Saturday, August 30, 2014

Help From the Government

Mike stood directly under the windmill, looking up at the metal tower.  The sun was hot and the old rancher was remembering the tower his father had used more than half a century before.  Constructed of massive wooden beams, it had felt substantial and at the very least had provided a little shade while someone worked on it.  This tower was made of galvanized steel, and while it was probably much stronger than his father's wooden structure, the thin metal angle iron inspired no trust and provided no more cover from the sun than a young girl's bikini.

No real fan of heights, Mike hated climbing the tower, but once a year he forced himself to climb, drain the three quarts of oil out of the mill housing, and replace it with new oil.  It sure as hell wasn't any fun, but few jobs on the ranch were.  Mike took a moment to look to the north, toward the Brazos River, before turning back and reaching for the metal ladder.

His wife, Barbara, kept telling him he was too old to climb the tower, pointing out to him that he was even older than the ancient Aermotor 702.  The old rancher had replied that between the two of them, only the windmill had a bullet hole.  Besides, he had added, it was way too late for him to die young.  Still, (though he wouldn't admit it), he knew Barbara was right.  He was getting a little old to be carrying tools to the top of windmills.

Just as Mike began the climb, a car pulled off the highway onto the dirt road into the ranch.  The car crossed the cattle guard a little faster than the rancher liked, then slowed and stopped next to the windmill.  Stepping back from the ladder, Mike put down the heavy leather tool belt and walked toward the car as the door opened and a man stepped out.

"Government man," Mike thought to himself as he pulled off a work glove to shake the man's hand.  "Howdy.  What can I do for you?" he asked.

The man was short, wearing khaki pants and a clean white shirt.  He held a clipboard in his left hand while he shook the rancher's hand with his right.  "Good morning.  I'm James Stephens, with the Agricultural Division of the Department of Labor.  Are you owner of this ranch?"

"Yes," Mike answered.

"We're doing a survey of agricultural workers: their working conditions, how much they are paid, their benefits, and how they are treated.  I need to meet with your employees."

The old rancher noticed that the man was neither asking nor smiling.  "Well," he said.  "I'm semi-retired and I don't really work the ranch any more.  I lease out the grazing land, so I've only got two employees left."

The government man frowned and made a notation on his clipboard.  "Very well.  Still, this ranch was selected to be part of the survey, so tell me about your two employees."

"Well, some of the work is done by Sergio.  He has been with me for four years.  He does general maintenance, uses the tractor to clear brush, and repairs fences and such.  I pay him $15 an hour, and he gets paid for twice as many hours as he actually works.  I pay his Social Security, and if he has any other benefits, then he's paying for them himself.  He's out of town this week, but when he gets back you can ask him yourself."

Mike wasn't really paying much attention to the government man--he was actually looking at the man's car.  It was a shiny new Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid and on the driver's door, just below the words 'Department of Labor', was printed some kind of motto: "Demonstrating A Strong Commitment to Farm Workers and Their Families."  The rancher wondered when the government had stopped using modestly priced Dodge cars and exactly how the expensive new hybrid car helped farm workers and their families.  And why wasn't the government man concerned with Mike's family?  They had been in the agricultural business on this land for over a century.

"And the other employee?" asked the government man.  "What of him?"

"Well, he's kind of a half-wit," Mike answered.  "There's not much of a chance he can get a real job.   Though he does most of the work around here, I can't really afford to pay him much.  About once a month I buy him a bottle of bourbon and occasionally he gets lucky with my wife."

"That's the man I need to talk to!" exclaimed the government man.  "Where can I find him?"

Mike turned away from the bureaucrat and bent to pick up the heavy leather tool belt as he once again faced climbing up the steep tower.  Not even bothering to look back, the old rancher answered the government man,

"Right now, he's fixing the windmill."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Didn't That Already Sink?

Part 3 of 3:  The Book Did It First

It was a dark April night as the massive ship cut through the cold waters of the North Atlantic.  The largest ship ever launched, she was considered unsinkable because of her massive size and modern construction.  Over eight hundred feet long, she was attempting to set a speed record by running at well over twenty knots, despite the weather and the presence of icebergs in the area.  The passengers, largely ignorant of the dangers, enjoyed the luxury of the liner and listened to the ship's orchestra as they walked the decks and met in one of the many dining salons of the ship.

