Saturday, December 28, 2013

The New World

For over a century, the scientists had warned of a coming ecological disaster.  Whether it was the burning of fossil fuels, the production of chemical waste products, the ever-increasing acid rain, the constant erosion of top soils, the poisoning of the oceans, the rise in global warming....their warnings all seemed to be ignored.  There had been no political will to change any of the threatening policies until well after a tipping point had been reached and the process was irreversible--their home planet was ruined.

For a while, a few scientists had predicted that planetary feed-back mechanisms would kick in, reversing the process.  Indeed, the current predictions showed that the process might eventually reverse itself--but not for tens of thousands of years. 

If the race were to survive, it would have to be on a new planet.  After decades of searching, a suitable world was discovered.  While it would support life, the new planet did have certain drawbacks: it was colder than home, the gravity was heavy enough to be uncomfortable, and, worst of all, the planet was already occupied by a semi-sentient race. 

The numerous natives were technologically inferior--to such a low degree that it hinted that they would never reach an advanced state of civilization.  On the other hand, they were fecund and violent, and seemed to have little regard for life--even their own.

Only a few thousand lucky individuals were selected to emigrate to the new world--the bare minimum necessary to reproduce their culture, even with the extensive electronic library of literature and reference works they brought with them.  And since the colony would be small and vulnerable for several generations while they struggled to establish their new home, they would have to take special precautions.

The colony would be established in a sparsely-populated portion of the world, in an area where the inhospitable terrain would offer additional protection.  Unfortunately, the most desirable lands in the warmest areas near the equator, were also the lands most populated by the natives--but this could not be helped. 

Using advanced methods of in-vitro fertilization, the colony was planned to become relatively secure within a few generations.  In the meantime, between their advanced technology and the remoteness of the colony location, the colonists believed themselves to be secure from attack by the natives.  While the colonists tried to blend in with their surroundings, they would work hard to establish a working relationship with the indigenous inhabitants,.  If they could coexist with the savages, they could find ways to control them, or else--as a last resort--use their technology to defend themselves.

The natives (at least those close enough to the colony to be observed) used only soft metals such as gold, silver, and copper.  They had no sophisticated tools and possessed no machines--all work was accomplished by muscle power alone.  The aborigines were tribal, superstitious, and almost constantly at war with themselves.  The natives would have been described as child-like, if not for their astonishing cruelty.

And the new world was rich in unexploited resources.  If left alone for only a few generations, the colonists could easily adapt and would eventually dominate the new world and its resources.  If possible, they would share the planet with natives.  If not, the colony would survive even if the natives did not.

Some progress in controlling the natives was already evident.  A simple barter system was established where the natives received food and trinkets in exchange for manual labor.  The make-work labor was pointless as the true goal was to establish control over the childlike creatures, for they were so unsophisticated that  they were put to use making simple designs in the landscape or other useless tasks. 

The colonists were not unduly worried, but there was evidence that distant natives were becoming increasingly aware of their presence.  For what appeared to be the first time, natives from a distant continent were visiting the same continent as the colony.  While this was unusual, there was little to be worried about, as the distant natives were only slightly more sophisticated than the childlike locals.

It is tragic to contemplate the incredible human cost that Spanish exploration caused in the new world.  Isolated for thousands of years, the natives of the new world had no immunities to the diseases that were common in Europe.  This is troubling for today's anthropologists, for the diseases spread so much faster than the explorers did. 

The first sight that most of the conquistadors had of new civilizations was quite often a scene of desolation--of funerals and abandoned settlements.  Even Hernando Cortez wrote that, while riding into the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán for the first time, he observed that it contained many empty buildings.

While major diseases such as malaria, smallpox, plague, and yellow fever killed tens of millions--even common ailments took their toll.  The natives succumbed to chicken pox, measles, and the flu.

