Friday, November 24, 2017

Encounters on the Road

Giving directions to lost or misguided travelers has to be more of an art than simple science. No, I'm not including the often comical language barrier in that statement. Although that's usually the first thing people imagine in that circumstance when the person needing to be set back on the right path can't understand those trying to help him or her. Even when those involved all speak the same language everything from conflicting personalities to the way different people view the world around them often make the task next to impossible.

There are usually two complicating factors that make it difficult for me to help someone trying to get to their destination. The first being that South Carolina, the state where I live, has a pretty crappy record in putting up proper signage for anything like roads or most buildings. Yes, there are always exceptions with the big glaring ones immediately coming to mind being anything to do with golf courses or outlet shopping malls.

I'm actually surprised the managers of golf courses haven't bought blimps adored with hundreds of pulsating LED lights arranged in an arrow pointing down and positioned them over their property. That way all the middle-aged males looking for a relatively cheap way that will allow them to smack their little white balls could be guided to the proper location like the star that brought the three wise men to Bethlehem. The same holds true for the outlet malls, which from what little I know always need their parking lots filled to overflowing with gullible tourists ready to max out their already abused credit cards.

When it comes to places like government buildings and even hospitals in some instances, proper signage that will allow the unfamiliar to quickly find them is often a hit and miss situation. That's where this story begins with me trying to play the Good Samaritan but with personalities soon making the situation far worse.

My family and were on our way home from the usual Disney vacation. I can't really remember the year, but my son and daughter were young enough that we needed to let them run around the big rest stop located just inside the South Carolina border. If there is one constant in the parenting universe it is that small children get really grumpy and then whiny when they have to stay still inside a moving car too long. It didn't take my wife and I long to learn that if our kids were allowed to burn off just a little amount of energy in the middle of a long drive it saved us from agonizing hours of complaints and even questioning our adult choices in life.

Anyway, that rest stop has plenty of green space filled with now largely unused heavy duty steel charcoal grills, cement benches, and tables that were designed to allow travelers to picnic while on the road. After navigating the crowds inside the main building and doing the ubiquitous bathroom runs, I was back outside with the kids watching them climb over the cement benches and tables. At the same time my wife was in one of her social gadfly moods striking up impromptu conversations with just about anyone who would respond. This is where Sam and Lulu enter the story.

Sam and Lulu could best be described as a late middle-aged to early senior citizen couple traveling from a small town in southwest Georgia with their destination an equally obscure one fairly close to my hometown of Georgetown, South Carolina. Where things get weird with Sam and Lulu is that from their style of clothing both were clearly into biker culture with age and infirmity being the only reason they had transitioned to driving a car.

Sam was dressed in jeans and t-shirt but his biker roots shown through from the leather vest and cap he was wearing along with heavy riding boots on his feet. He was overweight but I could tell it was more muscle than fat and despite his age, there was no way in hell I would have started a fight with him. Long story short Sam looked like a disgruntled, antisocial Santa Claus fed up with spoiled kids and modern parents. Lulu pretty much complimented her husband wearing close to the same attire, except that even though she had to be in her early sixties, she was still stunningly beautiful.

Somehow my wife had learned that not only did Sam and Lulu need directions but that their destination was a town where I once worked while we were dating. The town is called Hemingway and it is about as off the beaten path as you can get in South Carolina. Getting to Hemingway just from the relatively short distance of my hometown involves navigating a series of county roads that I knew only from repeated trips. What I mean is that there was no real way I could name the road designations to Sam or Lulu that would guide them to their destination nor how many miles they would have to drive. The absolute best I could do was suggest they continue on I-95 then turn east onto U.S. Highway 378. From there signs should guide them in the rest if the way, that is if the markers were not destroyed or had fallen over.

Point blank, the people of the great state of South Carolina think proper roads are a waste of taxpayers money. So while the major highways are kept somewhat in decent shape for the tourists, rural roadways can take on a third world look in some counties. That means crumbling asphalt with weeds popping up between the cracks, potholes so bad there are numerous patches on top of patches, and signs that are either falling down due to lack of upkeep or shot full of holes by joyriding rednecks. Do not even begin to ask about small bridges and how badly they have been maintained over the years. 

This allows me to segue way into why Sam and Lulu simply didn't get a map from the main building of the rest stop. Because unlike other states, namely Florida whose border rest stop appears to have far longer open hours and serves free orange juice, the one we were at just off I-95 was closed for the day. Another factor was Sam, after talking with him for a few minutes it was clear he was the type of guy that didn't want to ask for directions. If Lulu and my wife hadn't struck up a conversation she and Sam would have certainly driven off without any real idea where they were going.

After giving Sam my meager directions he immediately shook them off saying there had to be a better and quicker way of getting to Hemingway. I told Sam there was certainly a better way but I didn't know it. Sam then started rattling off the names of small towns I was only vaguely familiar and how someone back home assured him they all ultimately connected to Hemingway. After Sam's convoluted naming of small towns he stood in front of me with a strange, enigmatic smile. He was either waiting for me to affirm his route or was just thinking how I was an idiot for not already knowing it.

In case you haven't already figured out Sam didn't actually want correct directions. He wanted someone to just confirm his ideas. This gets to my main point about giving directions being more of an art, and truthfully an exercise in diplomacy. I didn't want to play his game, I was tired and bummed out that my vacation was over. Just to get rid of the guy, I stared off into the distance and bobbed my head around like I was thinking and after a few seconds said something to the effect that sounded about right.

Bingo! Sam's face brighten up with him grabbing my hand shaking it almost wildly and saying he appreciated my help. Minutes later he and Lulu were back on the road while I in turn gathered up my kids and belted them back into their car seats.

Because the kids had burned off some energy, they were asleep just a few minutes after I pulled back onto the highway. The silence between my wife and I was getting awkward causing me to ask if there was a problem.

“Sam has no idea where he and Lulu are going do they?” She asked giving me one of those looks that had equal chance of being good or bad.

“No, not really,” I began, “some of those towns he named aren't anywhere near Hemingway. More to the point, he named two that are way up north next Greenville and Spartanburg. So I figure he's about to get as lost as a person can be.”