When the lookout reported an iceberg ahead, the giant vessel attempted to steer to safety, but nevertheless struck the iceberg on her starboard side and foundered just 200 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

Despite her watertight doors, the ship sank rapidly.  Considered unnecessary on an "unsinkable" ship, Titan had fewer than half the lifeboats necessary to save the maximum capacity of 3000 people the ship could carry.  That freezing April night, as the ship rapidly sank beneath the waves, so few lifeboats could be launched that though there were only over two thousand passengers and crew aboard, over half of them drowned. 

The few that managed to secure safety in the boats remembered silently watching as the triple screws of the massive ship disappeared into the sea, leaving hundreds of bodies and random wreckage floating where the most luxurious passenger ship--a luxury for even the richest people in the world--had once floated.

So sank the ill-fated Titan

No, I don't mean the Titanic (though everything I have written above would be equally accurate if I were writing about the White Star ship).  The Titan is a fictional ship from the novel The Wreck of the Titan, Or Futility , by Morgan Robertson.  His book was published in 1898--a full fourteen years before the tragedy of the Titanic

The chapters dealing with the sinking of the ship sound eerily similar to what we all know about the real tragedy.  Consider this paragraph from the second page of the original edition:

Unsinkable - indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws. These, twenty-four in number, were securely covered and lashed down to their chocks on the upper deck, and if launched would hold five hundred people. She carried no useless, cumbersome life-rafts; but - because the law required it - each of the three thousand berths in the passengers', officers', and crew's quarters contained a cork jacket, while about twenty circular life-buoys were strewn along the rails.

Morgan Robertson was a writer of short stories and novels that were frequently based on his years at sea.  The son of a sea captain, Robertson started his naval career as a cabin boy and eventually rose to the rank of First Mate.  Though a prolific author, his writing was not financially successful.

Published as a serialized short story, Futility did not enjoy much success when originally published.  Shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, Robertson released the work as part of a book.  Not content with the startling similarities already in the book, the second edition increased the fictional ship's tonnage to more closely match that of the Titanic and, since the original story was rather brief for a novel, Robertson added three more stories to the book, one of which was Beyond the Spectrum.

The existence of Futility is not exactly a secret.  Whether the story is prophesy or a massive coincidence, the story of the Titan has become something of an inside joke among Titanic enthusiasts.  Walter Lord mentioned it in the forward of his great book, A Night to Remember, it was mentioned in an episode of Dr. Who, and it has shown up in countless comic books, video games, and movies.

For some reason, Beyond the Spectrum has been almost completely forgotten.  The 1914 story deals with a future war between the United States and Japan.  Plotting to replace America's economic position in the Pacific, Japan attacks naval ships protecting our military bases in the Philippines and Hawaii.  However, before Japan can land an invasion force at San Francisco, the American hero uses a secret weapon that utilizes bright light and intense heat to both blind and burn the invading army.

Well, no wonder you have never heard of that story!  Nobody would ever believe that crap!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Who Invented That?

Part 2 of 3: Robert A. Heinlein

I can remember the first time I read a novel by Robert A. Heinlein.  It was 1962, the book was Space Cadet, and the entire country was going crazy about space.  John Glenn had just orbited the Earth and anything was possible.  I had no doubt that my children would go to school on the moon.

That was the year that I discovered science fiction and learned a lot of names that are still important to me today: Heinlein, Asimov, Verne, Wells, and countless others.  For me, the books of Robert Heinlein were always the best.  Now, fifty years later, Ive added a lot of names to that list, but I havent moved Heinlein from that top spot.

I could devote a lot of time and space to Heinleins books, but I would be probably be wasting my time.  If you like science fiction, you already know about him.   If somehow youve missed him, start with A Door into Summer, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Stranger in a Strange Land.  I would pay a hefty sum to be able to read any of those again for the first time.

What I would like to talk about, however, is not what Robert Heinlein wrote, but what he invented in some of those writings.  Heinlein wrote about the future, and many of the pieces of technology he described came to actually exist.  Lets start with the waterbed.

The first waterbed was made 3000 years ago.  In ancient Persia, water-filled goat skin bags were allowed to warm in the sun, then used as mattresses.  In the nineteenth century, several physicians substituted rubber for the goat skins, creating a bed that caused fewer pressure points on bed-ridden patients. 

In the 1930s, after an injury that required lengthy bed rest, Heinlein invented the first practical therapeutic mattress.  He first described this bed in his novel Beyond This Horizon (1942).  Almost 40 years later, in Expanded Universe, he wrote:

"I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements - an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds."