Archaeologists working in South America outside of Nasca, Peru, have just started to uncover the extensive site of a hitherto unknown and highly technologically advanced tribe that appears to have perished from the common cold.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lost: Students

Something interesting has happened at Enema U.  We lost a whole bunch of students.  Specifically, somewhere between a gob lot and a shit ton of students have just wandered off.  While the university is currently between semesters, as of right now, there are somewhere over....well....thousands and thousands of students who did not bother to enroll for next semester. 

Maybe they forgot?  They were here last semester, and while they may come back next semester, where are they right now?

If we assume that they are not coming back, I wonder why?  I might come up with a few possible reasons....'Course, I'm just a poor dumb ol' country boy, so I'm probably wrong.

Maybe the students have just have given up hope of ever finding a job in a state that has systematically stifled all expansion of the business sector for decades.  During a recession, university enrollment frequently increases since students are wary of entering a weak job market.  If the recession continues, eventually the students just give up and quit trying.  I know of more than one waitress in town with a master's degree.

Could it be that the students are not as happy at Enema U as they might be?  Little things might be the problem--like the food.  While other universities are attracting students by serving great food at reasonable prices, Enema U has leased out its cafeterias to a corporation that specializes in providing food for prisons, airports, and universities.   While I have no direct evidence, I presume that since people at prisons can't leave and the people at airports eventually escape....well, I suppose our food is better than in the prisons and a little worse than at the airports.

Or, maybe, it is the tuition--we keep raising it and raising it, while we give buckets of the money to support an athletic program that does little more than let our administration relive the 1960's.  Every week, the steadily declining attendance at the games proves to everyone not yearning for the revival of the sock hop that the world has changed and the center of campus life is no longer located between goalposts.

Then, again, perhaps the students are worried about financing.  No one seems to know for certain whether federal funds will continue to finance grants and loans.  Even the funding derived from the state lottery seems to be in question.  (There is a quick fix for the lottery:  since the proceeds go to education, why not let the elementary school kids sell the tickets door-to-door?  Lottery tickets would be preferable to the magazines, cookies, and assorted crapola the little rug rats are currently selling.)

Possibly the students are AWOL because we offer fewer weekend college or night classes.   Then, couple that with a shortage of classrooms, and it is getting increasingly hard for the students to take the courses they want at the times they want to take them.  We have recently built a lot of new buildings on campus, but since no one in Administration ever got hired away by a bigger university for building more classrooms, we have wisely built things like a new abattoir for faculty meetings---and the new set of coaches' offices to replace the previous new set of coaches' offices.

Who knows why the students are missing?  There seems to be some kind of an election and the students are voting with their feet.  Something has to be done, and soon--I'm too old and lazy to find honest work.  I have a suggestion to motivate the administration, but first you get this week's history lesson.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Persian king, Xerxes I, decided to invade Greece.  He assembled an immense army and and marched them through what today we would call Turkey.  When he got to the Hellespont--the strait that separates Asia from Europe--he ordered a bridge built across it.  Before his army could cross to the other side, a storm destroyed the bridge.

Enraged, Xerxes ordered the strait to be whipped and that iron restraints to be thrown into the water.  Presumably, the 300 lashes and iron chains would both punish and restrain the waves from future mischief.  With the unruly water properly humbled, Xerxes ordered the bridge rebuilt.

With this in mind, and to properly motivate the administration, I am announcing the Xerxes Prize for Administrative Excellence.  I will be accepting nominations in the weeks to come.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

All Quiet On the Brazos

The cowboy stopped the bay on the point of land where he could overlook the Brazos River 400 feet below. He leaned back on the saddle and let the horse nibble on the small mound of grass available.  Tight-lipped, the cowboy smiled wryly at this; he knew the horse wouldn't find much, as he could see from the droppings that the Barbary Sheep had already grazed the grass on the point fairly well.  The grass would eventually grow back quickly, but not until the next rain--and the drought in that part of Texas showed no sign of ending anytime soon.

Slowly he lifted himself up from the saddle and swung his right leg back and down off the horse.  Throwing the leather stirrup across the seat of the 
saddle, he once again tightened the old leather cinch of the saddle.  He was
very much afraid that the saddle was soon going to have to be replaced--the saddle was almost as old as he was and for over the last ten years he had spent as much money having the saddle repaired as it would have cost to buy a new one. 

