South Carolina. With that in mind I might need to buy a handheld GPS.

The one thing the powers-that-be went all out for were the restrooms. It was clean and comfortable and mostly lacking that typical smell associated with port-o-potties. And the real biggie that surprised me was that it had decent toilet paper that didn't feel like sandpaper. So if you have to go in the Harbison State you can go with ease.

All told, I was on the trails for about three and a half hours. Not sure how much I walked but when I finally got back to my car I was ready to go home.

A decent picture of me, which just means I didn't break the camera.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Out of This World Real Estate

Unbeknownst to the majority of Americans a NASA spacecraft named Dawn is even now slowly approaching the dwarf planet Ceres preparing to enter orbit around that mysterious body floating in the void between Mars and Jupiter. This would normally only be important to planetary scientists and civilian space geeks like me since most bodies in the asteroid belt are about as exciting as the average Idaho potato, curiously something they strongly resemble.

Not Ceres, it is the largest body in the asteroid belt, roughly the size of Texas, with a significant portion of its mass consisting of water ice. There are also strong hints that it may harbor a subsurface ocean like the Jovian moon, Europa is thought to possess. For several decades in the ninetieth century, it was actually classified as a planet before some grumpy scientists got together and busted it down to glorified space junk.

Up until a couple of days ago the boys and girls at NASA seemed to be preparing for the usual science nerdfest as the Dawn spacecraft closed in on Ceres, then something fairly weird happened. Two bright spots appeared on the surface centered inside an impact crater. Now, “bright spots” are a relative term since in actuality Ceres is as black as a lump of coal but still the appearance of these two highly reflective areas has sent everyone involved with the project into a tizzy.

More than likely what Dawn spotted is the eruption of some sort of ice volcano, absolutely scientifically cool since that would mean that there is a subsurface ocean of liquid water. That alone would make the astrobiology crowd extremely happy since the general consensus is that where there is liquid water, some form of life could exist. Given Ceres location in the solar system it would be far easier to send another probe to it than try and land on Europa and then somehow penetrate several miles of ice to reach its ocean. The bad news for any possible lifeforms native to Ceres is that circumstances will eventually make it a valuable piece of real estate.

No, I didn't suddenly have a nasty, unplanned acid flashback that caused my brain to phase out from reality. See the asteroid belt has millions of rocks of various sizes floating around waiting for someone to come claim them. Why would anyone want one of these leftover pieces from the formation of the solar system? Because a good number of them are made up of iron, nickel, and other rare and extremely precious metals. John S Lewis,author of Mining the Sky, has done the numbers and says that an asteroid one-kilometer in diameter would have a mass of about two billion tons and consist in part of about 30 million tons of nickel,1.5 million tons of metal cobalt, and 7500 tons of platinum. The platinum alone would be worth about 105 billion dollars. All told the mineral wealth in the asteroid belt could amount up to 100 billion dollars for each person on Earth.

Yes, going into space to claim and then begin processing asteroids for their metals has been problematic for several reasons but just two have been the real show stoppers. The first being that while precious metals are becoming rarer on Earth we haven't quite exhausted every source here. Although, the demand for these metals is growing exponentially with no end in sight. The second reason has to do with a dependable source of water and that is where Ceres comes into play. The water on Ceres could be separated to provide hydrogen and oxygen for fuel for spacecraft for both exploration and the return trip home to Earth. The water on Ceres would also be used in life support systems for any possible base built on the surface and for manned spacecraft.

None of this will happen overnight, currently purposed asteroid mining plans have everything done by robot probes but these are all small scale ventures. It is not hard to foresee a scenario where production is quickly ramped up with humans having to be on-site to oversee operations.

Some have mixed feeling about humans spreading out into the solar system. They have compared us to locust or viruses and you can't really argue with their point. Since the advent of civilization we have just about ruined the planet with our numbers, wars, and pollution. Others like me see the possibility of asteroid mining and other space-borne industrial operations as away to lessen human impact on a gravely injured planet. Whatever the case, unless we blow ourselves up sheer pressure from resource depletion will eventually push someone into space to take advantage of what is just floating around in the void.