In 1942, Heinlein wrote "Waldo", a short story about a mechanical genius suffering from myasthenia gravis.  Physically too weak to cope, Waldo Farthington-Jones creates mechanical hands that he controls with gloves that mechanically magnify his movements.  Today, if you visit a nuclear test facility, you can see such hands being used.  Technically known as remote-manipulators, almost everyone refers to them as “waldoes.

Using his Waldo mechanical hands, the hero builds a smaller set of hands, with which, he builds yet another set of smaller hands.  Farthington-Jones continues this process until he has a set of waldoes that can manipulate material at the cellular level.  In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture that is credited with inventing the field of nanotechnology.  In his lecture, Feynman drew directly on “Waldo” as his primary vision of nanotechnology.

With apologies to Al Gore, Heinlein may have invented the internet.  His first novel, For Us the Living (1938), describes a nationwide information network, where the hero of the novel is able to read a newspaper article dating back to the previous century from his home.  To be fair, this information network is based upon a sophisticated network of pneumatic tubes, but this is just a picky point.  It is an information highway, so why quibble over what material was used to pave it.

Now that Heinlein has invented the internet, we might as well as well give him credit for also.  In 1958, Heinlein wrote Methuselahs Children.  In this story, the hero needs to change his clothing in order to hide from the authorities.  Here is how Heinlein wrote it:

He sat down in a sales booth and dialed the code for kilts.  He let cloth designs flicker past in the screen while he ignored the persuasive voice of the catalogue until a pattern showed up which was distinctly unmilitary and not blue, whereupon he stopped the display and punched an order for his size.  He noted the price, tore an open-credit voucher from his wallet, stuck it into the machine and pushed the switch.  Then he enjoyed a smoke while the tailoring was done.

While you could already get a Diners Card when Heinlein wrote this, Heinleins “credit voucher” was before American Express, Visa and Mastercard.  The name seems to imply that it is used more as a debit card than a credit card; if so, Heinlein was truly prophetic.

To me, this shopping experience sounds pretty much like Amazon--but with delivery faster than even Amazon's proposed use of drones would provide!  If you doubt me, click here and compare the result.  

Saturday, August 9, 2014

In the Beginning, There Was the Book

Part 1 of 3: Superman

Stop me if you have heard this story before:  Even as an infant, our hero had already exhibited unusual strength: he could lift heavy furniture and he demolished his crib with a single hand.  Then, as he grew older--in an effort to live a normal life--he kept his incredible abilities secret from the other children, adopting a meek (some might say "boring"), life style.  He grew into a handsome young man, who had a splendid physique and his black hair was so dark that it was almost blue.

As he grew older, his strength increased.  He could leap to dizzying heights, he was faster than a speeding locomotive, he could bend iron bars, and bullets bounced off his chest.  He built himself an isolated fortress where he could learn to use his powers.  So amazing were his abilities that he was referred to as The Man of Iron.

Of course, you know this story--the hero is none other than Hugo Danner from the book, Gladiator, written by Philip Wylie in the 1920s and first published by Book League Monthly in March of 1930.  Were you--perhaps--thinking of someone else?

Obviously, this sounds a lot like Superman, but Gladiator was in print eight years before the first Superman comic book hit the stands.  Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, claimed that the inspiration for the character came from the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Perhaps this is true, but some of the dialogue in the first Superman comics closely (very closely, in fact) matches the Wylie book.  And, six years before the premier of Superman, Siegel published a favorable review of Gladiator.

There are some crucial differences, however.  First of all, Hugo (the picture above was from the book) was not an alien from another planet, but the result of a scientific experiment, in which his scientist father injected a serum into his wife while she was pregnant with Hugo, thus changing the infant's  molecular structure.  Hugos powers were not hereditary, but could be duplicated by treating other expectant mothers in the same way.

Fundamentally, Hugo was a much more complex character than Clark Kent.  Hugo struggled to hide his talent his whole life, he tried to fit in with the rest of humanity, and he tried to find a use for his powers.  Whereas Superman easily found admiration, in Wylies world, Hugo's superhuman abilities elicited envy, jealousy, fear, and ultimately hatred.

Hugo Danner tried over and over to find a useful role in society.  He worked as a circus strongman, a merchant marine, a farmer, a pearl diver, and eventually enlisted as a soldier in the First World War.  While he was successful in every activity, he remained friendless and unhappy.

As a child, I read Superman comics and watched the George Reeves television version of the storyline.  As an adult, I think I have also seen most of the movies--but it was not until I read the Wylie book that it occurred to me how isolated such a person would actually be, had he existed.  His abilities would completely separate him from the rest of mankind.  Wylie is probably correct--such a "gift" would destroy a man.