“Oh well,” was all my wife said while grabbing one of her magazines. She didn't say another word about Sam and Lulu.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Fun Filled Examination of Closed Time Loops

One of the easiest and most abused science fiction story concepts is the one where some fool filled with good intentions goes back in time in an attempt to stop a terrible crime or prevent a tragedy. During the course of these temporal adventures the main character more than likely does something stupid causing events to unfold much worse that in the original timeline. This usually leaves two possibilities for the conclusion of the story. The main character will again use whatever device that allowed him or her to time travel and attempt to correct the alteration in the timeline returning events to how they originality unfolded. Or, return to their original temporal point and somehow learn to live with the alterations in the flow of events.

Needless to say, so many of these types of stories have been written over the decades that they have become extremely derivative of each other that originality is next to impossible. Especially to a jaded science fiction type like myself whose read more time travel stories that I can remember.

As time travel stories go I'm more of the Terminator/Star Trek/Doctor Who type but I've got to admit that for a short time my wife got me interested in the Starz movie channel series based on the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. Yes, those books and the series fit firmly in the categories of female romance/adventure but hear me out, because after binge watching seasons one and two I'm going to get metaphysical on the prospects of some time traveler changing history.

Backtracking for those who don't know, the Outlander books and television series centers on the female character Claire Randal who while visiting Scotland in 1945 is “magically” transported back to 1743 when she steps through a large stone. Without getting bogged down into the details at first Claire gets bounced around for awhile learning the ways of 18th century Scotland. What aids Claire in being accepted-- sort of-- by the locals is the fact that she was a combat nurse during the Second World War and is viewed by them as having close to magical healing powers far outstripping the doctors of that time.

Where things get titillating for Claire, and for certain members of the viewing audience, is when she hooks up with a Scottish dude of that time named Jamie Fraser. Given the nature of these books/television series sparks soon fly between Claire and Jamie with the birds and bees stuff getting fairly graphic, soft porn to some extent. I also have to mention part of the drama of the story revolves around the fact that Claire is married to a fairly decent guy who is back in the twentieth century and has no freaking idea what happened to his wife. This is where the story goes full female bodice-ripping romance because of the tension between Claire's conflicting desires to return to her twentieth century husband or stay with the hunky kilt wearing action hero.

The character of Jamie Fraser is a Scottish patriot and is all for pulling a William Wallace/Braveheart on the obnoxious English. But Claire is from the future and knows the growing rebellion will ultimately end disastrously at the Battle of Culloden. So Claire, deeply in love with Jamie, tells him what will happen even though this being 18th century Europe such ravings would almost certainly have caused her to be thrown into whatever passed as an insane asylum or burned as a witch. Jamie, being in love with Claire and impossibly open-minded for someone of that period, believes his lover's warning of impending doom and they begin working to alter the circumstances of the coming battle.

The overall crux of the story, at least in season one and two of the series, involves how the Scots are getting tried of being dominated by the English. With rebellion in the air the Scots are supporting Prince Charles Stuart's claim to the English and Scottish throne. Prince Charles Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, is a descendant of the last Catholic king of England, James II.

It is during the second season we are introduced to the doofus Prince Charles who is in France with his advisers looking to find ways to finance and them execute their scheme to take the throne of England by force. Which is a big task since Prince Charles is an idiot and there are other factors working to undermine the building Scottish rebellion.

While born in exile, Bonnie Prince Charlie was raised to sit on the English thrown. Reports suggest he was a dashing figure who was athletic, charismatic, and supremely confident. All that fine breeding just made him an empty suit with delusions of grandeur. For those who can't tell, no I don't like the privileged chump. He reminds me way too much of someone in this day and age.

As far as the ability to lead and organize a military campaign was concerned, he was worse than just incompetent. Despite his unassailable confidence in himself, objective observers say his intellectual ability was mediocre at best. He had no discernible tactical nor strategic vision on how to achieve his goals. Top it all off this example that inbreeding is still wrong whether it's done by white trash or rich aristocratic snobs, the Bonnie Prince was indifferent to the pragmatic issues of military logistics and how terrain effects the execution of a battle plan. Its been said many times anyone can play at being Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or General Patton. But what really wins battles is the ability to quickly bring enough beans and bullets to the theater of operations to overwhelm the enemy. And as far as terrain is concerned, any commander has to understand that while war has been compared to chess it's more the three dimensional kind.

Just to throw salt on this 18th century Scottish wound, it was recorded that Bonnie Prince Charlie was actually quite indecisive when the shit hit the fan. His usual habit was to walk away when things got tough leaving his subordinates to either sink or swim on their own.

Right from the start Bonnie Prince Charlies' campaign seemed hapless. When a French warship dropped him on a desolate beach in western Scotland in August of 1745 he was accompanied by just seven supporters with little to nothing in the way of weapons or money. A second French ship, which was carrying a small amount of troops, weapons, and money was intercepted by an English vessel and forced to turn back. As the weeks and months passed instead of a solid strategic plan coming together, his generals and advisers couldn't get along.

It wasn't all stupidity and epic defeat, somehow the rebellious Scots were successful enough to launch and overland invasion of England coming within a hundred miles or so from London. Instead of pressing the advantage though, they got nervous and retreated back into Scotland with a well trained and excellently lead English army in hot pursuit.

On the eve of what became known as the Battle of Culloden, the rebellious Scots, called Jacobites by the way, located the encamped English forces and decided to launch a nighttime assault on their position. Such attacks require highly trained troops and precise coordination among leaders, something the Scots were severely lacking to say the least. While it's not my intention to offend anyone, all things being equal the Scots really didn't have a coherent army. They were into the idea that motivated individuals could take on a disciplined army and win just because God or some ill-conceived abstract principle was on their side. Hey, such attitudes can work until the stronger, more disciplined, and better equipped force gets its act together.

The planned night attack on the English encampment began to fall apart almost immediately when one of the leading Scottish generals realized the operation was going sideways causing him to turn his troops around. The big mistake here was that he didn't tell the other group of Scottish forces causing both segments to bump around all night. By morning Scottish forces were exhausted and hungry but there was no place to sleep but the ground and food was nonexistent except what could be begged or stolen from nearby farms and villages.

