Saturday, May 25, 2019

Dear Cap't Swabbie

I watched a political town hall meeting this week, and the antics reminded me of a valuable lesson I learned as a child.  In the first grade, I suddenly discovered the after-school television shows for children.  For me, this was huge, because I discovered they showed cartoons.

I must have been one of the last kids in America to make this discovery, but I think my belated discovery can be excused because the family television set was not yet a centerpiece of family least in our house.  My parents could not quite make up their minds whether or not television was a good idea, and they warmed to the idea only slowly.  For the first couple of years, the television was kept in the basement, next to an ancient ping pong table that my mother used to sort laundry.  The set was rarely turned on during the week.

Then on Saturday mornings….”Out of the clear blue of the western sky comes SKY KING!”

 I won’t say I was enamored of the show...exactly...but I can tell you that the first of the three airplanes named “Songbird” was a Cessna T-50 Bobcat, a Bamboo Bomber, specifically N67832.  I can still quote technical specs on all three airplanes, but I have a dim memory that the show also featured a couple of kids whose main role on the show was to get kidnapped.

Eventually, the television made its way out of the basement and up to my parents’ bedroom, so that they could watch Gunsmoke on Saturday nights.  On Saturday mornings, I still got to watch Sky King, but I had to do it while lying on floor of their bedroom, for I was not allowed to sit on their bed.  After about a year in their bedroom, the set finally made it to the living room.  (I strongly suspect that this was because my father had discovered that football games were televised on Sunday afternoon).  And once the set was in the living room, we all watched it more often. 

It was in that living room that I discovered the after-school programs for children.  One of the few television stations we could pick up with our basic antenna was KFJZ-TV out of Fort Worth (or as I knew it—Channel 11).  KFJZ was an unaffiliated network station, meaning that it had to produce a lot of its own content, interspersed with old movies, local news, and a lot of kid shows that featured ancient cartoons.  

Everyone working at that television station joined in on the fun. Some of the cameramen routinely wore ape masks, and Bill Camfield became something of a local legend as Icky Twerp as he presented clips from The Three Stooges while hosting the Slam Bang Theater.

My absolute favorite show, however, was Cap’t Swabbie’s.  George Nolen was the station weatherman, but every afternoon he donned a fake beard to read letters from his “Mateys” and introduce Popeye cartoons, while sitting next to a crude cardboard boat.  (I was addicted).

I was also fascinated with the idea of letters.  I had just recently come to understand the concept of mail and was really eager to write my own letter to Cap’t Swabbie.  Unfortunately, though I was only in the first grade, I still knew that printing monosyllabic words on a Big Chief pad using a large red crayon was only appropriate for writing your congressman.

Luckily, I had an older brother.  Mike was in the seventh grade, so I dictated my letter to him while he carefully recorded my every fawning word.  I rushed to the mailbox and mailed the letter off to Channel II.

For the next week, I carefully watched as Cap’t Swabbie pulled letters out and read them on the air, and could hardly wait until he read mine.  Finally, one day, the captain pulled out a letter and read it on live television.

“Dear Captain Swabbie”, he read.  “Is that a real beard?”  Nolen, paused from reading the letter, and a slight smile appeared as he slowly shook his head.

Cap’t Swabbie may have been amused, but I was horrified.  Who would write such a mean letter?

“Aren’t you really the weatherman?  Is that boat real?”  Cap’t Swabbie stopped and looked down at the studio prop.  “Nope, sure isn’t.”

I don’t remember the rest of the letter, except for the closing.

“Sincerely,” the Captain said.  “Mark Milie-orn”

He pronounced the name so badly it took me a full minute to realize he was talking about me!  I can remember just standing there with my mouth open.   I was horrified, but I soon realized that my brother had not written what I had dictated, but had substituted his own words in my name. Naturally, being six, I promptly told on my brother, expecting swift justice for this evil deed. 

The horror I had felt upon hearing the fake letter with my name attached read on TV paled in comparison to the absolute mortification I felt when my case was thrown out of “The Parents’ Court”! 

And that is when I learned the great lesson of this story:  You can get away with almost anything if the authorities can’t stop laughing. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

It is looney time again, when way too many morons of all political stripes and spots suddenly believe they are worthy of being elected president.  As I write this—and this number is subject to rapid change—there are two dozen people wanting to be elected (or reelected) to the office of Commander-In-Chief.

If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t let any of them be responsible for anything more deadly than a potato gun.

I suspect that in the upcoming election, once again I will be forced to cast what in Brazil they call a “Voto Cacereco”, a protest vote.  The term comes from a Sao Paulo city council election where the winner was Cacereco, a rhinoceros at the local zoo.  Despite receiving over 100,000 votes, the electoral commission refused to accept her victory.

While Cacereco was refused her rightful office, she did inspire the Rhinoceros Party of Canada that was briefly popular in the 1990’s.  Injecting more honesty than normally found in political campaigns, the party pointed out that most politicians are: "thick-skinned, slow-moving, dim-witted, can move fast as hell when in danger, and have large, hairy horns growing out of the middle of their faces”.  The Rhinoceros Party were proud adherents of Marxist-Lennonist theory, by which they meant the political philosophies of Groucho Marx and John Lennon.