As the cowboy looked over the stained leather, he was torn between the desire not to desert an old friend and the nagging little voice somewhere in the back of his head that kept telling him an awful truth, that the saddle tree--the frame of the saddle--was cracked and could not reasonably be repaired.  Pushing gently on the cantle, he could feel the tree move more than it should.  As much as he disliked the idea, it was time to buy a new saddle. 

His son Matt was after him to get one of those new Australian stock saddles.  They were light, they were comfortable, they were easier to clean, and they were much easier on the horse.  All of that was true, but the cowboy could not forget that they were also made of ballistic nylon!  A plastic saddle!  There was no denying the fact that in almost every way, the new saddle was better than the old-style saddle he was using, but the very idea of a plastic saddle left him cold.  His son had told him that some of the saddles could even be cleaned by putting them into a washing machine!  Somehow, the very idea made the prospect of a new saddle so much worse.

The cowboy shook his head and made a decision, he might buy a new saddle, but it would damn sure not be a plastic one.  What was the point of owning a saddle if you couldn't take pride in oiling the seams and working the thick opaque saddle soap deep into the leather?  How could you ever take any pride in maintaining a saddle if all a man had to do was take it out of a washing machine to hang it up and let it dry?

The cowboy swung back up into the saddle, heard the leather creak and knew that tightening the cinch had produced little improvement in the fit of the saddle.  Over time, it would just widen the crack in the saddle tree and hasten the saddle's destruction.  If he didn't watch out, he might go down the side of that cliff faster than one of the damn sheep!

Making his way carefully, he rode along the edge of the cliff that made up the north edge of the point.  It never failed to amaze him that the Barbary Sheep could run up and down the sides of the cliff as if it were flat land.  He doubted he could have made his way down the cliff in less than an hour, and even then he was fairly sure he would slip and fall before he could reach the bottom.

While it was pleasant, the early morning ride in the cold crisp air did have a purpose: the cowboy was checking the five hog traps spaced evenly along the points of land overlooking the river.  The whole state was being overrun with feral pigs and his traps usually caught a few each week.  If he found one, he would dispatch it with the Colt revolver he wore on his hip.  He always felt a little foolish putting the holster on--like he was trying to imitate his childhood hero, Hopalong Cassidy--but he also knew the hogs were too intelligent to leave in the metal traps for long, since they would eventually either escape or damage the trap in the attempt.

The cowboy found the first trap--empty.  The mound of dried corn kernels he had poured out the night before were undisturbed.  He rode past the trap a little way out onto the narrow point of land.  This point had one of the best views of the river on the ranch and the cowboy hoped that someday Matt would build a house here for his family.  That probably wouldn't happen anytime soon, as Matt worked in Fort Worth and barely made it out to the ranch once a month.

The cowboy sat there awhile, watching  the cold mist on the river  below.  Damn--a cigarette would be good right now.  The cowboy hadn't smoked in twenty years, but every now and then the fierce urge still hit him.  A cigarette on a cold morning was surely one of life's pleasures.  Staring at the burning ember on the tip of a cigarette helped a man to think!  It focused his attention, drew him out of the world and allowed him to become immersed in his own thoughts. 

Shreeet!  Shreeet!

Disgusted, the cowboy reached into his pocket and removed his cell phone.  The number told him it was his doctor's office--they undoubtedly wanted to confirm his appointment for the next day.  Ignoring the call, he held the red button down with a gloved thumb until the phone turned off.  Staring down into the palm of his hand, he thought, "More damn plastic!"

Having a cell phone was almost as bad as giving up cigarettes.  How in the Sam Hill does a man have any time to think?  Lately, Sergio, his hired hand, had been sporting a pair of headphones so he could listen to music out of his “walking pod thing” while he worked.  Every car and truck on the property had a radio, the house had a television or a computer screen in almost every room--and he had noticed that lately his wife was carrying that pad computer of hers into the few rooms that didn't.