Spoiled doofus, I mean Bonnie Prince Charles wanted to proceed with the operation as a daytime attack. Something anyone with a couple of extra brains cells in his group said was a really bad idea. Well, Charlie got his way and except for a brief few minutes when the first line of the English forces were breached, strictly by chance not planning, the Scots got their asses handed to them. With this defeat the idea of an independent Scotland was killed until a couple of years ago. Even then the peaceful referendum was defeated and Scotland and England remain a more or less an unhappy couple resigned to a loveless marriage.

Sidestepping back into the Outlander series and the final disposition of Jamie and Claire for those who might be interested. With the coming Battle of Culloden a certified clusterfrak in the making, Jamie forces Claire to return to the twentieth century by again stepping through the magical rock that first brought her. This is where I get off my military history train and slightly ridiculous television show explanations and get back on point about time travel.

As far as I can tell by reading and watching educational documentaries all the big theoretical physicists agree time travel on anything but a submicroscopic scale is impossible. What I don't understand though, and what keeps hopes of time travel alive for those interested in maybe asking Cleopatra for a date is that the equations for time that Einstein developed for his theory of General Relativity say it could easily flow both backwards or forward. Seemingly suggesting a mechanism could be engineered that would allow, say a talking dog and a young kid, to build a Wayback machine. So for shits and giggles lets speculate that some future Einstein, super genius talking dog, advanced artificial intelligence software, or space alien figures out a way. This now brings up the contentious and nightmarish possibility of screwing with the timeline.

Serious nerd side note here, but that's really the only reason I decided to watch Outlander with my wife. Well there is the fact that the lady playing Claire is smoking hot and did I mention the near soft porn aspect of the show?


Like Marty McFly made everyone understand in the Back to the Future movies, change the course of events and people in the future could literally vanish from existence. On that same vein, change the course of events and you alter the outcome of wars and other types of historical occurrences. The one thing from both Star Trek and Stargate that makes sense in a metaphysical sort of way is that no one should be able to play God with existence. In Star Trek the guys and gals from Starfleet wisely understand you simply don't go that route...most of the time. As for Stargate, well there are more than enough episodes where the bumbling Air Force fools did play with the timeline and got screwed in the process.

Here is where I put on my layman's history hat and suggest there might be another factor that prevents any hypothetical time traveler from altering history. Pulling from both the actual history of the Jacobite Rebellion/Bonnie Prince Charlie escapades and the scenario offered by the Outlander television series, anyone wanting to change history would have to fight some pretty strong preconceived notions and societal norms. Both Jamie and Claire worked hard to alter the chain of events leading to the Culloden disaster but failed miserably.

While I am in no way a military history expert it does seem to me that the strongest armies, in this case being the English forces fighting the rebellious Scots, almost always win. Yes, Vietnam is the exception that immediately comes to mind but geopolitical factors prevented the United States from exerting its full strength in that conflict. Terrain was also a factor and it was overwhelmingly on the side of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Looking at the American Civil War while the South scored some early and impressive wins, once the Union forces got fully organized the Confederacy was thankfully defeated and ground down to dust.

Could the Jacobite Rebellion and the Confederacy pulled an upset by an early win? The Scots had their chance when they were only a hundred miles or so from London. And Robert E. Lee certainly had his chance for a quick victory at Antietam and later at Gettysburg but was repulsed both times. It would seem that they could have but I simply don't know enough to be sure. This goes back to the real winners of battles, logistics and knowledge of how to use the available terrain to your advantage. I have some nebulous idea that something would have happened or developed that would have prevented either of them from achieving their goals.

From what I have read, the one event that does seem to have been decided purely by chance was the Battle of Midway. Without digressing into another bout of military history the way I understand it U.S. Navy planes caught the Japanese fleet off guard as their aircraft were on the carriers being fueled and loaded with bombs. From that point on, Japan was never able to mount a major offensive operation. From what I've read the Battle of Midway has been war gamed many times over the decades with the real life outcome not the usual result. But this brings us back to my original idea, it might have taken several years but the industrial strength of the United States would have eventually defeated the resource poor Japan. Yes, I'm including the eventually development of the atomic bomb and its use in that assessment.

What this all boils down to is the eternal debate about determinism and free will. Do we as individuals have any real choice in our actions or are we just puppets playing out a story set in stone? That debate has gone on for thousands of years and runs the full scope from purely philosophical to involving physics. I frankly lean towards the side of determinism, with maybe room for real choice on the strictly personal level. That being whether or not I order pizza for lunch today or go get a nice tuna sub.

What would be totally cool though, is if some intrepid time traveler somehow reads this rambling rant and decides to drop by and tell me what they believe from his or her own era. I promise I won't screw with the timeline by telling anyone else. Come by early enough and I'll buy lunch for us both.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Chapter Six: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope

The sun was just rising above the horizon when I stepped out onto the screen-in porch overlooking the ocean. With a fresh cup of hot coffee in my hand I carefully took a seat in one of the patio chairs to watch the day begin. There is something magical about waking up next the ocean, even with several dozen disgruntled seagulls ominously circling low in the sky seemingly practicing for the remake of the Alfred Hitchcock movie that turned them into horror movie characters. I tried not to look down upon the winged beasts bitching amongst themselves as they nipped each other while looking for a seafood breakfast. They were just answering the call to the instinctive behavior programmed in their genes. Humans exhibit quiet similar actions on a regular basis and we're supposed to be intelligent creatures.

Nothing shows how little humans have advanced beyond their feathered counterparts than watching people inside a modern grocery store. Step into one during the early evening when all the good folks are desperate to get their way before anyone else and you can't help but wonder why our species hasn't nuked itself into oblivion. Sitting in my comfortable chair, sipping some seriously high class coffee while enjoying the view, I forced myself to think of something else.

The first thing I could concentrate on was my temporarily sidelined journey of self discovery. A little over a month has passed since my trusty and faithful companion for years had suddenly died on the side of Highway 17 heading towards Myrtle Beach. Naturally I'm speaking of the truck I had owned since the late-1990's. After finishing my dinner and leaving Georgetown, I was ten miles south of Pawleys Island when the engine suddenly seized up. Momentum allowed me to pull over to the side of the road and get clear of traffic but the grinding noise I was hearing suggested she wouldn't easily move again after stopping. After lifting the hood, the light of my flashlight revealed a bloody mess with oil covering almost every possible surface. Given my truck's age and current condition, it didn't take a certified mechanic to realize my old friend was a total loss.