The Brazilians really know how to have fun with an election.  In 1988, the Brazilian Banana Party ran a chimpanzee for mayor of Rio de Janeiro.  Under the slogan, “Vote monkey — Get monkey”, the ape got 400,000 votes, coming in third. 

There is a long, long history of animals in politics, perhaps starting with the serpent in the Garden of Eden.  Caligula wanted to appoint his horse, Incitatus, as a consul.  The story is almost certainly apocryphal, serving either as a means to discredit Caligula or equally possibly as grand satire on the part of the emperor—his way of saying that even his horse could do as well as the other consuls.

There are countless more recent examples.  A dog named Bosco served as the mayor of Sunol, California for thirteen years.  In 1997, a cat named Stubbs did such an outstanding job as mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska that he was a write-in candidate for the Senate race in 2014.  And the current mayor of Cormorant, Michigan is a dog named Duke. 

All of these worthy political office holders pale in comparison with the dynasty established by Clay Henry, the goat who was elected mayor of Lajitas, Texas. 

Lajitas is not exactly a tourist hotspot.  Located in the Big Bend area of West Texas, the town is dwarfed by its nearby neighbor, the bustling metropolis of Terligua.  If you are counting, there might be 50 people living in Lajitas.  While small, the town does feature a couple of bars, a trading post, and a golf course that is located along the Rio Grande.  After playing a few holes of pasture pool, you could head over to the Trading Post and open up a few bottles of Lone Star Beer for Clay Henry.  Clay supposedly finished off about three dozen bottles of beer a day, gripping the bottle in his mouth and drinking it unassisted.  Needless to say, Clay Henry was popular.

Which brings us to the election.  It was 1986, and a group of Houstonians came to West Texas to play golf and got caught in a freak snowstorm—something of a rarity in that part of Texas, where it has been known to hit ninety degrees in December.  Since the good ‘ol boys couldn’t play golf, they began celebrating in a local bar, that’s today appropriately known as The Thirsty Goat.  Sometime during the festivities, they decided the community needed a mayor, and elected one of their own, Tommy Steele, to the office.

The election of a Houstonian infuriated the locals, so during the next election, they ran Clay Henry against the interloper.  Unfortunately, the Houstonians staying at the golf resort outnumbered the locals, so Steele was reelected.

A year later, the locals were ready for vengeance.  A “poll tax” was established, with the proceeds going to charity, and the voters had four candidates to choose from.  Tommy Steele was running for reelection, once again, and was challenged by Clay Henry (the alcoholic goat) and two new candidates:  a wooden Indian that stood in front of the trading post and a local ranch dog named Buster.  The campaign rhetoric was heated, but in this election, Clay Henry won by a landslide.

Unfortunately, Clay Henry’s term in office was marred by tragedies.  A few years after his successful election, he was castrated by a local, Jim Bob Hargrove, for the egregious sin of drinking beer on Sunday.  As you might suspect, Hargrove may have been guilty of the same crime, at the same time.  Luckily, Clay Henry survived, and was later followed in office by his son, Clay Henry, Jr., who also had a prodigious appetite for beer.  (Locals won’t often tell the story, but Clay Henry, Sr., was killed by Clay Henry, Jr., a drunken dispute over an attractive nanny goat.)

The current mayor, Clay Henry, III, may or may not still drink beer, depending on who is asking.  It seems that some people are under the mistaken belief that giving beer to a billy goat, even if he is the mayor, is some form of animal cruelty.   Obviously, forcing any politician—two or four-legged—to remain sober is a crime against nature.

If the whole story sounds bizarre to you, just wait:  I predict that before the 2020 election is over, we will all be wondering how to locate Jim Bob Hargrove. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Just the Fax, Ma’am

A few decades ago (back when fax machines were a good idea), we had a local business that somehow decided our home phone number was a fax line.  A dozen times a day the damn phone would ring, and when we answered it, we could hear the fax machine on the other end clicking and chirping, trying to make a connection. 

Eventually, I discovered the name of the business and called their regular phone number and politely explained about the daily mistake their fax machine was making.  The employee was very helpful.

“No, it can’t be us.  Must be a mistake at your end,” she said.

“What kind of mistake can I make that has your machine call us a dozen times a day?” I asked.

“Sorry, can’t help you.”  Click!

Challenge accepted.  

The Doc and I were about to go on vacation, so I connected our computer modem to the phone line and configured it to work as a fax machine—but for outgoing calls only.  Then I created a message for it to send.  I can’t repeat the exact wording of the message for fear that Google will change the rating of this blogsite, but the general gist was that if the business didn’t quit bothering us, I hoped the next time the owner went home his mother ran out from under the front porch and bit him on his sitter-downer. 

Using ‘copy all’ and paste in Microsoft Word only ten times, the fax was 512 pages long.  Then I set the fax machine up for infinite redial, making it try and retry until the entire message was successfully sent, and let it rip.  By the time we returned from vacation, we had stopped getting the annoying fax calls.