It seemed that there was no such thing left as solitude.  Every minute of the day, the cowboy thought, he was surrounded by machines that just would not shut up.  Machines that blared the news, music, or talk--machines that seemed to fill the day with information, but no thinking.  The day was so full of noise there was no time left to think

Sadly, the cowboy mashed the small green button with his calloused thumb until the gray plastic phone came back to life.  If he didn't, sure as hell his
wife would call and panic when he didn't answer.  As the cowboy stared at his electronic leash, he thought to himself, "If I had any brains, I'd prop this gizmo up on a rock and use it for target practice."

Just what was so dad-blame important that he had to carry a phone, anyways?  It seemed half the conversations he had on the damn phone were a waste of time.   The people with the least to say took the longest to say it. 

The cowboy looked up at the sky and watched a turkey buzzard make slow circles in the sky.  He thought to himself, "A dozen years ago when I didn't carry this damn phone, I don't remember missing anything important.  Hell, the only news I ever get is bad."  Thinking back over the years, the cowboy supposed the trouble had started when his wife talked him into buying an answering machine.  As far as he could remember, that damn device had never given him any good news, either.

A few minutes later, as the cowboy followed the trail along the cliff to the next point of land, he marveled at the silence.  He could hear the wind blowing through the few remaining leaves of the live oak trees, the steady breathing of his horse, and from far away the rhythmic rusty squeak of his windmill and the slap of the pump rod.  "Have to do something about that." he thought.  "Need to get Sergio to climb up there and grease that before it gets so cold his hands freeze-stick to the ladder."

What the cowboy did not hear was the shrill call of his cell phone!  Several hundred yards behind him, the phone was steadily ringing, half-buried in the corn kernels inside the hog trap.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cheaper Military Technology

During World War II, General Patton had the dubious honor of commanding the First US Army Group (FUSAG).  The unit was centered in England and the Germans kept a close watch on its movement, since they believed that Patton's army would have a pivotal role in the upcoming invasion.  Reconnaissance planes regularly noted the position of the tanks, the smoke from the hundreds of stoves, etc.  The Nazis knew that the invasion was unlikely to start until Patton's army moved to the docks.

FUSAG, of course, did not actually exist.  The many tents were empty, the few vehicles that actually moved were driven in circles, and the tanks were an inflatable invention of Goodyear--sort of the ultimate "light" tank, but the ruse fooled the Germans.

The idea was so effective, so why not use it again?  Besides inflatable tanks, why not inflatable aircraft carriers?  Now that I think about it, Congress may have already co-opted this idea--the federal government seems to be full of things that are inflated: budgets, egos, and our currency.    At the same time, most government policies seem to produce nothing but air.  

In these days of tight federal budgets, it is a universal constant that the first budget to be cut is always the military.  Even though the world remains a deadly place, the Defense Department will once again be expected to do more with less.  This will take new, and innovative ideas, so we will have to think outside the padded cell.  Naturally, I have a few suggestions.

Far too much military hardware is way too deadly.  Sure, I know the main purpose of the army is to break things and kill people, but sometimes, you need a measured response, a non-lethal weapon.  For example, suppose that once again our nation is forced to fight France.   There's no need to use real tanks--we could use NERF Tanks.  You know, the foam rubber, soft stuff that lets children play outdoor sports indoors.

Inexpensive NERF Tanks should be easy to make--just take a giant foam rubber NERF body that vaguely resembles a tank (for maximum effect, make them pink) and glue them onto a Chevy Volt.  The government had Gutless Motors build a lot of these useless Go-Karts, and it's not like anyone is actually buying them.   (Yes, I know the Chevrolet Volt is very common in Washington DC, but I no longer care how many people I insult inside the Beltway.  Now that China has stopped blocking my blog, I have more readers in Beijing than in Washington, DC.  Or as we always say in West Texas: 请点击广告!)