One of the things my attorney, the mysterious but highly capable Jim Lund, insisted upon when he learned of my desire to go on an open ended road trip after winning forty-two million in the lottery was that I join some sort of auto club. Luckily, I didn't disagree and after calling customer support about thirty minutes later I was rewarded with the flashing amber lights of a wrecker pulling in front of my now deceased truck.

This lead to me meeting a guy by the name of Woodson Reed Pickles who drove the wrecker that towed my truck to the dealership where I was planning to buy another vehicle first thing in the morning. Right from the start, Woodson seemed the stereotypical southern redneck with a heavy drawl which previous experience always suggested someone who might be unsure whether the Earth revolved around the sun. This being the American South where suspicion of science and intellectuals is so ingrained into the regional DNA, it is depressingly easy to find people who take a particular pride in their ignorance of the world. His appearance only reinforced my bias, dressed in cutoff jeans and a work shirt stained with enough grease and oil for it to be classified as hazardous waste, I expected the man's greatest accomplishment to be his collection of NASCAR champion autographs.

As Woodson pulled his wrecker into traffic heading towards the dealership, I learned two vital lessons. The first being I am still an assuming self-righteous prick and that the saying “you can't judge a book by its cover” is a tired cliche because it is often true.

Turns out Woodson was once a high rolling investment analysis for one of the banks that went extinct around 2008. Caught up in the irrational enthusiasm of the fatally flawed American housing market like most others in his profession, Woodson only saw the handwriting on the wall at the last minute. Financially, he didn't quite lose everything but his personal causalities did include his self respect and a wife who remarried one of the wealthy survivors of the Great Recession. After spending a couple of years on the road like I was planning to do, Woodson eventually returned home to South Carolina and took over his father's businesses, which included the wrecker service, after the man passed away. After telling Woodson the nature of my similar marital woes and how I was getting the hell out of town, we were instant best friends and spent the better part of that night drinking beers at a local bar. Although, I didn't feel the need to tell him about winning the lottery. I just said I had inherited a chunk of money and was using it to finance my travels.

After the bar closed I was dropped off at a motel to get some sleep. When what passes for me as consciousness returned, I phoned and had a rental car delivered so I could head down to the Ford dealership. It was early afternoon when I stumbled into the ultra clean and bright showroom lobby to deal with my dead truck and to begin the process of buying another.
The first stumbling block was that I found myself suffering from the same type of assumptions that I had cast upon Woodson. For a couple of minutes I was alone until the salesman on duty walked back into the showroom. Just by chance, I caught sight of him before he could sneak back to wherever he'd been hiding. A dapper looking individual dressed in a pastel colored suit and sporting abnormally large cuff links, he gave me one of those looks of disgust people express when their cat brings home a dead mouse.

I wasn't immune to the irony that Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman was probably basing his assumption on the fact that I was now wearing wrinkly cargo shorts, an old surfer t-shirt, and my comfy Jesus sandals. Minus the grease and oil stains Woodson had on his work shirt, our dress code was remarkably similar. With some coaxing though, I got the man to check my account balance so he could be assured helping me was not going to be a waste of his time. About ten minutes later the salesman returned to the waiting area, his change in attitude was so extreme my neck and back hurt from the metaphorical whiplash.

With all the assumptions taken care of the problem became all the tricked out four-wheel trucks he was trying to get me to buy. Models with near monster-sized tires and raised three and four feet off the ground loaded with survivalist accessories that suggest someone is expecting a zombie apocalypse. As Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman walked me down the line of new vehicles, I realized that over the last couple of decades there is truth in the idea the average American male has come to believe his masculinity was in question. Throw in the obsession with military grade weapons and it proves the old joke about certain males having to make up for some sort of deficiency. Whether it's physical with them unsure about the sizes of their penises, compared to other groups. Or a simple lack of imagination and competence on how they can compete in world that has changed beyond their ability to easily control.

Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman was greatly disappointed when I went for a less than exciting F-150 model with a simple extended cab and camper shell over the bed, but nothing in the way of accessories to prepare for the end of the world. At least my choice in the color of the truck, a subdued blue seemed to placate the guy.

The next problem was something I would have never foreseen. With Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman happy with an easy sale his mood changed abruptly when we started the paperwork. Turns out that vehicles aren't like other products that you can casually buy then leave with them. Naturally cars and trucks have to be registered, which I found out requires a permanent address, something I was currently without.

I immediately pulled out my cell phone and called my lawyer, Jim Lund to find a way out of this mess. After explaining the situation, with Jim apparently taking notes on his end, he told me to give him about two hours and everything would be fine.

Almost to the minute two hours later a lady dressed in what I would have to call coastal business casual and wearing a light blazer with the insignia of a local real estate agency walks into the lobby of the dealership. “Mr. Lance,” she said walking towards me. “I have the paperwork for your rental here to sign.”

“Rental?” I responded with puzzlement. Somehow when I called Jim I was expecting a solution that allowed me to continue one with my journey. But then again, considering the nature of the situation and my lack of destination spending some time at the beach wouldn't kill me.

“Yes,” she replied, “I'm Sally Yates from Fun Beach Property Rentals and your attorney has arranged a three month rental of one of our finest houses on Pawleys Island.” Sally then plopped down beside me on the sofa I was sitting and began laying out forms on the coffee table in front of us. “You'll need to sign a few of these papers and then I can show you the house.” She said in a business like manner.

Just as I was signing the last form, Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman comes into view carrying a stack of papers, the keys to my new truck, and a much improved mood. “Mr. Lance everything has been taken care of and your new truck is being fueled up.” He then digressed into the usual banter about if I ever needed anything and how the warranty on the truck would take care of just about every issue.

After throwing my duffel bag and storage box into the new truck and calling the rental agency to come pick up the car, I began following Sally to the beach house I would be living in for the next few months.