That was about the time that the use of fax machines should have vanished from the work place, anyway.  The time for fax machines has long since passed.  Today, there is simply no need for a fax machine, as it is impossible to find a single business anywhere that does not have an email address, but does have a fax machine. 

The few outdated businesses that continue to use fax machines probably do so in the belief that the machines are more secure.  This is about par with the belief that traveling by Conestoga wagon through hostile Injun country is safer than flying on an airliner.  A fax is far from safe, it is the digital equivalent of having unprotected phone sex.

To explain why, let’s start at the beginning.  (Bet you saw that coming.)

For centuries, long distance communication depended on the speed of the messenger, and whether the message was carried by man or horse, that was about 5 kilometers an hour over an extended distance.  You could extend the distance a little with carrier pigeons or by using drums, but neither method was reliable.

Semaphore, signaling first by flags and later by rotating mechanical arms, changed that dramatically.  First proposed in the sixteenth century, the first practical system was put in place in France during the revolution.  The first line consisted of fifteen towers stretching 143 miles, linking Paris with the front.  The first message was to report a victory over the Austrians.  The fact that the French had actually won a military engagement is even more amazing than the speed of transmission—the message had traveled at over 850 miles per hour!

Within a few years, a message could go from Paris to Venice in an hour.  A generation earlier, the message would have taken a month.  The semaphore system, called the Chappe System is beatifically described in Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, which was written in 1844 and set 30 years earlier:

The Count thought that the signal tower was "like the claws of an immense beetle" and feels wonder that "these various signs should be made to cleave the air with such precision as to convey to the distance of three hundred leagues the ideas and wishes of a man sitting at a table".

Dumas was way ahead of his time.  In the novel, the Count bribes the operator to send fake messages, deliberately causing a financial panic in Paris.  In essence, the Count of Monte Cristo was the world’s first hacker.

At its height, the semaphore system was comprised of 530 towers crossing 3100 miles.  France led the world in communication!  (And Napoleon still lost at Waterloo because he couldn’t send a one sentence message 15 miles.)

It didn’t take long before someone figured out that this system of sending messages could be simply adapted to sending pictures.  Overlay any printed message, drawing, or picture with a grid, then for each of the grid squares send a signal indicating that the square is either clear or dark.  At the receiving end, someone just fills out a corresponding grid to recreate the message.  Grids with large squares could be sent quickly, but the smaller the grid, the better the resolution.

This system worked so well that….well, that is pretty much still the way faxes work.    About the only improvement worth mentioning is that the grids got very small, and instead of indicating just dark and light, machines started indicating shades of gray and colors.  The technology got really fast over time, but the system still remains.

Telegraph lines eventually replaced semaphores (though the French typically resisted the new innovation until 1853 because….Well, the French are just resistant to any new idea that isn't French).  It wasn’t long before someone figured out a way to automate the system to transmit pictures over telegraph lines and the first such patent was granted in 1843.  That’s right, the digital fax machine is over 170 years old.

Improvements came rapidly and by the 1870’s it was faster to send a page of text as a facsimile than as telegraphic words, but the equipment was expensive, difficult to calibrate, and just not very popular.  Regular uses of the machines would not be standardized until the 1930’s, when their use became popular with newspapers wishing to send photos over telephone lines, but the machines were still relatively rare.

It was Xerox that popularized the system by marketing what it called “long distance xerography” in 1964.  As more and more businesses began using the machines, the standard—basically the size of the grid and the number of squares—was set.  And it is still set.  Fax machines are still pretty much using a system and standard that was set in the days of vinyl records and B&W television.

Today’s fax machines, however, are usually connected to computers in the form of multipurpose printers.    As I write this, my HP All-In-One Deskjet is by my side...and that is the problem.  No one was thinking about computer security in 1964, and they should have been because there are huge flaws in those old standards. 

You probably don’t want to hear this, but it is relatively easy to send a malicious fax to a distant fax machine and take over control of the machine.  And once you have control of that machine, it is a short trip to moving into the computer’s network.  This has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent years and Hewlett-Packard has issued more than a few security patches trying in vain to control this bug.  A lot of other companies making fax machines don’t even try to protect from this flaw.

If you really want to send data securely, do it by encrypted email.  There are several methods more reliable for the transmission of data than a fax machine using technology old enough to qualify for Medicare.

Cassette tapes, floppy disks, 8-track tapes, old cell phones, pagers, manual typewriters, disposable cameras—all of these old technologies still have people who swear by them.  And all of them are obsolete and should no longer be used by modern business.  If you want to use a manual typewriter, no one will or should try to stop you.  But, if my doctor wants to send my private medical files to my insurance company, someone should stop him from using 18th century technology.

One last flaw with fax machines.  How did I discover the name of the company that was making those daily annoying calls?  I turned on the fax program on my computer one day and printed out several of the daily faxes I was getting.  Do you really want the security of your data depending on whether or not a minimum wage employee dialed the correct phone number?