We also need to develop Dumb Bombs.  No, I am not suggesting that we return to the technology of WWII, when hundreds of non-guided bombs had to be dropped to hit a single target.  I mean really dumb bombs.  In the event of war, transport planes should fly over enemy territory and parachute in lawyers, university administrators, NPR reporters, and any member of Congress who has lived in Washington for over ten years.  Each of these special troopers should be armed with a portable copying machine and several reams of blank memos.   Suddenly injecting this much stupidity into any country will render it totally incapable of fighting a war, balancing a budget, or setting up a website in less than four years.

This weapon needs to be kept top secret, since if our enemies find out, they will surely object that we are violating both the Hague and Geneva conventions by using weapons that can be categorized as both unusually cruel and a form of biological warfare.

Is there something wrong with our present stealth technology?  Have our enemies developed better radar?  Did Batman successfully sue for copyright infringement?  The Pentaganistagon isn't talking, but I get the sneaky feeling
our enemies have figured out how to spot our stealth planes.  Remember the stealth fighter?  Why was the futuristic F-117 mothballed?  Perhaps we need to develop newer, better stealthiness.

Let's start making fighter planes out of those little plastic dohickeys that hold the end shut on a bag of bread.  I think they are technically called bread clips.  Have you ever noticed, if you put one of those down on a kitchen counter, it completely vanishes?  It's like the only force holding them in this dimension is that plastic bag.  If we start making fighter planes out of these things, our Air Force pilots will have to follow a trail of bread crumbs to find where they parked them.  Our enemies will never find them.

Did you know that the Army has more boats than the Navy?  Or that the Army has more planes than the Air Force?  The Navy has its own army (the Marines), and has ships plumb full of air planes.  Obviously, the mission is to confuse the enemy.  It certainly confuses me.

With this confusion in mind, I propose that the Navy develop a flying submarine.  NO ONE will suspect this.  Enemy navies will waste a lot of time looking for a submarine underwater, but no one will think to look for it hiding in the clouds.  Naturally, this will render obsolete all those subs that can only hide underwater--but once again, I have a suggestion.

To save money, sell one (or more) of those obsolete attack subs to Greenpeace.  They need it, they can use it, and I would laugh my ass off if Greenpeace actually got one.  Instead of playing hide and seek with Japanese whaling ships, they could just suddenly surface (flying a green Jolly Roger Flag, of course!) and torpedo the whaling ship.  (Greenpeace, if you are listening, I'll be happy to donate to that cause!)

The US Army has started to de-emphasize the bayonet.  I guess the thinking is that you don't need to bring a knife to a drone fight.  Personally, I think they are wrong--we need bayonets--they still work.  It was only two years ago that Col. Gaddafi was killed by a bayonet when it was violently inserted into his brain.  (As a matter of fact, he was "assinated."  See this blog for deeper explanation.). Bayonets are not obsolete and they are cheap, but they need to be "rebranded."

Years ago, I had a student who was struggling on a final exam to tell me what Colonel Joshua Chamberlain did on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Out of ammo, Colonel Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor for ordering a bayonet charge against a larger Confederate force.  The poor student remembered the events, named the significant players....but simply could not remember the word 'bayonet.'  So, she wrote about a courageous infantry charge with the 'stabby things.'  

I thought that was a magnificent answer.  And a fantastic name.  Any enemy would have to think twice about attacking an army equipped with Stabby Things.  Big Stabby Things. 

If you doubt that simply changing the name of something can make an army stronger, I have another story for you.  Almost fifty years ago, a small Latin American country got a new El Jefe.   Surprisingly, the dictator happily accepted the US State Department's offer of foreign aid in the form of the Peace Corps.  Unfortunately, when the Peace Corps actually arrived in the Banana Republic, the dictator became irate.

It turned out to be a vocabulary problem.  To the State Department, the Peace Corps consisted of three hippies and a retired music teacher, who would teach the locals how to plant tomatoes.  The dictator, however, had been expecting a real Corps--25,000 soldiers--to help hold the "peace."