The house was awesome, built purely as a rental it had an ungodly amount of bedrooms and large living areas. What I liked about it was the huge porch facing the ocean, which was mostly screened-in but had a smaller section outside the enclosed area but covered by the roof. That was where the builder had installed the most elaborate gas grill I had ever seen.

Sally showed me all through the house but quickly left afterwards allowing me to bring in my meager possessions and get comfortable. After the busy day, I just left the duffel and storage box in the living room and walked out onto he beach. With most schools still out for the summer, the beach still had a lot of people laying out on the sand or playing in the water. The smell of meat cooking on grills at other houses made my stomach rumble and me begin planning how I would use the one at my place.

Lost in thought and immersed in the sensations of the ocean, I walked into the water to the point it was covering my ankles. I was so detached from my surroundings, I didn't notice the huge German Shepard that slammed into me throwing my balance off just enough to fall face first into the retreating water and wet sand. It wasn't my worst fall, but it took me several seconds to gather my wits.

“Are you okay?” was the first thing I heard.

I turned my head to see this beautiful woman with brunette hair dressed in a one piece swimsuit offering her right hand to help me up. In her other hand was a coiled up dog leash with a collar dangling at the end.

Years living as a monk in a pissant town hadn't totally ruined me, I gave her my best smile and took her hand. “Oh I'm fine, I've fallen in worse places.” I said hoping to start a conversation.

“Great,” she replied, “I'm sorry about Max, he likes to slip his collar and run off. Nice meeting you, but I've got to chase him down.” With that she turned and began running down the beach to catch her dog.

For several seconds, I just stood there watching the unknown woman disappear into the distance. It wasn't the most stylish way to meet a woman, or impress her for that matter. But everything eventually fell into place.

Something I was reminded of as the sounds of Robyn in the kitchen making her own cup of coffee brought me back to the present. She came out on the porch still in her night shirt and took the seat next mine. “What are our plans today?” She asked in a disinterested manner that I took to mean there better me nothing on the schedule.

“Just enjoying the day,” I replied enjoying the peace and perfection of the moment.

As if on cue her dog, Max then ran out onto the porch and looked at us silently asking why he had not been consulted on any plans. Yeah, he and I are still working our relationship out but that is a story for another time.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

News from Enceladus

 My interest in ancient history first developed while I was taking Western Civilization in high school. The textbook was a remarkable work that both introduced the subject and spurred me on to further reading. Because nothing so utterly labels a clumsy, shy teenager a nerd like going to the library looking for a book on the real reasons for the Trojan War. Say “Trojan” to average high school-aged male and the only thing he thinks about is that item wrapped in a foil package hiding in his wallet.

More importantly it was a truly incredible teacher by the name of Mr. Ron Edgerton that created my sense of amazement of the ancient world and the people that lived during those times. Given that I was in his class about the same time as the first version of Cosmos aired on PBS, I feel fully justied to compare him to the amazing Carl Sagan. Like Dr. Sagan, Mr Edgerton's lectures were not only intensely engaging but almost lyrical in how he presented the subject. Like Carl Sagan appearing on his version of the television show Cosmos, I came away upset when Mr. Edgerton's class was over.

When a person is first introduced to a subject certain basic questions develop for which there is no simple answer. This happened to me as I slowly came to an understanding on why ancient civilizations never sent out fleets of ships dedicated to the exploration of the world. Yes, I now know that many did, well sort of, but bear with me for a minute or two as I explain my mistaken reasoning.

It was during one of Mr. Edgerton's lectures concerning the period when the Roman Empire stood at the pinnacle of its power and influence. The Romans owned the world centered around the Mediterranean Sea, their power touched the North Sea and the entire northern coast of Africa from Egypt to what is now Morocco. And likewise, from the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula in the west to a large chunk of the Black Sea in the east. I simply couldn't fathom why the Romans didn't have fleets venturing out exploring the African coastline or Lewis and Clark-like expeditions pushing eastward.

Before I get into the meat of my semi-coherent point, in an effort for full disclosure I have to write that both the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians did in fact do a good bit of exploring. Both of those peoples established colonies all through the Mediterranean when the city of Rome was nothing but a small collection of mud huts inhabited by the ancient version of illiterate rednecks. And there are two stories, which as far as I know could be the same expedition, of Phoenicians trying to circumnavigate the entire continent of Africa strictly to see what was out there.

But as far as the Romans are concerned, I know that basically the reason they stayed largely at home revolved around the fact that they did know a little about these often desolate regions and simply saw no value in them. Of course, there was also the fact that many of the people living in those mysterious lands were quite hostile. But one component that can't be ignored is that, like many other mighty civilizations, they thought their little chunk of the world was the most special and they had everything they needed so there was no reason to go exploring.

Along those lines, China had a brief period of pure exploration during the early Ming Dynasty when they sent out the incredible Zheng He on voyages that would take him and his crew all the way to eastern Africa. What really blows the mind was that fact that his ships dwarfed anything the Europeans could build in both size and sophistication. If you could have placed one of Zheng He's ships next the best the Europeans could build at that time, it is often remarked that it would have been like placing a modern cruise ship beside a leaky rowboat.

You want to ponder “what ifs,” consider the impact if China hadn't turned inward during that time when it was truly the most powerful nation on the planet. What would the puny Europeans have done if Zheng He had sailed his fleet into the Mediterranean and visited Rome or Venice?

But the emperor that supported such expeditions died, and was replaced by a loser that probably uttered something to the effect of we shouldn't waste money such stupid projects and then went on to say he wanted to make China Great Again. This let the nations of Europe to continue their insanely slow development allowing them to build their own exploration fleets and eventually come to dominate the planet. Because of its inward looking and close-mindedness, China, once the most powerful and wealthy nation, stagnated and became the abused plaything of European countries and Japan. Just shows you how that “Making something Great Again” truly plays out in the end.

Yes, I know there are always other factors whenever some momentarily intrepid nation decides to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” For the Phoenicians, if the story I've read was correct an Egyptian pharaoh hired them to circumnavigate Africa because he wanted to claim the entire landmass. And as for the Zheng He, it was to show off the the glories of China to all the barbarians, which they considered everyone else in the world. The same is true for the Apollo Project back in the 1960's and early 1970s. We wanted to beat the Russians to the moon strictly to prove we were the baddest dudes on the planet. Pure science and discovery were just convenient passengers during the worst of the Cold War.