Toward the end of the book, when poor Hugo began to hate the inferior humans who feared him, he said “I defy you with all my strength, to think of what I can do to justify myself!”  Possessing neither a cape nor a secret identity, Hugo never received an answer and his loneliness turned to rage.

Spoiler Alert.  I must warn you that I am about to reveal the ending of the book.  Revealing the ending to a book is a high crime so heinous that normally I only inflict it on first class passengers on planes I am boarding with the rest of the peons.  But, since I doubt that many of you are interested in reading an 85 year-old obscure science fiction story, I hope I will be forgiven.

Eventually, Hugo was convinced that as there was no way he could live with humanity, he so must create a society of supermen where he could live with his equals.  Brushing briefly on the subject of eugenics, Wylie took his hero to a mountain top, deep in the Mayan jungle, where Hugo knelt and asked Gods blessing to begin duplicating his fathers experiment.  Was it okay to create a race of supermen?

God promptly killed Hugo off with a bolt of lightning.

That should have been the end of the story--but over the last few decades both Marvel and DC Comics have sporadically published comics featuring Hugo Danner.  It turns out that even God couldn't kill a super man.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Memoirs of a Wuzard

I used to be magical.  I used to have a lot of super powers.  Now, I am just a shadow of my former self and about the only one of my super powers left is that I have a fair amount of common sense (which is a super power only when you consider that I'm a government employee).  At Enema U, this ability almost entitles me to wear a cape! 

I have another super skill which I use regularly at work: I seem to be the only person left in the building who knows how to Google something—but I’ll be modest, and list that as only a minor magical power.

My other supernatural abilities seem to have dimmed to just a faint, dim glow.  Once upon a time, my children knew that I was twelve feet tall and covered with hair.  Today—sad to say—they believe that I need a cane and hearing aids.  I am no longer a wizard—I am a wizard has-been.  (Does this make me a ‘wuzard?’)

It hasn’t been that long--I remember when one of my sons would come to me with a broken, treasured toy, tearfully holding it up to me and ask in a small voice, "Daddy, 'fik' it?” And I could. Muttering arcane incantations, I resurrected broken cars, reattached wheels, furnished new batteries, and dispensed glue and duct tape in massive quantities. 

And I used to be blessed with magical medical powers, too.  I could “fik” all manner of booboos, banged knees, and invisible bruises with just a single kiss.  For major maladies, I had Band-Aids—I could fix anything with a Band-Aid!  Hell!—Once I cured the four-year old's equivalent of a nearly detached arm with a single large Band-Aid and a magical kiss! 

In my prime, I could even have wiped out this current Ebola problem in Africa with three Band-Aids and a bottle of Mercurochrome.  (Which in our house is still called "Monkey Blood".)  

To increase the effectiveness of magical medicines, two (or more) had to be used in massive quantities together.  Take for example, your son has a sticker in his thumb.  Pull the sticker out and smear the Mercurochrome over as much skin as possible, then partially cover with the largest Band-Aid in the box.  If you add a sling for the arm, I can guarantee that the child will walk again.

As a major wizard, I knew all and I could explain all.  My sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, would sit enraptured at my feet while I explained the Wonders of the World.  Then they got older, and suddenly, the foolishness I uttered embarrassed them.  For years, I was just an old fool with too many dusty books and a bright, shiny, new Kindle.

Eventually, right about the time my sons married, they started to consult me again for minor advice.  Frequently, they were amazed at how much the ancient idiot had learned in the previous few years!

Is it possible that I didn't really lose my magic?  Is it possible that my spells only work on the young?  I now have a herd of granddaughters (and a single grandson who will probably have to take karate lessons to defend himself) who seem to think that, occasionally, I can rekindle a spark of my former powers.

Naturally, I am not nearly as formidable a wizard as their fathers, my former apprentices, but I am still powerful enough for small spells.  I can tie shoes, locate interesting bugs, and other such minor miracles.

Do children become immune to magic as they grow older?  If you perform the same trick too many times, do your kids lose their ability to see the enchantment?  If so, I think I know when it happens.

There was a day, when What’s-His-Name played with his stuffed purple dragon--his favorite toy.   That night, he went to bed, and when he woke up the next morning, it was the first of the endless days when he never played with it again.  Something had  happened that night, and the magic started to end.

If I were really magical, I would use all my powers to bring back that previous day!