For us though, over time though using the space program for nationalistic purposes had taken a backseat to dedicated research. And because of that funding has dried up compared to the good old days of the Cold War, but that's not my point. What hasn't changed is the shortsighted nature of many who refuse to understand history and stupidly feel that we've discovered all that's important and are happy to spend the rest of their lives in front of a television bitching about their tax dollars being wasted.

It should be obvious to the most simple minded that just when a person, company, empire, or nation thinks they've figured everything out and can hold back change, something comes along and destroys that paradigm. This results in the creation of a new king of the proverbial mountain in the form of a new dominate empire or nation.

This all leads up to the era we find ourselves now. I could describe how certain narrow minded individuals just can't accept that the dominance of fossil fuels is now ending. Not just because our species has fraked the planetary climate, but because technology has progressed to the point that alternate sources of generating electricity now exceed oil and coal fired plants. I could mention how American car companies became complacent and in an effort to maximize profits began building crap to the point Japan came in with a better product and kicked their asses.

Ever since the Voyager space probes passed by the planets Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, we've come to understand those miniature solar systems were anything but cold and dead places. It is now overwhelming accepted that the bigger moons of both of those gas giants have liquid water oceans underneath steel-hard sheets of ice. And as far as scientists here on Earth understand, what we understand as life loves liquid water. Where Enceladus comes into play is because it has massive geysers along its south polar removing all doubt on the subject.

Recent data now suggests that Enceladus has possessed this global ocean of liquid water for perhaps billions of years. This is because its core is probably made of a porous rocky substance that when combined with the gravitational tugging from Saturn creates more than enough heat to keep the water underneath the ice sheet liquid. If I understand the idea correctly, colder water enters the porous core where it is heated from tidal friction creating a circulation effect. Hot water coming out of the core could also provide nutrients to any life living under the ice, much like ocean vents do here on Earth. In fact, the Cassini probe that until recently was orbiting Saturn flew threw Enceladus' geysers and detected numerous chemicals that are vital for the processes of life as we know it.

Yes, the average Joe Sixpack question going through many minds is just what in the hell does liquid water on Enceladus have to do with me? This circles me back to my main point, right now I admit it's extremely hard to envision some use for really distant moons. But the same could have been said for all those regions the ancient Romans ignored and the Ming Dynasty Chinese thought was beneath their contempt. Both of those empire collapsed and were replaced by other peoples and governments who were creative and dared to imagine possibilities.

In no way am I suggesting that if we put our space program into hyperdrive all our problems would suddenly be solved. Science simply doesn't work that way, if fact it often creates newer problems. What science does all accomplish though is to make humans look at life and the physical universe in a new way. For better or worse, it has created the world we live in now. Polluted and with some living in extreme misery from pissant megalomaniacs of both a political and religious nature, but it has also let us create and explore. Which if humans had to pick a purpose for existence, I would go with them.

The fact that can't be avoided, even after the bean counters and the unimaginative whine, is that we won't know what is out there and what it might teach us unless we go exploring. Only the most stunted individual wouldn't be amazed if we somehow discovered life on another planet or moon. More to the point, given that Mars and even Venus were quite similar to Earth billions of years ago, there is a real possibility that life as we know it originated on those other planets. And was seeded here on Earth after a massive asteroids slammed into one of them sending tons of surface material into space that eventually crashed here allowing evolution to take over. So it's not out of the realm of possibility that someone exploring the surface of Mars might find fossils of our ancient ancestors. Or even weirder, that a group of astronauts enter a Martian cave or deep cavern and find a few of our bacterial cousins just hanging out and occasionally releasing the puffs of methane our orbiting probes detect.

On a side note, I've left Venus out of this equation because its a real life version of running away greenhouse effect hell. If anyone ever finds a way to use it, or just explore the surface the technology involved would be almost Clarke-magical.

Pure speculation on my part but if we find evidence of life on Mars, long dead or some remnant living underground, it's probably going to be related to us. We're just too close to each other with meteorite hunters finding rocks from Mars here on Earth quite often. They can tell those rocks are from Mars from the atmospheric gases trapped inside them.

When it comes to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn possessing liquid oceans, I have a feeling any life we might find would be unique to that environment. That would mean an entirely different form nothing like we have here on Earth. Another way to compare and contrast would to liken life here on Earth to internal combustion cars while life on Enceladus (or Europa or Ganymede, or Callisto or Titan) would be an electric golf cart. Both move but are designed differently but sort of do the same thing. Discovering entirely new forms of life on those moons would mean life is common throughout the galaxy and universe.

Again this brings me back to the old question I had about why the Romans never really ventured far from home. We have a solar system filled with possibilities that could teach us things we've never imagined. Hell, if you need an economic reason there are thousands of asteroids floating between Mars and Jupiter containing all the precious metals you could ever desire. Go ahead and google the monetary value, the conservative side is so high I will not mention it.

But yet, our space program is a tepid affair, and even that is done grudgingly. But the one thing that reassures me is that someone or some group will eventually dare the impossible and take us out to those places we ignore now. Personally, I rather avoid becoming the newest version of the lazy Romans and the snobbish Ming Dynasty Chinese.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Meaning of Life and Chance

The morning was cold. It wasn't the new normal type of chill that forced people to wear a light jacket, only to shed it in the early afternoon. It was the old fashioned type of freezing cold that had people wearing heavy coats and quickly scurrying from one warm location to another. With the climate increasingly changing for the worse, this was the odd weather event that people would talk about for years like they once did about freakish snow storms.

Aaron Carpenter didn't mind the cold as he sat on one of the benches in Centennial Park gazing at the Atlanta skyline. The sky was a stunning cobalt blue with only a few clouds lazily floating by to give it contrast. While the park itself wasn't devoid of people, the few that were around didn't wreck his sense of solitude.

Not that he really noticed them, the nearest being an old man feeding hungry pigeons scraps of bread from a paper bag several yards away. Aaron was fully preoccupied with his own life story and the decision that circumstance had forced upon him. He damned Fate or whomever was in charge of the universe for making love so complicated.

The first time he had set eyes on Katherine Palmer was second grade in Wilmington, North Carolina. Katherine's father had taken a teaching job at the local community college and moved the family from their Arizona home over the summer. On that first day of the new school year, Aaron remembered how lost Katherine looked as children with long histories greeted each other and began stories of what they did over the summer.

For Aaron, the ill-timed birth of his baby sister had turned his summer into one excruciatingly long and boring affair. With his parents totally preoccupied with caring for the newborn and trying to reestablish a dependable routine, Aaron found that he had to learn to entertain himself. The adult Aaron sitting on the park bench found some minor amusement in the fact that during that summer he quickly learned how tiresome video games can become. The only thing worse that summer than old video games were the week long visits to his grandparents' house.

It was basic empathy that caused Aaron to walk over and begin talking to the girl he would call Kathy. He could tell she was lonely and a little scared, and knew the right thing to do was make her feel better. But by the end of that day though, the two would become fixtures in each others lives.

Best friends all through elementary school, it was the middle school years that foreshadowed how their relationship would become more complex. Halfway through redrawn school lines physically separated them, their evolving relationships with peers and changing social interests pulled them apart even further. So much that there was period they could actually pass each other on a street and not speak.

The high school years changed their relationship again. The friendship was rekindled slowly but by their junior year they found their emotions for each other far deeper than they could have imagined. After graduation though there wasn't a happy ending. Accepted at different universities hundreds of miles apart, they had originally planned to stay a couple and keep the relationship going. But their last night together a small disagreement turned into a fight, harsh words were exchanged and feelings were deeply hurt. Two weeks into the first semester of college Kathy finds out that Aaron was dating another woman.

But like stars locked in long-term elliptical orbits, they encountered each other again after having lived in Charlotte, North Carolina for several years. It was their careers that forced the two back together, merging marketing firms put both of them in the same department. At first their relationship was casual and strictly work related, while neither was married they were both seeing other people. But neither could fight whatever force that had put them together as children.

Over the following months the attraction and history couldn't be fought. Kathy and Aaron moved in together and for a year the two were the picture perfect couple. So happy, that they became engaged and started planning their wedding. Fate seemed to have other intentions, a coveted position in Seattle was offered to Kathy and she eagerly accepted. Having traveled down this road before and knowing long distance relationships rarely work, they parted as friends both figuring for the last time.

Several years slipped by with Kathy in Seattle and Aaron eventually taking a management position in Atlanta, Georgia. On almost opposite ends of the country, the demands of their separate lives severed the remaining bonds binding them together. Kathy and Aaron carried on, both found other loves and in time married them. Neither felt the need to invite the other to their wedding.

Having been pushed back together several times by sheer chance or mischievous Fate, neither was surprised when they found each other working together after Kathy was transferred to Atlanta. Bosses of different departments that required close cooperation, in a brief but formal meeting they promised each other to keep any relationship strictly professional. They assured each other that their respective spouses were the most important people in their lives and would do anything required to keep it that way.

Their mutual promises last about six months. Kathy and Aaron's respective spouses knew they had a history with each other but both never claimed it went beyond friendship. So, there was little worry by them when Kathy and Aaron were required to make a business trip to San Francisco.

The affair began on their second night in San Francisco, both knowing it was as torrid and tasteless as anything in a badly written, second-rate romance novel. It was in the motel room that they finally revealed the things neither had dared to mention since Kathy had arrive in Atlanta.

Kathy had married a cardiologist, a handsome and brilliant man whose one flaw was alcohol. After one too many errors in diagnosing patients, both agreed that a change in scenery could reboot their relationship and his career. Moving to Atlanta was a step down career-wise for Kathy but after her husband promised to seek help, she figured it was a good move.

For Aaron, his seemingly happy marriage was hamstrung by he and his wife suffering through two miscarriages. Aaron told Kathy that he could feel his wife slipping away and cursed himself because there were times he really didn't care.

Weeks went by with neither Kathy's husband nor Aaron's wife seeing the handwriting on the wall. But then again both were dealing with their own complex issues. That was when Kathy came up with a plan. During one of their secret rendezvouses, Kathy told Aaron that one of her Seattle coworkers was opening up a new firm in London and needed anyone with experience. She told Aaron that they should just runaway, leave Atlanta and their spouses behind.

Aaron at first agreed, but arrangements for his wife would have to be made which would require them to keep everything secret for a couple of weeks. Kathy was okay with that arrangement, telling Aaron she would fly out to London and get things ready on that end. When the two parted from the apartment used for their trysts, they agreed to meet in Centennial Park and from there make the final announcements to their spouses and employer.

Aaron watched the old man feeding the pigeons and envied the guy in some ways. Without knowing his history, to Aaron the old man seemed carefree, able to pursue his own interests without regard to other people. The weight of his decision concerning leaving his wife and going off with Kathy had been unbearable. Part of Aaron felt he was on an endless loop, condemned to repeat the same choices for all eternity. Aaron chalked his feeling up to he and Kathy's inability to finally settle down together, they had been down this same road far too many times. But in the back of his mind there was another facet to his history with Kathy that seemed almost malevolent, like he was an unwilling part of some grand experiment. Aaron shook off such an insane idea, especially since he spotted Kathy walking towards him.

As she approached Aaron fought off his inherent desire to hold her body next to his. If there was any truth to the ancient myth that people could be soulmates, individuals destined by the gods to be together, she was that person for him. The problem was that some event always pulled them apart, it was one of the main reasons he had come to his decision.

“You're not leaving Carol,” Kathy said with a smirk, once they stood in front of each other.

“No,” Aaron answered feeling every fiber of his soul rebelling again him. “I want to leave with you so badly it hurts, but I can't abandon Carol. I don't believe our marriage is going to work. But I will not leave her like she is now, it would be as if I was daring her to commit suicide. I don't want to live with that on my conscious, even if it means losing you.”

“That's entirely what it means, Aaron. Everything is in place in London, when I fly out today, I will not be coming back.”

“Its for the best then,” Aaron responded. “All I can do is wish you happiness. We had our chances and let them all slip away.”


The old man looked on as the two parted ways. The finality of the scene would have been clear to anyone looking on without knowing the couple or their history. It was time for him to move on as well. He pulled a normal looking cell phone out of his pocket and tapped a couple of buttons on the screen. From there the Atlanta skyline and Centennial Park disappeared as he consciousness returned to the real world.

“Doctor Daniels,” the laboratory AI said as he removed the headpiece that allowed him to interface with the simulation. “You have a scheduled appointment with an agent from the Office of Scientific Inquiry in an hour. But Agent Mathai arrived early and is already waiting in your office foyer.”

“Excellent, tell her I will be in my office in a few minutes. I need to clean up and pause the simulation.”

Agent Zahra Mathai was more than a little relieved that she wouldn't have to wait for the scheduled appointment time. She viewed the assignment to interview Gregory Ogden Daniels as a minor annoyance in an otherwise busy agenda. The North American Commonwealth was dealing with far too many issues, and interviewing a second rate Caucasian scientist on the ethics of his research was best left to rookie agents. But as the old man entered the office she attempted to smile and exchange pleasantries with him to try and get honest answers.

“Now Dr. Daniels, you know the reason the OSI has sent me here to talk with you?”

“Yes Agent Mathai, I know the dean of my department has informed your agency that my reality simulations have taken a dramatic turn. Using just an old Cygnus mark two quantum neural net, I have constructed a reality simulation where some of the artificial inhabitants are showing actual sentience. Right before you arrived I was doing a run through on two of my favorite subjects.
"They are an American couple, business professionals who I introduced to each other back in their childhood. During the initial run of the simulation the male was already showing borderline sentience. Which crossed the 1.0 boundary by his early thirties. Once I isolated the individual, I began rerunning his life multiple times to the point he was not only making truly independent choices but I have a strong suspicion he might have some awareness of the true nature of his existence." 

“Sir,” Mathai began now showing concern, “you know there are ethical concerns with that type of research. There are even United Nations regulations granting such simulated people rights. Both China and India would have a strong reaction if they found out you were in effect torturing a planet full self aware individuals. They went to war with the Greater Arabian Federation to stop them doing just that in their high tech recreation lounges. You have undoubtedly saw the videos of hundreds of real people linked into a simulation using the conscious inhabitants of those artificial worlds as fodder in wars and the building of insane video game empires.”

Daniels could feel the condescension oozing from the young woman. “Yes Agent Mathai, I did see those videos and when I designed my simulations it was meant strictly for historical research. None of the inhabitants were supposed to exceed a level .4 in actual sentience. The hardware itself should have precluded anything greater, but as the simulation moved into the ninetieth century the average level increased to .6 with actual sentience being reached by a global minority by their late twentieth.”

“From my report you're running the simulation in the past but at the same rate as real time.” Mathai asked absentmindedly as she inputted information on her hand terminal. “My notes say your research was centered around cultural and societal simulations during the late period of the United States?

Mathai paused for a moment thinking to herself. “Oh my god, Dr. Daniels, you don't have them suffering through the Gilead Schism and the Global Upheavals that followed?”

“No, before you get any further upset in the simulation the year is 2017, six years before the Mayday Attacks. Even before sentience started appearing amongst the subjects my intention was to short circuit the plot and have them go off on their own timeline. Once past our current year I would increase the rate of time and allow that universe to play out to the expected Cold Death several trillion years from now.

I wouldn't force even non-self aware simulations to live through the Gilead Terror. I've never told anyone but the Gilead government took my grandmother away from her family when she turned sixteen and had her in one of the Red Centers to train as a Handmaid.”

From the look on Agent Mathai's face, Daniels could tell that information changed her perspective on him. He was no longer just a Caucasian, the ethnic group that had controlled North America for centuries. And then overthrew the very Republic they created and bragged was God's gift to the world when they realized that in a few decades they would be just another minority. The Gilead abomination lasted thirty-four years before it was finally overthrown. The North American Commonwealth eventually rose out of the ashes and restored liberty and freedom to the tortured land that was the former United States.

She was quiet for almost a minute, but when she spoke it was easy for him to understand her disdain of the Caucasian Remnant.

“My great grandfather was living in Minneapolis when the coup occurred. As he and the rest of the family were going through the wilderness and the depopulated areas trying to flee to Canada, they were spotted by a Guardian patrol a few kilometers from the border. My great grandfather allowed himself to be captured so his wife and daughter, the woman who would become my grandmother, could get out. The Gilead government didn't kill him, instead they used him as a token to show the world they weren't truly racist. He was the public face of the Gilead Justice Department in Minnesota and they made him sentence countless people to death.”

“Agent Mathai,” Daniels began, “rest assured I will not let the inhabitants of my simulation face such terrors. Of course, this brings up the question that scientists have pondered since the very idea of artificial reality and computer-generated historical simulations were first conceived. Do we exist in some sort of computer-based simulation?”

“Well doctor, what is your position on that subject?” Agent Mathai asked.

“I honestly don't know, our reality could very well be just one of millions nested inside increasingly complex computers. The fact that sentience seems to spontaneously appear in systems not designed for such entities suggests that might be the case. Either way, paraphrasing something one of my subjects said just recently, our world is finally on a firm footing, it's best we not let anymore of our chances slip away.”

(Author's notes: No, I haven't given up on writing more of “The Adventures of an American Misanthrope. I just couldn't ever devote enough time this week to write a decent chapter six. This particular story comes from several articles I have read on the speculation that our reality, including our universe, may be nothing but an elaborate computer software based simulation.

If you're wondering why I was so detailed with the story about Aaron and Kathy it was just me trying to paint a full picture of their existence inside Daniels' quantum neural net. I wanted those character to be fleshed out as much as possible to make them seem real. That's also part of the question, could such simulated people actually be considered real if they had free will? And falling further down the rabbit hole, do we, who supposedly live in the real universe, even have free will?

Some may have gotten my little deity joke.

Finally I threw elements of fan fiction into the mix during the last part. I wanted to create a truly alien but recognizable environment in the reality that exists above Aaron and Kathy's. Read the book or watch movie or Hulu series entitled “The Handmaid's Tale” by Margaret Atwood to get the full exposure.)